Smile Politely

BEST: Music

And so we come to the BEST music. We think you’ll agree that we have provided irrefutable evidence that every one of our audio-themed selections is perfect. But if you don’t and for some reason feel the need to add your personal thoughts in our “comments” section, just remember that you will be making one of our music editors cry (most likely the bald one).

Here are our last three BEST sections: ARTS, SPORTS, FOOD & DRINK

Best jazz band: Jazz Sandwich

For serious fans of jazz, the idea of picking a best jazz band probably seems pretty absurd. Jazz is all about being in the moment, getting lost in the sound and possibly meeting your new favorite band each time you go see a concert. The fleeting moments of greatness instantly get lost in the ether — and that’s the beauty of it. You were one of the few who got swallowed in that sound at that particular moment. There’s no way to accurately measure such spontaneity. That is until now. We created a machine that adds up the number of spectacular moments each jazz band creates and divides by the number of performances. After tallying the results, it should come as no surprise that this town has an absurd number of jazz musicians killing it each and every week. But we’re not here to talk about second place, and there’s room at the top for only one band. After the tabulations were completed, it was the slick psycho-funk of Jazz Sandwich that came out ahead. What we love, above all else, is that while this band takes their music incredibly seriously, they don’t take themselves seriously at all.
— —

Best whatever genre band: Mhondoro Rhythm Success/The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra

We don’t mean this as an insult, but a lot of bands in this town are pretty hard to categorize. And it seems silly to not include them because they don’t fit in a well-defined format, like the blues. Foremost among them are the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra and Mhondoro. Each brings something wholly unique to the Champaign music scene, and it should be noted that both bands have universal appeal that crosses age groups and nationalities. The Duke of Uke has had a great year already, with the release of This Way Up, but they just keep moving ahead, playing new treatises on funkified-ukulele-jazz-big band pop at each show. They have so much new material that they have already been talking about the next album. Mhondoro is simply in its own league, possibly on this entire continent, when it comes to playing African pop music. The sheer exuberance the band brings to playing their music is unparalleled. Their live shows are part dance night/part free jam/part drumming clinic and all-out fun.
— —

Best album by a local band in the last year: Common Loon: The Long Dream of Birds

The last twelve months have seen some pretty impressive local albums, including recent entries by Kayla Brown, World’s First Flying Machine and the Duke of Uke and his Novelty Orchestra. But, conflict of interest be damned, we have quickly fallen in love with The Long Dream of Birds. We admit to being thrown off by the excellent, yet subdued one-two punch of “Dinosaur vs. Early Man” and “Palestine Everywhere”. But after that bit of musical claustrophobia, the album opens up with “Happy Ending” and manages to perfectly balance the darker moments with, dare we say it, sunshine pop. Too often local bands rush their first albums — perhaps out of anxiety to have physical product. Not so with this immaculately produced gem. This is clearly a labor of love and should stand the test of time as a benchmark for local music in 2010. As Doug Hoepker said in the summary of his album review, the bar for this decade in local music has already been set pretty high.
— —

Best club music venue: Mike ‘n Molly’s Beer Garden

There are obviously a lot of great venues in this town, and if we had to choose year-round, we would not pick Mike n’ Molly’s. When shows are upstairs, with its cave-like feel and poor sight lines, we basically feel like we’re in the basement at a college party. Except without the excitement of underage drinking, pot smoking and heavy petting. But when it gets nice and the shows move outside, it just doesn’t get any better. Maybe the acoustics aren’t perfect, and maybe there’s sometimes too much of a chill in the air. But when it’s 75 degrees, a band is blowing you away, and you are enjoying a great microbrew inside the ivy-covered bricks, you know — you just know — that this is as good as rock n’ roll is ever gonna get in this town.
— —

