Turns out, there's something that actually can be disputed on "The Undisputed Truth," Brother Ali's personal triumph of an album.
"I defy critics," the Minneapolis indie-rap star boasts in "Daylight," a song that takes on writers who ask about his skin color (albino-white) and religion (Muslim).
Annoying questions aside, critics -- especially those in the Twin Cities -- are behind Ali all the way. That much became certain as we added up the votes in our fifth annual Twin Cities Critics Tally (TCCT), a year-end poll of local music writers' favorite albums, songs and live acts from their ever-incubating hometown scene.
"The Undisputed Truth" won TCCT '07 as handily as Ali won over fans on previous tours opening for the Hold Steady, Rakim and his Rhymesayers labelmates Atmosphere. The album, produced by Atmosphere co-founder Ant, landed on 16 of our 22 participating critics' top 10 lists. It also earned many votes for song of the year -- and for several different tracks (always a good sign).
That doesn't mean Ali lacked competition. The other albums that topped this list include one by a revered songwriter fresh from the Grammys podium (Dan Wilson), another by a scene stalwart who's been in three popular bands (Vicious Vicious), and several more full of the innovation, originality and hip factor that critics eat up (Cloud Cult, Fog, the Owls).
But most of all, we ate up Brother Ali. Sorry to disappoint him.
1. Brother Ali "THE UNDISPUTED TRUTH"
It starts with the me-vs.-the-world approach that usually defines hip-hop, but which Ali naturally redefines. Midway through his second full-length CD, the booming-voiced rapper starts venting his sociopolitical anger in the war-torn "Letter From the Government" and the Nina Simone-sampling "Uncle Sam Goddamn." Then comes the starkly personal stuff, as bleak as any divorce album gets, but ultimately as sunny as Ali's day at the Coachella fest. To quote his pal Craig Finn, this is how a resurrection really feels. 5350
2. DAN WILSON "FREE LIFE"
Five years in the works, the Semisonic frontman's solo debut for Rick Rubin's American Recordings sounds appropriately timeless. Wilson set aside his fuzz-poppy past for piano- and acoustic-guitar-driven arrangements that are fireside warm (think: mellow Neil Young). That warmth turns to sheer gold in lovelorn ballads like the Sheryl Crow duet "Sugar" and one of the songs he co-wrote with the Dixie Chicks, "Easy Silence." 5351
3. VICIOUS VICIOUS "PARADE"
Former Hopefuls co-leader Erik Appelwick finished off the third album by his solo-driven lust-pop act between tours with Tapes 'N Tapes, whom he joined last year. The record sounds anything but rushed, though. Deftly crafted doses of bouncy organ and horns raise flirters like "Stay With Me Tonight" to ecstasy, and the thematic lyrics read like a singles blog. 5352
4. FOG "DITHERER"
Techno/folk/rock basement-taper Andrew Broder finally has the band he's always had in his head: a three-piece Fog lineup rounded out by bassist Mark Erickson and drummer Tim Glenn. The results are more cohesive and rocking but no less outlandish and obtuse. This collage-like collection ends with one of Broder's freakiest yet (the 10-minute "On the Gallows") followed by his most straight-up of all time (the Band-like "What Up Freaks?"). 5353
5. M.ANIFEST "MANIFESTATIONS"
For a native of Ghana living in Minnesota, this 25-year-old rapper offered a surprisingly worldly and encyclopedic cross-section of hip-hop on his debut. The disc ties retro faves like Boogie Down Productions and De La Soul to modern gurus like Kanye. He doesn't emulate anything thuggish, though, sticking to Afrocentric and positive-thinking (not preaching) tracks such as "Africa Represent," where he asks, "Whatever happen to rappin' without mentioning a gun clappin'?" 5354
6. (TIE) Cloud Cult "THE MEANING OF 8"
As evidenced in the ethereal single "Chemicals Collide," many worlds collide on the sixth album by Craig Minowa's psychedelic chamber-rock septet. Life and death are explored as one and the same in the lyrics. Orchestral strings and electric guitars equally fuel the music. And hippies and indie-rockers alike embraced the band after this one. 5355
6. The Owls "DAUGHTERS AND SUNS"
Imagine Nico and the women of Stereolab singing Ray Davies songs with the New Pornographers as backing band and you'll get a sense of the regal, stylish, bittersweet harmony-pop featured on the first full-length by this co-ed quartet, led by Legendary Jim Ruiz co-vocalist Allison LaBonne and her husband Brian Tighe (of Hang Ups fame). 5356
8. CHARLIE PARR "JUBILEE"
