By Tom Lynch and Duke Shin
How do you size up a musician’s creativity, let alone rank it above another’s? As we dare take on this task every two years for our Music 45 artist-driven list, many factors come into play: cultural relevance, invention, influence on other musicians and the rest of the industry, but also what moves and excites us personally, as writers and, foremost, lovers of music and everything the art form represents.
We know a few things. This year will be huge for Chicago hip-hop (what else is new), with the highly anticipated releases from The Cool Kids and Kid Sister, plus another record from Rhymefest. Andrew Bird’s proven to be, once again, more than ever, a local treasure. R. Kelly could kill your parents and you’d still buy his albums. Wilco ages like wine, and the music world changed during the absence of Smashing Pumpkins.
They need help. Art needs our help. Overblown gas prices make it extremely difficult for smaller acts to tour as much as they need; for every Kanye, there are a hundred acts like Office. Get involved, see twice as many shows in 2008 as you did in 2007. Don’t let Lollapalooza meet your live-music quota for the summer.
“Make art,” The Frames’ Glen Hansard told us when he won his Oscar back in February.
Live it, too.
1. Kanye West
The unlikely match of King Kanye and French house masters Daft Punk on single “Stronger” elevated the artist’s 2007 record “Graduation” above mere high-class hip-hop and into the realm of high-class art, as West’s work had never so successfully transcended genres and sounded as realized. It became Music with a capital M, smooth and profound, and, of course, fun. While his bluster often turns off as many as his music turns on, his Chicago roots are worn like a merit badge—he was raised here, he learned here, built here, and he knows it. His mama gave him her love in this town, and when word crossed the wire last fall she had suddenly passed away, the city mourned along with her grieving son. He took four Grammys for “Graduation,” including Best Rap Album, which he has won for each record he’s delivered. We’re not just proud of Kanye, we trust him.
The beloved rock outfit curbed the experimentalism and offered the straightforward “Sky Blue Sky” to mostly positive reviews last year. In a love letter to their hometown, Jeff Tweedy and Co. held a five-night sold-out winter residency at the Riv in February, tumbling through years and years of material to please even the old-school fans from the alt-country days. While Wilco may not ever top the glory of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” we’ll keep listening as long as the band keeps churning out heartfelt records.
3. R. Kelly
As of press time, Robert Sylvester Kelly’s long-delayed child-porn court appointment began this week, material sure to be used at a later date for a future hit record. (“Trapped in a Courtroom,” anyone?) “Double Up” debuted at number one last spring, proving once again, no matter what the antics, fans still dig the Kelly suave. The cultural phenomenon that is the “Trapped in the Closet” series cannot be rivaled by any other piece of mainstream contemporary music in terms of storytelling and utter stupidity. That he pulls it off in such an entertaining fashion isn’t so much a miracle as it is a display of raw talent. Now let’s see if he believes he can fly away from the clutches of the law.
The veteran hip-hop artist had a hit in 2007’s Kanye-produced “Finding Forever,” a laid-back record that fused elements of R&B, soul and trademark Common spit, becoming the songwriter’s first number-one debut. (A best-of record followed shortly after.) With a new album already planned for later this year—Common’s eighth—it doesn’t seem like he’s planning on giving up his music career any time soon in light of his burgeoning acting career. Already featured in films like “American Gangster” and “Street Kings,” Common’s reportedly playing the Green Lantern in the still-developing “Justice League of America” blockbuster.
5. Andrew Bird
The virtuoso violinist (and whistler) teamed with electronic musician Martin Dosh for 2007’s “Armchair Apocrypha,” a daring and ultimately genius move that spawned a breathtaking record that features some of the best work Bird has ever done. The unforgettable live appearances that followed showed a new musician who was falling more towards innovative indie rock, first at the Riv and then later in the summer at the Hideout Block Party, a direction that, while unexpected, seems to make perfect sense. At least it does when you hear it. Bird has seriously set the bar pretty high for himself—what’s to come is anyone’s guess, and much-anticipated, to say the least.
