Smile Politely

Top Twenty C-U Songs 2011

This year saw a lot of great albums released in Champaign-Urbana, which we covered yesterday. However, there’s something about a song, the basic unit of a musical scene, that’s far more immediate and exciting than digesting a full-length. We invite you to join us on Smile Politely Radio tonight on WEFT beginning at 5:30, where we’ll be counting down the list along with interviewing New Ruins, Easter and the Mean Lids.

So, without further ado, the top twenty songs of the year.

20. “Wisconsin” – Zach May and the Maps

Another great feel-good folk track from Zach May & The Maps from earlier this year.  Don’t change the track before the end, the most redeeming part is the eruption of strings and percussion that takes you by surprise.

19. “Hands Before Feet” – Horrible Things

Spicoli says “all I need is some tasty waves, cool buzz, and I’m fine.” Pretty much sums up what we have to say.  The track is just long enough for the buzz to stay right where it needs to be.

18. “She Came Up From The Sky” – Maltross

The departed stoner-doom group go all in on their last recorded track, with a suffocating low groove punctuated only by the occasional wail of a guitar. Best listened to at an unreasonably loud volume.

17. “As the Gull Flies” – Grandkids

An easily flowing five minutes, this song really marked the transition of Grandkids from being an airy folk group to something with more corporeal detail. The band are exploring the organic ebb and flow from this song in much greater detail on their impressive new demos.

16. “Rolling River” – Ben Campbell

A song which also saw action at some of the very last Flying Machine shows, Rolling River is a lengthy acoustic ballad that builds from voice and guitar to a double-tracked climax and aching violin figures. While it got some action as an eight-minute epic with the full band, it works much better in the stripped down form heard here.

15. “Do we even know what we’re doing up here?” – Panel Van

To think this song might’ve been written for a Battle of the Bands slot is just ridiculous.  If this didn’t beat out the competition at the show there are serious problems in the world. Every second of this track is as bouncy as math rock can be with a punk twist.

14. “Why Do You Keep Calling Me Bill?” – Hank

Standout from Hank’s Schraeder EP is the finale of it all – an eight-plus minute instrumental with great texture and lovely progression.  The track comes untied at the end, but who wouldn’t loosen up after a jam like that.

13. “Roam This Earth” – The Curses

[no stream available as of press time]

It’s hard to pick a stand out track on Old Magazines, an album tightly packed with excellent old-timey dirges. But “Roam this Earth” perfectly encapsulates The Curses strengths with great brass parts throughout and an exceptionally demonic guitar solo.

12. “Midnight Snakes” – The Dirty Feathers

Built around a catchy keyboard part, this song quickly incorporates synth, squealing guitar, and bouncy percussion for the album’s biggest and best freakout. The rhythm becomes increasingly insistent before building a massive twin-guitar solo at the 2:45 mark, after which the band drops out, leaving only ghostly feedback to fade into the rear horizon.

11. “Dodging Anhydrous Clouds” – New Ruins

A great example of the grizzled haze that producer Brian Deck (Iron and Wine, Owen, Modest Mouse) brings to This Life is Not Ours to Keep, this song is a perfect example of the midwestern gothic sound that New Ruins have perfected over the past five-plus years. When Elzie Sexton kicks into the mournful refrain (“I was never something that you want / I remember losing an awful lot / we were never too smart to get caught”), you can almost imagine cruising around the backroads of Champaign county in a pickup at night.

10. “Forest Gimp” – Bad Catman

Somewhere between Johnny Got His Gun and vaudeville, “Forest Gimp” tells the story of a night of drunken antics involving a WWII veteran, the sangamon river, and a prosthetic leg. It’s just as weird as it sounds, but the song is too well-constructed and the band too enthusiastic for it not to work. Now where’d you get that leg?

9. “Live Forever” – Take Care

Getting your band’s track featured on a Polyvinyl Japan Benefit record might be an indication that you’re doing something right.  This power ballad is comprised of multiple sections and time signatures throughout to still keep you guessing as to what comes next.  Hopefully this one does in fact live forever.

8. “Bury the Knife in Your Heart” – Evil Tents

On one the best tracks from the excellent Night Air on the Midway, John Isberg pulls off the impressive feat of actually making autotune sound good. Of course, it works in large part due to the lush, airy backing that the rest of the band provides — without the juxtaposition of artificial and organic, electric and acoustic, this track would be significantly lessened. Good thing they went for it.

7. “I’m From the Midwest. I’m Softspoken.” – Midstress

Opening up this year’s Growing Up is Getting Old (which placed third on our best albums list), the band turn in a ferocious performance on par with the best of their live shows. The song itself is a powerful paean to a quick-fading youth (“and I still see you in the past / but I think I’m gonna have to let you go”) and growing up (“you don’t think about the ones around you / so they won’t care about you”).

6. “Addicts Victorious” – The Palace Flophouse

Here’s a great song by one of C-U’s best storytelling bands about a barely-existent musical act that never gets heard, but plays simply for the joy of making music. Luckily for us, we all get to enjoy the Palace Flophouse. Especially with those killer “ah ah oooh”s.

5. “Witch” – Teenage Ghosts

Arriving with a swirl of guitar and massive drums, “Witch” blends muscular shoegaze with goth influences into a hypnotic, loping sprawl. When the buried, distorted vocal and insistent bass come in, they compliment the whole without pushing to the top and breaking the spell.

4. “Randy Savage Tribute” – Dino Bravo

Never relenting despite a seven-minute run time, “Randy Savage Tribute” goes harder than anything else we’ve heard this year. Volcanic bass lines lock in with pounding drums at a volume that would put Lightning Bolt to shame.

3. “I Want To Forget” – Psychic Twin

A little throbbing bass, some sugary xylophones — as “I Want to Forget” kicks in, Erin Fein seems to be inviting a friend on a delightful getaway to the tropics. But the playful music is a deception. Underneath these pleasant sounds “there’s a darkness like a fortress” that she can’t wait to get away from. It’s as stark a contrast as you’re going to find in this type of pop music. Bad for her, but pretty great for us.

2. “Life Inside an Elephant” – Elsinore

The expansiveness of this track is what really takes the cake.  The snyths are there, the always excellent melody is there, and the track is the most experimental thing we’ve heard from this band and it’s still in the Elsinore’s wheelhouse.  We can’t be disappointed when an excellent band takes steps in another direction and totally succeeds. 

1. “All the People That I Love the Most” – Easter

There is an inevitably to “All the People I Love the Most.” As soon as you hear the first gentle guitar strums over the single-note bass line, you know this is all going to end with a distortion pedal and crashing cymbals. Yet it’s a testament to this song’s greatness that this predictability is irrelevant. Even after repeated listens, we never get sick of the joyful release in the chorus.

And really, this is the kind of song that renders so-called music critics irrelevant. We could try to harp on the familiar musical elements, the overly sincere lyrics or the lo-fi recording style. But “All the People” has a pureness and a joy to it that renders all attempts at cynicism moot. Seriously, let’s not rank this shit. Let’s not worry about any backlash. Let’s not think about any of it too much. Let’s just all be teenagers again (or still), sing along at the top of our lungs and jump up and down and feel a little bit better about our shared experiences. Just for a few minutes, at least.

More Articles