No, Lizzo is not on this list. The Minneapolis-reared “Juice”-maker has showed up on just about every other midyear best-of tally, but she neither lived nor worked in Minnesota during the making of her third full-length album, “Cuz I Love You.” Prince, on the other hand, was still rocking out at the old Purple House in Chanhassen when most of the newly unearthed tracks on his “Originals” collection were recorded.
More than ever, though, this list is about celebrating the non-superstars in our midst who are keeping the art of album-making alive.
The Cactus Blossoms, “Easy Way”
As if out to prove they’re more than just a couple of pretty voices — but oh, those sibling harmonies could still make a Russian mafia goon swoon — Minneapolis natives Jack Torrey and Page Burkum mixed things up from the vintage Everly Brothers sound that’s made them almost famous. There’s a lot of posh, playful, neo-twang guitar work with help from third brother Tyler Burkum and Jacob Hanson in peppier tunes such as “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy,” while down-and-out numbers such as “Boomerang” and “See It Through” show off a deeper-blue hue and richer songwriting.
Sam Cassidy, “Running Blind”
Like a modern-day Cormac McCarthy novel funneled through Neil Young and My Morning Jacket tunes, the Minneapolis Americana rocker’s ambitious, gritty concept album tells the story of a robbery through the different characters involved, none of whom is getting much out of life. Adding more drama on top of Cassidy’s rich, hardened voice and his band’s crescendoing power, songs such as “Struggle” might also have a thing or two to do with trying to make it in the music biz.
Dizzy Fae, “No GMO”
“I got somewhere to go,” the 20-year-old St. Paul native sings in “Lifestyle,” one of the more upbeat and poppy tunes on her unique and often eerily grooving second mixtape. The first of two collections on this list with Stand4rd and Young Thug producer Psymun’s subterranean stylings (see also: Dua Saleh), it alternates between a futuristic, sultry R&B zone and chillier electro-soul vibes, like a cross between Janelle Monáe and the XX. It sounds as if Dizzy Fae is still deciding which way to go musically, but there’s a take-me-with-you zeal.
Eleganza!, “Full Length”
After six steamrolling years of rowdy, raucous live shows following the demise of his prior group Chooglin’, Twin Cities garage-rock vet Brian Vanderwerf finally got his vaguely bluesy, lightly twangy, entirely visceral rock band down on record this year and didn’t disappoint. There’s an early ’70s Stones swagger in “Alabama Bound” and “Man on the Move,” early ’80s Replacements snarl and snot in “Big City Filth” and a timeless raw power throughout.
Nur-D, “Songs About Stuff”
Rapping about video games, comic books and insecurities instead of the usual macho braggadocio — yep, he’s a bit nerdy — Matt Allen probably hews closer to the average hip-hop fan than 99% of the other male rappers out there. His full-length debut boasts upper-percentile flow and wordplay skills, though (opening track “Tyler Breeze” is true to its name), with solid melodic hooks to boot (especially “You Got Me”). Playful hints of gospel and messages of self-love abound, too: part Chance and part Lizzo.
J.S. Ondara, “Tales of America”
Easily the most accessible record in this tally — it’s genuinely hard to think of anyone not liking this golden-voiced Kenya native and his wistful, romanticized folk-pop songs — Ondara’s debut album for the legendary Verve label is minimally produced and earnest to the max — kind of like the first few records by that bard from Hibbing whose influence brought Ondara to Minnesota. Songs like the Van Morrison-jazzed “Lebanon” and dramatic heart-beater “Saying Goodbye” will sound as good in 2039 as they do in 2019.
It pales in quality to the material he put out under his own name during this era (1981-91), but this collection of Prince versions of his songs for other artists is undeniably fun, like a version of “Name That Tune” where the answers are the performers who originally released the tunes (from cohorts Sheila E. and the Time to the Bangles, Sinéad O’Connor and even Kenny Rogers). A few cuts are genuine keepers, including a more tender take on “Manic Monday,” the all-piano-and-falsetto “Noon Rendezvous” and the just plain cool “Baby, You’re a Trip.”
Dua Saleh, “Nur”
One of Minnesota’s unlikeliest hit records is this chilled-out five-song debut by a Sudanese-born, St. Paul-raised singer/rapper who was known only as a poet a year ago. Playfully produced by Psymun with creative help from Mike Frey, the EP is a sonic jigsaw puzzle, with cavernously airy beats and snaky vocals. But it’s even more jagged and complex lyrically, whether the nonbinary Saleh is tackling gender identity in “Albany” or simply trying to be Power Rangers-strong in the fantastical childhood ode “Kickflip.”
Sass, “Chew Toy”
In the growing (and welcome) trend of young rockers born in the ’90s sounding like bands from the ’90s, former Tony Peachka member Stephanie Jo Murck excitedly melds loud-quiet-loud, reverb-soaked guitars and bittersweet melodies on her new band’s full-length debut. Echoes of Sebadoh fill the fuzzed-out gem “Spoiled by Rotten,” and the heart-tattered title track would have been a big one in the old Sub Pop singles club. There’s even some Sunny Day Real Estate-like noodling in “Freshwater Pearls” and several other cuts. Have no fear, though, the songs still come in at three minutes or less in keeping with kids-these-days short attention spans.
Katy Vernon, “Suit of Hearts”
Don’t let the ukulele fool you. The ambitious third album by this London-reared, Minnesota-married singer/songwriter offers a lot more than lighthearted, softly strummed living-room folk, including the title track’s galloping orchestral-pop vibe and the full-on disco groove of “Latest Disaster.” It’s a pretty deep set lyrically, too, as Vernon revisits her Welsh roots and late mom’s shadow in “Somebody’s Daughter’s Daughter”; wrestles with being a parent herself through “In Your Shoes”; and does her own bit of growing up toward a healthier, happier lifestyle — one befitting a ukulele singer.