The Year in Review: Music | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

The Year in Review: Music 

Reader writers tackle the past 12 months from six different directions

International Music Peter Margasak

I've never felt more overwhelmed by new releases than I did by the deluge of 2012. I'm not complaining, but it does make compiling this sort of year-end list feel almost pointless—how can you ever be sure you've heard everything worthwhile? All the same, it wasn't hard for me to choose five favorite international recordings.

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Fatoumata Diawara, Fatou (World Circuit/Nonesuch) Paris-based singer-­songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, born to Malian parents in the Ivory Coast, left her homeland to pursue an acting career, but her musical talent soon got her noticed. She signed on as a backup vocalist for the great Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare, and on her debut, Fatou, she shares Sangare's independence and defiance, extending empathy to all sorts of oppressed people—misfits, victims of war, illegal immigrants, women (who in Mali are sometimes circumcised as girls and considered minors at any age if they're unmarried). She brings pop savvy to her deep, cyclical grooves with arrangements that expertly balance guitars and electric bass with kora and n'goni.


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Mairi Morrison & Alasdair Roberts, Urstan (Drag City) In recent years an impressive cohort of young artists have revisited the traditional folk music of the British Isles, including the Unthanks, Emily Portman, and Jackie Oates, but I find Scottish singer and guitarist Alasdair Roberts the most original and consistently fascinating. On this collaboration with singer and actress Mairi Morrison, who grew up speaking Gaelic (it was organized by Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts), Roberts expands his repertoire by setting Gaelic songs within gorgeous, diverse arrangements.


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Antonio Zambujo, Quinto (World Village) Female fado singers such as Mariza, Ana Moura, and Mafalda Arnauth dominate coverage of Portugal's national music, but for my money Antonio Zambujo is the genre's most interesting and exciting practitioner. On his fifth and best album, Quinto, he continues to toy with fado's conventions, sometimes adding airy clarinet to the standard instrumentation of acoustic guitars and bass. Zambujo also teases out commonalities between fado and Brazilian music—on certain songs his gorgeous voice sounds more than a little like Caetano Veloso's.


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Sidi Touré, Koïma (Thrill Jockey) For his austere 2011 debut, Sahel Folk, this Malian singer and guitarist recorded a collection of duets at his sister's home in Gao. For its even better follow-up, he booked a proper studio in Bamako with a band, resulting in a richer, more propulsive sound. On Sahel Folk Touré seemed happy to yield center stage to his partners, and on Koïma he leads only as a vocalist, though he wrote the songs and their multi­layered arrangements—his acoustic guitar plays a purely rhythmic role, but his singing has never sounded more authoritative and soulful.


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Huong Thanh, L'arbre aux Reves (Buda) Paris-based singer Huong Thanh has recorded a series of genre-straddling collaborations with jazz guitarist Nguyen Le, setting traditional Vietnamese melodies to slickly modern arrangements. Over the last few years, though, she's abandoned the glossy trappings of those crossover records—on her most recent albums, the instruments, the style, and the repertoire are all traditional. L'arbre aux Reves is her best such recording yet.


Favorite things Miles Raymer

Not even the longest list of albums or singles can define a year's worth of music, so in lieu of that kind of effort I offer this selection of artists, recordings, and trends that did the most to shape my year in listening.

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Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Frank Ocean's Channel Orange In a year when many listeners and even many musicians have come to doubt the continued relevancy of the album format, two of the strongest arguments in its favor come from young artists creating complex, ambitious LPs driven by conflicts in their lives that turn out to be simple to describe. One is by a charismatic rapper attempting to reckon with his experiences growing up in Compton, California; the other is by an eccentric R&B singer trying to figure out love. Both demand to be listened to start to finish every time, and they deserve it.


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Grimes's growing popularity Over the past couple of years a wave of young female artists making challenging but tuneful electronic avant-pop have established themselves in prominent positions in the underground music scene. With the release of her third album, Visions, Grimes moved to the forefront of that wave, and her accessible hooks, futuristic sounds, and art-damaged visual aesthetic have earned her fans that include a number of Top 40 pop stars—which should make her (and our) 2013 quite interesting.


