Credit: <br/>Illustration by Jason Wyatt Frederick

When I consider the past decade in Chicago music, I think about the songs and albums that not only muscled their way into my memory but also deepened my understanding of the place where I live. Music helped me navigate a city that seems to weather seismic sociopolitical changes several times per year—the six months between the FBI’s November 2018 raid of Alderman Ed Burke’s office and the mayoral runoff election felt like a decade. Songs provided me with new insight into the forces driving the record single-year number of public school closings in 2013, the Emanuel administration’s cover-up of Laquan McDonald’s 2014 murder by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, the City Council’s approval of construction contracts for a $95 million police and fire academy in West Garfield Park, and the abuse of tax increment financing to assist billion-dollar developments that will help displace the disadvantaged people that TIFs are supposed to benefit. Chicago musicians not only consider the specifics of what it means to live in this city but also frequently engage the community with more than their songs. Their albums and activism shape the culture in Chicago and elsewhere.

My listening experience, rooted as it has been in Chicago, isn’t reflected in the “best albums of the 2010s” packages that the country’s major music and culture outlets published late last year. And I didn’t expect it to be. They’re concerned with the broader world of music or with a narrowly defined genre, not with a specific city. I knew these lists would exclude a lot of important Chicago music, even though the city left an indelible imprint on pop during the 2010s (hello, drill). So I wanted the Reader to undertake something similar that would be nothing but great Chicago records, top to bottom.

With that in mind, the music department set out to create a “best Chicago albums of the decade” project. We e-mailed ballots to dozens of music critics—podcasters, zine writers, bloggers, freelance journalists—who’d demonstrated their engagement with the local scene. Our definition of a “Chicago album” was fluid. The artist could be born here but now living elsewhere; a group of musicians from several cities could have convened here to record. The point was to encourage diversity, not artificially narrow the field.

Fifty-seven critics ranked their ten favorite Chicago albums from the past decade, and we compiled the results in an ordered list that wound up 338 albums long. A first-place pick earned ten points, a second-place pick nine, and so on till tenth place, which counted for just one point. This scoring system inevitably generated a lot of ties in the lower reaches of the list—there are only 44 numerical ranks assigned to all those albums—but it also created some clear winners.

One benefit of a massive decade-long retrospective is that it can introduce wonderful music to an audience that missed it entirely the first time around. That possibility guided our decisions when we chose 50 of those 338 albums to get a little extra attention, in the form of a paragraph written by a critic who’d picked it. Instead of focusing on the records with the most votes, we looked for the ones that didn’t seem to have gotten enough attention on other lists.

We also wanted to represent at least some of the dizzying breadth of Chicago music. As a result, this might be one of the most varied “decade in review” pieces you’ll read, covering hip-hop, gospel, R&B, house, ambient, hardcore punk, jazz, metal, electronic noise, soul, indie rock, footwork, contemporary classical, powerviolence, and whatever you want to call Fire-Toolz. Whether an album listed here tied for 44th place or came in fourth, it’s important and worth your time. You might not agree with the rankings or even the picks, but we hope you’ll listen with an open mind. Leor Galil

Click here to see the individual ballots
compiled for this list.


Twenty-six-way tie, one point each

Angel Eyes, Midwestern

(The Mylene Sheath, 2010)

Josh Berman Trio, A Dance and a Hop

(Delmark, 2015)

Bust!, Suck Kuts

(Cassette Deck Media Conglomerate, 2010)

Kweku Collins, Nat Love

(Closed Sessions, 2016)

Divino Niño, Foam

(Winspear, 2019)

Dreezy, No Hard Feelings

(Interscope, 2016)

Freddie Gibbs, Freddie

(ESGN/Empire, 2018)

Christian JaLon, Vinyled Love

(self-released, 2017)

Jordanna, Sweet Tooth

(self-released, 2018)

Judson Claiborne, Time and Temperature

(La Société Expéditionnaire, 2010)

Locrian, Infinite Dissolution

(Relapse, 2015)

Mines, Just Another Thing That Got Ruined

(Lake Paradise, 2013)

Mister Wallace, Faggot EP

(Futurehood, 2016)

Panicsville, A Dragonfly for Each Corpse

(Smeraldina-Rima, 2010)

Payasa, Demo

(self-released, 2018)

Qari & Green Sllime, Operation Hennessy

(Broke Ass, 2019)

Rempis Percussion Quartet, Cochonnerie

(Aerophonic, 2017)

Saxophonist Dave Rempis is a vital part of the improvised-music community in Chicago and beyond, not just for his playing but also for his networking and programming, and he’s in so many great groups that it’s a fool’s errand to choose just one. But I’m a sucker for bands with two drummers, and when those drummers are Tim Daisy and Frank Rosaly—two of the best going—well, that’s game, set, and match. This burly, long-running ensemble is equally exhilarating whether creating engrossing textural explorations or dense, muscular grooves, and Rempis likewise excels wherever he ventures: thoughtful melodies, driving ostinatos, explosive abstract flights. Best of all, every so often the furious turbulence of the rhythm section (which also includes bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten) creates such a powerful updraft that Rempis’s scalding horn practically reaches low Earth orbit. Philip Montoro

Sin Orden, Ha Llegado el Momento

(Not Normal Tapes, 2015)

Sonny Falls, Some Kind of Spectre

(Sooper, 2018)

Treasure Fleet, Cocamotion

(Recess, 2012)

Twin Peaks, Sunken EP

(Autumn Tone, 2013)

Wilco, Star Wars

(dBpm, 2015)

Wild Belle, Everybody One of a Kind

(Tuff Gong Worldwide, 2019)

Ric Wilson, Soul Bounce

(self-released, 2016)

Ze’ev, Kismet

(self-released, 2016)

ZMoney and Chase the Money, ZTM

(4EverPaid, 2017)


Thirty-two-way tie, two points each

The Autumn Defense, Once Around

(Yep Roc, 2010)

Willis Earl Beal, Acousmatic Sorcery

(XL, 2012)

When I first heard Willis Earl Beal, it seemed like his disarmingly shambolic acoustic lullabies could articulate every complicated emotion I was having but couldn’t name, then broadcast them back to me. The Chicago native recorded Acousmatic Sorcery on a RadioShack karaoke machine using cheap or scavenged instruments, and even his most fragile song felt like it could break open the earth. My 2011 Reader story on Beal helped him land a deal with XL Recordings, which put out Acousmatic Sorcery the following year (I helped write the bio for his press release). Beal’s evolution continues to produce music that expresses bittersweet yearning with rare and idiosyncratic power, but I’ll always cherish his debut. Leor Galil

Beat Drun Juel, Suppressor

(self-released, 2016)

Olivia Block, Dissolution

(Glistening Examples, 2016)

Bloodiest, Descent

(Relapse, 2011)

Bottomless Pit, Shade Perennial

(Comedy Minus One, 2013)

Joseph Chilliams, Henry Church

(self-released, 2017)

Coppice, Big Wad Excisions

(Quakebasket, 2013)

Dark Fog, Make You Believe

(Eye Vybe/Cardinal Fuzz, 2018)

Deeper, Deeper

(Fire Talk, 2018)

Dolly Varden, For a While

(Mid-Fi, 2013)

Dowsing, All I Could Find Was You

(Count Your Lucky Stars, 2011)

Fee Lion, Blood Sisters

(self-released, 2019)

Hitter, 2018 Demo

(self-released, 2018)

Immortal Bird, Thrive on Neglect

(20 Buck Spin, 2019)

Impulsive Hearts, Sorry in the Summer

(Beautiful Strange, 2016)

Lord Mantis, Pervertor

(Candlelight, 2012)

Chicago is well-known for forward-thinking metal, but few albums capture the city’s 2010s vibe like the second full-length from blackened sludge crew Lord Mantis. Locrian and Pelican coursed between beauty and despair; Yakuza and Gigan spun heady, psych-addled trips; Oozing Wound and Bongripper, well, ripped. But meanwhile, Lord Mantis stewed in misanthropy, nihilism, and back-alley grime. Produced by Sanford Parker, Pervertor isn’t for the faint of heart: it’s uncompromisingly bleak and demands a visceral response. The band have gone through multiple transformations since 2012, among them suffering the loss of founding drummer Bill Bumgardner in 2016, yet they’ve persevered—and Pervertor remains one of Chicago’s most ferocious musical exports. Jamie Ludwig

Ministry, Relapse

(AFM, 2012)

Sen Morimoto, Cannonball!

