As we've reached the final installment of the BEST series for SP, we did things a bit differently this year. If you recall, last year the process was based on the results of polls and surveys that were collected. Not this year. We're shouldering all the weight this year — so hate it or love it, we'll put our asses on the line for some of the more fiery discussion that comes to the comment boxes on this site. However, after everything is said and done, whether you agree or disagree with our selections, C-U is a pretty great place to be when it comes to music. With that said, here's our take on the current music scene in the area, and what we believe to be BEST.
Best rock band: Common Loon
We have a feeling this pick might be met with a bit of flack from the readers, but we're ready to take it on. There's no hiding that these guys have ties to the magazine in more ways than other bands do, but seriously, get over it. When it comes down to it, these two aren't in the background standing over us waiting for us to like them the most — it doesn't work that way, it just doesn't. With that said, if you don't understand even the slightest bit why there's a reason we name Common Loon as the BEST of this category, your ears don't work.
No one knows what makes a rock band. Well, we all think we know. Every time you try to guess, someone is reinventing the definition to call themselves a rock band. It's easy to make the lines blur between genres and create confusion in who calls who what kind of band. Common Loon crafts those types of songs — the tracks that you question: is that a pop song? is that a rock song? is that rockabilly? Whatever. It doesn't really matter. The point is, there's no single combination in making a good rock group. These guys can do it in the live setting with a single guitar and a drumset, and especially in the studio where they obviously have more tricks at their disposal. There's no recipe to a winning combination, but we think this one is pretty good.
Best album: New Ruins: This Life Is Not Ours To Keep
Regardless of where this album finished in the voting for last year's SP Best Albums of 2011 list, this is a force to be reckoned with. New Ruins hasn't made a lot of transformation since their early records — you always knew what you were getting, and it was always pretty great. They brought in Brian Deck (Modest Mouse) to lend them a hand, but how much difference can that actually make? Everyone might say that it makes a huge difference, and producers change bands and whatever other nonsense we can throw into the equation. When it comes down to the basics, New Ruins crafted something here. This is theirs and they owned it. Without question this is their strongest effort to date. Without question people had their hand in helping them make it. Without question their recording situation helped. But there's one thing that isn't put into question — this is a damn good record.
Best EP: Elsinore: Life Inside an Elephant
Even if Elsinore does seriously want to be loved, they also deserve some serious respect for the work that went into this EP. Groff and company have garnered some national attention for their music, for good reason, and have had to ride the wave of criticisms that come along with success. Life Inside an Elephant proved that they were not going to fade into obscurity. The hard work was going to continue and wide open jams like the title track on this EP were going to be the fruit of that labor for years to come. Elsinore could have seriously phoned this one in, but they didn't. The studio work here is quality and the songwriting continues to feature their strengths: driving melodies and those stand-out pipes of Groff himself.
Best new band: Evil Tents
New projects pop up all the time, but this one is a bit more surprising than we would've thought. Performing a consistent amount of shows since they began, Evil Tents have built themselves around the texture of music not a lot of other bands have in this town. Throwing another pure rock band into the mix in this community oftentimes contributes to the saturation of things, but Evil Tents stand out because of the grace at which they make their delivery. Their debut Night Air on the Midway rolls over you in the best sense, and gives you what you deserve — a calm night off for once.
Best live band: The Dirty Feathers
Live shows tend to get out of hand in a hurry — a combination of pure rock and roll and all the other factors of the night, you're in for a real treat with this group. The Dirty Feathers are the epitome of a live band, and they live and die by the fact that they have the ability to put on a show that will knock you senseless. They take pride in that sort of thing. A perfect example of this was their performance during Pygmalion last year, where they basically ripped everyone a new one after Bass Drum of Death that night.
Many bands can't make the transition from studio to stage, so maybe why that's why these guys are so good: they make the transition from stage to studio. All of their songs are live tracks before they lay them down on record (as we saw with Midnight Snakes last year), so there's such a live band aspect that is alive within the Dirty Feathers that there's little question as to who is coming ready to play on any given night. They have the ability to play alongside so many different types of acts as well. Versatility is key with this band in many ways because they can surprise you with something at any given moment during a show, and each member has the ability to shine at any point without notice.
