Anonymous Choir — ‘After the Gold Rush’
Nona Marie Invie of the baroque indie-folk troupe Dark Dark Dark led her 10-member women’s choir through a track-for-track remake of Neil Young’s 1970 classic album last year at Duluth’s Sacred Heart church-turned-studio. The results have a holy and hallowed vibe but aren’t so worshipful that they miss making their own mark — like how “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” sounds extra fragile, and “Southern Man” somehow seems darker.
Atmosphere — ‘Southsiders’
After getting too touchy-feely on the last album, Slug returns to harder-edged tunes without sacrificing his personal touch. Even the rowdy love song “Kanye West” has a dark undercurrent, to say nothing of the riveting, mortality-pondering “January on Lake Street” and the overdue but not-overstated Eyedea tribute “Flicker.” Almost half this disc stacks up with the group’s very best.
K. Raydio & Psymun — ‘LucidDreamingSkylines’
Imagine Erykah Badu making music with DJ Spooky at 3 in the morning, and you might get a clearer idea of the dreamy soul and blurry, atmospheric urban grooves blended together on this duo’s aurally lush full-length debut. K.’s candle-warm singing voice and laid-back, fluid rapping style float like lava-lamp liquid in such standouts as the romantic slow-jam “Sweet Dreamz” and the Greg Grease collaboration “Lobby Music.” These are some seriously good good-vibes.
Sonny Knight & the Lakers — ‘I’m Still Here’
Newly popular at age 65, revived soul man Knight sings with the energy and enthusiasm of a young buck making his first record, whether it’s the hard-blasting “Hey Girl” or the title track, a slow-stewing, Curtis Mayfield-like opus. Conversely, his younger backers provide a funky backbone that suggests they’ve been gigging together for decades. Side note: Their release party at First Ave was also one of the best shows of the year so far.
Erik Koskinen — ‘America Theatre’
Having already proven his prowess as a stylish alt-twang guitarist with the likes of Dead Man Winter and Molly Maher, this Upper Peninsula-bred Midwest hillbilly keeps on licking the strings while reiterating his songwriting skills. The smart, gritty, modern-day oil-rush epic “Boomtown” contrasts with the not-so-smart but irresistible slacker anthem “Six Pack of Beer and a Pack of Cigarettes,” variously echoing the likes of Greg Brown and James McMurtry.
MaLLy — ‘The Colors of Black’
“My skin is my sin,” south Minneapolis native Malik Watkins provocatively raps in his third full-length album’s bleak opening track, “Two Worlds,” about attending a mostly white private school on a low-income tuition. It’s one of several songs that powerfully underscore his grade-A personal story, but the best stuff here also reiterates that MaLLy is no saint. He turns wild-eyed and raunchy in “Hold My Tongue” and “Machine Gun” in ways that earn him a spot on the honor roll of local MCs.
Jeremy Messersmith — ‘Heart Murmurs’
Signing to Glassnote Records and playing to bigger rooms pushed Minneapolis’ sensitive-guy folk-pop star to turn it up literally and figuratively on his fourth record. He piled on the extra sonic touches like a baker layering a cake in the strings-swirled opener “It’s Only Dancing” and the rockishly operatic penultimate track “Hitman.” He also turned on a wry and warped, Magnetic Fields-like writing approach to love songs such as “Steve” and “I Wanna Be Your One Night Stand,” none as straight-ahead as they sound at first blush.
Two Harbors — ‘The Natural Order of Things’
Why reinvent the wheel when you’re on a roll? Duluth native Chris Pavlich and his standard-edition two-guitar quartet stick to their unabashedly Oasis-like ’90s Brit-rock sound like ice cream sticks to a toddler’s face. Having the record mastered at Abbey Road Studios only reinforced the band’s rock-solid foundation. From the thundering opener “There Is Love” to the poppier “Fall to Pieces,” the songs have an immediately familiar, classic tone — and might just be classics themselves.