Art by Beyza Çelikmen
CHICAGOLAND DISPATCH is a semi-regular column exploring underground, underrepresented, and often-overlooked music in Chicago. You can listen along to the article at this link: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7f6C6e4DaucszmOHFNYusu?si=5a4284260d0c4515.
2021: a year plagued in every aspect by inaction, slowdown, and delay. What a wonder it’s ending at all. Throughout the year, Chicago held its breath for months as the world slowly unfolded, all of us stuck running--or scrambling--in place. The wide community of musicians across the city was forcibly split up; left to quarantine and simply watch a rapidly shifting musical landscape. The future of music, especially live performances, was suddenly up in the air with everything else. Returning to a packed schedule of new releases, crafted through traditional means, seemed near-impossible. Record production came screeching to a halt. Everything was ending.
But, of course, this music-less apocalypse never came to be. An absurd amount of incredible music was created and released in 2021. After radio silence came a beautiful noise. Can’t be a coincidence: force every musician alive inside for a few months (or, you know, two years and counting) and this is just bound to happen. Across the country, new and familiar faces returned with career-defining works. Chicago, too, stretched its legs and then began to sprint ahead. It’s not a hot take that independent labels put out thoughtful, adventurous, and singular music this year, but the overwhelming quantity and quality coming from Chicago alone is staggering to see.
As the year dragged on we looked for moments of reprieve and levity; bright spots of excitement, places where we can experience connection. Nowhere is this felt more than in these overlooked releases from 13 of Chicago’s most singular and exciting creators. The latter half of 2021 was a torrent of sound and creativity: here are some artists you may have missed in the chaos.
1) Tasha: “Tell Me What You Miss the Most” (Father/Daughter, 2021)
This has truly been a great year for escapism. Ask around: everyone would rather be anywhere but here. Our prolonged stasis has produced an idealized Outside, a place we can escape to when our houses, our jobs, our own rooms felt heavy and oppressive. “Tell Me What You Miss the Most” by folk singer Tasha Viets-VanLear is that Outside, actualized. It is a glowing escape window, offering clear, gentle, and rejuvenating songs, wrapped in a warm, inviting atmosphere. Her second album for indie figureheads Father/Daughter Records is nothing short of entrancing, simply because Tasha’s voice is second-to-none, bringing her balladry to soaring highs and devastating lows. The album is a meditation, an exhalation, a weighted blanket. “Tell Me What You Miss the Most” is paced expertly, broken up with “Bed Songs,” pieces that float along like chasing a dream upon waking, accentuating the immediacy of the other tracks. Tasha imbues the record with bursts of energy, like a memory floating into view--“Perfect Wife” with its lively drums and echoey guitars bobs along on a rollicking wave, while “Lake Michigan” sparkles slowly with clarity and sudden hope. Shimmering strings, flutes, and slide guitars propel songs forward before gently letting the listener back down to earth. “Tell Me What You Miss the Most” is the sound of a voice realized, accomplished, floating above the fray--where we all long to be.
2) Moontype: “Bodies of Water” (Born Yesterday, 2021)
What is a scene? What ties Angel Olsen to Disappearing to FACS to even Wilco, and why does it matter? The most obvious answer is that you cannot escape where you came from, whether you want to or not. Enter indie music, 2021. “Indie rock,” whatever that term has evolved into, is indisputably the universal language of Chicago’s current scene, as I suspect it is across the country. Today, pop is indie rock, and so is country, and so is rap: everything drifts toward the sound of the times. The loose, rapid drums, scratchy guitars, and yelped vocals that once sounded so fresh way back in 2009 are now sewn into the fabric of everyday life, unavoidable in their constant influence. Arctic Monkeys play over the intercom at Jewel-Osco, the Strokes soundtrack the car wash, and eventually, it all becomes background music. When was the last time an indie rock record really made you excited, and presented you with something you hadn’t heard before? For any of you reading who just want to strip back the layers of clutter and noise and peer into the messy, beating heart of Chicago’s DIY scene, do yourself a favor and listen to Moontype. This is indie rock with skill and songwriting, overflowing with ideas, and whip-smart in its delivery. Each song is a carefully paced exercise in bustling rhythms, earworm hooks, and exposed-nerve energy: all filler has been stripped away until each individual lyric, line, and riff is as tight and punchy and possible. Immediacy and intimacy blend together on the record, like the band has set up to play the best set of their lives right in your living room. It’s a sprawling and focused release, running through hit after hit and culminating in a seven-minute monolith of a song (“Me and My Body”) that shoots Moontype right into the stratosphere. To answer myself earlier, a “scene” is simply where we are now, and there is no better example of our current scene than Moontype’s latest record, a sweltering basement show in album form, all of us jumping in unison.
