These albums by original local music artists below have most impressed the seasoned ears of this columnist during the last year. All were released within the last 14 months by artists from the Northwest Indiana/Chicago scene. Here are my personal "Top 10" picks as the region's best of 2015!
1) PETERIK/SCHERER - “Risk Everything” (Frontier Records) produced by Jim Peterik
For "Risk Everything," Jim Peterik (on keyboards and guitar) has partnered with vocalist Marc Sherer to create a rock solid, 11-song collection of melodic rock more akin to Peterik's Pride of Lions efforts than with his Survivor-era output.
Scherer's vocals are vibrant and perfect for the polished progressive arrangements which recall the glory days of '80s rock. Not to suggest "Risk Everything" is a throw-back, but rather a forward-focused continuation of the classic arena rock sound Peterik helped forge back then. Best tracks: "Cold Blooded" and "Independence Day" (both featuring guest backing vocals by former Santana singer Alex Ligertwood). More: riskeverythingrocks.com.
2) WHATISMU - “Whatismu” (Independent) produced by Lee and Jolee Popa
Thirty years into her expansive career in recording and touring in the rock, alternative and heavy metal circles, Chicago guitar virtuoso Lorrie Kountz has created her best work in collaboration with guitarist Laura Jansons. This hybrid instrumental guitar fusion project called Whatismu, is completed by production partners Lee and Jolee Popa (White Zombie, Ministry, Macy Gray, etc.).
These are experimental, ethereal and soul-touching sounds that defy verbal description. Although not sonically akin to their work, those who are fans of free expression instrumental gurus like Brian Eno and Phillip Glass will thrill to Whatismu. Best tracks: "Gateless Gate," "Delusion" and "Awareness." More: whatismu.com.
3) PETE BERWICK - "The Legend of Tyler Doohand (and other tales of victory and defeat)" (Little Class Records) produced by Drew Burasco
Chicago roots rocker Pete Berwick has been under the national radar his whole career despite releasing album after album of gritty, blue collar-inspired, spit in your eye Americana tunes. A cow punk pioneer, Berwick is cut from the same cloth as such rebel songs Jason Ringenberg, Rootboy Slim and Steve Earle, only from the more tattered edges of that cloth. Berwick's songs are as incendiary as a can of gasoline and a lit match, with pull no punches lyrics and a delivery as subtle as a bull in a china shop.
Indie label Little Class Records signed Berwick last year, giving him a modest production budget that afforded him a quality studio, seasoned session cats, and a producer who "gets" his music (Drew Burasco). The result is the best Berwick album ever, capable of elevating this "no guts, no glory" Chicago troubadour to national recognition. Best tracks: "See You In Hell," "Ain't Going' Back To Memphis," “Proof Is In the Whiskey," and the title track. More: peteberwick.net.
4) THE MAD ANTS --“International Anthem” (Mandrill Records) produced by Joel Justin
One of the most consistent musical forces in Northwest Indiana for the last three decades has been Portage's Joel Justin, the composer, producer, vocalist and co-guitarist of The Mad Ants. Although it has been years since fans spray-painted the band's name on overpasses around the region, The Mad Ants - Justin, guitarist Ben Garcia, bassist Dan Peters and drummer Clyde Selsor - remain a powerful music-making entity.
This new 13-song set - "International Anthem" - finds Joel writing better than ever, although his voice is rougher (not unlike Steve Marriott of Humble Pie). The songs range from rockers like "Peace Train" and "Let It Roll," to tasty country weepers "Lost Dog" and "Crash" along with the moody gem, "My Rock & Roll," featuring the 2013 Portage High School Choraliers. More: joeljustin.com.
5) THE DIGGITY - “Pumphouse” (Independent) co-produced by Ryan Farag & The Diggity
Merrillville's The Diggity evolved from a "jam band" into a progressive ensemble that mashes up funk, jazz, hip-hop, and R&B in a progressive-fusion hybrid fashion. Their sound descended from Chicago's iconic psychedelic soul ensemble Rotary Connection and funk-rock trailblazers Rufus.
