Our year-end list of favorite local records is hardly intended to be an authoritative representation of what has happened in Minneapolis’ music scene over the past twelve months: it’s the records we have listened to and connected with since over and over again, the ones we’ve worn out. Our favorite new records of the year…
Ripple by Panther Ray
While most doe-eyed shoegaze rock leaves us at a loss (or feeling old), Panther Ray is a band with which we’ve comfortably connected. This exceptionally talented quartet is one of the most reliably inventive pop groups in the Twin Cities, and their live sets are not to be missed. After re-inventing itself a couple times, the band has settled into a sound which hits the sweet spot between the MC5 and the Mamas and the Papas, touching on everything we love about sixties psych records and our hazy recollections of bands like Dinosaur Jr. Their label, the formidable Forged Artifacts, put forward “Get To You” as a single (and we do love guitarist Dan Ries’ work on that tune), but we prefer the ear-wormy “I Want You,” an addictive pop tune if ever there were one.
Survival of the Prettiest by Bruise Violet
We really love this trio, who we first met when they participated in one of She Rock, She Rock‘s all-girl punk rock jams, which we hosted throughout this past year. The intent of these events (which are sponsored by a 501(c)3 non profit) is to encourage female and female-identified musicians to feel safe expressing themselves in a supportive environment, and Bruise Violet‘s success this past year suggests we’re overdue to make most spaces — record stores, venues, wherever — just as welcoming.
With just five well-produced tracks in a sweet spot between grunge and punk rock, the only problem with Survival of the Prettiest is how quickly it has come and gone. Bruise Violet’s lyrics are a lot like riot grrrl rock and more than a little entertainingly aggressive. The difference is that they’re delivered with much more complex vocal arrangements — all three members sing and do it better than most punk rock bands. The trio has done so well they’ve even earned praise from a member of the band who inspired their name (Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland, whose 1992 album Fontanella had a classic single called “Bruise Violet”). That’s saying a lot.
Lonesome, Stoned and Drunk by Whiskey Jeff and the Beer Back Band
Our inclusion of Whiskey Jeff‘s album is entirely biased — we love this dude so much we released his record ourselves. He and his band have been regulars here at your friendly neighborhood record store for longer than we’d like to admit, and Lonesome, Stoned and Drunk is more than a labor of love to us: it’s also an awesome honky tonk country album. If that’s your thing — if you wish Porter Wagoner were still writing songs, or that Buck Owens were still out there on the road with the Buckaroos, this band is for you.
The Money’s Coming by Wizards Are Real
The most original instrumental rock band in the Twin Cities put out a new album this year, but it went entirely unnoticed. The Money’s Coming is the third release from Wizards Are Real, but it was released without the fanfare and hoo-hah which has become record release standard here in town because the band (bless ’em) put family first.
Wizards Are Real hasn’t had to reinvent the moon with each new record because the band is by definition iconoclastic. The Money’s Coming is just the next chapter in the band’s exploration of the outer rims of pop music.
Second Thursday by the Southside Aces
This year the Southside Aces celebrated their residency at our neighborhood’s Eagles Club with an album, Second Thursday, which featured songs the traditional jazz group has been performing on (you guessed it) the second Thursday of each month over more years we can recollect. While they’ve always featured classic jazz composers — commonly highlighting someone like Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller or Sidney Bechet for the evening — they’ve also introduced their own original tunes in the New Orleans jazz tradition.
A fine example is Tony Balluff’s “Little Duke,” which certainly swings as well as any classic, but also has the irresistible effervescence of Ellington’s 30s small group work. The band also has a sense of humor (highlighted in our pre-holiday post about “Santaphone”) — they’ve developed a loyal following with both traditional jazz purists and dancers. Both were out for their New Year’s Eve show at the Eagles’ last night, which will likely become a tradition.