(Sooper, 2018)

Not for You, Drown

(Sooper, 2018)

Options, Driftwood Metaphor

(Grandpa Bay, 2015)

Pink Frost, Sundowning

(Notes & Bolts/BLVD, 2013)

Soddy Daisy, Trashtopia

(self-released, 2015)

Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

(Anti-, 2010)

Sun Rooms, Sun Rooms

(Delmark, 2010)

Sun Speak, Sun Speak With Sara Serpa

(Flood Music, 2018)

Surachai, Embraced

(Trash Audio, 2013)

Tink, Winter’s Diary 4

(Winter’s Diary, 2016)

Touched by Ghoul, Murder Circus

(Under Road, 2016)

Various artists, Cult Cargo: Salsa Boricua de Chicago

(Numero Group, 2011)

The Numero Group had already offered a rough idea of what its Cult Cargo series was about with compilations sourcing material from Belize and the Bahamas, but 2011’s Salsa Boricua de Chicago flipped the concept of “American music reinterpreted by people in the Caribbean” on its head—it features artists of the underserved Cuban, Mexican, and Puerto Rican diasporas in Chicago. Culled from the 1970s output of the Ebirac label, run by community activist Carlos Ruiz, Salsa Boricua includes amateur orquestas throwing down vibrant salsa, guaguancó, guajira, merengue, bolero, and rumba grooves that could match anything coming out of New York or Miami. Lock in and let the funk out. Patrick Masterson

Matt Ulery’s Loom, Wake an Echo

(Greenleaf Music, 2013)

Young Pappy, 2 Cups: Part 2 of Everything

(self-released, 2015)

Before Shaquon Thomas introduced himself to the Chicago hip-hop scene as Young Pappy, the stories told through drill music were set almost exclusively on the south and west sides of the city. In 2015 Pappy released the mixtape 2 Cups: Part 2 of Everything—the second installment of a series named after his slain friend Mensa “2 Cups” Kifle—and definitively expanded the geography of drill to the north side, Uptown in particular. Pappy had some success with his music while alive, but 2 Cups: Part 2 of Everything (hosted by DJ Legacy) has earned him mostly posthumous fame—he was murdered at age 20 in May 2015, just weeks after its release. The lead single, “Killa,” has become part of the drill canon, and Pappy’s lyrics throughout the mixtape use graphic accounts of aggression and passion to paint a nightmarish picture that testifies to his artistry. Matt Harvey


Twenty-six-way tie, three points each

Absolutely Not, Mister Something

(Chain Smoking, 2013)

Aaliyah Allah, Being

(self-released, 2017)

Ballister, Worse for the Wear

(Aerophonic, 2015)

Canadian Rifle, Peaceful Death

(Dead Broke Rekerds, 2018)

CB Radio Gorgeous, Plays CB Radio Gorgeous

(Not Normal Tapes, 2018)

Daymaker, Amen/Evening

(self-released, 2015)

Eleventh Dream Day, Works for Tomorrow

(Thrill Jockey, 2015)

G Herbo, Welcome to Fazoland

(Machine Entertainment Group, 2014)

Harm’s Way, Posthuman

(Metal Blade, 2018)

Katie Got Bandz, Bandz and Hittaz

(self-released, 2012)

She was introduced to Chicago in 2011 as “that girl toting the pistol in Shady’s ‘Go In’ video,” but by the time she’d dropped her first project, Bandz and Hittaz, Katie—or Katiiiieeee, as her signature ad-lib went—had become the de facto queen of drill. The project, produced entirely by her cousin BlockOnDaTrack, has never gotten its due as one of the era’s best releases, but tough, minimalist bangers such as “I Need a Hitta” and “Ridin’ Round and We Drillin” epitomize the spirit of golden-era drill. I’ll never forget the night at some bougie Pirate Bay-sponsored party at Lumen when the DJ dropped “Hitta” no less than three times in an hour. Meaghan Garvey

The Kickback, Weddings & Funerals

(Jullian, 2017)

Quin Kirchner, The Other Side of Time

(Astral Spirits/Monofonus Press/Spacetones, 2018)

Dustin Laurenzi, Snaketime: The Music of Moondog

(Astral Spirits/Feeding Tube, 2019)

In the spirit of albums by predecessors such as John Zorn and Marc Ribot, Dustin Laurenzi’s Snaketime cleverly expands the jazz palette by exploring a forerunner who stood sideways to the canon. In this case, the forerunner is Viking-helmed, Bach-influenced Beat street musician Moondog, whose strong sense of melody and deft use of counterpoint and minimalist repetition provide a vivid, pleasing structure within which Laurenzi’s octet can interweave hummable tunes and brawling skronk. It’s avant-garde jazz at its most accessible or mainstream jazz at its most avant-garde, depending on how you want to hear it. Either way, it’s a joy—and evidence of the talent and genius to be found in the Chicago jazz scene’s nooks and crannies. Noah Berlatsky

Bill MacKay & Ryley Walker, SpiderBeetleBee

(Drag City, 2017)

Gia Margaret, There’s Always Glimmer

(Orindal, 2018)

Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds

(FPE, 2017)

Monvment, Geminae

(Dead Section, 2013)

Nonzoo, Wazoo

(Already Dead Tapes & Records, 2017)

Ono, Albino

(Moniker, 2012)

KC Ortiz, Beach Street

(self-released, 2017)

Charles Rumback, Cadillac Turns

(Monofonus Press/Astral Spirits, 2019)

Serengeti, Kenny Dennis EP

(Anticon, 2012)

Tigress, Tigress EP

(Not Normal Tapes, 2017)

Veruca Salt, Ghost Notes

(El Camino, 2015)

Beau Wanzer, Untitled

(self-released, 2014)

ZMoney, Rich B4 Rap

(self-released, 2013)

That masked man isn’t Nobody—well, it’s sort of Nobody. It’s also Willis Earl Beal.
That masked man isn’t Nobody—well, it’s sort of Nobody. It’s also Willis Earl Beal.Credit: Jason Wyatt Frederick


Twenty-nine-way tie, four points each

Bongripper, Miserable

(Great Barrier, 2014)

Braid, No Coast

(Topshelf, 2014)

Brokeback, Brokeback and the Black Rock

(Thrill Jockey, 2013)

Califone, Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People

(Jealous Butcher, 2012)

Cloud Mouth, Keep Well

(Kid Sister Everything/Ice Age/Adagio830, 2011)

Condenada, Discografia

(Not Normal Tapes, 2012)

Mykele Deville, Peace, Fam

(self-released, 2017)

Drama, Gallows

(Drama Music, 2016)

Kevin Drumm, Humid Weather

(self-released, 2012)

Liam Hayes, Slurrup

(Fat Possum, 2015)

Tatiana Hazel, Toxic

(self-released, 2018)

