2003 Music Awards

The readers spoke, and the RFT music staff listened. Find out who's large and in charge on the St. Louis music scene.

Jun 18, 2003 at 4:00 am
Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

Best Rap Recording of the Year
Nelly/St. Lunatics
We've gotten a fair amount of flak for writing about Nelly so much, mostly from people who seem to suffer from the delusion that music writers were ordained by God to supply press-kit fodder to unknown artists who, like, totally need the support, dude. "Nelly already gets so much ink" goes the monotonous refrain. "He's rich and famous, and he's already sold a shitload of records -- he doesn't need your help!" This naive but surprisingly widespread argument rests on the premise that music writers serve musicians -- as cheerleaders, or pro bono publicists, or self-esteem coaches. News flash, whiners: Any critic who isn't a shameless whore is loyal to the readers first. This mission involves not only introducing readers to worthy obscurities but also reporting on artists they already know and love.

And St. Louisans love the St. Lunatics -- especially Nelly, the superstar cuddlethug whose two solo CDs have sold more than 15 million copies. Nellyville, which took the honors in the Recording of the Year category, came out a year ago and has already been certified six-times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America -- way to handle the "sophomore slump" issue, dirty! Since last year's RFT Music Awards, when Nelly and his crew won in Best Rap and Recording of the Year (for the St. Lunatics' Free City), the self-described clown from U-Town won his first two Grammy Awards, for his megasmash singles "Hot in Herre" and "Dilemma." (Yeah, we know: Who even cares about the stupid Grammys when you've already got a bunch of plastic trophies from the poll formerly known as the Slammies?) Rumors about Nelly abound: He's buying a club downtown; he's starring in his own sitcom; he's starting his own label; he's buying a recording studio right in his hometown; he's dating Eve and Kelly Rowland and maybe both of the Bush twins (OK, it's entirely possible that we dreamed that last one). Even people who claim he's a no-talent prettyboy pop sellout who can't come up with a decent rhyme to save his life are still talking about him, gawking at him, wondering if their asses would look bootylicious or merely doughy in those cute Applebottom jeans he's hawking these days. Wake-up call to all haters: Obsession is a form of love, too.

When Nelly unleashed Country Grammar on an unsuspecting public, he didn't just put St. Louis on the hip-hop map (itself no small achievement); he parlayed his fame and influence to help underachieving and at-risk inner-city kids. After his sister, Jacqueline Donahue, suffered a leukemia relapse earlier this year, Nelly started another charity, Jes Us 4 Jackie (www.jesus4jackie.com), which aims to educate the African-American community about the importance of becoming bone-marrow donors. He could have become just another vacant celebrity, jet-setting from coast to coast, but instead he chose to remain in his hometown. Rest assured, St. Louis: Nelly loves you back. -- René Spencer Saller

Best Rock
Things have changed for Nadine, but that's nothing new. Over the course of six years, since the band's debut, Back to My Senses, the lineup has been as stable as geopolitics. Longtime friends and collaborators Adam Reichmann and Todd Schnitzer parted musical ways last year, leaving only multi-instrumentalist Steve Rauner and Reichmann at the core. Bassist Anne Tkach, who joined in 1999, has helped provide some semblance of rhythmic continuity as the group spent three years shuffling drummers and keyboard players. As a result of these shifts, Nadine's sound, especially on stage (the proving-ground of any rock band), has never fully gelled. What sounded thrilling and expansive on disc only occasionally translated into live shows. Although the band toured Europe, dates outside of the safe confines of St. Louis were few and far between.

"That's always been one of my criticisms," Tkach says of Nadine's slow evolution into a true rock band. "I came into the band to help it become a live outfit. We've gotten more confident about playing live, and we've done it in so many different permutations, but we feel really good about this line-up now."

The latest additions to the band, Jimmy Griffin and Brian Zielie, have finally taken Nadine from an accomplished and inventive studio band to genuine rockers, where live performances are not an afterthought or a burden (Schnitzer, for all his talents, wasn't always thrilled to be onstage). Griffin, his silver-spangled axe and rack of effects, brings a sweet, glam-metal charm to the stage, and Zielie, who counts Ringo Starr and David Garibaldi among his idols, pounds the skins as hard and steady as any drummer Nadine has known. Another new addition, manager Jeff Jarrett, has pushed Nadine even further. This summer the band will tour the east coast with Gingersol, and rumors point to a few shows with the Wallflowers. The band has recently signed a licensing deal with Trampoline Records, a label started by Wallflowers' keyboardist Rami Jaffee, whose stable includes Pete Yorn, Peter Himmelman, the Jukebox Junkies and the Minus 5. Nadine's Trampoline debut, Strange Seasons, their finest, purest and most energetic rock album yet, will hit the stores the first week of September.