6. Derrick Carter
Derrick Carter is still Chicago’s foremost ambassador of house—his name’s mentioned in hushed reverent tones overseas. While production work at his BHQ headquarters hasn’t seemed to yield any recent fruit, DC is busy as ever on the remix front, with his rework of Jeremy Joshua’s “Make Dat Shit” popping up on former Chi-Town cohort Mark Farina’s forthcoming highly anticipated Fabric 40 mix. Even tech-heavy Get Physical up ‘n’ comer Samim had to get Carter. But if you can’t get into that packed mega-club he’s headlining in London or Belgium or Ibiza, luckily for you he still plays out around town for an immensely smaller yet equally loyal crowd.
7. Fall Out Boy
“Infinity on High” was no “From Under the Cork Tree,” but the band’s continual influence on up-and-crying emo tarts is inarguable. Last year’s “Infinity” debuted number one on the Billboard 200, selling more than 250,000 copies in one week—the “Arms Race” was launched full throttle, and hasn’t slowed. Bassist and lyricist Pete Wentz keeps the band relevant in the celeb-hound circle through his relationship with Ashlee Simpson, which has recently gotten him in some trouble—the band spokesman is being sued for allegedly ass-kicking a heckler after a secret show at Schubas last year. The band’s given interviews about a new record that takes a more folkie approach, even name-checking Oasis. At least Wentz and singer Patrick Stump haven’t gone the tumultuous way of the brothers Gallagher. Yet.
The post-rock scientists have been honored recently by being asked to perform the seminal “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” album in full for All Tomorrow’s Parties’ “Don’t Look Back” series—the band will do it again come fall at the much-anticipated fest in New York. There hasn’t been a true Tortoise record since 2004’s “It’s All Around You,” but 2006’s cover-album collaboration with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “The Brave and the Bold,” plus the “A Lazarus Taxon” box-set, have kept our bellies full, and now, when the band plays live, it’s an event.
9. Buddy Guy
“If you don’t think you have the blues, just keep living.” Buddy Guy’s succinct acceptance speech to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 adequately summarized the wise career of the aging blues man, whose influence carried on through guitar luminaries like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, and can currently be heard nightly at his club Legends. His annual month-long January residency is a winter treasure whose days might be numbered if the club fails to find a new location, but don’t expect that to stop him—his blues lives on forever.
10. Kurt Elling
The award-winning jazz vocalist continues to craft flawlessly smooth records, most recently last year’s Grammy-nominated “Nightmoves.” But the best part of the international jazz star’s oeuvre? When he’s not on tour, you can still catch him on Wednesdays at the Green Mill.
11. DJ Heather
DJ Heather rose to prominence alongside her fellow femme DJs in SuperJane: Colette, Dayhota and Lady D. Although Heather and Lady D are the only members still residing in Chicago, you’d be hard-pressed to find Heather outside of her Smart Bar residency due to a constant touring schedule that struggles to meet the demand of her adoring public. Heather has found time to record tracks as well, with productions on her own Black Cherry imprint, as well as her biggest floor-filler “Everything’s Electric,” which still gets packed into plenty of jocks’ record bags with a seemingly endless amount of remixes to immortalize her slickly spit vocals.
Albini, Weston and Trainer emerged last summer, seven years after “1000 Hurts,” with their follow-up, called “Excellent Italian Greyhound,” a triumph of sarcasm from start to finish featuring some of Albini’s best lyrics yet, not to mention a killer opening track in the disorienting “The End of Radio.” Many shows followed (we know what frenzy that is), including a multi-day extravaganza, sold-out wall-to-wall, at Hideout last winter.
13. Rise Against
The success of Rise Against’s 2006 record “The Sufferer & The Witness” depended on how much the band was willing to alienate its old-school fans. Once “Ready to Fall” hit, it was clear—there was a new Geffen-records-gloss applied to the band’s meaty hardcore, a melodic milieu. Yet, Tim McIlrath and crew were able to craft a legitimately grabbing album, punishing at times, brooding at others. The band’s currently at work on the follow-up, which, upon release, we’ll likely be bombarded with in every sports videogame produced.