Juice Wrld, Death Race for Love

(Grade A Productions/Interscope, 2019)

Kid Sister, Kiss Kiss Kiss

(Fool’s Gold, 2010)

Roy Kinsey, Blackie

(Futurehood/Not Normal Tapes, 2018)

Kittyhawk, Hello, Again

(Count Your Lucky Stars, 2014)

Lil Durk, I’m Still a Hitta

(Only the Family, 2012)

Lil Durk, Signed to the Streets

(Only the Family, 2013)

Ty Money, Cinco de Money

(Sibley Boyz Muzik Group/Gold Coast Music Group, 2015)

Panegyrist, Hierurgy

(I, Voidhanger, 2018)

Pivot Gang, You Can’t Sit With Us

(Pivot Gang, 2019)

Ratboys, AOID

(Topshelf, 2014)

Jana Rush, Pariah

(Objects Limited, 2017)

Russian Circles, Blood Year

(Sargent House, 2019)

Saba, Bucket List Project

(self-released, 2016)

Sincere Engineer, Rhombithian

(Red Scare Industries, 2017)

Spektral Quartet, Chambers

(Parlour Tapes, 2013)

Chambers is the 2013 debut of Spektral Quartet, a Grammy-nominated string ensemble that often operates in the classical realm and just as often redefines it. The album is an entirely Chicago affair, released on Parlour Tapes (a local cassette-focused label dedicated to contemporary art music) and featuring works by six local composers—which Spektral Quartet attacks with Windy City grit and passion. On the LJ White piece Zin Zin Zin Zin (credited to Liza White and inspired by Mos Def’s wordless freestyling on the Roots song “Double Trouble”) the musicians get about as percussive as possible while mostly bowing their strings—you can hear them strike their instruments while making sonic booms of downstrokes. Salem Collo-Julin

Time & Pressure, The Gateway City Sound

(Safe Insound, 2019)

Sam Trump, Purple Skies

(Superlative Muzak, 2017)

Vukari, Aevum

(Vendetta, 2019)


Twenty-eight-way tie, five points each

Joshua Abrams, Natural Information

(Eremite, 2010)

Advance Base, A Shut-In’s Prayer

(Orindal, 2012)

Azita, Disturbing the Air

(Drag City, 2011)

BBU, bell hooks

(Mishka, 2012)

Ari Brown, Groove Awakening

(Delmark, 2013)

Cross Record, Be Good

(Lay Flat, 2012)

Crude Humor, Jeri’s Grill

(Not Normal Tapes, 2015)

Disrotted, Disrotted

(Diseased Audio, 2015)

DJ Nate, Da Trak Genious

(Planet Mu, 2010)

DJ Paypal, Buy Now

(LuckyMe, 2015)

DJ Taye, Still Trippin’

(Hyperdub, 2018)

DJ Taye’s Still Trippin’ is a consummate turn in progressive footwork. The Teklife member employs a palette of rap, R&B, New Jersey club, Baltimore club, and more to make the argument that footwork spans style and region, while also reconstructing songwriting’s role in the Chicago subgenre. As frenetic as footwork can be, Still Trippin’ is framed by the meditative, wordless introductory track “2094,” which immediately dissolves the listener in the recesses of the artist’s mind. The rest of the album unfurls in surprising leaps from one aesthetic to another, and nothing is misspent—the young virtuoso forges ahead to somewhere new, his world a kaleidoscopic milieu. Tara C. Mahadevan

Engine Summer, Trophy Kids

(self-released, 2017)

Free Snacks, Fast Food

(Why? Records, 2019)

The Funs, My Survival

(Manic Static, 2015)

The Kreutzer Sonata, The Gutters of Paradise

(Don’t Panic/No Time/Collision Course, 2018)

La Armada, Anti-Colonial Vol. 1

(Bird Attack, 2018)

Ravyn Lenae, Crush

(Atlantic/Three Twenty Three Music Group, 2018)

Ravyn Lenae, Moon Shoes EP

(Three Twenty Three Music Group, 2016)

Local H, Hallelujah! I’m a Bum

(Slimstyle, 2012)

Jeff Mills, Emerging Crystal Universe

(Axis, 2014)

Modern Vices, Modern Vices

(Autumn Tone, 2014)

Oozing Wound, Whatever Forever

(Thrill Jockey, 2016)

Joey Purp, iiiDrops

(self-released, 2017)

Sun Ra, Exotica

(Modern Harmonic, 2017)

Tenci, My Heart Is an Open Field

(Hobbies, 2019)

Varsity, Parallel Person

(Babe City, 2018)

Velcro Lewis Group, Amnesia Haze

(Safety Meeting, 2017)

Ze’ev, GTP

(self-released, 2018)


Three-way tie, 5.5 points each

Coneheads, L​.​P​.​1. aka 14 Year Old High School PC​-​Fascist Hype Lords Rip Off Devo for the Sake of Extorting $​$​$ From Helpless Impressionable Midwestern Internet Peoplepunks L​.​P​.​

(International Players Club, 2015)

Nicholas Szczepanik, Please Stop Loving Me

(Streamline, 2011)

Nicholas Szczepanik (now Nicholas Burrage) began releasing sublime drone pieces late in the aughts, just as I discovered the joys of solo walks, and they remain my favorite companions for ten-mile rambles through Chicago’s neighborhoods. The best of those albums, 2011’s Please Stop Loving Me, begins with a bottomless current of churchy organlike chords that seems to come from just out of view, swelling through slowly shifting musical shapes as if from within a bank of clouds. Eventually, Szczepanik resolves the drone into a massive final chord that feels like finding the peace of home after a long journey—it’s a sanctifying balm to those of us dedicated to spending time alone, whether by choice or not. J.R. Nelson

TALsounds, Love Sick

(Ba Da Bing!, 2017)

Over the course of the past decade, Natalie Chami, who records and performs as TALsounds, has mastered the art of making her totally improvised music—loops of billowing, burbling synths topped by the breathy arias of her vocals—sound as melodious and cogently narrative as a meticulously produced pop song. Her standout 2017 release, Love Sick, is as challenging and rewarding as anything by Bjork or FKA Twigs, with the same internal drama as an all-consuming love affair—and the same splendid highs and lows. I can easily imagine “I Can’t Sleep” topping the charts in a musical universe more keen on free exploration than our own. J.R. Nelson


Thirty-way tie, six points each

Blacker Face, Distinctive Juju

(Sooper, 2019)

Beach Bunny, Prom Queen

(Duel Disk Media, 2018)

Date Stuff, Date Stuff

(Sooper, 2017)

Dowsing, It’s Still Pretty Terrible

(Count Your Lucky Stars, 2012)

The Evening Attraction, The End, Again

(Classic Waxx, 2018)

The Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope

(Bloodshot, 2016)

Free Snacks, Eat Good Tape

(Why? Records, 2018)

G Herbo, Humble Beast

(Machine Entertainment/150 Dream Team/Cinematic Music Group, 2017)

Despite blowing up off the 2012 smash hit “Kill Shit,” Lil Herb always refused to be labeled a drill artist. He showed us why on his 2017 debut album as G Herbo, Humble Beast. With raw, honest retellings of street tales mixed with sobering reflections on his childhood, the 21-year-old contextualized and humanized the violence that defined Chicago drill. Humble Beast balances soulful production, gritty yet introspective rhymes, and club hits, showing Herb beginning to master his craft and catapulting him into position to become one of rap’s brightest stars. Aaron Allen II

The Hecks, My Star

(Trouble in Mind, 2019)

Immortal Bird, Akrasia

(Closed Casket, 2013)

Angela James, Way Down Deep

(self-released, 2014)

