"Are all Boston bands this earnest?" asked a friend while surveying the results of last year's Best Music Poll. I was about to play a Slughog tape in retaliation before I realized that my friend had a point in pegging Boston as a town full of brooders. For the last five years, the local categories of this poll have been largely dominated by three bands, all of whom represent the more ponderous side of local music. (That's a description, not a value judgment.) In chronological order, those bands are O Positive, Cliffs of Dooneen, and Machinery Hall.
So you might say that 1996 is the year when Boston stopped brooding, or at least the year the loud stuff struck back. The mood didn't change entirely, of course; Machinery Hall still picked up two awards: Best Local Song ("Vincent") and Best Rock Act. But other important categories came out at a higher decibel level. Powerman 5000 won the most categories (three) of any local act, and Machinery Hall's Mark Nelson was shut out as Best Male Vocalist by 6L6's Ted Condo -- marking the first time that the category (traditionally taken by Nelson, Cliffs' Eric Sean Murphy, or O Positive's Dave Herlihy) has been won by a play-loud-rock-and-sing-while-you're-at-it singer rather than a stand-out-front-and-be-emotional singer.
Of course, we'd still be lying if we claimed that our poll represented the full scope of local music, or even of local rock. Last year we griped that Sebadoh, who had emerged nationally as one of the Boston area's most trendsetting bands, failed to place in a single category; this year we'll note that Lou Barlow's other band, Folk Implosion, fared no better. The goth (for lack of a better word) circuit, which has evolved from a fringe trend to a genuine subculture -- with headliners as diverse as Mistle Thrush, Women of Sodom, and Turkish Delight -- made a big showing in the clubs and none in the poll. Bands from the loud-pop side of town also continue to get shut out, even if they've already released some of 1996's best local albums (hello, Fuzzy and Kustomized) or packed houses at recent local gigs (Dirt Merchants, Gravel Pit, Gigolo Aunts, Helium, Come). Of the bands who've graduated to national status, only Letters to Cleo made a strong showing. Morphine made a weaker one, with frontman Mark Sandman placing in one category, while Buffalo Tom, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and the Dambuilders made none at all. It's hard to imagine a list of Boston's best rock without these names.
The pop school is represented most proudly by Trona, who take the prize as Best New Artist. Though they've so far released only two songs on a single (and a third on the just-released Wicked Deluxe compilation from Wicked Disc), Trona's got plenty more where those came from. And they've carved out a strong enough band identity (which includes their alter-ego surf band, the Ray Corvair Trio) that I'm no longer referring to their frontman as "ex-Orangutang member Chris Dyas." Equally promising are two of the runners-up: Chelsea on Fire, who've released a vengeful gem of a debut album, and Fledgling, who are living proof that commercial rock can be done with real quirks and substance -- especially on the new songs slated for their second TVT album. Meanwhile, Iguana Poets leader Amelia White -- who has a CD coming out under her own name -- is perhaps the first local artist to place in the "most promising" category after a decade on the circuit.
White and Iguana Poets figure in a few of this year's surprising upsets. Credit it to the slow build of a grassroots following -- or simply to the more aggressive use of a mailing list -- but this skilled songwriter and perennial cult artist came through to win in the Best Folk category and to place in three others, including Best Female Vocalist. While White's debut CD is forthcoming, the standout local folk CD of the past year has to be Tracie Smart's dark-hued and hauntingly beautiful Echoes in the Dark (Stone by Stone), and Smart places as first runner-up. Coming in third is Eoin Woods, the Celtic songwriter and Cliffs of Dooneen associate who's won for the past two years. (And that's the closest that Cliffs --who were named Best Local Rock Act for the past two years -- came to winning anything this year. A listen to their last demo tape still bodes well for their new, punkier incarnation as Superfly, even if their showing in this year's poll doesn't.)
"Alternative" continues to be our most nebulous category (a renaming of the old "Cutting Edge"), especially when the winning "heavy metal" band (Powerman 5000) and the winning "alternative" band (6L6) are playing roughly the same kind of music. (Last year those winners were playing the exact same kind of music, since those two categories were both won by 6L6.) Since the laws of marketing dictate that anything with hip cachet is therefore "alternative," this basically boils down to our "one more chance to vote for your favorite band" category. Since 6L6 are a lot of people's favorite band -- and since they're less strictly "heavy metal" lately, with a more melodic side emerging -- their win here makes sense. As does the runner-up placing of Quivvver -- one of the most likably original bands in town, and absolutely the best-dressed -- who also placed for Best Rock Act and Best CD/Tape.
The most predictable thing about our Rap/Hip-Hop category is that it's usually won by acts who are neither rap nor hip-hop. Powerman 5000, a between-the-eyes rock band with occasional hip-hop leanings, dethrone frat-funkers Chucklehead in this category, also winning Best Heavy Metal and Best CD/Tape (for Blood Splat Rating System, on Conscience Records). After five years on the circuit and a bad experience with a major label (though other deals are rumored), Powerman have spewed forth enough sweat and grit over the years to earn their supremacy here. The response to our first Best DJ/Producer category, with Richie Rich taking the title, suggests that local hip-hop may be the province of DJs more than bands. It's also worth noting that WFNX's Liquid Todd was the lead vote-getter in this category when we solicited nominations from readers back in February. As the host of 'FNX's "Spin Cycle" (both on the air and at Saturday X-Nights at Axis), and as a producer who made waves this year with a Chemical Brothers remix, Todd's earned the recognition. We just felt it wasn't quite fair to give the award to our own guy for something the boss pays him to do, so Todd's name did not appear on the final ballot.
Tracy Bonham's presence here is also no surprise, taking Best Female Vocalist over Jennifer Trynin (whose next album is likely to be killer, judging from recent live sets), Vision Thing's Lisa Susser, and the ubiquitous Amelia White. Bonham started drawing a local backlash (at least in these pages) for the arena leanings of her debut CD The Burdens of Being Upright (Island), but she remains a smart writer whose promise comes through strongly in live shows. The main difference between Bonham and national winner Alanis Morissette is that Bonham seems likely still to have a career building at this time next year.
Also not surprising is Mike Denneen's win as best producer, since Denneen (with his Q Division associate Jon Lupfer) has been responsible for a diverse handful of well-received albums this year. It's impressive enough to find someone who listens to both Guster and Gravel Pit, never mind produces them. (Crosstown studio Fort Apache likewise makes a strong runner-up showing via Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, who got separate votes despite usually working together.)
On the country circuit, two things are inevitable: Swinging Steaks will insist they're not a country band, and will win or place in that category anyway. (Their closest recent competition, the Courage Brothers -- who also insist they're not a country band -- are notably absent this year.) Also placing are the Country Bumpkins and the Wheelers and Dealers, who insist that they really are country bands, and whose live shows consistently provide an irreverent, well-oiled blast. Rounding out this category is deserving local favorite Charlie Chesterman, who likely isn't sure whether he's a country band or not.
On the subject of troupers making good, the Kat in the Hat Band win for R&B/Soul in their first appearance in this category, beating Barrence Whitfield in a close race. And Barrence gets an extra plug from us for the sizzling set that he and the Savages played at the Best Music Poll nominating party.
By now we're considering re-naming Best International as the "Bim Skala Bim category," since the ska rulers have now taken it every year since 1989. Surprisingly, they're the only ska band to place this year; though runner-up acts Inca Son, Rumbafrica, and Calypso Hurricane are all good indications that our voters have done some exploring beyond the rock circuit.