For most of 2020, the Chicago and suburban musical landscape was obscured by the haze of the global pandemic. But instead of another recap of venue shutdowns, let’s look at some of the acts that cut through that fog, whether through shows early in the year or by putting their best new music and videos out for us all to enjoy. Some are known entities we haven’t had a chance to explore until recently. Some are new talents. But all are worth keeping an eye on.
Sure, 2020 took a weird turn, but at least it started off with a bang. An early January House of Blues show introduced me to an exciting new discovery — Space Mafia. The mostly Chicago-based foursome took to the legendary venue with an energy that was captivating. Frontman Caleb Butcher bounded across the stage while Lane Hume (drums), Kent Lanier (bass) and Charlie Nesler (guitar and vocals) unleashed an intriguing brand of alternative rock. A post-concert dive into the band’s catalog showcased musicians who know how garage rock should feel while gleefully snapping those rules into pieces, folding grungy psych-rock and sometimes a whisper of camp into the mix. Last Halloween-season’s release of “Horror Movie” and 2019’s “Black Cat Cometh” solidify that fun vibe: The former’s boppy take on horror movie tropes and the creepy-crawly rhythms and Tim Burton-esque backing vocals of “Black Cat” ping around the darker recesses of your brain. It’s not exactly feel-good music, but it knows how to make you feel good. Add in the band’s ongoing efforts this year to raise money for NIVA’s #SaveOurStages fund, and you’ve got a solid addition to Chicago’s music scene.
Having Nick Jonas’ number in his phone doesn’t seem like it’s changed Northwest suburban musician Kevin Farris all that much. The Mount Prospect singer-songwriter, formerly of Arlington Heights, emerged from his appearances on 2020’s season of “The Voice” (Team Nick!) with a better understanding of how Hollywood works, but he’s still the charming, affable, down-to-earth musician he was before — only with a few more social media followers. His earnest approachability and musical vulnerability keep fans coming around — both pre-COVID, when he played regular sets around Chicago and suburbs, and during lockdowns, when he had the chance to play a few private backyard sets. Until shows return, Farris keeps his life permeated by music, whether he’s working on his new songs or teaching suburban youngsters music appreciation through clever and active games. Farris became a regular with us after our Sound Check livestream interview/concert last spring, even drawing views from longtime musical fans (Raise your hand if you remember Coventry!), and we’ll certainly be keeping an eye on his future wins.
The Mild West
The Mild West moseyed onto the Chicago scene two years ago with a pair of singles that, while catchy, have proved to be merely a spark lighting the fuse of this powerful young band. Tweaking a modern pop sound with hints of ’90s alternative and ’80s adornments, the five band members have managed to build a strong, engaged and enthusiastic fan base in a relatively short period of time. Their energy on stage, which is considerable based on hearsay and video evidence, clearly helps. But the band’s strongest suit is its overall vibe: The Mild West simply excels at painting pictures through their songs. With Kylie Bruetman at the mic, the band — Aaron Gordon, Dan Overstreet, Tyler Vandenberg and Zack Wheeler — conjures up an escape you can practically feel in the breezy, warm debut, “Orange Grove”; the palpable inner chaos of growing into adulthood with 2020’s summer jam “Glow”; and the giddy highs and stomach-churning dips of relationships in December’s EP, “It’s Been A Good Run.” I didn’t catch on to The Mild West until February 2020, and while the debut singles piqued my interest, the band’s growth into its own solid sound over this past year has them locked in my sights for the future.
Admittedly, Sammy Cannillo isn’t truly new to us; the New York transplant has settled into the Chicago scene over the last few years. But her spring release of “Sleep On It” should be what pushes her into the spotlight. In the single, the dream-pop artist muses on the void left by someone who was a significant presence in her life. “The absence of someone else’s sound just felt like the loudest thing I had ever heard,” Cannillo said. Her ability to confess to that maelstrom of emotions — y’know, the sleepless nights and mental wandering when you wonder if this is the end but you don’t know even though you think you already know — through a beautiful, tiptoeing melody and evocative lyrics is like her heart laid bare, all vulnerability and catharsis.
The Early Sixes
While the pandemic had some of us feeling trapped and stagnant, The Early Sixes — Matt Charoenrath, Dan Zuba, Sam Zuba and Nate Meyer — found ways to soar. With this year’s release of the full-length album, “Navigate,” the Chicago-bred alternative rock foursome showed us paths to self-discovery and a freedom of sorts. (If you need a driving pick-me-up to get you moving, hit play on the sparkly, upbeat-but-still-grounded “If We Can.”) While the solid alternative rock tracks explored both the highs and lows of life, it offered a much-needed escape for an audience confined and a dash of hope that we can weather the struggles we all were facing. Some of the band members have moved from Chicago, but they found ways to connect and to make music; if they can feel anchored to one another while being isolated, why can’t we?
With a debut single and video “Throw Away Tonight” evoking that moment when something special slips into place, RubyGld Smoke hit the second half of 2020 with a scintillating blend of retro pop, funk and hip-hop that provided a momentary escape from the challenges of the year. It was at once romantic and fiery, passionate but tender. The South suburban Richton Park husband-and-wife duo followed it up with “Falling” in October and the earnest and beautiful “Highway of Love” in December, leading right into the new album, “Revolutionary Love.” With 16 soulful pop songs to explore on the release, RubyGld Smoke has set the stage for a satisfying career that should make the Chicago music scene proud.
Sean McCole lives for grungy rock. He harnesses that sensibility as he balances time behind the drum kit in both hard-rock band Dead Original and the Chicago-based tribute act Smells Like Nirvana. So it makes sense that when he started dabbling in solo work, it would also drip with grunge influences. The Highland Park musician used his training on drums, guitar, bass and keys to start dropping a string of singles (followed up later by a couple of videos) in 2019, truly locking in his sound for 2020’s collection, “The Color, Envy.” His entire catalog enjoys a well-polished sheen, but underneath the rhythms are hard, the guitars are heavy and the hooks build a comfy home in your brain. Try listening to “Psycho” and tell me you don’t still have it running through your head a day later.
At one time, Kat and Tony Baker were in trouble; when asked, the husband and wife duo are quite frank about their past and issues with homelessness, mental illness, addiction and the law. But in each other and music, they managed to build a release from life’s struggles. Currently based in Wood Dale, the pair — along with bass and keys from Lonnie Phillips — now channel their rough and real sincerity into Broken Robots, a pop-rock band with bass-heavy grooves, hip-hop hooks and Kat’s soulful vocals. This year, Broken Robots took to the internet to keep the band’s story moving along despite the pandemic, livestreaming performances, and even putting together a Halloween and a holiday special. But their release of “Mockingbird” and its video — an indictment of a digital society drowning in misinformation and complacency — is what should propel this band into the spotlight and keep them there.