Josh had his fun. (Twice). Now it’s my turn to give my take on the best albums of the year. To keep things local, all of ’em are by bands from Chicago. (Or, as you’ll soon see, bands that live in proximity).
I could expound upon the quality of this year’s release pool, but alas, I’d rather cut the bullshit and jump into my favorites. Here they are!
10. Darling – Lights That Last Forever (review)
Probably the least polished of the discs on the list — no surprise here; I mean, it is No. 10 — Lights That Last Forever holds a special place in my heart for being the product of a band that I just really, really enjoy. And I’m not only alluding to their live show. Lead vocal/guitar Jeff Schneider has an indelible passion for music, and a resistance to settling. Whatever Darling is now probably differs from what it started out as. And what we’ll get served next will be different still. It’s that growth — something I noticed even in two live shows separated by a matter of months — that helped form my conclusions. As for Lights That Last Forever, it’s, as I’ve said before, an opportunity to listen to young guys try something. It’s not outstanding in any particular way, but gets away with the idea of being a home-grown effort that means well. The more I listen to it, the more I like it.
9. Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s – Buzzard (review)
The first of a handful of bands that aren’t really from here, Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s (based in Indianapolis) released one hell of an album this year in Buzzard. It’s by far the darkest album on the list, and in many ways is a heck of a lot different from anything else you’ll read about in this post. (Most of that’s framed by the oppressive lyrics, like calling women, among other things, grave robbers, rage mongers and bloodsuckers. Me thinks a breakup is the root cause). And yet I’m insanely attracted to Buzzard — the goth-like jams, in particular, are intense and satisfying — because like the rest of the music we feature here on Chicago Tunes, it’s great stuff.
8. Warm Ones – Sprezzatura (review)
For anybody who can’t stand listening to what seems like the same song over and over, Warm Ones’ Sprezzatura is probably your album. Each successive track varies from the one that came before it: “Bacteriostatic” absolutely melts your face off, “Quiet Epilogue” is about what it sounds like, “Small Spies” is a lovely duet featuring The 1900s’ Jeanine O’Toole, and so on. It’s an eclectic bag of tunes that, for commonality’s sake, at least share brief runtimes. It’s amazing that tracks like “Bacteriostatic” and “Hot Flash” are included on the same album, and yet it works.
7. Canasta – The Fakeout, the Tease and the Breather (review)
Of course the group that helped inspire the idea of Chicago Tunes appears on my list of favorites at the end of the year. At first, I was drawn by their dedication and care. I mean, check out this, and then their Facebook on any given day and you’ll get the idea that these guys practice a lot. And it shows. The Fakeout, the Tease and the Breather is preciously arranged orchestral pop. A conscious effort was put in motion to make The Fakeout a special thing, and the result on the other end is a disc you want to listen to the whole way through. Casual music listeners are attracted to their uniqueness (a full-time violinist, two keyboardists, a brass section on some tunes), while indie rock enthusiasts are probably akin to their talents and poetry.
6. Tiny Magnets – Daughters of the Frontier EP (review)
The first of two EPs to squeeze their way onto my list of the year’s top albums, Daughters of the Frontier has a few things going for it that I like from my local rock outfits. I like the pairing of male and female vocalists, the extended track lengths and the Chicago shout-outs. Their songs, too, are dishes best served live — mostly for pockets that provide opportunity for Tiny Magnets to explore the space, their sound and, well, their abilities. More often than not, the band seems to go off script on stage, making their album a far cry from what they’re able to do when not grounded by time constraints.
5. Santah – White Noise Bed (review)
Forgive me, I think I’m still working off the high of their year’s end show at Schubas. Santah’s set, which was a week ago tomorrow, was wholly fantastic. It made me appreciate White Noise Bed, and the band, on a new level. As recent U of I graduates, what the five-piece Santah can do with their instruments and words — let alone their confidence and presence on stage — is truly impressive. White Noise Bed is full of tracks that can best be described as slow burns. They don’t move by much force or speed, yet are totally worth the trip when you get to the other side.
4. California Wives – Affair EP (review)
A frontrunner for “quality Chicago band that I’ve still yet to see in a club,” California Wives put out a killer EP in 2010. My only true gripe with it, really, is that it’s an EP — so *only* 20 minutes of new music. There’s something to be said, too, about California Wives appearing on my list as well as Josh’s. Besides sharing the idea that music is good for being, you know, good and not for being popular, Josh seems to like his bands and I seem to like mine. California Wives, though, is one we apparently agree on. Their electronic sound is catchy and addicting.
3. Gold Motel – Summer House (review)
Gold Motel’s Summer House is an education on power pop. It’s tracks — from opener “We’re on the Run” to “Safe in L.A.” to, well, most everything — is suffocatingly fetching and fun. I forget where I found it, but “Perfect (In My Mind)” is the song that first turned me on to Gold Motel, and I’m thankful as anything to have run across it this year. Give Summer House a spin; “Perfect” is no one-off fluke.
2. Elsinore – Yes Yes Yes (review)
For a good chunk of the year, Elsinore’s Yes Yes Yes was my favorite release of the year. I think the reason I’m so compelled to listen to it, time and time again, is because it’s a rock album done super well. I adore the extended jams (“Landlocked” and “In the Sea & Air” open the album with a special mini rock opera) and, also, Ryan Groff’s commentary on love (“Lines” is one of the best, stripped-down takes on the L-word I’ve heard in years). At the same time, though, Elsinore so seamlessly weaves in pop to have you thinking the boys’ve been working in the biz for dozens of years.
1. The 1900s – Return of the Century (review)
The band that, I think, puts on the best live show in the city is also the band that, hands down, released the best album of the year. If I compiled my list based on the number of times I listened to each album, Return of the Century would be at the top by a landslide. I think I’ve listened to it just about every day for a good two months now — for one, it’s the soundtrack I oddly run to — and even that may be an understatement. The 1900s on Return of the Century sound like a blast from the past. They easily could’ve released the disc in the ’70s and fit right in with the goings-on at the time. The thing is they didn’t. They’re very much from our era, making Return of the Century, I think, a brilliantly daring and risky operation. I’d say the highlights are “Babies” and “Sanzimat,” yet I’d argue every frickin’ track has merits worth discussing. “Overreactin’,” for example, was one of my least favorites — until I heard it live. When I listen to it now, I consider the myself of a month ago to be absolutely nuts to think skipping over it a good idea. Were I to say anything more about Return of the Century, I think you’d accuse me of being hyperbolic and disregard my opinion. But, trust me, Return of the Century would be a welcome addition to the libraries of anyone who appreciates good tunes. I’m anxious to get my hands on a vinyl copy if and when that happens.