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Best Of: Music

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Best Rock or Pop Act

rThe Reader's ChoiceStranger Waves

I first saw the Stranger Waves accidentally, when my bandmate and I got booked to spin at a Bottle show in November with Baby Alright and White Mystery. The Stranger Waves were opening, and though they looked pretty young, they were dressed cool and seemed to be having fun—even before they picked up their instruments we thought they'd probably be decent. Then they finally got onstage and from the first beat just blew everyone's minds like it was no big thing. With two guitars, drums, and three vocals they managed to kick up a bigger racket than bands twice their size. They had riffs like AC/DC, a song called "When I Sleep" I bet the Black Lips would kill to have written, and a cover of Wreckless Eric's "(I'd Go the) Whole Wide World" that turned even jaded scenesters into fist-pumping superfans. I learned later that it was not only the Stranger Waves' first Bottle show but their first show at any club—they're all 18, and up till then they'd only been playing house parties. Along with the Smith Westerns, Puking Pearls, and Teenage Dream, they're part of a scene that's been percolating in north-side basements and garages for the past couple years and is just now starting to emerge. Many of these bands either went to or still go to Miss Alex White's old high school, Northside Prep, and she's had a hand in getting them started in the city's club scene. "It's sweet to see these city kids, like, pull up the reins on Chicago rock'n' roll and sort of take over," she says. If they promise to stay good, I say we should let them have it. Stranger Waves open for Quintron & Miss Pussycat at the Empty Bottle on April 10. amyspace.com/thestrangerwaves. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choicePoi Dog Pondering

aplatetectonicmusic.com.

Best Hip-Hop Act

rThe Reader's ChoiceMic Terror

"Swagger" has to be the most overused word in hip-hop today—your mom's probably waiting for a good moment to drop it into conversation—and even after it goes out of style, the ineffable combination of skill, style, and braggadocio will remain the single most crucial quality of a good MC. Mic Terror has swagger to spare. He had it when was just some dude catching a bit of reflected shine off the Cool Kids; he had it when he got his first bump of national exposure via a beef with east-coast rapper Mazzi, who was dissing the tight-pants-wearing ungangsta hip-hop scene that Terror's part of; and he really started swinging it around after a consensus emerged that the battle had been a Mic Terror victory. His cockiness isn't unjustified: he's one of the most classically talented MCs in the hipster-hop insurgence, with a clearheaded flow packed with lyrical hooks that'll crack you up or leave you with your mouth hanging open (after you've had a couple seconds to figure them out) and a bit of Nas's gift for dissing people so hard that you feel bad for them. He's tight with gifted local producer Million Dollar Mano, which ensures him a steady supply of top-shelf beats, and their collaboration has already given Terror a bona fide local classic—"Juke Them Hoes," a raunchy banger that reliably drives Chicago club crowds absolutely bonkers. All he needs is the right guest spot on the right rapper's single and he'll be stirring up dance floors all over the world. amyspace.com/micterrormusic. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choiceProject Mayhem

amyspace.com/projectmayhem617.

Best Jazz Act

rThe Reader's ChoiceMike Reed's People, Places& Things

Mike Reed formed this quartet, which also includes saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke, to interpret lost postbop classics written in Chicago in the late 50s. The rapport within the band is electric, particularly between Ward and Haldeman, who alternate sharp contrapuntal lines, cajoling ad libs, and inspired solos—and neither ever simply lays out while the other takes the spotlight. Reed's inventive arrangements maintain the essence of the songs—originally by the likes of Sun Ra, John Jenkins, Wilbur Campbell, and Oscar Brown Jr.—but also draw on developments from the decades after they were written. The quartet's debut album, Proliferation (482 Music), was one of my favorites last year, and the live shows I caught were never less than exhilarating. For their concert last summer at Millennium Park, Reed and Ward developed new, thoroughly contemporary arrangements for an octet version of People, Places& Things that made the group's historical engagement concrete—trumpeter Art Hoyle, trombonist Julian Priester, and reedist Ira Sullivan, who joined the band for the occasion, were all active on the Chicago scene in the 50s. A new album is due later this year; the band's next show is at the Charleston on April 18. amikereedmusic.com/proliferation.cfm. —Peter Margasak

&Our readers' choiceJoel Paterson& the Modern Sounds

amyspace.com/joelpaterson.

