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Rockin' Our Local Turntable In 2011

By Jon Graef in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 30, 2011 7:00PM

Kanye West.jpg Though it might not be widely discussed, given the context of snowstorms and mayoral elections of equally epic importance, 2011 was a very good year for Chicago music, both locally and nationally, in mainstream circles and outside of them.

Pop music fans could take even the most cursory of glances at the Billboard charts and would find native sons from the city’s South and West sides—Kanye, then Lupe, and now Common—scoring huge commercial hits.

On the rock front, Wilco released its most artistically satisfying album in 10 years; the Smith Westerns maintained their blog-hype momentum through album number two.

A year with high-profile efforts from the aforementioned groups would be gratifying enough for any city, let alone Chicago. But, in addition to higher profile efforts, 2011 saw Chicago’s pockets of below-the-radar music scene explode with powder keg creativity.

Chicago bands did not so much reinvent genres of the past, so much as looked underneath their hoods, saw what they could fine-tune, polish up, and then take out to the clubs, good as new. The end results were diverse, thoughtful variants on well-established genres that complimented transcendent, excitable live shows.

While Chicago’s musical creativity knows no bounds, the three genres most notable for my own listening habits were metal, garage rock, and krautrock/psych. I’ll break these sub-genres down one by one.


In 2011, listeners heard Bloodiest evoke Ennio Morricone, Dick Dale and Metallica through nylon-string plucking, and furious surf guitar thrash. This is all within the opening track to their great Descent record. In addition to this combustible combination, Bloodiest added Tuvan throat singing, grandiose piano textures, ambient noise, and lots of metal.

Elsewhere, acts like The Atlas Moth and Anatomy of Habit composed compelling metal, assembled from everything in the genre’s kitchen sink, consisting of sounds that were as thrillingly unpredictable as they were reassuringly familiar.

And for those who like their metal thicker than Bourbon County Stout, Indian and Locrian brought the metal goods down like an onslaught of sonic plagues while also adding brightening textures. (Indian’s brand of doom metal is much more visceral, of course). But if these efforts were a little successful in bringing you down, then count on Rabid Rabbit to bring you back from the edge, with heaviness and huge, melodic guitar riffs in tow. Chicago may no longer be the hog butcher to the world, but, through their instrumental prowess, its metal acts ensure their hometown will be known for an entirely different kind of slaying.

Notable efforts: Bloodiest, Descent; Indian - Guiltless; The Atlas Moth - An Ache For The Distance; Rabid Rabbit - Czarny Sen; Anatomy of Habit - Anatomy of Habit; Russian Circles - Empros; Czar - Vertical Mass Grave; Locrian - The Clearing.

Garage Rock

2011 saw Chicago’s garage rockers latch onto big melodic ideas, then marry them to scuzz, gnarly noise, and melancholic maturity. Not every record matches that description, of course. Chicago quintet Mickey seemed like they’re having way too much fun being rock and roll dreamers to contemplate maturity in the way that Mannequin Men did (and did not, given the inspiration of “Cheryl Tiegs”).

Cheryl Tiegs by Mannequin Men

But since both offer undeniable sing-alongs, perhaps it’s best to sit back and watch the personalities on display through the music. Speaking of personalities: How awesome is it that Alex White, in channeling both Tony Iommi and Aretha Franklin, tells little girls to raise their fists up and punch a hole in the world?

Very awesome, like the live shows of Rabble Rabble and Radar Eyes, both of whom didn’t release much in 2011, but reigned scorched earth when it came to rocking out in concert. There’s a lot to explore here, and, given the prolific output of Chicago garage rock’s members, a lot to look forward to in 2012.

Notable efforts: Mannequin Men, Mannequin Men; Heavy Times - Jacker; Mickey - Rock N’ Roll Dreamer; Bare Mutants, Coach House Sounds session; Rabble Rabble - Why Not/Long Hook 7-inch and Live Nov 5 2010, Giant System Presents digital download; Radar Eyes - Miracle 7”; Summer Girlfriends - “Bad Dreams” and “Shockwaves” Bandpage postings; White Mystery - Blood and Venom.


Art-rock given equal parts space-ial beauty and reviving/reviving Midwestern rock horsepower. If music acts like NEU and Kraftwerk were supposed to evoke Germany’s Autobahn, then these acts evoke cruising down Lake Shore Drive at dusk, when it’s not jammed to holy hell with traffic, and the city lights blend together to form a multi-colored haze that you, as the driver, can just glaze on and gaze upon. (Mind the road too, natch.)

From electronic-tinged affairs like Deep Earth’s House of Mighty and Fotosputnik’s Idiolects; to abstract, hazier efforts like Verma, Implodes, and Wume; and finally, to the sweet hammering of the psychedelic gods given by CAVE, Disappears, Dark Fog, and the Great Society Mind Destroyers, 2011 saw Chicago become the Motorik city.

In light of how transportation is handled here, it’s good to hear at least one part of Chicago move with great speed and efficiency.

implodes 'marker' by kranky

Notable efforts: Spective Audio Vital Sound I compilation; Verma, second self-titled EP; Disappears - Guider; Implodes - Black Earth; Cave - Neverendless; Fotosputnik - Idiolects; Deep Earth - House of Mighty; Dark Fog -- Drug Portal: Heavy Dilemma; Great Society Mind Destroyers - Spirit Smoke; Wume - Distance.

What Else?

There were a metric fuck ton of very solid, fun, and beat-heavy efforts from Chicago’s hip-hop community: The Cool Kids, Flosstradamus, Kidz In The Hall, Psalm One, Serengeti, Maker, Mic Terror, and Rockie Fresh. And that’s just barely dipping your toe into the surface.

Rockie Fresh - "Prom King" by Rockie Fresh

To go to the other frying pan for a moment, ambient efforts from l’etenbre, Grey Ghost, Cinchel, Chord, and SecretWars helped listeners get their bliss on, while electronic artists like Chrissy Murderbot and Supreme Cuts helped re-shape dance and R&B for the year of the rabbit. Lastly, anyone who can classify the brilliant, wholly odd, and seemingly mystic likes of Ga’an and Pillars and Tongues is eons more perceptive than the person writing this.

Regular-Ass Records With Verses And Choruses And Everything That Are Worth Your Attention

Experimental music is great and everything, but everybody needs a chorus, and these albums had some great ones: Pet Lions, Houses; JC Brooks and The Uptown Sound - Want More; Santah - White Noise Bed; The Island of Misfit Toys - Bear Hair; Roommate - Guilty Rainbow.

What’s Next?

In early 2012, look for new albums from Chicagoist favorites Disappears, their third album Pre-Language sees release in March; Summer Girlfriends, whose first full-length arrives in February; rapper Rockie Fresh, whose Driving 88 mixtape honks its horn in January; Alt-country troubadours Dastardly, who in mere weeks, will ask you to Bury Me In The Country; and Radar Eyes, whose debut full-length on Hozac Records will be celebrated on February 6 with a release show at the Empty Bottle.

Of course, there will be more. Only time will tell how 2012 shapes up for Chicago music fans, but if it can compete with this year, we’ll have much to celebrate indeed.