Smile Politely

Top Ten C-U Albums 2010

And so it’s time to relive the year that was in Champaign-Urbana’s local music scene. We kick it off today with our ten favorite local albums, then we’ll have our top songs and shows next week.

We debated whether or not to rank these albums in order. Isn’t quantifying someone’s art totally irrelevant? And don’t we risk building a wedge in the local music scene by pitting band against band? On the other hand, we live in America. So suck it up.

These rankings were determined by polling SP’s writers — everyone who responded got an equal vote. And the results were insanely close. When we tallied up the score, there was a two-way tie for second and our top album won by just a couple of points. This is kind of incredible considering how many people voted and the number of different points everyone could give out. For anyone paying attention in 2010, the top three albums will probably be predictable. But the order might surprise you. Overall, we think it’s a pretty impressive list, and it’s a testament to the local music scene that several really good albums didn’t even make the cut.

But please feel free to tell us who’s missing or who got shafted wtih low placement. And if you make a strong argument, you’ll bring attention to local bands and local artists. Then everybody wins. Except any local jazz, blues, hip hop or country artists. They never win with this bunch of middle-aged hipsters.

(Except where otherwise noted, all writeups by Jeremiah Stanley, John Steinbacher and Ben Valocchi)

Jay Bennett – Kicking at the Perfumed Air

Jay Bennett’s Kicking at the Perfumed Air may not have been the best Chambana record released this year, but to me it was the most significant. Jay passed away on a Sunday morning in May of 2009. Just a few days later, I first heard some of the songs on Kicking booming from the home he’d shared with his girlfriend. In the months that followed, friends of Jay’s like Matt DeWine and Jonathan Pines showed astounding care as they assembled the songs and artwork for this posthumous record. Although I only knew Jay secondhand, I saw his imprint constantly on the people I cared about most in Urbana — people who were there because he had been there. One of the two years I spent in Chambana was indirectly due to Jay. Even though I can’t bear to listen to Kicking at the Perfumed Air anymore, the record’s both a fitting coda to Jay’s sadly shortened life and a testament to how much his friends loved him and to how much he meant to Champaign-Urbana.
Get it for free here.
(by Kelly Innes)

Horrible ThingsAlligator Meat EP

Alligator Meat is roughly what you’d expect from a recently formed po-punk band. Snarky song titles (“Pizza City”, “Jurassic Park on Laser Disc”), simple recording/production techniques and a whole lot of enthusiasm. Combine their excellent tunes, eagerness to book and set up shows, and jumpy, hyperactive energy that would fit right in on an Algernon Cadwallader (or Cap’n Jazz) album and you have a recipe for one hell of a band. If 2010 in punk belonged to the Fresh Kills, 2011 is Horrible Things’ for the taking.
Get Alligator Meat for free here.

8. GrandkidsSelf-titled EP

At times, there’s a hint of Beach House’s dreaminess in Grandkids’ Vivian McConnell’s vocals. To paraphrase their non-EP song “Norman Rockwell,” it’s almost as if she tries to dare you to swoon for her. Opening up for Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s early this week probably wasn’t such a bad night for a local band to have, so someone is paying attention. And if the songs on this EP are any indication of what to expect next, people will keep paying attention. Check out the EP on their Bandcamp page and don’t be surprised if you “sink back in” again and again; you’ll be pleasantly lost. Let’s hope we get a full-length album to check out in 2011.  





7. DJ BellyUrban Love Hymns

This is a dubstep/dance album, right? We suppose you could classify it as such. But it could just as easily be the music that gets you through your term paper or soundtracks a future noire film. But who cares what it is or what you can do with it, as long as you listen. There are many, many great cuts including “Rough and Tumble”, “Where’s My Summer in Love” and “Ridin’ Slow”. But it really stands out because it works so well as a whole. This is not a mixtape thrown together for a weekend DJ session. It’s an impressive work of art by a hard-working local musician who spent months meticulously putting each sound exactly where he wanted. This is an album that will make your head nod while it circumvents the conventional notion of a song. That’s a very good thing.
(Get it here for free.)



6. World’s First Flying MachineThe House You’re Living In

With The House You’re Living In, World’s First Flying Machine made a mature, deeply personal statement that will endure for years to come. Ben Campbell’s lyrics weave a series of vignettes over nocturnal textures that build to gorgeous peaks on “Self-Titled” and “Red is Turning Blue”. However, the group doesn’t shy away from searing, Mangum-esque crescendos — listen to “The Ferris Wheel” and tell us it doesn’t remind you at least a little bit of “The King of Carrot Flowers”. Ultimately, The House You’re Living In will be best remembered for the emergence of Ben Campbell’s distinctive songwriting voice, and if recent live tracks “Long Winter” and “Rolling River” are any indication, things are only looking up for the group.
Get it here.

