‘What part of me don’t you know?”
As in a lot of his best work, Alan Sparhawk sounds alluringly ambiguous and vaguely threatened when he sings that line halfway through “Ones and Sixes,” Low’s 11th album in 21 years. Who is it that might know the enigmatic rocker too well? His wife and bandmate, Mimi Parker? His audience? God?
Local music critics certainly know Sparhawk — so well, in fact, that familiarity is probably a detriment. At this point in their career, he and Parker would have to pull off a mighty impressive record to wow the Twin Cities’ finicky, forward-looking, nostalgia-eschewing music pundits.
Lo and behold, Low bowled us over in 2015. “Ones and Sixes” was the clear-cut winner of this year’s Twin Cities Critics Tally, our 13th annual poll to name Minnesota’s best albums. The Duluth indie-rock vets beat out the year’s hottest newcomers, Bad Bad Hats, as well as our 2013 TCCT winner and undeniable It Girl of the moment, Lizzo, to earn top honors from 27 unbiased local music writers and/or radio tastemakers.
Bad Bad Hats did win the vote for song of the year with “Midway,” a tune fittingly about moving on. They are among the youngish new acts who make up more than half of TCCT 2015, a sure sign the Minnesota music scene is alive and well and hasn’t given up on albums as a viable art form. A few other vets, including Charlie Parr and Adam Levy, also made strong showings.
After loosening things up for a truly low-key 2013 album with producer Jeff Tweedy (“The Invisible Way”), the musical rubber band that is Low seemed to stretch close to its breaking point again on this sonically bent, lyrically frayed effort for Seattle’s famed indie label Sub Pop. Orchestrated hisses, whirs, crackles and the occasional burst of guitar poke through the elegant harmonies and hypnotic rhythms that are Low trademarks. Overlapping themes pop up throughout, too, from the miscommunication that haunts “No Comprende” and “Spanish Translation” to the mistrust of others in “Lies” and “The Innocents.” As bold as it all sounds, though, “What Part of Me” and “Lies” are some of the band’s most accessible, hit-worthy tunes to date. (Total points from voters: 252)
Somehow, singer/guitarist Kerry Alexander at once sounds tender and aloof, earnest and detached, and poppy but not too peppy throughout her group’s soft-glowing, hard-bopping full-length debut. She and her former Macalester classmates Chris Hoge and Noah Boswell wisely woodshedded the songs for quite a while and fine-tuned them to near-perfection with producer Brett Bullion. Hardly a raw young indie band, they sound ready for radio play (or cool car commercial ads) with such standout tracks as the Death Cab-ish “Fight Song,” grungier “Cruella” and, of course, the strong hello of an opening track, “Midway.” (164 points)
Issued just in time to make the year-end cutoff, the fast-forwarding rapper/singer’s sophomore album makes a fast, strong impression. Centerpiece songs such as “My Skin” and “B.G.S.W.” — with their exploration of body image and race and an underlying message of self-respect — immediately pull at the heartstrings and perk up the ears in ways that are rare in today’s commercial hip-hop. The Prince-like, cosmic soul-pop of “Humanize” and “Bother Me” is instantaneously charming, too. Some of the record’s other qualities take time to sink in, though, including the sonic wizardry and sly wordplay at work in rowdier tunes such as “Ride” and “Ain’t I.” (162)
Nearly all of the songs on this Twin Cities power trio’s full-length debut start in one of two ways: with a furious, call-to-arms pounding of snare drum and cymbals, or with a heavy, call-to-earplugs roar of guitar. Either way, consider yourselves forewarned. The band proudly harks back to the scene’s best-known power trio, Hüsker Dü, not just in volume and velocity, but also the sharp melodic hooks that singer/guitarist Kyle Werstein jabs into such choice songs as “Honest” and “Summer Bummer.” Lest you think they’re all roar, the guys throw in a gorgeously ambient, slow-fade of a closer, “Bahia.” (116)
It speaks volumes that a national music blog, No Depression, ran a favorable review of this record and didn’t once mention the words “suicide” or “mental illness.” In other words, the Honeydogs frontman’s folky solo debut stands up well even if you don’t know its tragic back story. Unfortunately, many of us know all too well about family members suffering from depression and psychosis, which took the life of Levy's son. There’s solace and strength along with memorable melodies and lyrics in songs such as the Lennon-esque “Pitch Black Path” and the heart-wrenching title track. (114)
An in-demand keyboardist for the likes of Caroline Smith, Toki Wright and local theater companies, the 26-year-old St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists grad finally stepped out to make his own album and wound up in a similar hazy head space as this year’s acclaimed psychedelic R&B/hip-hop records by Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo and the Weeknd. Mayson has a sweet falsetto and soft romantic side that keep even ethereal jams such as “Skyline” down to earth. (80)
Raw power and teen angst rule on this Minneapolis punk trio’s debut EP. Even in its most grrr-ing moments, the five-song collection maintains a terrific sense of fun. Case in point: Its smartest song is also one of its smarmiest, a trait you can probably glean just from the title, “I Cried for 45 Minutes Because of Passive Aggressive Guinea Pigs.” (72)