"To be honest, I try not to have deep or intimate feelings about the music business, which is why I'm very pleased with this deal," says Tkach, who has already experienced the ups and downs of major-label life with her band Hazeldine." It's not hooking us into any sort of strangeness with any big monster machine." -- Roy Kasten

Best New Artist
Whole Sick Crew

The votes are in, the beans have been counted, we have received the input of our secret masters from the outer realms and the Whole Sick Crew has been declared the winner in the Best New Band category, mercilessly slaughtering all who would come to their broadside. Not that they care; as their Web site firmly states, they don't care if you voted for them, because the RFT is just a "lousy liberal rag" anyway. Vote for them you did, though, and they've won one of our "lousy liberal rag" awards. Although their oh-so-biting remarks could have sapped lesser souls of the will to live, we have a sense of humor about it and aren't above a little friendly poking and saber rattling, because they really do deserve the award. Just ask them -- they'll tell you. Upon being informed that they were getting some coverage in the paper, their fiddle player, apparently a little too in her cups, or mayhap touched with some sort of brain fever, remarked, "Well it's about [expletives deleted] time; we've been busting our asses for a while now, and you finally decide to notice. Thanks a lot, you [hurtful names deleted]." Whereas this might seem harsh, nothing less could be expected from this Crew of well-read miscreants.

As St. Louis's only anacoustic pirate-folk punk band, the Whole Sick Crew has left an indelible mark on the city in a relatively short period of time. With instrumentation out of time and lyrics straight from the bottom of Davy Jones' locker, the Crew presents a rousing live show, their shambolic sea shanties engaging the crowd while they engorge themselves on rum, whiskey and ale. Where do you go, though, when your only scene is the sea and the winds may not blow so favorably for you on say, a hardcore show? Although this corollary may confuse some lunkheads, in being unique, the Crew fit on just about any bill and will play wherever and whenever they can.

The real question, though, is now that they're moderately successful and have a bit of the recognition they craved, what will they do? Will they inspire legions of pirate-rock Cap'n Blood-come-lately pretenders? Will the streets be littered with the corpses of the pillaged? A brief discussion with Crew leader and main songwriter Brien Seyle suggests that he seems to be steering the ship away from the bloody-pirate theme and more toward a sort of Shane McGowan/ Pogues vibe. All that we at this "lousy liberal rag" can say is Godspeed and pogue mahone. -- Erik Carlson

Best Hard Rock
Asia Minor
Calling Asia Minor "Dan Campbell's new band" is a bit of a misnomer. Although Campbell, who sang for such regional powerhouses as Back of Dave, the Five Deadly Venoms and Keyop, brought the band its most recognizable face, Asia Minor had actually formed well before he joined. Also, calling Asia Minor "Dan Campbell's new band" lessens the importance of the other four members' contributions. One can't dismiss the fluid melody lines of bassist Bruce Klostermann or his rhythm section partner, drummer Drew Carr, whose subtle yet powerful playing often brings more heaviness to the songs by implication than hard-hitting mindless thrashing ever could. Nor, of course, can one dismiss the interlocked chiming twin-guitar assault of Tom Sweet and the soon-to-be-departing Dave Todd, who together bring an almost hypnotic sheen to the songs, sometimes working against the rhythm, sometimes locking into it to mesmerizing effect. No, calling Asia Minor "Dan Campbell's new band" just isn't really correct. Maybe one could call them "that band from Belleville that does the killer punk-rock version of Thin Lizzy's 'Jail Break'."

Nah, best just to call Asia Minor the best hard-rock band in St. Louis. Even against such stiff competition as the Shame Club, LoFreq, fellow Rocket Bar regulars Riddle Of Steel and last year's winners Sullen, Asia Minor's post-punk/indie/emo/math rock managed to win the majority of the voters' hearts. Although certainly aided in part by the band's willingness to play shows on both sides of the Mississippi River, something it seems distressingly few bands bother doing, a great deal of Asia Minor's popularity can be traced to its wonderful self-titled début, released on Belleville's Anomer Records, a CD that's garnered the band tons of KDHX airplay as well as regular spins on The Point's local show. Asia Minor has also done a fair amount of regional touring, having returned from a nine-day Midwest mini-tour days before the band's RFT Music Awards showcase spot last Sunday. With a growing Midwestern following, a solid debut CD and, now, an RFT Music Award, Asia Minor's future looks bright. -- Matt Harnish

Best Eclectic/Uncategorizable
Grandpa's Ghost
If Grandpa really does have a ghost, he's a changeling who appears without warning, rattles all hell out of his chains (and amps and drums), moans in eternal torture, disappears, then creeps back into your home, whispering sweetly over acoustic strains, as if begging forgiveness for all the racket. You never know what Grandpa's Ghost you'll get, either on disc or in concert. That's in part because the band remains unknown to itself -- and the members like it that way.

Though based out of Pocahontas, songwriter and driving force Ben Hanna continues to work with a variety of musicians, including Bill Emerson (who has been with Hanna since the beginning), Chris Dee, Mark Robke, Pat Kennett, Tobi Parks and Eric Hall. More recently Jason Hutto and Scooter Hermes of the Phonocaptors will help Hanna flesh out some of the more straight-ahead rock songs he has in his head.