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The mixtape finally goes mainstream It's been more than a decade since the rap mixtape first gained a foothold with listeners unaccustomed to buying music at liquor stores, but major acts outside hip-hop are only now starting to appreciate its artist-friendly qualities—most notably the freedom it offers to experiment with edgier sounds without worrying about commercial potential. R&B singers such as Jeremih and Lloyd have used the format to slip from the confines of their well-groomed images, while nominally pop singers such as Charli XCX have used it to launch campaigns for mainstream recognition.


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Future and 2 Chainz Future and 2 Chainz are both rappers from Atlanta with deep roots in the city's hip-hop scene, and each contributed in a major way to how incredibly enjoyable rap radio was this year. Future released a pair of singles, "Same Damn Time" and "Turn On the Lights," that were impossible to escape (not that you'd want to), and 2 Chainz not only dropped the infinitely quotable "Birthday Song" but also turned up on seemingly every one of the summer's biggest songs. Hip-hop's 2012 MVPs.


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The triumph of the wub What began as a nocturnal-sounding subgenre of interest primarily to Anglophile fans of progressive dance music has completed its transformation into a neon-streaked, YOLO-fied behemoth dominating American youth culture. Dubstep is our generation's disco: ubiquitous, ultramodern, immensely fun, and seemingly legally required to appear in some form on every new pop record. No matter what you do now, the snarky hip kids of the future will assume you spent 2012 listening to the stuff (and are therefore totally lame), so you may as well let yourself enjoy it.


Live metal Philip Montoro

This year I went to so many metal shows in Chicago that it was hard to whittle down my favorites to five—I eliminated Yob's two dates because I'd picked the band in 2011, but I had a tougher time knocking off Autopsy, Vektor, Behemoth, Lord Mantis, Agalloch, Hammers of Misfortune, and Vattnet Viskar, to name just a few. Well, I can think of worse problems to have. Here are the survivors, in chronological order:

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Ghost at Bottom Lounge 1/24 I don't get why so many fans of a genre that counts Alice Cooper among its progenitors have come down on Ghost for playing poppy songs and wearing campy, ghoulish costumes. I love the whole production: tolling bells, backward chanting, blasphemous stained-glass windows, an anonymous hooded band, a skull-faced pope with eerie white contact lenses who sings while daintily swinging a smoking censer. And of course there are the gleefully satanic lyrics and addictive hooks.


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Meshuggah at House of Blues 5/15 The Swedish kings of progressive death metal specialize in an alien sort of tension—their "grooves" often sound like nests of massive eccentric gears milled from blocks of a gray extraterrestrial alloy—and at one of their shows, where shuddering detonations of light flare in time with the colossal riffs, resisting that tension is as futile as struggling against the gravity well of a collapsing star.


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Dragged Into Sunlight at Ultra Lounge 6/9 This Liverpool four-piece plays noisome, misanthropic metal that heaves and shrieks and reconfigures its suffocating bulk at the speed of thought, like a Lovecraftian horror that feeds on our terrified imaginings of it. At a live show, where the music roars out of a thick fog lit only by a blood-red glow and a spasming strobe, it feels like a massive evil seizure—imagine being trapped inside Dr. Jekyll's brain at the instant he turns into Mr. Hyde.


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Pallbearer at Beat Kitchen 9/14 The desolate, stately doom metal of this Arkansas band acquires an entirely new sort of gravitas onstage—the kind that comes from a bass tone the size of a gas giant. It was so deep and full that for most of their first song you couldn't hear or even feel the kick drum—it was still miked to the specifications of opener Royal Thunder, and the engineer had to scramble to boost the highs and make it audible. Seeing Pallbearer live was like being very slowly and gently hit by an avalanche.


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High on Fire at Double Door 12/7 This was the most apocalyptic set I've ever seen from Oakland's lords of barbarian metal. Their maniacal focus surely owed something to the improved health of front man Matt Pike, who's "sharper and stronger" (in his own words) after rehab for a drinking problem, but their bloodthirsty drive still comes from drummer Des Kensel, whose thundering style has the furious, implacable momentum of a galloping Mongol horde—just the thing to make you want to burn down villages full of unbelievers.


