The 10 album releases below have risen to the top of the regionally-rooted mountain of music products that hit my desk over the past 12 months. Below are my personal Top 10 picks as the region's best of 2014!
1) FRESH HOPS - “Everyone Act Normal” (Fresh Hops Music) produced by Fresh Hops
If you are Phishing around for inspired tunes to twirl to, "Everyone Act Normal" is a good choice. This 9-song set of groovy, jammy, jazzy, funky, folkie music is a fresh kind of fusion performed well. Uncluttered production lets the songs really shine.
"Tumbleweed" recalls The Band at their sonic best before things morph into completely new territory with a funk/rock instrumental guitar/fiddle gem titled "27." The compositions and arrangements are stellar, and song sequencing is well planned. Fans of The Band, String Cheese Incident, Phish and Dixie Dregs will enjoy this collection.
Other highlights: "When The Fire Hit the Farm," “Afro Indiana,” and “Tractor Dance.” More: freshhopsband.com.
2) PAUL SIEWER -“Scrap” (Independent) produced by Paul Siewer & S. Joel Norman
An impressive 10-pack of songs from his own pen, Siewer's soulful vocal style has a "Van Morrison/Lowell George" quality but is never derivative. The collective of talented region musicians on these sessions contribute greatly to the overall sound.
Siewer was unknown to me until a Times reader emailed me about him and sent in this CD. This will appeal to fans of Van Morrison and Adam Duritz. Highlights: “Lightning Love,” "Candy Heart," “Sunshine,” and the organ heavy "Mt. Olives.” More: paulsiemer.com.
3) S. JOEL NORMAN - “Traveling Light” (Independent) produced by Marc Nelson & S. Joel Norman
Whereas Norman's 2011 "Take It In Stride" CD was a very good album, with “Traveling Light” he shows tremendous growth in both songwriting and performance. This time around there are horns, gospel singers and a lot more color added to the mix. “Don’t Need A Reason" is a real stand out with its funky Blues Brothers/Stax Records groove Other highlights: “Revival” and the title track. More: sjoelnor.man.com.
4) JOSH HOLMES - “Thinking Out Loud” (Independent) produced by Josh Holmes
For his ninth career album, Holmes gives fans a great straight up "rock" album. This 11-song set finds Holmes in top vocal form after undergoing major throat surgery and a long recovery.
Although Holmes is a brilliant songwriter whose tunes worked great on his last two acoustic CDs, it's wonderful to hear him turning up amps again. This CD has Holmes playing all bass and guitar parts, aided by drummer Steve Fields and keyboardist Steve Krupa. Highlights: "Imaginary Lines," "Olive Tree," and “One, Five, Six, Four.” More: joshholmes.net.
5) HOWARD & THE WHITE BOYS -“Rosa’s Lounge” (311 Records) produced by Howard & The White Boys
Howard & The White Boys have been Chicago favorites for years, yet somehow have remained under the radar. Perhaps this album will make people notice how the twin guitars of Rocco Calipari and Pete Galanis take no prisoners, drummer Jim Christopoulis and bassist Howard McCullum are rock steady, and McCullum's vocals are passionate.
This quartet is best served up live, when beer and sweat is flowing both on and off stage. This is a crisp recording of 11-original songs whixh are as much the stars of this album as the band itself.
Highlights: “Strung Out On The Blues,” “Guess Who's Coming To Dinner,” and “Black Cat.” More: howardandthewhiteboys.net.
6) BOLSEGA & CRABTREE & THE ALL-STAR SHUFFLERS -“Blink Of An Eye” (Beat Boogie) produced by Neil Holmquist
Two old friends took a cache of Bolsega-penned songs to producer Neil Holmquist, then decided to invite a few buddies to sit in. The All-Star Shufflers is a collective of nearly 30 musicians who over the course of nine months laid down individually created parts to specific songs; some with a country feel and some more bluesy. "Blink Of An Eye" is a studio experiment that worked. Highlights: "Ain't No Saint," "Little Bit Of Heaven" and the title track. More: beatboogie.com.
7) THE DAY NINE - “Of Stranger Things” (Independent) produced by Devin Whitten & Luke Ratley
This is some really far out stuff - innovative music blending space rock, folk, jazz and psychedelic into a trippy and melodic musical cocktail of modern "bachelor pad" music for the mind and soul. Flowing seamlessly over 10 tracks, the album has inspired arrangements, suburb playing, strong production and a real flair for originality. Fans of Ozric Tentacles, Tangerine Dream, and early Pink Floyd will dig this CD. More: thedaynine.com.
8) MARZETTE GRIFFITH - “The Best Is Yet To Come” (World Stage Int’l Records) produced by Jim Peterik
Griffith's clear vocal style is in fine form delivering this 9-song collection of jazzy R&B written largely by Grammy-winning Chicago icon Jim Peterik, who also provides polished production. A bevy of gifted guests -- Acoustic Alchemy, Mindi Abair, Steve Eisen, Nick Colionne, and Jessy J -- help make the songs the best they can be.
"Jazzy Lady" and "S'all Good' are tasty sax-driven tunes featuring Ides of March's Eisen and Mindi Abair, respectively. Other highlights are the upbeat "Born To Fly" and the soulful "Everyway A Man Can Love A Woman." Fans of Smokey Robinson, Grover Washington Jr., and Lionel Ritchie will enjoy this one. More: marzettegriffith.com.
9) TED SLOWIK -“Comfort Zone” (Independent) produced by John Conron with Bill Aldridge
Slowik recalls '60s troubadour Phil Ochs in his socially-conscious and sometimes humorous story songs performed with an amazing collective of musicians for a Celtic-flavored acoustic set well served by sparse production.
The 6-song CD is solid from start to finish. "Record Store" laments the loss of vinyl-stocked neighborhood shops, with hand-clapping and lots of pop culture references to The Beatles and others. Plenty of passion and talent showcased here. Other highlights: “Hinsdale” and “Dear Editor.” More: TedSlowikMusic.com.
10) THE FIGBEATS -“Reactor Beach” (Moon Daddy Records) produced by The Figbeats
The Skafish name is woven into Chicago's music scene with Bobby on the radio and Jim a revered punk rock pioneer. Add another Skafish to the list - Brad - lead guitarist/vocalist of The Figbeats, a power-pop/garage rock band with lots of adrenaline.
Many songs recall the mid-'70s West Coast "Beserkley Records" sound of groups like The Rubinoos mashed with East Coast punk a la The Ramones; but with occasional detours as on the Big Star-influenced "That's Alright." This is a set of fun "driving fast with the windows down" music! Highlights: “Diagnosis” “I'm A Rat,” and “Probable Cause.” More: figbeats.com.
BUBBLING UNDER: There were a few releases I wrestled with while trying to whittle down the stack of CDs to just 10. Two very worthy "runner ups" deserving mention are:
The Nomad Planets - "Corrugated Smile" (Fairbanks Records) produced by John Carpenter
Nicely written, well played Indie rock from NWI veteran players. More: nomadplanets.com
Patti Shaffner - "A Dervish Heart" (Independent) produced by Marc Nelson
A light jazz collection with some subtle island overtones written/sung by acoustic guitarist Patti Shaffer, with marvelous accompaniment from Freek Johnson members and others. More: jazzdakini. com