Joie de Vivre, The North End

(Count Your Lucky Stars, 2010)

King Louie, Tony

(Lawless, 2014)

King Louie’s earliest work was rough around the edges, a prophecy of Chicago rap’s national breakthrough. Yet initially, he highlighted a knowing sense of humor that suggested, if not optimism, then at least the personality to bridge the gulf between a far-flung regional satellite and the mainstream. Then the Chicago scene suddenly went supernova, creating a darkly controversial new center of gravity. His response, Tony, was Louie’s best project of the decade, despite being his least colorful and most tersely aggressive, because he recognized that the ground had moved beneath everyone’s feet. He went back to the source for a brooding, apocalyptic project that managed the neat trick of charging its grimly violent times with undeniable electricity. It also launched three classic street singles: “Til I Meet Selena,” “Live & Die in Chicago,” and “B.O.N.,” the last of which spawned re-versions coast to coast. David Drake

Maps & Atlases, Beware & Be Grateful

(Barsuk, 2012)

Nick Mazzarella and Tomeka Reid, Signaling

(Nessa, 2017)

Janice Misurell-Mitchell, Vanishing Points

(Southport, 2013)

Monobody, Raytracing

(Sooper, 2018)

A gem of Chicago’s underground, instrumental quintet Monobody play a multifaceted prog-rock fusion with expansive shifts in sound and style. Raytracing, their masterful second album, journeys through prog rock, jazz, postrock, melodic math rock, and even the occasional metal riff. Monobody supplement their pulsing piano passages, squiggly synth lines, heavy bass grooves, and rollicking guitar leads with lap steel guitar, vibraphone, and programmed electronics to create a cornucopia of techniques and timbres. And unlike prog percussionists who go overboard, drummer Nnamdi Ogbonnaya crafts intricate, propulsive beats that always mesh with their surroundings—he knows when to pull back and when to go all out. Scott Morrow

Mother Evergreen, Mother Evergreen

(self-released, 2016)

My Gold Mask, Leave Me Midnight

(Goldy Tapes, 2013)

Ne-Hi, Offers

(Grand Jury, 2016)

Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire for No Witness

(Jagjaguwar, 2014)

Oozing Wound, Earth Suck

(Thrill Jockey, 2014)

Oozing Wound, Retrash

(Thrill Jockey, 2013)

Open Mike Eagle, Dark Comedy

(Mello Music Group, 2014)

Tom Schraeder & His Ego, Gush

(self-released, 2015)

Sicko Mobb, Super Saiyan: Vol. 1

(self-released, 2014)

Smino, Noir

(Zero Fatigue/Downtown/Interscope, 2018)

Traxman, Da Mind of Traxman

(Planet Mu, 2012)

Ron Trent, Raw Footage

(Electric Blue, 2012)

Ryley Walker, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung

(Dead Oceans, 2016)


Twenty-six-way tie, seven points each

Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society, Simultonality

(Eremite, 2017)

Bobby Conn, Rise Up!

(Fire, 2010 reissue of 1998 album)

Coping, Nope

(Protagonist, 2012)

Coping already have the classic emo one-album-and-done trope covered—now they await rediscovery. The band’s sole full-length, 2012’s Nope, opens with a screaming call-and-response vocal passage that bleeds teenage angst: “Have you ever thought that I don’t care for anything you have to say to me?” The band’s unabashed youthful confidence and willingness to be obnoxiously disorienting recalls local emo legends Cap’n Jazz as well as their own emo-revival influences, Snowing and Algernon Cadwallader. Nope is an exhilarating 100-meter dash of unhinged emotional exasperations and tangled guitars, with the melodies acting only as a home base to return to. Into this outpouring, Coping incorporate teenage love, awkwardness, heartbreak, and rebellion—the makings of a benchmark record for midwestern emo. TJ Kliebhan

Cordoba, Break the Locks Off Everything New

(self-released, 2018)

Cupcakke, Queen Elizabitch

(self-released, 2017)

Cupcakke may be retired from rap, at least for the moment, but her second full-length, 2017’s Queen Elizabitch, is still out there turning heads. Her music is witty, authentic, and often hilariously explicit, with track titles such as “Cumshot” and lyrics that straddle the line between playful and raunchy (“I save dick by giving it CPR,” for instance, or “I’m tryna fuck for a buck, not make love to Jodeci”). Queen Elizabitch also shows us the diversity in Cupcakke’s repertoire: on “33rd” she’s upbeat, poppy, and inspirational, while on “Reality, Pt. 4” she raps a capella about her struggle to find an audience, her thoughts of suicide, and the hunger and poverty she endured growing up in Washington Park. She may be famous for her salacious rhymes, and it’s true, she’s all that—but she’s also a lot more. S. Nicole Lane

Disappears, Live at Echo Canyon

(Plus Tapes, 2011)

DKV Trio, Sound in Motion in Sound

(Not Two, 2014)

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf

(self-released, 2015)

Freakwater, Scheherazade

(Bloodshot, 2016)

Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean have recorded as Freakwater mostly in Chicago, but seven albums and 25 years into their career, they shifted to Louisville, expanding their band with some north Kentucky musicians. The result is Scheherazade, filled with looser, bigger versions of their gothic country dirges—an aesthetic with more sweep and more serrated edges. “Down Will Come Baby” is a characteristically uncanny track, turning the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” into a loping Morricone outlaw epic for murdered infants. Every song on Scheherazade swings and rasps; you don’t want them to stop, even as they cut you. Though Irwin and Bean will probably always be better known for their classic 90s material, this record may be their most perfect. Noah Berlatsky

Pastor Donald Gay, On a Glorious Day

(The Sirens, 2019)

No stranger to hard times, gospel singer Donald Gay has faced formidable challenges over the past decade. In 2010, he became the only surviving sibling of a legendary musical family when he lost his last elder sister, pianist Geraldine Gay (the Gay Sisters scored gospel hits from the late 1940s through the ’60s). But on his debut as a leader, released when he was 73, his deep bluesy feeling and sure command of his material remain undiminished. On a Glorious Day, which juxtaposes songs by his sisters with time-tested standards, demonstrates again and again how resolutely life-affirming gospel can be. Appearances by Donald’s son, vocalist and coproducer Gregory “Juno” Gay, and by his guitarist nephew, Donald “Bosie” Hambric, also testify to his thriving lineage and the vitality of the tradition. Aaron Cohen

Gigan, Multi-Dimensional Fractal-Sorcery and Super Science

(Willowtip, 2013)

Gramps the Vamp, The Cave of 10,000 Eyes

(self-released, 2016)

Great Society Mind Destroyers, Spirit Smoke

(Slow Knife, 2011)

Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl, We Are Not the First

(RVNG Intl, 2015)

Raw house music producer Jamal Moss, aka Hieroglyphic Being, has been inspired by otherworldly jazz keyboardist and composer Sun Ra since the start, so his collaboration with longtime Sun Ra Arkestra alto saxophonist Marshall Allen for RVNG Intl. was a dream come true. The result is a mix of live ingredients, including digital horn, polyrhythmic drumming, and spoken word. J.I.T.U. means “Journey Into the Unexpected,” and this album—drawn from nine days of jam sessions with six musicians and two vocalists, all composed and conducted by Moss—lives up to that name, merging unpredictable industrial-edged house beats with free-jazz experimentation. Jacob Arnold

Hogg, Solar Phallic Lion

(Scrapes, 2016)

Hurt Everybody, 2K47

(self-released, 2015)

Joan of Arc, Life Like

(Polyvinyl, 2011)

Ravyn Lenae, Midnight Moonlight EP

(Atlantic/Three Twenty Three Music Group, 2017)

