A disclaimer: We chose to start our list with Ben Weaver’s I Would Rather Be A Buffalo because it would feel disingenuous to leave it out, let alone place it anywhere farther down the list, since it was released by Hymie’s Records in October. Full disclosure: an employee here at Hymie’s is a partner in the label which released three additional albums on this list, and we contributed to a several others, whether through (ugh) kickstarter or direct donation to the band. We helped press another record on this list, and hosted the release show for yet one more.
We learned a Russian word this year, vzaimopomosch, which sort of translates to “mutual assistance” and feels sort of apt in this situation. Participating in the Twin Cities varied and vibrant music scene has been the biggest reward for running a record store, not having first pick from each musty box of dinosaur rock. We wouldn’t for a moment pretend our list is a definitive cross-section of new music here in Minnesota, because there are more new albums than we could even count, many of which we have never heard. These are the records which have become favorites here in your friendly neighborhood record shop…
20 – I Would Rather Be A Buffalo by Ben Weaver
I Would Rather Be A Buffalo was recorded live to tape in a barn. You’ll hear the birds and the breeze underneath its nine stark songs, and there are no overdubs or mixing. Its sparse production provides the perfect setting for Ben Weaver, who in his eighth and best-yet collection of new songs is “looking for the last blank space on the map.” In writing about our inspiration to begin releasing records ourselves (here), we compared this theme in I Would Rather Be A Buffalo to a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Nature, in which the great American philosopher and poet praises the restorative power of our relationship to the natural world. Weaver finds that connection fracturing in I Would Rather Be A Buffalo, although by the album’s conclusion hasn’t really prescribed a solution. The album is more about removing oneself from society than returning to nature, and in that becomes as tragic as it is beautiful.
19 – Original Face by Little Man
Our review of the debut album by Chris Pericelli’s Little Man posted in April (here) called the album “a solid rock and roll romp,” but also compared it to a thirteenth century Japanese poet, Eihei Dōgen, and a 90s fanzine writer, Dishwasher Pete. While Perciella plays like Marc Bolan and sings like David Lee Roth, the potentially cartoonish collusion comes together comfortably to support his nods to zen philosophy, self-realization and self-loss. Original Face is an album one can enjoy on conflicting levels: the sensual and the cerebral.
18 – XXX and The Mercury Blues by Patty and the Buttons
Fifteen years ago, when PBS aired Ken Burn’s nine-part documentary, Jazz, we were appalled by its rigid, neo-classicist attitude. Eight episodes were devoted to the history of America’s greatest art form up until 1960, and only one to the extraordinary works written and recorded since. Watching Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins describe something so vibrant and inspiring as though it were a lost relic turned us off to traditionalism for years — It took local musicians like Patrick Harison, who we recently described as a muppet (here), to remind us that traditional music is not a museum piece but an ongoing communication between the past and the present. Patty and the Buttons‘ second full-length disc, The Mercury Blues, adds to the conversation by introducing several new numbers which fit beautifully with songs nearly a century old. The album also introduces Patty’s pedal steel work and the band’s interest in the role of Hawaiian music in the first half of the last century. They also produced an underground release (packaged in a brown paper bag) of traditional tunes with, um, unseemly themes. Folks was dirty as far back as the thirties. Our favorite was the Buttons’ dry revival of Harry Roy’s 1931 song, “My Girl’s Pussy.” The disc closed with the dirtiest of all old-time songs, Lucille Bogan’s “Shave Em Dry,” where the Buttons are accompanied by Jack Klatt and a New Orleans band, the Drunken Catfish Ramblers. We endorsed this disc (here) for purely artistic reasons, not to encourage Patty and others to make more recordings of hokum blues favorites that Ken Burns would surely find shocking and offensive.
