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A Listener’s Guide To Notable Minnesota Music

September 8, 2011 8:00 AM

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Over the years, Minnesota has produced a clutch of local acts that have broken into national prominence and influence. And any band or artist who has been around long enough is bound to have an arm’s-length discography, making it tough for newcomers to get a grip on such a broad body of work. For your convenience, then, here is a quick elementary school primer on some of Minnesota’s most notable acts’ discographies.

As a scene capable of producing acts that go on to national prominence, the Twin Cities are known primarily for three things: R&B in the early ’80s, punk/alternative in the early to late ’80s, and hip-hop in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Consider this your elementary school primer on those moments of consequence, but also on some other acts you might not associate with Minnesota.

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(credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI)

Bob Dylan

Start with: There are fundamentally four albums that are the tent poles of Dylan’s early to middle career: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and Blood on the Tracks. Arguments can be made for any of his first five for inclusion, really, but Freewheelin’ has “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Girl from the North Country,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” — all bona fide classics. The other three represent the maturation of his electric sound, his double album masterpiece, and his return from the wilderness, respectively.

Underrated: Like any truly seminal performer, you’ll hear as many arguments for what’s underrated about Dylan as what’s overrated — there are plenty of record store employees out there ready to make a case for Planet Waves or even Empire Burlesque. The one thing we can all agree on? You can just skip 2009’s Christmas in the Heart.

Most Minnesota-centric work: A tough call. Both “Positively Fourth Street” and “Highway 61 Revisited” reference roads in Minnesota — but that also exist, and famously, in New York and Mississippi, respectively. But even though it never mentions Minnesota specifically, 1975’s Blood on the Tracks feels Minnesotan, largely because of Dylan’s decision to recut five of the songs just before the album’s release at Sound 80 Studio in Minneapolis with Minnesota musicians. If Twin Citians want to lay claim to any of Dylan’s albums, this is the one.

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(credit: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

Prince

Start with: From 1982 to 1986, Prince whipped off no fewer than nine entirely brilliant singles (including “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Kiss”), but for albums, the clear starting point is the soundtrack to Purple Rain. “When Doves Cry” is the funkiest thing without a bass line (go check, you’ll see), “Let’s Go Crazy” shows off Prince’s otherworldly but somehow still underrated guitar skills, and the title track is a letter perfect power ballad. Fun fact: If you’re anywhere in the Twin Cities — bar, airport, Gap — and “Purple Rain” comes on, everyone will act totally chill until the very end, when at least one person will sing along with the falsetto “oohs” on the outro.

Underrated: If only it were possible to call just about anything following what’s generally known as the Love Symbol Album underrated. Prince’s prolific output following his dispute with Warner Brothers has generally been inversely proportional in quality to quantity. The man’s basically a hit machine, so if you’re heard it on the radio, it’s probably good. Well, except for his incongruous Vikings ode, “Purple and Gold,” which is just lame.

Most Minnesota-centric work: Straight up, the film “Purple Rain” is probably Prince’s most Minnesota-centric work, with its backstage First Avenue scenes and the waters of Lake Minnetonka. But when it comes to the music, it’s easy to vote for “Uptown,” Prince’s Utopian vision of the area around Hennepin and Lyndale from 1980’s Dirty Mind. Maybe nowadays Uptown is a better place to get a North Face parka than to set your mind free, but the track is still a great one.

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(credit: CBS)

The Replacements

Start with: The ‘Mats recording career falls neatly into two categories: the Twin Tone years and the Sire years. Their work for Twin Tone culminated in 1984’s Let It Be, where the band truly began to stray from their punk roots and put Westerberg’s songwriting at the fore on anthems like “I Will Dare” and the gentle, yearning “Answering Machine.” Tim was their 1985 debut for Sire, once again combining the howling “Bastards of Young” with the lonely bar ballad “Here Comes A Regular.” Both albums are essential.

Underrated: The Replacements’ final album, All Shook Down, was supposed to be Westerberg’s first solo album and as such it took knocks for years as not being a real Replacements album. And maybe it’s not, but one could do a lot worse than a great Westerberg record. “Merry Go Round” and “Sadly Beautiful” are standouts, but the whole thing is solid power-pop.

Most Minnesota-centric work: When people think Minneapolis, a lot of them think of the skyways, and many of them probably do because of “Skyway” from 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me. Westerberg’s tale of a boy catching sight of a beautiful girl just out of reach beyond the glass of the titular skyway has endured: Jeremy Messersmith’s cover from his 2008 album The Silver City was an affectionate tribute to the song and the songwriter.

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(credit: CBS)

Hüsker Dü

Start with: Hüsker Dü graduated from blisteringly fast hardcore act to true alternative pioneers with 1984’s Zen Arcade, which is a kind of punk rock opera with a through-narrative that follows a runaways adventures in an unfriendly world. In many ways, it provided a roadmap for many bands struggling to move from the cloistered underground scenes around the country in the mid-’80s to bigger labels and venues.

Underrated: After the band signed with Warner Bros. in 1985, they felt they still owed indie SST Records another album, and gave them the recently completed Flip Your Wig, which in time has been overshadowed critically by Zen Arcade and New Day Rising. But don’t sleep: Flip Your Wig has maybe Hüsker Dü’s finest single song, “Makes No Sense At All.”

Most Minnesota-centric work: Unlike their rivals The Replacements, Hüsker Dü didn’t write directly about the Twin Cities — Mould’s lyrics were introspective, while Hart’s were more flip and wry, but neither had as much of a sense of place. As a band in the Twin Cities, their most lasting influence is the legendary rancor between Hart and Mould, only temporarily abated at an impromptu onstage duet at a benefit for late Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller in 2004. Such animosity is something most bands can only aspire to.

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(credit: CBS)

Soul Asylum

Start with: Soul Asylum’s big (and deserved) breakthrough was 1992’s Grave Dancers Union. Although the first single was the hard-edged “Somebody To Shove,” the band really hit their stride with the back-to-back ballads and “Black Gold” and “Runaway Train.” Singer Dave Pirner’s quavery, shaking voice and shaggy dreads struck a chord with fans taken in by grunge. Since Grave Dancers Union, the band have shown themselves to be rock pros with some serious legs, even if they’ve never again scaled the heights of the charts.

Underrated: Amazingly, Grave Dancers Union was the band’s sixth, and they’d been together since forming in 1981 as Loud Fast Rules. As such, their early (on Twin Tone) and mid-period catalogs (on A&M) are peppered with solid tunes. Plus, their cover of “Summer of the Drugs” by Victoria Williams on Sweet Relief was one of that tribute albums’ high points.

Most Minnesota-centric work: Unlike every other band on this list (save for Prince, who kind of haunts the scene, but doesn’t participate much), Soul Asylum are still very much alive and kicking. Dan Murphy’s worked with fellow rock luminaries in Golden Smog, and since Mueller’s death in 2005, ex-Replacement Tommy Stinson has played bass for the band alongside Prince veteran Michael Bland on drums. Their greatest contribution to Minnesota? Sticking around for the long haul.

Steve McPherson is a writer and musician who has lived in the Twin Cities since 2004, where he teaches writing and music at McNally Smith. His dog is named after both a drink and a guitar. He tweets from @steventurous.

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