A part of our year-end roundup of the best of culture in Chicago and beyond. Check back throughout the week for the best of music, art, theatre, and more.
Judging by the highlights—including “experi-metal-ists” and a rapper who found inspiration in the kids she mentored—2012 was a great year for Chicago pop and rock bands. Here, the year’s standout albums from local artists.
Best Retro-inspired Indie Pop
California Wives, Art History
It was an impressive year for this ‘80s-themed indie quartet: They signed to major label Vagrant Records, toured with Stars and premiered a Sharpie-endorsed music video during the MTV VMAs. Their debut Art History could just as easily double a soundtrack to a John Hughes movie or a set at a major festival.
Listen to: “Purple”
See them: December 30 at 7 p.m. Subterranean, 2011 W. North Ave., $15.
Best Genre Benders
Kids These Days, Traphouse Rock
Say what you will about Kids These Days, the recent Whitney Young grads have found a musical chemistry few veterans could muster. Mixing elements of rap, rock, funk, soul, and hip-hop, the Jeff Tweedy-produced debut Traphouse Rock is a high-grade melting pot that samples from the Pixies, Radiohead, and James Brown.
Listen to: “Doo-Wah”
Angel Olsen, Half Way Home
Olsen’s newest album features distinctive warbles and yodels, and morphs from Patsy Cline country blues to heart-wrenching Marissa Nadler lullabies. There’s good reason the first pressing sold out; Olsen is an artist in high demand.
Listen to: “Acrobat”
See her: February 8 at 9 p.m. The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., $7.
Best Minimalist Rock
Disappears, Pre Language
You won’t find any overdubs here. In the case of Disappears, the band works with what they’ve got, and they’ve got plenty, including former Ponys and 90 Day Men member Brian Case and the reputable drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth fame. Although Shelley has parted ways with the band, Disappears isn’t going anywhere.
Listen to: “Fear of Darkness”
Best Hip-Hop Collaboration
Psalm One, Child Support
For her latest release, Psalm One (Cristalle Bowen) solidified her status as one of Chicago’s underground rising stars. Rhymesayers’ solo female artist worked with ASCAP and America SCORES to collaborate with kids in nine different cities, creating verses that reflect the trials and delights of urban youth. And it may come as no surprise that the tracks are good, too.
Listen to: "Kids Right Now"
See her: December 31 at 9 p.m. Music Room at Jerry’s, 1938 W. Division St., $16.
Best Metal Mix
Few could be as heavy and hybrid-wielding as Yakuza. Brooklyn Vegan dubs the quartet Chicago’s “experi-metal-ists” because they blend grinding guitars with saxophone and distorted riffs with classical cello. Their latest release, Beyul, continues the band’s bent of metal-meets-world music with an even more persuasive set of songs that will have you immersed in their exotic audio landscape.
Listen to: “The Last Day”
Best Power Pop
Archie Powell & the Exports, Great Ideas in Action
There was a time when Chicago was the pop punk capital, when bands like Fall Out Boy, Lucky Boys Confusion, and others were primed for the big time with crafty arrangements and catchy choruses. Archie Powell & the Exports emerge from this lineage and blend it with elements drawn from Elvis Costello and the Replacements. Great Ideas in Action puts this band on the map and could put Chicago back there, too.
Listen to: “Job Fair”
Best Psych Rock
Outer Minds, Outer Minds
If you blindly put on this debut LP, you might think you stumbled upon a garage sale prize. Outer Minds is deeply versed in the kaleidoscopic dizziness of ‘60s psychedelia, which was the crowd vibe who saw the band’s set at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer. Their second LP this year, Behind the Mirror, is worth a spin, too.
Listen to: “Always in My Head”
Selena Fragassi is a contributing music critic for Chicago.
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist