As “Local Scene” columnist for The Times, a lot of regional music catches my ear each year. These 10 releases are personal favorites culled from the plethora of local product that has hit my stereo over the past 12 months.
Criteria requirements for an album to be considered for my end of year Top 10 are as follows: the artist resides in the Chicagoland region; the album is professionally packaged and commercially available to the public (no demos); was released between November 2011 and December 25, 2012; and contains a minimum of either six original songs or 30-minutes of original music.
Here’s my harvest of Chicagoland’s 2012 musical crop.
1) SHOES “Ignition” (Black Vinyl Records) produced by Jeff Murphy and Shoes
Early champions of Chicago’s power-pop scene, Zion, Illinois’ Shoes set the bar high with their late ‘70s home recordings before falling off the radar for an 18-year stretch.
“Ignition” is a 15-song set of newly written and recorded material proving time has only enhanced Shoes musical skills. The current line-up with founding members Gary Klebe and brothers Jeff and John Murphy write songs as infectious as ever, enhanced with crisp production and anchored by amazing vocal harmonies. This is especially true on the progressive pop number, “Out Of Round.” Other highlights: “The Joke’s On You,” “Say It Like You Mean It,” and “In On You.” More: www.shoeswire.com
2) PRIDE OF LIONS “Immortal” (Frontiers Records) produced by Jim Peterik
When it comes to snappy progressive pop music, few match the writing prowess of Berwyn native Jim Peterik (of Survivor fame). Add to that Valparaiso’s Toby Hitchcock, whose soaring and powerful voice is like a blend of Dennis DeYoung (Styx) and Lou Gramm (Foreigner).
Pride of Lions’ past albums have made them stars worldwide, except in the U.S. That may change with “Immortal,” 11 new songs from the dynamic duo recorded with some of Chi-town’s finest players.
Highlights are: “Vital Signs” (originally written but not used as title song for Survivor’s 1984 album), the inspiring “If It Doesn’t Kill Me,” and the well-crafted power ballad, “Everything That Money Can’t Buy.” My personal favorite is “Delusional,” a tribute to special kids who instead of getting support get slapped with labels and dosed with prescription drugs. More: www.aprideoflions.com
3) AL ROSE “Sad Go Lucky” (Monkey Holding Peach Records) produced by Al Rose & Blaise Barton
This Chicago singer/songwriter has made my annual Top 10 in the past and “Sad Go Lucky” renews my appreciation for Rose, a masterful lyricist who knows how to turn a phrase. His wordsmith skills are sharper than ever on this 12-song collection where he offers up lines like – “In a January drizzle keeps April in her pocket.”
While lyrics may be his calling card, Rose is no slouch when writing melodies to carry his words home. Rose carries on the legacy of Chicago’s proud, if almost forgotten Old Town legends like Jim Post, Bill Quateman, Steve Goodman and John Prine. Highlights: “The Amber Waves Have Let Me Down,” “The Day Before Infamy,” and the title track. More: www.alrosemusic.com
4) SIJAY “Detroit Club” (World Stage Records) produced by Sijay
This twentysomething from the South Side is already a bit of a renaissance man, as he writes, produces, and arranges (including horns). Sijay’s first full-length solo album, “Detroit Club,” is a tasty stew of jazz, neo soul, and R&B with a pinch of “Rat Pack” finesse. Warning: this funky fusion of styles is capable of inciting spontaneous toe-tapping, finger-popping and booty-swaying without warning.
Sijay has created a winner first time out; a total ear-pleaser. Highlights: the snappy cabaret groove of “Detroit Club,” crooner “You’ll Be the One,” and a jazzy lounge treatment of Neil Young’s classic, “Heart of Gold.” More: www.sijaymusic.com
5) THE DIGGITY “Human Skills” (Independent) produced by Eric Dahl & Jame Stillman
This collection of groove-heavy pop-dance is reminiscent of ‘80s groups like the Tom Tom Club and/or Talking Heads with a dash of Be-Bop Deluxe, a sprinkle of Brian Eno and a pinch of The B-52s.
