1. M.O.T.O.

Raw Power | Criminal IQ

Plenty of local albums released this year were more polished and ambitious than the latest from Paul Caporino’s long-running punk outfit M.O.T.O., but not one of them was more fun. The two decades Caporino has spent sharpening his hooky pop songwriting, precise eighth-note riffage, and so-dumb-they’re-brilliant lyrics have paid off handsomely–if Raw Power had been released in the late 70s it might now be ranked alongside the best of the Ramones or the Undertones. The 14 lo-fi, high-adrenaline tunes charge by in 34 minutes, and the band’s boneheaded shtick (the first two tracks are called “2-4-6-8 Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Gonna Get Drunk Tonight”) belies a rigorous economy and focus. Caporino gets an impressive variety of shades from a three-chord palette: His snotty bubblegum melodies on songs like “Deliver Deliver Deliver” and “Piano Jazz Radio” can trigger surprisingly powerful swells of emotion. He does goofy gabba-gabba-hey punk rock with the best of them (“Getting It Up for Physics,” “Flipping You Off With Every Finger of My Hand”), but his wise guy’s take on adolescence is as sophisticated as it is funny–he can invoke the ache of longing by denying that he feels anything. And on “Primeval”–less a conventional pop song than a mantra–he manages to make compelling music by repeating a single line for two minutes. Nothing against all the bands out there trying to guess which kind of punk will get fashionable next, but Raw Power is still gonna sound great in 20 years, when everybody’s forgotten about Interpol–it’s rock ‘n’ roll without a sell-by date.

M.O.T.O. plays Subterranean on Saturday, January 7.


Miss Alex White and the Red Orchestra | In the Red

Twenty-year-old Miss Alex White sounds the way Russ Meyer’s celluloid supervixens look–thrilling and threatening in equal measure. Accompanied by former Clone Defects Wes Kerstens on guitar and Eddie Altesleben on drums and playing some scorching guitar herself, she recorded her full-length debut–nine originals plus a cover of Teenage Head’s “Picture My Face”–in a single 16-hour session with Detroit engineer Jim Diamond. The tunes are poppy, adrenalized garage scuzz, and White powers through the noise to plant her soulful punk howl front and center.


Thinking of You . . . | Thrill Jockey

Freakwater’s seventh album (and first in nearly six years) bodes well for the future of the 23-year partnership between Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. With its hair-raising vocal harmonies, Thinking of You often recalls the Louvin Brothers’ best, Satan Is Real–and the roses on the CD cover are wreathed in flames, a nod to that album’s fire-and-brimstone artwork. Bean and Irwin are a powerful writing team with a talent for finding just the right devastating detail; highlights include the obsessive love song “Jack the Knife” and the allegorical protest number “Buckets of Oil.”


Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You | Locust

With her unorthodox soprano and impish phrasing, this eccentric opera-school dropout has provoked breathless comparisons to rediscovered 60s British folkies like Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. She’s fronted a string of combos (the Children’s Hour, Born Heller, the Supposed), but for this album she played all the instruments herself, from sitar to sandpaper blocks. The songs rove freely from genre to genre–spooky Appalachian, 19th-century music hall, even Far Eastern folk–and the standout tracks include a homespun country ditty (“Hominy Grits”), a jubilant spiritual (“Good News”), and a mesmerizing faux aria (“The Siren’s Admonition”). The only consistent variable is Foster’s mad spirit, which shines through everywhere.


Tijuana Hercules | Black Pisces

Tijuana Hercules’s second album is a greasy stew of raunch ‘n’ roll, lascivious rockabilly, and fatback R & B. Chad Smith’s drums and Zak Piper’s junkyard percussion create a manic backdrop for front man John Forbes’s snarling guitar, wolfish vocals, and strange, salty lyrics. And on four songs–including standouts like “Common Sense Has Lost Its Mind”–Piper abandons his tin cans to blow sharp blasts of trumpet or trombone. Whether it’s Beefheartian blues, Waitsian hoodoo, Holy Roller gospel, or wax-cylinder folk, these guys make it their own with a lewd, irresistible charm.


