A LOT of regionally produced CDs visit my stereo each year. Some bad, some good, some exceptional. What follows is my personal TOP 10 of Chicagoland releases for 2010.
For some runner–ups that were notable but did not make the Top 10 for various reasons, see my "Local Scene" column in this section.
Criteria requirements: artist resides in the Chicagoland region; CD released between last quarter of 2009 and December 25 of 2010; be commercially available to the public; be professionally pressed and packaged; and contain a minimum of either 6 songs or 30 minutes of music.
Counting down from number 10, here are my picks ...
10) JEF SARVER / Producer: Marcus Nelson & Jef Sarver
"Seven" (Independent/Jeff Sarver Music)
Jef Sarver has been making music around the region for a couple of decades now and is still going strong. As the title suggests, this is the seventh in a series of solo releases from the artist. Each disc is unique and finds Sarver continually experimenting with his sound.
In this latest installment, find the artist tapping into his inner Dylan once more, a place that he goes often in his music and a place that gives him some of his finest and more memorable songs. This is another of those albums best suited for more laid-back moments or road trip accompaniment. Well written, well played and nicely produced.
9) ROBERT ROLFE FEDDERSEN / Producer: Robert Rolfe Feddersen
"Milkman" (Independent/Feddersen Music)
This is the latest in a series of solo/acoustic releases of original music by former Loudmouth vocalist Bob Feddersen, who now goes professionally by his full given name, Robert Rolfe Feddersen.
"Milkman" is an 11–song set of tunes that range from moody and melancholy to upbeat and happy, with the title track successfully being both, evaluating that it's better to be working and struggling than to be dead.
Subtle humor, sensitive lyrics and nice production make this a disc to pop in when it's time to just "kick back" and "veg out." Very good DIY project from a multi–talented guy with a lot of soul and a genuine passion for music.
8) PETE BERWICK / Producer: Pete Berwick, Jason Botka & Mike Kozitka
"Give It Time" (Shotgun Records)
Yes... Pete Berwick IS back on this list for a second year with his raw, rootsy, take–no–prisoners, make–no–apologies brand of rock. And his fourth solo album, "Give It Time," is more of the same, only better than he gave us on 2009's "Just Another Day In Hell." His sound is a rockabilly/country–rock hybrid, with gruff vocals, biting guitar and plenty of outlaw attitude. Berwick is a musical slap across the chops that gets your mojo working. Highlights: "Is That What You're Tellin' Me?" "Beer," "My Heart Is On Hold" and the title track.
7) ATHEL / Producer: Athel with Joseph Peven & Seth Henderson
"To Society" (Independent/Athel Music)
This Crown Point–based trio – Justin King (guitar/vocals), Comron Fouladi (bass) and Casey Borys (drums) – released their latest album in two parts over two separate CDs.
"To Society: Part I" has three songs, while "To Society: Part II" contains five. While all eight songs were written as a full album, sessions were done in different studios and have a slightly different sound. "Part I" was done at Chicago's Gravity Studio with Joseph Peven engineering, while "Part II" was tracked at ABG Studios in Crown Point with production assistance by Asteria's Seth Henderson.
Alt–rock is an almost restrictive label for this trio, given this project often leans towards more classic rock influences. Highlights: "Paranormal Abstract of Everyday Living," "Radio" and "For You."
6) ASTERIA / Producer: Seth Henderson
"Momentum" (Independent/Asteria Music)
Crown Point's Asteria has outgrown their "teen" appeal and have matured into a rock solid "indie pop band" with their latest album to date, "Momentum."
The evolution of Asteria – Terrence Kline (vocals), Ryan Gullet (guitar), Seth Henderson (guitar), Brandon McQuen (bass), and Sam Henderson (drums) – has taken them from starry–eyed teenage hopefuls riding the wave of emo–pop, to stellar songwriters and powerful performers. Guitarist Seth Henderson has likewise developed into quite a fine studio engineer/producer along the way.
