Just like last year and the year before, 2016 resulted in a hefty amount of incredible music being produced in the Windy City. From ambient to acoustic to experimental to country soul and everything in between, it seemed as though every week offered up something special. After listening to numerous albums throughout the year, I tried my best to narrow it down (and properly organize) my 25 favorite Chicago projects of 2016.
If you'd like to go back in time and revisit favorite Chicago releases from 2014, look no further.
01. Whitney - Light Upon the Lake
Nothing comes close to touching Whitney's debut album, Light Upon the Lake. It's not only my favorite Chicago project of 2016, but it's my favorite project overall. Front to back, it's an album that sounds like summer in the summertime, autumn in the fall, and chilled icicles in the winter. It's a timeless project, one that allowed a bunch of artists to travel the world for the entire year, performing to fans old and young.
02. Iris Temple – Duality EP
Find me five stronger, more cohesive songs released this year. Chicago duo Iris Temple shared vocal duties on their Duality EP, with member Quinn Cochran painting layered backdrops for vocalist Aura to handcraft dreamy and surreal narratives. This is one to play start to finish, preferably inside of a botanical garden.
03. NONAME - TELEFONE
2016 saw a great deal of Chicago hip-hop releases. Everyone from Chance to Saba to Joey Purp released impressive efforts, but it is Noname who shines the brightest. Her long awaited debut Telefone does not disappoint, combining some of the finest lyricism over some of the finest production. The whole album is, simply put, touching. This needs to come out on vinyl.
04. Kweku Collins - Nat Love
Speaking of coming out on vinyl, Kweku Collins' Nat Love is an incredibly well structured and intimate affair. It's an eleven song voyage through the eyes of an ambitious and multi-talented teenager. "Ego Killed Romance" made my list of songs yesterday, and other tracks like "Death of a Salesman", "The Rain That Wouldn't Save", and "The Outsiders" still make the rounds. Combining this project with his two projects from last year and Kweku is slowly building a jawdropping discography.
05. Leslie Marie - Merci EP
This might be my most surprising addition thus far. The first four names on this list were on my radar in 2015, but 19-year-old singer/songwriter Leslie Marie didn't grab my attention until early 2016, after releasing a single followed by a short EP known as Merci. These three songs together get looped in my apartment on a daily basis. She plays ukulele, she harmonizes over Derrick Phoenix production, and she even sings a bit in French.
06. theMIND - Summer Camp
theMIND killed 2016. With two cinematic and professional music videos, with features on songs by Mick Jenkins, Noname, Kirk Knight, and, most recently, Smoke DZA and Pete Rock. On top of it all, he released an eleven track album known as Summer Camp. The project feels like the outdoors, like finding a jetpack in a field and exploring for the day. The production here is some of the best out of Chicago.
07. San Soma - Desaturation
San Soma is another name I didn't know in 2015. Grabbing my attention through website Oak Cellar Door (RIP), I slowly kept track of his loose singles leading up to his debut solo album, Desaturation, one that feels like grey skies and frowns on the beach. This album deserves all of the attention it gets, and then some. Particular standout is "High Anxiety", which needs to be in a motion picture soundtrack.
08. Drama - Gallows
After three singles and three music videos, vocalist Via Rosa and producer Na'el Shehade released their debut project as part of the duo Drama. The eight song project, Gallows focuses on past love and heartbreak, over some electrified yet melancholy instrumentation. The chemistry here is undeniable and they're apparently working on more music.
09. Phoelix - ingénu EP
This is the most slept on Chicago release of 2016. Producer Phoelix, who handled production on both Saba and Noname's project (and who just released a song with Jean Deaux), dropped this four song EP at the beginning of this year, before the spotlight was on him. It's an EP that he crafted in his bedroom in one night and it reflects that; lofi R&B vibrations perfect for the relaxed after hours.
10. The Walters – Young Men EP
This technically came out at the end of 2015, but it was released after I had made last year's list. One year later and The Walter's sophomore EP, Young Men, still sounds incredible. The song "Cottage Roads" will forever have my heart. If you get a chance, see The Walters live. Please.
11. Jaro - La Rouge EP // La Bleue EP
Along with various other projects and loose tracks, producer Jaro released two solo EPs this calendar year: La Rouge and La Bleue. With collaborators and friends (Aura, Cae Jones, Beach Jesus, Qari, Sean Deaux) coming and going, the two projects reflect the home studio atmosphere and environment that Jaro created.
12. BoatHouse - Hibernation EP
In you case you need a refresher course, producer BoatHouse released Girl EP last year. It's an instrumental offering you need to hear. To follow that up in 2016, he released Hibernation, a four song project with Closed Sessions amigos Kweku Collins and Kipp Stone as well as Drea Smith and Allan Kingdom. Naturally, he had to flex on the lone instrumental, "Coming Into Focus", perhaps the best track on the project.