Angel Olsen, My Woman

(Jagjaguwar, 2016)

Ovens, Settings

(self-released, 2012)

Pixel Grip, Heavy Handed

(FeelTrip, 2019)

Raw Nerve, Raw Nerve

(Youth Attack, 2010)

Siamese Twins, Demo

(self-released, 2011)

Sam Trump, Love Notes

(Superlative Muzak, 2017)

Vamos, Spiderbait

(Maximum Pelt, 2015)

Varaha, A Passage for Lost Years

(Prosthetic, 2019)


Twenty-five-way tie, eight points each

Burdened, Crippled by Fear

(self-released, 2017)

Dead Rider, Chills on Glass

(Drag City, 2014)

Mykele Deville, Maintain

(No Trend, 2019)

The Funs, The Funs

(Manic Static, 2013)

Haki, Positive

(self-released, 2014)

Half Gringa, Gruñona

(self-released, 2017)

Jackie Lynn, Jackie Lynn

(Thrill Jockey, 2016)

Mahalia Jackson, Moving on Up a Little Higher

(Shanachie/Spirit Feel, 2016)

The Kickback, Sorry All Over the Place

(Jullian, 2015)

Tim Kinsella, Marvin Tate, Leroy Bach, and Angel Olsen, Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by Leroy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen

(Joyful Noise, 2013)

Mannequin Men, Mannequin Men

(Addenda, 2011)

Rob Mazurek Octet, Skull Sessions

(Cuneiform, 2013)

Vic Mensa, There’s Alot Going On

(Roc Nation, 2016)

Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, Intergalactic Beings

(FPE, 2014)

Polo G, Die a Legend

(Columbia, 2019)

Post Animal, When I Think of You in a Castle

(Polyvinyl, 2018)

Russian Circles, Guidance

(Sargent House, 2016)

Jackie Shane, Any Other Way

(Numero Group, 2017)

Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde

(Fat Possum Records, 2011)

Vic Spencer and Chris Crack, Who the Fuck Is Chris Spencer??

(self-released, 2016)

Tortoise, The Catastrophist

(Thrill Jockey, 2016)

Tree, The Tree EP

(self-released, 2011)

Jeff Tweedy, Warm

(dBpm, 2018)

Vee Dee, Vee Dee

(BLVD, 2011)

Miranda Winters, Xobeci, What Grows Here?

(Sooper, 2018)

All hail our gentle and benevolent savior, Lord Mantis.
All hail our gentle and benevolent savior, Lord Mantis.Credit: Jason Wyatt Frederick


Twenty-three-way tie, nine points each

Anatomy of Habit, Anatomy of Habit

(self-released, 2011)

The Atlas Moth, Coma Noir

(Profound Lore, 2011)

Bongripper, Satan Worshipping Doom

(self-released, 2010)

Cell Phones, Get You Alone

(Caffeinated, 2013)

Cheer-Accident, No Ifs, Ands or Dogs

(Cuneiform, 2011)

Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti with Barbara Frittoli and others, Verdi: Messa da Requiem

(CSO Resound, 2010)

Chief Keef, Almighty So

(self-released, 2013)

Chief Keef, Back From the Dead 2

(Glo Gang, 2014)

Cupcakke, Eden

(self-released, 2018)

Disappears, Era

(Kranky, 2013)

Gorillaz, Humanz

(Warner, 2017)

Living by Lanterns, New Myth/Old Science

(Cuneiform, 2012)

Jointly led by drummer Mike Reed and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, the ensemble Living by Lanterns has released just one album: New Myth/Old Science, a magnificent study in artistic transformation and a special entry in Reed’s ongoing investigation of post-1950s Chicago jazz history. Reed and Adasiewicz started with an enigmatic 1961 tape found in the Sun Ra collection of the Creative Audio Archive (located at Ravenswood’s Experimental Sound Studio), extracting fragments and ideas from the rehearsal recording and expanding them into a suite of compositions—not strictly Ra, not strictly them, but occupying some creative interzone. The ensemble mingles Chicagoans and New Yorkers, and the result is a constant delight—swinging, buoyant, open, and prodding, with a scintillating lineup that includes Greg Ward’s mercurial alto saxophone and Mary Halvorson’s tensile guitar. John Corbett

Locrian, The Crystal World

(Utech, 2010)

Vic Mensa, Innanetape

(self-released, 2013)

OK Go, Hungry Ghosts

(Paracadute, 2014)

Tomeka Reid Quartet, Tomeka Reid Quartet

(Thirsty Ear, 2015)

Cellist Tomeka Reid had already been a valuable part of the Chicago jazz scene for years when her quartet released its self-titled debut in 2015—and soon thereafter, she took on the world. Now based in New York, Reid creates new improvisational paths for string-forward groups not only with her own bands but also as a valuable member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The foundations of those explorations can all be heard here: myriad kinds of electricity flow through Reid’s exchanges with guitarist Mary Halvorson, and the album also showcases Reid’s superb compositions, including the lyrical “Etoile” and the open-ended “Glass Light.” Aaron Cohen

Serengeti, Dennis 6e

(FlamingoPop, 2018)

Teklife, On Life

(Teklife, 2017)

Henry Threadgill, In for a Penny, in for a Pound

(Pi, 2015)

Tink, Winter’s Diary 2

(self-released, 2014)

Teen heartbreak is real. In 2014, there wasn’t a high school on the south and west sides where you couldn’t find teenage girls passionately singing “Somebody real is hard to find,” the opening lines of Tink‘s “Treat Me Like Somebody” from Winter’s Diary 2. Since her debut in 2011, the rapper and singer-songwriter has been releasing mixtapes that teens would rush to download from DatPiff, but this 2014 project is what arguably propelled her name beyond Chicago. The essence of Winter’s Diary 2 reflects beloved 90s R&B, yet it’s also relevant to the newer forms of heartbreak the Internet age introduced to relationships. Janaya Greene

Toupee, Dinner Parties

(Rotted Tooth, 2013)

Woo Park, Smokes

(self-released, 2014)

Avery R. Young, Tubman

(FPE, 2019)


Twenty-three-way tie, ten points each

Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues

(Xtra Mile/Total Treble, 2014)

Arriver, Tsushima

(Bloodlust!, 2012)

The second full-length by Chicago heroes Arriver is a departure for metal: it’s creative and interesting, rather than getting lost in an unthinking preoccupation with what’s supposed to make metal “metal.” Tsushima is progressive in the truest sense—it draws from many inspirations, including a 1905 naval battle during the Russo-Japanese War, rather than from just one—and it dances through its amalgam of styles without losing its identity. Identity is key for Arriver, and they derive their sense of artistic self in no small part from their mental intensity: the brawn of Tsushima is more multifaceted than single-minded, more extravagant than restrained, and more cerebral than visceral. Jon Rosenthal

Bruised, Rotten Codex

(Chicago Research, 2019)

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold,” Cesar Robles Santacruz sings in “Satisfying Texture,” the delicately unwieldy postpunk jam at the heart of 2019’s Rotten Codex. For the past half decade, Bruised have been steadily gaining ground in the city’s punk scene with their brooding, goth-infused tunes, and this full-length shows the quintet at their musical peak. Unlike many punk releases, it’s never repetitive, swinging through a wide range of sounds—including the driving, intense “Psychic Stain” and the drony, industrial “No Neutral Architecture.” Bruised speak perfectly to the unbearable heaviness of these times, which we endure (to quote “Psychic Stain”) by “looking for an answer in the dark.” Kerry Cardoza

Cave, Neverendless

(Drag City, 2011)

