Few cities have a musical history as rich or as varied as Chicago’s. From the Windy City blues of Muddy Waters to the house innovations of Frankie Knuckles, Chicago has fostered and hosted more genres than political controversies. (Well, almost.) The fact is, the Third Coast is often talked more about in terms of Daley’s antics – choose senior or junior – or ’90s ballplayers than it is about music. And while the Bears may have gallantly tried to merge the two a decade earlier with “Super Bowl Shuffle,” Chicago’s music scene still wants for proper recognition.
And who better to help with that than the people who live there? eMusic’s Marissa Muller talked to a host of Chicago luminaries – including musicians, sports figures and restaurateurs – about the albums that best represent their city.
Frankie Knuckles (DJ, Producer):
The three records I associate most with Chicago are "Let No Man Put Asunder" by First Choice, "Move Your Body" by Marshall Jefferson and "Your Love" by Jamie Principle. These songs are the benchmark of house music worldwide. Almost every house track can be traced back to these three tunes. [When they came out], Chicago was growing as a city. Segregation was no longer the issue; young people realized that they no longer had to live the life their parents lived. Each of these songs helped put Chicago's dance music scene on the map internationally. They're a part of the fabric of this city; as much an important part of Chicago's legacy as the Daley's legacy for building it. It's historical. It's legendary.
Bruce Lamont (Musician, Yakuza/Circle of Animals/Bloodiest/Led Zeppelin 2):
I went to go see Tad in March of '91 and Steve Albini was there. My friends and I were talking to him about random things, and he recommended picking up Goat. I got it, and I was completely blown away. The drums and bass were punishing, the guitar sound is like twangy/heavy Americana - I mean, totally sick. The musicianship is top notch. And then, of course the vocals are completely unique and insane. It has this "working class" sound: gritty, industrial, but organic. I also loved the fact the last song is called "Rodeo in Joliet." I grew up a few towns from there. I was particularly fond of bands that were unpredictable - even dangerous - in their music and their live shows. [Jesus] Lizard is all of that. Their unpredictable and dangerous nature has been an inspiration. It led me into creating music.
Jon Langford (Musician, Owner of Bloodshot Records):
Lester Bangs took me to Bleeker Bob's in the West Village in 1981 and told me to buy Groaning The Blues by Chicago bluesman Otis Rush. It's a bunch of reissued tunes he cut for Cobra Records in Chicago in the late '50s. At that point in my life, I'd never thought much about Chicago, let alone been there, but this album defined the strut and surliness of urban electric Chicago blues music for me, and made me wonder about the place. I took it back to Leeds and played it over and over again on an old mono dansette in the kitchen at Belle Vue House 'til all my mates were sick of it. I'm still not sick of it, and I've lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years. "Double Trouble" is the song that nails me every time.
Sally Timms (Musician, Mekons):
Odessa contains all the things I loved about the Handsome Family. It's a scrappy record; less honed than their later ones, but it has all their hallmarks - the gallows humor and the fantastic songs, especially "Arlene," which is a classic. I was visiting Chicago a lot, but not living here when I first met Brett and Rennie through Dave Trumfio. I would play this album at parties in New York and everyone would get excited by it. It tied in with the start of the alt-country movement which was a peculiarly Chicago movement and became a large part of my life at the time. The Chicago music scene back then was very unpretentious. People were actually friendly and helped each other with their projects. The New York music scene was less hospitable and that's the thing that was, and still is, compelling about Chicago for me.
Rick Wojcik (Owner, Dusty Groove America):
That's the Way of the World by Earth Wind & Fire represents a tremendous flowering of talent that had been brewing underground for years in Chicago. [The musicians], first as members of various jazz groups, then as Earth Wind & Fire - who were already wonderful before this album - really hit the mark with this record. The album was a mainstream explosion of Chicago energy of the late '60s and early '70s - a message to the world about the way we do things here, cool, classy, sophisticated - never too over the top, but proud enough to stand boldly alongside the rest of the mainstream, too. The city was on hard times in some ways [when this was released], as were most American cities, but it was also feeling a new sense of pride and empowerment, which I think really shines through.
I was actually in my senior year of high school when The College Dropout came out. Music was beginning to take over my everyday life, whether it was producing or rapping. I was inspired by The College Dropout to continue to perfect my craft. I felt one day I could have a shot in this industry as well, if Kanye was able to make some noise in this industry with his gift. [Kanye was] really representing what it was to be a Chi-town native. The music from beginning to end was a solid body of soul and hip-hop. It sampled a lot of summertime Chi town feel-good music and it referenced a lot of Chicago areas, lifestyles and people.
