Playlist: Jon Norton's Best New Local Music of 2018 | WGLT

Playlist: Jon Norton's Best New Local Music of 2018

Dec 17, 2018

2018 was a great year for the Bloomington-Normal music scene.

GLT's Jon Norton was with you all year long, bringing the best artists onto GLT's Sound Ideas as they passed through Bloomington-Normal music venues.

Crossing many genres and generations, here are Jon's picks for the Best New Local Music of 2018. And if you don't want to miss anyone great in 2019, subscribe to the GLT Music Podcast.


Edward David Anderson and good friend Cody Diekhoff, aka Chicago Farmer, have inspired each other for years. I’m paraphrasing Diekhoff from a past GLT interview when he said he would often leave an EDA show knowing he’d have to up his game. I’m sure Anderson feels similarly about Diekhoff.

The consensus leaders of the surging Bloomington-Normal music scene have blessed their adopted towns (and everyone else) with stunning new recordings in 2018. Diekhoff finally offered up the live (double) album his fans have been clamoring for. It’s a mesmerizing two discs showcasing Diekhoff’s riveting storytelling and insightful gift of observation. Anderson’s gem currently topping national Americana charts is an infectiously hook-laden 10 songs that in a Midwestern sort of way, collectively echoes Rodney King’s 1992 appeal “can we all just get along?”


Disclosure: Leah Marlene took voice lessons from my wife for a short time a few years ago. She would constantly tell me “you should hear this kid.” I finally heard the potential with a couple original songs Marlene posted to Spotify two years ago, but that didn’t prepare me for the “wow” when her “Arrows” EP hit my inbox two months ago.

This pop-rock debut is a gem. Melodic as-all-get-out and lyrical wisdom belie her 17 years on earth.


I know I’m overstating, but hearing Jeni B’s debut album “Crickets & Honey” was akin to hearing John Lee Hooker or The Sex Pistols for the first time. Having never heard of, let alone heard Jeni, I had low expectations for this “local recording” packaged in a single cardboard CD sleeve. Then BOOM. Not even a minute into the opening track, this opera-trained soaring voice with a musical theater background had me muttering “where has she been?” More accurately: Where have I been? Though her recorded music isn’t available online, you can listen and view live performances on her YouTube page.


The first time I interviewed Old Smoke they had a couple cover songs on their Bandcamp page that sounded decent. But like Leah Marlene, their debut album “In My Own Time” released this summer blows that out of the water. The Bloomington-based blues-rockers have opened for national touring acts Samantha Fish and Tommy Castro at the Castle Theatre. Particular favorites on this tight set are the John Lee Hooker-inspired boogie blues “Alright, All Night” and the title track.


Bloomington’s Dominique Stevenson is a busy guy. In addition to his full time “day job” he plays professional football with the Bloomington Edge and has a music career as hip-hop artist V8 Vast Change. Like his friend Leah Marlene (who joins him for a song on his 2017 album “Lost And Found”), his message is positive, and he often connects his material to his religion. Though he’s a prolific songwriter, his music isn’t on Spotify, but you can access it on his Bandcamp page.


I’m too much a groupie to be objective about the first Something Brothers album in nearly 30 years; let’s just say “Fuzzle,” “Yucca Flat,” “Lovelands,” “Earthbound,” and the title track to "Apollo" are new earworms. As SoBro guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Tommy O’Donnell shared when we bumped into each other in a Kroger parking lot early this year: “This is the best rock record I’ve ever been involved with.” That’s saying something.


Flaccid called it quits in 2018, much to the dismay of its many fans in central Illinois and beyond. But the psych-rock quintet is leaving on good terms internally, and with good vibes with fans as it dropped their final CD at their farewell show Sept. 22 at the Castle Theatre. As band co-founder Nolan Kelly said in the September interview: “We had an opportunity to end it on one final big note as far as one last album release combined with one blowout show to bring everyone back together for one proper sendoff. At least we’re doing it the right way, as opposed to fizzling out.” “In And Out” is a strong finish to a six-year run that Kelly said was “above and beyond anything we ever expected.”


Poster Children is really Champaign-Urbana’s, but until they tell me to back off, I’m claiming them now as ours. The punk quartet that includes husband-wife (and founding members) Rick Valentin and Rose Marshack got their start while students at the University of Illinois in the 1980s. They went on to record on a major label and tour the world. Now arts technology professors at Illinois State University, they and fellow band members Jim Valentin (Rick’s brother) and Matt Friscia released their first album in 14 years in May. The starting point for “Grand Bargain” is Donald Trump's America, but other social ills are targets, including the divisive “gun issue,” which they tackle in the stunning “Devil and the Gun.”


