As the local music columnist for the Times, a lot of regionally produced music visits my stereo each year, some bad, some good, some exceptional. What follows is my personal Top 10 of Chicagoland releases for 2011. (The criteria for inclusion: the artist resides in the Chicagoland region; the CD was released between last quarter of 2010 and December 25 of 2011; the CD is commercially available to the public, professionally pressed and packaged, and contains a minimum of either 6 songs or 30 minutes of music.)

1) JIM PETERIK'S LIFEFORCE/produced by Jim Peterik: "Forces at Play" (World Stage International Records)

Peterik is best known for his role as a co-founder and primary creative force in such national groups as Ides of March and Survivor and this second Lifeforce CD finds the pop/rocker equally adept and comfortable making jazz music. "Forces At Play" is an all-star collective including such regional vocal talents as Lisa McClowry, Marzette Griffith and Sijay, along with celebrity friends like singer Alex Ligertwood (ex-Santana) and guitarist Jeff Carlisi (.38 Special). Though a great overall set, highlights are largely tunes featuring McClowry, whose rich voice perfectly fits Peterik's songs. More: WWW.JIMPETERIK.COM

2) S. JOEL NORMAN/produced by S. Joel Norman and Marc Nelson: "Take It In Stride" (Independent)

The songs and the production are as much the "star" on this 6-song set as Norman and the exceptional group of recording guests featured here. The style of music ranges from Joe Cocker-ish to adult pop to funk/R&B. Two of the songs - "Bump in the Road" and "Smooth, Smooth" were recorded for the PBS music program "Live from the Alley." The song that stays in one's head, though, is "Such a Nice Day," a sing-along summer song perfect for a morning cruise to the beach with the top down. More: WWW.SJOELNORMAN.COM

3) THE BAD EXAMPLES/produced by Ralph Covert and Steve Gerlach: "Smash Record" (Waterdog Records)

After years at the helm of the children's entertainment project, Ralph's World, "Smash Record" is singer/songwriter Ralph Covert's first new studio album in over 15 years with his seminal Chicago power-pop band, The Bad Examples. From "Big E Chord," which opens the 12-song CD, these hook-filled songs prove Covert and his old mates can still rock the house like nobody's business. This album seethes and is as good or better than anything in their catalog. Old school pop with a real bite! More: WWW.WATERDOGMUSIC.COM

4) MIMI BETINIS/produced by Stan Skora: "All That Glitters" (Independent)

If you like Beatlesque music, Betinis warrants attention. "All That Glitters" is the comeback solo CD from the founding member of Chicago's iconic '70s power-pop group, Pezband. Well-written, well-crafted, and nicely produced, "All That Glitters" is "stick to the ribs" pop music. There are still plenty of hooks and twangy guitar, only tempered with cello and violin, to become a more adult take on the classic sound Betinis pioneered with Pezband. More: WWW.MIMIBETINIS.COM

5) STEEPWATER BAND/produced by Colin Sipos and Steepwater Band: "Clava" (Diamond Day Records)

Northwest Indiana's Steepwater trio - guitarist Jeff Massey, bassist Tod Williams and drummer Joe Winters - get stronger with each successive album. Their organic sound is rooted in "old school" and comes from a deep creative well dug by the likes of Elmore James and Muddy Waters. But while they revere the blues, these lads also know how to rock and bring the best of both worlds to their releases. Their newest - "Clava" - is available on limited edition 180-gram vinyl or on CD. More: WWW.STEEPWATER.COM

6) CHESTER BROWN/produced by Brent Bernhardt and Chester Brown: "Chester Brown" (Independent)

This Chesterton quintet blends rock, jazzy fills and light funk that encompasses a broad sound that changes from song to song - going from country-soul, to trippy pop, to blues-rooted rock romps, and back again. This 13-song collection is a little uneven, but there is much to enjoy. More: WWW.CHESTERBROWN.ORG

7) THE PONDHAWKS/produced by Mario Novelli and Jorie Gracen: "...Have Landed" (Riverpool Records)

The PondHawks have embraced the Liverpool pop sound and have created a tasty slab of original songs that while fresh, have a familiar feel. Infectious hooks, playful lyrics and spirited playing, nice male/female vocal harmonies, coupled with bright production and a vibrant approach, make "...Have Landed" an album sure to take up residence in your stereo. More: WWW.PONDHAWKS.COM

8) NICOLE GARZA/produced by Rick Barnes and Nicole Garza: "Reinvented" (Independent)

"Reinvented" is an appropriate title for this sophomore set from Garza. The promise shown on her debut CD, "Versatility," six years ago comes to fruition here. Garza's arrangements shine and her songwriting is sassy - from the "attitude heavy" R&B opener "Let Me Breathe," to the grooving "Sexy, Sensual, Salacious" dance cut, to the reflective slow-jam love tune "Find the Old Me." More: WWW.NICOLEGARZA.COM

9) ROBERT ROLFE FEDDERSEN/produced by Robert Rolfe Feddersen: "Get a Rope" (Independent)

Singer/songwriter Robert Rolfe Feddersen returns to my Top 10 for the second consecutive year. His stark and minimalist songs hit with a one-two punch to the heart and soul. The title track opens the 10-song CD with a continuation of the despair heard in the lyrics of Feddersen's previous disc, "Milkman," with the glimmers of hope and optimism giving way to thoughts of a noose to the neck. This darkly written set stirs the heart and is sadly suited to these tough times. More: WWW.ROBERTROLFEFEDDERSEN.COM

10) THE CHICAGO KINGSNAKES/produced by James P. Anderson with John Huber: "Blue Mosaic" (MusicKing Records)

This latest release by perennial Chicagoland blues quartet, The Chicago Kingsnakes, may not be exceptional from start to end, but it is a solid set of songs played from the heart. The best blues are never too slick and polished, which is the way the group gives it to us here. More: WWW.CHICAGOKINGSNAKES.COM


Honorable Mentions:

HOOSIER HIGHWAY BAND/produced by Hoosier Highway: "Drivin" (Independent). WWW.HHCOUNTRY.COM.

M&R RUSH/produced by Jeff Luif and John McFarland: "Alpha" (Eminar Music). WWW.MANDRRUSH.COM



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