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Top 10 Local Albums of 2013

Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy’s second collaboration begins our list of the best local music of the year.

End Dances by Pillars and Tongues Photo: Courtesy of Pillars and Tongues

With a vibrant and sprawling scene that covers every genre imaginable, the task of pinning down just ten great records crafted by locals is agonizing at best. The list below, quite simply, represents the full-length albums I continuously revisited that were released in 2013. Yes, Chance The Rapper and Kanye dropped formidable LPs this year, but I chose to recognize that you need not another reminder of Acid Rap and Yeezus (and let’s be real, Kanye lives in Los Angeles). Instead, enjoy the works of this Chicago-based talent pool, with links to stream and buy each pick.

10. One True Vine, Mavis Staples

Stream it.

Buy it.  

The Chicago gospel queen’s second collab with Jeff Tweedy deftly outdoes its precursor, 2010’s You Are Not Alone. Her signature gutteral rasps and confessional lyricism strum heart strings with the ease and agility of Tweedy’s thoughtful, simple and smooth arrangements, which range from acoustic plucking to fuzzed-out call and response.

9. Coltan, Verma 

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Buy it. 

A bit of a departure from the local psych quintet’s Krautrock leanings, Verma’s LP of extended, swirling soundscapes was composed to serve as the soundtrack to Vice’s “Guide to the Congo” web series, and was subsequently picked up by stellar local label Trouble in Mind for a vinyl release. Despite being composed for a rather torrid locale, this atmospheric LP is perfect music for holed-up winter reflection.

8. Northern Automatic Music, Panda Riot 

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Buy it. 

This debut LP (they’ve released an EP a few singles since 2010) is a solid shoegaze-laced effort from a band whose cutesy name belies its mature sound.

7. Brokeback and the Black Rock, Brokeback 

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Buy it.  

You may know bandleader Douglas McCombs from his work in Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day. With this Thrill Jockey release, his side project Brokeback takes that post-rock blueprint and doubles down with focused compositions that draw from jazz, ’70s rock and even the Spaghetti Western stylings of soundtrack master Ennio Morricone. It’s a compelling amalgam from McCombs and his assemblage of top notch local musicians.

6. Sunday School II: When Church Lets Out, Tree 

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Download it. 

Tremaine Johnson, the smoky voice of the “soul trap” genre, which melds classic crooners with forward thinking beats, this year dropped an impressive follow up to his celebrated debut. At 30 the MC’s mature, at times sobering, lyricism is a welcome change up in the local scene with a thoughtfulness recalling the “conscious” movement in hip-hip without being precious or preachy.

5. Forever Becoming, Pelican 

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Buy it.  

The instrumental metal quartet’s 2013 LP is its first without guitarist Laurent Schroeder-Lebec. But even one man down the meticulous group of players manage to churn out an album so dense, and at once punishing and oddly beautiful, that you’d never know the difference.

4. Chamomile Crush, Oshwa 

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Buy it. 

I can’t get enough of Oshwa mastermind Alicia Walter’s quirky vocals and oddball-pop compositions, which utilize a host of instruments from sax to dulcimer and jangly guitars. The obvious comparison is Tune-Yards, but the dissonance and depth here is all her own.

3.  S/T, Master Plan Inc.

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Buy it. 

In what is perhaps the best redemption story from the local scene this year, Chicago native Doug Shorts, a man whose killer body of work was horribly mishandled by a host of labels in his working day (the soul and funk scenes of the 70s and early 80s) finally caught a break with a series of single reissues and this ace Jazzman compilation in 2013.

2. Bitchtronics, Bitchin Bajas 

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Buy it. 

Cooper Crane of local Krautrock masters CAVE trades in driving rock anthems for tranced-out loops for this series of synth-driven meditative slow burners soaring high amidst the astral plane. The Drag City-produced preview video (above) is not to be missed.

1. End-Dances, Pillars and Tongues 

Stream it.

Buy it. 

The evolving sound of this trio of heady experimentalists, who’ve melded everything from world music appropriations, orchestral flourishes, and ’80s goth touchstones, is unpredictable but continually touching. Their 2013 release is perhaps their most pop oriented with nods to Dead Can Dance and David Bowie, namely through vocalist Mark Trecka’s baritone delivery, but also through its airy, romantic arrangements that are both breathy and breathtaking.

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