The Diggity draws from disparate influences owing equally to George Clinton, Tangerine Dream, The Yellowjackets, Poi Dog Pondering, and Sly & The Family Stone. Their well-blended sound is further enhanced with subtle electronica nuances, and offers a refreshing respite from everything else out there. Highlights: "Pachyderm" "Quicksand" and "Pumphouse". More: thediggity.bandcamp.com.
6) LEXI ELISHA - "Drowning In Love" (Independent) produced by Greg Lafollette & Lexi Elisha
Although this EP's five songs has a shorter running time than expected, this Christian-Pop artist from Portage offers up well-written original songs that all carry a positive message ( i.e. "Wait" encourages abstinence), which makes Elisha a positive role model for young girls and a favorite of parents. Her performances are impressive and the production is polished and tight.
Elisha has a strong pop appeal and the kind of confidence to make her able to compete with the league of young ladies currently trending nationally in the pop arena (Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, etc.) once she gets more promotion behind her. Fingers crossed for Elisha to land a national record deal in 2016. Highlights: “Drowning In Love” and "Wait” More: lexielisha.com.
7) SHOTGUN ELVIS - “When Darkness Falls” (Independent) produced by Marc Nelson
Passionate playing, decent songwriting and stellar production by Marc Nelson in one of the final sessions at Valparaiso's now shuttered Alley Recording Company studio land Northwest Indiana's coolest punk rock exports Shotgun Elvis on this list. “When Darkness Falls” is less frenetic in delivery as the trio continue their garage rock evolution, delivering the goods on "Drinkin', Smokin' and Playin' Rock N' Roll," an energized paean to the rock lifestyle complete with lyrics about mama's worries and the preacher's threat of damnation.
Their treatment of Bill Monroe's 1946 classic "Blue Moon of Kentucky" is brilliant and revitalizes the song for today's generation just as Elvis Presley's did for the baby boomers. Another surprise is the heartfelt acoustic ballad "Make It Hurt A Little Less." More: shotgunelvis.com.
8) LIZ MANDEVILLE - “Heart O' Chicago” (Blue Kitty Music) produced by Liz Mandeville
Blues diva Mandeville delivers the goods on this 11-song set. Her robust, roadhouse vocals are backed by such stellar musical guests as Eddie Shaw, Billy Branch, Charlie Love, Joan Gand and Minoru Maruyama.
While performances are top notch, cementing this collection as one of the year's finest releases are Mandeville's strong songwriting and production skills and the arrangements really swing! Best tracks: “Quit Me on a Voice Mail” “Cloud of Love” and “Smart Women, Foolish Choices.” More: lizmandeville.com.
9) CHRIS BOLINT -- “Embers Alive” (Chris Bolint Music) produced by Wes Koz & Chris Bolint
For those who appreciate inspired instrumental guitar playing that transcends boundaries while steeped equally in jazz and heavy metal influences, the debut CD of all original compositions by Northwest Indiana's Bolint will certainly please. Best tracks: "Infused With" and “OnRush.”
Bolin's string bending proficiency, dexterity of his digits, songwriting acumen and astute arrangements will appeal to fans of such guitar gods as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert. Although his fingers can fly along the frets, Bolint is much more than just another "million notes a minute" type. Bolint demonstrates real finesse and passion throughout his impressive 9-track debut. Other highlights: “Graven” and "Embers Alive." More: chrisbolint.com.
10) THANKS AGAIN - "Sonder" (Independent) produced by Thanks Again
Acoustic trio Roman Ruiz, Adam Mihal and John MacNeil met as students at Crown Point High School and have evolved into quite a music making machine if these 14 songs on their debut CD are any indication.
"We make fun music with strange instruments..." proclaims their Facebook page. Although fun is a factor here, also here are accomplished performances and some pretty good songs. Thanks Again deliver a blend of bluegrass and Americana folk often seasoned with either blues or pop flavorings. Best tracks: "Card Games," "Rock And Roll," "The Last Mile" and "Richmond, VA." More: facebook.com/thanksagainband.