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10 best albums of 2012 by Chicago artists

Chicago indie rock bThe Se  Cake handout 2007.

Chicago indie rock band The Sea & Cake, handout 2007.

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Updated: January 24, 2013 6:18AM

The year saw dozens of great records by Chicago artists, from local indies to big household names. Here are my picks for the cream of 2012’s bumper crop:

1. Sea & Cake, “Runner” (Thrill Jockey)

Chicago isn’t primarily a blues town anymore, and the veteran indie-pop band the Sea & Cake cook up the city’s 21st Century sounds into a unique pop sound that’s crisp, clean, humble, utterly modern. The group’s ninth full-length is another collection of supple grooves, subtle electronics, guitar artistry and singer Sam Prekop’s long, sweet sighs.

2. Kids These Days, “Traphouse Rock” (Kids These Days)

The Chicago-based collective plays a rainbow stylistic palette mixing together funk, alt-rock, pop, jazz, hip-hop, blues, and that doesn’t even start with the subgenres. The songcraft of “Traphouse Rock” is inventive and original, crammed with infectious joy and crackling energy.

3. Lurrie Bell, “The Devil Ain’t Got No Music” (Aria B.G.)

Late in his life and career, Lurrie Bell (son of harp master Carey Bell) made the record he was born to make. The Chicago guitarist focuses on acoustic for a salvation-and-sin cocktail made all the more haunting by spare production from fellow bluesman Matthew Skoller. Spiritual, searching and superb.

4. Willis Earl Beal, “Acousmatic Sorcery” (Hot Charity/XL)

An eccentric surprise, this mysterious set of home-recorded curios brims with alternating soulful and folkie flourishes, full of ragged beauty. Beal’s voice — showcased as a range-spanning marvel in his wild performances — is held in check during these lo-fi, delicate creations, offered publicly but seeming embarrassingly intimate.

5. Smashing Pumpkins, “Oceania” (Martha’s)

Billy Corgan had a busy year — grinding out reissues of the Pumpkins catalog, corralling his local pro wrestling team, opening a tea shop in Highland Park — and in the middle of it all he managed to drop one of the best albums to wear his band’s moniker. A baker’s dozen of songs amid his planned 44-track “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” cycle, “Oceania” is the first cohesive statement from the Pumpkins’ young lineup and a beautiful albeit punishing rock record.

6. Shoes, “Ignition” (Black Vinyl)

The Zion, Ill., group’s first album in 18 years sounds like no time has passed at all. Full of tuneful, harmonized, guitar-driven power-pop, “Ignition” again fires the band’s melodious imagination atop the bonfire of their Beatlesque influences.

7. The Congregation, “Right Now Everything” (The Congregation)

A formidable set filled with churchy soul and jazzy rock, this eight-piece ensemble’s debut arrives in the wake of buzz surrounding some other old-school contemporaries, Alabama Shakes. The Congregation is something more wily, more nimble, applying gospel grooves as easily as slinky sugar-daddy lovin’.

8. Birds of Chicago, “Birds of Chicago” (BOC)

A duo of JT Nero (as in JT & the Clouds) and Allison Russell (Po’ Girl) spotlights organic harmonies and wistful affections for the wide variety of music under the auspices of Americana. The braiding of their singular voices is magical on this woody, groove-laden debut.

9. Kelly Hogan, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain” (Anti)

Longtime local fixture and collaborator (Neko Case, Jon Langford, Mavis Staples) Kelly Hogan applies her restrained, bedrock alt-country voice to top-drawer material penned by Robyn Hitchcock, Stephin Merritt, John Wesley Harding, Robbie Fulks and more. This fourth album is a shining convergence of talent.

10. Lupe Fiasco, “Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1” (Atlantic)

Always ready with an opinion, Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco again manages to bear the yoke of major-label demands and push through a shimmering hip-hop album full of bold statements, easy flow and pop hooks.

Thomas Conner

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