"Grandpa's Ghost is this nebulous thing," Hanna says. "I'm not always sure what it is or what it means. I toured solo in April, which got me back in touch with the core aspect of my tunes. I write everything on the acoustic guitar and then bring it to the band based on ideas and what I think the players can bring. Playing acoustically has gotten me back to the voice of what the songs mean."

Hanna and the Ghost are nothing if not prolific. Over the last three years, they've released two double albums -- the last, The Tumble/Love Version (Upland), included astonishing revisions of songs by John Denver, Neil Young and D.O.A. -- exploring psychic and musical bipolarity, or maybe just erasing the acoustic/noise duality altogether. Grandpa Ghost's last appearance in St. Louis (at the Pageant) found Hanna and Emerson, who played a mad-scientist rig of lap steel, pedals and tone generators, drifting in and out of acoustic murmurs and muted whirs and buzzes. For Grandpa's Ghost, acoustic and electric are two sides of the same page of the same dream journal. Recently, Hanna and company have been working with a young Chicago-based filmmaker named Jim Fotopoulos. Some of that work includes Hanna's abstract musical take on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." The recordings will be released in the fall, and a tentative multi-media performance, with Fotopoulos, is scheduled for mid-September in St. Louis.

"From the very beginning I recognized we weren't going to be some mainstream band," Hanna says without a trace of irony. "I've had to work within the framework of the various musicians and their availability. My goal is to continually do more but still keep the focus on the integrity of the creative aspects. I'm 36. I recognize that it's not easy. I don't have a romantic idea that I'm going to make money at it. There's not much you can control other than what you're doing from a creative angle." -- Roy Kasten

Best R&B
Although he considers himself more a soul singer than an R&B artist, Coultrain's thrilled that RFT Music Awards voters decreed him the victor in the Best R&B category -- the very first time he was nominated. The label that really makes Coultrain bristle is "neosoul": "That's a term I feel is so disrespectful," he says, with a quiet forcefulness. "The word 'neo' means 'new,' right? But nothing about the music is new at all. 'Neosoul' makes it seem like what we're doing is something totally different from Marvin or Otis or Stevie, and we're not."

The 25-year-old Coultrain [né Aaron Frison] grew up listening to his father's favorite singers: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson and, a bit later, Stevie Wonder. He knows that the music he writes and performs -- as a solo artist and as a member of the groups Soul Tyde (nominated in the Best Underground/Alternative Hip-Hop category) and Solomon Nickels -- isn't strictly identical to the classic '60s soul that inspired him as a youth, but he still bridles at the "neosoul" tag: "Hip-hop is a big influence in all types of music now; our revolutionary sound is hip-hop. So the soul influence is already in hip-hop -- that's how we define hip-hop, as an infusion of everything. I realize people have to label music all the time, so I try not to pay too much attention. I just say I do music. I don't try to label it too much; I let other people do that."

Whatever you want to call it, St. Louisans certainly seem to be feeling it. "Love and Hate" -- Coultrain's first single from the fantastic new Soul Tyde record, Hip-Hop and Soulful...ish -- is in rotation at Q95.5 and Magic 105 (104.9 FM), and, during his RFT Music Awards showcase performance at a stuffed-to-capacity Delmar Lounge, he had an ecstatic crowd lapping up every gorgeous note. Endowed with a buttery baritone, supple phrasing and a gift for writing catchy and compelling songs, the young singer isn't likely to fade into obscurity anytime soon. With production and recording assistance from his Soul Tyde collaborator Black Spade, Coultrain's been working on his début CD (tentatively titled Echoes of Autumn) for quite a while now, writing and recording nearly every day. His work ethic is rivaled only by his patience: "I have a lot of stuff in my catalog," he says, "but my first album out, I want to make an impact. We're putting a lot of work into it before we actually release it." Something tells us it'll be worth the wait. -- René Spencer Saller

Best Reggae/World
Murder City Players
Jamaican proverbs consistently counsel patience and calm endurance in all things, as in the colorful Jamdung patois "Time longer than rope" and "One coco fill up a basket." For 20 years, the Murder City Players have taken it slow and steady, filling up their basket one coco at a time. With a discography totaling but three full-length releases (all have received critical acclaim from roots aficionados worldwide), it's apparent that the MCP are enjoying the trip to the market, unhurriedly honing their reggae-riddim stylings to ever higher plateaus of unflinching impeccability. The fruits of their forbearance should be apparent in the Players' relatively infrequent live appearances, but if a packed house of sweaty bodies skanking and grinding isn't testament enough, just ask Jamaican legends the Itals, U-Roy and the Ethiopian, all of whom have enlisted MCP as a backing band. A fairly recent revision in the group's lineup hasn't swayed them from their course of continued experimentation in the genre, either. According to founding keyboardist and manager Jeff Schneider, quite the opposite is true. "The current lineup has enabled us to cultivate a new, fresh and energetic sound," he explains. "The addition of a third horn and a second guitarist has provided us with the components necessary to achieve a depth and quality found in earlier styles of Jamaican music. A lot of our newer material, both original as well as covers, comes from the ska and rock-steady eras."

