As each year winds down, Turn It Up focuses on the best of Chicago's independent music scene. Here are my 10 favorite local indie releases for 2013:
1. Chance the Rapper, “Acid Rap” (chanceraps.com): Chancellor Bennett follows his debut mix tape, “10 Day,” a year later with this follow-up, but it sounds like a decade separates the two releases. That’s how big a leap the South Side MC makes in exploring his past and his city, his self-doubt and his determination on this expansive and intensely personal song cycle.
2. Vic Mensa, “Innanetape” (vicmensa.com): The musical ambition that defined Mensa’s old group, Kids These Days, is very much apparent on this genre-bending solo debut. Mensa turns from playful to pensive as he explores all aspects of his musical personality, from jazzy voicings to new-wave dance beats.
3. Disappears, “Era” (Kranky): On its fourth album, the quartet brings the mayhem on opening track “Girl,” then explores the space above and below the dark clouds in tracks as adventurous as any it has ever recorded. The trance-like rhythms and sinister guitars remain, but there’s more breathing room in the arrangements, and the space becomes another spooky element – the musical equivalent of Jack Nicolson in “The Shining” stumbling through a snowed-in mansion, ax in hand.
4. Robbie Fulks, “Gone Away Backward” (Bloodshot): Fulks has been writing songs and playing music at such a high level for so long that it’s easy to take for granted. He’s done everything from reinterpreting Michael Jackson songs to punk rock, all informed by his deep familiarity with the timeless virtues of musical Americana. His latest album is among his best, in part because it’s so sparse, putting the focus squarely on his plaintive voice and cutting lyrics. Acoustic instruments frame songs of quiet desperation and longing, an accumulation of small, everyday moments encompassing lives that have drifted off until they’ve become nearly invisible. It’s time to take a closer look. (Fulks headlines at 9 p.m. Dec. 28 at FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, Ill, $20; fitzgeraldsnightclub.com.)
5. The Horses Ha, “Waterdrawn” (Fluff & Gravy): Janet Bean of Eleventh Dream Day and Freakwater renews her collaboration with Jim Elkington on the follow-up to their 2009 debut, “Of the Cathmawr Yards.” The latter was a good deal more orchestrated, but the stripped-down folk instrumentation on “Waterdrawn” – largely acoustic guitars and judiciously arranged strings – reveals the sturdiness of the songs. Bean’s lovely soprano and the stately melodies camouflage shiv-like lyrics. “Bonesetter” sounds like a centuries old murder ballad; at the very least it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Fairport Convention album.
6. Pelican, “Forever Becoming” (Southern Lord): After four years and a lineup change (founding guitarist Laurent Lebec departed, replaced by Dallas Thomas), the hard-rock instrumental quartet returns to near-peak form on its fifth studio album. The band is capable of conjuring vast, wide open spaces, but the best moments arrive in the shuddering finale of “The Tundra,” the meticulously orchestrated violence of “Deny the Absolute” and the majestic ascent of “Perpetual Dawn.”
7. Twin Peaks, “Sunken” (Autumn Tone): The re-release of the quartet’s debut album, recorded when they were teenagers, presents eight crudely recorded garage-pop gems. The monolithic, claustrophobic sound arrives as a natural extension of their basement-show roots. The melodies flow exuberantly, then ratchet up the melancholy in a perfect sigh called “Irene.”
8. Cave, “Threace” (Drag City): The instrumental outfit has proven itself more than capable of riding hypnotic German art-rock grooves into transcendent rock crescendos on its previous two albums. But “Threace” takes a different tack with its spacier, more jazz-like interludes echoing the trippy fusion experiments of ‘70s Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. The five tracks take their time unfolding; four surpass seven minutes. But the musicians don’t noodle or show off. Instead, the elastic arrangements reveal the precision of the musicians’ interplay and their patient logic over repeated plays.
9. Prob Cause, “The Recipe Volume 2” (bandcamp.com): The producer-MC provides a sharp overview of the thriving local hip-hop scene with cameos from Chance the Rapper, Psalm One, Action Bronson, poet Kevin Coval and others. But Prob Cause takes a back seat to none of them on this adventurous mix of soul dusties-inspired hip-hop, dub step and rock, and turns his collaboration with Chance on “LSD” into one of the year’s most indelible tracks.
10. The Orwells, “Other Voices” EP and “Who Needs You” EP (East End/Canvasback): The suburban Elmhurst quintet released its debut album last year and quickly followed up with a pair of EPs this year. They build on the shaggy garage-rock of the LP and do it with a sense of self-deprecating humor; they cheerfully acknowledge that a couple of recent tracks are “ripoffs” of the Misfits and Black Lips. But with production help from TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, the title songs of each EP clear out some of the basement dankness and sharpen the band’s undeniable way with a hook. Coupled with a high-energy performance at Lollapalooza, the Orwells had themselves a year.
Greg Kot cohosts “Sound Opinions” at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
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