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 2012:
1. BBU, “Bell Hooks” (Mad Decent/Mishka): This hip-hop crew announced on Twitter that it was calling it quits a few weeks ago, which is a shame, because “Bell Hooks” fully realizes the potential first glimpsed by the addictive 2009 on-line favorite “Chi Don’t Dance.” The group’s political underpinnings flourish from the get-go, from the aptly named “Wake Up Call,” with its nod to the poetry slam scene, to the strutting, horn-fueled street report “The Hood.” In a year in which some of the more nihilistic aspects of Chicago’s hip-hop scene rose to national prominence, BBU championed soul and smarts. They’ll be missed.
2. Willis Earl Beal, “Acousmatic Sorcery” (Hot Charity/XL): Evoking the sound of scratchy, 78-rpm blues hollers and spirituals, this South Side native’s debut was cobbled together from crude home recordings. Rudimentary guitar and homemade percussion underpin Beal’s huge, deeply affecting voice. Beal never expected these songs to be heard by anyone else. Little wonder they feel so vulnerable and, in many cases, heart-breaking.
3. The Hood Internet, “Feat” (Decon): Mash-up artists Steve Reidell and Aaron Brink up the ante on their first official album after a series of mix tapes. They create rich, genre-hopping instrumental beds, then blend in the vocals and melodies of a few friends, including the New Pornographers’ A.C. Newman, top-notch MCs Cadence Weapon and Psalm One, and pop singer Annie Hart. Despite the mix-and-match style-hopping, “Feat” holds up as a surprisingly cohesive statement. (8 p.m. Dec. 31 at Beauty Bar, 1444 W. Chicago Av., $30; thebeautybar.com.)
4. The Sea and Cake, “Runner” (Thrill Jockey): Though they’ve been around for two decades, the quartet of Sam Prekop, Archer Prewitt, John McEntire and Eric Claridge still find new ways to challenge themselves. “Runner” retains their effortless feel for propulsion – the McEntire-Claridge rhythm oil keeps those gears turning in a way that suggests the trancy overdrive of West African dance music and German art-rock – while conjuring some of the appealing rawness of their earliest records. Guitarists Prekop and Prewitt salt the melodies with subtle dissonance and quirky harmonics – no band sounds quite like them, still. (10 p.m. Dec. 20 at Thrill Jockey’s 20th Anniversary Party at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Av., free with RSVP at emptybottle.com.)
5. Radar Eyes, “Radar Eyes” (HoZac): Two guitars, drums and bass and a bit of keyboard drone create the kind of chaos that garage-rockers have been spewing since the ‘60s. But the timeless formula doesn’t shortchange the songs in Radar Eyes’ interpretation, with melodies fighting to the surface through a curtain of noise. The album was recorded in a couple of home studios – even though it sounds like it emerged screaming from a dank, dark, bat-covered cave. (10 p.m. Saturday at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Av., $8; emptybottle.com.)
6. Outer Minds, “Behind the Mirror” (Resurrection Records): Hard on the heels of their debut album earlier this year comes Outer Mind’s second full-length. It’s more representative of the bands’ full-throttle concert sound, which makes it the one to own. Co-ed harmonies and roller-rink keyboards throw some light on the acid-punk murk. (10 p.m. Saturday at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Av., $8; emptybottle.com.)
7. Scott Lucas and the Married Men, "Blood Half Moon" (The End): Lucas is best known for his two-decade tenure in power duo Local H, which also has a fine album out this year, but his work with the more expansive lineup and instrumentation of the co-ed band the Married Men has been a revelation. He explores previously unheard colors and nuances in his songwriting; on album No. 2 with the group, he combines the more textured atmospherics with roaring dynamics to powerful effect.
8. The Wanton Looks, “The Wanton Looks” (Haughty Eyes Records): The spirit of Joan Jett’s early ‘80s work – a little bit punk, a chunk of metal, some gleaming pop hooks, and a whole lot of attitude – is alive and well in the music of this no-nonsense quartet. (9 p.m. Jan. 19 at 27 Live, 1012 Church St., Evanston, Ill., $4 and $6; ticketfly.com.)
9. Shoes, “Ignition” (Black Vinyl): The home-recording pioneers return with their first studio album in 16 years, and it finds songwriters Jeff and John Murphy and Gary Klebe in top form. Besides the plaintive harmonies and ringing guitars that defined their power-pop origins, the boys have added a few shades of darkness, depth and beauty to the hooks. Jeff Murphy’s “Out of Round” in particular sounds like the kind of orchestrated ballad that would’ve been beyond them in their earliest days.
10. Chance the Rapper, “10 Day” (mediafire.com): The precocious teenage MC Chancelor Bennett references a 10-day suspension from high school in the title of his mix-tape debut. He comes across as the kid-next-door who loves his mom more than a hustler or gangbanger, and the sparse, soul-dipped production underlines his cleverness and off-the-cuff charm.
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