Best punk/hardcore band: Midstress
Was there ever a question? Sure, there's competition, but these dudes have been killing it — plus what's in a name anyways? You can call yourself anything you want when you let the music do the talking. First it was Turn Up The Brilliance from a couple years back now (ah the days of The Fresh Kills), and last year's Growing Up is Getting Old turned out to be an absolute beast. Don't sleep on these guys, because they are constantly setting the standard for punk music in this town.
Best singer/songwriter: Vivian McConnell
This songwriter has been catching people's attention in so many ways over the years. You may recognize McConnell from her time in Santah, as the brain trust behind Grandkids, playing her own acoustic tunes, or even as the songstress serenading you while you go to town on a Potbelly's sando — she's perhaps the best, if not only, reason to venture onto Green Street for Potbelly's anyhow. All of that hard work has paid off. McConnell has emerged as a premiere songwriter in this town and, if you haven't already, you should hear her sing. It's wonderful. And lord knows you have ample opportunities.
Best blues band: The Curses
The Curses bring it live. They have tons of fun up there and that is oh so contagious. It's easy to love the jazz and blues influenced tunes on their latest album Old Magazines that was released this past summer. The studio musicianship is as solid as their stage presence and lead singer Benjamin Spoden has a raspy, yet smooth voice that is a must-hear as well. If you haven't already, go see them live. And while you're there, pick up a copy of the record for those long summer days out in the yard drinking whiskey, preferably.
Best hip-hop: The UC Hip Hop Congress
This is a pretty undervalued genre on our part, but we can say that we've learned a lot more about the hip-hop community through this group. They've been working to promote artists in the community, and they've been around for a lot longer than we had realized. In the last year or so they've been picking up steam from what we can tell, and we're pretty excited about there being more of this in the near future. We'll be the first ones to admit that we definitely lack in this category on the site, but we know there's something here.
Best chance to get national attention in 2012: Psychic Twin
It seems like nowadays, if you issue a couple of tracks here and there, it's a good way to create buzz around your music. This is the C-U version of that, which has also been picked up by pretty reputable blogs, so it's almost a matter of time before this thing is completely launched. Headlights may be gone, but we know we're not the only ones who think there is a winning combination of sounds here. Sure, Erin Fein probably knows some people that could get her new band the attention and publicity that they need, but it is a lot easier to promote something that is actually good. We saw chillwave have its time in the spotlight (don't get us wrong — it's still very much around, but less so than a few years ago), and synthpop is only getting bigger. New album is on the way — so look out.
Best DJ: DJ Belly
While C-U has many talented DJs, the dude with the swagger is DJ Belly. A staple at Radio Maria (Wednesday–Friday), mainstay of Hit It Run, one of the founders of Dubstep Massacre, regular at the Let the Bass Kick, played Smartbar, Metro, festivals ... and that's just his day job. DJ Belly regularly books talent touring the region from Minnesota, Chicago, and even Berlin, and has played all over the Midwest. If that's not enough, he produces his own tracks, regularly remixes other tracks, and puts out his own mixes. These aren't all necessary to convince an audience, but they should.
— Sarah Boyer
Best radio station (turnaround): WPCD
We're a magazine that focuses on what's happening right now in C-U, plain and simple. It's easy for a radio station to keep playing what has been playing for decades, and we think that is pretty boring for the most part. In the past year, alternative radio has done a complete 180 with a pair of particular stations, so we're taking this opportunity to recognize the one that's headed in the right direction. Radio is always going to be something that people think is dying or has already been killed by the birth of online streaming and things of that nature. With that said, there's a way to keep up with the current alternative scene, and this crew has done a pretty bang up job towards changing and creating something worth listening to. Yes, it's a college radio station, so it's not going to ever be perfect. There's no station that exists that is the perfect station for everyone, so we can stop that conversation in its tracks. All in all, WPCD has made the best transformation from something that was unbearable for the most part a few years back to something that holds its own.
