Smile Politely

Top 10 C-U albums of 2016

This year in music for Champaign-Urbana was a huge one, and here we present to you our humble rundown of the standouts. These albums cover a wide swath of genres, from hip-hop to folk to emo and more. Artists young and not-so-young told their stories and made their marks on the scene and the audience. Some of them took on heavy themes, like gender, loss, and sexuality. Others kept it light and breezy in the best way. All of them showed growth and invited us to grow with them, so as you take in this list, make sure to enjoy the ride. – Julia McAnly 


What better way to kick off the countdown than with Champaign-Urbana’s hilarious weirdo Americana band, Bones Jugs? The group put out another fun one this year. Don’t Waste a Drop features their classic xylophone-and-kazoo zaniness coupled with banjos, guitars, and just real musical skill that only comes from years of goofing around in precisely the right way. Bones Jugs are a key component of the C-U community, and they love this place and their role here. Many of the songs on Don’t Waste a Drop include local references, like the track “Black Dog” about everyone’s favorite barbeque joint. Bones Jugs are nothing if not completely one-of-a-kind, and we’re lucky to have their kind here. – JM


The members of We The Animals have been playing music around C-U for a couple years, but they haven’t released a full-length album until 2016’s Hells & Chronicles. The album came out a couple days before Halloween, and although it’s not a “spooky” album, it’s certainly dark and gloomy. Frontwoman Kayla Brown’s vocals smoulder one moment and wail the next as she delivers brooding lyrics that are saturated with vulnerability. The instrumentation on the album is carefully restrained, which is wise; this is just the sort of music that requires a light touch. It leaves the listener wistful, but not angry or disturbed. It’s beautifully eerie and entrancing, and okay, maybe a bit ghostly. – JM


2016 was an important year for emo music in C-U: The venerable American Football put out their first album in almost two decades, several show houses keen on the genre opened up, and some up-and-comers put out some solid albums. One of those bands is Euriah. At only a couple years old, it didn’t take the band long to develop their signature “Midwest Emo” sound and find a comfortable niche in the music scene. Passenger is the group’s second release, after their 2015 debut EP, and its sound is markedly more complex. Textured guitar riffs and new pedal effects create an atmospheric feel that is reminiscent of shoegaze. The group sounds practiced; they sound dedicated, and their music is somewhat more compelling than before. This is because instead of sounding like a promising new emo band, Passenger sounds like Euriah. It’s exciting to see how they evolve from here. – JM


Rebecca Rego & The Trainmen aren’t the last group on this list to use their music as therapy. When put up against their first album, Tolono, Lay These Weapons Down is more somber and reflective. It’s a folk album that sings the blues. This is because the members of the group went through a lot in their lives over the time it took to make their second release. Loss and heartache are some central themes of Rebecca Rego’s lyrics; however, they don’t make her indie folk music all that mournful. Her power is still there. She makes it clear that hard times make us stronger, and friends will help us through. And those are themes that can never be reiterated enough. – JM

Unlike many of their emo genre contemporaries, so long forgotten have been C-U music mainstays for over a decade. Their self-titled album is the first in almost seven years, and you can hear the ups and downs of those years in it. You can also hear it as their swan song, because the group decided to amicably put the band to rest after recording it. They played their last show at The Accord in April to a sad but contented room of friends and fans, and they absolutely brought the house down. The band and their final album will easily escape any lapse in memory. – JM

Emily Blue has really come into her own this past year as both an artist and an activist. The young musician has managed to keep track of many projects over her short career, such as the C-U based groups Tara Terra and BOYCUT, but this year she took it to the next level. Her first solo album, Another Angry Woman, shows Blue’s boldness in that she is willing to stand up for what she believes in through her music. She uses her unique indie pop sensibilities and lilting singing voice to tackle grave themes head-on, like sexual abuse and gender identity, and doesn’t flinch once. What’s more is that Blue designated all the proceeds from Another Angry Woman to go to C-U’s Rape Advocacy, Counseling, and Education Services (R.A.C.E.S), a hugely underfunded organization that needs as much help as possible, and that truly kicks ass. Her video for “No Pain” features survivors of sexual violence, and you’d have to have a heart of absolute stone to watch it and not feel moved. – JM


Sometimes, when it comes to art, the best thing to do is keep it simple. There’s always room for complication later. That’s the beauty of a lot of punk music, and it’s a key component to the success of Kowabunga! Kid’s Wasting My Time. Kamila Glowacki is a force to be reckoned with as a member of a handful of different projects and an artist in her own right. For this band, she and Aaron Shults craft energetic punk pop that bounces around Jack Motts’ drums in two-minute spurts. Wasting My Time is a whirlwind listen that clocks in at around twenty minutes. It evokes the gleefully wasted years of adolescence without an ounce of regret. – JM   

Though The Fights always wow us with their style and laid back, non-pop country twang, this year’s album Bramble Patch Blues was truly exceptional, playing off of themes of Central Illinois life we all know and love. Cole Rabenort weaves intricate and relatable stories into immaculate melodies that strike a chord with listeners of nearly all genres. Don’t let the mere fact that The Fights make country music dissuade you from listening – you’d be doing yourself a massive disservice. –Boswell Hutson

Mother Nature’s career was seemingly kickstarted by a massive show at The Pygmalion Festival in 2015, only to be followed up by a equally good show this year. Outside of the shows, however, T.R.U.T.H and Klevah have put out one of the most important releases in C-U hip-hop history with Mother Nature, their debut full-length project. To this day, I have never seen the music scene rally around a performer as much as they did for Mother Nature when this album dropped, and as someone who has followed local hip-hop for a fairly long while, that’s always encouraging to see. – BH
Generally, at SP Music, when we get a submission, we know what to expect. Champaign-Urbana is a relatively small town with a relatively small music scene, making it easy to get to know each band and what their sound is like. In May of this year, however, we were absolutely stunned when we hit play on Listen to the Kids, the debut project from British-born U of I student CJ Run.
LTTK is not a perfect album (not many are), nor is it totally polished, but the production and CJ’s style of rapping are both aspects that are progressive on a global scale, not just a local one. This feels less like something that would come from Champaign-Urbana, and more like something that would come from a bigger city, with a wider array of influences. You can tell by the time the beat drops on the first track, and the feeling just keeps on going through the end.
Take a listen for yourself to see what I mean. – BH

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