14. Local H
Scott Lucas and Brian St. Clair have crafted the band’s best record this century in “12 Angry Months,” a concept album about the stages of post-breakup depression. (Lucas has never been as witty.) The duo’s energetic live shows—not to mention dedication to Chicago—have at this point propelled them to beloved status, especially around these parts, evidenced by this week’s sold-out weeklong residency at Beat Kitchen, which is in celebration of the record’s release.
15. Lupe Fiasco
After riding a massive hype wave brought on by his appearance on Kanye’s “Touch the Sky,” the West Side rapper broke through with 2006’s “Food & Liquor,” widely hailed as the best hip-hop record of that year. Last December’s “The Cool” debuted at number-fourteen and has already been certified gold, and local fest appearances keep Lupe busy showing his love for his hometown.
16. Fred Anderson
The legendary avant-garde saxophonist successfully reopened his Velvet Lounge jazz club on Cermak after its 2005 closing, just another accomplishment on top of the countless records he’s created over the long span of his career. In early 2007 he, along with drummer Hamid Drake, released “From the River to the Ocean” on Thrill Jockey.
17. Felix Da Housecat
Felix Stallings is best known for his Housecat alter ego, an acid-loving house producer who hit it big when he enlisted Miss Kittin and Tommie Sunshine to flesh out his postmillennial electro manifesto to the world on “Kittenz and Thee Glitz.” While a next generation of clubbers rode his wave into the electro-clash sun, Felix had already jumped ship, with increasingly angular and less club-friendly synthsperimentation (his house tracks for P.Diddy notwithstanding). While Felix’s last two albums might’ve fallen flat critically, there’s no denying the global icon that he’s become, headlining plum gigs around the globe, recording a mix for the Global Underground (“GU34 Milan”). No matter what happens, this cat always lands on his feet.
18. Smoking Popes
After the Caterer brothers surprisingly reunited for a show for the Flower 15 celebration in 2005, the future was unclear for a time, until, of course, the band decided to reform permanently. A tour followed afterward, and then all was quiet on the loungey pop-punk front until just a couple months ago it was announced the band will release “Stay Down” on local label Flameshovel, the band’s first record of original material since 1997’s excellent “Destination Failure.” Welcome back—we need you around.
19. Jon Langford
Whether the Welsh musician goes alt-country with the Waco Brothers, reverts to pop with the Mekons (last year’s “Natural” was a fine outing), does some covers with as the leader of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts or hosts his weekly “Eclectic Company” radio show on XRT, Langford’s embedded himself deep into Chicago musical lore, and certainly keeps himself busy.
20. Green Velvet/Cajmere
Curtis Alan Jones (aka Green Velvet and Cajmere) Chicago’s house chameleon, uses his Green Velvet moniker for his electric live performances and harder-edged material, and Cajmere for his throwback deep-house sets and productions. As the head of both Cajual and Relief Records, Jones’ profile rose rapidly with Green Velvet’s 2001 “Whatever” album, with his absurdist-yet-true lyrics able to entertain and comment on social issues (“La La Land,” “Genedefekt”). To date, Jones hasn’t been able to match his previous commercial success as Green Velvet. While his recent music reflects a throwback to the lighter sounds of his Cajmere persona (perhaps attributed to his recent addition of religious faith), Jones is still able to use the mic to send messages, as showcased on 2007’s “Love Peace, Not War.”
Kanye’s partner-in-crime, who helped pen award-winner “Jesus Walks,” dropped his anticipated “Blue Collar” debut in 2006 to modest acclaim, yet failed to catch on as much as any Kanye creation or even Lupe’s work. That could all change with the rapper’s new project—a concept album about revolutionist Che Guevara, named “El Che” (the artist’s real name is Che Smith). The intensely likable songwriter (seriously, have you ever read or seen an interview with him?) could have a big year.
