Our Picks For The Year's 25 Best Albums By Chicago Artists
By Stephen Gossett in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 15, 2016 3:15PM
Getty Images / Photo: Steven Errico
Don't call them the best "local" albums. That somehow feels too dismissive, even for the artists who haven't reached the same stratospheric heights in terms of popularity as others on this list. The records below exist in a dialogue beyond the Chicago music scene—even as so many of them are inextricably linked to our city in terms of sonics, history, politics, sociology, aesthetics. Nowhere is that connection more evident than in Chicago hip-hop. To call it a banner year for local rap flirts with unduly relegating recent years prior, which had equally valuable, if slightly less high-profile, offerings. Still, 2016 often felt like a watershed in that respect, led on the national stage by one figure in particular, of course, who nevertheless functioned as part of a larger, indelible whole for those ready and willing to go beyond. But as rich as that story is, the year in Chicago music doesn't stop there—or here, for that matter. So while this list only hints at the musical bounty out there in Chicago, it does, for us, represent some clear highlights. Check out the Top Ten, listed alphabetically, followed by 15 more very-worth-the-time gems.
Chance the Rapper performing at Magnificent Coloring Day / Photo: Tyler LaRiviere
Chance the Rapper: Coloring Book
Yeah, we cover Chance a lot here at Chicagoist, or Chanceagoist (touché, commenter). But, beyond the cornball Kit Kat commercials and lovable Beyonce reaction shots, it’s important to remember the work. While Kanye similarly mined the black gospel tradition in 2016, nobody else reached this level of radical optimism. After coming to terms with the fallible side of Yes We Can and the Trump-ian rise of hate, you’d think we’d just be too jaded. But Chance’s joy in the face of defeatism sounds more instructive than ever.
Favorite track: "No Problem." Still.
Good Willsmith: Things Our Bodies Used to Have
Incredibly, all three members of Good Willsmith—which includes folks behind the ever-more-nationally-regarded experimental label Hausu Mountain—released outstanding solo releases in 2016. (By their solo monikers, TALsound’ embryonic synth bath Lifter + Lighter, Mukqs’ avant-electronic Walkthrough and Mr. Doug Doug’s hyperactive SOS Forks AI REM). But it was this sophomore group effort—part deconstructed noise, part blissful ambient, all DIY jammy looseness—that sounded truly transcendent. Chaos is a feature, not a bug.
Favorite track: "What Goes In the Ocean Goes In You"
Hieroglyphic Being: The Disco's of Imhotep
House music has been conferred both national chart-pop assimilation and the imprimatur of Chicago’s culture industry, but anyone looking for evidence of the locally-birthed genre as thriving, inventive subculture need look no further than Jamal Moss’ latest. The longtime experimental-minded producer released his most accessible collection to date, while relinquishing none of his visionary Afrofuturism or explicitly palliative intentions: house as healing, mystical dance-floor utility.
Favorite track: "Spiritual Alliances"
Jackie Lynn: Jackie Lynn
Haley Fohr, who also records under her better-known alias Circuit Des Yeux, located a strange-but-fertile intersection of woman-wronged country-music mythology and minimalist electronics with her Jackie Lynn character. Even if you skip the elaborate fictional biography, these tales of weary resignation and wearier antipathy are stunning, propelled as always by Fohr’s stunning, Nico-esque vocal gravitas.
Favorite track: "Alien Love"
A redefinition of hip-hop as organic, Badu-istic neo-soul, local grassroots spoken and much, much more, Noname’s justly acclaimed mixtape plays like a cri de coeur for those who’ve experienced too much hurt—and retained too much hope—to be overcome. Emblematic of Telefone’s light-touch dexterity and economy, “Casket Pretty,” captures, in full scope, the lingering, ever-present psychic wound that police brutality and indiscriminate gun violence causes in Chicago’s underserved communities—all in less than two minutes.
Favorite track: "Casket Pretty"
Saba: Bucket List Project
The city of Chicago is key to most the albums on this list, but nowhere does it emanate like on Saba’s much-anticipated mixtape. Whether hopping on the CTA thanks to his latest hooptie mishap, name-checking Wallace’s Catfish and Uncle Remus on his native West Side, positioning his ascendance in terms of Cubs hall-of-famers rather than fellow rappers, or using a Jesse White Tumbler as a metaphor for hope, the Chance/Woods/Noname, etc. compatriot goes geographically granular to find the universal.
