(81 points, four first-place votes; see the complete list)
Balboa is the most important Knoxville band. Period. No band has ever meant more to this city’s music scene. Nobody else can touch them. Like The Velvet Underground or The Ramones, Balboa was a band that spawned many other important local acts. While the band certainly embodied the DIY aesthetic and street-level consciousness of punk, they steered around punk cliché at every turn. That said, they were classified as punks, and Knoxville’s primordial punk scene coalesced around them.
The group’s real importance lies in their music. The X factor of Balboa was its lead singer, guitarist, and visionary, the late Terry Hill. Deftly avoiding easy categorization, Hill picked the best elements of several genres to create the band’s truly original sound. Balboa sometimes utilized the ramalama riffs and surly mien of the punks. But with musical chops to burn, the band also appropriated the cerebral proto-prog-rock of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, and delivered the entire concoction with just a hint of country twang.
More than just a musical genius, Hill served as a figurehead for several of Knoxville’s then-wannabe musicians who would later make their own marks. Terry Hill was our Lou Reed. Just being in his presence made you cool by proxy.
While Balboa’s tenure was comparatively brief, their influence resounds to this day. It’s pretty amazing that a band that only had one limited-pressing release and a handful of compilation tracks is still remembered, let alone revered. But Balboa earned this reverence. The band busted the local scene wide open, proved to everyone that it was cooler to follow your own muse than to follow the herd, and created challenging and expressive music that sounds fresh to this day.
There surely would have been a Knoxville scene without Balboa, but it would have been a lot different. And that familiar retrospective narrative about how they should have made it big does not apply. Balboa rocked and they changed people’s lives. They were huge.