Top row: cover art for Boy Band and Mother Fortune. Bottom row: cover art for Stoner Pimpson & 500, Softmax, and Friendlys.

When I try to decide what counts as an “overlooked Chicago release,” I don’t just consider what I’ve already written about in the Reader. I look at other media outlets too. Which Chicago acts did big national publications cover? Which bands only got press locally? And how meaningful is “overlooked” as a category anyhow, when fewer and fewer outlets expend the resources to look at new music in a remotely comprehensive way? If you compare the state of music media today to the landscape of 20 years ago, you could argue that almost every local release is overlooked now.

I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about local music, so I rarely feel that a Chicago act has gotten enough coverage outside the city. But I’m aware of what a privilege it is to have that thinking be part of my job. Chicago has a lot of talented critics who are just as obsessed with the city’s music as I am, but I’m the only one with a full-time gig at a local newspaper. 

The profession of “newspaper music critic” is inches from extinction—and the Reader has endured threats beyond those that afflict arts journalism in general. The paper has come perilously close to shuttering several times in the past few years, most recently this winter and spring. A Reader owner (now a former owner) blocked its nonprofit transition for months, choking off new revenue streams it needed to survive.  

With that crisis hanging over me, I wrote every story like it would be my last. In April the Reader’s editorial union, of which I’m a member, helped win that bitter fight, but I didn’t suddenly start feeling less urgency about covering Chicago music. Because I think my job is important, and because almost no jobs like mine still exist, I feel an immense responsibility to it. Each paragraph-long concert preview or 5,000-word feature informs our readers of what’s happening in their backyard—and more than that, it functions as an argument, insisting that this musician or scene or inexplicable phenomenon is worth their time, no matter how seemingly insignificant or obscure. 

I’m increasingly uninterested in writing about big-time pop acts. Coverage of Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind saturated the Internet when it came out in June, and while it’s certainly worthwhile to take a critical look at his work, I’m confident Drake will keep getting that kind of attention even if I never write about anything but lesser-known Chicago musicians. 

Sometimes a local act gets a lot of national coverage, and I’ll write about them too. In those cases, I try to give readers insight that’s specific to here and helps them feel more connected to the city. The Horsegirl album Versions of Modern Performance is one of the most celebrated to come out of Chicago this year, but I focused my story on the development of their teenage DIY indie-rock scene

I cataloged nearly every Chicago act and release I wrote about in 2022, counting only those to which I’d devoted at least a paragraph. Qari’s full-length collaboration with Eddie Burns, Stronghold, doesn’t count, because I made only a passing reference to it in a feature about local hip-hop collective Creative Mansion. I left out my weekly contributions to the Reader’s daily email newsletter, partly because they don’t exist online in the same way as my other work, but I included Gossip Wolf, the weekly column I share with J.R. Nelson. At press time, I’d had a hand in covering nearly 200 Chicago acts.

Parallel to that effort, I also cataloged every EP and album that I listened to in its entirety for the first time in 2022, no matter when it came out. Currently the spreadsheet where I list everything includes 860 pieces of music, and more than a third of them are 2022 releases by Chicagoans.

My annual list of best overlooked local releases continues to exclude anything the Reader has covered, whether the coverage was mine or not. After I apply that easy criterion, though, determining which releases count as overlooked gets complicated. I’ve been doing this in one form or another for nearly a decade, and I still don’t have a satisfying system. 

Does the Mr. Fingers release Around the Sun Pt. 1 count? A handful of dance-centric outlets reported on Larry Heard’s initial announcement that he had an album in the pipeline, but after Around the Sun dropped, I saw mention of it only in a Guardian piece about Heard and Robert Owens’s successful legal battle with Trax Records over the rights to their music. But Heard is a house legend—how can I possibly suggest that anything he does is overlooked? 

Less-established artists don’t necessarily make for easier calls. I thought about including the debut LP by crusty hardcore outfit Mock Execution, but Killed by Mock Execution was released by one of the world’s best punk labels, London’s La Vida Es un Mus Discos. And in July, Bandcamp Daily named it an album of the day. (Future Reader culture editor Kerry Cardoza wrote the Bandcamp review.) 