You might call it this year’s sleeper hit. Issued back in March, it’s a dour but diverse collection that runs a wide gamut of indie-rock influences, from the atmospheric, Beach House-like whir of “Distraction” to the Bikini Kill-esque punk roar of “Panther’s Conquest.” That it all ties together so well is a testament to singer/drummer Casey Sowa’s writing personality and Nate Hart-Andersen’s crisp, reverb-y guitar work. (68)
Whether he’s picking out an obscure oldie from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music or finding new ways to tour in a Kia Soul, Duluth’s grizzled acoustic folk/blues guru has a masterful way of doing things. He certainly mastered his first release for Red House Records — after years of impressive DIY work — thanks to understated help from producer Phil Cook (of Megafaun) and a strong batch of songs that touch on his deep family roots and uprooting choice of careers. (61)
It would be easy to peg former Black Audience vocalist and Romantica collaborator Jayanthi Kyle as the Twin Cities’ answer to Sharon Jones or a rocked-up version of a traditional gospel singer, but she is both those things and a lot more on this hard-to-peg, easy-to-devour first effort by her sturdy new band. Laden with cool organ vibes and horn-spiked energy, it ranges from the slow-swaying, high-soaring ballad “Why Don’t My Mockingbird Sing” to the up-tempo, down-and-gritty rocker “That Ring.” (56)
After tirelessly cranking out a series of fast and fun EPs, Polara’s Ed Ackerson and his Mood Swings-leading wife, Ashley Ackerson, expanded their formerly lo-fi fuzz-rock duo into a four-piece and loaded up on rich psychedelic layers and ’80s Brit-rock melodies for their full-length debut. The record earned the nod here despite receiving only a small release locally, saving up mojo for a wider release on a label in 2016. (52)
Over a murky and sometimes fantastical blend of subdued, loopy beats, one of the Twin Cities’ most visionary rappers spills clearheaded lyrics loaded with messages of anti-consumerism, working-class blues and a failing economic system. Even the artistic salute “Van Gogh” — with a memorable guest stint by Mike the Martyr — fits the album’s theme, since its Dutch namesake died broke. Grease himself deserves more attention. (52)
This one is kind of a no-duh effort: After becoming one of the town’s most popular live acts and then hitting the road to prove themselves internationally, the 66-year-old soul singer and his groovy young crew came home at the end of 2014 and bottled their energy on this electrifying live album, recorded over four nights at the Dakota. Original funk workouts such as “Cave Man” are paired nicely with inspired interpretations of Beatles and Leadbelly songs. (52)
The boy-wonder pop/rock quartet offers more of the same jangly, perky, Afro-poppy guitar work and jubilant, harmonious choruses heard on its breakthrough 2014 EP, “Bashful Creatures.” Where those songs quickly burst to life and got straight to the point, the key cuts on this EP (“The Halocine” and the title track) are slower building and less overt, to great effect. (50)
Coincidentally landing soon after the Jamar Clark shooting that ignited protests in Minneapolis, this blue-flamed hip-hop album not so coincidentally offers a fervent look at racial issues and socioeconomic injustice. MCs Crescent Moon (of Kill the Vultures) and Joe Horton (No Bird Sing) get heavy — and sometimes surprisingly fun and dance-ready — backing from Doomtree beatmaker Lazerbeak, but their words are the record’s hardest-pounding attribute. (46)
Another one with Crescent Moon's raps booming as loudly as the beats, Kill the Vultures’ first record in six years sounds like no other hip-hop album around, as is the M.O. of his artful, oblique sonic-collage duo with his ex-Oddjobs cohort DJ Anatomy. Orchestral strings and jazzy flute artfully dance around the rapper’s dense, desperate-sounding words in “Topsoil” and other wild tracks, each with a Tom Waits-like freak-show tinge. (42)
Almost as prolific and prone to dark ruts as the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt — to whom he once arranged an epic all-star local tribute — the former guitarist for the Velvet Lapelles and Zoo Animal whittled down his songbook to a cohesive, moving 10-track collection. A bad breakup and a lot of cleverly arranged string work fuel the album, which echoes Neutral Milk Hotel and Bon Iver more than Merritt. (40)
This bright-eyed collegiate indie-rock quartet — a favorite at U station Radio K — takes some giant steps over the course of its full-length debut, jumping from Real Estate-like, low-key, atmospheric guitar noodling to manic, bursting, Mars Volta-variety roaring prog-rock. (40)
Playing Van Morrison covers a few nights a week for the past decade made them into a thoroughbred-class band. Then singer/songwriter Terry Walsh cut loose his horn-addled ensemble to run through his own champion-breed originals, which make up half this album, including the Slim Dunlap-wry “Rock Band” and majestic soul-tugging epic “Looking for the Northern Lights.” (38)
There’s a beauty-and-beast contrast between Tess Weinberg’s soft, serene voice and her bandmates Christopher White’s and Derek Van Gieson’s barbed and often wickedly intertwined guitar work. That dichotomy is fleshed out and amped up beautifully on this artful rock quintet’s full-length debut, offering echoes of Throwing Muses and the moodiest of Best Coast’s songs. (36)
How TCCT works
Voters choose their top 10 albums, which are then weighted through a point system, ranging from 20 points for their No. 1 albums to 2 points for No. 10. Unranked lists are awarded 10 points per album. Best songs and live-act categories are top-five lists, with ranked lists ranging from 10 points to 2, or 5 apiece for unranked lists.