3) Stuck: “Content That Makes You Feel Good” (Exploding in Sound, 2021)
Stuck sound like they’re being electrocuted. Unknown electricity passes through their songs, rocketing between tight control and total disarray. After their exorcism of a debut album, “Change Is Bad,” noise-punk-art-rock-whatever-you-want-to-call-it quartet Stuck veer into punchier, more immediate territory on the aptly-titled “Content That Makes You Feel Good.” It’s a 13-minute EP that whirls by like a fistfight. Their machete-sharp post-punk is a complex tangle of lacerating melodies. Guitar lines zig and zag over off-kilter basslines and machine-gun drumming; lyrics are howled by guitarist, vocalist, and engineer Greg Obis straight into the instrumental maelstrom, left to be destroyed by feedback, sharp hits of near-silence and writhing, seething grooves. On their latest EP for alternative rock label Exploding in Sound, they hone their songwriting to its sharpest point, taking aim at labor, personal and political identity, and the Chicago Police Department on the especially potent “City of Police.”
4) Angry Blackmen: “REALITY!” (Deathbomb Arc / Fat Beats, 2021)
Jesus Fucking Christ. Just listen to this if you haven’t yet. Angry Blackmen, and I mean this with no disrespect, can write one type of song. Their violent barrage of distorted beats, feedback, samples, and ear-piercing noise is experimental hip-hop at its catchiest, most abrasive and most in-your-face. Think Michael LaCouer (FKA B L A C K I E) with better songwriting and even less musical subtlety. These are songs pushed all the way in the red, peaking at 10 constantly; mixed to nuclear levels, with massive bass and screaming highs. At only four tracks, most of them around two minutes, the entire EP feels like a highlight. The massive kick drums on “BLUEPRINT” kick you right in the chest before and the last third of the track rips your head off with all-enveloping feedback. “VOMIT” is as groovy as dodging punches, with some of the duo’s most charismatic, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and performances. Brian Warren and Quentin Branch deliver their rants like they’re aiming their words down a shooting range. These two have a supernatural ability to turn their noisy, claustrophobic musique-concrete experiments into demented ragers fit for a bunker show, replete with blown-out PA and a broken, swinging lightbulb. Their latest for underground mainstays Deathbomb Arc is maybe their best, their most concentrated dose of poison yet.
5) LURK: “Around the Sun” (Pure Noise, 2021)
When live shows finally came rolling back around this year, there were few places as vibrant and ecstatic as the pits formed at hardcore gigs. Something about the unleashing of collective anger--at COVID, at our response, at everything--was cleansing, therapeutic even. For many, this was the year hardcore exploded. I mean, Turnstile played Seth Myers. What was an exclusive scene is expanding exponentially, and in a massive cultural shift hardcore has finally been walking its walk after decades of talking the talk. Positive mental attitude. Inclusivity. Community. “Around the Sun,” the latest release from Chicago-based band LURK, is a fucking great record, but above all, it is a hardcore record that pitches a wide tent and lets everyone in. It is a chest-beating, strutting album that wields musical influence like a club. Each song is another chance to dance, little parties rich with guitar fireworks and pounding drum fills. Opening tracks "Chromosome" and "Pressure Points" are a one-two punch of hardcore brilliance, imbuing relentless energy that the album miraculously sustains. LURK is a band that embraces every part of hardcore they connect with and smoke the rest, writings songs that are lean, bright, and immediate. In their words: “It’s hard to laugh / But we should.”
6) NNAMDÏ & Lynyn: “Are You Happy” (Sooper, 2021)
Nnamdï Ogbonnaya cannot sit still. A voracious creator with a massive solo catalog, his label Sooper Records has long been one of the city’s best-kept secrets for genre-blending forays in hip-hop, jazz, and pop. On his latest EP, he teams up with Lynyn, the solo project of Conor Mackey, for a set of intense and danceable electronic songs that swing wide in their emotional and musical intensity. Instrumentally, the two exchange ideas in a raucous and unrestrained manner; you can feel them toying with their songs, discovering new sounds. Breakbeats intermingle with EDM drops, spliced together in wonky, unpredictable ways. Each song feels fresh, shot through with vibrancy and energy. But it's the project's cover art that betrays its vibrancy: it is a clear-headed and bright release, leaking sunlight from its corners amidst incredible complexity. Labelmate Sen Morimoto appears on the EP highlight “You Don’t Know,” where footwork beats, twisted synths and vocals, and rapid-fire rap verses whirl by in a neon-colored rush. “Are You Happy” is another undeniable genre foray by NNAMDÏ, a wild and unpredictable EP that only adds to an undeniable body of work.