The Diggity are a seven member Northwest Indiana experimental ensemble which creatively blends elements of funk, R&B, alt-rock, dub, and techno-pop into the most effervescent collection of original music to cross my speakers this year. The Diggity’s fizzy, funky style finds me uncharacteristically wiggling to their quirky rhythmic sounds. Highlights include: “War Out Back” “Paper Man,” and “Cracks.” More: www.facebook.com/TheDiggityMusic
6) LISA McCLOWRY “Sings Acoustic Alchemy” (Big Deal Records) produced by Jim Peterik
Chicago’s gifted lady of jazz-pop found a powerful and suitable ally in local Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter/lyricist Jim Peterik (see Pride of Lions above) to take on the musical challenge of rendering vocal interpretations of songs by the all-instrumental British guitar duo, Acoustic Alchemy.
The A.A. lads themselves – Miles Gilderdale and Greg Carmicheal – were so pleased with the McClowry/Peterik enhancement of their songs; they joined them during the recording process and are heard on each of the 11 tracks, which range from rock/pop to blues/jazz to funky R&B.
McClowry’s passionate and vibrant deliveries keep the listener hanging on every note. This collection reveals that sometimes even the best of songs can be made better. Highlights: “Beautiful Mess,” “Brand New Hallelujah,” “Celebration Day,” and the country-flavored “Love Me Back Home.” More: www.lisamcclowry.com
7) THE WIND GYPSIES “Free To Ride Again” (Independent) produced by The Wind Gypsies
This veteran trio – Ray Klass (bass), Nick Laramie (guitar) and Neil Holmquist (drums) - have a blues-steeped rock sound with Southern/County flavorings. The Wind Gypsies will appeal to fans of groups like Canned Heat, Allman Brothers and Big Brother & The Holding Company. There’s even some drum soloing featured here by St. John’s seasoned sultan of the skins, Holmquist. Lead vocals are shared by Klass and Laramie, but the instrumental prowess of the trio is what really makes this album shine.
Highlights: the title track, “North Kenmore Blues,” and “Ode to DB.” The latter is a tribute to Allman Brothers co-founders Dwayne Allman and Berry Oakley that features some nice guest electric violin work by David Ragsdale of the classic rock group, Kansas.
7) JOE MARCINEK BAND “Both Sides” (Independent) produced by Marc Nelson
Region musician and music teacher Joe Marcinek, best known as a member of Northwest Indiana’s funk-rock ensemble Fresh Hops, released his first solo CD, “Both Sides,” an eight song set of original jazz tunes laid down at The Alley Recording Company in Valparaiso. The album finds Marcinek getting help from top shelf region jazzers Buddy Pearson (bass), Pete Koopmans (drums), Waz (keys), Stephen Cook (violin), and Adam Turman (saxophone). Highlights are: “60 Degrees (In January),” “Thundersnow,” and the title track, “Both Sides.” More: www.facebook/joe.marcinek.1
9) THADDEUS PROJECT “Circuits” (Thadeus Records) produced by Ted Putbress & Glenn Folwarski
Progressive pop-rock with a European feel is found on the seven tracks of “Circuits,” the fifth and latest addition to the Thaddeus Project catalog.
These devout studio dwellers embrace ever-evolving technology to consistently create and release solidly crafted albums, each uniquely different. A fresh element to the creative mix this time is Greek keyboardist Garsot, who in addition to creating the custom CD art, contributes his musical skills alongside T.P. co-founders and multi-instrumentalists Ted Putbress and Glenn Folwarski. Folwarski is also vocalist on selected tracks. Highlights: “Home,” “Before Your Eyes,” and the instrumental title track. More: www.thadeusproject.com
10) KEVIN M. BUCK “Musick For The New Aeon” (Osiris Records) produced by Kevin M. Buck
Super heavy melodic guitar rock from one of Chicagoland’s most gifted six-string virtuosos, who sadly has to ply his skills in local tribute bands (Battery and Blizzard Of Ozz), to afford the funds to release his own music, like the 10 selections featured on this 11-track collection. Buck’s flying fingers on the fret board will make Yngwie Malmsteen fans cheer, while Metallica fans love Buck’s slamming treatment of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”
This gifted and dedicated young shredder has for too long been overlooked and regulated to regurgitating cover songs and deserves his day in the spotlight as an original artist. Highlights are: “Aliens Coming,” “Burning of the Witch,” and the title track. More: www.kevinmbuck.com