13. Harris Cole - Pause
Harris Cole took us to the ambient depths of Sleepytown with his debut full-length, Pause. Instrumental wanderings through after-midnight headspaces has this whole project feeling exactly like the stunning artwork. As he described it in our interview, it is "slow, ethereal, magnified." The track "Louie's Lullaby" is especially worth noting.
14. Burns Twins & Kaina & Bedows - Sweet ASL EP
Thirteen minutes of refreshing sounds. Producers/instrumentalists Burns Twins linked with Bedows and singer Kaina for a six song project full of horns, funky breakdowns, and sharp vocal harmonies. Even Maceo Haymes of The O'My's stops by for a quick groove. Play this at your next cookout when spring returns.
15. Joey Purp - iiiDrops
It's been great following Joey Purp since arriving in Chicago back in 2013. From Fake Shore's 'best of' mixtape to working with Leather Corduroys to now, with iiiDrops, his proper solo release. Songs like "Girls @" with Chance and "Kids", both produced by Knox Fortune, are particular stand outs on this project. The song "Godbody" is so.damn.bar.heavy. Shout-out to Pitchfork for having Purp perform "Say You Do" in a ball pit.
16. Appleby & Elias Abid - Down Dance EP
Four heaters from vocalist Appleby and producer Elias Abid. The two built the hype with singles "Castles" and "Random Love" (which featured Iris Temple), then topped it off with the freestyling "99" and the momentous "Overdose". I hope to hear much more between these two in 2017.
17. Sean Deaux - Vice City 2 EP
THEMpeople member Sean Deaux released his Vice City EP last year, but the talented artist couldn't just be 'one and done'. He had to follow it up with Vice City 2, a seven song project taking you further down the dark alleys of substance and lust. This project sounds even better in the dead of winter. The switch-up on "Glo" makes me smile every time.
18. Yomi - 33 Strings // Love Songs for the Universe
Yomi had a great 2016, with her voice and her harp making numerous guest appearances. After fourteen years of being a harpist, she released her first two solo projects, 33 Strings and Love Songs for the Universe. Growing in her production skills and vocal arrangements, and crafting multiple songs dedicated to the moon, something tells me that Yomi is just getting started.
19. Kembe X - Talk Back
Even though he's been out west for the last few years, rapper Kembe X is still a Chicago artist in my eyes. The talented MC released Talk Back earlier this year and it did not disappoint. It's a fine rundown of his lyrical abilities and strong ear for production. Tracks "10 Feet Tall" and "What You Say" go so wild.
20. Saba – Bucket List Project
Saba's Bucket List Project was one of the most anticipated and talked about Chicago projects of 2016. It acts as a proper sequel to 2014's ComfortZone, showcasing Saba's growth both as a lyricist and as a man. Any project that comes heavily produced by Cam and Phoelix (see also: Telefone) is guaranteed to get me grooving.
21. Bobby Swan – Night Garden Mix
Dreamtime producer Bobby Swan released a fourteen minute instrumental mix known as Night Garden. Joining forces with a sleep oil company, he crafted the mix (along with an introspective interview) using only original instrumentation. Something to enhance your slumber.
22. Jasper MacRae & Elton Aura – This Could Be Anything EP
A project where it's the same producer and the same vocalist the entire time is always going to get my attention. Such was the case for This Could Be Anything, a three song EP between producer Jasper MacRae and vocalist elton aura. The song "Currently Speaking" needs 10x more plays, if not just for the endearing and poetic line "find resurrection in your laughter."
23. A Billion Young - ABY & Friends EP // flwr EP
Duo A Billion Young had a nice outpouring of tunes this calendar year. Collaborating with a bunch of their friends, they released two EPs full of guest features and added instrumentation, in particular Jac Stovler on harp and vocals. If ABY & Friends is a road trip, flwr is a pit stop to take a nap in a garden.
24. Jabril Power - Skin EP
I'm considering this a Chicago project because it was recorded in Chicago. Jabril Power isn't currently residing in the Windy City, but he crafted this EP with producer Quinn Cochran (of Iris Temple) in his home studio. The tranquil five song EP is short and sweet, with Aura (also of Iris Temple) stopping by for a verse, and Elias Abid stopping by for some production assistance.
25. Jeremiah Meece – Vocal EP 1
I always thought Jeremiah Meece (formerly of The-Drum) was just a producer, so it came as a surprise when I saw Vocal EP1 on my SoundCloud feed. Handling the instrumentation as well as the lyricism, the result is an intimate and hushed electronic project, one that feels like getting ready for bed.