Duluth's king of low-down acoustic blues didn't exactly shoot for the stars on his fifth album, the studio credit for which is "Bonnie & Dave's garage." Nonetheless, it's his most refined and cohesive collection to date, from the hallowed ballad "Just Like Today" to the harrowing slide-guitar attack "Twenty-Nine" to the hilarious "Riding Mower Blues." 5357
9. Little Man "SOULFUL AUTOMATIC"
It starts out sounding like "Led Zeppelin III." The third song, "Undertow," pulls off a stellar Big Star. Deeper in, we hear the Who, T. Rex, Cheap Trick. This is classic rock for people tired of the same 50 songs on KQRS, delivered with an oversized earnestness by Little Man's little frontman, Chris Perricelli. 5358
10. ROMANTICA "AMERICA"
Anyone wondering why Ireland native Ben Kyle named his band's second album after his adopted country will get it by CD's end. The music is Americana to the bone, with tasteful bits of piano, accordion and violin (Jessy Greene's) applied to his wistful, BoDeans/Ryan Adams-style twang-pop. Kyle's Irishness bleeds into his wounded-poet lyrics. 5359
11. THE ALARMISTS "THE GHOST AND THE HIRED GUN"
Last year's six-song debut EP was as tightly cropped as Thom Yorke's haircut, but the broody/mighty quintet stretched out and mellowed out on its 14-song followup. It didn't lose its charming Brit-rock fixation, though (see: the Verve, Oasis and a smidgen of Radiohead). 5360
12. (tie) Ed Ackerson "ED ACKERSON"
Polara's main guy traded in his feedbacking guitars and alt-rock reputation for a softer, flowery songwriter sound on his first solo debut. In the Beatles terms that Ackerson knows so well, it's more "Norwegian Wood" than "Tomorrow Never Knows." 5361
12. Stook! "WHEN THE NEEDLE HIT THE WAX"
White guy sings through his nose and bleeds from the heart on his flannel shirt-sleeve. You'll get it right away. You'll love it right away. 5362
14. HAPPY APPLE "HAPPY APPLE BACK ON TOP"
They're back, indeed, returning from their many other bands (the Bad Plus, Zebulon Pike, Fat Kid Wednesdays and that one with the really long name) to the jazz trio that both a Charlie Parker and a Linkin Park fan could love. "Very Small Rock," in particular, will go down as one of their best. 5363
15. (TIE) Big Quarters "COST OF LIVING"
Yet another local indie-rap crew that writes about trudging through real life instead of a fantasy high life, these two brothers balance a playfully dark, Wu Tang-ian production with droll and wry lyricism. Hip-hop has rarely been more ironic than "How to Kill Your Rap Career." 5364
15. THE GLAD VERSION "MAKE ISLANDS"
With a boyish, downbeat/uptempo indie-rock sound somewhere between Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, this well-polished quartet would've sounded great on "The O.C." It still sounds pretty good on the station one of its songs is named after, "89.3." 5365
17. (TIE) Low "DRUMS AND GUNS"
Duluth's revered indie-rock trio reunited with producer David Fridmann and Sub Pop Records and once again reinvented its sound. Electronic drums and looping whirs take over where Alan Sparhawk's electric guitar is left out, and those sweet harmonies of old are darkened by a batch of violent, fearful tunes. 5366
17. MOUTHFUL OF BEES "THE END"
Fresh out of high school, this nervy quartet made a big splash with a lo-fi slacker-ish sound akin to Pavement, Guided by Voices and at least one current band closer to its age, Tapes 'N Tapes. The mumbly, guitar-bobbing gem "The Now" leads off in more ways than one. 5367
19. (TIE) Digitata "II DAGGERS"
The tamest of the three bands anchored by drummer Drew Christopherson and electronica-wiz Ryan Olson (also of Mel Gibson & the Pants and Building Better Bombs), this one lays a futuristic soundtrack of moody, synth-laden digi-rock swirling around singer/keyboardist Maggie Morrison's Siouxsie-like drama. 5368
19. FORT WILSON RIOT "IDIGARAGUA"
A-plus for ambition, as this quirky, carnival collection of Wagner-via-vaudeville music is actually the soundtrack to an "indie-rock opera" the band staged this fall at the Bedlam Theater. 5369
19. THE PINES "SPARROWS IN THE BELL"
Iowa transplants David Huckfeldt and Ben Ramsey (son of Greg Brown cohort Bo Ramsey) filled their Red House Records debut with dark, Dylan-esque, whispery neo-folk loaded with vagabond imagery. 5370
TO HEAR SAMPLES FROM THE BEST ALBUMS, PHONE 612-673-9050 AND PRESS THE FOUR-DIGIT NUMBERS PRINTED IN BOLD TYPE AT THE END OF EACH PARAGRAPH.
AGREE? DISAGREE? Either way, give us your take on the Twin Cities' best music this year at our music blog: StarTribune.com/Poplife.