The year-end albums post, now in its third edition, happens to be the thing I most look forward to writing all year for CT. Perhaps it’s because the other two have been the site’s most-read pieces. By a lot. It adds a kind of pressure that isn’t a factor when I’m reviewing one album.
More to the point, though, I like the challenge of summarizing the city’s year in music as I experienced it. Combing through the albums I’ve listened to and feel comfortable writing about and then selecting the ones that represent my year is the first step. Well, setting 12 as the magic number is one. Then doing what I just wrote is two. Next is arranging and rearranging and rearranging again how the albums should be ranked. Then the writing, finally.
So many questions rolled through my head: Does it matter at all to Mazes Blazes’ ranking that the album is, perhaps, a comeback album for a band that last released an album in 2009? Is it OK for me to consider Mazes Blazes a comeback album? (I do.) How many years does it take, on average, for an album to solidly be a comeback album, no question? Then there’s Outer Minds, which released a pair of full-lengths in 2012. Should the one I preferred — Behind the Mirror — get a bump for being from a band that released two albums in one year? Does it matter that Outer Minds’ live show is a total terror, and that they were the Empty Bottle’s unofficial house band for playing there like once a month? Then how about Suns, which self-released its first full-length album in December, and whose following is so mighty that the album probably would not have been recorded when it was recorded had it not been for a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter? How about Advance Base and Pony Trash and Absinthe & the Dirty Floors, three bands that made the list without my having seen them live? Should live shows matter in an albums list? (I think so.) Does it matter?
The number one reason I put this list together is to get you, the reader, to give some (though hopefully many) of my picks a listen. I wouldn’t write about an album here if I didn’t want you to listen to it. And hey, if you like what you’ve read and want to support some local artists, go ahead and buy some albums. Links are provided below to every album that made my list. The low is four bucks to a high of 12.
These 12 albums are the best local releases of the year. Are you ready?
#12 | Grandeurs by Grandeurs
Grandeurs has a way of teasing you with sonic catharsis. Songs on their debut EP — or is it LP? Seven tracks? — approach climax, and just as they’re about to maybe settle into some bit of atonement Grandeurs pulls away. They take it back. The technique left me feeling strangely in flux, and yet I commend the guys for withholding what the ears may want to have happen. Not long after I stumbled onto these guys, I saw them open a show at the Empty Bottle. I remember criticizing that the four-piece seemed to lack an onstage presence. Granted it was opening on a Wednesday night. But then I gave their album yet one more listen and recognized that the guys truly aren’t in the business of moving fast. Their music is maybe a little spiritual, and gets a lift from its piano, which is as soothing as it sounds.
Buy: 7 dollars | Recommended:
#11 | Ecstatic Vision by Daylight Robbery
Daylight Robbery’s show at the Orphanage over the summer was I think my first true taste of what a DIY show and venue might look like in the city. The Orphanage, to me, seemed like a reclaimed church and/or boarding house in Bridgeport that functions as a space for piercingly loud rock by night. Door fee is under 10 bucks, and in addition to the bands — who play one floor up, and on the same wood floor that I and everybody else stood on — there’s a tableful of homemade food, chips and dips to the side, and through another door what I think is called God’s Closet. Within are racks of clothes, shoes and books and small wares, free for the taking or to be added to. Like the cup of pennies usually placed next to cash registers inside greasy spoons. I don’t know the kinds of bands that typically get booked at the Orphanage, but I’d like to think they look and sound a lot like Daylight Robbery. The site seemed to be made for bands that play hard and quick, and that sail through songs just two or three minutes long. That’s Daylight Robbery. For sure punk rock, but the accessible kind with dueling guy-girl vocals.
Buy: 5 dollars | Recommended:
#10 | Behind the Mirror by Outer Minds
I don’t think another band comes close to the number of times I saw Outer Minds this year. Whatever the tally ended at, I still wish it would have included their set at Pitchfork over the summer and, more recently, their record release for Behind the Mirror at the Empty Bottle. The release show, anyway, probably would have been a fitting close for a band whose live show so eloquently improved through the year. At Miles Raymer’s NYC sendoff and then at a fall fundraiser at the Empty Bottle, Outer Minds beamed with a spirited confidence that I’m hard-pressed to find in the warrior eyes of most other locals. Outer Minds released a pair of full-lengths in 2012, and the darker and creepier one, Behind the Mirror, slightly betters the self-titled album that arrived before it. They’ve scrubbed away some of the fuzz that seemed overdone on the prior release, and retooled their imitative ‘60s sound to seem more in step with the times. They appear more bothered and anxious. More complex and interesting, to be sure.