22. Frankie Knuckles
Frankie Knuckles has been pretty much deified and honored as no DJ before him. He got his start in New York, playing alongside the legendary Larry Levan. As his skills and reputation grew, his demand increased. Soon, the Warehouse opened up in Chicago, and Knuckles had found the home that would define this new music, this art now known as house. Later on, Knuckles would help and guide other soon-to-be-legends like Jamie Principle. As the house music he helped define seemed to wane, Knuckles began remixing R&B superstars like Toni Braxton and CeCe Penniston. Last fall, Knuckles’ famed Def Mix studio celebrated its twentieth anniversary, releasing a three-disc set of the piano-driven New York house his stable became known for. Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, Knuckles can still pack it in with his occasional house revivals at House of Blues.
On the Greenskeepers last opus (2006’s “Polo Club” double disc), swing-infused house gave way to Devo-inspired eighties melodies (and even a Huey Lewis cover), but overall interest might not have reached the level expected by many. But life is hard for crossover acts that straddle the dance/rock fence, at least here in America. Greenskeepers enjoy international success on tours around the world. But when the band lands back at home in Chicago, head Keeper James Curd and production partner/vocalist Nick Maurer keep the b(r)and alive, with a steady stream of house singles like the recent “Money vs. Machine” release and “Vagabond (Justice City Remix),” which is currently featured front-and-center in the Grand Theft Auto IV spot that’s been playing for the last couple weeks straight.
24. The Cool Kids
Considering how long this young hip-hop duo of Mikey Rocks and Chuck Inglish has been on the minds of music industry as the next-big-thing, it’s incredible they have yet to release a full-length record. (The boys have already had songs featured in videogames and on an episode of “Entourage,” plus were one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “Ten Artists to Watch in 2008.”) When “When Fish Ride Bicycles” reportedly drops come fall, watch out. Until then, we have this month’s long-awaited “The Bake Sale” EP to hold us over.
Ever since DJ duo J2K and Autobot (together, Flosstradamus) were pegged in the 2006 edition of URB’s “Next 100,” the crew has packed clubs in its hometown with a stunning regularity, toured with Chromeo, played Coachella, did a riotous daylight set at Lollapalooza last year and more, all without a record (reportedly, the two are hard at work). With frequent collaborations with Cool Kids and Kid Sister (who’s the duo’s MC, sister of J2K), 2008 is shaping up to be something special.
26. Kid Sister
Flosstradamus’ MC breaks out on her own this summer with debut record “KoKo B. Ware” on Downtown Records, home of virtually unknowns Gnarls Barkley, Mos Def and Justice. When she shot her video for single “Pro Nails” and suddenly Kanye popped in for a cameo, the blogs were blazin’ and hip-hop suddenly had a new queen. Her vocal on the club smash by Count and Sinden, “Beeper,” soon followed. The highly anticipated album, titled after the 1980s WWF wrestler, could easily skyrocket this Melissa Young to international success.
27. The Ponys
Garage indie-rockers The Ponys found a perfect fit with Matador Records for the release of 2007’s “Turn the Lights Out,” a fine record that brought back the personality and vigor of the 2004 In the Red debut “Laced with Romance.” The band toured with Spoon just as that indie unit hit its most successful stride, and went on the road with local mates Chin Up Chin Up last fall. We can’t wait to hear what’s next.
28. Smashing Pumpkins
In retrospect, “Zeitgeist” never stood a chance. With all the hoopla and anticipation surrounding Corgan’s full-page-ad announcement that he’s getting the band back together, dude, a relatively middle-of-the-road rock record couldn’t possibly deliver. Truth is, Corgan doesn’t have another “Siamese Dream” in him, probably has little interest in that anyway, and while “Zeitgeist” had its moments of tenacious tedium, there were glimpses of glory present as well (though mostly with Jimmy Chamberlin’s drumming). If Corgan makes another record under the Pumpkins moniker it will likely be an improvement as he and Chamberlin gather a more muscular understanding of where their musical partnership is in this century. But with the unpredictable songwriter, that’s a big if.
