Smile Politely

BEST Music 2018

The music scene in Champaign-Urbana has always been robust with activity — tons of live music every single week, new releases all the time, a wide variety of genres to account for, and plenty of venues with stages to perform on. Certainly, the scene has ups and downs, which we’ve discussed at length here on SP. Perhaps we don’t touch on the bad as much as the good, but that’s OK because there’s a lot of good happening, and it is easy to get jaded about a place we care so much about. We’re going to focus on what’s good, because we’re here for BEST Music 2018. — Patrick Singer

BEST festival decision: Spindependence moving to Downtown Urbana

As a festival promoter myself, there are so many elements of doing an event that sometimes you have to just pay attention to what suits you best, and go for it. I think that the move of Spindependence — the all DJ two-night festival that happens each July — to Downtown Urbana’s Blackbird was a huge win for everyone. The indoor/outdoor set up ultimately reminded me of the year they did the festival at Mike N Molly’s (er… the summer where MNMs was undergoing the transition into Seven Saints, though we don’t have to discuss that further), where the space was tight, the mood was on point, the lights dimmed, and the tunes were very good. Ultimately, Blackbird has one of the best beer gardens in all of Champaign-Urbana, so putting the main portion there where people could hang was an excellent move. (PS) Photo by Bill Karr

BEST band in the scene right now: The Dry Look

While the Dry Look certainly aren’t the most talented band in the scene (I’m sure they’d be the first to tell you this), they certainly have been the most fun and consistent band all year in town. They release material, they play shows enough, but not too much, they go on tour, they have hilarious social media pages, and their music is good. Go to one of their shows and you’ll see what I’m talking about. They engage with the audience, have their shit together on stage (well, for the most part as Michael Kramer might tell you), and people actually come to see their shows. That’s not to say people don’t come out to most shows, but certainly there are bands with potential to draw heads, and they are one of them. (PS) Photo by Blake Detherage

BEST band, based on talent and composition, by a long shot: Sun Stereo

If you haven’t ever seen Sun Stereo perform, you need to change that as fast as you possibly can. Band leader and primary songwriter Kelly McMorris is our very own mad scientist as far as stage show goes. He develops a nine piece band, each of whom are as tight as a drum and capable of playing in multiple time signatures, stopping and starting in ways that most local musicians wouldn’t care dream. His partner Christine dances and manipulates fire from the stage. His mannerisms are so well defined, and so developed, you can’t believe that this isn’t playing an arena as opposed to a small club.

But in the end, the songs are magnetic, and catchy, and it’s almost as if you know them before you’ve even heard them. It is a showcase of McMorris’ ability to weave a tune and craft a song into something ubiquitous. It is a rare quality, and it takes years, and decades, for most people to even approach it.

Kelly McMorris is sitting inside of that identity, and it is a joy to watch it in person

Look, that’s the tough thing about live music and the opportunity for success that surrounds it. Literally, some of the worst players and worst bands are popular for reasons that are confounding, and a band like Sun Stereo may never reach a broader audience than here in Champaign-Urbana.

I hope that changes, and it’s possible that it could, because with an act this tight and this engaging, anything is possible. (SF) Photo from Sun Stereo’s Facebook page

BEST album: Melvin Knight’s Shades of Us

I just wrote about why Melvin Knight’s Shades of Us belongs at the top of our 10 best albums of 2018 list, and we’re going to reiterate that point here in BEST Music. Pound for pound, this is the best release of the year — all of the elements line up to make it that. Production, vocals, musicians, songwriting, and a lovely display of what’s great about this scene is all incorporated into the record. I could go on about it, but I already did, so we’ll save the space here. (PS)

BEST anniversaries: Krannert Center and The Canopy Club

Two of the best venues in Champaign-Urbana are celebrating amazing anniversaries in 2018: The Canopy Club turns 20, and Krannert Center for the Performing Arts is 50. They are staples to the live music and arts community in this town, and while both are wildly different — they exist on the same few blocks near campus and are going strong as 2018 has come and gone for the most part. (PS) Photo by Sam Logan

