The year in music: 2015 | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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The year in music: 2015

Seven Reader writers drill down into rap, jazz, punk, metal, and more—instead of just rearranging the same records on everyone else’s best-of list.

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ELIAS STEIN
  • Elias Stein

Chicago jazz | Peter Margasak

To me, the essence of the Chicago jazz and improvised-music community is live performance. More than records made in many other jazz cities, records made in Chicago are documents of what a band does onstage—and that'd be a fair description of almost everything on my list. An aesthetic shaped by onstage performance tends to make for an album a bit less splashy or conceptual than many of the picks that dominate year-end lists, but none of these efforts is lacking in artistry and excitement.

Josh Berman Trio, A Dance and a Hop (Delmark)

Cornetist Josh Berman seems to have found himself leading this deft, agile trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly. The group's music balances an investment in sound for its own sake against conversational phrasing and limber, precise rhythms. And though the elegant gestures Berman makes in the midst of his improvisations can be dramatically bent and contorted, the trio operates as a single, nimble intuitive organism.

Tomeka Reid Quartet, Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thirsty Ear)

For years cellist and composer Tomeka Reid has played in groups led by Nicole Mitchell and Mike Reed (among many others) and in the collective trio Hear in Now. This year she finally released her first album under her own name, and the wait was worth it. She leads a great band—New Yorkers Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, plus Chicago bassist Jason Roebke—through original compositions that alternate between elegant and thorny, lithe and turbulent, all the while demonstrating a sure grasp of swing-based improvisation and abstract collective spontaneity.

Michael Zerang & the Blue Lights, Songs From the Big Book of Love (Pink Palace)

Veteran percussionist Michael Zerang has rekindled his interest in composition by writing tunes for this bracing postbop quintet, which includes some of the city's sharpest talent—cornetist Josh Berman, reedists Dave Rempis and Mars Williams, and bassist Kent Kessler. Throughout this album's eight raucous, celebratory, and buoyant jams, the five of them rip and roar, mixing extroverted soloing with soulful ebullience whether they're dancing through Middle East-inspired melodies or hurtling through steeplechase grooves.

Chicago Reed Quartet, Western Automatic (Aerophonic)

The impressive debut album from the Chicago Reed Quartet is also its swan song, bristling with unfulfilled promise. Mars Williams, Ken Vandermark, Nick Mazzarella, and Dave Rempis each contribute a pair of tunes, adding diversity and excitement—sometimes the group punctures upper-register blowouts with unexpected serenity, and sometimes it embraces plush Ellingtonian elegance.

Makaya McCraven, In the Moment (International Anthem)

To make this impressive album, drummer Makaya McCraven culled improvised passages and grooves from more than 48 hours of live recordings made during a weekly residency at the Bedford in 2013—he cut and pasted, looped, rearranged, and even added subtle keyboard washes. The drummer assembled a stellar cast of musicians for the residency—guitarist Jeff Parker, trumpeter Marquis Hill, vibist Justin Thomas, and bassist Matt Ulery, among others—and while their personalities remain intact, McCraven's compositional mind-set is what allows the raw material to cohere into a new body of groove-oriented work.


ELIAS STEIN
  • Elias Stein

Chicago places in Chicago hip-hop | Leor Galil

Rappers like to remind you where they're from, often by peppering their lyrics with mentions of the spots they know best. Here are five of my favorite references to Chicago locations in local rap songs this year.

Vic Spencer, "Sony Walkman," The Cost of Victory

Vic Spencer lets his familiarity with his gritty city surroundings seep into The Cost of Victory, and his emotive growl feels like the cracks in the sidewalk you've walked over enough times to memorize. On the track "Sony Walkman" he references a specific school: "Ninety-six, I was in the back of Lane Tech trying to get me some top." It's a crude but effective reminder that passersby rarely see as many dimensions of a place as the people who occupy it.

