Whether walking the tightrope of highflying scat with one of the city’s premier avant-garde ensembles or embracing a tender ballad with her own longtime quartet, Dee Alexander could earn a place in the best-singer argument on sheer versatility alone. The fact that she consistently knocks these genre-spanning gigs out of the park—be it Hyde, Millennium, or Wicker—simply seals the deal. Alexander has long been regarded as a hidden gem on the local jazz scene, but with her schedule of increasingly challenging and high-profile performances and a debut CD (Wild Is the Wind, on the Blujazz label) drawing plenty of critical attention, she’s not flying under anyone’s radar anymore.
BEST NEW BLUEGRASS BAND
Bluegrass fans know the genre has more splinter factions than the Southern Baptist Church: There’s jamgrass, newgrass, and gospel, to name a few. But our bottom dollar’s on Bubbly Creek, a traditional mountain-style quartet of three twentysomethings and the 55-year-old Chip Covington, the longtime organizer of Evanston’s Bluegrass Legends series. Though mere tykes in folk years, the youths carry their weight with fleet-fingered picking; then there’s the 25-year-old Andy Pennington’s startling twang, like a voice from beyond the grave. And when all four members harmonize, the effect is dancehall-when-the-lights-come-on heartbreaking. Catch them August 22nd at 7:30 p.m. ($10; $7 kids, seniors) at the Old American Legion Music Hall at 1030 Central Street in Evanston. bubblycreekbluegrass.com
BEST NEW CHICAGO BOOK
Skyscrapers are so commonplace today that it is nearly impossible to conjure a time when they didn’t dominate the urban landscape. Yet that’s exactly what Joanna Merwood-Salisbury does in Chicago 1890: The Modern City (University of Chicago Press, $45), resurrecting an era when the future of this “contentious building type . . . was far from assured.”
Focusing on three early high-rises—the Monadnock, the Reliance Building, and the Masonic Temple—she shows how Chicago architects created a new urban aesthetic, one based on color and mass, rather than ornament and history. Merwood-Salisbury persuasively makes the case that two architects—Louis Sullivan and John Root—heroically reclaimed architecture for art, a triumph undercut by the premature death of Root and the “poisonous influence” of the horizontal neoclassicism of the Daniel Burnham–directed World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
BEST NEW NOVELIST
In her debut novel, Miles from Nowhere (Riverhead Books, $21.95), Nami Mun makes real the life of a Korean-born teenage runaway named Joon-Mee whose drug-addled optimism serves as counterpoint to the bleak life she encounters while roaming the streets of New York. Mun, who teaches fiction writing at Columbia College, tells Joon-Mee’s story with a heart-rending clarity that transcends the novel’s epigraph, drawn from a poem by Margaret Atwood: “To see clearly and without flinching, / without turning away, / this is agony, the eyes taped open / two inches from the sun.”
BEST MYSTERY WRITER
An impressive number of accomplished mystery writers lurk in Chicago, including the longtime successes Barbara D’Amato and Sam Reaves. But the best is also the best known: Sara Paretsky, the 62-year-old Hyde Park resident who’s been honing her craft over the course of 13 novels starring her captivating heroine, the rusty-nail-tough private detective V.I. Warshawski. Paretsky’s plots rival the twistiest of noirs, and, naturally, we’re suckers for the way she weaves in the city’s neighborhoods: In Hardball, due out September 22nd, V.I. searches Englewood for traces of a man missing since the civil-rights era.
BEST ART BLOG
Calling themselves the Post Family, a group of seven art lovers in 2007 equipped a West Town studio with printmaking equipment and a darkroom and let their imaginations run wild. Soon they had started a blog where they wrote about their projects and those of their artist friends. The scope (and audience) have widened considerably over time to include commentary about up-and-coming artists and designers, plus musings on trends, new gadgets, and typography. “We come from different areas of design, art, and photography,” says Alex Fuller, a “family” member. “If it speaks to our own personal interest, we post it.”
BEST OBSCURE MUSEUM
CURT TEICH POSTCARD ARCHIVES
From the 1920s through the ’40s, the Teich Company made Chicago the world’s largest producer of post cards. Today, the company’s archives reside at the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda. Housed in a quaint, repurposed farm building, the 400,000-postcard repository, organized by computer, is Mecca, Valhalla, and Nirvana for collectors and also contains some non-Teich treasures, including the Holy Grail: the prized and highly collectible art nouveau card Alphonse Mucha did for Waverley Cycles from 1898. By appointment at the museum. 27277 N. Forest Preserve Rd., Wauconda; 847-968-3381, lcfpd.org/teich_archives
Photography: (Image 1) Nathan Kirkman; Stylist: Kelley Moseley; Makeup: Akua Auset; (Image 2) Sergio Silva; (Image 3) Michael Boone; (Image 5) Steven Gross