By Tom Lynch
While critics from all over the globe feel obliged to supply their year-end top-five lists, top-ten lists and ramblings of honorable mentions (see, ahem, our cover feature), let’s look at the best releases of the year from Chicago artists, as it has been—as it always seems to be—quite a year.
Andrew Bird’s “Armchair Apocrypha” (Fat Possum) took flight in March, a record that sees the artist moving away from his jazz and zydeco inflections and closer to emotive indie rock, pimping less violin and whistling and more clanging guitars and electronics (courtesy of a collaboration with IDM artist Martin Dosh). Not only is “Armchair Apocrypha” Bird’s best record to date, it’s a remarkable showing of ambitiousness and desire to explore the unknown—at least for Bird himself. He told me back in spring that he didn’t want to add violin to the songs just to pretty them up. He didn’t, and, would you look at that, they’re lovely and catching all the same.
The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir returned this year with a highly anticipated self-titled record on Bloodshot—anxiously awaited because the band had yet to follow up the acclaimed and promising “I Bet You Say That to All the Boys,” and because the band lost one of its songwriters and vocalists, Matthew Kerstein (more on him later). The new jaunt is not only an improvement on the debut, but a showing of significant songwriting power, both in the traditional indie-pop selections and in the more profound, delicate ballads that sprawl and spread and affect the whole record. Lyrically, vocalist Elia’s insights have never been as sharp, nor as moving.
Flameshovel Records had another solid year—Mannequin Men’s “Fresh Rot” is the snottiest, filthiest, sweatiest record this side of the Wipers, all delivered with a Jagger swagger that might even make Mick himself throw up. The album’s brilliance settles in after a few listens—at first, your brain’s a bit offended, and after a while, you dream of the violation. Similarly—but not really—The Narrator offered “All That to the Wall,” the band’s highest accomplishment in its lifetime, a messy, slightly confused, awfully charming trek into the history of indie rock. (It’s just down the hall, second door on the left, the one that says “Wowee Zowee” on it.) The album’s a couch-surfing thunderball, lazy and gorgeous, served with PBR and too many smokes.
Matthew Kerstein left Scotland Yard Gospel Choir to embark on his own pilgrimage with Brighton, MA (named after his birthplace), and you really couldn’t say you didn’t expect the results to be impressive, but this staggering? With only a six-song, self-titled EP on shelves (on Loose Tooth), the band has crafted one of the most memorable pop collections from around these parts in some time. Part Dylan, part ballading Replacements, Kerstein and crew embrace gracefulness and honesty for a poignant, nostalgic affair (“Bet You Never Thought” might be the song of the year). I don’t think another record spun more for me this whole year.
There are others. Three-piece shoegazers STAR quietly delivered “Devastator” (Lovely Rebel), a smart, past-provoking space trip through The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Ride (but much, much louder!). Shannon Roberts’ ethereal, numbing vocals propel the record into the infinity . The 1900s released their debut full-length, called “Cold & Kind” (Polyvinyl), a sometimes joyous, often somber sixties-pop record that sees the band recalling more and more Fleetwood Mac and less and less Velvet Underground. (Edward Anderson, Caroline Donovan and Jeanine O’Toole’s vocals have never been better). Out of everyone here, The 1900s are the best band to see live. The sound unites.
Office hooked up with Scratchie/New Line Records for “A Night at the Ritz,” a pure indie-pop dance-off that sees that band gaining more and more attention as the weeks pass. The band reminds me a bit of Talking Heads—the live excitement, the anticipation, the delivery.
A gentle, passionate record called “We Moved Like Ghosts” was released in May by a band called Track a Tiger, and this is another album that can’t seem to find its way out of my stereo (or out of my head, for that matter). A bit like Low, maybe a bit like Iron and Wine (the older stuff), the sound isn’t the most original or inventive, but it sure is touching—the vocal harmonies swirl, the textured guitars bake and scratch. I can’t wait to hear more.
And, finally, Albini, Weston, Trainer—collectively Shellac—produced the excellently titled “Excellent Italian Greyhound” (Touch and Go), the three-piece’s first record in seven years. Albini’s scratchy sarcasm is intact alright—opener “The End of Radio” is ingenious—and the band even ventures into (somewhat) traditional pop structuring, like on single (single, ha!) “Steady As She Goes.” It’s not “At Action Park,” it’s not even “1000 Hurts,” but holy shit Shellac’s back and the new record’s an avalanche.