In September, a local collective of house DJs threw a party at Podlasie Club, an Avondale Polish bar with a distinctive L-shaped neon sign out front. The members of the Humboldt Arboreal Society usually spin under a tent in Humboldt Park, but for that one-off with veteran local DJ Rahaan, they’d made an exception—in part because a series called Podlasie Pleasure Club, launched in July by Chicago DJs Makamena and Leja Hazer, had helped turn the bar into the city’s best new dance venue. 

In October, Podlasie hosted London producer and Night Slugs label head Bok Bok for his first Chicago set in five years. I could track Podlasie’s growth as a dance-music hot spot from the comfort of my home; within weeks of that Bok Bok show, it seemed like every time I opened Instagram I saw a new Podlasie flyer stacked with great local DJs. I’ve even walked past during an event that at any other time I would’ve wanted to attend—but even though the sight of revelers on the sidewalk in front of a club usually promises a fun night out, I’ve yet to venture inside.

Before vaccines were widely available, I told myself I wouldn’t see an indoor concert till the pandemic ended. That hasn’t changed, even though I got my first two doses in the spring and a booster in the fall—the virus that’s caused mass casualties and long-term health issues for millions remains a public health crisis. I love seeing shows, surrounded by dozens if not hundreds of strangers who all adore an artist enough to hang out in a club way past their bedtimes. But cramming myself into an indoor crowd remains a high-risk activity, and I wouldn’t even be able to enjoy it with thoughts of sickness and death careening toward me like stage divers at a Knocked Loose show.

I’ve done everything I can to protect myself from the virus, and I applaud venues that take every safety precaution to mitigate the risks. Vaccination rates in Chicago are decent, but not high enough to completely defang COVID-19—and it’s starting to look like Omicron is good enough at infecting vaccinated people that it might soon feel like April 2020 all over again. According to the New York Times, 76 percent of Cook County residents ages 12 and up have been fully vaccinated, though that figure doesn’t factor in boosters (which became available to all residents only recently). Until the threat of the virus ends for everyone, I’d rather stay out of nightclubs and music venues altogether. 

I can’t pretend this decision hasn’t had adverse effects on me. For one thing, it means my professional life is a new source of inner turmoil. Thankfully, I don’t depend on live shows to give me things to write about—for every story I publish, I usually leave three or four ideas on the shelf. And the Reader had already chosen to run concert reviews only sparingly, even before the pandemic—the paper mostly just covers summer festivals and the occasional show notable enough to be worth the trouble. I don’t feel like I’m neglecting my duties by avoiding live music, but it does mean I can’t report on Podlasie with the depth and intimacy I want. And I did fret that I couldn’t provide any personal insight into how it felt to be back in clubs, but plenty of other people could. Tribune critic Howard Reich addressed it in summer 2020, as the Green Mill cautiously reopened.

Reich announced his retirement from the Trib in January 2021, leaving no music critics on staff at the largest daily newspaper in Chicago. Since his departure, I’ve been the last person in the country’s third-largest city with a full-time job as a newspaper music journalist. Of course, I’m not counting freelancers—Britt Julious and Hannah Edgar (a Reader contributor) provide crucial coverage of the local scene for the Tribune, the Sun-Times has a growing roster of stringers, and the South Side Weekly and the TRiiBE consistently publish must-read music stories. These Days and Sixty Inches From Center, among other outlets, also focus on local arts and culture. 

But Chicago needs more journalists on the music beat full-time, because that level of immersion will let them provide a more complete picture of music’s role in our daily lives. More people in the field will also keep me from stressing quite so much about my burden of responsibility—as a music journalist, I feel obligated to do everything I can for Chicagoans, so much so that it’s a relief when I see somebody else cover a story I know I can’t get to.

Ever since Chicago clubs reopened earlier this year, I’ve wrestled with the question of how to support them and the artists who perform in them. I continue to write show previews, even though it’s strange to encourage others to do something I won’t. I absolutely want to support the musicians, and I know that the chaos of the pandemic has hardly let them figure out how to replace their crucial touring income. 

Fortunately most local venues have so far managed to escape closure, in part because the Chicago Independent Venue League sprang into action as soon as the pandemic brought live music to a full stop. CIVL formed in 2018 to fight back against the existential threat of Live Nation’s involvement in the Lincoln Yards development (which still isn’t clear), and in the first weeks of the pandemic it also helped provide a blueprint for the National Independent Venue Association. NIVA successfully lobbied Congress about the Save Our Stages Act, which passed in December 2020, but federal support for pandemic-shuttered venues has trickled out slowly; under SOSA more than 14,000 venues applied for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant loan, but six months after the act became law less than 0.7 percent of applicants had seen the money. 

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Live Nation remains a threat, and not just in Chicago. Before the pandemic, the multinational corporation was promoting 60 percent of the world’s ticketed events. In March 2021 its stock hit an all-time high, and as Pitchfork recently reported, its share price continued to climb even after the catastrophe at Astroworld in Houston, a festival it promoted. Live Nation has the financial infrastructure in place to ride out the pandemic, and most independent venues—which together make up just 10 percent of the pie—don’t. That’s not even taking into account the advantage Live Nation derives from owning Ticketmaster (the world’s largest ticketing company), managing more than 500 artists, and throwing huge festivals. Even under normal circumstances, Lollapalooza hurts Chicago’s independent music venues—its promoter, C3, is part of Live Nation’s portfolio, which makes the event a beachhead for the monolithic company in a city that’s thrived largely without it. And because COVID has continued to wreak havoc on touring, those venues are especially vulnerable to Lolla’s distortions of the market.

I can’t blame anyone in the live-music biz for working at or playing Lollapalooza, not after more than a year of financial instability. As Damon Krukowski of dream-pop duo Damon & Naomi recently put it in his great Dada Drummer Almanach newsletter, a festival booking can underwrite an entire tour. But hitting the road is like playing a high-stakes game of Minesweeper, with musicians blindly hoping that their paths are safe, even when they pass through states that refuse to implement or enforce basic COVID safety measures. 

I’ve lost track of the number of bands I’ve seen postpone or cancel parts of their tours—and I can’t forget that Eric Wagner, of Chicagoland doom pioneers Trouble, died from COVID-related pneumonia while on tour in Texas. I can’t forget he was unvaccinated either. The government’s halfhearted response has made it impossible for most folks in the music business to simply sit out the pandemic, which would of course be safer. If you’ve taken every last precaution and can earn money on the road, or if you can pay an entire staff and keep the lights on at your independent club, why wouldn’t you do it? 

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I’ve found this year more isolating than 2020. I’ve felt pressure to do my part for public health, but I also know I can’t do much in the face of a mutating virus that’s killed close to a million people in this country alone. It’s hard to find room to grieve and manifest some joy, so I don’t begrudge anyone who buys a ticket to see a musician they love in a time when rejoicing is in short supply. I miss the venues where I’ve sought refuge after a grueling day of work, I miss the people at those spaces who’ve made me feel like part of a community, and I miss the way a club’s vibrations can massage my body and get me moving, whether they come from a band, from a set of speakers, or from the people listening. This year I’ve mostly felt that kind of intensity while exercising, which probably makes my favorite 2021 album Turnstile’s Glow On—when I listened to it during my runs, it made me feel like I could burst through a brick wall even when my body told me another block was too far.

I know I would’ve heard more new-to-me music in 2021 if I’d gone to clubs, but I still had a huge surplus—the challenge isn’t discovering it, but rather finding the time and energy to make sense of it all. Sometimes it feels like trying to drink from a fire hose. I kept a running list of albums, EPs, mixtapes, and projects that I’d never heard before, but I only added them if I listened to them in their entirety—I didn’t get through Lil Yachty’s Michigan Boy Boat, so I didn’t mark it down. So far that list is 750 releases long, and a few hundred of them are by Chicagoans. More than three-fourths of the latter came out this year.

I spend a lot of time listening to, thinking about, and researching Chicago music, obviously, so I try to keep an eye on the public response to it: what catches on, what underperforms my expectations, what’s unjustly ignored. For seven years now I’ve put together a year-in-review list of overlooked Chicago releases (the first few focused on hip-hop), an exercise that forces me to reconsider what it means to be “overlooked.” My definition is slippery, but I tend to account for any kind of attention, not just media coverage. For example: In June, Ten City released their first album in 27 years, Judgement, which barely received any attention from the press. But Ten City are a towering presence in the history of Chicago house, and Judgement was nominated for a Grammy for Best Dance/Electronic Album, which disqualified it from my “overlooked” list. Anything the Reader has covered this year, even in passing, is also ineligible—it’d be silly for me to claim that a release I’ve already recommended didn’t get properly noticed. I need to have overlooked it too!

This is an inexact science, but then again so is “taste.” These are my five favorite overlooked Chicago releases of 2021. I also list five honorable mentions.

The Feeders, Kerchoo 

Lean, scruffy power-pop for punks who want to try their hand at ballroom dancing

Flex Sinatra, Beyond Measure 

Flex’s concrete-rumbling baritone shrouds his rail-thin percussion, exacting bass, and glassy synths in a murky atmosphere that’s equally foreboding and alluring.

Beth McDonald, Densing 

Who knew tuba improvisations embellished with electronics could be this enchanting?

Megiapa, Diddies Vol. 1 

These taut, atmospheric Afrofuturistic pop songs came out of a series of beats Megiapa made every day for a week, which makes me wonder what she could do with more time and tools.

Asher White, American Motel History 

Imaginative, earthy indie-folk brightened with bossa nova flourishes

Honorable mentions

Liam Brigham, Zombies

Jamie Paige, Bittersweet

The Purple Hotel, The Purple Hotel

Sleepwalk, Underneath the Shade

Toni, Running on All Fours

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