The result is an authoritative amalgam of the subtle hues that constitute the musical legacy of the West Indies. The MCP unfailingly deliver skankworthy grooves replete with thickly reticulated horn textures and the double-barreled toast and flow of founding lead vocalists Mark Condellire (a.k.a. Tony Rome) and 'Prince Phillip' McKenzie. With recent recruits Jimmy London on guitar, Mike Powers on saxophone, Mike Cracchiolo on bass (these three were previously in local ska favorites, the Kickbacks) and Wallace Pryor on guitar, the Murder City Players have enough fresh blood to keep them pumping for years to come. Reportedly, a fourth full-length release is in the works, but there's no reason to rush the Murder City Players. As they say in Jamaica, "De child mus' creep before him walk." -- John Goddard

Best Jazz
Willie Akins
In a culture that reveres youth and flash and celebrates shiny surfaces while ignoring the substance beneath, it's reassuring just to have Willie Akins around. He's been a mainstay on the local jazz scene for more than 30 years, performing on tenor and soprano sax at a consistently high level and serving as teacher and mentor to a host of younger musicians. A soft-spoken, reserved man, Akins has almost always let his horn do the talking, eschewing self-promotion and hype to concentrate on the music.

Raised in Webster Groves, Akins set out for New York immediately after graduating from high school in 1957. It was a time when rock music was beginning to take hold of the popular consciousness, but the city was still teeming with small record labels and jazz clubs featuring musicians who would ultimately become part of the jazz pantheon, from established veterans such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster to younger stars such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley and Cannonball Adderly. Undaunted by the competition, Akins stayed in New York for more than a decade, paying voluminous dues, woodshedding and trying to break into the hyper-competitive jazz scene that was slowly but surely being commercially marginalized by the rise of rock. After years of scuffling, he was finally on the verge of a breakthrough when his father became gravely ill. A dutiful son, Akins returned home to attend to family matters, and New York's loss became St. Louis' gain.

In the years that followed, Akins matured into a truly exceptional player, revered by local listeners and musicians yet still obscure to the larger world. By day, he painted houses to keep the bills paid; by night, he stood placidly on a series of stages, telling stories with his horn that mixed intellect and emotion, joy and pain, exuberance and contemplation.

Though his pace has been slowed by the open-heart surgery he underwent a couple of years ago, Akins has returned to his regular Saturday matinée gig at Spruill's in Midtown, where he continues to offer an intoxicating brew of hard bop, ballads and blues to attentive and appreciative crowds. This year's RFT Music Awards nominees in the jazz category are all fine musicians worthy of greater recognition, but it's impossible to think of a more deserving winner than Willie Akins, a local legend with world-class talent. -- Dean C. Minderman

Best Blues
Soulard Blues Band
On the surface, it might seem tempting to dismiss the Soulard Blues Band -- a group populated by middle-aged white guys with set lists long on familiar and sometimes over-familiar blues chestnuts and possessed of a clean, polished sound (virtually anathema to some blues fans). But blues music in general has never been well served by superficial assessments, and the Soulard Blues Band is no exception. To many people, the blues is a sad music performed by backward, broken men. It's a damnable lie, of course, and the Soulard Blues Band has reveled in disproving it since 1978. Although it's certainly true that blues music has often been the province of solo performers with a preference for songs of loss and frustration, there's also a rich tradition of good-time blues bands celebrating the days of plenty. The Soulard Blues Band falls into the latter category, and, as their popularity proves, St. Louisans like their blues with a smile.

SBB's sound is an amalgam of electrified Chicago blues, New Orleans R&B and 1950s jump blues, mixed together with St. Louis' own slick and slinky blues vibe. The band's lineup changes periodically, but its members have managed to maintain a distinctive sound and feel over the years. If their song selection at times seems a bit clichéd, it's an issue quickly resolved by inspired arrangements and spirited performances. Sure, we're all a little sick of "Sweet Home Chicago," but like Halloween candy on November 1, we can't help coming back for another helping. Besides, the Soulard Blues Band isn't about rescuing rare blues from obscurity. It's about making converts of unbelievers and making full-fledged dancers out of toe-tappers.