Best student band: Santah

With Jet W. Lee, World’s First Flying Machine and many other student bands burning C-U up, this might have been the hardest category to pick a winner. But this is one of those cases where the most obvious choice is also the best one. Santah has been building a loyal following for about three years, and they’re finally culminating it all this May with the release of White Noise Bed. Very few bands with members so young could pull off those dirty hooks so well. Yeah, sometimes they remind us a little too much of a drunken Spoon, but you could do a lot worse when choosing a band to emulate. And pretty much everyone we talk to says they get better every time they see them.
— —

Best radio station: WEFT

Look, there are a lot of shitty radio stations in town. There’s no doubt about that. But there are also a lot of good ones. For as much trouble as we sometimes give 107.1, we probably listen to it more than any other. And they do a great job of throwing songs by local bands into their mix (though they choose from a pretty select list of local bands). They also have a couple of specialty shows we really enjoy, including their punk and hip hop shows. However, 107.1 is a college music station that ultimately plays it pretty safe. And we just can’t get past the fact that they have a weekly show called “What the Frat” and a competition called the “Frattle of the Bands.” (When did fraternities become the new ska?) We love the idea of a Parkland radio station, but unfortunately they share a similarly safe musical philosophy to 107.1 (though we do love the Mexican music on the weekends). Then there’s Farmer City’s the Whip. How can you not love the Whip?

But there’s only one radio station that plays jazz, blues, world, rock, electronica, reggae, punk, metal, classical, folk, country, celtic, the kitchen sink, weekly local live acts and still has lots of time left for several hours of public affairs programming. We would be lying if we said we loved everything they played or that we even listen as often as we probably should. But there’s no doubt this community is richer and better for having WEFT. So do your soul a favor this Sunday — skip church and listen to four hours of gospel music from east-central Illinois’ best radio station.
— —

Best new band: Grandkids

OK — so these guys are really new (they’ve played a grand total of five shows, by our count). But we love what we’ve heard from them so far. Their sparse arrangements and Vivian McConnell’s not inconsiderable vocal chops give them a refreshingly direct sound, part folk and part alt-country. And we happen to think that a little directness is just what this town’s been lacking as of late. Plus, guitarist Evan Metz has easily the coolest iTunes library in the music editor with the full head of hair’s dorm.

— —

Best blues band: Kilborn Alley

Quick, how many local bands that aren’t Headlights can you name that have toured Europe? Unless you happen to be a Beauty Shop fanatic, the answer is probably none. Kilborn Alley have, though, and short of Headlights, they might be the most widely-acclaimed act in Champaign-Urbana. Granted, they aren’t getting too much coverage on Pitchfork or Stereogum, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Blues & Rhythm Magazine are equally as influential — maybe not on your Animal Collective-obsessed cousin, but certainly on your dad.

— —

Best punk band: The Fresh Kills

We’ve been to our share of bad house shows — the kind where things run two hours late, the PA blows up and the bands are too drunk to play — and we’re more than familiar with the accompanying funk that sets in. Thankfully, the Fresh Kills are the polar opposite thereof. Blindingly fast, furious and anchored by Sam Cronenberg’s terrifically precise drumming, this is hardcore the way it’s supposed to be played. While they’ve been around for less than a year, they’ve already completed their debut album Turn Up the Brilliance, which comes out on May 15th. Get yourself to the corresponding release show, have a few Highlifes, and hit the pit.

— —

Best non-traditional/house music venue: The Red Herring

There’s a great deal to be said about house shows — the intimacy, the sense of community, the graffiti on the sweaty basement walls, the cheap or free beer — all of which, with the exception of beer, the Red Herring is chock full of, without the risk of a busted show and a $300 drinking ticket from Champaign-Urbana’s finest. This could just be our senses of nostalgia talking, but a show at the Red Herring feels like the best house party we never went to in high school — insanely loud, filled with friends, and imbued with that sense of community. A show there even comes with the requisite gaggle of kids sitting outside all night smoking cloves.