The multimillion record-selling hard-rock outfit had two number-one chart-toppers back-to-back in 2002’s “Believe” and 2005’s “Ten Thousand Fists,” and “Indestructible,” currently set to land June 3, looks primed to do the same on the heels of the recently released single “Inside the Fire” and last year’s contribution to the “Transformers” soundtrack. Say what you will about the band’s brand of mainstream anger and aggressiveness, but the kids buy it up in droves.
30. Alkaline Trio
On the heels of the reissue of the emo-punk band’s seminal “Goddamnit” record, celebrating its ten-year anniversary, Alkaline Trio is set to release its sixth record, “Agony and Irony,” come July 1, on Epic Records. Bands like Fall Out Boy and The Academy Is… owe a great deal to the Trio, as it essentially helped pave the way for underground emo to stretch its reach to the masses.
31. The Sea and Cake
The jazz-inflected indie-rock band, a Thrill Jockey mainstay, returned from a long hiatus with last year’s solid “Everybody,” and it was clear the Sam Prekop- and Archer Prewitt-led band should make more records more often. The album’s breezy sound was injected with a dose of vitriol at last July’s Pitchfork fest, as the band delivered one of the weekend’s best performances.
32. Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc became Tim Kinsella’s primary musical outlet once again after he split from Make Believe, and “Boo Human,” the band’s latest that hits streets on May 20, is a sad, insightful record of staggering range, the band’s best effort in some time. The influential art-rock band has intricately assembled its records with mind-bending verve since its inception, and, as evidenced by “Boo Human,” has only grown in creativity.
33. The Academy Is…
The little brothers to Fall Out Boy released “Santi” in spring of last year, a fine-tuned accomplishment that bettered the band’s “Almost Here” debut. The emotive pop rock has launched the band on tour with FOB and Cobra Starship, among other acts of that fold, from one corner of the world to another. Set to hit the road this summer with the Vans Warped Tour, the band’s currently working on its third record.
34. Kill Memory Crash
Birthed amongst the techno/industrial/rave crucible of 1990 Detroit, current Chicagoans Adam Killing and Alex SanFacon wow electronic-music fans with their darkly peppered live performances and tracks, placing them high on the list to become the next generation’s Thrill Kill Kult—albeit without the camp value. They’ve found a home for their releases on Ghostly, with more minimal-leaning tracks produced as simply Kill on dance-floor spin-off Spectral. You can catch them performing live as part of the Ghostly Swim tour, and they’ve also contributed a pitched-down nightmare of a track for the Adult Swim promo compilation (available for free download on adultswim.com) worthy of Dethklok themselves.
35. Kate Simko
You’ll find production savant/DJ Kate Simko at the most discerning of dance floors, where cerebral beats and minimal rhythms incite more (emotion) for less (commotion). This sort of musical optimization is evident in her ever-growing body of work, particularly with her production duo Detalles (with Chilean techno star Andres Bucci) catapulting her to the forefront of the techno community. Her own solo work showcases her impressive musical pedigree as a classically trained musician gone club, with current or future releases on the likes of Spectral, Kupei Musica and Chocolate Industries. While her own local performance schedule no longer includes the recently concluded Wake Up! parties (where she served as resident alongside recent Chicago ex-pat Sassmouth), you can still find her spinning records or performing live at Debonair, Sonotheque, Smart Bar and various underground parties.
36. Ken Vandermark
The jazz saxophonist and MacArthur Fellowship “genius” (circa 1999) moved to Chicago from Boston nearly twenty years ago and has found a home since at venues like Empty Bottle, Green Mill and Hideout. Though he’s currently on tour with Tim Daisy as part of their duo, Vandermark can often be seen performing as part of Hideout’s innovative Wednesday-night Immediate Sound Series.
37. The Tossers
The veteran Celtic punk band has, over its nearly two-decade career, built a ravenous fan base, first through its work on Thick Records, and now with Victory. Frankly put, The Tossers are one of the best live bands in the city, a screeching, fury-filled assault on the ears and mind. Last year’s “Agony” still brought it; see the band open for Local H Saturday at Beat Kitchen.