Bringing their music to the masses is a mission the band takes seriously. Their June performance schedule alone includes club dates, festivals, wineries and weddings. And if you can't catch them live, you can easily enjoy them in the comfort of your home. Their three latest CDs are perhaps more readily available in local record stores than any St. Louis artist this side of Nelly. In a city increasingly detached from its rich blues heritage, the Soulard Blues Band is a key element in keeping the tradition alive. So come on, baby don't you wanna go? -- J. Konkel

Best Garage
If there'd been an RFT Music Awards category this year for Band Most Likely To Star In Its Own Zany Sitcom, the Reactions would have won it hands down. It's easy to picture them living together in a striped house, driving around in a striped car solving crimes or something and ending each half-hour adventure with a perfect bouncy pop tune. Give 'em time. For now, the Reactions will have to be content with the Best Garage honorific. The young trio consists of nimble-fingered bass player David Rocco, guitar-hero-in-training Robert Mayfield and gravel-voiced-beyond-his-years singing drummer Jake Alspach. They've made quite an impact in only a year or so of playing out and seem to get better with every show.

Much has been made about how surprisingly good a band they are for being so young, but, honestly, calling the Reactions a "great teenage garage band" is like calling Jimi Hendrix a "great left-handed guitar player." Qualifiers aren't necessary. The Reactions are a great band, period. Already having nearly outgrown the jangling '60s-style folk/garage/pop of their (quite excellent) self-titled debut CD, the Reactions have begun delving deeper into an early Led Zeppelin-ish proto punk sound, unafraid not only of power chords and feedback but also of blues changes and non-ironic guitar solos. Hell, their usual show-ending rave-up has started including a drum solo for chrissakes. Garage purists may sniff at this evolution, as most garage bands these days usually just find a sound they like and stick with it, but the Reactions have already demonstrated that they refuse to be bound to one limited scene. They're as comfortable playing all-ages punk shows as they are playing for a bunch of drunks in a smoky bar so, until the WB comes calling and you can catch the Reactions in the comfort of your own home every Tuesday at 8 p.m. or whatever, get yourself to an all-ages punk show or smoky bar and see 'em now. -- Matt Harnish

Best Singer/Songwriter
Jay Farrar
For the second year in a row, RFT Music Award voters selected Jay Farrar as St. Louis' best singer/songwriter. Though some may grumble that Farrar, like Nelly, is not so much a local artist as an artist who happens to live here, it's highly unlikely that anyone could argue that he doesn't deserve it based on his astonishing body of work. As a founding member and principal songwriter of the seminal country-punk trio Uncle Tupelo, the 36-year-old Belleville native has had an influence that far exceeds his sales. (That might change, though: The band's four albums were just remastered and rereleased with bonus tracks, along with a new compilation called 89/93: An Anthology.) After the dissolution of UT, Farrar went on to form Son Volt, an underappreciated experimental-roots-rock outfit that made three albums before going on a hiatus of indefinite length. Just over the past two years, Farrar's released two full-length solo CDs, Sebastapol and the soon-to-be-released Terroir Blues, along with the EP ThirdShiftGrottoSlack. He's also written and performed the instrumental score for the independent film The Slaughter Rule and recently founded his own label, Act/Resist, which is manufactured through his previous label, Artemis. No doubt about it: Farrar isn't the type to rest on his laurels.

Even if Farrar's place in the local-music pantheon is debatable, he's clearly inspired and influenced by St. Louis -- its rich musical history, its elegant ruination, its deep and nourishing confluences. Terroir Blues makes this connection clearer than ever before. On "Cahokian," he links the doomed civilization with the one that's building shopping malls over the Native Americans' ancient earthen mounds: "...New Mississippians/ Under a smog-choked sun/Waiting to be undone." The mood throughout is elegiac -- Farrar has said in interviews that the songs were inspired by the death of his father, local troubadour and eccentric Jim "Pops" Farrar -- but it's never truly depressing. On one of the CD's most beautiful cuts, Farrar sings, "Hard is the fall, but your heart is still brand new." Here's to new hearts, and to new beginnings. -- René Spencer Saller

Best Rockabilly/Swing/Instrumental
Trip Daddys
There are more rockabilly acts in St. Louis than just the Trip Daddys. You wouldn't know it by the RFT Music Awards, of course: The hardest-working band on the sideburn-and-tattoo circuit has dominated the ballot box for what seems like decades. In truth, the band has been around only since 1995, and though their sound hasn't changed much over the years, they've gotten more and more confident in their foot-through-the-floor, shotgun wedding of rockabilly and punk-metal.

The reason the Trip Daddys continue to win, continue to build a regional following, is that they remain a loud, energetic, tight live band. Guitarist and singer Craig Straubinger plays with shit-kicking flair, and the rhythm section of Jamey Almond and Dave Easley is all but unstoppable. Their latest album, Double Wide, keeps the focus on a live sound while upping the ante, at least in sonic terms.

"That was a big deal for us," Straubinger says. "We recorded at Blueberry Hill Studios, a sub-studio of Sound Stage in Nashville, a big-league place. That was the first time we'd recorded somewhere that wasn't a guerrilla-type studio in St. Louis. We were intimidated, not to the point of being crippled, but we were working with people who had been tracking Willie Nelson the week before. We recorded in three days and mixed in four. Really, we were trying to impress them, rather than the other way around."

