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Chicago Theme Songs That Don’t Suck

written by: on April 30, 2012

Last week the Chicago tourism organization Choose Chicago offered up a new anthem in attempts to make the city seem more desirable to tourists. After bringing together the disparate forces of Buddy Guy, Chicago (the band) and Umphrey’s McGee the result was a lifeless song that doesn’t so much champion the city as it does malign it.

In an attempt to prove that Chicago has better things to offer than Umphrey’s Mcgee we’ve decided to put together a list of ten songs that use Chicago as inspiration and are actually worthwhile.

Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight”

As a child of the 90s who grew up in grungy t-shirts with an alternative rock soundtrack, it goes without saying that the Smashing Pumpkins are the quintessential Chicago rock band. Considering they molded the entire rock scene of the city, Smashing Pumpkins deserve mention when it comes to Chicago music. Recorded as a compilation of ideas for follow-up tracks to the wildly successful Siamese Dream, “Tonight, Tonight” was put on tape in Chicago. The string section of this song was recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One of Pumpkins’ most classic songs, “Tonight, Tonight” brims with Chicago pride and talent. [Shannon Shreibak]

Margot & The Nuclear So & So’s – “Love Song for a Schuba’s Bartender”

Hailing from Indianapolis, Ind., this chamber pop band has some tight roots with the Windy City. One of its founding members attended college in the Chicago suburbs and many of MNSS’s first shows were in Chicago. This song is one of the strongest and most focused of its expansive catalog. Some speculate that the song is literally a proclamation of love for a Schuba’s bartender while others believe that it is an intricate metaphor detailing singer Richard Edwards’ drug use. Either way, it makes great reference to one of the most intimate concert venues in Chicago: Schuba’s. [Shannon Shreibak]

Sufjan Stevens – “Chicago”

Vaguely psychedelic vibraphone sets up a string-soaked chorus for the aural equivalent of a snow globe: flustered yet calming, framing the suggestion of inclement weather in a picturesque sphere. Stevens’ memoir snippets recount nights spent in cold parking lots, searching for freedom (and himself) in Chicago and not finding what he expected. This city tends to surprise its transplants – and even some of its natives – in that way. [Alex Bahler]

Wilco – “Via Chicago”

With an affecting chord progression and one of Jeff Tweedy’s most disarming lyrics (“I dreamed about killing you against last night / And it felt alright to me”), this song’s titular city encapsulates the narrator’s imminent homecoming. Tweedy sings the word “Chicago” like he’s telling someone it was all just a bad dream, but the music isn’t so warm and fuzzy: restless drums, icy piano and a feedback-burned guitar solo mark the point where past, present and future Wilco converge. [Alex Bahler]

Spoon – “Chicago at Night”

Written by Britt Daniel while he was in Ukranian Village, this tune may have themes that extend outside of the city itself, but its sound is as cool as the city. Daniel’s saucy voice atop light electric piano and crisp drumming perfectly fit the mood in Chicago at night. [Chris Favata]


Kanye West – “Homecoming”

Kanye personifies his hometown in the penultimate track on 2007’s Graduation. Calling her Windy, but inflecting it to kind of sound like a real person’s name, Wendy, West speaks fondly of his time growing up in Chi-town, pretending it’s his lost girlfriend. He loves this place as much as the rest of us and misses it when he’s away. Sounds like the perfect theme song. [Chris Favata]

Naked Raygun – “Home of the Brave”

Although Naked Raygun was never Chicago’s most well known punk band, they proved to be one of the most influential. John Haggerty’s signature guitar playing sets the tone for “Home of the Brave” – the opening track from 1986’s All Rise – before Jeff Pezzati’s soaring vocals appear atop the track. Although the song doesn’t explicitly name Chicago, this song helped characterize what the future of Chicago punk would become. [David Anthony]

The Lawrence Arms – “Here Comes the Neighborhood”

Perhaps the Chicago band with the most hometown pride (the Chicago flag graces the cover of its album Oh! Calcutta!) is The Lawrence Arms. The number of songs in the band’s catalog that reference Chicago is staggering, and in “Here Comes the Neighborhood” bassist/vocalist Brendan Kelly goes all out,  name checking everything from Belmont Avenue to laying out Wicker Park’s boundary lines. [David Anthony]


Wesley Willis – “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s”

If there’s one person that truly believed in rock ‘n’ roll’s saving power, it was the late Wesley Willis. By writing numerous songs about his surroundings – and in some cases the people he’d encounter – Willis made a loving composite of the city in which he resided. In “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s” Willis pays homage to one of Chicago’s most famous McDonald’s locations while also highlighting the fact that those burgers aren’t the best for your health. [David Anthony]


Big Black – “Kasimir S. Pulaski Day”

If Chicago has one famous curmudgeon, it has to be Steve Albini. The notorious musician and producer is prickly at best and downright nasty at worst. On “Kasimir S. Pulaski Day” he tells the tale of body being ripped apart and found on the Skyway. Apparently Albini’s not one for celebrating holidays in the traditional sense. [David Anthony]