Brick-tossing music Kevin Warwick

Sometimes life hands you lemons and then kicks you in the groin. Here, in no particular order, are the five best albums from 2012 that make me want to throw bricks through windows.

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Pig Destroyer, Book Burner (Relapse) When I heard the blastbeat that punches through the sampled movie dialogue at the start of Book Burner's lead track—a classic Pig Destroyer maneuver—I instantaneously forgave the five trying years the Richmond grindcore masters made me wait for a new full-length. And every time J.R. Hayes's maniacal, red-eyed screams erupt from the mix—alongside Scott Hull's devastating guitar riffage—I imagine that somewhere an angel gets its wings.


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Enabler, All Hail the Void (Southern Lord) With the PR tagline "The world is fucked and this is the soundtrack to its demise" and songs called things like "Fuck Today" and "Fucking Wartorn." Milwaukee's Enabler ain't sugarcoating nothin'. The relentless hybrid of hardcore punk and metal on their second full-length (and first for Southern Lord) sounds like a cinder block of nuclear-charged contempt, in the same bulging, hate-filled vein as contemporaries Trap Them and From Ashes Rise. Drummer Andy Hurley—who's unfortunately no longer with the band—plays with such ferocious energy and tightness that he's nearly half the show.


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Swans, The Seer (Young God) This behemoth triple LP from legendarily primal postpunks Swans seethes with unnerving tension and a hovering sensation of impending doom—it's enough to keep you awake in the dark, sitting at high alert, with a loaded shotgun across your lap. Front man Michael Gira uses shamanic repetition—and his hypnotic baritone voice—to lure you into the black, roaring depths of the album, trapping you in subterranean mazes such as the 30-plus-minute title track.


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Black Breath, Sentenced to Life (Southern Lord) On their sophomore full-length, D-beat disciples Black Breath display their undying devotion to the likes of Disfear and Entombed by cranking up the tuffness, heaviness, tightness, speediness, flaming lickness, devil-horn-worthiness, and, well, hatefulness. The gruff yowl of vocalist Neil McAdams and the unstoppable chugging guitars fight to outdo each other in fury—and the cutthroat ripper "Mother Abyss" would go perfectly with a high-speed, head-on semitruck collision (and subsequent fiery explosion).


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Unsane, Wreck (Alternative Tentacles) Is it just me, or did the first studio album in five years from these NYC noise-rock forefathers go a little undernoticed? Cut from the same cloth as the rest of Unsane's catalog, Wreck delivers the band's usual battering-ram crunch, both with the guitars and with Chris Spencer's ravaged voice; they use distortion so expertly that their hugely grotty sound is still surgically precise. The third track, "No Chance," perfectly demonstrates Unsane's 20-year-old template: pummeling drums, trudging hardcore guitars, and enough vitriol to shatter bulletproof glass.


Overlooked local releases Leor Galil

The annual race to crown the greatest albums of the year produces so many lists that you'd think every half-decent piece of music would turn up on at least one of them. But of course plenty of excellent albums escape notice—especially albums by artists whose audiences are mostly local. With that in mind, here are my top five overlooked releases by Chicago acts.

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Old Fuck, Old Fuck (self-released) Old Fuck make doom for people who like hardcore—one moment they're playing a heaving, crawling riff, and the next they're pouring on the speed with a charging blastbeat. The four songs on Old Fuck careen between funereal sludge and caterwauling punk, and sometimes they take a little from column A and a little from column B for a rugged, bracing, and thoroughly fun sound.


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M.I.C, Next 2 Blow (self-released) Chief Keef helped put the drill scene in the national spotlight, but dozens of Chicago artists are still waiting for their share of it. West-side trio M.I.C were indulging in a bit of wishful thinking when they titled this mixtape Next 2 Blow, but its accessible street rap—which combines sleek and sumptuous synths, rattling drums, and booming bass—certainly deserves plenty of attention.


