Between P-Funk’s and Sun Ra’s spacey ’70s jams and more recent albums by OutKast and Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism is nothing new in music. But it felt like a fresh and timely art form within the Twin Cities music scene in 2016, thanks to ZuluZuluu.
A collective more than a band, the psychedelic neo-soul/hip-hop sextet dropped in traces of all those aforementioned artists and our musical patron saint Prince in a seven-song, 29-minute debut EP that local music writers have collectively declared the best Minnesota album of 2016. While ZuluZuluu’s “What’s the Price?” was loaded with infectious cosmic grooves good for tuning out the din of 2016, the lyrics offered an alert, visionary, utopian exploration of African-American identity and art in a year that saw race issues boil up locally and nationally.
ZuluZuluu is only the second act to top both our 14th annual Twin Cities Critics Tally — a compilation of 24 music pundits’ year-end top 10 lists — and City Pages’ Picked to Click poll as the best local newcomer.
The first to do so was Minneapolis singer/rapper Lizzo, for her classic debut “Lizzobangers” in 2013. No surprise, Lizzo pops up again in TCCT 2016. She was named best live performer, while her feel-good summer jam, “Good as Hell,” was voted song of the year. Critical props also were showered on TCCT mainstay Haley Bonar’s album “Impossible Dream,” an unusually close runner-up, earning more votes than many of our past No. 1 albums.
While those artists deservedly shared the spotlight in 2016, critics overwhelmingly agreed that the biggest reason the Twin Cities music scene seemed so alive this year was the communal, hopeful, artful reaction to Prince’s death. These albums do his legacy proud.
1. ZuluZuluu, “What’s the Price?”
At first an unusual and wee bit untidy assembly of local hip-hop/R&B visionaries — including falsetto-slinging singer Proper-T, rapper Greg Grease, DJ Just Nine and singer/producer MMYYKK — ZuluZuluu impressively coalesced in the studio. “What’s the Price?” boasts ethereal beats and synths but earthy lyrical/vocal tones. While there’s no lack of noteworthy songwriting, from the big-pictured title track to the provocatively quirky romp “Bicycle Seat,” the EP opens with a cover that perfectly sets the tone: “Black Maybe,” which Stevie Wonder wrote for his late ex-wife Syreeta Wright. “You’ve seen the way they’ve done your boy,” Proper-T sings, “and the boy’s still down after 300 years.” While the music continually leaves you guessing, there’s no mistaking the mission here. (192 voter points)
2. Haley Bonar, “Impossible Dream”
A Minnesota music vet at age 33 — her first record dropped when she was 18 — Bonar has grown from a softly strumming folkie to the leader of two full-volume, adventurous rock bands, and from a big-idea-floating college dropout to a bigger-hearted mom. Her musical and personal evolution intersect beautifully on her sixth album, which she coproduced with guitarist Jacob Hanson. Songs like “Kismet Kill” and “I Could Change” answer the summons to grow up like a call from an annoying telemarketer. (“I could be happy if I let myself be happy,” she sings in the latter.) At least the lush, ebb-and-flow guitar and synth arrangements heard throughout the record sound decidedly grown-up. (186 points)
3. Communist Daughter, “The Cracks That Built the Wall”
“It hurts to be alone,” Johnny Solomon sings in “Balboa Bridge,” a suicide-contemplating diamond of a deep cut, buried eight songs into his sweet-sounding pop/rock band’s second full-length album. Far from alone, Solomon had plenty of company in recent years climbing out of his personal pitfalls, including his wife and harmony partner Molly, their well-gelled bandmates and producer Kevin Bowe. Together, they spent two years working on an overdue follow-up LP that balances loud and quiet moments beautifully, like a 40-minute version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” (108 points)
4. Ness Nite, “Nite Time”
At a mere 20, St. Paul-bred rapper/singer/producer Vanessa Reliford went from a little-known Are You Local? contest finalist in February to a breakout newcomer over the summer thanks in large part to her six-song debut EP. The kicked-back, in-a-zone beats are all hers, and the slow-bobbing verses and whirring melodic choruses offer a unique blend of romantic interludes and self-healing mantras, like an intoxicating mix of FKA Twigs and Frank Ocean. (88 points)
5. Poliça, “United Crushers”
Three albums in, Channy Leaneagh’s innovative studio project with producer Ryan Olson has never sounded more like a band to be reckoned with. Bassist Chris Bierden and drummers Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson are perfectly in step with the worried, stressed tone of Leaneagh’s more worldly, topical lyrics on such songs such as “Melting Block” and “Wedding.” Even the quieter and more personal-sounding tunes “Fish on the Griddle” and “Lose You” sound like careful group efforts. (76 points)
6. The Cactus Blossoms, “You’re Dreaming”
We knew they could harmonize in that uncanny way the best sibling acts do, but brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum surprised us with how rich and varied their songwriting can be, too. The old-school country pickers’ first proper studio LP for Red House Records — produced by Oklahoma’s great rockabilly revivalist J.D. McPherson — ranged from the playful, poppy ditty “Stoplight Kisses” to the swooning romantic ballad “Queen of Them All” to the grim, haunting epic “Mississippi.” (74 points)
7. Ben Lubeck, “Rented Rooms”