Tom Becker didn't release a new album in 2018, but I wanted to include him here because he is one example of the sometimes hidden part of the vibrant Bloomington-Normal music scene. I called him on a whim earlier this year ahead of a Jazz UpFront gig, wondering if he’d be open to an interview. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we sat down in his basement home studio, but I sure wasn’t expecting to hear that this 70-ish soft-spoken white guy who grew up on a McLean County farm played and toured with some of the most soulful bands in America, including Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders. Another artist not on Spotify; some of his music can be heard on his website.


It was a treat talking with Moon drummer Chris Schneberger ahead of the Chicago trio’s November appearance at Nightshop in Bloomington. You can hear the influence Moon has taken from Rush, a band Schneberger unabashedly adores, as you can hear in the audio portion of this story. To be fair, though vocalist David Azizinamini sings in a high register similar to Geddy Lee, his sparse lyrics tend to float over and stretch with Moon's music compared to Lee’s recital of near epic novels of lyricist and drummer Neal Peart. Despite its heavy, propulsive sound, Moon’s music, including their June 2018 release "Extinction" is symphonic and addicting, especially after repeated listens.


I marvel at anyone who can write a catchy hook. Jared Rabin has seven on this extended EP recorded earlier this year. The Chicago-based singer/songwriter played Nightshop in Bloomington earlier this year. Though he has an academic background in jazz composition, Rabin told me he “kind of has to set that aside” to write his brand of Americana. But you can hear that influence in this batch of songs that have the jazzy feel of Style Council from their “Every Changing Mood” album.


The Smokers Blues Band is doing its best to keep blues and blues-rock alive in central Illinois. The now quartet’s sophomore album is a subtle move away from the jam band lean of their 2014 “Roads Less Traveled” debut to a more focused blues-rock sound taken from influences including Cream, ZZ Top, and John Mayall.


Like Jeni B’s “Crickets and Honey,” Matt Garrison & the Robber Baron’s “Someone’s Gotta Live In This Town” caught me by surprise. Producer Micah Hattaway (EMG Labs) introduced the album to me during our interview for the story on Bloomington-Normal recording studios. The song featuring central Illinois’ legendary saxophonist Garard Montegue intrigued me, but didn’t prepare me for the rest of this punkish Johnny Cash testament to the disaffected, forgotten and left behind. It may not be your cup of tea, but it’s my favorite album of the year.

YEA BIG (and Part 2)

I’ve cheated by including the 2017 Yea Big album “The Wind That Blows as Mountains Flow.”

The albums are similar musically. Each is roughly 30 minutes of free jazz/ambient/avant-garde rock, but the 2017 “sonata in three movements” is a spoken word exploration of the interconnectedness of life—and the need for darn near anarchy, where his 2018 recording eschews lyrics altogether. For “How Long, Oh F***, Stefen Robinson, who also plays with Bloomington instrumental band Disorganizer, wanted to express his dismay with how the U.S. government is conducting itself both at home and abroad, and how Americans are inflicting violence on each other. He laughed earlier this year, “and I don’t know how to express that with poetry or lyrics other than just yelling obscenities.”


Shemekia Copeland’s political statement “America’s Child” was still weeks from being released by Alligator Records when she headlined the GLT Summer Concert in early June, but she previewed songs, including “Aint’ Got Time For The Hate” as her opener. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that past indignities are still part of America, and they still sting. As she told the crowd at the time, “Oh yeah, I’m going there.” Lucky for us, she still travels outside the well-worn blues path, with guests including John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens (with banjo), Will Kimbrough, and Emmylou Harris.


Graphic designer Jerm Plue owns Meltdown Creative Works in Bloomington (and now Peoria) and is the creator of Midwest Punk Fest, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this fall. He's also the driving force behind the hard-core punk outfit Dirty Rotten Revenge, who released their blistering "Into Darkness" EP this summer. Though introduced to punk in college via The Sex Pistols, I never indulged the music until Green Day went mainstream in 1994.

When my Dad died a year later and I discovered hardcore punk calmed my nerves, I dug a little deeper. My family looks at me strangely when I say Dirty Rotten Revenge is my Xanax. The bludgeoning Dirty Rotten Revenge gives capitalism, corporate greed, war, and lazy people is not unlike taking a baseball bat to a brokedown car. It's cathartic, though I suppose the former doesn't still need to be towed to the junk yard.

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