Young Sunset by Rupert Angeleyes
Several years ago, one of our favorite local albums was You and Me, Ghost by Sleeping in the Aviary — it had this one song which we absolutely thought was the greatest thing to happen to our turntable since we got it a Superchunk sticker. That song (“Karen, Your an Angel”) was the first time we heard Kyle Sobczak. Sleeping in the Aviary is sadly no more, although our favorite records list of last year featured his bandmate Elliot Kozel’s new project, Tickle Torture. And with the release of Young Sunset, we learn altogether too late that Sobczak has had his own side project all along.
He’s admitted Rupert Angeleyes had not been promoted well. Three earlier releases are so overlooked that the label’s website mistakenly lists Young Sunset as his debut album. It is, certainly, his very best yet: we have fallen hard for this record like we did the first time we heard him on You and Me, Ghost.
Young Sunset is a brilliantly crafted tour of American pop. Sounds from bubble gum and Motown intermingle with the XTC/Guided by Voices influence familiar in Sleeping in the Aviary. Hearing the rockabilly shuffle of “Out of my Control” it seems as if Sobczak has figured out what Buddy Holly would sounded like if he’d lived long enough to be produced by Todd Rundgren. In fact, Runt would probably love the self-depreciating, humorous lyrics throughout Young Sunset, on which poor Rupert just doesn’t seem to catch a break. Except of course that he’s no longer overlooked: the LP is already sold out.
Stumpjumper by Charlie Parr
There’s never really any doubt that a new album by Charlie Parr is going to be a success, but Stumpjumper was sort of a gamble for Minnesota’s most beloved barefoot bluesman. Recorded in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the album (Charlie’s sixteenth or so, depending on how you’re counting them) the album is the first to feature a full band: pianos, electric guitar, fiddle, and — gasp! — drums. When we first heard we were as worried as we were over whether Star Wars would be any good in the hands of Disney, not out of any distrust of St. Paul’s venerable Red House Records, who released Stumpjumper, but out of feat the addition of drums would somehow turn Charlie commercial.
That, of course, will never happen. Charlie remains as independent as ever on the album, which doesn’t stray from his roots tradition which fits as well with anything on Yazoo Records as with Koerner, Ray and Glover. In fact, its hard not to think of Stumpjumper as Parr’s own Running, Jumping, Standing Still, (Koerner and Willie Murphy’s 1969 album which made the same gambit).
For all that has been written about Charlie Parr we’re surprised how often people overlook the depth of his songwriting. Over his largely out of print catalog his storytelling has increasingly been expressed in a distinctive parlance all his own. Here’s what Charlie once had to say about songwriting:
By the time Jubilee came around I was pretty comfortable with the way songs come to me and just letting them be what they wanted to be. I don’t have a lot to do with it sometimes. A song is going to be what it is and you’re just waiting to write it down.
Stumpjumper‘s eleven tracks sound a little different than Jubilee, but there is no change to the humor and insight which has made Charlie Parr one of the most popular musicians in Minnesota.
“Fire of Love” by L’Assassins
We don’t always include singles in our end of the year favorites list. The reason we’re making an exception for this new one from L’Assassins is pretty straightforward: we didn’t want to exclude it because the b-side, “Liar,” is our favorite local song from 2015. Every second of this song is awesome, from the organ lick (played by guest musician Chan Polling of the Suburbs) to the sudden ending, which just leaves you wanting to pick up the needle and play it again. And again. We’re starting to wear out our copy of this single.
Here’s hoping L’Assassins records an overdue full-length album in 2016!
Tied to the World Behind Me by Alex “Crankshaft” Larson
Another act which kept the New Year’s Eve crowd moving is Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders. They presented their “pork neck country” blend at Magillycuddy’s Basement Bash in Anoka last night. Crankshaft’s just-out album, Tied to the World Behind Me, takes a turn towards darker subjects than What You Gonna Do? (a favorite of ours in 2013) but has the same combination of blues and garage rock we love. What we love about this multi-talented sometimes-one-man-band musician who goes by Alex Larson by day is how well he puts them together.
