The year in indies

EntertainmentDanceEducationMarc BolanSteve EarleTom WaitsRobert Altman

Each year this column enumerates 10 reasons why Chicago's independent music scene is second to none. Several of the following artists will be playing in the next few weeks, further showcasing the talents found on the best local indie releases of 2004:

1. Califone, "Heron King Blues" (Thrill Jockey): Tim Rutili, percussionist Ben Massarella, multi-instrumentalist Jim Becker and drummer Joe Adamik have quietly evolved into one of indie-rock's finest bands, and their knack for creating spooky interior universes peaks on the title song. It's nothing less than a 15-minute tour of American music, a rickety blues that touches on jazz improvisation and the sinister soundscapes of electronic music.

2. Capital D, "Insomnia" (All Natural): This self-produced effort from All Natural's Capital D (a.k.a. David Kelly) transforms dense commentary into remarkably nimble verse that should give everyone from Steve Earle to Chuck D pause. Kelly keeps the sonic backdrops stark, which puts the focus squarely on his agile wordplay and authoritative delivery. Even as the MC is discoursing on foreign policy, he's also obviously delighting in the clever allegorical twists and turns of "Miss America," with its echoes of Common's indie-rap classic "I Used to Love H.E.R."

3. Thaoine Davis, "Situation Renaissance" (Birthwrite Records): Davis rages at the new shackles that oppress his community and culture but does it seductively, in earthy, speak-easy settings informed by kicked-back trip-hop, Native Tongues-era hip-hop and the ruminating jazz-tinged arrangements of Gil-Scott Heron. Dec. 18 at Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Ave., $8; 773-252-6179.

4. Mavis Staples, "Have a Little Faith" (Alligator): In this rare solo release, the soul matriarch picks up where her family, the Staple Singers, left off. Staples turns pop-blues songs into hymns of perseverance, without resorting to histrionics. Her vocal moxie has never been questioned, but now she's evolved into a more nuanced singer, as formidable on world-weary ballads as she is on roof-raising gospel shouters. Jan. 15 at Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. King Drive, $15; 773-373-1900.

5. Frankie Knuckles, "A New Reality" (Definity): Though it echoes Knuckles' house glory days in a long-overdue reunion with the brilliant vocalist Jamie Principle, this album pushes Chicago's club sound forward with its jazzy solos and adventurous arrangements. When was the last time anyone heard a harmonica on a house track, especially one as addictive as "The Bumpkin Song (Gimme Gimme)"?

6. Caviar, "The Thin Mercury Sound" (Aezra): Humor, hooks and genre-leaping audacity light up this imaginary soundtrack for a John Hughes' coming-of-age movie. This is retro done right, with blithe disregard for the artificial boundaries that have been erected between dance music, synth-pop and rock. Blake Smith and his savvy gang of alchemists juxtapose a chilled-out trip-hop dance track ("10% November") with an arena-rock anthem ("Light Up the Sky").

7. "Trax Records: The Next Generation," mixed by Maurice Joshua (Trax): Though the excellent "20th Anniversary Collection" contains many of the classic Chicago house singles (Marshall Jefferson's "Move Your Body," Phuture's "Acid Tracks") that fomented a worldwide dance revolution in the '80s, this overview of Trax's current roster suggests all the label's triumphs aren't in the past. Randy novelties (the Platinum Orchestra's "Fix My Sink") collide with darker, more abstract excursions (Black Mamba's "Life in the Jungle").

8. The M's, "The M's" (Brilliante): The M's capture that glorious moment when the British Invasion bands of the '60s were still grappling with their love of R&B while flirting with the more sophisticated harmonies and hooks of classic pop songwriting. Melodies unfold with craftsmanlike attention to arrangement and harmonic development, but never at the expense of swagger. Sex lurks behind every androgynous turn, from falsetto harmonies that evoke T Rex's Marc Bolan in his glam glory to rhythms that shamble like back-alley lovers loaded on cheap wine. Jan. 29 at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., $8; 773-276-3600.

9. The Ike Reilly Assassination, "Sparkle in the Finish" (Sixthman): Reilly's as breathlessly drunk on wordplay as the Dylan of "Subterranean Homesick Blues," but his inflections and cadences also betray plenty of time spent listening to old-school rap records. Reilly loves creating the type of strong, memorable characters that belong in Robert Altman movies or Tom Waits songs, but he never lets his literary aspirations get in the way of music that merges off-handed inspiration with carefully plotted drama.

10. Kevin Tihista's Red Terror, "Wake Up Captain" (Parasol): The socially inept outsider adrift--it's a stereotypical wimp-rock persona that Tihista manages to turn into something strange and beautiful, with the help of orchestral flourishes and his conversational ease with melody.

Greg Kot is the Chicago Tribune rock critic.Originally published Dec. 23, 2004.

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