Buy: $7.99 | Recommended:
#9 | Radar Eyes by Radar Eyes
Radar Eyes is one of a tiny handful of bands that really seemed to influence my music tastes in the early going of 2012. In all it was Radar Eyes, Bare Mutants, Outer Minds, the Runnies, maybe some Tyler Jon Tyler (now defunct, sadly.) They all seemed to play shows together — particularly true of the first three — and it wasn’t uncommon to see more than one in a night. In the case of Radar Eyes’ record release at the Empty Bottle, it happened to be all three. A night that still stands as one of my favorites of the year. Leave it to the Empty Bottle to book a good night of music. Like that never happens. Radar Eyes’ self-titled is the most lo-fi thing on the list, and though it enhances the grunge and kicks up the dirt RE probably went for, the lo-fi seems to detract in the way it did on Outer Minds’ self-titled release. I wouldn’t have minded some genuine scrubbing to clear up Anthony’s vocal.
Buy: $9.99 | Recommended:
#8 | Great Ideas in Action by Archie Powell & the Exports
Archie Powell seems a way better band than it has any right being. Their words are simple, but clear. They so excel as musicians on record and stage, though, that their sonic talents subsidize what seems like relaxed substance to me. It’s a closed system that pushes sustained wind into the sails of AP&E’s outlaw ship: A band that works in the city that works. They play earnestly. They roll through sets with the kind of authority I hope to see in headliners. They’ve got cute boyish chemistry under lights, too — the macho in them will want to criticize a dude calling them cute, I’m sure — that makes an important assumption ring truer each time I’ve seen them: They spend a ton of time together when they’re not making music. I revisited their May release, Great Ideas in Action, in December, and it seems the full length improved with age. The beauty of hindsight, as well, revealed what I hadn’t pinpointed in the spring. “You Might Be Cruel” and the title track are low energy bombs embedded in an otherwise reputable product. That neither song, I don’t think, got played at the shows I went to this year makes it seem like Archie Powell recognizes this to some degree. I suggest skipping over both and letting the nine other tracks speak for the album. Great Ideas’ loud power then reigns.
Buy: $7.50 | Recommended:
#7 | My Life is Easy by Cains & Abels
Record Store Day for me this past year was a lot of coming and going from record store Saki a few blocks west of the Burlington on Fullerton. Bare Mutants was the first to go by the time I stepped in, and I remember heading back later on to catch the spunky, underappreciated garage outfit the Runnies. Following Bare Mutants, though, was an unfamiliar three-piece I was ambitious enough to stick around for. Cains & Abels, man. Front man Dave is the rare front man rockin’ the bass. And his voice, though distinguished and perhaps the prettiest of all the voices in all the bands I’ve included in this list, curiously take some time getting used to. Much of my year in music was slop guitars and messy fuzz. Finding out about CA in the spring was like stumbling into a timely cadence. They cleanse the palette by weaving the listener through lyrical tapestries of life and woodland imagery. My Life is Easy evolves and it grows, and I like to think its strongest material is in its back end. I once wrote that the final track, “Grow Me Home,” should lead out CA shows, and either a) the band listened and agreed, b) the band was already doing it or c) by coincidence “Grow Me Home” closed out every CA show I’ve seen. Its fault, though, and I’ve found the same to be true of much CA material, is it’s a five-minute song that still seems peculiarly short. I’m swept away by the ending jam the guys carefully peak to on “Grow Me Home” and it seems cut off. I can’t help but wish it went a minute more.
Buy: 12 dollars | Recommended:
#6 | Pony Trash by Pony Trash
Pony Trash is the only band to appear on this list that doesn’t live and play in Chicago. They’re actually based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I don’t know how often — if ever — they’ve driven down 90/94 to visit us. I only started listening to them a few months ago and haven’t studied how extensively they might tour. They’re allowed in though — like the Champaign-based Elsinore in prior years — for being what I consider a regionally-based band in relation to Chicago. It’s my way of saying, “Hey, you’re close enough, Pony Trash,” in a Midwest embrace. Now Pony Trash happens to be one of those bands where my finding out about them escapes me. It might have to do with their name, which admittedly is very odd. Kind of like the way I got my start with Grandpa vs. Grandma. Although that two-piece is an entirely different kind of band, the name Grandpa vs. Grandma is one you’re likely not going to forget right away. Pony Trash is hazy and smooth. I wouldn’t claim they are a bass-driven outfit. I’d say, though, they’re an outfit that relies on the bass.
Buy: 5 dollars | Recommended:
#5 | A Shut-In’s Prayer by Advance Base
I have contributor Danny Cohen to thank for calling my attention to Owen Ashworth. His new music project, Advance Base, opened for Ben Gibbard at the Athenaeum Theatre in November. Danny’s nice words about Advance Base prior to his fuller review of Gibbard was what incited me to check out Advance Base for myself. Owen’s stripped approach — him and his Casio and drum machine much of the time — leaves Owen seeming naked. His raw words — feelings, really — become alive. From Danny’s review and my spins of A Shut-In’s Prayer, I’d imagined Owen’s deep and thick boom of a voice probably danced wonderfully ‘round the walls of the Athenaeum. I’d hoped to see what Owen would be like in a smaller room at his Burlington set in early December, but a mishap involving a pump and hybrid bike tire foiled my plan. Another time.