17 – Ain’t Nothin’ New by Mary Allen & the Percolators
In the beginning rock & roll was fun, and there were folks like Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Wanda Jackson to keep it that way — this is all before the Beatles and all the boring shit that followed, wrenched every ounce of fun to the floor with one pretension after another. If you’ve never felt the draw of rockabilly, soul or punk rock, you’re unlikely to enjoy Mary Allen & the Percolator‘s debut, Ain’t Nothin’ New and you’ll probably prefer Paul McCartney’s latest, New — but you’d be the first person to purchase it in an un-ironic way. Meanwhile, this Minneapolis band had been killing it in dive bars for long enough to know how to work a crowd to a frenzy, and Ain’t Nothin’ New pushes their attitude into your living room and earbuds with passion. The album drops the covers which accent their live sets and nods to the bands roots (like their killer use of “In the Basement” as an opener) but their originals like “Whiplash” and “Tiger City USA” are worth the trade. “Grass” is a raunchy reminder of lost late-era San Francisco sound bands like Grootna, and “Swamp Thing” is theatrical fun Howlin’ Wolf would love. Ain’t Nothin’ New is raucous and raw rock and roll, not for the faint of heart but invigorating for those of us who appreciate the reminder.
16 Ink No Ink by the Poor Nobodys
The Poor Nobodys are one of the most talented but totally unclassifiable bands in the Twin Cities, original as ever on their fourth full-length, Ink No Ink. The record opens with a mournful accordion piece several folks here at Hymie’s have mistaken for the Dreamland Faces before launching into one of the most vibrant tunes they’ve ever recorded, “Thousand, Thousand,” which sounds like the score to a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film filtered through Rain Dogs. The record continues to explore exotic settings with the same combination of the morose and the mysterious — each song on Ink No Ink could be the introduction to an entirely new album just as likely as the soundtrack to some surreal dream. The band has always been more interested in theatrical productions and live performance than recording, which we mentioned in our review (here) but you wouldn’t guess so hearing Ink No Ink, which has a cohesive quality missing from their two earlier full-lengths (the third was a soundtrack). “Thousand, Thousand” and the title song have an air of intrigue and adventure (in the first this is accentuated by a baritone guitar played by Albert Perez), and in the evocative waltz “Hologram” we feel a sense of suspense, the unpredictable nature of the escapade hosted by this septet. Our favorite tune is the long and captivating closer, “Hymn,” an instrumental which places Christopher Duba’s mandolin along Wyse’s accordion to offer bright hints to the magic just below the surface.15 Spectrophilia by Tickle Torture
Spectrophelia is a world apart from the “make-out music” tag we put on Bain’s debut release last week (here). Even Prince, whose Art Official Age hardly disappointed fans this year, seems tame these days compared to Tickle Torture’s “Fuck Me With the Lights On.” The Artist is far from a unfamiliar influence in “Fuck Me” and the after-hours awakening “Maybe I Need to Go Home,” but what works best on this thirty-minute EP is Tickle Torture’s synthesis of earlier electronic funk and later neo-soul. The sexiest moments on Spectrophelia are its slowest, like the closing jam “You’re Gonna be my Baby,” but what really sticks is what’s most subtly suggestive, especially “Would I Love You.” Hearing this stunned our dancefloor queen friend because he was certain, certain, he’d gotten down to it back in the day.
14 – Iced Over by Tree Party
Our only complaint about Tree Party’s survey of our state’s local legends was its brevity (here‘s our review from January). After meeting characters such as Helmer Aavik, the old man who battled the inland sea, and the “Root Beer Lady” of the Boundary Waters, we’d just as soon Joey Ford continue to take us around our home, the 38th state in the Union, and school us on the stories we’ve never heard. We hoped for a sequel and still do: Ford does it so damn well, crafting stories about these characters which fit smoothly into his band’s sublime synthesis of 50s rock and western music. “Wrinkle Meat” has a walking beat, and “Burl Sylvester” is praised with a bonafide town-square romp only Minnesota could produce. The story of “Charlie,” the ghost who haunts Pipestone’s Calumet Inn, is delivered with such achingly empathetic beauty we wish someone out there would play it for Paul Anka. The most magical thing about this ambitious album is how Tree Party takes its vintage-tinged sound and a series of even-older stories to create something superbly, vibrantly new.
