The Champaign-Urbana music scene is constantly changing and evolving — bands putting out new records, acts coming to life, outfits dying right in front of our eyes, and on and on. People have a tendency to pick music apart until there isn't anything left to look at, which isn't the goal here. We're excited to highlight some of the best things that have happened in C-U music over the past year for this installment of BEST.
As you may or may not know, these are by no means exaustive lists. We've done categories that might be a bit more straightforward, so we bypassed a couple of those in favor of some others. It happens from year to year. We all know the BEST venue, BEST song, or BEST record store, and everyone has their own idea of what live show they considered to be BEST over the past year. Those are good and all, but here's our BEST Music as Smile Politey's BEST week rolls on.
This was, in every sense of the word, an album. Depth has a lot of literal meaning, and top to bottom, the cohesiveness of Shannon Swords' follow-up record to Jameson Dreams was every bit of the hype. Live instrumentation, local artist collaboration, matched with the flow of a really damn good emcee made Depth carry every bit of swagger it deserved. Tracks like "217" are obvious signs that this is a Champaign-Urbana record through and through — but dig a little deeper, there's so much more to take in here. Sadly, Swords will be exiting C-U for another city, and he will be missed. At least he left this behind for us to listen to for a while.
BEST live band
This is what we call mixing two different breeds of animal in the same category — but as far as live music goes, these two are just straight up different. Sun Stereo has the ultimate stage presence — the huge live band, the charismatic front man in Kelly McMorris, and all the rest of the fireworks that goes along with their live show that is every bit of the word "performance". Not only that, but they can hold their own on the big stage — touring and holding down spots festivals like Summer Camp and North Coast, Sun Stereo has a solid formula.
When it comes to something a little more rough around the edges — but just as impactful — Hank. tore up 2013. Their debut record Pinched. brought a sense of true belonging, in my mind, to the heavy-hitters of Champaign-Urbana music. Their blend of punk/math-rock/emo kept a live audience on their toes — and fucking sweaty afterwards.
BEST effort to get our Music Editor's attention
On a weekly basis, we get dozens of emails from bands from all over the place submitting for review, for interviews, so on and so forth. We like to think we're pretty good at getting back to everyone — but we're the first to admit that things sometimes fall through the cracks. How do you get our attention? By being weird as shit, sometimes. Honestly. Asswolf Studios delivered Wolf Luv, a band that was basically unknown on our end of things, and provided some comic relief (calling us "cowards" and suggesting we listen via Beats By Dre headphones works) along the way. Get creative. Get weird. They did, and they ended up on a BEST list.
BEST example that less is more sometimes
Sean Neumann, aka Single Player, is just one fella. He can't do it all. None of us can. I guess that's why his name is Single Player, and his songs are (for the most part) hardly past one minute in length. Just check out some of his latest releases, including last year's warmly received Could Care Less, and this year's Are You There?, and you'll get the picture. Realizing that lo-fi is where you fit best — or just doing it because that's your artistic outlet — rules, in my estimation. Let's not overcomplicate things and just deliver what comes up naturally. You could argue that something in the ambient/experimental world would be good competition here — but something about his approach feels like everything is off of the top of his head, in a good way.
A band that played a handful of shows back in 1999, released an album, and broke up shortly thereafter probably isn't ever going to get back together, right? I mean, they all have other lives, new musical projects, and they're not teenagers singing about teenage problems, right? Wrong. They can totally do that, and they blew people's minds in the process by lining up a few reunion shows (most notably, one right here in Champaign at the Pygmalion Festival in September). The news trickled out back in April, and fans of Midwest emo and beyond rejoiced with the idea they're going to actually hear these American Football tracks live.
Not entirely a local story here (as the members don't live here anymore) — but American Football's legacy was built here, and will come back from the dead soon enough. It was an insanely pleasant surprise to know that this was not only possible — but will be happening right here before you know it.
BEST pipe dream come true
Unlike American Football (for the most part), people had an idea that Neutral Milk Hotel was going to get back together. At some point in time, Jeff Mangum's solo tours were going to run out, and then what? Quit playing, or reunite a band that had achieved the ultimate cult following status? Reunite that shit, of course.
However — getting NMH to come play in C-U? Nah, that won't happen. But wait, it totally did, and if you were there, you knew what you were witnessing. Perhaps that's where the pipe dream aspect comes into play — the fact that many pieces had to fall into place in order for something like this to be possible. It was great.
HUM at the final show at The Velvet Elvis
It was only a matter of time before local house venue The Velvet Elvis got busted, and for those of you who experienced some shows there over the years, you were lucky. Well, that happened late last year to most everyone's dismay, but we do have a really insane show to remember it by. Granted, everyone has their memories of shows they'd seen there — but HUM? In this space? In 2014? C'mon, seriously? Yes. HUM made the venue go out with a bang. There was an insane buzz around this show leading up to the performance, which ultimately might have been it's downfall. Nevertheless, it was a fond farewell to a really great non-venue venue.