The theater of Cave comes through best in the nuances of their Krautrock-shaped psych, and 2011’s classic Neverendless captures the band at their absolutely most Motorik. To maintain the effectiveness of such exactingly steady repetition, they have to set a mood by carefully modulating every sound swirling, twirling, and wriggling around the edges of the track—whether produced by Moog or man. The 14-plus-minute “This Is the Best,” with its ceaseless, almost taunting outro, and its follow-up, “Adam Roberts,” with its swelling synths and a jaunty organ line, do this with a precision that you might overlook if you allow the foursome’s rhythmic thrum to hypnotize you. Kevin Warwick

Chief Keef, Back From the Dead

(self-released, 2012)

Erraunt, The Portent

(self-released, 2015)

Fire-Toolz, Drip Mental

(Hausu Mountain, 2017)

On her third album as Fire-Toolz, Angel Marcloid cooks up a kitchen-sink combination of industrial, vaporwave, new age, dance pop, and black metal, peppered with AOL sign-on dings, cat meows, and that riff from “43% Burnt” by the Dillinger Escape Plan. At times, it sounds the way logging on has felt for the past couple years—that is, like slamming a nonstop torrent of news, opinions, and advertising into your brain at 100 miles per hour. It’s a testament to Marcloid’s skill and curatorial acumen that Drip Mental makes sense of it all, balancing its disorienting deluge against the exhilaration and joy of discovery. I found peace here when nothing else could soothe my overwhelmed mind. Ed Blair

Frail Body, A Brief Memoriam

(Deathwish Inc., 2019)

Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward

(Bloodshot, 2013)

During the years that Robbie Fulks played regular Mondays at the Hideout—performing 250 staggeringly varied shows from 2010 through 2017—the club sometimes felt like a campfire gathering of sure-handed musicians fondly recalling tunes they’d heard long ago, breathing new life into their melodies with each pluck of a string. In the midst of that remarkable residency, Fulks released Gone Away Backward, a studio album that beautifully captures the craftsmanship and collaboration of his most intimate acoustic concerts. Deftly singing wise and witty lyrics that roam across the American landscape, Fulks made indelible 21st-century Chicago music built on memories of old-time Appalachia. Robert Loerzel

La Armada, La Armada

(Fat Sandwich, 2012)

Radical hardcore band La Armada hail from the Dominican Republic, where they put down their roots in political activism and became a force in the country’s punk community. After relocating to Chicago in 2007, they released their self-titled full-length debut in 2012. The band pair their fierce sound, heavily influenced by grindcore and powerviolence, with raw antiestablishment lyrics (all in Spanish) that focus on immigration, colonialism, and class struggle. The guttural opening words of the first track, “Esclavitud Organica” translate to “Hypocrisy! Cynicism! Falsehood! Eat shit!”—describing the world in crisis that La Armada are fighting to destroy and save. S. Nicole Lane

Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, Where Future Unfolds

(International Anthem, 2019)

In his merely extremely ambitious past projects, Damon Locks often used urgent, ethereal vocals that evoked June Tyson’s work with Sun Ra, but for this Big Bang of ambition he’s assembled a radical squadron of genius vocalists, instrumentalists, and dancers who draw on decades of Black Arts Movement audio, centuries of African music, and millennia-to-come of Afrofuturism. It seems too on-the-nose to use the word “art” to describe this album, considering that the second sleeve of its gatefold cover contains (in lieu of another piece of vinyl) a series of stunning prints by Locks. But this masterpiece is everything I want, and more than I expect, from art. Jake Austen

Lucki, Alternative Trap

(self-released, 2013)

Marker, New Industries

(Audiographic, 2019)

In the 2010s, Ken Vandermark appeared on at least 100 records. The veteran saxophonist and clarinetist takes the Braxtonian imperative of self-documentation very seriously, and his recordings are rarely casual affairs—the quality goes in before the name goes on. But New Industries is his achievement of the decade. Made with Marker, a band of exciting younger Chicagoans that’s also the newest group under his leadership, the 2019 album combines impeccable studio recordings with a companion CD of live versions that suggests how the scores invite reinvention each time out. With this ensemble, Vandermark has found the best vehicle yet for his compositional concept, funneling postpunk energy into exploding architecture. Issued in physical form on the reedist’s own Audiographic label, New Industries sold out immediately. It resolutely requires a reprint. John Corbett

Makaya McCraven, In the Moment

(International Anthem, 2015)

Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings

(International Anthem, 2018)

Melkbelly, Pennsylvania

(Automatic Recordings, 2014)

Before becoming Chicago’s most exciting rock band with the release of 2017’s Nothing Valley, Melkbelly dropped a modest six-song EP-almost-LP in 2014, limited to 500 copies, via now-defunct label Automatic Recordings. At one moment raw and unrelenting, at the next haunting and ethereal, Pennsylvania occasionally shows its stitches—it’s clearly the work of an underground group trying to iron out its identity and ambitions. But more important, it also demonstrates the band’s early willingness to experiment with mood, as well as their inventiveness in lashing their melodic pop structures with freakish rhythms and howling noise. These brilliant songs are the first evidence that Melkbelly would become one of Chicago’s most important revelations of the 2010s. Kevin Warwick

Mike Reed, Flesh & Bone

(482 Music, 2017)

RP Boo, Legacy

(Planet Mu, 2013)

Serengeti, Kenny Dennis III

(Joyful Noise, 2014)

With the 2014 album Kenny Dennis III, rapper Serengeti was poised to wrap up the saga of the fictional Kenny Dennis (his uber-Chicagoan alter ego) and his partner Jules, but their tale continued through the rest of the 2010s. It made a midlife crisis sound wonderfully odd, and it made Odd Nosdam sound like one of the best producers in the game. The album’s use of actor Anders Holm as Kenny’s estranged friend/outside POV may also be the last time skits made sense on a hip-hop album.​ If you don’t want an O’Doul’s and a hot dog by the end of this one, you’ve listened to it wrong. Jill Hopkins

Charles Joseph Smith, War of the Martian Ghosts

(Sooper, 2018)

Dr. Charles Joseph Smith’s instrumental concept album War of the Martian Ghosts refracts his story of war and ghosts through the lens of dissonance and decay. With little but its ten track titles and stereophonic piano, Smith transports the listener to a Martian landscape, strange and mystical, akin to that imagined in Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land or Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip. Smith shapes and reshapes his virtuosic piano playing with fierce experimentation: chaotic time-signature jumps, ever-shifting motifs, occasional gothy synth accompaniment, a one-minute interlude of distant and unevenly spaced legato chord strikes, and even a 20-second punked-out track called “Recapitulation,” whose tongue-in-cheek take on the device of recapitulation in classical music demonstrates the sense of humor integral to Smith’s life and work. Noah Jones

Third Coast Percussion, Paddle to the Sea

(Cedille, 2018)

This gorgeous album contains a traditional Shona song, six marimba solos by Jacob Druckman, and Third Coast Percussion‘s own arrangements of Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia. Its centerpiece, though, is a collective composition by the quartet that scores the 1966 short film Paddle to the Sea, storyboarded so tightly that big accents in the music land precisely atop dramatic cuts in the movie. Alternately lushly melodic and intriguingly knotty, filled with intricate multilayered rhythmic phasing that’s simultaneously hypnotizing and baffling, Paddle to the Sea reminds us that the superhuman rigor that classical players struggle to achieve isn’t an elitist aspiration—rather than cut off such musicians from “regular” people, it opens up new ways for their work to engage us, both intellectually and emotionally. Philip Montoro

Two Houses, I Feel so Good I Can’t Feel Myself

(Rad Girlfriend, 2016)

Ryley Walker, Primrose Green

(Dead Oceans, 2015)