The Trip Daddys' success, at least on the local scene, also owes to their ability to avoid alienating what are most often rather alien groups of fans. On any given weekend, you'll see mohawks, greasers, garage rockers and blue-collar blues fans at their rowdy gigs. "People label us rockabilly or punkabilly," Straubinger says. "But we've always jumped back and forth between all the American forms: hillbilly, rock, blues, punk. The last couple of years we've gotten back to the harder-rocking stuff. We've never played a traditional '50s style rockabilly, and sometimes we're twangier than other times, but we haven't really changed our sound radically over the years. I grew up on the original rockabilly stuff; I love that stuff, but we've never wanted to duplicate that sound. I'm sure there are some traditional greasers who don't like what we do; we don't care about that. If you're just wanting to hear some good rock & roll, that's all we care about." -- Roy Kasten

Best Alternative/Underground Hip-Hop
Midwest Avengers
The Midwest Avengers have been around this town for quite a while, always seeming to be just on the cusp of major success. They've taken awards in previous RFT music polls three times, and they've looked good doing it. Supposedly named after some also-ran Marvel Comics superheroes unlikely to ever get a movie of their own, the Avengers have fully infiltrated our town. Members of their ranks have been watching the door at your favorite clubs, handing you cigarettes, driving you home and crashing on your couch for years. They've been hiding a secret, though. They're not just pretending to be superheroes but are superheroic in their own right.

How are they superheroes? Well, they possess no healing factor, nor can they control magnetism and shoot optic beams from ruby quartz visors. What they do have, though, is the amazing mutant ability to get the party started wherever they go. Whether it's a house party, a dance party or a club show, the Avengers always light the crowd up. Avengers mainstays Brown Clown and Psychedelic Lumberjack, along with the other members, have been bringing the good times and party vibe to whoever wants it since 1992, with a minimum of posturing, posing or attitude. Through the years the Avengers' roster has undergone a few shifts, but the mission has remained the same: Get down, and get out. The constant infusion of new blood has kept the group fresh, although the lineup has remained relatively constant, which has lent stability to the group and allowed its sound to evolve. Falling somewhere between rock, hip-hop and electronic music, the Avengers are an amalgam of beats, riffs and rhymes that, given the right setting, can be both addictive and absorbing.

They've been righting the wrongs of boring parties for quite a while now, but their touring and gigging schedule seems to have slowed down a bit in recent years. Though they still play out, one begins to wonder if the Avengers are heading toward the nadir of their career. For the sake of us all, let's hope not, because while they're here, we are safe from the tepid gatherings and frigid fraternization of the Midwest mainstream. As long as they remain strong, wherever there is lameness and wherever there is someone standing with arms crossed and attitude flaring, the Midwest Avengers will assemble! -- Erik Carlson

Best Punk
Dead Celebrities
Once again, this year's RFT Music Awards' Best Punk Band category was a toughie, revealing a deep wealth of talented punk rockers in the St. Louis region. How were voters to choose from such disparate acts as the fuzzed-out and sloppy Spiders, the funk-noise-addled In Medias Res, the young and politically outspoken Nineteen and the Bluebeard-meets-Blue Cheer pirate-punking Whole Sick Crew?

For the second year in a row, though, an overwhelming majority of you decided that when it comes to punk rock in St. Louis, you'll make yours the Dead Celebrities. The Dead Celebrities take a fairly straight-ahead approach to their music, playing a riff-heavy yet melodic punk style that traces its roots back to the Ramones, with stops along the way for the surfy punk of '80s bands such as the Descendants and the tongue-in-cheek irreverence of bands such as NOFX. What the listener ends up with is a high-energy, highly pogo-able set of fun punk rock, featuring lots of jumping around onstage, lots of whoa-oh-oh background vocals and lots of lyrics about stuff like wanting X-ray eyes in order to see girls in their underwear.

Although the best punk rock is a participation sport and the Dead Celebrities should be seen live to be fully appreciated (dead drunk at the Way Out Club if you really want the full effect), it should be noted that their strong-selling début full-length, Clean Up In Aisle Three, was nominated this year in the Recording Of The Year category as well. Had the band been from some sunny, skatin'-and-surfin' city, the disc probably would have come out on some mid-size punk label, and the band would be second-staging on the Warped Tour. For now the Dead Celebrities remain a St. Louis (or at least a Midwest) phenomenom. As voters proved again this year, though, the Dead Celebrities must be doing something right. -- Matt Harnish

Best Hip-Hop DJ
This year's batch of nominees covers the full spectrum of the many duties of a hip-hop DJ. We have radio/rap jocks, party-rockers, underground entrepreneurs, drum-machine technicians, mix-tape masters (and one mistress), but this year's winner is one who responds to all calls of the hip-hop DJ. DJ Needles has become a household name in the St. Louis hip-hop scene, appealing to both the hardcore underground set as well as the more conservative fans of Top 40 rap, all the while maintaining a consistent style, never changing his persona to impress a specific crowd.

