Live music started making a comeback this year, but it still wasn’t back to where it was pre-COVID, with health concerns and physical limitations still keeping some artists and fans away. For me, a lot of musical discovery has taken place worshiping before venues’ stages, and deprived of the visceral connection that comes from the energy and camaraderie at a live show, I had to find other ways to connect.
The flood of new releases this year gave Chicago and suburban artists a chance to really shine and win over new fans. None of the artists on this first list are new as of 2021, but they all showed sides that made them musical highlights of my year. You can hear them all here on our Discoveries of 2021 Spotify playlist.
10 years ago, Polarizer unveiled its musical talents at a private show thrown by Taylor Brennan, the band’s lead vocalist. In November, the progressive-laced alt-rock band marked that anniversary with the release of the full-length “Love from the Underground,” a powerful collection showing how far this fivesome has evolved in that decade. With admiration for musicians that have come before and a simmering rage in its pocket, “Love from the Underground” embraces affection for some while admonishing bad actors who are tearing society apart. Throughout the album, primary songwriter Brennan uses his background in broadcast journalism to paint compelling moments and build worlds through his storytelling, and his vocals soar over the towering musical landscapes provided by Ian Palmer on guitar, John Schiller on drums, Chris Shen on bass and Stan Tencza on keys. Dive into the spacey rock world of Polarizer at polarizer.bandcamp.com.
Nora Marks came highly recommended by friend and Aux Populi podcaster Andy King right on the cusp of 2021. But when the indie-punk foursome dropped “Epiphany I’ve Had Before” this summer, they marked themselves as a band to keep an eye on. A snapshot of the cyclical nature of inspiration, the song is a sobering look at lead vocalist and primary songwriter Michael Garrity’s attempts to forge his path creatively amid the turmoil of adult life. That single was just the first spark from the fire Garrity, his brother Matthew, Robbie Bersano and Matt Galante stoke on the October release “Opt Out,” an album that peppers the poignancy of growing up over the frenetic and raucous energy of a garage rock session. These four down-to-earth guys have been playing regularly around the scene since returning from the COVID lockdowns. They’ll be taking to DIY stages at Jefferson Park’s ArtHole on Saturday, Jan. 22, and Book Club on Friday, Feb. 4, followed by a show at Cobra Lounge on Saturday, Feb. 19. Visit noramarks.bandcamp.com for info and music.
Connections — strong, broken or somewhere in between — lie at the heart of Kali Masi’s March 2021 alt-punk release “[laughs],” an album that critically deconstructs relationships and urges listeners to rebuild them in service of their own grace. It’s brutally honest in its indictment of unhealthy and one-sided friendships. It’s cathartic in its dealing with the relatable frustration of loss, whether by choice or by circumstance. And it’s beautiful in the way it cherishes family and found brotherhood. (When lead vocalist Sam Porter shouts out the people who helped him become who he is in the LP opener “Still Life,” it’s one of the most tender moments I’ve ever heard in a punk song.) The Chicago alt-punk foursome — McHenry native Porter, Naperville’s John Garrison, Tim Roark and Anthony Elliott — recently returned from a tour around the U.S. and Europe, and they’ll be playing in Chicago again in the new year. Check them out at kalimasi.com.
When Elgin rapper Nehemiah Heckler dropped his single “Blessings” earlier in the year, it was a window into who he is, what he cares about and where he was heading with his “Wovember” EP release. The uplifting song exemplified his gratitude, positivity, encouragement and his faith. Getting his start writing raps at his lunch table at Wheaton North High School, Heckler said 10 years later he still holds on to what got him into music in the first place. “I wanted to inspire people to do whatever they set their mind to,” he said. “And I feel like through music and reaching my goals that I have with music, I can be a light and I can be an influence to not only other artists but people that are my age.” Nehemiah rounded out the year playing a series of back-to-school performances with an eye toward a full album release in 2022. Find out more at nehemiahheckler.com.
Downers Grove native Bridget Stiebris and Elk Grove Village’s Haley Blomquist have been on my year-end roundup before, but as drummer and bassist for the indie-pop band The Weekend Run Club. With OK Cool, a project they conjured up in their pandemic bubble last year, the duo demands a spotlight all their own. The lo-fi “Surrealist” EP, out earlier this year, showcases their skills in their new roles as songwriters; one minute they’re psychoanalyzing the balance between the relief of isolation and the yearning to connect — “I never thought I’d be so desperate for awkward human interaction,” one song goes — and the next they’re geeking out over the swordplay and fight scenes in “Kill Bill.” Stiebris and Blomquist have played in multiple bands together for roughly five years, but seeing them tackle what Blomquist described as “kind of scary and a little bit out of our wheelhouse” is refreshingly powerful and inspirational. Check out OK Cool when they play with Violet Crime and The Mild West Friday, Jan. 21, or at SNÜZFEST Saturday, Feb. 19, both at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen.
All it took was a TikTok clip for JORDY to make it big. Well, that and a few years of grinding away at his craft. But when an impromptu video of his song “Long Distance” hit social media earlier this year, it gained the Glenbrook North grad some well-earned national exposure. Now signed to the 300 Entertainment label, JORDY recently wrapped up a cross-country (plus Canada) tour promoting his debut full-length “Mind Games,” a heartfelt and exciting ride through fun dance-pop numbers and charmingly vulnerable explorations of the challenges of growing up. It’s hard not to be drawn to someone so frank about who he is, what he wants and what he’s most afraid of, especially when he’s so upbeat even in his most honest moments. Check him out at jordymusic.com.
If you’re from Chicago, you just gotta like Ike Reilly, the Libertyville folk-rocker with the punk-rock attitude who fought his way onto the national scene through hard work and a tough spirit. But if you’re not familiar with him, this year’s full-length release “Because the Angels” should cement his place among Chicago-area music legends. The gruff, take-no-garbage attitude in his engaging story-songs belies the kindest of hearts. He genuinely cares about what’s happening in the world, and he feels his calling as an artist is to draw attention to people’s darker natures and let a little light in. “I have a responsibility to myself and the people I care about,” Reilly said. “If you’re going to spend this much time writing, you better say something about the time you live in.” If you haven’t already, give it a listen and find the hope in humanity Reilly is trying to bring to some troubling times. And know that if he catches you being shady, he just might write a song about you, too. Check out Ike Reilly and his band at ikereilly.com or see them when they host a food drive for the Libertyville Township Food Pantry at The American Legion Hall in Libertyville Saturday, Feb. 12.
Gotta hear more
With our access to the Chicago and suburban music scenes, we got to sample plenty of impressive new releases this year. Here are some more discoveries from 2021 and their songs that had us slamming repeat: