There were angry rock songs, folk tunes pleading for peace, love and understanding, and hip-hop tracks steeped in escapism. For me, though, the defining song of 2017 — at least here in Minnesota — was a sweet little nonsensical opus by Jeremy Messersmith called “Everybody Gets a Kitten.”
First off, it’s no secret Minnesotans really love Messersmith and kittens. I mean, what a combo!
The bearded, bespectacled indie strummer has crafted some of this state’s catchiest and/or deeper-thinking pop and rock tunes of the past decade. And cats, oh boy, did we love them in 2017.
The International Cat Video Festival at CHS Field once again sold out in August. All year long, it seemed like the Star Tribune and/or City Pages were running a new blog post or photo gallery with some kind of special, needy or adorable kitty — or, jackpot, a lot of them! — which were always good for huge, viral traffic numbers.
Messersmith’s love song to kittens was meant to be a diversion from the headlines, as were all of the tracks on his coyly titled record “11 Obscenely Optimistic Songs for Ukulele.” Seeing Messersmith perform his “Obscenely Optimistic” songs under a big tree in Powderhorn Park as winter thawed in April was one of the more memorable moments in a year of covering Minnesota music.
So was another feline-related moment nearer the end of the year.
On the night the Triple Rock Social Club closed up shop last month, the riotous, lo-fi punk trio Kitten Forever played a set ridiculing, roaring and raging against gender inequality, body-image issues and bone-headed patriarchy. It was the band’s way of paying tribute to the irreplaceable venue that gave them a forum to play those songs even in years that weren’t so rife with those topics.
Minnesota music is probably going to be a lot more like that Kitten Forever set in 2018. Here’s a little more of what defined the scene in 2017.
Best topic for a record this year: Life in the digital age. All wise beyond their 20-something years, Hippo Campus and Reina del Cid both riffed on living and loving in the digital age for their 2017 albums. Hippo Campus’ more atmospheric and experimental effort “Landmark” reflected on kids being absorbed with their phone screens, while RdC’s “Rerun City” concerned Netflix binges and solitary lifestyles. Ironically, though, both records were light on digital augmentation. They were recorded in real recording studios with good, old-fashioned instruments.
Best reason to download the St. Paul parking meter app: The Palace Theatre. St. Paul’s newly reopened theater had an air of familiarity about it immediately upon opening in March, in part because it’s run by First Avenue staff. By year’s end, it had hosted some of the best-sounding and just plain best-vibed bigger rock shows of the year. The Palace had a positive side effect, too, opening up more calendar space at First Ave’s original main room to local acts and creative dance nights (like this weekend’s double whammy with the Klituation and Bey Ball).
Best new venue for local talent: The Hook & Ladder Theater. Although it opened in 2016, the Hook & Ladder Theater really hit its stride in 2017. Combining its nonprofit, community-oriented, neighborhood feel with an openness (and fairness) about booking, the converted firehouse hosted everyone from young buzzers like ZuluZuluu, the Shackletons and Little Fevers to older mainstays as diverse as Flipp and Cornbread Harris, all with acoustics and aesthetics simply described as cozy.
Best reminders to not take our local legends for granted: Grant Hart and Sonny Knight. It’s not often you get to see a musician sing at his own farewell concert, but that’s essentially what Hüsker Dü co-leader Hart did at the Hook & Ladder in July, an emotional night that forecast his death from cancer in September. Soul man Knight didn’t get to return to the stage before cancer claimed him in June, but the tribute to him via Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” in the “Rise of the Minneapolis Sound” concert at the Fitzgerald was the year’s other gut-punching performance.
Best offset to all the Prince legal entanglements: His music, duh. As everyone in-the-know predicted, the messy business affairs left behind by Minnesota’s most tidily dressed music legend got even messier in 2017, making it seem like we’ll be waiting until 2047 for a proper posthumous career. Which made the continued array of musical tributes in his hometown seem all the more meaningful and vital, whether it was George Clinton bringing the funk at Paisley Park or Dem Atlas, Proper-T and other young scenesters (who weren’t even alive when “Purple Rain” poured) paying their respects at the street party outside First Avenue in April.
Best reason to feel good about our music scene: Charity. In the frustratingly common instances when a band’s or musician’s gear got stolen, the scene rallied with crowdfunding campaigns. When musicians or other music professionals got sick, same thing. Maybe the best example came at year’s end with news of the abrupt closing of McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. Faculty members — mostly musicians — finished off the school year for students knowing they weren’t going to be paid. Meanwhile, restaurants, arts groups and general do-gooders helped feed, house and assist students left high and dry.
Lastly and most importantly ...
Best local albums of 2017
1. The Replacements,
“For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986”
Think it’s lazy or uncool to put a live recording from 31 years ago at the top of this list? So do I. But I can’t deny it was my favorite thing. No other record this year rocked this gloriously and murderously. And it really did offer a new and interesting angle on the already over-examined band, after so many bootlegs and stories suggested the ’Mats never had their live act together back in the day.
2. Chastity Brown,
“Silhouette of Sirens”
After a decade of honing her writing and an extra year spent remaking this album, the southern-rooted Minneapolis folk-rocker — who’s always had her molasses-thick voice going for her — pieces it all together beautifully on a record that’s mostly about personal perseverance.
3. Greg Grease, “Down So Long”
The innovative rapper/producer hits on plenty of hot topics, including racist cops and rampant poverty, but keeps a charmingly, defiantly cool head on an album loaded with subversive grooves and simmering wordplay.
4. Dead Man Winter, “Furnace”
There’s plenty of blood on the tracks on Trampled by Turtles frontman Dave Simonett’s divorce record, but there’s also a lot of hopeful harmonies and elegant instrumentation that keeps it from ever feeling as cold as the band name suggests.
5. Mary Bue, “The Majesty of Beasts”
The ’90s-flavored Duluth expat covers a lot of musical and lyrical ground on this taut five-song EP, none more flooring than “Petty Misdemeanor,” about her own experience with sexual assault and the men who (used to?) get away with it.
6. Romantica, “Shadowlands”
Ben Kyle touches on religion, family, music, alcohol and other fun staples of his Irish roots on his enduring Americana rock band’s first album in nine years, as musically lush as it is poetically rich.
7. Lady Midnight & Afrokeys,
“Parables of Neptune”
There’s a growing wave of local women singers carving out a cool cross-section between the worlds of neo-soul, hip-hop and electronic music. This was the one record in that mix that was as innovative as it was infectious.
8. Actual Wolf, “Faded Days”
Alt-twanger Eric Pollard and his MVP sidemen ambitiously and unabashedly channel heroes like Neil Young and Tom Petty on a charmingly breezy, liberated-sounding LP for Red House Records that recalls the ’70s as plainly as the vinyl it was issued on.
9. Reina del Cid, “Rerun City”
Former teen wunderkind Rachelle Cordova comes into her own with imaginative storytelling and coolly timeless, casually soulful folk-rock, highlighted by the slow-building centerpiece “Beverly.”
10. Stnnng, “Veterans of Pleasure”
Even on what’s supposedly its last record — another one produced by the legendary Steve Albini — this stormy Minneapolis noise-rock outfit makes most other loud-guitar bands sound like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”