Each week provides numerous opportunities to catch Needles in action, whether onstage, up in da club or in the comfort of your own home. Sunday nights, tune into Q 95.5 FM at 10 p.m. to catch Needles' radio show "Phat Laces." This is his airwave soapbox to the people, transmitting the sounds from the underground to the masses. Alongside MC Finsta and fellow DJ Agile-1 (another one of this year's nominees), Needles shoves aside The Q's usual menu of Ludacris and Missy Elliott in favor of lesser-heard tracks from independent and up-and-coming artists such as J-Live, Brother Ali and Wildchild.

Swing by Vintage Vinyl and pick up any of Needles' many many many mix CDs. His "Fresh Mix" series highlights new releases from the world of underground hip-hop, whereas his mixes under the name DJ Proceed, filled with original and funky remixes of popular hip-hop songs, showcase Needles' talent as a beatsmith.

But Friday nights are when you can catch Needles at his best -- onstage at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room for St. Louis' weekly hip-hop ritual, the Science. Once the live KDHX-FM (88.1) broadcast comes to a close, the opening DJs have set the mood and eased the crowd onto the dance floor, Needles takes over the turntables and shows the 300-plus weekly Science students just how much fun a Friday night can be. Drinks spill, people yell, dancers carelessly flail, all to the rhythms of classics by Run-DMC, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, MC Lyte and of-the-moment bangers the Neptunes, Jay-Z, and the like, all diced to perfection. Look around: There's not a still body in the room, not a frown to be found.

Go get off your butt, see and hear Needles in action, and find out why he deserves the title of Best Hip-Hop DJ. -- Michael Davis

Best Club DJ
Another year, another success for DJ veteran Steve-O (not to be confused with the guy from Jackass who may or may not be a success). DJs in this town come in all shapes, sizes and sexes -- not to mention varying levels of skill. That's where the native St. Louisan cues in. He's clocked eleven years on the decks, and his highly skilled sets never fail to get people happy and dancing. His spins are composed of mostly Chicago house with a little old funk and soul thrown in from time to time. He'll jump from Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind and Fire to more modern tracks. And he can be heard in the city practically any night of the week.

As if playing out all the time weren't enough, he's now getting into a little production work with St. Louis' very own Scott Bryan (yes, it's that same guy who toured with Sheryl Crow). Bryan and Steve-O have begun work on an EP that should be out later this year. Steve-O speaks highly of their partnership: "He's got his thing he's doing, and I have my thing I'm doing, and we're meeting in the middle and writing some stuff, and it's been a lot of fun."

Steve-O has evolved from party host to production artist and DJ. But although his production work is keeping him busy these days, that's not what has earned him the reverence of the St. Louis dance-music scene (not yet, anyway). With an easy laugh, plenty of experience and the better part of a year spent in Germany, Steve-O is an urban, omnipresent kind of guy. In addition to regular gigs at club-district Washington Avenue's Rue 13, South Grand's Upstairs Lounge with Boomer (among others) and upstairs at Faces on the weekends, he also plays at the south city Bosnian dance club Aquarius. He's often the only American ambassador there and says, "When I got back from Germany, I asked my friend to take me to the most European coffee shop that you can think of," and there he hooked up with the eventual owner of Aquarius.

For someone who works more nights than most people, Steve-O truly seems to enjoy his job. When asked what the best part of being a DJ is, he replies with his characteristic modesty and humor: "Knowing what record comes next before [the fans] do. If I'm trying to set something up, and I'm trying to hit them off-guard with what's coming next, I already know and I'm smiling." And so are you. -- Alison Sieloff

Best Groove
CORE Project
At a recent bachelor party we were both attending for our mutual friend John, CORE Project bassist T-Mills confessed to being the tiniest bit perplexed over the "Groove" category. We had a short discussion about categories in general, and the dangers of taking too seriously how the music press feels about one's band. Then we both drank some more. Well, despite that evening's philosophical and libational meanderings, CORE Project is now officially St. Louis' best groove band. Congratulations, boys.

Truth be told, CORE Project is actually pretty damn groovy, as well as containing a pinch of just about every other category one could possibly hurl at them. They have a definitely discernable hip-hop influence and a bit of a nod toward the jazz genre (both the "acid" and "acid-free" varieties), a big, pipin'-hot dollop of funk to keep things spicy, a shaker-full of rock and a smidge of the blues -- though the band has little to feel blue about lately. In addition to the touring stint with Nelly that both fans and detractors keep talking about, CORE Project has played with a huge variety of superstar groups from all over the popular music landscape (including Jurassic 5, the Crystal Method, Kid Koala, and Nappy Roots).