And while Crankshaft sings about how “life lives hard ’til you’re boxed and charred” on Tied to the World Behind Me, and he has the scars to back it up, there’s some notably positive messages on the album. We especially love “Made to Race,” which he performed here at Hymie’s last year, and there’s a truly hilarious song about eating chili (“Eatin’ Chili”). Another awesome moment on the record is a smoldering duet with Davina Sowers called “Loose Cannon” which falls somewhere in between the two sides of Crankshaft.
Crankshaft brings together an enormous amount of talent on this album, which is absolutely the most beautifully packaged local record of the year. The gatefold jackets include a book of stunning artwork by Tiffany Smith connected to each track. The entirely analogue recording sounds explosive, and Larson’s production is absolutely perfect. In the end, what’s makes it all work so well is what a good songwriter he is. If your life were a movie and everything in it were impeccably awesome, this would be the band playing whenever you went to the neighborhood bar.
New Noir by Mystery Date
Piñata Records has promoted Mystery Date as “the best American power pop band since 1979,” and we’re not gonna dispute that claim. Especially not after New Noir was released early last year. The album was good enough to be named “Record of the Week” by Maximumrocknroll in March. Reviewer Kenny Kaos said it perfectly:
Like, this is Top 10 of 2015 material. This is pop music. And it’s punk and it’s new wave. It’s strangely catchy and poppy, while also a little bit eerie and dark. And this is going to sound a little corny, but it’s delivered with an honesty and sincerity and sense of urgency that can’t be faked.
One of the most fun rock trios we’ve ever had here at Hymie’s (check out this video of “Lightspeed Romance”), Mystery Date’s success comes in part from a genuine love for classic American power pop. Johnny Eggerman has started a new project, Private Interests, but we helped babysit for the drummer and couldn’t hear their first show — we’re hoping he won’t abandon Mystery Date because they absolutely nailed it with New Noir.
The Seven Secrets of Snow by Paul Fonfara and the Ipsifendus Orchestra
Paul Fonfara‘s album release show for Seven Secrets of Snow, a freshly finished mostly instrumental album which finds him backed by the Ipsifendus Orchestra, was one of our favorite live music experiences of the year. In addition to performing the album’s new compositions, Fonfara captivated the audience with a stunning performance of Eddy Arnold’s signature song, “Cattle Call,” and collaborated with legendary Americana songwriter Jim White. The one evening alone ought to make him one of the most awesome musicians in the Twin Cities, but Seven Secrets of Snow is far more than a souvenir.
Seven Secrets of Snow has become more and more a favorite for us each time we have listened to it. Our review of the album posted earlier this month focused on its jazz leanings and included comparisons to contemporary jazz composers, but what we realized during Fonfara’s performance at the Cedar Cultural Center was the extent to which the work — likely owing to its origin as a score for an as-yet-unfinished film — reflected the influence of late twentieth century classical composers. Fonfara’s eight original pieces are an amalgam of the minimal school and the Ipsifendus school. This latter, lesser known, would include members of several of the Twin Cities’ most talented groups: the Brass Messengers, the Poor Nobodys, Dreamland Faces, the Bookhouse Trio and Fonfara’s own Painted Saints. This draws in a comfortable base in eastern European folk traditions, but also a connection between Fonfara’s songs and the six fascinatingly mathematic string quartets of Bela Bartók, composed a generation before the minimals or Raymond Scott’s Secret Seven.
The Future Was a Long Time Ago by Chokecherry
The “little band that could” finally made the record we knew we’d hear one day: The Future Was a Long Time Ago was well worth the wait. We have loved Chokecherry for longer than we can remember — much longer than we have been taking care of your friendly neighborhood record shop. Just like Donnie & Marie, the band is “a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.” Probably more a combination of rockabilly and punk rock, to be specific. In our original review of the album we compared them to the 90s punkabilly band the Gr’ups.
We also suggested The Future Was a Long Time Ago is an album for the so-called “Great Recession.” Jon Collins has always been an insightful songwriter, touching on serious subjects without berating the listener. This album has some lighter moments, especially the songs sung by both Collins and fiddler Pam Laizure like “Salt and Ice” and the hilariously sad “Spent Your Best Years.” Within just a few weeks we knew every single line on this album and were singing along.