7) Annihilus: “Follow a Song From the Sky” (Federal Prisoner, 2021)
In two words: absolutely disgusting. One-man noise-metal project Annihilus has bestowed upon us an album as heavy as concrete, murdered out in black matte spray and thrown through your window in the dead of night. Across eight songs, the heaviest ideas from black metal, drone, and noise are all thrown into a short-circuiting blender, and the result is thick as blood. Across thirty-odd minutes Annihilus explores more ideas than some metal bands do in their entire careers. Luca Cimarusti’s whirlwind of lo-fi metal is immediately arresting and transportive, as bitter and harsh as it is thoughtful and meditative. Through layers of grit, fuzz, and distortion is a vision clear as day. Aided by visual art from Jesse Draxler (Chelsea Wolfe, Poppy) and released through quickly rising label Federal Prisoner, “Follow a Song From the Sky” is a decaying wonder, painted in innumerable shades of black.
8) Damiana: “Vines” (Hausu Mountain, 2021)
“Vines” arrives on a lightbeam from a planet of heat-warped strings and dusty, tangled wires. It is an otherworldly album, a “name-one-thing-in-this-picture” test, a melting rush of ambient, droning bliss. Damiana is the collaborative, improvisational project of TALsound’s Natalie Chami and Matchess’ Whitney Johnson, two electronic musicians carving distinct paths in the city’s experimental music scene. Chicago's experimental music scene has been growing steadily for years, shedding its harsh noise roots for a headier, more immersive experience. On their latest for Hausu Mountain, they lean on each other and tap into each other’s strengths, where on album highlight “Sunken Lupine” Chami’s synths ebb and flow in plaintive waves against Johnson’s undulating, electric-acoustic drone. In combining their forces so completely, they allow for unidentifiable moments of beauty and clarity, creating textures that are at once inviting and uncanny.
9) ULNA: “OEA” (Born Yesterday, 2021)
“OEA” stands for “Opposite to Emotion Action.” It’s a term used in DBT therapy, an exercise to readjust oneself in the world around them. In short, OEA is about not suppressing or ignoring your emotions, but taking stock of them, holding them, and letting them go. “OEA” by Adam Schubert is an album that exists in that headspace, a beautiful bedroom folk-rock record that ponders addiction, responsibility, and mortality in a way that is gentle and reflective. Acoustic and electric instruments blend together in soft, hushed songs that unfold slowly and with considerable emotional weight. Bookended by two impossibly heavy songs, "OEA" is as uplifting as it is heartrending. The arc of the record mirrors the path of recovery; beauty and pain intertwine and separate. With less flowery language, this album is fucking great.
10) Bnny: “Everything” (Fire Talk, 2021)
The best debut records are, each in their own way, about one singular idea. Chasing that idea to its furthest reaches, examining its parts and distilling them with that artist’s singular voice. Jessica Viscius’ first album as Bnny is just that: focused and immediate, emotional and reflective. “Everything” is an album about grief, but more importantly, the calm that follows after. Written over the grieving process of her boyfriend’s sudden passing, the songs, more often than not, betray their subject matter with lightness and delicacy. Gentle guitars are strummed lightly, listening along to Viscius and pondering their subject matter as she sings hauntingly in a beautiful, detached voice. The past two years have produced some truly great bedroom pop, faded missives from lo-fi realities, and “Everything” is among the best. Her five-piece band backs her up beautifully, adding musical details to her deceptively simple lyrics, bringing songs like “Time Walk” and “Ambulance” to stunning peaks. While darkness lies on its surface, this album rewards further listens, exploring with tenderness what happens after grief. Debut albums are a great indication of where an artist is going: “Everything” promises a blossoming future for Bnny. Sit in the sun and watch the garden grow.