Lil B and Chance the Rapper, "First Mixtape Based Freestyle," Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape)

Anything goes on this impromptu mixtape, but Chance makes time to ask if he can take a moment to give some props. After tipping his hat to West Chatham, he says, "Can I shout out that Harold's on 87th real quick?" Harold's has three restaurants on that road, including one in Chatham, right by the Red Line stop at 87th Street. Harold's lovers tend to have favorite locations, swearing that theirs cooks the best stuff, and Chance is no different—a couple weeks before recording this mixtape, he Instagrammed an order from "that Harold's on 87th."

Zro Fox featuring Sasha Go Hard, "Might Not," Zro Fox

Few local MCs put love front and center like Hologram Kizzie, aka Psalm One. Before she dropped Psalm One Loves You in September, she teamed up with tongue-twisting rapper Probcause to record five songs as Zro Fox. Psalm shows her grasp of Chicago history on "Might Not," shouting out pals who earned a record deal at the Regal Theater on 79th Street; the landmark building is cherished by locals, much like Psalm.

Ty Money, "United Center"

The United Center is home to champions—Chicago will never forget Michael Jordan—but also tends to feel like a bubble that's impervious to the horrors of the world outside. On "United Center," a response to dashcam footage of Laquan McDonald's shooting death at the hands of police, Harvey rapper Ty Money steamrolls through a litany of systemic injustices that have devastated minority neighborhoods. The pain he means to evoke is never clearer than when he brings his outrage right to the door of the arena that's been home to so many celebrations: "I just saw a body outside the United Center / And they left him in his Jordans."

Rich Jones featuring Montana Macks and Jordan Looney, "Milwaukee Ave," Pigeons & Waffles

Rich Jones casually half-sings, half-raps about stumbling through the bars and darkened corners of Milwaukee Avenue. The song's dreamy, twinkling instrumental and Jones's simple, affectionate performance remind me of the many warm evenings I've spent walking through the bustling patchwork of diverse neighborhoods along that street. Even if you've never ended a night "blacked out on that Blue Line," as Jones raps, this heartfelt tribute to a stretch of Chicago road will help you appreciate its possibilities anew.


Electric Wizard - STEVE GULLICK
  • Steve Gullick
  • Electric Wizard

Live metal | Philip Montoro

I know it's perverse to compile a year-end list of concerts ("Want to hear about some great stuff you probably didn't see?"), but please consider these as ongoing recommendations—all five bands below will slay your face no matter when you catch up with them. I left off some truly spectacular shows to avoid repeating previous years' lists, among them Arkona, Godflesh, Yob, and Ghost (who turned out to make surprisingly good date music). If I had room for seven, I'd definitely also include Anaal Nathrakh and Cloud Rat.

Electric Wizard at Metro on Tue 4/7

The final moment before Electric Wizard take the stage feels like the portentous pause before an end-boss battle—you know something huge and evil is on its way, and for just a second you have the luxury to be afraid of how badly it's going to fuck you up. Then the preposterously heavy riffs kick in, sucking all the light from the room in a conflagration of lurid menace, and in no time you're thinking with nothing but your brainstem. At the party I went to afterward, fittingly, someone had set the living-room table with dinner plates covered in sloppy fistfuls of coke.

Ufomammut at Reggie's Rock Club on Wed 5/13

Onstage these amplifier-abusing space sorcerers create a sort of reverse sensory-­deprivation chamber: their magma-thick grooves recirculate hypnotically, roaring and thundering like the plasma in a cosmic cardiopulmonary system, until it's impossible to pay attention to anything else. Judging from the narcotizing buzz vibrating all my soft tissues, I'm pretty sure my mitochondria were banging their heads too.

Babymetal at House of Blues on Thu 5/14

I've never laughed so much at a concert—and not the mocking, behind-my-hand kind, but giddy, incredulous, what-the-fuck-is-happening laughter. Babymetal's infectious train wreck of sunny, sentimental J-pop, brutally compressed deathcore, and goofball techno was only half the spectacle: I also had to contend with the girls' exhaustingly frisky choreography and the alarmingly enthusiastic crowd. The band dressed as Japanese ghosts, and a guy in the pit came in costume as a tomato.

