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Sen Morimoto
Photograph: Dennis Elliott

The 13 best Chicago albums of 2020

During a year like no other, Chicago musicians provided a varied soundtrack.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
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The past year was nearly devoid of concerts, festivals or any sort of gathering that prominently featured live music, but that didn't stop Chicago artists from sharing their latest work. Filled with long-awaited follow-ups and anticipated debuts, 2020 yielded an especially great lineup of new records from local musicians, ranging from a sprawling jazz opus to a short-but-sweet first project from a rising hip-hop emcee.

As you read about our favorite Chicago albums of 2020, keep in mind that Chicago music venues remain closed to the public, without any realistic hope of reopening anytime soon. Without stages to perform on, it's more difficult than ever for artists to make a living through their music—even with the launch of grant programs and an emergency relief fund for music industry workers.

If you like what you hear, consider purchasing a physical album, a digital download or a piece of merchandise (we've linked each album title to the respective artist's online store). Supporting an artist today helps them keep creating, ensuring that there'll be new music to enjoy when we can once again gather in front of a stage.

Best Chicago albums of 2020

Using an old taped-up keyboard, an MPC, a saxophone and layers upon layers of vocals, Sen Morimoto is a musician that’s accustomed to working within constraints without allowing them to limit the scope of his work. Much of his self-titled album is a continuation of the jazz-meets-hip-hop sound he’s long pursued, but a long list of collaborators helps him take his music in new directions. Japanese musician AAAMYYY adds ethereal shades to the funky electro-pop ballad “Deep Down,” while Chicagoans Lala Lala, Kara Jackson and Qari form a choir of voices for melodies to build around on the slow-burning “Taste Like It Smells.” Rest assured, Morimoto’s creativity is on display even when he’s left to his own devices, packing this latest effort with deftly layered musical moments that reward repeated listening.

I’m not exactly sure what makes a record sound cozy, but much of Vivian McConnell’s sophomore release under her V.V. Lightbody moniker evokes the same feelings as a warm blanket or your favorite spot on the couch. Perhaps it’s the gentle layers of flutes, synths and acoustic guitar that underpin many of the arrangements or the way that McConnell matches poignant turns of phrase to memorable melodies that gives the album its glow. Or maybe it’s the way in which the folk- and Bossa Nova-tinged tracks on Make a Shrine of Burn It favor a gentle approach to dealing with a break up or splitting the rent with a partner, imparting good advice through great songs.

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Working in solitude on the followup to his breakout 2017 release DROOL, multi-instrumentalist NNAMDÏ began to feel like making music was a selfish endeavour. Thankfully, he forged ahead and confronted his emotions on BRAT, another adventurous collection of songs that somehow bridges the gap between R&B and math rock. It’s all strung together by NNAMDÏ’s auto-tuned lyrics, which confront depression, aging and hypothetical career changes with the kind of candor that’s usually reserved for close friends. BRAT proved to be the opening salvo in a string of 2020 releases for NNAMDÏ—he also condemned police killings on his Black Plight EP and penned the Looney Tunes-inspired KRAZY KARL LP—but it’s one that we’re still carefully unpacking months later.

A key player in Chicago’s close-knit jazz scene, drummer Quin Kirchner brings together some of the city’s best musicians on a sprawling double LP that shows off his abilities as well as his community. From the batá drum rhythms Kirchner learned while studying in Cuba to his renditions of tunes by Su Ra and Phil Cohran, The Shadows and the Light unfurls like a lengthy musical travelogue, brought to life with the help of local players like saxophonist Nick Mazzarella and bassist Matt Ulrey. It’s an album that is as much for jazz aficionados as it is the jazz-curious—these grooves are as accessible as they are collaborative.

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Trading in much of the alt-country twang of their previous records for thick, distorted alt-rock chords, Ratboys’ latest album, Printer’s Devil, bristles with the high-volume energy of a live show—remember those? Guitarist and vocalist Julia Steiner’s anthems match the expanded scope of her band’s sound to complex emotions, grappling with the pangs of nostalgia that come with age and the importance of allowing yourself to grow. Written in Steiner’s soon-to-be-sold childhood home, Printer’s Devil faces loss head-on, coming to terms with change one raucous chorus at a time.

