Previewing his 2010 album at Texas' South by Southwest Music Conference in March, Jeremy Messersmith somewhat embarrassingly revealed that the new songs were all about "death and graveyards and other fun stuff."
"I know it's going to be a smash hit," he joked.
Turns out, that wasn't entirely a joke. When it came out in May, "The Reluctant Graveyard" proved to be surprisingly poppy and universally appealing despite the morbid subject matter. The 30-year-old Minneapolis singer/songwriter -- who's about as dark and gloomy in person as a sweet church lady serving blintzes -- sugarcoated the fatalistic themes with a fuzzy, retro sheen and rich harmonies that sound purely, unabashedly Beatlesesque. He even picked up a McCartney-approved Hofner bass for the sessions.
A far cry from being Top 40 material, "Graveyard" nonetheless was a big hit with the 16 local music writers and pundits who voted it the top Minnesota album of 2010 in our Twin Cities Critics Tally. It's not the only album on the list to deal heavily in death, either: Roma di Luna's and Cloud Cult's high-ranked releases also pay visit to graves and the afterlife.
While these three acts aren't strangers to our ninth annual poll of the best in local music -- Messersmith's sophomore album "Silver City" ranked No. 2 in 2008 -- many of the entries this year are first-timers. That includes runners-up Communist Daughter and Dessa, who also earned a nod for song of the year with her jazzy, novella-like tale of a pretty girl treated ugly, "Dixon's Girl."
All told, eight of the 20 albums on TCCT '10 are debuts. Surely, we can take this as a sign that Minnesota's music scene is alive and well and continually regenerating. Never mind all the songs about death.
1. JEREMY MESSERSMITH "THE RELUCTANT GRAVEYARD"
After exploring youth and then manhood and earning way too many Sufjan Stevens comparisons on his two earlier discs, the boyish-voiced songwriting prodigy jumped all the way up to the end of life to complete his album trilogy, finding inspiration while strolling through his neighborhood graveyard (the historic Minneapolis Pioneers & Settlers Cemetery). He also picked up a book on Beatles production technique and a guitarist with proven retro-pop chops, ex-Hang Ups leader Brian Tighe. The light approach to dark themes truly works like a charm, whether it's in the gunning rocker "Dillinger Eyes" or string-laden somber ditties such as "Knots." Really, there's not a stiff on the disc. (152 voter points)
2. DESSA "A BADLY BROKEN CODE"
In a genre where women are still commonly referred to with a B-word and rarely asked to pen a meaningful rhyme, 29-year-old Dessa stands up for her fight to write with uncommon intellect and passion. Being surrounded by all those boys in the Doomtree crew must have been a good thing. Songs like "Matches to Paper Dolls" and "Dixon's Girl" carry a feminist message or two, but really they're more about common human experiences, none of them very pretty. Likewise, there's some mighty rapping here, but it's really a singer/songwriter's album at its fractured heart. (136)
3. COMMUNIST DAUGHTER "SOUNDTRACK TO THE END"
He looks like he lost a close fight with a bulldozer. On the debut by his second band, though, former Friends Like These frontman Johnny Solomon shows off a softer, downright elegant side. The largely acoustic but hardly folky collection was born out of a long recovery period and late-night music-making sessions while he was holed up and living in the basement of his restaurant in Prescott, Wis. With sweet harmony help from Molly Moore, acoustic pop songs such as the willowy "Speed of Sound" and the sneakily percussive "Not the Kid" sound wounded and lonely, but happy to be alive. (102)
4. GAYNGS, "RELAYTED"
Inspired by 10cc, Love 105 FM and things that light up in the night, former Digitata production/beatmaking guru Ryan Olson invited over his pals from Bon Iver, Megafaun, Solid Gold, Building Better Bombs and seemingly half the bands in town for laid-back, free-flowing sessions. The results were surprisingly vibrant and sophisticated -- way better than AutoTune-spiked, electronica-baked, all-star soft-rock might sound on paper. (84)
5. ROMA DI LUNA "THEN THE MORNING CAME"
On their way to writing the inevitable album about new parenthood, married songwriters Channy and Alexei Moon Casselle and the rest of their ever-expanding folk/rock/soul band were knocked off path by a few deaths. Out came a truly soul-searching batch of powerful songs. Channy spreads her songbird voice all over "Under Our Feet" and other gems, but the band's warm, ambient sound keeps it all well-grounded and earthy. (76)
6. BNLX, "EPS #1-4"
Another music-making couple, Ed and Ashley Ackerson, kicked up plenty of guitar fuzz and sharp hooks in their earlier bands, Polara and the Mood Swings, respectively. But they never did so with as much nostalgic abandon and '80s-style fun as they seem to enjoy over the course of four EPs for the Susstones label, each issued a couple months apart and sonically interconnected -- even including the Rihanna and Black Flag cuts on "#4." (66)
7. RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR "2"
Recorded live in the studio following tours with Wilco and the Meat Puppets, the second album by Duluth rock hero Alan Sparhawk's loud counterpart to Low captured the new trio firing on all cylinders, and probably blowing a few amps. Steaming Bob Mould-style rockers such as "Hide It Away" and "Working Hard" surround Crazy Horse-like feedback workouts such as "Poor Man's Daughter." (64)
8. DARK DARK DARK "WILD GO"
Morose and bookwormy chamber-folk ensemble Dark Dark Dark certainly came out of its shell on its second full-length album -- starting with the photos of the members' nude backsides on the cover. Main singer Nona Marie Invie's stark voice and writing style are tastefully dressed up by bits of accordion, cello, clarinet and other eclectic sounds. File somewhere between the band Beirut and the Mountain Goats. (58)
9. BEN WEAVER "MIREPOIX & SMOKE"
Named after the two smells this St. Paul songwriter/poet couldn't wash off when he went home at night after working in the kitchen of a reputable restaurant, Weaver's served-up-raw second release for Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot (and his fifth overall) has a potency that similarly will hang with you. Not many songwriters can make burn marks and an average daily grind sound so transformational or breathtaking. (54)
10. CLOUD CULT "LIGHT CHASERS"
Singer/songwriter/eco-warrior Craig Minowa came out of the woods to welcome his new son and find a peaceful new home in a valley. The ensuing album is his brightest and most cohesive to date, buoyed by loftier orchestral arrangements but with the same psychedelic-rock flame and spiritual searchlight Cloud Cult has always carried. (42)
11. PETER WOLF CRIER "INTER-BE"
This is a first for TCCT: The rustic, earnest debut by singer/guitarist/looper Peter Pisano and drummer Brian Moen also made our list last year (at No. 13), just a few weeks after the jittery folk-rock duo self-released it. An international re-release on the Jagjaguwar label in April -- along with PWC's tours with bands such as Heartless Bastards and Dawes -- introduced the album to a much broader audience this year, including more local critics. We could have ruled it ineligible, but this disc is definitely worthy of double-dipping. (40)
12. PATCHES & GRETCHEN "SUGAR HEAD PIE"
Purely a love-it-or-hate-it kind of record, it stars harried Midwestern mom Gretchen Seichrist, her disheveled but piercing poetry and an ace band with guitarists Terry Eason and David Loy, playing feisty Velvet Undground haze-rock and off-kilter country ramblers. But it all hinges on Seichrist's quirky character. Think Patti Smith meets Courtney Love meets TV's Roseanne. (38)
13. LAZERBEAK "LEGEND RECOGNIZE LEGEND"
He got his start in roaring teen-punk band the Plastic Constellations and grew into a booming beatmaker for the Doomtree hip-hop crew, but Aaron Mader's first solo album under his Doomtree alias features soft, gravelly vocals and a thickly cushioned, orchestral-trip-hop-pop-rock sonic territory -- part Moby, part Trent Reznor, part Animal Collective but also entirely unique. (30)
14. STNNNG "THE SMOKE OF MY WILL"
One of the Twin Cities' loudest and stormiest bands of the '00s, the STNNNG ("stunning") went four years between albums but came back with a subtler plan of attack: crouching, slow-windup rhythms, Chris Besinger's beady-eyed vocals and some of the best guitar work in town. (28)
15. VARIOUS ARTISTS "REGOLITH, VOL. 1"
A hobby label that specializes in cassette releases, Moon Glyph became a more serious operation with this wowie-zowie-inducing compilation of noisy psychedelic/experimental bands, including Skoal Kodiak, Moonstone, the Blind Shake, Daughters of the Sun and Leisure Birds. It was certainly strong enough to merit a vinyl release instead of cassette. (26)
16. (tie) Charlie Parr "When the Devil Goes Blind"
Parr made his first album with a real producer, Bo Ramsey, who wisely kept it raw and focused on the acoustic blues/folk stalwart's Dust Bowl-}gritty songs. (22)
ROGUE VALLEY, "CRATER LAKE"
Poppy indie-rocker Chris Koza's band kicked off an ambitious, seasonal four-album cycle with a spring disc steeped in romance and topography. (22)
TRAMPLED BY TURTLES "PALOMINO"
Five albums into their blitzkrieg run, Duluth-reared string quintet Trampled by Turtles balances between barnstorming bluegrass stompers and heartbroken twang-rock ditties. (22)
WISE-MAGRAW "HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN"
Cancer-surviving acoustic-guitar wiz Dean Magraw lovingly revisited the inner light he once created with tabla player Marcus Wise in their first album for Red House Records since 1985. (22)
20. PHANTOM TAILS, "SOUNDS OF THE HUNCHBACK WHALE"
A clever melding of snide, snarly dance-punk and howling '60s garage-rock from ex-members of the Plastic Chord. (18)
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