Feel My Pain | 40 Gang

Born in Uptown and based on the south side, this MC is part of the growing post-Kanye gangsta backlash in Chicago, which looks to the hardcore rap of the early 90s for inspiration. Feel My Pain, a follow-up to the self-released 2004 mix tape Murda, Mac’n, Money, is Payroll’s second proper LP, and tells the story of a real hard-knock life: the only child of a heroin-addicted mother and an absentee father, he grew up in gangs and in jail. Anger fuels his fervid, forceful rhymes, sometimes directed at the world at large and sometimes at his rivals. (On Murda Kanye gets a talking-to for giving the track to “Never Change” to Jay-Z–Payroll says he contributed to it and never got paid.) Local label the Legion, distributed by WEA, is finalizing a deal with Payroll and plans to release a new full-length in 2006.


Time Attack | Thick

The New Black’s second album tones down the surf-trash flavor and horror-show kitsch of 2004’s self-titled full-length, instead emphasizing taut, disciplined art-punk riffing. The boy-girl vocals of bassist Liam Kimball and guitarist Patti Gran do most of the heavy lifting, with Gran sometimes squeezing her itchy, urgent wail into a girl-group pop template and Kimball speak-singing like a sinister Fred Schneider. Drummer Nick Kraska’s agitated playing is peppered with perverse fills, and keyboardist Rachel Shindelman adds pulsing ostinatos and keening lead lines to the band’s controlled explosions of noise and melody–high points include the stiff-legged bounce of the title track, the goth-pop whimsy of “Devil in My Car,” and the breathless, out-of-control momentum of “Seventeen.” Unfortunately Time Attack may be the New Black’s last album; they’ve been on hiatus since wrapping up a tour in November.


It’s a Game | Drag City

Last winter Edith Frost returned to the studio after a four-year hiatus, prodded by her longtime producer and musical foil Rian Murphy. The album that resulted is a wonderfully sad and dreamy affair–an introverted set of anti-love songs, moonstruck honky-tonk, and hushed, intimate wee-small-hours pop, with Frost’s insinuating melodies floating through gauzy, tasteful country-folk arrangements. Despite its modest scope, her intelligent music constantly surprises you with flashes of heartstring-tugging beauty.

Edith Frost appears as part of Thomas Dunning’s Hoot Night at Schubas on Wednesday, December 28.


Lonely People of the World, Unite! | Mousse

This painstakingly crafted album began leaking out in late 2004 but didn’t get a proper release till March. I’ve spent more than a year with it now, and it just keeps growing on me–the cheeky wordplay, the sweet melodies, the snarly, in-the-red hooks, and the wide-screen arrangements that use a whole bargeload of instruments. Davis nods to the Kinks, the Monkees, David Bowie, and Weezer, among others, in shaping this minor masterpiece of geeky, soulful bubblegum pop.


Several Lights | Delmark

Three of the best young jazz players from the post-Vandermark generation–cornetist Josh Berman, tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, and drummer Frank Rosaly–hooked up with Swiss tubaist Marc Unternahrer for this album of fluid and surprisingly cohesive free improv. The 19 tracks average around three minutes in length, and the gentle, deliberate music often feels guided by a single breath. Producer Griffin Rodriguez creates a roomy but intimate sound, so that the players don’t crowd each other sonically but it’s clear who’s responding to whom–every time you listen to this stuff you hear another subtle linkage or turn-on-a-dime interaction.

Reissues and Archival Releases


The Curtom Story: We’re a Winner | Charly

In an interview with Word magazine earlier this year, former Jam front man Paul Weller called Curtis Mayfield a “prophet.” You’ll tend to agree after hearing this 73-song, three-CD anthology, which collects the output of Mayfield’s Curtom label from the late 60s through the early 80s. Artists include the Five Stairsteps, Leroy Hutson, Linda Clifford, Baby Huey, Mavis Staples, and of course Mayfield himself; the maestro contributed to many of the tracks as a musician, writer, or producer, and his outlook and approach permeate every song. The 48-page booklet is plagued by factual errors, but this release is nonetheless the most thorough portrait of Curtom to date–an absolutely essential piece of Chicago soul.