13 – Set Fire to the Mountain by Nightosaur
Nightosaur’s shirtless live sets and devotion to the classic metal sound might deter one from taking the band seriously, but there’s no denying their commitment to creating a solid soundtrack for headbanging. When we first reviewed Set Fire to the Mountain (here), we said it “filled a hole in our hearts and in our record collection.” Their first album as a trio and their first issued on LP, it takes a more serious tone with tighter arrangements which both simmer and thrash with unabashed sincerity. The epic title track is the most dynamic, theatrical piece they’ve produced, a life-size realization of the little epics they’ve been creating since “Thunder Lizard” on Black Blood of the Earth three years ago. The record’s hook-heavy headbanging in “Devourer” and “Skeleton Key” are the highlight. We could offer no bigger compliment to this band than the fact that since this fall’s reissue of the early Iron Maiden catalog, we’ve still preferred Nightosaur on those days we’re feeling dark and heavy.
12 – Crow Call
Our review of this self-titled debut back in June (here) praised its grace, simplicity and confidence, quoting from Marcel Marceau, who may have first quipped, “It’s the note you don’t play that make all the difference.” In forming Crow Call with guitarist Peter Ruddy, Ellie Bryan has found a fitting match for her rich, heady voice and driven banjo playing. Friends who have performed with Spider John Koerner tell us his idiosyncratic rhythms are hard to get into, but Bryan and Ruddy seem to be of the same unique mindset throughout this disc, which often has the same qualities. Ruddy ranges from a convincing slide guitar on “In the Pines” to the atmospheric, otherworldly style of Robbie Basho on the duo’s originals. The disc accents the dark original songs like the haunting “Your Ghost” with sensitive treatments of standards sure to please fans of local revivalists like Charlie Parr or Corpse Reviver.
A little plastic tambourine made for a magical moment at the release show for Black Diet’s debut album, which doubled as our block party here at Hymie’s, when a rockin’ toddler played along with Jonathan Tolliver just as the inevitable rainfall arrived (we posted about it recently here). Everything about this band was just as inspiring this year –and everything their debut album Find Your Tambourine struck the same magical chord with fans of the band’s infectious live sets, especially Tolliver’s dynamic performances. The sextet is in sharp form throughout the short album, especially guitarist Mitch Sigurdson, whose subtle contribution distinguish the band in its best tracks, the near-sanctified “You Did it to Yourself” and the seventies-seeped “Thrown Stones.” Tolliver runs the range with his rich tenor, from the disc’s bold opener through the dynamic re-recording of their debut Piñata single, “You Did it to Yourself” to the single, “Nothing to Say,” which became a Radio K favorite this spring.
10 – Live at Ed’s by Mike Munson & Mikkel Beckmen
This live album from Ed’s No Name Bar in Winona has been a house favorite here at Hymie’s for months. Ironically, it was recorded at the release show for Mike Munson’s debut disc. We’ve always maintained live albums have a magic lost in studio recordings, and Munson’s too-good-to-be-true slide guitar and wry delivery give cuts like the opener “Rattle Can Black” an irresistible swagger. His songs are often mistaken for Charlie Parr’s, which carries a lot of weight around here at Hymie’s –this disc brings bluesies to the counter asking what they’ve been hearing and gets just about everyone else interested. Even the laziest numbers on Live at Ed’s provide a showcase for Munson and virtuoso percussionist Mikkel Beckmen — the six-minute slow drag of “Over Now” in the center showing no slack and offers no rest for your hips, knees and feet. The third party in this performance, the crowd at Ed’s that September evening, makes itself most heard halfway through “Good Gal Said,” in which Munson has been listing all the people who tell him to “quit his guitar playin’.” When Beckmen begins pounding a tambourine before the third chorus the crowd roars its approval. We feel it.
9 – Wicked Sun by Narco States
Why more people haven’t discovered this band is entirely outside of our understanding of pop music, considering Narco States is surely one of the most incendiary live bands in the Twin Cities (if you’re planning a party for us, the other two acts we’d pick would be Mary Allen & the Percolators and the Blind Shake). Our experience is that anyone who gives them a fair listen becomes a fan — it’s not hard to see why because their irresistible sound is seeped as deep in psychobilly sensibilities as in the Minnesota garage tradition of old Soma, Garrett and Bangar 45s. Wicked Sun, their debut full-length, allows the quintet to stretch into extended psych jams like “Jeckyl and Hyde” and the album’s title song, while allowing plenty of space for explosive rockers like “Lost in Time” and “Amputated.” Michael Macblane-Meyer doesn’t disappoint in his role as frontman in the good ol’ Stooges tradition, but its guitarist Nate McGuire who holds Wicked Sun together, rooting his role in 60s Bay Area psychedelia while the rest of the band pushes both inland and into the future.