— —

Best rap/hip-hop artist: Jay Moses/SWAFI Circle

We’ll just come out and say it: the local hip-hop scene has been a little slow since Krukid left town. Gone are the days of six-artist blowout shows and endless collaborations from the downtown Champaign scene (BRC, we miss you! Come back!). Fortunately, the Urbana-based SWAFI Circle crew are on the rise, and Jay Moses is at the head of the pack, having released his debut album The Journey last fall. While the production is decidedly more mainstream than the scene is used to — not that we’re saying that’s a bad thing — The Journey, along with the other material coming out of SWAFI (The Transaction mixtape and Nick G’s Isolated) injects some sorely-lacking energy into a sagging scene. And yeah, maybe it’s not as polished as what the local heads are used to, but any way you cut it, it’s pretty damn good for a group of emcees and producers that are just out of high school.

— —

Best regular dance night: Dubstep Massacre

If there’s anything that’s put Champaign-Urbana on the map in the past year, it’s been Dubstep Massacre. Their packed houses and oozing bass are already the stuff of legend in Champaign-Urbana, and they’re garnering some serious attention on a national level as well (we’ve recently had.people from as far away as Austin, Texas ask us about the shows). We also love that 217mafia is bringing in touring acts and collaborating with the equally awesome Rave to the Grave crew (hopefully by this time next year, they’ll have people from Austin asking about them). What it ultimately comes down is that moreso than any band has recently, Dubstep Massacre is putting in the legwork, taking the local scene to the next level and getting some much-needed name recognition for the Champaign-Urbana scene.

— —

Best live band: The Diamond Stretch

There’s a great deal to be said for interacting with your audience, and the Diamond Stretch are extraordinarily well-versed in doing so. TDS’s mixture of wry humor, absurdist stage antics (Creed covers, anyone?), a sense of presence and physicality on the level of Dillinger Escape Plan and a technically stunning grind/thrash sound makes for easily the most memorable in-your-face live show around. Honestly, how many bands can you remember seeing around town where both of the lead singers (yes, they have two) spent the majority of the show in the audience — or throwing themselves into and through it in biking shorts or a vintage safari costume? Ultimately, they’re one of those groups that must be seen live. Plus, several of the band members do some of the ballsiest (and best) booking in town over at Dan Akroyd’s House.

— —

Band most deserving of national attention, but not getting any: New Ruins

These guys have it all. A press ready story (childhood friends band together, create rock band), connections to unassailably great bands (Velvet Crush, Braid), press accolades (an AMG editor’s pick for We Make Our Own Bad Luck) and some absolutely great songs — if you don’t believe me, check out “Homes of Rich Blood” on their Myspace — so why aren’t they bigger? I know there’s something enticing about a well kept secret, but a secret kept too long stops being interesting. New Ruins have a rugged, populist and definitely midwestern charm about them — it would be a shame to see them relegated to growing list of great bands that never made it out of Illinois. In all honesty, it feels like New Ruins are one major tour away from breaking into the mainstream consciousness, an event which they more than deserve. Hopefully their still-gestating third album will prove to be that catalyst.

— —

Best hope for the next year: The Untitled Harman Jordan/Vladimir Brilliant Project

The rest of 2010 is looking pretty great for local music lovers. There will be new records from Santah, Elsinore, New Ruins (including their mysterious re-recording) and many more; a Hum show in celebration of Champaign’s 150th Anniversary; lots of great festivals and dozens of other great musical moments that are ours for the taking. But what we’re most looking forward to is just a rumor at this point. Word on the street is that former Shipwreck members Harman Jordan and Vlad Brilliant (plus whoever else they have rounded up) are cooking up something new in a garage or basement somewhere. It’s been almost three years since the well-loved Shipwreck played in town, and they are clearly missed. Consider us cautiously optimistic — but no pressure fellas.


Uh, that was a lot of dudes. In the spirit of gender equity* and to wear your hardened heart down before you complain about us not selecting Vanattica as best jazz band, check this out:

*In all seriousness, this town needs more female-focused bands. We really don’t mean to joke around about it.

More Articles