Two of the acts behind these exemplary records from the first half of 2015 hail from Duluth, and three grew up and still live in south Minneapolis. One is best recognized from a network TV competition, another is erroneously known as just a cover band. Two of the albums are live collections, one an all-star benefit compilation. At least half of them were issued on vinyl, but one came out as a cassette. Don’t worry, though, Dad: A lot of them are available on CD, too.
Ashley DuBose, “Be You”
Coming from someone who got booted off NBC’s “The Voice” after singing a Train song, this album’s overarching theme to let your unique self shine truly resonates. DuBose’s own distinctive blend of neo-soul, modern R&B and classic pop plays out playfully. From the Rihanna-like grinder “Ride” to the acoustically strummed mantra “Chase It,” she always makes a point of having fun — but always has a point to make, too.
The Belfast Cowboys, “The Upside to the Downslide”
Defying the odds of a tribute band garnering respect, Terry Walsh and his horny ensemble put their decade-plus experience playing Van Morrison covers to good use. For one, they sound tighter than the marketing budgets at their main hangs Nye’s and Lee’s. They nail the handful of Van the Man deep cuts, especially the hard-grinding “I’ve Been Working.” Best of all, Walsh pours his heart and soul out in original tracks such as the slowly buoyant “Looking for the Northern Lights” and “Rock Band,” the latter a simple but perfect summation of what makes this record so great.
BNLX, “Good Light”
Who needs those Stone Roses, New Order and Jesus & Mary Chain reunion tours in Minneapolis, anyway, when we have BNLX. Frontman Ed Ackerson (ex-Polara) and his wife Ashley Ackerson (Mood Swings) left behind the lo-fi charm of their earlier EPs, added a drummer and extra guitarist and put the full power of Flowers Studio — plus a good chunk of their Brit-rock-heavy record collection — behind a full-length collection that at times purrs coolly, whirs gorgeously and roars enormously.
Charlie Parr, “Stumpjumper”
It could’ve been the record that Parr purists hated: the solitary, rustic acoustic blues/folk hero working with a sizable record label (St. Paul’s Red House Records), a reputable indie-rock producer (Megafaun’s Phil Cook) and even — gasp! — a band. But “Stumpjumper” is the Duluth vagabond’s most consistent collection yet, the extra musical accompaniment always tasteful and never a distraction from the songs. Ah, the songs. Parr variously pulls from his vast travels abroad and family tales from home for inspiration, whether it’s the harrowing folk epic “Frank Miller Blues” or the simple but beautiful gospel send-off “Remember If I Forget.”
Erik Koskinen, “Live at the Real-Phonic Radio Hour”
Take out the unavoidably distractive allure of St. Paul’s immaculate James J. Hill Reference Library — where Koskinen leads the house band every month for the “Real-Phonic” shows — and you’re liable to be equally mesmerized by the ornate musical qualities of one of the best live acts in town. The Upper Peninsula-bred picker and fellow guitar ace Paul Bergen trade off enough tasty licks over the 15 tracks to qualify the album as a college course in twang picking. Koskinen’s songs tower like library stacks, too, part John Hiatt and part James McMurtry.
Freez and Mike Frey, “Freez’s Frozen French Freys”
“Being the son of a base-head was really no fun.” Lines like that, at once starkly dramatic yet cool-headedly flip, define the long-awaited full-length from Illuminous 3 rapper Freez, a known local battler in his teens who’s writing about life’s battles in his late 20s. Songs like the hustling-weary “On Da Grind” and the family saga “Survival” are spiked with humor despite their serious tone, which suits the playful yet soulful sound of Frey’s vintage beats.
Mary Bue, “Holy Bones”
Heretofore more of a tender coffeehouse balladeer, the Duluth music scene mainstay plugged in and blew off a harbor’s worth of steam while recording her breakthrough collection at Sacred Heart Studio (which adds a “holy” spirit to many a record). Fans of ’90s alt-rock darlings like Belly and Jen Trynin will immediately take to the rocky hooks of songs like “Candy” and “Heart’s Desire.” Bue’s ghost-confronting, demons-wrestling lyrics seep in more slowly but prove similarly alluring.
Sonny Knight & the Lakers, “Do It Live”
I could’ve told you back in December this one would be on this list, having attended the first of four Dakota Jazz Club sets that make up the record. The Dakota’s sometimes stuffy vibe was blown wide open the moment the 66-year-old soul man bit into “Juicy Lucy” to start the live sessions. His younger backers — wrapping a year of steady gigging — built momentum all night, cleverly reworking Leadbelly and Beatles covers before cutting loose in the funky horn section workouts “Cave Man” and “Hey Girl.” The results sound timeless and tireless.
Strange Relations, “-Centrism”
“Wish I could slip inside your moods,” Strange Relations singer/drummer Casey Sowa sings deep into her trio’s full-length debut. By then, the band has gone through more mood swings than a kindergarten class, from the Bikini Kill-like brat-punk of “Panther Conquest” to the Beach House-style whir-pop of “Distraction” to the Wire-y art-rock jangle of “You Talk.” Too much? No way. Can’t wait to hear more.
“Voice: Songs for Those Who Are Silenced”
Where most benefit compilations with “various artists” are way too varied, this fundraiser album for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s “Girls Are Not for Sale” campaign is cohesive by design: All 18 tracks were sung a cappella. Some participants looped their vocals for harmonious effect (Chris Koza, Dessa, Haley Bonar). Some sang as naked as a newborn (Robert Robinson, the Ericksons, John Hermanson, Holly Hansen). None used instrumental accompaniment or forgot the dire cause at hand. Gives new meaning to “raw power.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658
HEar the best of 2015 (so far)
Online: Hear select tracks from the mid-year album roundup at startribune.com/ variety/music.
Radio: Riemenschneider joins 89.3 the Current’s “The Local Show” on Sunday (6-8 p.m.) to spin and discuss the albums.