Best Blues Act

rThe Reader's ChoiceTheo Huff

In a city like Chicago the best blues acts are practically a matter of historical record—the more pressing question, in light of the periodic hand-wringing from critics and fans about the future of the genre, is who the best blues acts will be in 30 years. My hands-down pick for most promising newcomer on the local scene is 20-year-old soul-blues vocalist Theo Huff. He's a member of the Black Ensemble Theater, whose musical director, Jimmy Tillman, has taken Huff under his wing, and in 2008 he made a brief cameo on the Petrillo stage at the Blues Festival, but he's only recently begun to hone a proper nightclub act. He has a resonant voice reminiscent of Johnnie Taylor in his prime, remarkably sure and textured for one so young, and his stage presence combines sexy sensitivity and cocksure flamboyance. When Huff opened for Bobby Rush at Mr.G's Supper Club in January, his set was virtually flawless—he kicked it off doing the electric slide on the dance floor with his female backup singers, then hit the stage with a medley of Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis tunes. His unforced phrasing, sassy churchiness, and confident command of the room had the seasoned showgoers at Mr. G's on their feet—among them Ann Davis, Tyrone's widow. That's not the only sign that a torch is being passed—he says Otis Clay is mentoring him as well. Some old-schoolers may be put off by Huff's hip-hop-influenced body language, but I'm encouraged to see a young artist blend the traditional and the contemporary as effortlessly as he does. With original material and a little more seasoning, he could be a star. —David Whiteis

&Our readers' choiceBuddy Guy

abuddyguy.net.

Best Folk or Country Act

rThe Reader's ChoiceRobbie Fulks

I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to say Robbie Fulks is the best country artist in Chicago—what bothers me is that the title seems so inadequate. I could also easily nominate him as the city's best rock act—his 1998 album Let's Kill Saturday Night is an overlooked rock masterpiece. It's been almost four years since Fulks released a studio album, but late last month he started selling a massive downloadable trove of MP3s on his Web site: 50 brand-new songs, most of them originals, collectively called 50-Vc. Doberman and totaling three hours and 20 minutes. I'm still making my way through it, but what I've heard so far covers most of the interests he's cultivated as a student of pop craft: honky-tonk, Motown, power pop, rockabilly, folk rock, murder ballads, stomping 90s Nashville country rock, novelty hokum, even a little ragtime. It's awe inspiring and a little daunting—and he could probably produce something like it every five or six months if he put his mind to it.

As a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and entertainer, Fulks is a consummate pro, and his utter mastery of those roles allows him to subvert them, often with a stinging but hilarious nastiness. He's fiercely intellectual, yet balances his outsize smarts with crowd-pleasing corn, which keeps him from coming off as cruel or insincere. He might parody a mainstream country singer like Shania Twain, but even as he skewers her cheesy pandering he demonstrates a real admiration for her craft. On his cover of Cher's "Believe," from his previous release, the live album Revenge! (Yep Roc), he spoofs the singer's Auto-Tuned vocals and overdone sentimentality and simultaneously underlines the song's melodic power. Despite his unself-conscious love of pop, though, Fulks has given his heart to country music—he throws himself into every one of its subgenres with devastating precision and contagious joy. His next local shows are May 2 at SPACE in Evanston and May 3 at the Old Town School. arobbiefulks.com. —Peter Margasak

&Our readers' choiceDevil in a Woodpile

adevilinawoodpile.com.

Best Record Label

rThe Reader's ChoiceNumero Group

Chicago is blessed with such a diversity of great labels that this was one of the toughest categories for me to call. I feel a little strange picking the Numero Group, since it doesn't release new music. Then again, I'd also feel strange picking Drag City again, even though it's hardly lost a step since I gave it the nod last year. (In fact it's having a hell of a run, with brilliant reissues from the likes of Death and Nimrod Workman and excellent new albums from Azita, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, David Grubbs, and others.)

The Numero Group's output has been astonishing from its very first titles in 2004—every release is handsomely packaged, and the music is always placed lovingly into context with well-researched, engaging liner notes and plenty of photos. Each year the label seems to develop new specialties: It began with the Eccentric Soul compilations, which sketch portraits of regional soul scenes with the catalogs of forgotten independent labels, and has since branched out into straight-up album reissues (through its Asterisk imprint), female folk-rock singers from the 70s, and the Cult Cargo series, which unearths soul and funk from elsewhere in the Americas. This past year the label launched the vinyl-only Numerophon imprint, which will focus on rare folk from the U.S. and abroad, and kicked off yet another series, called Local Customs, devoted to music made in the "woodsheds, basements, and living rooms" of out-of-the-way towns. The first entry, Downriver Revival, samples the work of Felton Williams of Ecorse, Michigan—a would-be entrepreneur who recorded his friends and neighbors, overseeing an amazing number of satisfying sessions and producing hundreds of sides in almost total obscurity. On April 4 at the Park West, the Numero Group will present its first live concert, an old-school soul revue headlined by the legendary Syl Johnson and spotlighting artists who recorded, like Johnson, for Chicago's Twinight label—active from 1967 through '72 and itself the subject of a superb two-CD Eccentric Soul release, Twinight's Lunar Rotation. anumerogroup.com. —Peter Margasak

&Our readers' choiceBloodshot

abloodshotrecords.com.