False at the 2040 on Fri 8/7

One of the most celebrated bands in U.S. black metal played a tiny, musty sweatbox in the basement of an unlicensed venue in Pilsen, and it was awesome. False sounded like a tornado full of roofing nails trying to play a bleak and beautiful symphony, but offstage they were warm, charming, and even silly—I bonded with their singer, Rachel, over a cat we both gravitated toward in the backyard, and the guitarist who introduced himself as Skorpian had scissored the bottom edge of his red shorts into a toothy pirate fringe.

Mgła at Reggie's Rock Club on Thu 11/12

These Polish black-metal masters write lyrics that read like a vivid and persuasive suicide note, and their stage presence is so icily nihilistic it seems almost contemptuous: they walked offstage without a word before the last note of their set had even finished reverberating in the air. But the stark grandeur and hopeless dignity of their melancholy, corrosively violent music spoke for them—and the band's clear awareness of the futility of their efforts only increased their power.


Malcolm London - PAUL BEATY/AP PHOTO
  • PAUL BEATY/AP Photo
  • Malcolm London

Musical arguments against the hopeless Chi-Raq stereotype | Jake Austen

Prior to the ascendance of Michael Jordan, if you said "Chicago" anywhere in the world, regardless of language barrier, you'd be greeted with finger guns and mentions of Al Capone. But now the peaceful period of international Be Like Mike-ism has passed—Chicago is once again synonymous with gunfire, thanks in part to a constant media drumbeat (especially from Vice, Spike, and the like) about south-side and west-side youth violence. But to reduce these vast, vibrant communities to tragedies and troubles ignores the fact that the Black Arts Movement in Chicago has remained a fertile talent incubator. Of the scores of amazing south- and west-side artists I've seen in 2015, these are the five I'm most eager to watch move forward in 2016.

Malcolm London

This young Austin activist (or "abolitionist," to use his preferred term) gained his biggest spotlight for being arrested in a demonstration after the release of the Laquan McDonald video, but he's more than just a messenger. In a concert later that week, he deftly danced between hip-hop and poetry, not only consistently expressing a clear, focused point of view but also demonstrating impressive artistry. He even busted out an original house-music song, which for a 21-year-old these days is as rare as getting the charges dropped after you've been hauled in for aggravated battery to a police officer.

Shawnee Deznae

With only a few shows under her belt, this neosoul songbird is already making ambitious choices that showcase her beautiful voice. I've seen a hundred vocalists sing "Summertime," and I can honestly say that her sparse, chilling version is as fresh and original as any I've heard.

Phenom

This improvisational wordsmith released a new album, I Didn't Come I Was Sent, in 2015, proving that he's still as dexterous as he was in his early days as a cipher champ. An MC's MC, he continues to bring jazz technique to rap, and hearing him nimbly jump between vocal styles can make you feel like you're getting a free hip-hop history lesson with every concert ticket.

The Kinsmen

In the late 90s, local teen R&B gospel sensations Youth Edition had a brief brush with major-­label fame. One of my favorite '15 developments was seeing the current not-so-­youthful edition of the group reinvent themselves as the Kinsmen, with smooth harmonies and boy-band moves intact. In addition to continuing to sing their 90s classics, they've introduced new original songs—and even some Jesus-­fied covers of such unlikely contemporary cuts as "Classic Man" and "I'm in Love With the Coco."

Sam Trump

The most likely to succeed of the bunch has to be Bridgeport-based Texas transplant Sam Trump. He transmits a laid-back vibe that combines jazz, soul, and indie R&B, using a hypnotizing voice and sharp instrumental skills (on trumpet and surprisingly soulful ukulele). Throw in his off-the-charts charisma, and it's easy to imagine the longtime Sidewalk Chalk sideman gaining a national audience. His emergence as a make-the-ladies-swoon front man is my favorite local development of 2015.


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Albums by Chicago punks playing Ian’s Party | Kevin Warwick

Because such an impressive glut of local punk full-lengths came out this year, to pick just five I had to come up with a narrower category. Luckily for me (and for you), local punk showcase Ian's Party has supersized for 2016, moving into three relatively large venues and blowing out its lineup. I chose my five favorite 2015 albums from bands playing the festival—and even that was tough.

