Another year, another year-end list. It's time to take a look at our favorite rock music from Champaign-Urbana. Last year we compiled our favorite albums with the help of our very own writers, as well as our list of top songs. From the late Jay Bennett to Common Loon, we covered what was enjoyable from an excellent 2010. We think this year is another one of those years.
This year the list was made with the help of some of our loyal readers, local musicians, writers and editors. The results varied but the list shaped up to be something that definitely reflects the great releases from the area this year. The final decisions are never easy, but we managed to put something together (love it or hate it, it's the beauty of music criticism). To be clear, it is not a comprehensive list; it focuses almost exclusively on rock music. There were a lot of great local jazz, bluegrass, electronic, blues and hip hop releases, but due to the way voting turned out this is not that list.
Special thanks to all who submitted their votes. Until next year, here is our list of the top ten C-U albums of 2011.
(All reviews written by John Steinbacher, Ben Valocchi and Patrick Singer.)
As the rest of this list will belie, there seems to have been a shift towards louder, electric music this year in town. With all the rocking going on it, it's refreshing to hear a band as unadorned as An Evening With Your Mother. On their debut Trees, the band certainly isn't afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve, a quality which shows in vibrant songs like "A Letter and a Number (27B)" and the title track.
One of the great joys in compiling a list like this is taking a look back at what we were listening to nine months ago. This winter, Panel Van dominated the rotation with the towering math-emo on Words. Things get going right off the bat with the anthemic "Securjty," and the band barely pause for a break over the next 20 minutes. There are guitar flourishes for days here, but the real draw-in lies in the band's rhythm section (especially teenaged drummer Matt Zuckermann), who never let the energy levels flag.
No matter how disruptive or hectic these tracks might seem, the blur of the constant flow of Take Care's arrangements never have you worrying about where the hell you are in the song, or when it might end. The band put out two great songs on their Lost Pets EP and it managed to gain our attention pretty quickly. Infusing post-rock with emo and throwing in their own mix of basement punk, they crafted an excellent mesh of what makes all of those genres great in their own way. The only difficulty with listening to this EP is deciding which one of the tracks carries the other. If we had to guess, it would be a brawl to see which one comes out on top.
Let’s use a bit of a metaphor to talk about Life Inside an Elephant — if this album was a rocket propelled and fueled by the title track, the final three tracks would be the parachutes that allow it to float back to civilization safe and sound. It’s a simple way of thinking about a release following last year's excellent Yes Yes Yes, which was steady all the way throughout. It has its highs and lows, but it didn’t indulge in the types of graceful sounds like this EP does. The title track includes everything Elsinore excels at while incorporating a more airy, atmospheric sound to go along with vibrant production. Like we said, what brings this EP back to Earth is what accompanies the title track. Although they have been played previously in the live setting, the blissful “The Thermostat, The Telephone” and the charming “Ultraviolence” (featuring Santah/Grandkids’ Vivian McConnell on backing vocals) are excellent accessories for this release. Did we mention there is a harp on this thing? Check that off the Elsinore bucket list.
Three albums into their career, New Ruins have become the elder statesmen of the Champaign-Urbana music scene. And unfortunately, this seems to have led to too much familiarity from local fans. Perhaps because many of us always expect New Ruins to be around, we just took this album for granted. But despite the familiarity, a fresh New Ruins album is a pretty great thing. On This Life is Not Ours to Keep, the vocals are higher in the mix and the songwriting has become crisp without sacrificing the band's expansive sound. And the songs have become even more anthemic, with at least five songs achieving full on sing along status. (No easy feat considering the low vocal rumble and lyrical wordplay favored by main singer Elzie Sexton.)
Appropriately enough for an album titled This Life is Not Ours to Keep, an inferiority complex emerges throughout. “I was never something that you want.” “I was never worth that much a few lumps.” “Wish us well, some time we might get dug up far from Hell.” It’s the kind of complex one would expect from a continually excellent band that keeps waiting for their moment just over the next horizon. Now is as good of a time as any.