Best Guitar Shop

rThe Reader's ChoiceChicago Music Exchange

A strange sort of masochism seems to drive broke-ass musicians to take two buses and a train across town just to stew in unrequited gear lust at Chicago Music Exchange, where most of the hundreds of gorgeous vintage guitars lining the walls are so far out of the price range of the average player that they might as well be behind credit-card-proof force fields. If you're a fan of any of the major guitar manufacturers of the electric era, you can usually find dozens of your preferred model, ranging in condition from good to pristine and in age from new to holy relic—as of this writing their Web site lists a Fender Stratocaster from 1954, the year the model was introduced. I still catch myself thinking from time to time about a flawless green metallic SG-style Gibson Melody Maker I saw there once. The only thing you won't be able to find is an overlooked bargain—unfortunately these guys know in great detail what everything they have is worth. a3316 N. Lincoln, 773-525-7773, chicagomusicexchange.com. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choiceThe Guitar Works Ltd

a709 Main, Evanston, 847-475-0855, guitarworksltd.com.

Best All-Ages Venue

rThe Reader's ChoiceLogan Square Auditorium

Just to be clear, "best" in this case doesn't refer in any way to the sound quality in this echo chamber of a ballroom. It's the bane of the city's live sound engineers, whose valiant efforts are almost always defeated by its cavernous expanse. But if you've ever been a small-town punk, the same things that make the Logan Square Auditorium feel like a VFW hall retrofitted for live music—the dated utilitarian decor, the temporary-looking stage, the preponderance of all-ages shows—also make it feel like home. The fact that, unlike your typical VFW hall, it hosts not just daylong showcases of bad suburban metalcore but touring acts that are pure music-snob catnip—Congolese street musicians Konono no. 1, Dutch avant-punks the Ex with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria—just makes it more lovable. a2539 N. Kedzie, 773-252-6179, lsachicago.com. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choiceMetro

a3730 N. Clark, 773-549-0203, metrochicago.com.

Best Unofficial Venue

rThe Reader's ChoiceHeart of Gold

Show houses and lofts have a well-deserved reputation as dirty, ramshackle, and out of control. Broken toilets, broken PAs, some dude in leggings doing embarrassing dance moves, the one drunk idiot who always seems to piss on the radiator and stink the joint up—they're all part of the charm. But Heart of Gold, a finished private loft, is one of very few that combine the best qualities of a club and a house show. Real stage, real PA, tables and booths—but the unspoken social rules of nightclub behavior give way for the most part to a casual, partylike vibe. The talent's legit too, ranging from excellent soul DJs to bands that would otherwise be playing someplace less fun—Tight Phantomz, the Living Blue, Pinebender, even the occasional touring act. At press time the space had been shut down by the city—just like our readers' choice—but these things have a way of turning out to be less than permanent. amyspace.com/yeoldheartofgold. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choiceAV-aerie

a2000 W. Fulton #310, 312-850-4030, myspace.com/avaerie.

Best Free Shows

rThe Reader's Choice Chicago Cultural Center and Empty Bottle

Lately budget woes have constrained Mike Orlove, Carlos Tortolero, and Brian Keigher, who program the music at the Chicago Cultural Center, but it's still one of the city's brightest lights—my friends and colleagues in other cities are always amazed and envious when they hear about the great concerts I see there for free. The higher-profile bookings include some of the world's best and most forward-looking artists in jazz, experimental, and international music—Donny McCaslin, Purbayan Chatterjee, Electric Kulintang—and in many cases the Cultural Center entices acts to Chicago that would otherwise bypass the city on their tours. (Orlove and company also put on jazz and international concerts across the street at Millennium Park, like Orchestra Baobab and Phil Cohran's tribute to Sun Ra.) Plus the generous schedule of locals playing its lunchtime events provides perhaps the best and broadest sampling of the city's diverse musical communities you can get in any one place—the bookings are even tilted away from rock, pop, and R & B, as if to compensate for the way those styles dominate so many other stages in town. a78 E. Washington or 77 E. Randolph, 312-744-6630, chicagoculturalcenter.org. —Peter Margasak

For a lot of people I know, free Mondays at the Empty Bottle are one of the few things they can count on in life: there will be cheap beer, there will be no cover, and none of the bands will outright suck. Actually the bookings tend to be pretty strong, and they're just as genre agnostic as the Bottle's usual fare, ranging from drone metal to electro rap. Locals make up the bulk of the schedule, and paging through the Bottle's calendar to see who's playing each Monday—Lichens, Indian, Azita, Chandeliers, Allá, Disappears—is a good way to get a feeling for which acts in Chicago are worth paying attention to. But every so often a touring band will agree to the setup—examples from the past year or so include Weedeater, Efterklang, and the Chinese Stars. Because the talent gets paid even when there's no cover, free Mondays can be one of those situations where everybody wins: bands often pull more people than they'd normally draw at the Bottle, and the folks in the audience have a few extra dollars to spend at the bar. This combination almost always produces a large, rambunctious crowd—and occasionally, when the stars align, it makes for a truly epic show. a1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600, emptybottle.com. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choiceEmpty Bottle