Four-way tie, 11 points each

The Atlas Moth, An Ache for the Distance

(Profound Lore, 2011)

Into It. Over It., Intersections

(Triple Crown, 2013)

Retirement Party, Strictly Speaking

(Tilde, 2017)

Slow Mass, On Watch

(Land Land, 2018)

Whether you call it posthardcore, slowcore, emo, or indie rock, Slow Mass’s debut full-length, On Watch, is definitely one thing: art. The 2018 album overflows with intricacies—it moves from a twinkling introduction (“On Watch I”) to blistering chaos (“E.D.”) and ends with a gentle, expansive poetic incantation (“G’s End”) that encapsulates the vastness of Slow Mass’s expertise. I saw the band open two shows in 2019, and each time they delivered their set with cathartic potency. In the decade to come, they deserve to headline more shows of their own—and they’ve already started 2020 with two new singles. Madeline Happold


Circuit des Yeux, Reaching for Indigo

(Drag City, 2017) 11.5 points


Two-way tie, 12 points each

Dead Rider, The Raw Dents

(Drag City, 2011)

Led by Todd Rittmann, Dead Rider accomplish a delightfully disturbing perversion of rock ‘n’ roll that befits an alumnus of U.S. Maple and Cheer-Accident. On the band’s second full-length, turgid bass synth, louche horns, and Rittmann’s creepy, oleaginous croon and jagged spurts of guitar all contribute to an atmosphere of decadent, addictively groovy decay. Much of the music’s distinctive feel comes from the drumming, shared here by Theo Katsaounis and his eventual replacement, Matt Espy: they stagger and stumble, slipping out of phase or just flat-out falling through the floor, but they always snap right back on beat to let you know they meant to do that. As Hannibal Lecter has proved in other venues, deviance kept under tight control is often more effective than off-the-leash craziness. Philip Montoro

Lupe Fiasco, Tetsuo & Youth

(Atlantic/1st & 15th Entertainment, 2015)


Eight-way tie, 13 points each

Cupcakke, Ephorize

(self-released, 2018)

Disappears, Guider

(Kranky, 2011)

G Herbo, Ballin Like I’m Kobe

(Machine Entertainment Group/Cinematic/150 Dream Team, 2015)

Kids These Days, Traphouse Rock

(self-released, 2012)

Negative Scanner, Nose Picker

(Trouble in Mind, 2018)

Smino, Blkswn

(Zero Fatigue/Downtown, 2017)

Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black

(Anti-, 2017)

Weekend Nachos, Worthless

(Deep Six, 2011)

Why waste money on anger-management classes or a gym membership when you can create one of the grooviest powerviolence records ever to emerge from Chicago’s hardcore metal scene instead? In 2011, Weekend Nachos did just that with their fourth LP, Worthless. It’s an unforgiving record fueled by a fury that can only be expressed with crushing layers of distortion and rage-filled lyrics. The band combine their merciless grooves with brutal hardcore breakdowns and sandwich them between some of the city’s heaviest doom riffs to create a powerviolence masterpiece that couldn’t have come from anything but the grit and grime of Chicago. Nikki Roberts


Tree, Sunday School

(self-released, 2012) 13.5 points

Rapper-producer Tremaine Johnson, aka Tree, can spin a symphony out of a single broken-sounding sample. To make what he calls “soul trap,” he also cribs from modern pop songs, cracking and warping pieces of them till they sound like dusties, then looping them amid bustling percussion. He’s also an arresting rapper and a wise, vivid lyricist, with an endearingly coarse voice that underlines his weary empathy. He dropped a streak of fantastic albums in the 2010s, but his hard-won critical breakthrough, Sunday School, is stacked with so many knockout tracks that it’s era defining. Leor Galil


Four-way tie, 14 points each

CSTVT, The Echo & the Light

(Tiny Engines, 2010)

Kaina, Next to the Sun

(Sooper, 2019)

In a music industry that enforces constant output, Kaina wants us to slow down. The act of feeling—and processing all the good and bad, complexity and confusion that comes with it—is the overarching theme of Kaina’s first full-length, Next to the Sun. Her voice is smooth, her energy is calming, and her lyrics (which she writes herself) effortlessly bounce around the luscious melodies she sings. Kaina has all the makings of a star, and between her eager experimentation with musical composition and her celebration of identity and all that forms it, she’s refreshingly undefinable. Bianca Betancourt

Mako Sica, Essence

(La Société Expéditionnaire, 2012)

Mako Sica are one of Chicago’s most genre-shattering bands, and on their finest album, 2012’s Essence, they feed their musical supercollider with jazz, psychedelic, experimental music, and more. They close the LP with the soundscape “Fate Deals a Hand,” which stretches for more than 21 minutes, and side one’s two sonic journeys are nearly as epic in scale—not unlike the outre experiments of Meddle-era Pink Floyd. Drummer Michael Kendrick augments his kit with all manner of bells, chimes, and cymbals, while Brent Fuscaldo adds basslike guitar, thumb piano, and clouds of whispered vocals. The final ingredient comes from genius guitarist Przemyslaw K. Drazek, whose textural waves of guitar and similarly treated trumpet lend a Morricone-esque soundtrack vibe to the album—and to Mako Sica’s unique sound. Steve Krakow

Mavis Staples, One True Vine

(Anti-, 2013)


Four-way tie, 15 points each

Advance Base, Nephew in the Wild

(Orindal, 2015)

Jean Deaux, Krash

(self-released/Empire, 2018)

Ganser, Odd Talk

(No Trend, 2018)

When Ganser released their full-length debut, Odd Talk, they were still relative newcomers in the city’s music scene, but the four-piece had already established themselves as a band to watch. With the sleek synths, disjointed guitars, and plentiful grooves of Odd Talk, Ganser have crafted a smart take on postpunk that provides a breath of fresh air even as it nods to Chicago’s noise-rock past. Not every band can hit a sweet spot between sophistication, trepidation, and weirdness, but even when Ganser grapple with difficult modern relationships and personal, political, and existential anxieties, they make it sound like a blast. Jamie Ludwig

No Men, Dear God, Bring the Doom

(Let’s Pretend, 2016)


Five-way tie, 16 points each

Disappears, Lux

(Kranky, 2010)

Listening to Lux is like fighting a fever dream: the paranoia, the quickened pulse, the winding line connecting beginning to end. Logically speaking, the full-length debut from a band who deliberately mischaracterized themselves as “CCR via Minor Threat” shouldn’t have ended up among Chicago’s musical masterstrokes of the past decade, but throughout their eight-year run, Disappears were always in the business of defying expectations. Riffs wobble like they’re on sea legs, Brian Case’s yawps sound tongue-tied and tipsy, and every drum fill pops like a pistol—more than an album, Lux is a postcard from another world. Shannon Nico Shreibak

Grown Ups, More Songs

(Topshelf, 2010)

Jeremih, Late Nights: The Album

(Def Jam, 2015)

Open Mike Eagle, Brick Body Kids Still Daydream

(Mello Music Group, 2017)

Russian Circles, Memorial

(Sargent House, 2013)

Angel Marcloid of Fire-Toolz may very well play a flaming power drill. It’s a trade secret.
Angel Marcloid of Fire-Toolz may very well play a flaming power drill. It’s a trade secret.Credit: Jason Wyatt Frederick


Four-way tie, 17 points each

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die

(International Anthem, 2019)

Saba, Comfort Zone

(self-released, 2014)

Toupee, Leg Toucher

(Moniker, 2015)

