Barack Obama was, among other firsts, the first POTUS who shared his listening habits with the public through Spotify playlists. And though he hasn’t personally curated any music selections since leaving the White House, his Chicago-based non-profit recently debuted the first iteration of Hometown, a collection of tracks handpicked by Chicagoans that remind them of home. Comedian Cameron Esposito opens the playlist with one Chicago band covering another, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound putting an unlikely retro soul spin on Wilco’s fragile epic “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” But while songs from and/or about Chi-town dominate, not everyone is so literal with the theme; actor Nick Offerman picks two Tom Waits songs that remind him of his theater days in Chicago (neither of which is Waits’s 2011 track “Chicago”). Kanye West looms large over the playlist, with three curators picking his tracks. One is West’s young protege Chance The Rapper, who singles out the sweetly nostalgic “Family Business.” A few tracks later, President Obama’s former Deputy Press Secretary, Bill Burton, picks Chance’s own “Blessings,” with a tip of the hat to Chance’s father’s work on Obama’s first campaign. But despite some recurring threads, Hometown offers a pluralistic view of Chicago music, with equal room for Liz Phair and The Staple Singers.
Chance the Rapper owned hip-hop in 2016. He provided the musical backbone of Kanye’s Life of Pablo, partied with Beyonce at the VMAs, hung out with Obama at the White House, headlined his own festival, and released the groundbreaking mixtape/album Coloring Book. In terms of larger cultural impact, there’s very few rappers this decade who’ve matched Chance’s 2016 run. To an extent, it seems destined that Chance the Rapper would reach this stature -- he’s been buzzed about in underground circles since his 2012 mixtape 10 Day, and he comes from the upper echelons of Chicago’s political elites: his father is currently serving as the chief of staff for Mayor Rahm Emanuel -- but his moment in the limelight is a weird by-product of a dark political and cultural moment. The joy and euphoria of his rhymes, and the mindfulness and positivity of his persona, provide an anecdote to 2016’s riots, terrorism, police shootings, and political demagogues. He embodies the way we want to see ourselves, our future and our culture. For hip-hop fans, particularly those who fashion ourselves purists of a certain variety, he also reflects how we’d like to think of the genre. And part of the joy of listening to Coloring Book is picking apart his influences and how he reflects hip-hop. The smartly euphoric uplift of “No Problems” recalls Kanye during his pop maximalism peak, while the “Blessings” channels the strands of gospel that pops up in everyone from Tupac to Anderson.Paak. Though he reps his hometown of Chicago -- and his music contains echoes of everyone from Juke legend DJ Rhashad to classic boom bap icon Common -- he’s also has omnivorous tastes, channeling LA underground absurdists Freestyle Fellowship and the sludgy H-Town hip-hop of Mike Jones. For this playlist, we trace some of those influences and try to unpack Chance’s deceptively dense masterpiece, Coloring Book. You can subscribe to the playlist here. We’ve also curated a playlist of some of our favorite interviews of the rapper. Check it out below. -- Sam Chennault
Click here to add to Spotify playlist!Chicago’s underground has been on fire the past few years. Every other week seems to deliver a new batch of releases from the Hausu Mountain label, purveyors of madcap electronics and cyborg-bopping eccentricity. The shadowy Beau Wanzer, whose icy and forlorn productions disintegrate the divide between post-punk and techno, is nearly as prolific—and that’s just one dude. And then there’s Jaime Fennelly’s always progressing Mind Over Mirrors project: his latest album, the critically lauded Undying Color, wanders dense, rippling expanses of pastoral art folk and baroque électronique.Of course, “underground” means a lot of different things to a lot of different heads. For denizens of the city’s thriving avant-garde jazz and hardcore punk scenes, it conjures up a significantly different cluster of artists. So for this playlist, we focus primarily on musicians, bands, and oddball geniuses who stalk the back alleys, linking DIY electronics, industrial, droning experimentation, and mutant dance music. At first blush they may seem too far apart to link, but in Chicago, where musicians from different disciplines have always mingled freely, the overlap between them is substantial.This idea is reflected in the growing catalog of Midwich Productions, a label specializing in “electronic music from the urban wilderness of the Midwest.” Founded by longtime resident and musician Jim Magas, it’s home to both HIDE (pictured at top), who unleash mechanized nightmares that carry forward the city’s electro-industrial tradition, and Alex Barnett, a composer whose quirky, bubbling pieces ooze a cozy sense of nostalgia for ’70s synthesizer music.As you can probably guess, a lot of this music gets awfully weird—Fire-Toolz’s collision of boom-box EDM and grindcore rasp makes zero sense. Yet a good deal of it is deeply beautiful: Quicksails, an alias for multi-instrumentalist Ben Billington, crafts flickering avant-pop that bridges DIY electronics with the city’s deep reverence for jazz and free improv. It’s music that could only come from Chicago.
You could pretty easily make the case that Chicago is the musical center of the United States. Blues, juke and house all originated (at least in part) from the city. Two-Step (or just Steppin) never achieved the national name recognition as house music, but it was a pretty potent strain of R&B that peaked in the middle half of the last decade. Like a lot of music to emerge in the past thirty years, it was a dance first. The music was bright, romantic and highly syncopated. Its great, summery R&B music. It was popularized nationally by R. Kelly in his "Step in the Name of Love" single, but that was really just the tip of the iceberg, as this excellent playlist demonstrates. Rizoh over at Beats did a great job capturing some of the highlights from the scene. Listening now, it definitely feels of a certain time and place, and it seems very out-of-step with the more dour and minimal sounds the genre would adopt in subsequent years, which makes two step even more powerful.
It’s in the selecting of a music festival’s middle- to lower-tier acts that curators get to flex their adventurousness. This certainly is the case with Lollapalooza 2016. Even a cursory glance at the sprawling lineup churns up all manner of exotic treasures and cutting-edge hybrids. There’s gospel-fueled R&B (Sir the Baptist), cyborg folk-pop (Lewis Del Mar), darkwave-smeared post-hardcore (PVRIS), and brainy weirdo avant-rock (Autolux). Now, having said all that, this year’s installment still isn’t diverse enough. The last few years have been truly fertile ones for underground hip-hop and bedroom R&B, yet neither is sufficiently represented. Ditto for hard techno, which is thriving in adventurous clubs like New York’s The Bunker and Berlin’s Berghain. Clearly, crushing industrial beats don’t sell tickets quite like party-time EDM.
There’s a pungent whiff of familiarity to the 20 or so headliners anchoring Lollapalooza’s four-day roster. No less than 10 also played Coachella or Bonnaroo, while at least six are scheduled to appear at San Francisco’s Outside Lands as well. Then there’s LCD Soundsystem: They’re hitting up all four. Two notable exceptions are alt-rock veterans Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, though neither is a stranger to the Lollapalooza experience. If you attend America’s top branded festivals to catch hot-selling acts in indie, electronic music, and hip-hop, then all this curatorial regurgitation is good news. If, however, you attend them to explore unique, under-the-radar talent, then you’re best focusing on the names that appear in fine print, at the bottom of the concert poster.
The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.
It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.
Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.