Best Show I've Seen in a Long Time

rThe Reader's ChoiceRachel Unthank& the Winterset at the Old Town School of Folk Music, September 21, 2008 and Mikkey Halsted's Web-site release party at PLP Studios, January 20, 2009

I see so many radically different kinds of live music that this one was even tougher to call than Best Record Label. British folkies Rachel Unthank& the Winterset take the prize by a nose, though, for so pleasantly and thoroughly confounding my expectations when they played at the Old Town School as part of the World Music Festival. Though I really liked the group's recent album, The Bairns (Real World), I figured they'd be a subdued live act—folk musicians are often pretty serious onstage, if not outright somber, and most of the tunes on The Bairns are gentle, sparse, and slow. But the Winterset were raucous, charming, and full of energy, bringing infectious warmth and impressive precision to their repertoire; they were clearly having fun playing off one another musically, and the stories they told to provide background for each song were funny, fascinating, or both. In the months since, I've found myself remembering certain moments from that show out of nowhere—I sure hope Unthank and company become regulars on the U.S. touring circuit, so I can make some more of those memories. amyspace.com/rachelunthank. —Peter Margasak

If I hadn't tailed hip-hop blogger Andrew Barber to a studio in the South Loop to get some background for my column—I was writing about his blog, Fake Shore Drive—I probably wouldn't have spent the night of Obama's inauguration at a party to celebrate the release of Mikkey Halsted's new Web site. I mean, up till then I hadn't even been aware that rappers were having Web-site launch parties, and it seemed an insufficiently momentous event for such a historic occasion. But though there was some structured business about Halsted's site early on, that stuff soon fell by the wayside as the party turned into a freestyle cipher, with the mike ending up in the hands of everyone from well-known local talents—Que Billah, Mic Terror, members of the Ivy League—to no-name dudes who'd driven down from Wisconsin. The subject they kept returning to in their rhymes was the joy, pride, and relief that so many people seemed to be feeling that day—a fitting way to inaugurate the first hip-hop president. amikkeyhalsted.com. —Miles Raymer

&Our readers' choiceAndrew Bird in Millennium Park, September 3, 2008

aandrewbird.net.

Best Band Name

rThe Reader's ChoiceMaggot Twat

I've been compiling the Reader's music listings long enough for "best band name" and "worst band name" to have become basically mirror-image categories for me. I admit I rarely find myself impressed with a name because it gracefully reflects a band's aesthetic or creates a provocative poetic juxtaposition—the names that stick with me are the awful, raunchy, or ridiculous ones. Telling your 82-year-old great-aunt over Thanksgiving dinner that your band's name is Slutbarf takes guts, and I appreciate that. In the course of my job I've found several worthy candidates—the exuberantly incoherent Lasers and Fast and Shit, the sketch-showy Let's Get Out of This Terrible Sandwich Shop—but after careful consideration my vote goes to comedic thrash-metal duo Maggot Twat. No other band in the city can match the blunt ugliness of their name—and song titles like "A Vampire Bit My Balls" and "I Fucked a Train" seal the deal. amaggottwat.com. —Kevin Warwick

&Our readers' choicePoi Dog Pondering

Best Place to Buy Ethnic Music That's Not a Record Store

rThe Reader's ChoiceAfrikiko Hair & Fashion Boutique

Even before Chicago's record stores started dropping like flies, the best places to buy contemporary international music—the stuff that Ethiopians, Thais, or Serbs actually listen to, as opposed what the world-music industry pushes—were usually the groceries, video shops, or import boutiques that serve the communities in question. You can buy Bollywood soundtracks at the video shops on Devon and J-pop at the Mitsuwa mall in Arlington Heights, for instance. When it comes to Ghanaian hiplife—the fusion of hip-hop and highlife—you'd be hard-pressed to find more than one or two titles at even the most exhaustive record store, but you can pick up most of what's currently hot in Ghana at Afrikiko Hair & Fashion Boutique, a barbershop that devotes a section of one wall to recent CDs. Chances are one of the barbers will have to put down his clippers to ring up your purchase. a4635 N. Broadway, 773-878-4360. —Peter Margasak

&Our readers' choiceOld Town School Music Store

a4544 N. Lincoln, 773-751-3398, oldtownschool.org.

Best Folk or Country Act: Robbie Fulks

Best All-Ages Venue: Logan Square Auditorium

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