A librarian by day, it’s no surprise that rapper Roy Kinsey brings the skills of a masterful storyteller to the music of Kinsey: A Memoir. True to its name, it’s a record filled with extremely personal narratives, frankly addressing how he often feels fetishized as a Black, queer man and acknowledging the spaces in which he feels free to express his true self. Few artists are able to open up as completely as Kinsey does, and even fewer are able to write stories packed with vulnerable asides and clever quips that make for such compelling hip-hop.

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Though she might be best known for the thoughtful and pointed freestyle videos that she occasionally posts on Twitter (a recent one earned a retweet from Missy Elliot), Brittney Carter’s debut full-length project proves that she’s even more formidable when she’s not creating on the fly. As I Am packs a lot into its relatively modest 21-minute runtime, propelled forward by Carter’s precise flow and each track’s taut, unobtrusive production. It’s a record about celebrating yourself and persevering in the face of adversity, which are sentiments that are especially appropriate during an incredibly tough year.

There’s a certain amount of mind-melding that takes place anytime a group of people play music together, but there are moments on Ohmme’s latest album that sound as if bandmates Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart have fused into a single entity. This bond is most pronounced on the first half of Fantasize Your Ghost, where the pair combine their voices in harmony and synchronize riffs throughout a series of propulsive pop songs. The remainder of the album finds Cunningham and Stewart embracing more subtle interplay, demonstrating how the quieter side of experimental rock can be just as exhilarating as the high-volume noisemaking.

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Even if you’ve never heard of Anthony Khan (a.k.a. The Twilite Tone), you’ve likely experienced his work as a producer via Kanye West’s Cruel Summer mixtape and the house music-inspired Gorillaz record Humanz. As a dance music DJ who found his way into hip-hop production, you can hear the layers of influence on Twilite Tone’s debut album, which blends chopped-up samples with an arsenal of MPC rhythms and synthesizer melodies that evoke everything from early house beats to ’90s R&B. While The Clearing is an almost purely instrumental work, its tracks are in conversation with one another, sequenced with the attention to detail you’d expect from a DJ who knows how to keep the playlist lively.

The demise of DIY rockers NE-HI in 2019 felt like a premature end to a group that was hitting its stride, but Spun Out afinds three-quarters of NE-HI’s members continuing their journey together. On their debut album, Mikey Wells, James Weir and Alex Otake take the scrappy guitar riffs and anthemic energy of their former project and use it as a jumping off point, expanding their palette with a long list of guest musicians. Riddled with synth melodies, growling organs and psychedelic production flourishes, Touch the Sound embraces its wall-of-sound tendencies with panache and puts the palpable enthusiasm of a fresh start to good use.

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When the year began, rapper Rich Jones had plans to release a new album and tour behind it. How do you sleep at night? is not that album — it’s a collection of soul-searching hip-hop tracks born out of necessity and an abundance of time stuck at home, fueled by crackling sampled beats created by Jones’ childhood friend Montana Macks. Addressing the protests that broke out in Chicago over the summer and the omnipresent paranoia of life during a pandemic, How do you sleep at night? carefully documents a very specific time in the city, acknowledging the hardships and taking some solace in the fleeting moments of joy.

Forging a connection between two seemingly conflicting extremes is a specialty of experimental artist Angel Marcloid (a.k.a. Fire-Toolz), who composes tracks that veer from tranquil New Age synths to pummeling metal riffs accompanied by screamed vocals. Written as a tribute to her departed cat Breakfast, Rainbow Bridge uses its varying tones to address the duality of grief; both the anger at your own helplessness and the calm acceptance of mortality. Using a musical language that incorporates rapid-fire programming drums alongside twinkling electronics that evoke ’80s instructional videos, the highly-technical sound of Fire-Toolz is truly a world unto itself.

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The warped drones and staccato of the latest FACS album might not seem like the optimal soundtrack for our already anxiety-inducing year, but listening to Void Moments became something of an escape for me in the months after its release. Former Disappears frontman Brian Case continues to mold guitar tones in ways that sound alien, coaxing ricocheting one-man symphonies out of his bank of effects pedals. If you need something noisey to tune out *everything else* for approximately half an hour, Void Moments is the cacophonous rock record you’ve been looking for.

Learn more about Chicago albums

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