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Sun Splitter, III (Bloodlust) Sun Splitter make sinister experimental doom from lumbering riffs and brittle licks, robotic drum machine that sometimes sounds like clanking chains, vocals that alternate between haunting harmonies hanging in the distance and bristling growls muffled by fuzz, and of course lots of feedback. But thanks to the band's knack for Krautrock-style repetition and drive, the music is as mesmerizing as it is assaultive.


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Upholstery & Carpet Cleaning, Slow Cloud (Old Lane Sign) On his album Slow Cloud, Upholstery & Carpet Cleaning main man Matthew McGarry uses bouncy rhythms, jangly guitars, walking bass lines, playful piano melodies, and sprightly drumming to give his hooky, endearing pop-rock tunes a lively kick.


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Birth Deformities, Suburbanized (Cowabunga) The guys in Birth Deformities clearly love early-80s hardcore: the tumultuous Suburbanized is packing with pogoing bass lines, rapid-fire drumming, razor-sharp guitar, and barked vocals. But they're not just playing a cookie-cutter version of the style—they've got a distinctive looseness, when their focused aggression sounds like it's about to unravel into chaos.


Tribute bands Monica Kendrick

Tribute bands have long been disparaged as derivative (no shit, Sherlock—that's the point) or demeaning to performers (especially if you look terrible in your David Lee Roth spandex), which is I suppose an inevitable side effect of the worship of originality. But Chicago has a wealth of great homage makers who celebrate artists from the famous to the moderately obscure—and on Halloween, of course, anybody in a band can become anybody else in a band. Here are my five favorites from 2012, in no particular order.


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Greg Norton is beside himself Drummer Eric Mahle, guitarist Dan Fanelli, and bassist Geoff Greenberg formed Hüsker Düdes in 2010 as a larky way to celebrate their mutual favorite band, but they keep finding themselves sharing stages with their heroes. In fall 2011, for instance, two members backed Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart at Quenchers, and this past March Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton came down from Minneapolis to celebrate his birthday with the Düdes at the same bar. The cake honored Norton's famous mustache, and Greenberg pulled out all the stops, wearing plaid and a 'stache to complete the "brother from another mother" effect.


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Velcro does Buzzo The Hideout always throws a good Halloween party, and this year was no exception: headliners the Velvins were an inspired pairing of underrated psychedelic-soul singer Velcro Lewis and a crack band featuring the Sullivan brothers from Arriver and drummer Eorl Scholl of Behold! the Living Corpse. They sometimes sounded a lot like the Melvins, but more often like a fantastic Chicago supergroup I'd love to hear more from—which might mean they failed as a tribute by being too distinctive themselves.


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Plastic Hawkwind Sound The folks at the Whistler have enshrined the tribute with their Playing Favorites series, and I doubt they're gonna top Hawkwind played by Plastic Crimewave at his freaky-deakiest, Bruce Lamont, Hands of Hydra, Traci Trouble, and Nick Myers of Vee Dee—and oh yeah, Chris Connelly as Michael Moorcock, sci-fi novelist and friend of Hawkwind. Their Whistler set was such a hit that they reprised it a few days later at the Empty Bottle, where they clearly had borderline illegal levels of fun playing this stuff.


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"Thank You Friends" This isn't the grave-robbing sort of tribute, despite its honoree's untimely death in 2010—the Alex Chilton Birthday Bash, hosted by Larry O. Dean of the Injured Parties, began in 2005, and only for the past couple editions has it had a whiff of melancholy and a wakelike feel. This year's is Fri 12/28 at the Empty Bottle, with a long list of worthy locals that includes Azita, Certain Stars, and Liam Davis & the Contestants—but the real star is Chilton and his songs.


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"Good Times Bad Times" and B1g T1me I'm going to sneak in two full-time, professional bands with my last pick: Led Zeppelin 2, whose take on the Zep music and mythology is sometimes hilarious and sometimes hair-raising, and Tom Waits tribute B1g T1me, who make magic with very difficult source material. Trying to "be" Tom Waits is gutsy as hell, and while B1g T1me can't re-create Waits's terrifying charisma, they bring a circus/cabaret atmosphere and a deadly serious approach to his music. In both cases opportunities to see the real thing are rare to nonexistent, so it's not like you're just settling.

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