Despite lots of show-hopping and online musician stalking, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not even close to having a grasp on all the up-and-coming bands blossoming on the local music scene. I still leave shows needing to know more about an act I just saw for the first time and love finding tracks that keep me hitting repeat.
Here are a few of the big surprises I ran across in 2018:
To those who say the pop-punk scene is dying, I say get your butt to a Parker show. When frontman Devin Parker randomly reached out back in June and sent me the band’s first single, “Never Growing Old,” I was on deadline and set it aside to listen to later. But curiosity got the better of me. After five playthroughs of the nostalgia-laced banger, I still wasn’t ready to stop listening. Parker released its EP in July, but the depth and spirited energy of the band really sank in at the band’s show at Royal Skate in August when, after a few months of interesting online conversations, I finally got to meet Devin and his brother Patrick. Devin looks the part of the tattooed, boisterous punk star, but his perpetual smirk during the set gives away the man’s boyish energy and big heart. He ripped off his sweat-heavy shirt and tore the place down on guitar and vocals. But 20 minutes later, he was crouching down for an acoustic singalong version of the band’s first single with his kids, nieces and nephews at the all-ages show. It’s a punk-rock life, but in a feel-good way.
The Weekend Run Club
Fans of Walk the Moon or Vinyl Theatre need to check out The Weekend Run Club from the West suburbs. The band’s first single, “Holliday,” is a danceable confection — light and airy, with a great beat. But listen closely and you’ll find the truth bombs buried in the lyrics. “I’m not special, I just like to get attention all the time.” There’s an underlying confusion, along with a feverish search for answers, to many of the pieces not immediately apparent to listeners skating along the indie-pop surface. I met Bridgit Stiebris and Mitchell Kinn of the band when we were guests of Elmhurst College’s “The Underbelly Hours” radio show, and they described their music as sad, but you want to dance to it. And it’s true. The songs on this summer’s EP “Okay for You,” co-written by Kinn and guitarist Christopher Bryant, have a fun vibe, but they carry an emotional authenticity drawn from Kinn’s personal writing that really resonates with fans of the young band. The Weekend Run Club recently hit only one year of playing together, but in that time the bandmates have gelled so well that the entire group is getting more involved in the songwriting process for some new releases for 2019. See The Weekend Run Club when they play Chop Shop Saturday, Feb. 2.
For anyone struggling with mental illness or the fallout that comes with caring for someone who is, City Mouth’s “Hollows” will touch raw nerves. Frontman Matt Pow writes with a clever honesty, eschewing what could have been maudlin or whiny in favor of high-energy snapshots of moments in time, dynamic harmonies and complex song structures that sometimes head in unexpected directions. (And that’s appropriate, considering the subject matter of a lot of the album.) Many of the band’s songs rub up against blink-182, but with a decidedly more poppy feel all their own. And the lyrics foster an intensely more personal connection than pop-punk usually does — for me and the rest of the crowd I saw them with at Evolution Music in July.
Observing With Annie
During a year when political discourse was savage and rage was lurking around every corner, it was sometimes easier just to turn down the feels and detach from the world. But then South suburban Observing With Annie dropped “Holiday” into my lap, an album so packed with heart I immediately canceled my other weekend show plans to catch the band’s set at (appropriately) Heartland Cafe this May. Songwriters Leah Lagestee and Josh Triezenberg know their way around the heartstrings lyrically — with stories of reunions (“Okinawa, 1944”), memories of love (including “True Treasure,” my personal favorite) and finding joy in the city all around you (“Sunshowers”) — while Jonny Van Til on drums keeps them sidestepping the sap and striking a balance between rock star bravado and emotional appeal. A swing through the band’s earlier EP (available on Bandcamp) shows you these young musicians can bring powerful rock just as well as they channel reserved passion. And as their recently dropped Christmas song shows, OWA is upping its production skills considerably, which bodes well for new releases in the coming year.
While Hidden Hospitals is probably the longest-running band on this list, I’m embarrassed to admit it took me nearly seven years to get the genius of this band in front of me. The electro-steeped rock songs on the band’s May release, “LIARS,” quickly became a favorite play on Sunday afternoon runs. And when it came time to whittle the new release down to include on a local music playlist, I had a hard time choosing just one. (“Razor Blades” won, for the record, but each track is a labyrinth of dizzying melodies and hidden earworms.) It’s intriguing music the trio traffics in, at times leaning more toward the electronic end of the spectrum, but always rooted in good Midwestern rock. And frontman Dave Raymond’s discussion of the new album on Nickolas Blazina’s (State and Madison) “Little Fires” podcast solidified Hidden Hospitals as a new favorite.
A curious lyric and a good voice to sing it can be all it takes to win a fan over. Fortunately dreamy soul-pop 5-piece Violet Crime has both. Jeff Mills of Geneva, lead vocalist for the band, first caught my ear earlier this year with his silky smooth work on Julianne Q & the Howl’s latest release. But when Violet Crimes swept in with its “Home Movies” EP, featuring the song “Patience,” Mills’ delivery haunted me, driving repeated listens of the entire three-song EP. It appears the band is poised to start work on an LP for 2019 delivery, and I’ll be waiting impatiently on that due date.
Girl Named Nino
When Nino Arobelidze dropped a holiday song (“Nothing Sweet About You”) for this year’s Christmas playlist, I knew it wasn’t going to be all candy-covered jingle bells and Santa fare. That’s not Nino’s style. A classically trained musician raised in the republic of Georgia before heading to Chicago by way of Lake County, she imbues her music on this year’s release “Moonlight Daughter” and her scoring on the Georgia wine documentary “Our Blood Is Wine” with a surreal vibe. The songs are less stories as much as they are frozen moments of feeling, evoking memories and emotions through elements of jazz, pop and electronica.
Judging the Homegrown Battle of the Bands this June exposed me to a number of talented suburban musicians. One such group was The Instinct from the Western suburbs, a band of young artists (I mean young, as in most are under the age of 18) who channel Chicago’s blues-rock legacy as well as many seasoned professionals I’ve seen on the scene. Plus the youthful energy of the musicians had the entire room up and dancing.
• Hear some of the bands that took us by surprise on the last Sound Check playlist of 2018. Check back later this month for some brand new music from the Chicago and suburban music scenes.