Sweet Cobra, Earth (Magic Bullet)

This long-standing posthardcore trio has filled its best record to date with thick, deep-cutting guitar riffs that sometimes hit surprisingly hard—"He Tall He" mixes dissonant postrock-style heaviness and sludgy, hard-stomping grooves. Vocalist-bassist Tim Remis has found a sweet spot with his vocal melodies, and more than ever before, he sounds like he's spinning thoughtful, vitriolic yarns when he sings. Sun 1/3, 11:25 PM, Double Door (upstairs)

Absolutely Not & Rat Hammer, split LP (Berserk)

How perfect—the bubbling, hyper-fried poppy sass of Absolutely Not rubbing elbows with the snarling weirdness of Rat Hammer, a four-piece that's got more than a little Apocalypse Hoboken in its genes. Plus each band covers a track from the other, which is a totally appropriate unwritten rule for split releases, in my opinion. Absolutely Not: Sat 1/2, 12:10 AM, Chop Shop (right stage); Rat Hammer: Sun 1/3, 8:55 PM, Double Door (upstairs)

Salvation, Royal Fucks (Cold Slither)

This seven-track scorcher is a pleasant surprise: textbook old-school noise rock, with the scorched, apathetic yowl of front man Jason Sipe loosely holding together the trio's volatile mix of screaming guitars and thrumming rhythms. "Drag" has a pretty self-explanatory title, but when Sipe brings up all his bile to shriek "Drraaaaaagg" over and over, he almost sounds like he's being splayed out on a rack and pulled apart. Fri 1/1, 8:25 PM, Subterranean (upstairs)

Meat Wave, Delusion Moon (Side One Dummy)

Meat Wave is a no-brainer for any list of the year's best Chicago punk. This top-notch trio, fronted by guitarist Chris Sutter, had a great year: they signed with Side One Dummy, toured all over the place, and dropped an album of snotty ­but hooky postpunk-tinged winners. The standout "Cosmic Zoo," which comes at you in waves, is one of my favorite punk singles of the year—and not just locally. Sun 1/3, 12:15 AM, Double Door (upstairs)

Speed Babes, Let's Go Explode (self-released)

I like this album partly because of how compact and bare-bones it is—and because the band recorded it in 18 hours using a Garage­Band app that front man Jesse Ewan had on his phone. That's the gimmick, at least, but whether you care or not, Let's Go Explode is a great example of how to write hooky pop-punk with as little adornment as possible. Plus the lo-fi sound and rudimentary programmed drums add to the bouncy fun. Fri 1/1, 8:50 PM, Double Door (downstairs)


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The most painfully slow albums of 2015 | Kim Kelly

It's been a brutal year. A lot of darkness has crossed our thresholds, so that even when we make time to celebrate—to embrace life and joy—we can never entirely escape all the reasons to do the opposite. With winter poised to strike and our TV and computer screens continually stained with what look like signs of the apocalypse, it's a fine time to consider five of 2015's most wretchedly, painfully slow albums—they don't even try to put the "fun" in "funeral doom," and that feels awfully appropriate.

Bell Witch, Four Phantoms (Profound Lore)

When this Seattle duo released Four Phantoms this year, it seemed like everyone and their mothers finally realized that funeral doom rules—and specifically that Bell Witch excel at it. They range a bit beyond funeral doom's mossy borders, adding melodic complexity to songs such as "Judgement, in Fire: I—Garden (Of Blooming Ash)." The album's melodies and slices of near silence can be beautiful, but the total result is overwhelmingly heavy—it's the sound of slow death, with lyrics about drowning, suffocation, and ultimate collapse set to music that moves at the pace of a condemned man's lead-footed walk to the gallows.

Sunn O))), Kannon (Southern Lord)

Kannon is Sunn O)))'s most accessible release to date, which means that to the majority of the population, its droning buzz and sepulchral vocals of course remain completely incomprehensible. The album ebbs and flows like the tide, never moving faster than a drifting fog, but it packs more intensity into one downstroke than most bands manage in an entire discography.

Un, The Tomb of All Things (Black Bow)

Un is all about negation (the name kind of gives it away), and on The Tomb of All Things, the Seattle outfit do away with any tempo above ten bpm. The album sticks close to funeral-doom tradition, with ten-plus-minute songs whose death-rotted vocals and lurching riffs shudder and collapse and extinguish any light that tries to sneak through the bleakness.

