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10 Best Chicago Albums This Year

From daring hip-hop to mathy metal, our 10 favorite releases out of Chicago, ranked

Photos: (from left) Half Gringa, Smino, and Knox Fortune - via Facebook

10. Mind Over Mirrors, Undying Color

A perfect spin for the quieter months of winter, this project finds local electronic composer Jaime Fennelly backing his synthesizer and Indian pedal harmonium with a five-piece band, including Circuit Des Yeux (Haley Fohr) and Eleventh Dream Day’s Janet Beveridge Bean. The result, one of the electronic veteran’s most placid records yet, has been met with a heap of national praise.

9. Freddie Old Soul, All Black Trill Shit

If you’re searching for the future of Chicago hip-hop, look no further than Fredrianna Harris, who performs under the name Freddie Old Soul. On her sophomore EP, Harris, who began as a poet, spins heady rhymes about love, loss, and even police brutality over beats by the likes of Chicago’s ThemPeople—a potent package from a young emcee (she’s 24) far from her pinnacle.

8. Luggage, Three

On their second album, this postpunk trio channels the misery of Chicago’s coldest months with droning bass and dissonant guitars, made all the more dreary by singer Michael Vallera’s nearly indecipherable lyrics. The material on Three pops as much as it does during Luggage’s famed live shows, where the band refined the new material.

7. Knox Fortune, Paradise

Best known for singing the hook on Chance the Rapper’s earworm “All Night,” Kevin Rhomberg, the producer who goes by Knox Fortune, steps into the spotlight on Paradise, a promising debut of pop tunes anchored by his glistening, airy tenor—the type of voice that comes out of Chicago only once a decade.

6. So Pretty, Suck It Up

Far from pretentious indie rockers, the punk quartet possesses a quirkiness that permeates this sophomore album, chock-full of snarky lyrics, squealing guitar, and feminist spirit, all enveloped in an off-kilter fury. Consider the chaos a product of a speedy songwriting process: So Pretty spent only a weekend recording its 2015 debut, and though the band spent slightly longer—a few months—on Suck It Up, the album’s charm lies in its imperfection.

5. Mykele Deville, Peace, Fam

When he’s not rapping in basements on Chicago’s DIY circuit, this Austin native also works as an actor, writer, and spoken-word artist. Deville’s natural gift for storytelling shines on Peace, Fam, his third album of gritty, confrontational “liberation rap,” a term he coined for the cathartic self-interrogation he undergoes in his lyrics, many of them about growing up on the West Side.

4. Melkbelly, Nothing Valley

This hard-hitting noise-rock group, formed by wife and husband Miranda and Bart Winters in 2014, is known for putting on one of Chicago’s best (and loudest) live shows. The rage translates seamlessly to recording on Nothing Valley, a storm of dissonant guitars and mathy percussion (softened occasionally by Miranda’s soothing vocals) that’s reminiscent of a pre-Nevermind Nirvana.

3. Half Gringa, Gruñona

Few artists are cutting records with the intelligence of Izzy Olive, the avant-garde indie singer-songwriter who performs as Half Gringa. The Carbondale native’s brand of alternative folk, which incorporates chamber rock and jazz, is decidedly blunt in its lyrics and scope, tackling issues of class and violence in jarringly plain verse. Chicago has been a breeding ground for boundary-pushing female songwriters—from Liz Phair to Angel Olsen—and Gruñona has Olive primed for the same type of breakout.

2. Jana Rush, Pariah

On paper, this West Side producer’s career trajectory reads like a silver screen comeback. Rush learned to DJ at age 10 and went on to cut tracks for the likes of footwork legends DJ Rashad and Gant-Man, then quit music and headed to college, eventually holding jobs as an engineer, a volunteer firefighter, and a CT scan tech. Thirteen years later and well into a career as a chemical engineer at IOI Loders Croklaan in Channahon, Rush has released Pariah, the DJ’s first album in 21 years. Though imbued with the same youthful energy that made Rush a star in the ’90s, Pariah is a transformative dismantling of the footwork genre, one of Chicago’s chief musical exports. Unchanged? The frenetic pulse beneath all of Rush’s work.

​1. Smino, Blkswn

The buzz around this St. Louis transplant has been building for years, but nobody could have anticipated the runaway success of his debut, Blkswan. A member of the Zero Fatigue crew, one of a handful of local launching pads for young rappers, Smino (born Christopher Smith Jr.) has made a name with his eclectic style, which incorporates Southern trap, electronic, and even vocal jazz. Rather than lean in to the trends of his adopted hometown (think big live bands and crisp production), Smino opts on this album to lay his raspy, yappy verses over understated and often lulling beats. Standout tracks like “Maraca” (reminiscent of midcareer Outkast), “Glass Flows” (which features fellow Zero Fatigue member Ravyn Lenae), and “Edgar Allan Poe’d Up” find the rapper at his best: equal parts clever, honest, and unflinchingly introspective.

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