Yes, for the fourth time in the six years we've polled local music writers/commentators on their favorite local albums of the year, Atmosphere has won our Twin Cities Critics Tally. The Minneapolis hip-hop group is like the Jim Oberstar of our voting bloc.
There are two ways of looking at this latest non-nail-biter of a win. Either the 20 music pundits who took part in this year's poll are a predictable lot, or the bestselling, top-drawing, most nationally televised local music act of the moment* really deserves everything it has gotten, and more.
Let's go with the latter. Atmosphere's record, "When Life Gives You Lemons...," found Atmosphere frontman Slug pushing his personal lyrical formula to epic heights at the same time his group branched out into more live/organic instrumentation. Many local critics had already sung the disc's praise when it became the highest-charting Twin Cities album of the decade** in April, debuting at No. 5 in Billboard. How's that for unpredictable?
But anyway, the rest of this year's list proves how surprising the TCCT voters really can be. Ten of the top 21 acts have never appeared on our year-end poll before (11 if you count Gary Louris, who has appeared on this list as part of the Jayhawks). The winners in the best live acts and best songs categories are also TCCT newbies. Who knows? Next year, one of these young talents might rise to the top. Amen to that. * Not counting Prince, of course. ** Not counting Prince, of course.
1. ATMOSPHERE, "WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS, YOU PAINT THAT [EXPLETIVE] GOLD"
Gold is exactly what Slug delivered on paper with this one. More than any other Atmosphere record (this is their sixth full-length one), the lyrics read like a collection of short stories and Hold Steady-ish morals/mantras. "Yesterday," about Slug's recently deceased dad, is literally a soul-searcher, and "Me" might be the most ego-less song a rapper has written about himself, ever. Musically, the album is more of a mixed bag, with guitarist Nate Collis and other musicians adding gritty, often haunting sonic layers to songs like "Puppets" or the nearly all six-string epic "Guarantees." (158 voter points)
2. JEREMY MESSERSMITH, "THE SILVER CITY"
Songs about mass transit, busy crossroads and cubicle office spaces are usually the stuff of angry, dirty rock 'n' roll, but it led to beautiful, elegant, daydreamy folk/pop in the careful hands of Messersmith, who got Semisonic's Dan Wilson to produce his sophomore album. From a strict religious upbringing, Messersmith has been called the Twin Cities' answer to Christian indie-folk wunderkind Sufjan Stevens. This album's use of strings and horns to buoy the melodies adds to that comparison, in good ways. It also makes for a sweet cover of the Replacements' "Skyway." (136)
3. HALEY BONAR, "BIG STAR"
After retreating to a raw, icy sound on her 2006 disc, "Lure the Fox," the South Dakota transplant warmed up and turned it up on her fourth and best album (to date; she's still only 25). Veteran producer Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Tom Waits) mixed the album, and local MVPs such as drummer Dave King played on it. But Bonar's shimmering, girl-to-woman voice is still front and center, building her songs from intimate ballads to powerful crescendoes with even a little sweet pop harmonizing. (128)
4. SOLID GOLD, "BODIES OF WATER"
While so many other digi-rock/electro-punk bands seem stuck in a creative rut, this experienced trio blossomed with the help of producer Ryan Olcott (ex-12 Rods) and a batch of well-crafted songs. The British spelling of the opening (and best) track "Armoured Cars" could be a nod to the album's New Order-ish mix of brooding melodies and moody dance beats for people who don't really want to dance. (116)
5. VAMPIRE HANDS, "ME AND YOU CHERRY RED"
A riveting live band, these arty punks did a better job of capturing their subversive, Eno-meets-the-Stooges sound on their second record. It's weird, wild, powerful and surprisingly catchy in parts, with bassist Chris Bierden's manly falsetto adding an eerie exclamation point. (100)
6. DOOMTREE, "DOOMTREE"
While it generally sounds like they're having the time of their lives, the nine members of this indie-rap crew turn in some serious and seriously edgy tracks on the first CD to feature their entire entourage. And unlike a lot of all-in, multimember hip-hop CDs, there's a cohesiveness that could only come from a bunch this tight-knit and high-strung. (98)
7. MUJA MESSIAH, "THEE ADVENTURES OF A B-BOY D-BOY"
Turns out, last spring's well-received full-length mix-tape "Mpls. Massacre, Vol. 1" was just the start for Minneapolis' mouthiest, most street-centric rapper of note. This epic-sized, hard-knocks-filled disc arrived a few months later with 16 punchy tracks (never mind the skits), big guests such as the Roots' Black Thought, Slug and I Self Devine (who helped make "Patriot Act" a Bush-era classic) and ample proof that Muja really is as good as he says he is. Maybe even better. (70)
