Music » Music Feature

Our favorite music of 2014

Six Reader writers go deep with specialized year-end lists that do more than just put the same records in a different order.

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Year In Review

The best things about Chicago music | Leor Galil

Much of what I loved about Chicago's music scene in 2014 can't be summed up with a list of LPs (or Datpiff downloads or Soundcloud pages). So I picked five things that say the most about my year and why it was great.

Chicago hip-hop builds an empire From a major-label sales standpoint, rap didn't do so hot this year, but locally something new to be excited about popped up every week. Timbaland made a protege of Calumet City rapper and singer Tink, Nicki Minaj tapped Terror Town rapper Lil Herb for her fire-starting "Chi-Raq" (which came out shortly after his superb Welcome to Fazoland mixtape), and south-side MC Dreezy caught Common's ear with a remix (she's since appeared on his tenth album, Nobody's Smiling). Rappers Saba and Mick Jenkins released excellent mixtapes that richly illustrated the worlds within Chicago's city limits, indie label Closed Sessions kept up its enviable track record with full-lengths from Alex Wiley and A-Villa, and animated avant-garde trio Hurt Everybody broke out ready to pounce. It wouldn't surprise me if a couple more jewels drop before the end of the year.

Tributes to Frankie Knuckles and DJ Rashad These two titans of electronic music both passed away this spring, and the way they've been honored speaks to the beauty of the Chicago scene. DJ Spinn honored Rashad, his longtime friend and collaborator, by bringing out their entire musical family for an exuberant footwork party at Pitchfork—it brought tears to my eyes, even though it was most boisterous set of the festival. I missed the Frankie Knuckles tribute concert at Millennium Park in June, but several times a week I pass by the Artistic Bombing Crew's colorful mural memorializing Frankie near Fullerton and Sacramento, where he's got a record floating behind his head like a halo—the only thing that could make it better would be if it were somehow bigger.

Emo's crush on Chicago Emo has gone global, but its heart remains in the midwest—and Chicago had a hand in more than its share of great tunes in 2014. Braid and Owls delivered reunion albums, Kittyhawk hit the sweet spot on their debut, and Into It. Over It. main man Evan Weiss produced primo LPs by You Blew It! and the Jazz June. Plenty of small local DIY labels and bands kept the buzz going on a promising new site called Couch King Emo, which is dedicated to the young scene (and based partly in Chicago). Our city is also a magnet for touring emo bands, and Massachusetts group the Hotelier—who made my favorite album of the year—came through town a few times in 2014.

Chicago's Bandcamp game Screw Spotify. When it comes to streaming music, I'm a Bandcamp fan. Surfing the "Chicago" tag this past year led me to the lo-fi magic of Hot Bagels and the unearthly soundtrack (by Ben Babbitt of Pillars & Tongues) for the third act of local indie game Kentucky Route Zero. I lost big chunks of lots of days falling down Bandcamp rabbit holes, and I'm richer for it.

SPF420's Memorial Day barbecue Tinychat-­based concert series SPF420 continues to bring together artists from diverse underground-­electronic scenes online, and this Memorial Day its organizers hosted a rare IRL event. Their backyard barbecue ran late into the night, turning into an indoor party, and it featured a broad range of local acts—including avant-pop singer the GTW, celestial producer Starfoxxx, and footwork auteurs DJ Earl, Heavee, and DJ Taye. (Of course, it was also broadcast online.) The party's informal atmosphere, big speakers, kiddie pools, and colorful crowd made the hours I spent there memorable ones; the hot dogs weren't half bad either.


Chicago contemporary classical | Peter Margasak

Chicago's thriving contemporary classical community continued to expand in 2014, with new groups emerging and older ones evolving and growing stronger. The city has always had tons of great musicians, but it's never had so many who've committed themselves to daring, cutting-edge sounds. These five recordings, listed alphabetically, were my favorites.

Aperiodic, Jürg Frey: More or Less (New Focus) Led by composer Nomi Epstein, Aperiodic specializes in post-Cage experimental music, favoring works that demand creative input from each performer—including text-based scores where the conceptual framework that the musicians bring to the piece can shape a performance more dramatically than anything else. The group's first commercial recording consists of three works by Swiss composer Jürg Frey, a key figure in the austere Wandelweiser collective. More or Less Normal and Canones Incerti use overlapping tones—some protracted, some terse—to create their lapidary beauty. The third, 60 Pieces of Sound, builds from similar materials (the tones are shorter on average) but separates the collages of sustained notes with frequent silence.