Best live venue: Mike ‘N Molly’s beer garden
There is something so perfect about the beer garden at Mike 'N Molly's that it wouldn't even have to host amazing music for it to be one of the best places to have a beer, and perhaps a smoke, in all of downtown Champaign. It has ample space. It isn't burdened by the noisy traffic on Walnut. And the brick and ivy. That goddamn brick and ivy up to the sky on a summer afternoon is simply perfect. Now add live music, your favorite beverage, and a few of your closest friends and I guarantee you will have a great day/afternoon/night. It's just a shame that the beer garden is only really a venue for less than half of the year (and a frozen smoking retreat the other half). Or maybe not. Maybe you can really appreciate it just a little bit more because of the scarcity of it all, just like your sex life.
Best house venue: Garfield's Garden
While there's no denying that the launch of the C-U Collective has taken a bite out of the house show scene (not to say that's a bad thing), the boys over at Garfield's Garden have kept the flame alive over the past year. With bookings ranging from Joan of Arc offshoot the Love of Everything to midwest emo flame-keepers Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), there's rarely a show there that I don't feel bad for missing. In recent months, they've even branched out to the television world with Garfield's Kitchen, a punk cooking show airing on UPTV. — Ben Valocchi
Best live show: Saturday at Pygmalion 2011
This could have been a total disaster with all the factors that play into organizing a festival, let alone when the main showcase is outdoors (and I'm sure SOMETHING went haywire at some point during this day — right Seth?), but it kicked a lot of ass. Weather could've put the kibosh on this thing real quick (thanks Mother Nature), but this day was meant to be in a lot of ways. Whether you were at the stellar outdoor stage set up behind The Highdive downtown, which featured the likes of Braid, Japandroids, Deerhoof, and numerous other Polyvinyl bands for that showcase, or getting down at Mike 'N Molly's with a slew of great local acts with a few national touring bands thrown into the mix, you couldn't walk away from Saturday at Pygmalion without a huge smile on your face (or a drunken one at least). This wasn't just any normal day of this festival; it marked the beginning of a new era in the festival's culture in C-U, and it was damn good.
Best music video: Elsinore's “Life Inside an Elephant”
We already told you this was a great song. It might even be Elsinore's best song. I think they had that in mind when the band made this video. The quality is wonderful and the stop motion is pretty damn good too. What makes this even more impressive is the fact it was made by Elsinore's very own Chris Eitel (bass, vocals). If you haven't seen this already, enjoy.
Best record store + Best day of music in C-U: Exile on Main + Record Store Day 2012
Well, when it comes to record stores in C-U, the conversation starts and stops with Exile on Main. Jeff Brandt, owner of Exile and all around great guy, could easily be content with the fact he owns the only game in town. That isn't the case. Jeff is both a business owner and a supporter of local music in every way. Record Store Day is just one of the many reasons why we love this place. Walking into Exile you don't think to yourself, "Man, this spot would be epic for shows!" No, it's tiny. Shit is gonna break. But Jeff invites the masses in for an onslaught of local music time and time again, and for that we are forever grateful. Good prices. Nice people. Great events. Support your local record store.
Best place to get your shit repaired: Analog Outfitters
There are a lot of musicians in town. Obviously, if you read The Overture, there's a boatload of bands in this town. But even more folks at home, honing their skills that might never make the stage. So there are three guitar shops in town that supply that demand. However, the best bet for finding, maintaining, repairing or replacing gear in these cities is Analog Outfitters on the north end of downtown Champaign. Owner/operator Ben Juday's knowledge of, and passion for, musical equipment is bewildering. He's surrounded himself with a community of musicians, a staff of enthusiastic experts, and a warehouse's worth of wires, speakers, and organs. Whether you're looking to fix a pedal, build an amp, rent a PA, or buy a vintage guitar in their lovely storefront, the engineers at Analog know just what you're looking to do and how to get it done. Analog Outfitters' products and services will hold up — not just because these people are gearheads in it for love of the game — but because they're local musicians and soundmen themselves as well, and they care about and love being a part of this community. Stop in any afternoon to find out for yourself the quality of their craft and character. — Isaac Arms
Music is dead — fuck it.
This article was compiled and written by Patrick Singer and Cody Caudill, unless otherwise noted.