8. BEN WEAVER, "THE AX IN THE OAK"
His voice often sounds like a weary croak, and his songs sometimes could depress a monkey. But with help from producer Brian Deck (Low, Modest Mouse), Weaver manages to churn out beautiful and sometimes even upbeat songs on his first CD for Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot Records. It's a freakishly uplifting collection of sad songs in the vein of deep-thinking tunesmiths such as Townes Van Zandt or Leonard Cohen. (64)
9. HEIRUSPECS, "HEIRUSPECS"
Most hip-hop CDs that clock in at 74 minutes with 21 tracks usually include lots of skits and other filler, but this one is jam-packed. St. Paul's road-tested hip-hop band used its four years off to branch out into heavy rock, jazzy electro-funk and even a little pop (see: "Sunshine," featuring Dan Wilson). Frontmen Felix and Muad'dib keep it all together with their workman lyrics and free-flowing style. (60)
10. GARY LOURIS, "VAGABONDS"
For his first solo album after two decades fronting the Jayhawks, Louris let producer Chris Robinson more or less take over as bandleader and focused on being a singer/songwriter. The results are intimate, mellow, poetic, gorgeous and as soulful as white Minnesotan alt-country singers can get. (58)
11. DILLINGER FOUR, "CIVILWAR"
After a six-year hiatus, the local punk stalwarts added just a wee bit of polish and melody but otherwise stuck to the same grimy, growling, guitar-grinding formula. (54)
12. (TIE) Mike Mictlan & Lazerbeak, "Hand Over Fist"
Doomtree's Los Angeles-reared rapper turned his steaming, red-faced onstage delivery into a fiery and surprisingly funky solo debut. The funk comes courtesy of beatmaker Lazerbeak (aka Aaron Mader of Plastic Constellations). While riffing on his tangled roots in songs like "L.A. Raiders Hat" and "Northstarrr," Mictlan simultaneously proves he fits the Minnesotan MC mold with a confessional, personal tone. (50)
TAPES 'N TAPES, "WALK IT OFF"
Produced by Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Low), it sounds like a sophomore record by an indie-rock band that spent a year and half on the road promoting its first album: heavier, tighter and cockier, and standouts like "Hang 'Em All" and "Headshock" sound tailored to the stage. (50)
14. CITY ON THE MAKE, "$1,000,000"
A young band born on gritty blues, hip-hop and garage punk, its frayed sound jelled into a ferocious blast on this six-track EP featuring howling songs about being broke and/or broken. (46)
15. (TIE) Chris Koza, "The Dark, Delirious Morning"
As the title suggests, the third disc by this wistful, romantic melody maker celebrates the dark before the dawn with bright, bubbling indie-pop arrangements. (42)
LUCY MICHELLE & THE VELVET LAPELLES, "ORANGE PEELS & RATTLESNAKES"
The charming, quirky young ensemble that topped last fall's City Pages Picked to Click poll debuted with a Mike Wisti-produced collection of living-room-quality acoustic ditties and bedroom poetry led by a Billie Holiday-ish crooner. (42)
PAUL WESTERBERG, "49:00"
Was this even an album? The former Replacements frontman's latest, um, thingie sold for $.99 at Amazon.com as a single track but was actually an album's worth of songs spliced together. Hidden among the pileup was some of the most personal songwriting of the guy's storied career. (42)
18. THE ABSENT ARCH, "KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON"
With the Ashtray Hearts on hold, this young quintet has stepped in as the scene's moody, dark Americana band of the moment, offering an eclectic mix of accordion, strings and occasional wind instruments with singer Will Marwardt's Irish-style dose of bleeding-hearted but tough tenderness. "No Titles ... None at All" is especially a doozy. (38)
19. KID DAKOTA, "A WINNER'S SHADOW"
Darren Jackson's third disc as the Kid ebbs and flows dramatically from quiet, serene moments to bursting, stormy climaxes, dictated by songs about urban isolation. (34)
20. (TIE) Cecil Otter, "Rebel Yellow"
Yet another Doomtree product, the hip-hop crew's fedora-wearing, wry-humored rapper produced his own toxic, acid-rain-dripping beats to suit his bleary-eyed, fractured lyrics. No party tracks here. (32)
PRIVATE DANCER, "TROUBLE EYES"
Members of Hockey Night, the Stnnng and Falcon Crest channeled their wild noise into this sort of one-stop, catch-all group. Their compact eight-song debut offers a grab-bag of styles, including psychedelic punk, thundering garage-rock and falsetto space-funk. (32)
Patches & Gretchen, "Music From Little Big Pink" (30); Crescent Moon & Big Trouble, "Crescent Moon Is in Big Trouble" (28); First Communion Afterparty, "Sorry for the Mondays and to Those Who Can't Sing" (28); Yer Cronies, "When I Grow Up" (28).
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658