More: Asteria on FACEBOOK.COM
5) NOMAD PLANETS / Producer: John Carpenter
"You're Never Lost Until You Panic" (Fairbanks)
This group of veteran players create finely–crafted, acoustic/electric, alt–pop/rock with strong lyrics, nice harmonies and warm production, the combination of which make their third album, "You're Never Lost Until You Panic," as good as anything out there on a national level. Record label reps would be well advised to give these talented indie gents a listen. Really good songs and solid playing throughout. Highlights: "The Flood Song," "Here You Are," and "Wish You Were Here."
More info: Nomad Planets on FACEBOOK.COM
4) MICHAEL SCHAEFER–MURRAY / Producer: Michael Schaefer–Murray
"Michael Schaefer–Murray Presents..." (Independent/SMS Music)
Northwest Indiana's Michael Schaefer–Murray is one of the region's best kept secrets and it's time to let that secret out.
MSM's debut CD, "Michael Schaefer–Murray Presents...", is a 14–track collection that showcases a truly amazing, young guitar talent. Blues, jazz, rock influences collide through the fingers of this gifted virtuoso. Schaefer–Murray composed all of the songs here and employs a smooth vocal style, but it's his guitar playing that most impresses and will be his ticket to the big time.
These tunes are wrapped in top shelf packaging with images of timeless players who clearly have influenced this amazing young man. Highlights: "For You My Love," "When I Say I Love You," "When We Are Done."
3) CANASTA / Producer: Matt Priest
"The Fakeout, The Tease and The Breather" (Independent/Canasta Music)
This sextet with members from Munster has been making orchestral pop for years and yet this is only their second full–length album. Clearly a case of quality over quantity, because the 11 songs here are all keepers.
When this CD hits my stereo, it takes up residence, because the lush and catchy melodies demand multiple replays. Canasta is impressive on all levels – vocals, instrumentation, songwriting, production – and is musically appealing to fans of old–school groups like Dream Academy and Crowded House, as well as modern crafters like Belle & Sebastian. Is it just me, or does Matt Priest's vocals recall '70s singer Al Stewart at times? You decide. Stellar job! Highlights: The whole album – seriously!
2) VALPARAISO UNIVERSITY JAZZ FACULTY TRIO / Producer: Henry Johnson
"Journey" (Valpo Arts Media)
When it comes to jazzers in the region, one is hard pressed to find more seasoned talents than V.U. faculty members Billy Foster (piano), Bruce Evans (bass) and Jeffrey Brown (drums), who have performed with many international jazz stars since forming in 1980.
One of them – guitarist Henry Johnson – produced this collection and bends his strings on five of the dozen songs. Foster composed six of the twelve, Evans contributed three and Brown two. The remaining is a cover of the 1944 jazz standard, "Lover Man," written by pianist Ram Ramirez.
This instrumental collection is the perfect accompaniment for an evening of candle–lit dining or just kicking back with a glass of wine. This is a "Journey" fans of jazz are well advised to take. Highlights: "Early One Morning," "By Jingle," "The Nickster," "Minor Matter," and the title track, "Journey."
1) HEARTSFIELD / Producer: John Ryan/Chicago Kid Productions
"Here I Am" (Planet 49 Records)
Heartsfield has been releasing albums chock full of amazing vocal harmonies and impressive pickin' for decades, under the guiding hand of co–founder and primary songwriter, Perry Jordan. This 10th career release – "Here I Am" – is their overall best yet.
The album features great songs and energized and passionate performances. This is everything we have come to expect from Heartsfield and more! Strong melodies, solid musicianship and vocals that rival CS&N and The Eagles in their prime. Jordan even has Grammy–winning jazz vocal group Take 6 guesting on the beautiful "Music Eyes."
Like that other great Americana group, The Band, all the parts of the Heartsfield music machine mesh in a magical way, making even the complex things appear easy. Highlights: "Music Eyes," "Lost In A Daze Dream" (co–written with Jim Peterik of Survivor fame), "Lonesome Town," and "Whenever You Can."