I suppose I’m saying that “this Chicago act doesn’t get enough attention” isn’t the same thing as “this Chicago act’s new album is overlooked.” I could’ve put together a relatively conventional “best Chicago albums” piece from among the dozens of great local releases that didn’t appear in any of the listicles that national outlets published earlier this month. Through that lens, those releases are overlooked—but I don’t use that lens.

There’s a reason I still sweat these details. Lists like this have power—they draw in readers, or at least skimmers. The promise of such a list is that it provides a window into the taste and perspective of someone who can listen to hours of new music every day, deeply and intentionally. I condense all that listening, thinking, and cataloging into this list because lots of people who only have a few minutes to spare still want to know what the present sounds like. 

I don’t expect anyone else to be able to devote the kind of time to music that I do. And for that reason, I don’t look down on anyone for consulting a list of “the best” music (or film, or books, or whatever). You’re taking a chance on art and engaging with someone else’s opinion of it, and I love encouraging people to do both of those things. Even if you don’t share my enthusiasm for the releases I’ve included here, I hope I’ve helped you feel energized by the huge variety and depth of Chicago music.

The top five

Boy Band, Unilateroloid

This freewheeling, flinty alt-rock album is clearly the work of a band powerful enough to shake the walls of a big club, but this pandemic project can never take the stage. Guitarist, bassist, and drummer Ryan “Tygercat” Arliskas and vocalist Dot Ashby launched Boy Band in March 2020 and finished recording their debut, Unilateroloid, in January 2022. Three months later, Arliskas was murdered while walking home from Ashby’s house. Unilateroloid makes sense of the day-and-night contrast between Ashby’s dreamy, lilting voice and Arliskas’s tense, bottled-up math-rock instrumentals—on “Sub Nautiloid,” his resonant bass and jagged, anxious guitars ratchet up the titillating tension till it feels like the song will burst apart.

Friendlys, Very Friendly

Friendlys specialize in thorny indie rock whose endearingly lugubrious squall can summon storm clouds above your head. Sad-sounding indie rockers are a dime a dozen, but Friendlys have a distinctive magnetism that complicates their downcast vibe—on Very Friendly they avoid total despair with twisting passages that suggest a brighter view could be just around the bend. On the instrumental “Black Walnut,” fragile, wobbly guitar picking slowly morphs into a calming melody whose quiet resplendence exudes optimism.

Mother Fortune, Mommy Is Missing

Mommy Is Missing is jokey and juvenile, with a goofiness that edges into the vulgar, and that’s part of what makes it charming. Hip-hop collective Mother Fortune throw everything at the wall, and they even use what doesn’t stick—they gather the mess sliding down and shape it into maximalist, joyful songs that punch as hard as rap tracks made with big-label budgets. The gleaming, light-headed pop euphoria of “MaxMeRedo” will hook you early and keep you coming back.

Softmax, But What if There Isn’t?

The anonymous person who records as Softmax makes pristine, elegant songs that blend vocals worthy of the Billboard charts with moody electronic music—dramatic synths, refined pop-rap percussion, minimal bass like distant thunder. Her arty tracks would do well on Warp Records, and in fact Softmax self-released But What if There Isn’t? with help from London indie publishing company Psychotic Reaction Music, which partnered with Warp Publishing in 2021. Her suave vocals help this glossy, futuristic EP feel alluringly down-to-earth, even when it’s just a little too strange to be called pop.

Stoner Pimpson & 500, Dirty Laundry, Clean Money II

On this collaborative release, Stoner Pimpson and 500 rap with flows that glide over sample-heavy instrumentals like stones skipping across a placid Lake Michigan. Pimpson’s resonant voice plays well off 500’s dry groan, and their performances provide Dirty Laundry, Clean Money II with its major source of energy. The upbeat chipmunk soul of “Not a Love Song” can power up any playlist in need of a boost.

Honorable mentions

Booman Forever, And Then Boom
Joe Glass, Slither
OutPastMidnight, Teenage Bullshit
Parisye, Flourish
Spike Carter, After Everything


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