Ensemble dal Niente, Aaron Einbond: Without Words (Carrier) Ensemble dal Niente made one hell of a splash with its first album, a collection of pieces by New York composer Aaron Einbond. He built most of them from delicate urban and rural environmental sounds, using a computer to assist his thrilling combinations of more or less unedited field recordings with musique concrete and instrumental passages that draw on radical extended techniques. On the title piece, soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett weaves violent wordless utterances and borrowed texts through massive reed splats and punishing string thwacks—with some sounds enhanced or obliterated by electronics.

Fifth House Ensemble, Excelsior (Cedille) Few groups work as diligently as Fifth House Ensemble to logically incorporate complementary multimedia elements into their performances—Fifth House's recent collaborations have included works with comic artist Ezra Claytan Daniels and video maker Buki Bodunrin. That openness to diverse approaches comes through in their repertoire choices too: On this album they bring a luminescent, airy touch to recent works by the likes of Alex Shapiro, Jesse Limbacher, and Mason Bates (a Mead Composer-in-­Residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). The highlight is Caleb Burhans's Excelsior, which features gorgeous singing from New York-based soprano Martha Cluver; weightless and lyrical, it's a musical response to Captain Joseph Kittinger's 1960 parachute jump from 102,800 feet.

Fonema Consort, Pasos en Otra Calle (New Focus) This ensemble has changed my thinking on contemporary classical vocal music. The dynamic performances of Fonema's singers, Nina Dante and Nathalie Colas, complement conventional operatic passages with dazzling extended techniques, providing as much of the music's color and texture as the bold instrumental parts do. On its debut album, the group focuses on new work by one of its cofounders, Pablo Chin, and a fellow Costa Rican, London-based composer Mauricio Pauly; most of the pieces incorporate Spanish-language texts by the likes of Octavio Paz and Julio Cortázar, whose images and ideas the music echoes and refracts.

Austin Wulliman, Katherine Young: Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight (Parlour Tapes) Chicago composer Katherine Young wrote this album's three spooky, sibilant, richly atmospheric pieces for Spektral Quartet violinist and violist Austin Wulliman. His breathy, occasionally improvised arco playing often sounds unpitched, as though the bow isn't biting the strings hard enough to produce a specific note; sometimes he breaks it up with intense tangles of pizzicato. It evolves within an environment of stark, unsettling electronic textures and percussive, detuned thwacks on an electric guitar, and on one piece Ensemble dal Niente shadows him with harrowing whooshes and slabs of abstract sound. Maybe something so out-there shouldn't be referred to as "contemporary classical," but when music is this engrossing and exciting, who cares what it's called?

  • Marne Lucas Photography
  • Witch Mountain

Live metal | Philip Montoro

I'm repeating myself with this list of the best live metal to hit Chicago in the past year—High on Fire also got a spot in 2012—but that's not because I wasn't spoiled for choice. It's because I have favorite bands, like a normal human. (I could've easily included another Meshuggah or Carcass show too.) Honorable mentions go to Coffins, Pseudogod, Sleep, Swans, Ash Borer, Om, Pyrrhon, and Boris. Also, I wrote this before the Pallbearer concert last week.

Godflesh at Metro on Tue 4/15 I'd waited more than 20 years to see these UK industrial-metal pioneers play live, and they opened with "Like Rats" and "Christbait Rising," the two best songs from 1989's Streetcleaner. I felt like a piece of sheet metal being fed through a 2,000-ton stamping press that was trying to play Eric B. & Rakim. Of course, it needed to be louder—my heart was still beating on its own.

Behemoth at House of Blues on Fri 4/25 Poland's kings of blackened death metal have such precise control over their live show that it reads exactly as they intend it to: as an expression of elegant, focused rage at the oppression of hypocritical piety. They evoke a Miltonian or gnostic version of Satan—the liberator, the guiding spirit, the bringer of dawn—and never more powerfully than during this set's final moments, when the three front-line members returned to the stage wearing glossy black full-head masks, with noble, impassive faces and beautiful tapering horns, and stood atop three separate altars in a blaze of white light.

Nazoranai at the Empty Bottle on Tue 5/20 In this improvising trio, guitarist and vocalist Keiji Haino, bassist Stephen O'Malley, and drummer Oren Ambarchi summon the fury, grief, and catharsis of the best doom metal, but without using words or anything resembling songs. Released from those structures, Nazoranai's dark energy forks through time the way a lightning bolt chooses its path through the air—and Haino is the black-hole shaman conducting its arc to earth. At this show, even his solo on what looked like a wired-up Slinky had the gravitas of a world-ending ritual.

High on Fire at the Empty Bottle on Sat 5/31 This Oakland band's barbarian metal always has the apocalyptic, bloodthirsty drive of a galloping Mongol horde, but put it in a room as small as the Empty Bottle and the sound pressure climbs so high you can almost see the riffs, like heat shimmer in the air. This set felt like being rolled down a hill inside a coal-burning furnace.