8 – Machista by Buffalo Moon
Buffalo Moon‘s second album, Selva Surreal, was our favorite record of 2011, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a copy around in spite of its widespread praise because, by drummer Jonathan Wetzler’s own admission, “we’re not good at business.” The band split for leader Karen Freire’s hometown, Guayaquil, for the summer following the album’s truly surreal release show at Hell’s Kitchen, and became an unpredictable act to follow after they returned. By the time the long-labored Machista was released this past January, they’d shed two members and become somewhat of strangers in the local scene which should have welcomed them as one of its most original acts. Now in Brooklyn, Freire’s Buffalo Moon isn’t a local band any longer, but Machista, recorded by the original quintet belongs in any collection of Minnesota essentials. The album continues their progression from Wetsuit‘s boozy, hazy samba-pop through the psychedelic latin jazz of Selva Surreal, while shaking off their bossa nova base. Freire approaches latin machismo from several directions, including bitterness in the awesome, catchy “Liar” co-written with bassist Sarah Darnell and unrequited love for an Argentine twice her age in “Luiggi.” Its summed up tidily in the album’s explosive opening title track, but it hardly salves the real heartbreaker, which is that we won’t hear more from these five.
7 – Sonder by Hanan
This instrumental debut struck like a bolt of lightning here at Hymie’s, quickly becoming a favorite local listen after Hanan played a performance here with Echo’s Answer from Minot (we first posted it in October here). The heaviest passages on Sonder have the manic drive of memorable King Crimson and Yes moments, while its overarching ambient expressions hold the energy in check — the most rewarding moments for an active listener are where the conflicting impulses conjoin, as in the sonically magic “Parsimony” and “Pay Attention.” Not only is Sonder the band’s first release, but its the first release for Inspirus Records, a project we hope to watch grow in 2015.
6 – Old as the Stars by Gabe Barnett
When we reviewed this album at the end of April (here), we wrote that “something really great is happening in the Twin Cities recently — folks aren’t merely reviving traditional music, they’re reinventing it.” Six months later we’re at the Heights Theater for Patty and the Buttons’ release show for their new album (see #18), which was presented as a classic vaudeville show and became a ‘who’s who’ of the Twin Cities traditional music scene. We said howdy from everyone from Dakota Dave Hull to Dan Newton (aka accordion legend Daddy Squeeze), and sat next to no less a local luminary than our pal Jack Klatt. No surprise then, that just a couple rows down we’d recognize Gabe Barnett, who has become sort of a nexus in this scene whether or not he knows it. You could probably play a variation of the “Six Steps to Kevin Bacon” game with Barnett’s band, connecting the bandleader to nearly every country, folk, blues or old time act in town. This is one of the two things which makes Old As the Stars such as successful album — the other is Barnett himself, who tells new stories in old forms as confidently as he tells old stories in new forms. The disc blends blues, jug band music and old time rogue punk into a milieu ironically best expressed in “The Modern World.” Old Aa the Stars is not a debut record for him, but for us it felt like an introduction to the larger world he could, and will, create.
5 – Pangaea by Toki Wright and Big Cats
“Its hard to simplify the mind moving a thousand miles an hour, but I tried,” says Toki Wright, after a forty-five minute marathon in which the MC has contemplated everything from the consequences of continental drift to the familial cost of the foreclosure crisis. Pangaea is political, polemic and personal, and Wright’s insight finds its match in the signature slow beats and smooth sounds of Big Cats’ production, which is drawn entirely from live performances ranging from Bomba de Luz’s Lydia Liza and Graham O’Brien, the dynamic drummer of No Bird Sing. Together Wright and Big Cats deliver party jams like “Overhead” and “You Know” with confidence and drive, and heavy pieces like “Gatekeepers” with stunning mastery of their craft. “Permanent” is built on a steady groove and a simple sentiment: “I like what you’re working with.” No other new album we heard this year had so much depth as Pangaea, which sounds and resounds like a record from hip hop’s golden era, or rewarded our ears and minds so reliably with each listen.
4 – Amoratorium by Brian Laidlaw
At the end of Nicolás Echevarríais’s 1991 film about Cabeza de Vaca, the sixteenth century shipwreck who’s narrative has inspired generations, the hero listens to a companion captivate a barroom with tall tales of their adventure. “Why don’t we tell the true story?” he asks. We recalled this recently, listening to Brian Laidlaw‘s book & record study of 30s outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, which stumbles a fine line between aching romance and blasphemous realism with wrenching agility. What a listener could take from the tortured end of Amoratorium might be the album’s correlations between the Great Depression and our time, or the uncertain confidences we invest in such struggles, but instead it becomes an inspiring love story which couldn’t be translated to the screen. Its far too honest for Hollywood. Our review last month (here) focused on how Laidlaw explored the mythology which surrounds Bonnie and Clyde, but one could enjoy its seven extended songs without knowing Barrow from Beatty, simply for the innate sincerity of “Will Our Love” the tragic romance of its slow closer, “Not a Drill,” and the young man’s angst in “The Way That I Was Made” and the epic “The Family Trade.” Is it for everyone? No, unfortunately we’re pretty sure you have to resent where you’re coming from and where you’re going.
3 – Southside Desire
So many of our favorite stories start in the shadow of some untold history, and the mystery is what keeps us listening or reading. Soul music has been uniquely successful in telling such stories from a female perspective, and our review of Southside Desire’s second album (posted here) suggested Marvel Devitt is one of the Twin Cities’ best songwriters for this reason. She’s fortunate to be be backed by a band which can cook soul stew six ways, and singers which can smolder until the flames are needed. Rhythm & blues has become big in the Twin Cities this past year, with new groups and folk-singers turned soul-singers and old veterans all releasing new LPs — no others have the substance of those sought-after soul singles from the sixties. There’s not a song on this LP which would sound out of place alongside a set of treasured and rare 45s. Devitt and her southside crew bring an understanding and this album brims with substance, showing the courage it takes to tell a good tale in a tune, whatever kind of music you’re playing. There’s a apocryphyal legend about Charlie Parker, who was known to pump coins into the jukebox of his favorite dives, picking country and honky tonk records. When asked why he chose “that stuff” by an acolyte, the legendary jazzman replied, “It’s the stories man. Listen to the stories.”
2 – Breakfast of Failures by the Blind Shake
Grass never grows under the feet of this venerable Minneapolis trio, whose touring and recording schedule seems as driven by the double-time demons as most of their songs. The Blind Shake hardly slowed a step in 2014, and with Breakfast of Failures hit their stride like never before. The album is more cohesive than last year’s Key to a False Door (on our favorites list last December) by taking a leap in the same direction, integrating slower arrangements and increasingly bold guitar-noise experiments into the frantic rage which mysteriously drives the band. For the first time its the slower songs which work best: the booming title track, which pushes itself into the classic Blind Shake piece “Go Lie,” and “Dots in the Fog,” which we’ll certainly one day find on The Blind Shake’s Greatest Hits. For the time being, Breakfast of Failures surly bodes well for a band with two albums in the works for 2015.
1 – American Theater by Erik Koskinen
So many things work so well on American Theater, Erik Koskinen’s first album in years: especially Koskinen himself, delivering thoughtful, original songs with swagger, sincerity and at times the dedicated, detached drawl of Lou Reed. The Star Tribune‘s Chris Riemenschneider described American Theater as an album which would make Merle Haggard proud (here), but it is very much about pressures unique to Gen Xers, something we came to slowly realize writing our original review back in May (posted here). “American Theater,” we wrote, “is about the war which is both figurative and real and which has been happening on the outskirts for years. It’s about the landscape of this ‘theater of war’ we’re living in — ‘The good times really are gone,’ Koskinen sang in another song on Keep it to Yourself four years ago.” Our nerves are worn to exhaustion by forced anxiety over one nebulous nightmare after another, who we’re assured we are ‘at war with’: drugs, AIDS, terrorism, ebola. It doesn’t matter. We’re just exhausted and looking for a direction, but once in a while, like the lucky blind squirrel, we find an acorn.