Night Beat and One Night Stand! Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club | RCA/Legacy

These two reissues were timed to coincide with the publication of Peter Guralnick’s definitive Cooke bio, Dream Boogie, and Guralnick wrote new liner notes for both. Cooke was at the height of his interpretive powers for the 1963 album Night Beat, his final studio set before his death the next year, and mixed trad gospel and jump blues with breathtaking results; Harlem Square was also recorded in ’63, and arguably remains the greatest live soul album ever made.


The Singles: Volume 1 and Volume 2 | HereSee

These two CD-Rs (of a planned three) collect the primitive, lo-fi singles self-released by local street performer James Pobiega, aka Little Howlin’ Wolf. Though many were already compiled by Pobiega on a pair of LPs in the early 80s, they’ve been issued this year–along with Brave Nu World, Pobiega’s first new recording in almost two decades–by HereSee, a label run by the former Chicagoans in Nautical Almanac. The singles traverse a profusion of genres, from cacophonous country to wheezing polkas, and return again and again to a Beefheartian blues that draws a twisting line from Pobiega’s idol Howlin’ Wolf to the free jazz of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.


Get My Hands on Some Lovin’ | Sony Japan

The classic full-length debut from this Windy City vocal group, produced by Carl Davis and released on Okeh in 1966, was reissued in Japan this year in a miniature cardboard replica of the original LP sleeve. The soul harmonies of Marvin Smith, Jesse Bolian, Larry Johnson, and Aaron Floyd sparkle here in a way they never did on the better-known Brunswick albums that followed.


Dreams in the Witch House: The Complete Philips Recordings | Rev-Ola

The English label Rev-Ola gathers the eerie, murky, melodramatic recordings of this underappreciated late-60s psych outfit, which formed in Chicago and then lit out for the Bay Area after its debut LP. The 23-track set includes a version of the early Randy Newman song “I’ve Been Wrong Before,” two tunes by New York folkie Fred Neil, and a collaboration with word-jazz inventor Ken Nordine.


Play the Blues | Rhino Handmade

These longtime friends and musical foils recorded this crossover attempt for Atco in 1970, after a tour supporting the Rolling Stones. The album was Eric Clapton’s baby, and thanks to his heroin addiction it didn’t come out till ’72–by which time the post-Woodstock craze for bringing bluesmen into the rock mainstream had begun to wane. Rhino’s archival version adds 13 previously unreleased tracks and insightful liner notes by blues scholar Mark Humphrey.


The Singing Drifter | Conjuroo

Now a music publicist in LA, back in 1972 Cary Baker profiled Maxwell Street blues singer Blind Arvella Gray for the Reader; the next year he helped Dave Wylie, the owner of Birch Records, release a tiny pressing of Gray’s only album, The Singing Drifter. This summer Baker launched his Conjuroo label by reissuing the disc on CD, in an edition that drops an instrumental cut from the original LP and adds four previously unreleased tracks.


Can You Jack? Chicago Acid and Experimental House 1985-95 | Soul Jazz

The UK label Soul Jazz has assembled an insightful double-disc anthology that charts the development of Chicago house, mixing tracks from legendary artists like Phuture and Marshall Jefferson with cuts from lesser-known figures like Lil’ Louis and Green Velvet.


Lost Sessions | Molemen Records

Panik, PNS, and Memo raided their vaults for these 18 hard-to-find and out-of-print tracks, which pair the hip-hop production team with local MCs like Iomos Marad, Vakill, Thigahmahjiggee, and Capital D as well as nationals like Slug, MF Doom, Cage & Copywrite, and Apathy.


Shaft in Africa | Hip-O Select/Geffen

Chicago soul arranger Johnny Pate’s score for the third Shaft movie–released in 1973 and overdue for a reissue–is to some ears even better than Isaac Hayes’s music for the original film.