Now’s as good a time as any, I guess, for me to get going on a post I’ve looked forward to writing for a long while. Today, I’m planting myself in a warm room for a few hours to bust out what I consider to be the best of the year that was.
To qualify for my list of the best local releases of 2011, an album had to meet both of these easy requirements: 1) it had to be performed and released by a Chicago-based (or local-ish) band and 2) it had to be released in the 2011 calendar year. With me?
Something new for this year is a little gift from me that you can take on home with you. At the bottom of this piece is a link to a free album of music handpicked by me featuring all the bands you’re going to be reading about oh so very shortly. That’s right: One song from every best of 2011 album condensed into one lovely and convenient .zip file. You’re welcome!
Let’s get on with it, yeah? In the spirit of the year that just passed, in order from liked to most liked, is my 11 of ’11.
11. Elsinore — Life Inside an Elephant EP | Review | Buy for $5
Batting first here is this list’s lone entry by a band not residing in County Cook. Based in the state of Illinois — more specific, Champaign — the quartet Elsinore generated waves of joy within me when I saw them open for Canasta two summers ago at Lincoln Hall. They were in town at the time promoting their Yes Yes Yes full-length, an album I later identified as the second-best thing to be released locally in 2010.
Their followup is really a taste of what I’d come to expect of their rock-pop. And I mean that practically, really: We get just four tunes here, with one of ‘em being a remix of the title track.
10. Little Boy Jr. — Local Thieves | Review | Download it Free!
Little Boy Jr. will take you back. Way back. For me, it’s to a place I respect and admire, but certainly didn’t live. People, the music on Local Thieves is ’60s party rock so craftily done that it could only be homage, not theft. There isn’t a bone within me that thinks Little Boy Jr. didn’t simply do good research to make old music sound relevant again.
9. The Singleman Affair — Silhouettes at Dawn | Review | Buy for $10
Last time I did one of these year-enders, Jeff Schneider and his Darling earned a spot on my list for their debut full-length, Lights That Last Forever. This time around, it’s his older brother Dan and his Singleman Affair. The Schneider boys ride again!
In a bizarre way, The Singleman Affair remind me of The 19oos. Not by sound, but in the disparity between recordings and the live show. On stage, Dan and his band come alive. Your just coated, enveloped even in their beats and throbs. On record, the mood is more subdued, and a radically different experience.
8. Soft Speaker — Vortrobos | Review | Buy for $5.99
We might only be nearing the halfway mark on my list here, but already we’ve reached the point where I’d like to introduce my favorite song of the year. Off Vortrobos, “Ask the Guild” is nearly eight minutes of cutting hooks and addictive guitar flair. Hell, you’ve got to get nearly three and a half minutes deep before any vocals appear. It’s a majestic piece of music, and the lead track off that album I’m handing out down at the end.
7. Elephant Gun — Kid Scissors | Review | Buy for $8
Well, how best to introduce Elephant Gun. They’ve got a touch of the zany, surely. (Xylophones have been known to do that, you know). And then when you pitch in a violin, some horns, steady drums and traditional guitar/bass filler, you’ve got a sound that’s about as eclectic as it is unexpected.
6. The Bears of Blue River — Dames | Review | Name Your Price
Dames represents a marked improvement to The Bears of Blue River’s raw and swingy jive. They’ve added some honest bulk with this release and seem way louder than anything they recorded on that spottier 2010 EP. Their guitars are heavier, certainly, and backing vocals are utilized more. And as I noted in my formal review of the album, Margaret Gard’s voice is richer here, and still a lovely complement to Gavin’s vocals. They’ve got a cuddly back and forth between them that I’ve had trouble finding elsewhere.
5. Minor Characters — Minor Characters EP | Review | Buy for $1
I can thank Elsinore for introducing me to Minor Characters. Well, the foursome happened to be sharing a bill with my favorite Champaign-based band one August evening, and I happened to bring with me some pals who consider it criminal not to arrive to shows early, and that’s how I came to know Minor Characters. Since then, I’ve reviewed their music — as I promised I would in my write-up of the show — and have seen them one other time when they bounced around to properly release it.
We really only get a taste here with five tracks on the books, but it was enough for me, at least, to consider their self-titled EP one of the year’s shiny bright spots. These guys, slow and melodic in their delivery, earned a handful of points with me, too, for appearing to be so damn nice. At live shows, their between-song banter is among the most genuine and heartfelt I’ve heard in the city. They’re just always so tickled to be playing music in front of people.
4. Grandpa vs. Grandma — The Grandpa vs. Grandma EP | Review | Download it Free!
What got me listening to Grandpa vs. Grandma at first, of course, was their name. I mean, Grandpa vs. Grandma! You ain’t human if you gloss over that moniker and then move on to the next thing. Their silly name caught my attention, surely, and then their travel rock did, too. Just a guy on guitar and gal on drums, Grandpa vs. Grandma sounds pretty mighty for what you’d otherwise expect from a two-piece. And by preaching about shoes and PBR, they go down as easily as cold beer.
3. Soft Speaker — I’ll Tend Your Garden | Buy for $5.99
Soft Speaker played the best live show of the year, and their first of two full-length albums of 2011 nearly ascending to the top of my favorite recordings, too. You heard correctly: Soft Speaker released dos albums in under a year, and both got placement on this master list. They’d certainly be on the shortlist for city band of the year if I did that kind of thing here.
What makes I’ll Tend Your Garden great? Or, at least, greater than Vortrobos? It showcases a peculiar brand of psychedelics. One of adventure and improv, as if its tunes are being handcrafted right there before you. It has an edge, but isn’t offputting. It’s fun, and doesn’t go stale.
2. Sons of the West — Sons of the West | Review | Buy for $7
Sons of the West is probably one of my favorite music discoveries of the past year. Perhaps of the entire year and a half of time I’ve called this city home. I happened upon them completely unexpectedly at a Martyr’s show in late March, and despite opening for two other bands, the threesome just owned the evening. They’re intense and tight, and happen to be an act I can respond to.
Fortunately for you and me, that power, that emphasis translates to their recordings. They do the right amount of vocal work to keep them accessible, yet their strength — and where they seem most confident — is in their jam. They put their noisemakers to work.
1. Apteka — Gargoyle Days | Review | Buy for $7.49
Just a few weeks ago, I brought to work my iPod loaded with Gargoyle Days and got it fired up and going by the time I began another day in the office. One spin of the album came and went, so I casually went back and played it a second time. And then a third. And then a fourth. I think I may have been in the middle of or even completed five cycles before I got control of myself and realized what I had let happen.
Gargoyle Days is hands down my album of the year. You see, there’s not a thing in the world wrong with letting it spin around and around again as you comfortably ride its roller coaster of tempos. (“Sriking Violet,” then “Monterey” will give you a good sense of its range). On Gargoyle Days, Apteka has bottled a kind of psych rock that is at times tough, at times gentle, at times an odd combination of the two that just works wonderfully for these guys.