The Scott Masson-led Office released “A Night at the Ritz” on New Line/Scratchie last fall, an affective introduction to the band, one of the top indie-pop acts in the city. Don’t allow the overwhelming catchy giddiness of a song like “Oh My” fool you completely, however—the group will tear your face off live. That dynamism keeps the material fresh. See ‘em at Lollapalooza come August.
39. Scotland Yard Gospel Choir
The Choir re-emerged last year with its stunning self-titled second record, on Bloodshot, a collection of pitch-perfect indie pop that bested the band’s inspired debut. Leader Elia Einhorn has improved impressively as a songwriter, and if the string of Schubas shows the band just completed as part of the venue’s residency series is any indication, the future looks bright.
40. The Hush Sound
The Fueled by Ramen/Decaydance band’s March release “Goodbye Blues” was met with a decent response, the group’s third full-length and big bid at major stardom. Don’t let the label trick you—this is not a carbon-copy emo band wailing with obvious metaphor; the piano-driven songs incorporate elements of swing, blues and folk, and co-founder Greta Salpeter’s voice, unique and soulful, anchors it all down.
The Hydra Head Records band followed up the outstanding “The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw” last year with “City of Echoes,” an even more melodic (if less doomy) record of instrumental mayhem, swirling guitars and driving drums. Pelican got pretty (maybe the half-band LA-relocation had something to do with that), and while some were disappointed with the transition, others were elated by the band’s showing of dexterity. Currently on tour, the band hits Metro for two dates next week.
While there are many hustling DJs in town, Chicago is lucky to have Zebo rocking the likes of…well, just about everywhere. A seemingly omnipresent figure around West Side clubs and lounges, Zebo packs a cut-up crateful of styles, from hip-hop and B-more to French eletro-disco and even a nasty snippet of a techno track or throwback freestyle gem. While this maximal approach might be increasingly common among DJs who cater to ADD-riddled mash-up club casualties, Zebo stays head-and shoulders above the rest for knowing that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Skills can be honed, but taste can’t be taught. Although he has launched his own label to put out mostly B-more-leaning beats, it is his skills as a DJ that draw the most water in this town. Hell, Zebo’s own remix of “I Can’t Go For That” almost makes the current revival in yacht-rock seem acceptable. Almost.
43. The 1900s
With a great EP called “Plume Delivery” and a much-lauded debut full-length called “Cold & Kind,” Chicago’s Fleetwood Mac/Velvet Underground-inspired pop band has created two of the finest local releases of the last few years. With accolades surfacing from all over, it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t like this band—the world’s waiting at large. Live, they’re unstoppable—catch them next month at the Do Division Street Fest.
When Dark Wave Disco cofounder and resident DJ Mark Gertz sought out another selector to materialize his vision of a crossover electro/indie party, he happened to bump into Miguel Martin, aka Trancid, a twenty-plus-year veteran behind the decks who wields considerable skills to match a discerning electro-musical palate. The party was a success and quickly metamorphosed from a Tuesday night slot to prime weekend real estate at Sonotheque, along with co-productions at bigger clubs alongside the likes of Justice and Tommie Sunshine. As bloggers and electronic press veered away from more traditional house and techno coverage, DWD’s crossover lineups became an industry institution, with Trancid as its most visible figure. His precision cuts and crowd-pleasing selections are the culmination of his entire career. Strong 1980s new wave/industrial/EBM influences punctuate the latest/greatest new electro/rock thing, adding gravity to his sets in the ever-fickle half-life of trendy club fare.
45. Bound Stems
The math-rock-tinged indie-pop band’s 2006 record “Appreciation Night” was a bafflingly complex testimony of what pop music could be—a wildly imaginative full-length debut that was really a hundred-song album. The band made Chicago a band member, using various samples recorded from the city streets. After some time out of the spotlight, the band resurfaces with a big tour this summer and the September release of its highly anticipated follow-up record, “A Family Afloat,” on Flameshovel.