On first listen, Night Air on the Midway comes across as a relaxing swirl that seems perfectly suited for background music. But after a few spins it’s obvious that the songwriting requires more than a cursory listen — this is an album that revels in the sound of the earned experience. Mastermind John Isberg has an assured voice, tossing off lyrics in French, using auto-tuned vocals and somehow managing to never seem gimmicky. Isberg's delivery and lyrics in songs like “Etienne” suggest a deep longing for something lost. And the band follows with a subtlety that perfectly suits the album's unfulfilled yearning. Night Air on the Midway is spare, but never slight and it will reward your patience.
When the album teaser for Midnight Snakes surfaced, The Dirty Feathers were doing one of two things: promoting their new record or promoting their collection of recorded feedback after they smashed a guitar in their basement (wouldn’t be surprising either way). They draw mostly from what the band brings during their live show: gross, hazy psych tones, synths, and most importantly, noise. The live setting is where the band really shines, and they definitely brought it with Midnight Snakes. Snakes takes even the most incomprehensible of vocals and delivers hypnotic messages in "Foreign Tongue" and makes it appealing. Highlights run throughout the album pretty evenly, though it only spans eight tracks, any of one of them could be your favorite. Whether that's the standout title track or the haunting cover of Macabre's "Be Forewarned," there's definitely something for everyone. This isn’t a record you’re going to find an anthem on, but it’s definitely an album you could find yourself in search of new speakers to replace your set you just blew out.
Punk in Champaign-Urbana stretches back a long way, but Midstress are the band that really jump-started the scene's latest resurgence, and they're easily the most visible punk group in town right now (don't forget that they had a track on the Polyvinyl Japan compilation this summer). Accordingly, expectation was high for this fall's Growing Up Is Getting Old, and Midstress proved themselves up to the challenge. A more mature and refined band than the one that recorded last year's Turn Up the Brilliance, this album contains some absolute gems in emo-flavored tracks like "I'm From the Midwest. I'm Softspoken" and "Pentagrams in the Attic," plus some good old hardcore workouts and even a ballad in "Considerate." There's a whole lot of "wow" material on here, but it would all just be glitz and flash without a gutsy, confident and assured performance from the band.
As the maxim goes, less is more. On Bad Friends Forever, The Palace Flophouse evoke more emotion with a four-piece band than most symphony orchestras manage, and they do it by staying simple, to the point, and under four minutes. That isn't to say that this album is lacking in scope — there's definitely a narrator and a vaguely-defined story about the midwest, drinking, and cars — but it's made up of smaller, individually contained vignettes that work just as well as standalone pieces. The arc they produce goes from small town depression in "Flight," "North Platte" to a triumphant escape east in songs like "Chicago" and "Crash/Burn," underlined with a satisfyingly causticism that actually makes you feel worse for the narrator and the people in his world. There's something perverse about making an album this depressing that's also this catchy. It doesn't feel like it should work at all, but Bad Friends Forever is a fantastic album.
When the Smile Politely reader's poll came out in May, much to the surprise of the staff Easter headed the best new band category. There was very little known about Demonstration other than the fact it had surfaced out of nowhere after being recorded by frontman Kyle Lang late winter–early spring of this year. It was easy to get excited about a new band, but to think that this record would hold up against everything else from 2011 was not expected. After several listens, it finally clicked.
The EP spans just over 15 minutes, but within that time span the influences run wild. That's not the reason the album is great, and it's really easy to enjoy an album because it sounds like someone else who does make great music. Demonstration crams everything from punk-inspired emo to Built to Spill to Neutral Milk Hotel vocals and synthesizers into that short amount of time, but at no point does the album seem compressed into something smaller, nor does any part of it feel rushed in any way. Whether you're blown away by the standout anthem "All The People I Love The Most" or the slower ballad "Return to Form," Easter gives us plenty of reasons to enjoy what we're hearing. Could we get a new album from Easter within the next year? Hopefully. Could it top Demonstration? If it does, we're all in for a real treat.