The Northland's best albums of 2009
If this list has snubbed any of your favorites, don't take it personally. Just remember: This is all one jerk's opinion. (On that, for more viewpoints, click on "What the Mayor and Other Northlanders Liked in '09.")
10. Ben Durbin's Modern Antiques - "Sweet Precious Time" (Passion Fruit Records)
Perfectly set to tape by Rich Mattson at his Sparta Sound studio on the Range, "Sweet Precious Time" shines on like a lost transmission from the days of Dada and Better than Ezra. You may not know Ben Durbin's Modern Antiques by name, but this four-piece Duluth band's songs are instantly recognizable -- not because you've necessarily heard any of them before, but, because they sound so mid-'90s, you feel as if you grew up listening to them.
A Great Place to Start: "Golden Ink"
9. Billy Southern - "El Chivato" (Self-Released)
"El Chivato" is similar to its predecessor, "Swamp Dog," in many regards: It rattles and hums like Charlie Parr's masterworks ("Old Tom Redd" in particular), it ingeniously melds sounds and words ("Baby What'd You Think?") and, while the backing instrumentation is top-notch -- like every other record that falls under the umbrella of "the Duluth sound" -- its songs would be just as winning in a power outage. In other words, if "Swamp Dog" was "the quintessential Duluth release," this one's even quintessentialer.
A Great Place to Start: "Three Lakes Road"
8. James Moors and Kort McCumber - "Moors & McCumber" (Self-Released)
The first taste we got of James Moors' collaborations with Colorado's Kort McCumber was the Superior singer/songwriter's "Hush." Well, a chunk of songs from that gorgeous album, which was released last year, are back for this collaborative effort. More than a simple rehash, the tracks were stripped down to their core and captured to tape with no overdubs. Like Moors' performances locally with Bill Francois, it makes for quite the intimate listening experience.
A Great Place to Start: "It's Alright"
7. Little Gray House - "Howlin' Moon" (Self-Released)
Say what you want about Marc Gartman and his proclivity for dispatching records like Mother Nature turns out seasons, but this creative workhorse even succeeds where he shouldn't. I'm referring to Little Gray House, a seemingly sporadic group consisting of fellow established artists (Sarah and Ben Johnson of Sassanach) and a trio of girls (Stephanie Tresidder, Crystal Glowacki and Sophie Karakatsoulis) with varying degrees of musicianship. But Gartman pulled it off; apparently he got things going for this experimental outfit -- reminiscent of both God Help the Girl and She & Him -- by writing some easier songs for the less-experienced players to learn.
A Great Place to Start: "Leave a Light On"
6. Old Knifey and the Cutthroats - Self-Titled (Self-Released)
Listening to the gin-soaked tales of these C&W hardliners' universe is like conversing with the dusty barfly whose book is as open as you want it to be: At first you feel guilty prying -- but damn if you can pull yourself away from each ensuing down-and-out song. The Cutthroat crew of Chris Kelly, Caleb Anderson and Adam "Old Knifey" Depre may stem from the same musical community that spawned acts like On King's Road and Medford, but you haven't heard anything like this before.
A Great Place to Start: "Best Wishes"
5. Saint Anyway - "Paper Town" (Self-Released)
What started as an informal two-man band formed to play a few shows has sure blossomed into something noteworthy. Cloquet guitar slingers Jamie Kallestad and Tony Petersen have a collective thirst to conquer the modern-folk scene, propelling Saint Anyway from just another regional coffee-shop act into something much more ambitious -- this despite the two friends going to different East Coast schools (Jamie at Yale in New Haven, Conn., and Tony at Boston's Berklee College of Music).
A Great Place to Start: "York Street, 2 a.m."
4. Bliss - "Beartraps and Landmines" (Blaze It Records)
As impressed as I was with Kritical Kontact's "Evolution of Revolution" last year, this solo effort from its most visible emcee is just as entertaining and thought-provoking. That isn't to say he didn't have a little help from his friends: Jaze and Legitimit, the other rappers in his main group, both guest on "Beartraps and Landmines"; set-to-explode local talent Just Some Cat produces half of this album's tracks; and buddy/labelmate Cannon can be found ripping it up here as well.
A Great Place to Start: "Music on the Radio"
3. Hobo Nephews of Uncle Franks - "Traveling Show" (Consider It Correspondence Music)
Before the Hobo Nephews Uncle Frank, the brothers Alexy didn't get too many opportunities to make music together, with Teague on the West Coast and Ian (who now resides in the Twin Cities) in New England. But now, with the release of the third Nephews studio album, it sounds as if they've been playing together since the days of G.I. Joes and Matchbox cars. The siblings' songwriting has never sounded so refined and, aided again by multitalented percussionist Paul Grill, they're making their mother as proud as the day they learned to walk.
A Great Place to Start: "Memphis in Your Head"
2. Marc Gartband - "I Am a Fool for You" (Self-Released)
Not only will I deem "I Am a Fool for You" very vital, I'm also going to go out on a limb for this underappreciated genius and say that, 50 years from now, it will be looked upon as a milestone in our fair city's rich recording legacy. I realize there is going to be a handful of naysayers out there who won't give this album the time of day -- Marc Gartman has bombarded the Electric Fetus' shelves with releases from No Wait Wait, the Gallows, Two Many Banjos, Little Gray House and Pale Horse and Rider, so a little backlash is to be expected -- but it's really their loss. While I don't want to go overboard in the cheerleading department, I will say that this album is sincerely triumphant.
A Great Place to Start: "The Blanket Night"
1. Cars & Trucks - "Mere Mortals" (Self-Released)
Speaking of triumphs, Cars & Trucks' sophomore effort is one of the most fully realized albums in recent memory. While it's nowhere as grandiose as it could've been -- frontman Tony Bennett envisioned a concept album similar to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" with linking interludes and a "flowing kind of narrative" -- it revolves around a central theme (death and dying) and loosely follows the stages of grief throughout its song cycle. And, oh yeah, it rocks as hard as anything Tony ever did with the Dames.
A Great Place to Start: "Too Bad So Sad"