Witch Mountain at Beat Kitchen on Thu 9/18 This was Uta Plotkin's last tour singing for Oregon four-piece Witch Mountain, which pairs her clean vocals with charcoal-black guitars and dilated, doomy riffs. She sounds like Ann Wilson of Heart if she'd been raised by wolves, and even though she doesn't have a lick of metal swagger in her stage presence—she sometimes just crouches on the floor between verses—her voice alone can give me chills. Metal is pretty good at making me want to throw a newspaper box through the windshield of a cop car, but it almost never stops me in my tracks with the hair standing up on the back of my neck.

Kyle Bruckmann's Wrack - PETER GANNUSHKIN
  • Peter Gannushkin
  • Kyle Bruckmann's Wrack

Chicago contemporary jazz | Bill Meyer

Chicago's jazz community exerts such a strong gravitational pull that even musicians who've moved away or never lived here in the first place get drawn into its orbit. The source of this energy is a web of musical relationships among players that transmits its dynamic chemistry from one ensemble to the next—and these five records are the best released in 2014 by the folks in that web.

Kyle Bruckmann's Wrack, . . . Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire (Singlespeed) Oboist and English horn player Kyle Bruckmann left Chicago in 2003 and currently lives in the Bay Area, where he plays classical and experimental electronic music. But before he left he founded Wrack, a group of Chicago-based jazz musicians, and he's kept it running with return visits and tours. The marvelous compositions on . . . Awaits Silent Tristero's Empire are inspired by descriptions of incidental music in Thomas Pynchon's novels, and they use a brashly diverse array of sounds and approaches—including Charles Ives-inspired orchestration, Art Ensemble of Chicago-style exploration of tiny sounds, muscular improvisation, and filthy strip-club beats.

Russ Johnson Quartet, Meeting Point (Relay) Since moving back to Wisconsin from New York in 2011, trumpeter Russ Johnson has maintained a strong presence in Chicago. As of this writing, his blog lists more upcoming gigs here than in his hometown of Milwaukee, and he plays some of his most exciting music with this combo of Chicago-based musicians. Bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Tim Daisy also appear on the Wrack CD, but on Johnson's Meeting Point the emphasis is on virtuosic soloing and highly responsive interaction bounded by a framework of sturdy melodies, with a sense of time that morphs organically between pungent swing and tumultuous free flow.

Rob Mazurek, Mother Ode (Corbett vs. Dempsey) This release documents the concert and farewell ritual with which multi-instrumentalist Rob Mazurek paid tribute to his recently deceased mother. The episodic suite alternates between bold, intricate cornet passages, mournful chants, and delicate interludes for percussion and flute, which together evoke the experience of remembering a long and varied life. Despite the gestural nature of portions of the performance—it ended with Mazurek hefting a trunk filled with treasured keepsakes over his head and shaking it until he couldn't hold it up anymore, while a massive electronic drone filled the space—it translates powerfully to CD.

Rempis/Abrams/Ra, Aphelion (Aerophonic) No matter the setting, saxophonist Dave Rempis reliably contributes adroit, high-energy playing that infuses its improvisational frenzy with compositional rigor. His trio with bassist and guimbri player Joshua Abrams and veteran AACM percussionist Avreeayl Ra delivers plenty of full-on fire music, but the rhythm section's spacious feel and generous use of North African grooves draws out Rempis's lyrical side, resulting in an album that's as gorgeous as it is intense.

Jason Roebke Octet, High/Red/Center (Delmark) Jason Roebke is best known as a versatile bassist, equally persuasive whether he's updating bebop cadences with Mike Reed's People, Places & Things or trading raw noise with electronicist Brian Labycz. With the octet record High/Red/Center he proves himself an inspired composer and orchestrator as well, building on the best ideas from similarly sized bands led by Charles Mingus and Misha Mengelberg and adding a feel for springy rhythms and minimalist-inspired long tones that's all his own.

Hollow Mountain - RAY OLIVARES
  • Ray Olivares
  • Hollow Mountain

Chicago rock singles | Luca Cimarusti

Chicago's grimy rock 'n' roll underground kept pumping out the hits this year, and I listened to these five killer EPs more than any others. If I had to think of something bad to say about any of these records, it'd be that they're all too short.

Hollow Mountain, Hollow Mountain (Tall Pat) These three punks love Black Sabbath, and they've taken Iommi-inspired riffage and juiced it up with Ramones-style pop sensibility to create this addictive EP. The guitars buzz and the drums stomp while the sugar-sweet hooks of bassist and vocalist Esther Kim soar overhead.

