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Kaina
Photograph: DDesigns

The best Chicago albums of 2019

Take a listen to some of the best rock, jazz and hip-hop made by Chicago artists in 2019.

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Written by
Zach Long
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The past year gave us records from the likes of Lana Del Rey, Kanye West, Taylor Swift and FKA Twigs, but it also yielded some amazing music made by Chicago artists. If you spent any time in Chicago music venues in 2019, you might have seen Kaina debuting heartfelt R&B ballads or watched Angel Bat Dawid improvising with local jazz players. These two acts (and many more) also released amazing albums during the past year, continuing Chicago's legacy as a place where vital music is being made and shared. We sifted through the past year of local releases and picked some of our favorite records created by Chicago artists. And if you hear something you like, you can probably find a physical copy at one of Chicago's best record stores

Best Chicago albums of 2019

Resavoir, ‘Resavoir’

Resavoir, ‘Resavoir’

Led by trumpeter Will Miller (best known for his work with local rock outfit Whitney), Resavoir brings together a collective of local musicians and unleashes their talents across a collection of tracks that blend elements of jazz, pop and electronica. Built upon home recordings that were fleshed out by folks like Ohmme’s Macie Stewart and saxophonist/vocalist Sen Morimoto, the group’s debut settles into an ethereal groove populated with taut horn melodies and atmospheric synths. It’s more than just another exploration of jazz’s possibilities—it’s the sound of a musical community pooling its strengths and bringing something special to life.

Kaina, ‘Next to the Sun’

Kaina, ‘Next to the Sun’

Singer-songwriter Kaina demonstrated her vocal talents on tracks by the likes of Saba and the O’Mys, but her first solo album is a showcase of her skills as a lyricist. Her mellow brand of R&B is dappled with lovely harmonies, but Kaina’s vulnerability is what makes it sing, whether she’s confronting the current political climate from her perspective as a first-generation American or unpacking her day-to-day anxieties. “Wanna feel it all, the burn and the lesson, the fall,” she intones on the record’s title track, embracing struggle and failure as necessary parts of personal growth—a sentiment that’s rarely imparted via a slow-burning ballad.

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Jamila Woods, ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

Jamila Woods, ‘Legacy! Legacy!’

Not many records come with a bibliography, but Woods carefully cited her sources (and included them in the liner notes) as she researched the 12 pivotal figures of color that she pays tribute to on her sophomore release. Far more than mere hero worship, Legacy! Legacy! finds Woods sympathizing with funk singer Betty Davis’ struggle to subvert gender politics and identifying with the justifiable anger that simmered beneath artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. Wrapped up in jazz-inflected R&B production, Woods’s biographical anthems dig into the lessons of the past in order to make sense of our present.

Woongi, ‘Rip’s Cuts’

Woongi, ‘Rip’s Cuts’

Populated with retro synthesizer melodies that evoke the offbeat pop sensibilities of new wave and the shifting structures of prog-rock, Woongi's sophomore release playfully and earnestly embraces the bizarre. You'd expect nothing less from a suite of songs that just happens to sync up (Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz-style) to the so-bad-it's-good ‘90s flick The Skateboard Kid, which follows the adventures of a young boy and his sentient skateboard. Don't worry if you're not familiar with the album's cinematic accompaniment—Rip's Cut is just as radical when experienced on its own.

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Pivot Gang, ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’

Pivot Gang, ‘You Can’t Sit With Us’

Trading verses with Chance the Rapper and writing about his mental health struggle on Care for Me made Saba a local hip-hop star, but the West Side emcee honed his talents as a part of Pivot Gang. The rap crew's debut album gives every member (Saba, Joseph Chilliams, MfnMelo, Frsh Waters) an opportunity to shine atop confident beats from producers squeakPivot and DaeDae. Even the late John Walt—whose tragic death is reckoned with in some of the project's most heartfelt moments—is present via an archival recording. Filled with comraderie, shared experiences and inside jokes, You Can't Sit With Us is fueled by the infectious energy of steadfast friendship.

Angel Bat Dawid, ‘The Oracle’

Angel Bat Dawid, ‘The Oracle’

It's never too late to persue something you love, and Angel Bat Dawid's entrancing debut record is proof. Dawid quit a 9-to-5 job and cashed in her 401k to hone her skills as a clarinetist keyboardist while immersing herself in Chicago's free jazz scene. Formed from a collection of smartphone recordings, The Oracle doesn't require a fancy studio or producer to take listeners on a freewheeling, spiritual journey inspired by avant-garde legends like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. Capturing the raw and unfiltered spirit of experimentation, this collection of spiraling solos make it clear that Dawid has found her calling.

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Wilco, ‘Ode To Joy’

Wilco, ‘Ode To Joy’

Swimming with muted textures and tones, the sparse arrangements of Ode to Joy evokes the stripped-down, direct songcraft of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s recent solo albums (Warm and Warmer) on a slightly larger scale. Drummer Glenn Kotche’s simple, thudding rhythms provide the backbone for Tweedy meditations on yearning for change and coming to terms with a stranger’s death, fleshed out with subtle contributions from the rest of the group. Dealing with weighty themes and rarely exceeding a dull roar, Wilco’s latest LP earnestly commits to a new direction, resulting in one of the most interesting entries in the band’s catalog over the past decade.

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