Doug Sahn (Owner, Hot Doug's):
The album that means Chicago to me is Things Aren't Right by Wazmo Nariz. I felt that Wazmo and this album were my band. Chicago wasn't a stronghold or pioneer in new-wave music of the late '70s. Wazmo Nariz and Skafish were just about it. So I felt that this was a band I could be a fan of exclusively. And when the record came out, it served as a document of the all the times I went to see them live at Gaspar's (now Schubas). I was in high school and really getting into punk rock and new wave. There wasn't a lot going on in Chicago if you were under 18. There weren't any all-ages shows or clubs, and when the drinking age went up to 21, it was just about all over for me. Except Gaspar's. I was able to get in to see Wazmo and other bands using my older brother's birth certificate. I was already really familiar with the songs from the live performances and now I felt a kind of vindication that they had finally appeared on vinyl. This album was probably not known at all outside of Chicago. There were the Chicago references - most notably to Germ Proof Cleaners, which no longer exists. It used to be at the corner of Ridge and Devon. At least, I think that's where it was. I could be wrong. But I know it was close to there.
Jim DeRogatis (Music journalist):
In the mid '80s, I hadn't yet visited Chicago - I grew up in Jersey City and spent my musically formative years at Maxwell's in Hoboken - but I was writing for a Chicago-based fanzine, Matter Magazine, and they had put Raygun on the cover. I was blown away when I first heard this album, and the impact was even more powerful when I saw the band live. To me, these four guys - lean, mean, broad-shouldered and towering giants, one and all - were the epitome of what I thought the people who lived in the City That Works should look like, and the sound epitomized my notions of Chicago even more. When I finally did visit Chicago, I thought Naked Raygun had gotten it absolutely right: This was the city I had heard in its music.
Todd Novak (HoZac Records):
Since their very first show at the Beat Kitchen in the fall of 2001, we had been pushing like crazy to get The Ponys noticed outside of Chicago with our magazine Horizontal Action, and after repeatedly sending out their demos to as many labels as we could find, the one we thought would never be interested (due to their noise/rock stance at the turn of the century), In The Red, finally fell for them hard. The Ponys were, at first, just one of many of the great bands popping up in Chicago during it's halcyon days of the early 2000's, and it wasn't hard to see that they had culled together something really unique and captivating with their sound. There's quite a few songs that have Chicago at their core, "I'll Make You A Star" mentions "21st and State Street," and it just seemed to be the omnipresent soundtrack of Summer in the City during that '03-'04 time when so much was happening here. And although a couple of their Chicago-centric tracks were on singles ("Wicked City" and "Sorceress of the Southside") The Ponys embodied Chicago music as perfectly as anyone who'd come before them, towing the line between the garage/punk world they'd climbed up from and into the more serious arena of selling out big venues, getting songs into commercials, and just the overall acceptance of band from our little circle into the wider arena.
Brett Cross (HoZac Records):
One of the records I most associate with Chicago is the Tyrades' self-titled album on Broken Rekkids, released in 2003. It really represents the manic energy a lot of bands had in Chicago during the early part of the last decade. Just years earlier, we had dodged the 2K scare, 9/11 was in our past and it seemed like the future was bleak. The music I was gravitating toward had this no-future, primitive drag-out feel that was empowering and uplifting in a weird way. This LP seemed to personify the anxious base in which we had become accustomed, ripping through the murky bullshit to deliver a blazing staccato of ear-blistering tunes.
Chicago has always been a great music city; nearly every corner of the rock 'n' roll spectrum had a talon implanted here at one time or another. The blues got its baby teeth here, and '60s garage, power pop and the late-'80s hardcore scene were all pretty huge. For me, though, it seemed like the early-to-mid '00s, when the Tyrades released their album, was a time when the Chicago underground music was on the up, with no apex in sight. It seethed just below the surface, without the fuel of a global audience, or a nod from the 'powers that be" in the music universe.
Ozzie Guillen (Manager, Chicago White Sox):
You're talking about blues, you're talking about jazz - all kinds of music in this city, and I don't think anyone can connect them all more than [Sinatra's "My Kind of Town"]. I think they should be playing that every day; before and after any event. It's kind of hard to pick which [record] people like the most, though. A lot of Lollapaloozers and a lot of people from Chicago keep making good music.
Kirstie Shanley (Photographer):
Return of the Century to me represents a gentle but catchy, summery side of Chicago. The 1900s are a talented five-piece with a keen pop-folk sensibility, with music and lyrics that hearken back to the best of the mid '70s. You can't help but feel good listening: Their songs are easily accessible and contain interesting arrangements, thanks to Andra Kulans's violin and viola, and glorious vocal harmonies between Jeanine O'Toole, Caroline Donovan and Edward Anderson.
Will Ohman (Pitcher, Chicago White Sox):
There's a local band that I started listening to in spring training called the Arrivals. Their album is called Volatile Molotov, and I really like that 'cause it's got a good garage-band feel. For a long time I was really into, and still am, a lot of things that came out of Detroit - bands like the Dirtbombs - so I guess [The Arrivals are] the Chicago extension. It's rough, so I really like that.
Greg Kot (Music journalist):
Curtis Mayfield's Superfly soundtrack is the crowning statement by one of the most complete artists Chicago ever produced: A master singer, songwriter, musician, arranger and producer. Curtis's life is a classic Chicago story. He grew up in the hardest, poorest, most unforgiving section of town - the Cabrini Green housing projects - and went on to form the Impressions with his childhood friend, Jerry Butler. As teenagers, they were already forging an original, idiosyncratic style, and in the '60s Mayfield basically wrote the soundtrack for the civil-rights movement. He then went on to become a pioneering independent artist in the '70s, running his own label (Curtom) while producing albums and hits for other artists, and maintaining his own solo career.
Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the world, with huge drug and gang problems. At the same time it is an incubator of fascinating art and culture. The "blaxploitation" era of movie-making highlighted some of these urban issues in the '70s, sometimes in a crass, exploitative manner. What made Superfly great was not only Gordon Parks's direction, but the way it used Mayfield's score to amplify, enrich and deepen the plot and characters. It was a huge hit precisely because it so honestly and explicitly confronted what was going on in the streets of our city at the time. It transcends its time. Like Chuck D once said, hip-hop is the black CNN. Well Curtis Mayfield was like the black Walter Cronkite. The issues of racism, drug abuse, corruption - they're still with us today. And those orchestrations and grooves - hip-hop artists are still sampling them. The bass lines, intricate rhythms, tense orchestrations and beautiful melodies sound so fresh. I put this album on when I'm driving down Lake Shore Drive and it feels like my city, right now, for better or worse.
Eddie "King" Roeser (Musician, Urge Overkill):
I don't remember how Muddy Waters's Rollin' Stone was recommended to me or why. It's the kind of thing that you might run into more if you're trying to learn how to play the guitar. It's a blues record and, to me, that was Chicago music at the time. I think of all the music that you can say was invented in Chicago, and was meaningful in a historical context, you would have to say Muddy Waters in Chicago blues. I was living in Lake Wobegon, a small town in Minnesota, and I had this vivid image of the Southside and you could actually hear the music nightly in the clubs and what not, in the early '60s. It had a mystique about it. I'm not an expert in blues music but it is a great record for anybody to listen to and it has a lot of recognizable hits on it. Most people don't and I don't really sit around listening to blues records but this one is pretty good. I consider it more of a rock record. You could learn a lot from it and we used to put it on and play along with it 'cause it laid down pretty basic structures. This was early use of electric guitar, which I don't think is a strictly Chicago phenomenon, but that's how Chicago influenced popular music as a whole - by sort of inventing this harder guitar sound.
Blues was the first to sing about things that, in the structures of the '50s, were offensive to actually sing about - like being drunk and breaking up. It was less sugar-coated than the pop music of the '50s. If Chicago music is said to be transgressive in any way, this album is the origin of that. Some people might think of Chicago and think of dance music or house music. I think of Chicago as where the sound of the electric guitar was perfected.
Rick Rizzo (Musician, Eleventh Dream Day):
I'm from Chicago, but I spent my late teens and early 20s ensconced in the '70s Kentucky punk scene. Moving back to Chicago in the early '80s, I found myself at a party where Big Black was playing, before they had vinyl out. Albini had his guitar on stun, and I realized this was Chicago. A few years later I was in Amsterdam and heard Naked Raygun at the Milky Way. Former Big Black bassist Jeff Pezzati fronted the group and I remembered feeling pride that we were all from Chicago. Throb Throb, with buzzsaw guitars and shouted anthem vocals, has always represented Chicago for me.
Alex White, White Mystery (Musician):
"Gloria" is a tune that stands the test of time, especially when performed by a Chicago garage band who projected their contemporary rock and British invasion influences into the mainstream during the mid '60s. White Mystery shouts out to the Shadows of Knight in our self-titled track from the new album, Blood & Venom. Shadows of Knight were teenagers jamming in the Midwest, and as a native Chicagoan, I can identify with the cultural landscape that shaped their lifestyles. The Beatles played Comiskey Park in Chicago the same year "Gloria" was released, which was December 1965. President Johnson escalated the Vietnam War, and the famous protests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago would occur three years later, when the MC5 would kick out the jams downtown. As a child, I would stay up late with a clock/radio under the pillow and listen to Oldies 104.3FM here on the north side. Chicago-based, mid-century hits like "Gloria," "Crimson & Clover" by Tommy James & the Shondelles, and "Bend Me Shape Me" by the American Breed were big influences on the development of my musical taste as a girl.
Max Kakacek (Musician, Smith Westerns):
Illinois Speed Press released their first album, The Illinois Speed Press, in 1969, around the same time as the Chicago Transit Authoritiy's first album (they later changed their name to simply Chicago) in a Columbia package of Chicago bands. Illinois Speed Press peaked at No. 144 on Billboard, and after they failed to have much success on their second album, Duet, they disbanded in '71. In 2003 both albums were reissued, which is probably the best way to find them now. These albums are important because I feel like they have almost been forgotten, and there is a lot of amazing guitar work on these records. It gave me a look into a Chicago scene that I didn't think existed. Chicago has an interesting music catalog because there are a few standout acts that everyone knows, but it's more difficult to find good older bands that didn't get huge &38212; they are definitely out there, but harder to find than the smaller acts coming out of other cities such as New York or L.A in the late '60s and early '70s. [Kakacek's pick was so obscure that we don't have it on eMusic! - Ed.]