The Blind Shake
2015 was another over-worked, over-travelled, over-loud year for the Blind Shake, who are nothing short of the best punk rock band in the Twin Cities, even if they don’t know it. They might be one of the best bands in America. The iconic trio released not one, not two, not three … but four LPs this year, working with various labels and recording all around the country.
Live in San Francisco encapsulates the frantic energy of the band’s live sets, but leaves the filling-rattling volume up to the listener (warning: you will end up turning this album up and uP and UP). Modern Surf Classics is a collaboration which finds the Blind Shake backing post-punk legend Swami John Reis through thirteen inventive instrumentals which live up to the LP’s hyperbolic title. It is certainly the closest the Blind Shake will ever come to a party record.
The strangest, and ultimately most compelling Blind Shake project of the year leaves drummer Dave Roper behind and features the Blaha brothers as a duo in which the younger adds a modified drum kit to his baritone guitar for performances. Shadow in the Cracks (which they are sure to remind us so we’ll tell you now: is not the Blind Shake) is concept piece which presents the Blaha’s darkest inclinations, but really sticks to your ribs. And seems to invoke “Ghost Riders in the Sky” more than once.
The first of the four releases (we think — Fuck this band’s discography has become confusing!) is Fly Right, a 12″ EP released by Memphis’ Goner Records. It seems like a strange bedfellow to last year’s Breakfast of Failures, but its collection of tracks moving in seemingly unconnected directions is likely to be a fan favorite because it encapsulates the band’s inventive potential. We will not so begrudgingly buy four more releases by the Blind Shake next year if they make them, because this year’s haul was absolutely awesome.
As record collectors, we’re hoping this band will slow down next year, but we don’t imagine they will.
The songs throughout the triple album series are consistently catchy, balancing a Sandinista! range of studio experimentation with the more focused direction of an album like Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, to which we compared Lady President in February. There’s a definite sense of new wave rock to all three, from Television to Talking Heads, but Rank Strangers hardly sound stuck in the past.
Mike Wisti, who founded Rank Strangers twenty-five years ago, writes lyrics like Costello, dense and witty, but throughout these new albums without the cruelty we associate with dear old Declan. In fact, Lady President, Ringtones and The Box approach subjects from natural disasters to overthrowing the government with an almost child-like sense of wonder. These might be the only three albums of 2015 which had us poring over the lyric sheets.
We couldn’t pick a favorite of the three, owing in part to the clever interplay which connects them (for instance, each album features the title track of another). Ringtone‘s penultimate track is a theatrical reworking of the recurring song “The Lone Piranha” which we found highly memorable. Each album opens with a great pop tune, especially Lady President‘s “When the Pendulum Swings,” and each includes a track which comes from seemingly outside the box — “Global Warming” (on The Box) and “The Sound of Tools” (on “Ringtones”) are especially memorable songs, surely ranked with our favorites of the year.
No Luck by What Tyrants
We struggle to explain how Earth-shatteringly awesome we find this album to be, and end up just telling people that it “kicks ass.” So look — since you’re reading a record store’s blog (and not even a particularly fancy record store) we’ll assume you love rock and roll in some form or another. We might not all agree on which is the Kinks’ best album or whether or not the Velvet Underground without John Cale is really the Velvet Underground, but we all love rock and roll. It helps us deal with all the things in life that don’t rock.
What Tyrants fits fits Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark: “I know it when I see it.” And what we know, hearing the unbelievably kick-ass tour de force of No Luck, is that this band rocks. These tapes should have come with a warning label, because they’re addictive.
So that’s that. There’s tons of other incredible new local LPs, CDs, tapes and singles from 2015 — and we don’t assume our choice of favorites is in any way authoritative. Most years we come across records we regret not including. All the great artists here in town are one of the best parts about working in a record store in Minneapolis.