Toupee’s Leg Toucher, the four-piece’s last full-length before disbanding, sounds like it was recorded mid-exorcism. Front woman Whitney Allen (now Whitney Fragassi) pivots from sludgy sneers to incoherent shrieks, and the mix might as well have been run through a blender set to “puree.” Despite all this, the chaotic sound that Allen crafts with bandmates Nick Hagen, Mark Fragassi, and Scott Frigo still does exactly what they want it to do. Swirling goth-rock guitar riffs create an ominous backdrop, but the horror punk of “Mommy Is a Mummy” and “The Spider That Lives in Your Hair” channels Halloween-store camp rather than attempting actual terror. Anna White

Kanye West, Yeezus

(Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella, 2013)


Jeremih, Late Nights: The Mixtape

(self-released, 2012) 17.5 points


Various artists, Bangs & Works Vol. 1

(Planet Mu, 2010) 18 points

In the beginning, there was house, which borrowed from breakdancing to help form juke—and then Chicago gave birth to footwork, a dizzyingly fast and weird dance style accompanied by a similarly fast and weird turntablist-approved soundtrack. British electronic musician Mike Paradinas gathered 25 cuts by Chicago producers in 2010 and kicked off the decade with Bangs & Works Vol. 1
(on his own Planet Mu label), a genre-defining compilation of footwork music that includes innovators RP Boo and DJ Rashad. Vol. 1 helped some of the producers on its roster undertake international tours, and in 2011 it begat Bangs & Works Vol. 2Salem Collo-Julin


Three-way tie, 19 points each

American Football, American Football (LP3)

(Polyvinyl, 2019)

Ben LaMar Gay, Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun

(International Anthem, 2018)

Purple Mountains, Purple Mountains

(Drag City, 2019)


Three-way tie, 20 points each

Meat Wave, The Incessant

(SideOneDummy, 2017)

Meat Wave, Meat Wave

(Hawthorne Street/Let’s Pretend, 2012)

Meat Wave‘s self-titled debut was never supposed to be an album. The band recorded nine songs with the intent of sprinkling them across a series of split seven-inches. When that fell through, the trio—guitarist-vocalist Chris Sutter, bassist Joe Gac, and drummer Ryan Wizniak—pieced together an album. From the caustic guitar stabs of “Keep Smoking” to the triumphant explosion that closes “Panopticon,” Meat Wave merge the catchiness of Chicago punk with the austerity of the city’s noise-rock greats, resulting in an album that doesn’t just pay homage to the past but also uses that history to pave a new path forward. David Anthony

Greg Ward, Touch My Beloved’s Thought

(Greenleaf, 2016)


Two-way tie, 21 points each

Ratboys, GN

(Topshelf, 2017)

Tasha, Alone at Last

(Father/Daughter, 2018)


Yeesh, Confirmation Bias

(Tiny Engines, 2016) 22 points


Three-way tie, 23 points each

Angel Bat Dawid, The Oracle

(International Anthem, 2019)

Melkbelly, Nothing Valley

(Wax Nine, 2017)

Negative Scanner, Negative Scanner

(Trouble in Mind, 2015)


Ohmme, Parts

(Joyful Noise, 2018) 24 points

Singers and multi-instrumentalists Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart birthed their debut full-length as Ohmme in 2018. Parts is a moody, avant-garde, psychedelic landslide that plunges you into the depths of some big questions: identity and the expectations that govern it, the meaning of consumption, and mislaid faith toward the end of a tumultuous decade. The album balances tensions and contortions against each other, whether personal or political, instrumental or vocal. Ohmme aren’t exactly obscure—they lay it all out there, albeit in their own idiosyncratic way—but they build mystery all the same, stoking anticipation that buzzes and lingers even in the spaces between notes and songs. Sometimes Cunningham and Stewart provide answers to the questions they raise, but it’s more fun to listen to the album and arrive at your own solutions to their lyrical puzzles. Jessi Roti


Dehd, Water

(Fire Talk, 2019) 25 points


Two-way tie, 26 points each

Mick Jenkins, The Water[s]

(Cinematic Music Group, 2014)

Whitney, Light Upon the Lake

(Secretly Canadian, 2016)


Noname, Room 25

(self-released, 2018) 27 points


Ono, Spooks

(Moniker, 2015) 31 points

In 1983 the Reader called Ono “Chicago’s best-kept secret.” Here we are, nearly four decades later, still blessed more than we deserve. What is this blessing? Fearless avant-garde art that demands our surrender, nothing less. Ono drag us into the darkest conflicts of American history, but if you stay with them—and the grooving bass lines ensure you will—they speak to our willingness to be called. There’s nothing like a live Ono performance, but Spooks is a grand offering, recorded by two bands playing at once in counterpoint. The album is cinematic in its narrative construction, which gives shape to furious noise that sounds the emotional arc of characters voiced by poet-performer Travis, who spits, sasses, and bellows powerful, terrible words. Each listen unearths a new story arc, a new deviant sound, a new foundation beneath its noise, like sweeping a dirt floor. “You will never cover dirt!” Sasha Tycko


Angel Olsen, Half Way Home

(Bathetic, 2012) 31.5 points


Two-way tie, 34 points each

Lala Lala, The Lamb

(Hardly Art, 2018)

Lala Lala’s The Lamb is an immersive and illustrative experience, combining layered vocals, fearless exploration of varied sonic territory, and Lillie West’s knack for honest and introspective storytelling. The London-born, Chicago-based songwriter showcases her creative growth on this sophomore effort, blending genres and ranging across the emotional spectrum on the album’s 12 tracks—whether the coaxing subtlety of “Scary Movie” or the jarring introduction of “I Get Cut.” Throughout the record, melodies leap out that will stick with you long after you’ve finished listening. Rachel Zyzda

Twin Peaks, Wild Onion

(Grand Jury, 2014)


Two-way tie, 37 points each

C.H.E.W., Feeding Frenzy

(Iron Lung, 2018)

Feeding Frenzy is a relentless assault of D-beat hardcore from C.H.E.W.—the payoff after a series of small releases brimming with promise. The group—comprising three Orlando transplants and a front person who’d never sung in a band before—are as brutal as they are seamless. Ben Rudolph, Russell Harrison, and Jono Giralt (the aforementioned transplants) click together with the intuitive precision of three players who know and understand one another’s inner workings. Doris Jeane’s raspy, mocking growl grabs listeners by the throat in confrontation and anguish. Tim Crisp

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Drool

(Sooper, Father/Daughter, 2017)


Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book

(self-released, 2016) 40 points


Jamila Woods, Heavn

(Jagjaguwar/Closed Sessions, 2016) 51 points


Jamila Woods,
Legacy! Legacy!

(Jagjaguwar/Closed Sessions, 2019) 58.5 points


Chief Keef, Finally Rich

(Interscope/Glory Boyz Entertainment, 2012) 65.5 points


DJ Rashad, Double Cup

(Hyperdub, 2013) 71.5 points

DJ Rashad and his Teklife comrades poured decades of dance music into Double Cup. Its soaring vocal samples and pulsing kicks convey every emotion it’s possible to feel while your sweat cools in the 4 AM air: pride, lust, anxiety, fear, ecstasy, bravado, and (by the time it concludes with “I’m Too Hi”) utter intoxication. The album is haunted by the viscous trinity of highs alluded to in “Drank, Kush, Barz”—ironic companions to the record’s high-speed beats. Though Rashad’s time with us was cut short, his legacy will live on through a lifetime of tracks, a generation of inspired producers, and the footwork masterpiece Double CupJack Riedy


Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

(Def Jam/Roc-a-Fella, 2010) 73 points


Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap

(self-released, 2013) 85 points


Noname, Telefone

(self-released, 2016) 98 points


Saba, Care for Me

(self-released, 2018) 101 points  v