Mines, "Addict" (Maximum Pelt) Mines mastermind Bill Satek once again blends the pretty and the bizarre with this twisted trip of song, half of a split with Hunt Hunt Hunt Camp and a follow-up to last year's expansive avant-pop masterpiece Just Another Thing That Got Ruined. I spun "Addict" more than pretty much any other single tune all year. It's beautiful and damaged, catchy and fried.

Negative Scanner, "Ambitious People" and "Evening News" b/w "R.I.P." (Trouble in Mind) The craziest thing about this excellent postpunk four-piece is that everybody slept on them for so long—Negative Scanner rose from the ashes of Tyler Jon Tyler a couple winters ago, and only now is someone finally putting out a record for them. This seven-inch, the band's first release, captures the band's excitement on tape as they smoke through three soulful blasts of nervous energy with reckless abandon.

Running, "Frizzled" and "I Got It" b/w "Totally Fired" (God?) This noise-punk trio started out as a cacophonous train wreck, but on this seven-inch, released by God? Records (Ty Segall's Drag City imprint), they've tightened up their harsh psychedelic squall into terse, repetitive barrages of paranoid, uncomfortable weirdness.

Tinkerbelles, Fine Asses (Teepeespeek) Pressed onto transparent yellow "asparagus-­piss-scented" vinyl, Tinkerbelles' Fine Asses EP is a mini voyage into postpunk outer space. This bass-and-drums duo plays buzzy, heavy-hitting, Wire-flavored marches that alternate between almost militaristic call-and-response vocals and massive, melodic choruses tailor-made for yelling along.

Pitchfork Music Festival - KRISTINA PEDERSEN
  • Kristina Pedersen
  • Pitchfork Music Festival

Festivals that got it right | Sasha Geffen

In 2014, the institution of the music festival started showing cracks. Fatigue with corporate branding continued to grow, raising the question of whether it's worth it for a fest to grow as hard and fast as it can. And people died—drug overdoses and drunk-­driving accidents stained the year. Here in Chicago, though, plenty of festivals focused on community, and these five, listed in chronological order, especially felt like home.

Ian's Party On the first weekend of the year, hordes of bands piled into Logan Square to play the punk-rock marathon Ian's Party. Founded in Elgin in 2008 and moved to Chicago in 2012, it's named after Ian Floetl, who supposedly earned the honor by losing a game of rock-paper-­scissors to his buddies booking the fest. (Lots of people think it celebrates his birthday, but that's in July.) This year, the three-day fest was split between Quenchers and Township, whose sound systems nobly endured hours of high-decibel crunch. Its more than 40 bands were the strongest Ian's Party lineup yet—Meat Wave, Tenement, Swimsuit Addition, and dozens more gave fans plenty of incentive to brave the polar vortex and remember what it felt like to sweat. This year's edition, which arrives next week, takes over Quenchers, the Burlington, Cole's, and the Mutiny.

Tomorrow Never Knows In 2014 Chicago's biggest winter music festival hosted life-­affirming acts from all over the stylistic map (and all over the continent), including slick electro-jazz duo Darkside, Merge mainstays Superchunk, and Tennessee six-piece Diarrhea Planet with their four-part guitarmonies. Bizarre drone sets from Tim Hecker and Oneohtrix Point Never filled Lincoln Hall on a freezing January night. Tomorrow Never Knows underlined the feeling of community that Chicago's music fans carry around all year.

Chicago International Movies & Music Festival Nothing makes a movie click like its music, and the reverse is often just as true. By bringing together film geeks and music fans, CIMMfest can present performances you're not likely to see elsewhere. Live scores were the highlight of the 2014 lineup; Califone played a droning acoustic set to Pat O'Neill's experimental film Water and Power, and Wrekmeister Harmonies' dark arts accompanied a silent horror film from 1922.

Pitchfork Music Festival It's a big-name spectacle from a big-name publication (which, disclaimer, publishes my writing), but this year's Pitchfork avoided some of the pitfalls that plague many summer sweatfests. By sticking to Union Park (and to three music stages), it kept to a friendly size—you'd never find yourself forced to gallop from set to set. The book tent gave a platform to authors and zine publishers, while out on the main stages Slowdive, Grimes, and Neutral Milk Hotel all played to joyful crowds. Drama ran low this year, and the temperatures mercifully followed suit.

Pygmalion Music Festival A few hours south, Urbana-Champaign closed the summer festival season with a party of its own. In its tenth year, Pygmalion hosted a feverishly anticipated reunion: Chicago emo favorites American Football got back together to play the final headlining set. And before Mike Kinsella's return at the head of his fabled band, the fest featured some of the year's strongest up-and-coming live acts, among them Speedy Ortiz and Twin Peaks. Pygmalion honored its own history while fostering young talent that might well become the next decade's legends.

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