The seven members of Core Project -- emcee/ vocal duo Stek-Wik and Kammasutra, T-Mills (the "T" stands for "trouble") on bass, Ton'Def on drums, feisty turntablist HeistBone, guitarist C-Rock and keyboardist Fingaz -- profess a philosophy of "unity through understanding." Maybe that understanding comes from being in a seven-piece band and thereby having six other people to butt heads with creatively. In any event, such under-fire notions as freedom of speech and expression, respect for one's fellow living creatures and equality among all people find a home and haven in both the music and stated philosophy of CORE Project: "We think big and have been granted the wish to live life in unison, as one, the core..." Those are ideological tenets we can all get behind, whether they're manifested as groove music or rock music or hip-hop or whatever other arbitrary label critics apply. -- Jason Wallace Triefenbach

Best Roots/Americana
Bottle Rockets
"Roots/Americana" may be the least well-defined category in this reader's poll, but it's obvious the Bottle Rockets fit the term at least as well as anybody in town. The generally accepted meaning of "roots" as a term applied to music is that such music draws better than 50 percent of its inspiration from at least one form of Americana-based music, especially country or blues. The Bottle Rockets are more than a little familiar with both.

When singer/guitarist Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann were building their reputation in the late '80s with the band Chicken Truck, most of their fans described them as a cross between John Prine and Neil Young. Of course, Prine is country to a tee, but he's mostly a complex, playful wordsmith, and that's what Henneman took from him when he started writing songs. Young is a rocker who loves country music, which makes him a perfect role model for country musicians who love rock. Somewhere in there, along with dozens of other excellent stylists, these guys absorbed some ZZ Top, too, which brought some Texas blues and boogie to the mix.

Chicken Truck imploded before the end of the decade, but after Henneman achieved a solo recording deal, three-quarters of the band reformed as the Bottle Rockets. Rave reviews from the likes of Village Voice critic Robert Christgau weren't quite enough to bring the Bottle Rockets commercial success. The band has released five full-length albums on four different labels in the last ten years. If the members ever get the rights to assemble all this music under one roof, their eventual greatest-hits compilation could turn out to be one of the best listening experiences in the history of the alt-country field they helped to create.

The last year has been eventful for the Bottle Rockets. They issued a stellar tribute to the late Doug Sahm, digging deep into his catalog to bring attention to some of his lesser-known trips through American roots music. Soon thereafter, longtime rhythm guitarist Tom Parr left the band. Augmented by members of the Rockhouse Ramblers (also nominated this year), Henneman and Ortmann began gigging around St. Louis in a '70s-influenced country band called Diesel Island while they prepped for the future of the Bottle Rockets as original artists. With the addition of Rockhouse Rambler mainstay John Horton as second guitarist, the band is preparing to tour in the fall, in support of its new album -- insider rumblings suggest it's going to be fantastic.

The Bottle Rockets have been a great band for a long time -- more than 20 years if you go back to Henneman and Ortmann's earliest gigs together. Odds are they'll continue to delight Americana fans for years to come. -- Steve Pick

Best Pop
Javier Mendoza
Javier Mendoza's recent move from the Best World Music category (you can stop scratching your head now) to Best Pop comes as something of a relief to readers of the RFT Music Awards. It's not that Latin music hasn't been a part of Mendoza's sound; it's just not what even a dedicated listener would take away from his records and live performances -- at least not lately. Pop may be the most meaningless of all categories, but there's no denying Mendoza's appeal to a mainstream audience. Take a cute, charismatic frontman, a tight if somewhat predictable rhythm section and some songs that stick in your head without meaning much of anything. Presto! Instant pop star.

Only he's not a pop star -- yet. Over the past two years or so, Mendoza may have toured Spain, opened for Chuck Berry and G. Love & Special Sauce, and had songs used by the Sci-Fi Channel and MTV's Real World Chicago, but the big break hasn't happened. It's not for lack of work or marketing. The Great Latin Scare of the '90s doesn't seem to have legs, and Mendoza's music never really fit the Ricky Martin formula anyway. Take the song "Beautiful," the title track from his latest CD. The acoustic jangle, the sweet organ and the oh-so-'90s drum work may be pop, but it isn't quite slick enough to sell millions. Tunes such as "Beyond My Reach" might at first listen veer closer to the mainstream success Mendoza craves, but the mix of vague spiritualism -- "I know you're out there/I know you like to hide/But if I find you nowhere/Does that mean you're just a lie?" OK, you can scratch your head again -- cock-rock guitar solos and Latin percussion breaks is simply too strange to make sense on any radio format.

Bigger things may yet be on Mendoza's horizon. Unlike the vast majority of local artists, he's been able to pack venues such as Mississippi Nights and, over the last two years, the Javier Mendoza Band has actually built a bigger following in Chicago than in St. Louis. As mook-metal and frat rappers start to fade from the zeitgeist, maybe, just maybe, Mendoza's brand of bouncy, positive pop rock can slip in. -- Roy Kasten

Correction published 6/25/03:
In the original version of this story, Bottle Rockets' bassist Robert Kearns was mistakenly identified as no longer part of the band. According to frontman Brian Henneman, Kearns remains with the band and has never considered quitting. The above version reflects the corrected text.