BEST job filling the calendar: Marten Stromberg and Paul Wurth at The Iron Post

We made it a point to showcase how the Iron Post was doing an exceptional job filling their show calendar in last year’s installment of BEST Music, though as time has gone on, there’s even more to congratulate given the work of Marten Stromberg adding more to what makes the Iron Post a weird but awesome room. The Post will always be a no-frills hole in the wall type jazz bar in Downtown Urbana, but as rooms like this one start to disappear, there’s more need to prop it up and showcase what it means to the culture of C-U. (PS) Photo by Patrick Singer

BEST new band: Zecca Bom

Zecca Bom is such an awesome motley crew of local musicians, it’s hard to overlook this band’s formation in 2018. While they aren’t necessarily a dream team of musicians in town, the list features very, very good ones: Jason Finkelman, Ben Juday, Cody Jensen, Robert Sena, Chad Dun, Gordon Kay, and Charlie Harris — listed in no particular order. They just have an amazing crew compiled for this project, and that’s worth celebrating. The world music/funk outfit hasn’t performed a lot around town, but they are certainly worthy of your attention. Perhaps you can attend their next show at the Iron Post for NYE. (PS) Photo by Sam Logan

BEST additions for already awesome festivals: Hogchute Opry + Matsuri adding touring bands

Festivals take tons of time to develop and mature over time, and certainly these two events have stolen my heart as someone who deeply cares about there being excellent programming at all sorts of events around C-U. Both Hogchute Opry and Japan Houses’ Matsuri Festival elevated their events in 2018 by adding touring acts into the mix in addition to the locally-sourced music both put out there already. Hogchute added Ryley Walker and Jack Grelle to their Opry installment in June, and Adam Remnant for their Harvest installment in October. Matsuri added the legendary Shonen Knife and The’s to celebrate their 20th anniversary of Japan House back in September. While I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a “tie” in this category for BEST, both made excellent strides this year. (PS) Photo by Japan House

BEST surprise project: Fake Friend

Spencer Walters’ project Fake Friend surfaced earlier this year, I touched on that a bit in our top 10 albums list, and the bedroom synth release just really floored me in a lot of ways. The EP is only a few songs long, and there isn’t anything particularly mindblowing about the songs, I just feel strongly about showcasing the quality through the magazine because there isn’t a ton of music that’s like this available in this town. It most certainly was a surprise to start out 2018, and Walters has issued a couple more EPs since then, and I hope he has some more tunes in the tank for us in the near future. If not, that’s OK, because I can always go back and check these out. (PS) Photo provided by Spencer Walters

BEST import: Ausar

Watching Ausar perform at this year’s PYGMALION was one of the highlights of the whole festival because I watched how much promotion he put into the show, and then saw how many people actually came out to watch it. Though Ausar Bradley is just a student here, and not an actual resident, we’re lucky to have him as a part of the scene, even if it is for just a brief period of time. Perhaps the rapper will stick around? Who knows, but I think that with the strength of a full band and a good social media presence, he’s destined for something bigger than C-U. Time will tell of course, but soak up his time in this community before we miss out on it. (PS) Photo by Veronica Mullen

BEST experimental outfit: Wingclipper

Adam Porter’s projects is one of the coolest discoveries I made all year, and I’ve made no secret of how much I enjoy his material. Porter teaches at Parkland College, and has been working on this project, Wingclipper, for quite some time. There are a plethora of records to check out in his collection of released material. Porter put out two collections this year, Secret of the Stars and 新緑 [Fresh Green], and I hope he continues to put out these records filled with excellent obscure hip-hop and synth sample-filled tracks. Just take a listen for a few minutes and you’ll understand, because in my mind, I just am excited to see someone putting in the hours to churn out this really interesting music in the experimental genre locally. (PS) Photo by Adam Porter