Favorite track: "Church/Liquor Store"
Tortoise: The Catastrophist
The seventh record—and first in nearly seven years—from the post-rock standard-bearers opts for refinement over reinvention; and the reception was likewise complimentary, but hardly boisterous. But it’s familiar in a great way, like on the snaky, synthy, jazzy title track—a quintessential Tortoise cut. Side nod: guitarist Jeff Parker’s brilliant, hip-hop-inflected The New Breed—probably even better than The Catastrophist, but disqualified by the Kanye rule (he made it after moving to LA).
Favorite track: "The Catastrophist"
Ryley Walker: Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Guitarist/singer-songwriter Ryley Walker’s previous album, last year's the bucolic jazz-folk charmer Primrose Green, managed to render its derivativeness largely moot on strength of songwriting and musicianship. But despite owning its influences, this risk-embracing follow-up shakes the imitation game altogether. Walker’s playing sounds more confident and varied and his delivery more assured—reflective of his ability to seamlessly straddle Chicago’s improvisational and indie spheres.
Favorite Track: "The Halfwit in Me"
Whitney: Light Upon the Lake
Anyone who ever wished The Band would have cut the Civil War reenactment hokum and refocused their no-wasted-notes non-flashy musical flash should find much to love on this debut LP. Featuring two former members of The Smith Westerns, Whitney goes not for garage-y guitar pop but a pristine, sun-dappled version of '70s LA-style folk rock. From drummer/singer Julien Ehrlich's high, lonesome delivery to the old-school, warm-blanket analog production, there is arguably something a bit overdetermined going on here in terms of retro re-creation. But when the songs are this well-constructed, and the playing this assured and tight, that's an easy pass to grant.
Favorite track: "No Woman"
Jamila Woods: HEAVN
A leader in Chicago’s hip-hop-overlapping spoken-word circles, Woods made a gimlet-eyed full-length debut with this study of composed righteous ire and measured joy. Whether calling out police brutality to the tune of a kids’ tune, reclaiming her own name from loaded mispronunciation, extending the lineage of black female resistance fighters, or big-upping Chicago’s lovelier sides, black femininity remains the nucleus. The percolating production (Kweku Collins, Saba, oddCouple, Peter Cottontale) makes a perfect foil.
Favorite track: "VRY BLK"
Fifteen more favorites:
BJ The Chicago Kid: In My Mind
A fat-free vision of soul as both simultanesouly classic and contemporary. We didn't hear a better R&B record all year.
Kweku Collins: Nat Love
The teenage producer/rapper and Evanston native made a marked leap from last year's already impressive EP. The loose, pliable beats sound at once singular and completely of the moment.
Common: Black America Again
The hip-hop icon's surprising return-to-form is the dense, political, adventurous album the times require.
Mykele Deville: Each One, Teach One
The up-and-coming DIY rapper's complex, layered concept record, centered around the young daughter or Deville's sister
G Herbo: Strictly 4 My Fans
Forget the small-stakes title and marvel as one of Chicago's best rappers (drill or otherwise) wields his incredible, blunt-instrument voice and steely-eyed narratives.
Into It. Over It.: Standards
Neo-emo is a decidedly mixed bag. Here, the ever-prolific Evan Thomas Weiss put another notch in the plus column.
Joey Purp: iiiDrops
Yet another notable effort from a Savemoney crew member. His plainspoken dexterity is one of a kind.
Mick Jenkins: The Healing Component
The rapper's much-anticipated proper full-length debut is a dizzying meditation on love in all iterations, with impressive assists from fellow ascendants BadBadNotGood, Kaytranada and more.
Vic Mensa: There's A Lot Goin' On
Technically an EP, but Mensa's evolution into one of Chicago hip-hop's preeminent political consciences across seven topical cuts can't go unrecognized.
A strong-throughout showcase from the beat-maker du jour (Jamila Woods, Joey Purp, Kweku Collins, Saba).
Oozing Wound: Whatever Forever
Occasionally accused of being ironists, the band's thrash revivalism sounds like pure love—and fun—to these ears.
The Repos: Poser
Yet another catchy rager from the Youth Attack-crew lifers. Our favorite Chicago punk album of 2016.
Twin Peaks: Down In Heaven
Already on album number three, the garage-pop wunderkinds slow down and stretch out on what might be their best yet.
Weekend Nachos: Apology
The grindcore greats bid adieu with an appropriately gnarly and punishing parting shot. The extreme-metal world will miss them.
Easy on mannered experimentalism, heavy on emotional and musical directness, plus another wonderfully cheeseball album title.