Selfishly, a Vine of mine might give you an idea.
BEST Great Cover Up performance
Mike Ingram & Friends as Justin Timberlake
Were you even at The 23rd Great Cover Up, bro? It was sick! Elsinore was freakin' Nirvana, dude. Sun Stereo covered The Doors and it was totally off the hook. Brother Embassy just nailed James Brown (with some kind of screaming psychopath on the side). But the best one? The best act all week — no homo — was Mike Ingram as Justin Timberlake. He was so good, bro.
That's just how I imagine the screaming hetero-males relayed the story after the fact, at work or the gym or wherever. There was not a person in that building who didn't let out a screech or two during Mike Ingram's set. His band was Abnormous and his backup featured Latoya Gwin, CiCi Stewart, Brandon T. Washington, and Kayla Brown. I mean... what else is there to say?
Ingram is a big fan of the '80s and '90s — and not one of those fake, ironic, tongue-in-cheek lovers of my generation's nostalgia. He loves it. He's not smirking when he invites you over to watch Home Alone 2. He is looking you in the eyeballs... and asking you to bring your copy of The Karate Kid, if you happen to have it because he wore out his second copy over the weekend. Mike Ingram knows Justin Timberlake is what I'm trying to say. That dude clearly has all of the JT moves mapped out, starting way back with those blonde tips and ending with his "Suit & Tie" smoothness. Ingram was today's Timberlake. He had the tux, the hair, the production, and the voice. He was not even fucking around at The Cover Up. He brought so much of it, he had to carry it in Hefty bags. From the amazing lights to the backup singers, it was all clearly a labor of love and respect. An additional mention — Brandon T Washington's greatness during "SexyBack". Possibly the most enthused performance I've seen from that man, and that's saying a lot.
Mad props, bro. (KP)
BEST local label
We've never really recognize labels for the work that they do to promote and hoist up Champaign-Urbana artists, which is probably a mistake on our part. However, with the number of labels that have popped up over the last few years, Heirship Records, run by Isaac Arms of Withershins, props up some of the best that C-U has to offer. It's an exclusive label of sorts — where his goal is to deliver "THE CU SOUND" — which could get tricky if you think about it. What is that sound? What kinds of local bands deliver it? Well, there isn't one particular sound, and that's the point. So, perhaps it is a trick question. With artists like Terminus Victor, Grandkids, Withershins, Jay Moses, Swords and a list of others taking part in this Endeavour, it's something that should be around as long as possible.
BEST new band
A power trio of sorts — with the idea that power comes from drinking a lot, yelling, and chugging on guitars for a while — Bookmobile! (not that Bookmobile, fool) has been one of the most welcomed additions into the fold of local music over the past year. How can singing things like "Fuck You, Dad" be met any other way than in a positive way? C'mon, people. Not giving a damn is the best most of the time, and Bookmobile! is every bit as exciting as that exclamation point makes it seem. If you haven't done so already, do yourself a favor and check out one of their upcoming shows. Just do it, already.
BEST local hip-hop
Over the past year, we've seen a resurgence in hip-hop in Champaign-Urbana. Perhaps these things have been available all the while, but 2013 made things a bit clearer, at least in my mind. It's tough to single one of them out, so I'm not going to. As a collective, they are best recognized.
Jay Moses and his release of #TheGenius, Klevah's terrific TheW8, JEFFdaMC's [Adult Swim], and most recently, Sky's Gr8Sky release. All four of them are bringing it, and we're glad, because it just adds another dynamic to the C-U music scene that is totally necessary. The music is fucking good, frankly. Enough said.
BEST non-venue that should be used regularly
The Brass Rail
C'mon. Please? Can more shows happen here? Maybe I'm missing something, but these shows are always killer, and recently there have been a few that have been crammed into that area near the front. Loud music, tons of whiskey, and a dive bar (not to mention, one of the best places to drink in town) — what's not to love?
BEST new local music resource
Ricky Bright & Co. have their shit together. Just in the first few months of business, you can tell that they are truly a group that maintains their "testament to quality" in a portion of music that can get dominated by the ease of online purchases being delivered straight to your doorstep. I'll be the first one to tell you that I am no musician, but just from a few stops in there to see what's what, plus what I've heard from various folks around town, this is a solid addition, as you can actually pick up the instruments and play them. Seriously. Crazy, right? What a novelty. No pretentiousness about it within the beautiful walls of the space that it exists in — it will be interesting to see how they continue to evolve within our community.
BEST use of music for positive social change
This is a portion of BEST that might be the most feel-good aspect — as Champaign Centennial took Justin Timberlake's 2013 hit "Suit & Tie" and made it their own. You can watch and see for yourself below, but yeah, this group deserves some love for what they put together.