Buy: 8 dollars | Recommended:
#4 | Mazes Blazes by Mazes
To date it seems writing about Mazes in any capacity can’t be done by me without making some kind of mention or nod to the 1900s. It’s because Mazes and the 1900s are like kin. Mazes is many parts 1900s and the 1900s is many parts Mazes. Mazes is the more experimental one of the bunch, though, and ill-afraid to climb new heights by way of other branches. The radical departure Mazes accomplished from the 1900s-like (pre-ROTC, to be sure) Mazes in 2009 to the whimsy and beauty of Mazes Blazes in 2012 speaks to that. Mazes Blazes is like a long daydream. Certainly the most whimsical album I’ve heard from 2012 and perhaps the most whimsical album I’ve heard from several more. Common sense says “Magnificent Beast” and “Peace Can Do No Wrong” don’t belong on an album together. But that’s the magic of Mazes Blazes. The range in styles among its 17 tracks makes for a breathtaking experience to the listener. What could be mistaken an uneven actually sounds very even to me in full.
Buy: 8 dollars | Recommended:
#3 | Uh Bones by Uh Bones
I found out about Uh Bones by way of Magic Milk. That they frequently share bills is significant, I think, because of how naturally their sounds intertwine despite unique approaches to what lo-fi rock should be. On the stage Magic Milk shifts about already spastic music spastically and reminds me how ostentatious their front man is each time he plays a long set without pants. Next to that Uh Bones could be the most reserved fuzz act in the city. That’s been my impression even when they don’t share space with Magic Milk, like in December at the Burlington. The set was my first show there, and I was moved from the start by the way the venue puts on a show. The stage is a touch past the bar behind a foyer bookended by doors. You enter in and it feels oddly like standing inside a cave despite a lack of anything that resembles one. It’s a lowly lit space with dark walls. Like a miniature Empty Bottle. That night Uh Bones put on 40 minutes of class. They don’t seem to have much following yet, so for now it seems like I’ve stumbled upon some great secret about the city’s garage scene. Their self-titled album is my favorite EP of the year.
Buy: 4 dollars | Recommended:
#2 | Absinthe & the Dirty Floors by Absinthe & the Dirty Floors
Absinthe & the Dirty Floors seems like a faux-alternative rock troupe from the early to mid ‘90s that, of course, didn’t actually exist then. It’s like they’ve pulled a few of their favorite things of the era and refashioned them into something new. All the while, though, I don’t know (in fact I don’t think) that they sound like any of those yesteryear bands. Instead it’s whiffs of familiarity: the muddy guitar riffs leading out “The Way I Am,” the honest, several minutes-long piano affixed to the end of “Black Ice,” Jessica’s dual lead/support vocal on “FUBOX.” The band sits in some misty gray area of make believe. It’s my understanding that Absinthe & the Dirty Floors, the album, isn’t so much an album as it is the combined gift of two four-track EPs (Side A/Side B) released in separate years. The latter in 2012.
Buy: 4 dollars | Recommended:
#1 | When We Were Us by Suns
Once I settled on the 12 albums that best represented Chicago music in 2012, I went about deciding an appropriate order. No matter how many times I revised the rankings, there was one album that remained in its spot from beginning to end. Of course I’m writing about Suns and their debut full-length. I stumbled upon Suns in early June when I caught their set following Caught in Your Pockets (now defunct, sadly) at Subterranean. I probably won’t ever forget that show because it was the night I ran frantic to the bar to get me some earplugs. (Quick Suns primer: They have two drummers striking their own kits. Think about it.) Then with the four guitars and SubT’s tendency to up the volume at the audio board, my ears were just bleeding. Back at the bar, the bartender had zero idea what was going on because she couldn’t hear me at all. She kept holding up different bottles of beer in an attempt to figure out what brewery I was trying to say. This isn’t to say I didn’t love the shit out of Suns. And it may be a SubT thing. I saw ‘em again at Township and the volume was comparable to anything you might see in the city.When We Were Us is an album that would be terrible (nay — impossible!) to split. Tracks blend and overlap like their ends are permeable and made of liquid. It’s an album that must be experienced as an album, which is a hard thing to find these days. Never can you drop into a song — beginning, middle, end — and piece together what the rest might sound like. Each piece is an adventure of tempos and intensities, vocals and instrumentals. When We Were Us sticks the least to structure and form of the entire list, and yet its deviation from the norms only speaks to the high, high level of careful planning that went into the release.
Buy: 5 dollars | Recommended:
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