While his refreshingly unpretentious Americana rock band Farewell Milwaukee put out its own spirited album this year, pining-voiced frontman Lubeck stepped outside that comfort zone and jumped into more spiritual, personal territory for a solo debut that could be mistaken for one of Ryan Adams’ finer efforts. Songs about a troubled childhood and his own mixed emotions in becoming a dad are matched with graceful melodies and dramatic twang. (70 points)
8. Sims, “More Than Ever”
On first listen, it sounds like the Doomtree rapper has mellowed during his crew’s extended hiatus. Sims’ first full-length LP in five years boasts slower, weirder beats than his previous efforts, and his rapping sounds more subdued and aloof. On closer inspection, though, the lyrics prove as hyperactive and ambitious as ever, loaded with personal drama and bulging with quizzical references to high-concept thinkers Franz Kafka and Bill Gosper, and lowdown punks P.O.S. and the Cro-Mags. (69)
9. (tie) Kitten Forever, “7 Hearts”
Without the rock-’em-sock-’em visual appeal of their live shows — where they’re constantly on the move, changing instruments and spazz-dancing to the music — the three women of this bass-guitar-driven punk trio rise to the challenge of maintaining their playful spirit and thundering impact on record. Two-minute assault vehicles like “Temple” and “200X” are fiercely feminist but also riotously fun. Let’s hope the fun continues in the coming years. (66 points)
Lizzo, “Coconut Oil”
For her first release under a deal with Atlantic Records, Minneapolis’ hottest hip-hop ambassador issued a six-song EP built around her “Barbershop 3” soundtrack hit “Good As Hell.” It turned into her most diverse effort to date, offering a grab bag of sounds from that irrepressibly poppy single to the ’90s-R&B-flavored “Scuse Me” to the booming, M.I.A.-like throwdown “Phone.”
11. Sonny Knight & the Lakers, “Sooner or Later”
Veteran soul man Knight and his younger sparkplug crew outgrow the revivalist tag on their second studio album with a strong batch of original tunes. They prove they can bring a lot more than funk, too, with richly layered, slower-grooving gems and tender ballads such as “The Cry.” (60 points)
12. Night Moves, “Pennied Days”
Willowy-voiced cosmic strummer John Pelant gets ace help from producer John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Dinosaur Jr.), applying a hazy but elegant sonic backdrop to his ’70s-flavored, George Harrison/Harry Nilsson-style twang-pop songs. (58 points)
13. Fraea, “Bend Your Bones”
Former Roma di Luna backup vocalist Jessie Daley and collaborator Drew Preiner drum up an impressive array of innovative beats and looped vocals on their debut EP, but ice-hearted songs like “Trouble” and “Criminal” also bring back the melodic elements of classic electro-pop acts such as Goldfrapp and even the Pet Shop Boys. (52 points)
14. (tie) The Jayhawks, “Paging Mr. Proust”
After a series of restarts and lineup changes, Gary Louris gets his groove back and quite literally grooves like never before on his formerly alt-country band’s first album in five years. It’s a decidedly rockier and almost entirely twang-free collection, coproduced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. fame and heavily spiked with keyboardist Karen Grotberg’s plunking, harmonious presence. (50 points)
The Pines, “Above the Prairie”
“I pledge allegiance to the land despite the U.S.A.,” David Huckfelt sings in “Where Something Wild Still Grows,” a telling lyric as he and fellow Iowa-bred songwriting troubadour Benson Ramsey turn in another fine collection of windswept, environmentally informed tunes reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Daniel Lanois-produced albums.
16. Har Mar Superstar, “Best Summer Ever”
Officially a local again, the real-life Sean Tillmann is officially uncategorizable on this decidedly varied, Julian Casablancas-produced collection. The album opens with a synth-tinged remake of a Louisiana swamp-pop song, rolls through several bouncy electro-pop tunes, then the showstopping soul ballad “How Did I Get Through the Day?” and a full-on punk-rock rager. There’s a deeper undertone throughout, about climbing out of a hole, and loving No. 1. (47 points)
17. (tie) The Blind Shake, “Celebrate Your Worth”
Brothers Mike and Jim Blaha keep their low-bottomed guitars cranked and crunchy, but they slow down the rhythms just a tad to delve into sludgier, psychedelic punk territory, reminiscent of the Stooges and Mudhoney. (46 points)
Fog, “For Good”
After focusing on his more straight-rocking band the Cloak Ox in recent years, esteemed mad scientist Andrew Broder revives Fog with the subversive sonic curve balls expected from past records — a burst of saxophone here, a warped vocal part there, scratchy rhythmic loops throughout. But he also offers an unexpected, dramatic personal tone that shows off his mad songwriting skills.
19. Mark Mallman, “The End Is Not the End”
The stunt man of Twin Cities rock ’n’ roll went out on a daring limb emotionally, turning a bout of loss and struggle into a mantra-filled collection that’s defiantly hopeful and encouraging. He added an ambitious, Arcade Fire-like, fist-pumping sonic flavor, too, with “Hole in the Night” and the title track especially sounding like arena anthems. (40 points)
20. Desdamona, “No Man’s Land”
The poetic, thought-provoking and sometimes backhandedly humorous feminist lyrics were a given, considering this Minneapolis rap legend’s history and the record’s long list of women guest vocalists, including PaviElle, the Lioness and Lydia Liza. More surprising was the fact that her first full-length in five years rocks so hard, eschewing the more electronic flavor of younger rappers for classic mayhem and power. (38 points)
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 that range from 10 points to 2 for ranked lists, or 5 apiece for unranked lists.