Chrch, Unanswered Hymns (Battleground)

These Sacramento newcomers (known as Church before a name dispute lost them their vowel) fall on the cosmic side of extreme torpidity. Their debut album, Unanswered Hymns, takes as many cues from Yob as it does from Saturnalia Temple or Electric Wizard—this turgid stoner-doom gem arrives replete with eerie, windswept vocals, lumbering slow-­motion riffs, and songs that scrape the 20-minute mark.

Ennui, Falsvs Anno Domini (Solitude Productions)

Georgian trio Ennui turn away from the straightforward stomp of death-doom to embrace a European brand of funeral doom, marrying heavy keyboards and chilling atmosphere to their own guttural invocations. The dilated melody of "When Our Light Dies Forever" crawls through the frozen mist on the Tbilisi band's third full-length, Falsvs Anno Domini; its six songs total an hour and 20 minutes of pure misery and hopelessness.


Jessica Hopper - COURTESY FEATHERPROOF BOOKS
  • COURTESY FEATHERPROOF BOOKS
  • Jessica Hopper

Chicago music writers having great years | Meagan Fredette

Chicago doesn't just have a vibrant, busy music scene—it's also full of busy music writers. This year some of the city's best talents were at the top of their game, helping drive big, important conversations and refining their distinctive styles. It's surely just a coincidence that several of them have also contributed to the Reader. (For the record, Reader staffers were excluded from consideration for this list.)

Jessica Hopper

For much of 2015, Jessica Hopper ran Pitchfork's print magazine, The Pitchfork Review, and its online vertical the Pitch, which specializes in long-form criticism. Under her leadership, The Pitchfork Review blossomed and the Pitch became known as a destination for work by today's best and brightest. She recruited a diverse array of talent, including three writers on this list (Sasha Geffen, Britt Julious, and Jes Skolnik), and sought out work by women, LGBT people, writers of color, and the disabled. Hopper started an international phenomenon when she took to Twitter to ask women in the music industry to recall a time they were made to feel like they "didn't count." Women told stories of being belittled, marginalized, harassed, and even sexually assaulted while performing shows or covering a story—fueling a badly needed discussion that had never been so public before. And of course in May she also published a successful book: The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, whose essays (many first published in the Reader) span more than 15 years of her career. She recently announced that her next position will be as editorial director of music at MTV.

Josh Terry

This year Josh Terry started at the RedEye as a music reporter, interviewing bands and keeping commuters up to date with show announcements and track reviews. The best thing about Terry's writing is his witty, engaging voice, and his sense of humor really shines in a November piece about a planned BDSM club—it practically groans under the weight of all his double entendres, beginning with the headline "River North residents concerned bondage-­themed club will spank neighborhood into submission."

Sasha Geffen

A freelance writer as well as an editor at Consequence of Sound, Sasha Geffen has a gift for transforming interviews with real people into narrative pieces that make you feel like you're reading imagined stories about characters you wish you knew, with intimate quotes and brilliant use of setting. Geffen's October interview with Nicole Dollanganger is particularly lovely, highlighting the artist's obession with antique dolls.

Britt Julious

Britt Julious takes Hemingway's advice to "write clear and hard about what hurts." Though she covers the city's emerging bands in her pieces for the Tribune (in October, for instance, she interviewed New Canyons), she also engages directly with struggles and suffering that are bigger than music. Written after the release of the Laquan McDonald video, her beautiful piece for Esquire about Chicago's systematic police brutality focuses attention on the human cost of hypersegregation.

Jes Skolnik

Jes Skolnik had a tremendous 2015, contributing album reviews and criticism to Pitchfork and joining the editorial staff at Impose. Skolnik's writing focuses on the struggles of women and nonbinary folks in DIY scenes and doesn't shy away from discussing violence or misogyny. For Flavorwire, Skolnik produced an excellent series called the Forgotten Women of Punk to highlight the contributions of women such as Selecter vocalist Pauline Black and Spitboy drummer Michelle Cruz Gonzales.

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