BEST stage lighting: Bully’s ice cream cone light

Sometimes less is more. Like this, this… amazing light that Bully had on stage during their sold-out show at Cowboy Monkey back in January. There’s not much more to say about it aside from it being the best stage light. (PS) Top photo by Anna Longworth, bottom photo by Derian Silva

BEST pipes: Kenna Mae

Good lord, I’ve been listening to Relevator’s For Raelyn a lot recently, and goddamn can Kenna Mae Reiss sing. She is truly a gem of the community and we’re lucky to have her back in the mix after she left for a brief period of time. Her solo work is available for listening here, and the Relevator album is linked above as well. I sometimes find it hard to believe that I’m not listening to a famous country musician when I’m listening to her sing, because when she belts it out, she has the capability to put people’s jaws on the floor. (PS) Photo from Kenna Mae’s Facebook

BEST album artwork: ZXO’s LP1

I’m certain that ZXO frontman Ryan Brewer would say that the album artwork for their very-good LP1 was heavily inspired by Ryley Walker’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, though the artist Brian Blomerth seems to have a track record of putting out artwork that follows the same theme as LP1. Regardless, the artwork is most excellent and even though the record didn’t technically come out in 2018, the album’s artwork deserves some recognition. Although ZXO doesn’t sound as psychedelic as this artwork would lead you to believe, that’s OK, the music is still really good. (PS)

BEST secret venue: Mporium

I’ll let you find out where this place is, but when you do, you’ll be happy you did because of how cool this show space is. There’s all sorts of incredible decor at Mporium — hanging skeletons and skulls of cows, pinball machines, trippy lights, weird couches, and all sorts of other things that make this DIY venue weird as hell but an awesome place to see a show. This is exactly the type of hole in the wall venues that we need, and while the venue isn’t super active, when there are shows there it is an absolute treat. It reminds me of the days of the Velvet Elvis in a lot of ways, and those are days I want to come back. (PS) Photo by Candie Kates Photography

BEST scene camaraderie: hip hop

Regardless of whether a ton of people come out to a show, or not many at all, there’s something to be said about a good scene within the overall scene. I think it is time to point out how Champaign Cypher Series perpetuates the hip hop community here, and continues to do so beyond C-U. The crew is going on tour, stacking tons of rappers onto bills, and just has a general support system that appears to be very fine tuned. (PS) Photo Robert K. Recordings

BEST new solo act: Belle

If you haven’t heard of Belle, Annabelle Alexander’s project, you should check out her release from earlier this year, Eppur Si Muove (And Yet It Moves)That record was released back in July, and Belle has performed around town here and there, but not a ton. Alexander’s project is a really excellent display of shoegaze/post rock tunes all from one human being, which is pretty different from the other projects she’s been involved in previously. (PS) Photo by Veronica Mullen

BEST karaoke sesh: Michael Carpenter singing on stage with Foo Fighters

Michael Carpenter performs around town, mostly in MOJO (a Tom Petty tribute band) these days, and when Foo Fighters came through to State Farm Center earlier this year, he landed up on stage, somehow. Just watch him belt out “Tom Sawyer” with Foo Fighters below, which is pretty insane and well done. (PS) Photo is a screenshot from the video

BEST export: Sean Neumann playing in Ratboys / Jupiter Styles

Sean Neumann has been slugging it out writing for a bunch of excellent publications — Rolling Stone, Vice, and others — and you can read more about that in my conversation with him from earlier this year. Neumann has spent a ton of time on the road this year with Ratboys, as well as with his own project Jupiter Styles (formerly known as Single Player). He’s doin’ the work as a touring musician and a freelance journalist. He’s pictured above with Ratboys on tour, he’s the guy in the middle with the “A” on his shirt. Keep up the good work, Sean. (PS) Photo from Ratboys’ Facebook page

All entires by Patrick Singer and Seth Fein

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