The Fresh KillsTurn Up the Brilliance

Turn Up the Brilliance marks a watershed for local punk. Sincee its release on May 15th, the number of house venues operating has jumped from two to five, numerous new groups have been formed and expectations are at their highest in years. Turn Up the Brilliance‘s seamless blend of hardcore and melodic elements, augmented by the fantastic technical skill of the group’s members, clean production and phenomenally intense live performances make The Fresh Kills an epoch-defining group for the scene.
Check out Turn Up the Brilliance free of charge here.

4. The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra – This Way Up

We would wager a guess that many people in town still write off This Way Up despite the band’s impressive live shows. Actually, that’s not a guess because we know many of them. The conversation usually ends with, “I enjoy them live but  . . . ” Well, if you happen to be one of those people, you are missing one of the most consistently enjoyable albums of the year. But it’s so much more than just a good time: it’s introspective and surprisingly honest. You don’t have to look far for the album’s motif — Dave King lays it all out in the first words from his mouth, “Let me turn your valleys into Valentines.” And he means it. The listener is a along for the ride as a protaganist consistently wills you and himself (or herself) ever upward, pushing beyond feelings of loss and despair. There just doesn’t seem to be any other viable option. Along the way, there’s funk, there’s tin pan alley, there’s classic big band, there’s Motown, there’s rock and, most appropriately, there’s a whole lot of soul.
Get it here.

2. (tie) SantahWhite Noise Bed

The release of and subsequent touring for White Noise Bed have shown that Santah have thoroughly broken through the “student band” barrier and into a fully formed career. Their loopy, yet hookfilled songs — well, “a drunken Spoon” really is the best way to describe it. Aided by a relentless work effort and touring schedule, and some truly fantastic songs, White Noise Bed is a truly artistic statement, one that will keep Santah on the national radar for quite some time. They’ve already performed a slot at CMJ and recorded a Daytrotter Session last night.
Get it here.


(tie) ElsinoreYes Yes Yes

It was a long wait for this full-length. After some re-tooling, a search for a label and a change to the band lineup, the album finally came out on Parasol back in August. But the wait was well worth it. With a mix of songs that included re-imagined tracks from Ryan Groff’s solo album and Elsinore’s “Chemicals” EP, the band increased their local following and also started to pop up this summer and fall in cities all over the U.S. Some copyright infringement controversy over the cover artwork brought even more attention to the album and videos for “Chemicals” and “Wooden Houses” added yet another dynamic to the work. And all that is great, but it’s the songs that keep us coming back for more. The catchy title track is one of a handful of crowd favorites at live performances (HINT: see our list of the top shows of the year next week), as well as “Chemicals,” a song about the famous “2 Dollar Margaret” of local lore.
Get it here.


Common LoonThe Long Dream of Birds

It might seem weird to call a highly anticipated album from a popular local band a revelation, but that’s exactly what The Long Dream of Birds is. Maybe we weren’t giving Common Loon enough credit because they are a two-piece band intent on producing big sounds. Two-piece blues: okay. Two-piece garage stomp: fine. Two-piece twee harmonies: sure, why not. Two-piece supersonic pop band: umm . . . no. We were expecting a good local album, but we ended up with a great album. No regional qualification necessary.

It may not be as ambitious or stylized as other albums on this list, but The Long Dream of Birds pulls ahead because of its universal appeal and staying power — it has yet to leave our collective playlists since it came out. Slow building “Dinosaur vs. Early Man” eases into the stark, but soaring “Palestine Everywhere,” and just when you think you have this album figured out, everything changes with the ba ba ba’s of “Happy Ending”. After that, there’s no turning back. “A Prayer for Hemophilia” rewards patience and “Lisa’s Pixie Cut” is the gentlest song Hum never wrote. The closer, “A Moment in Energy Transfers,” starts off as a nod to heavenly shoegaze before veering into tender, multi-layered vocal melancholia. Under the lyrical haze, we know something is happening “half a world away”, but we never really know what exactly is going on. All we know is that Common Loon wants to get there. But it doesn’t matter to us, because with this type of lyrical mystery and nuanced approach to songwriting, the journey is the best part.
Get it here.

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