11) Vukari: “Omnes Nihil” (Self-Released, 2021)
Metal has, to put it lightly, a bad rep. Its biggest names are scumbags or sellouts. Controversies court its artists and fans. Genres stagnate and deflate as quickly as they erupt in popularity. But, more importantly, your grandma doesn’t like it; it’s not music. Sure, maybe. Simply, here is my argument: that each genre of metal is unique, and meant to provoke a specific negative emotional response in its listener: as in, thrash metal invokes anger, grindcore summons nihilism, and black metal brings sadness, yadda yadda yadda. As in: similar, yet different. Music is supposed to make us feel something, and metal will always get you--might not always like it, but it keeps some of us alive. I’ve always held this to be gospel, and black metal in 2021 has certainly been proving me right. Sadness is suffocating metal’s notoriously emotional youngest subgenre, elevating once-stale tremolo riffing and blast-beats into something heartbreaking and sincere. This is where Vukari, Chicago’s best back metal band, really embraces their genre: through emotional honesty, overwhelming production, and savage performances. This is black metal with a purpose. Vukari has always thrived in atmosphere: intimidating, overwhelming walls of sound, waves of fear and sadness. They exist on the opposite side of Annihilus’ noisy coin, but are more focused on speed and throttling intensity, playing at blisteringly fast tempos and topping it off with throat-shredding howls. Their latest EP, self-released during this Hell Year, is the band at their most immediate and direct. They largely strip away the heavy atmospherics, leaving just pounding, lighting-harsh black metal. Opener “Despondent” is like an ice bath; the four-piece has never sounded better, practically unhinged. They keep the intensity high all the way through the massive “Saturn in the Eighth House,” which is a sky-splitting finale that takes its time to boil over before it fades out into eternity. Vukari has put out a despondent, threatening EP that distills down what I love about metal to just four tracks, highlighting its drama, daring writing, and transportive emotion. If it clicks with you, you'll know what I mean. Metal has a way of doing that.
12) Fire-Toolz: “Eternal Home” (Self-Released, 2021)
“Eternal Home” unfolds itself spectacularly: spend a minute in its neon glow and you won’t forget the high--or, perhaps, the horror. Expanding hyperpop past its mapped boundaries, Angel Marcloid’s latest project is the massive, shining monolith from “2001:” unknowable, yet magnetic. It is the sound of shooting down the endless underwater hallways of server wires at unbelievable speed, then crashing slow-mo into a concrete wall. Fire-Toolz is the long-running project of multi-instrumentalist and home recording magician Marcloid, whose terminally-online emo-violence has attracted just as many listeners as it has sent reeling. Wretched black-metal vocals meet vaporwave trails, violent digital glitches, breakbeats, smooth sax solos, Slowdive guitars, found audio, bells, Autotune crooning, nightmarish twisted samples, rattling sub-bass, dreamy 90s alt-pop, musique concrete, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Imagine those first cavemen logging onto AOL: that overwhelming, digital Everything, all at once. However, this is not throwing Bandcamp at a wall and seeing what sticks--it’s more physical and immersive than that, it’s throwing yourself into your computer and seeing if you can find a way out. If you don’t agree that sometimes, music should hurt you, then this may not be the record for you. "Challenging” albums are just that: opportunities to reorient yourself in its world and get totally lost in its ideas. “Eternal Home” is Fire-Toolz's best album yet, a sprawling expanse at once frightening and addictive as processed sugar.
13) Macie Stewart: “Mouth Full of Glass” (Orindal, 2021)
Chicago is full of secrets. The city, past its odd bureaucracy and organization, is all nooks and crannies, forever expanding and revealing lasting gifts. This is the sound of Macie Stewart’s music: a nesting doll of sound of emotion that rewards its listeners with an altogether singular experience. Perhaps best known as one half of OHMME but highly regarded for her work with the now-defunct Kids These Days, Stewart is a fixture in Chicago’s experimental indie scene. This, her first proper solo record, is the culmination of all of her skills as a songwriter and world-builder. From its opening seconds, the album takes familiar patterns and skewers them with glee. Folk songs melt into ambient experiments, synths waver and fail, violins slide around like they’re five beers deep. The album is as challenging as it is inviting, a perfect blending of Stewart’s avant-garde work with her traditional songwriting. “Mouth Full of Glass” gets under your skin; “Golden (For Mark)” is all studio wizardry, swooning synthesizer, and droning vocals, while “Garter Snake” echoes Karen Dalton in its unnerving simplicity. Its gorgeous dissolution, unraveling its songs to their barest pieces, is entrancing. Stewart’s full-fledged debut feels massive, the result of honing her skills across years of varied and wide-spreading releases. “Mouth Full of Glass” is full of secrets; it's up to us to figure it out.