We could put an introduction here that talks about how great the C-U music scene is, but I think you understand how great it is. Let's just let our BEST series indicate that C-U is, well, a pretty darn good place to be in terms of music (...and arts, culture, food & drink, sports. You get the picture). Certainly there are plenty of bases to cover in C-U in terms of music, but we tend to focus on a particular area, which is okay if you ask us. And it is alright if you disagree, but It's our turn to discuss who caught our eye in the past year in music. Here it goes... (PS)



Grandkids have grown up a lot over the last year. Let me stress that, first off. They were showing signs of being one of the best in town through their previous material in a couple of decent EPs and spotty live shows in the area here and there. As they entered the studio to record their highly anticipated full-length record, few had any idea of what we would get out of them. We had been given glimpses of what they were capable of, but it took time to digest and evolve into what we have today. But in order to get recognized as BEST in the Band category, you've got to have the entire package going for you: recording, live show, originality, persistence, and ambition. Let's not forget personality, we know these kids have lots of that. Well, I guess I'll stop right here in saying that now, they're not kids anymore. They're the real deal.

Overall, Grandkids have had a stellar past twelve months. I feel like all of that accumulated and exploded as they crushed it at Pygmalion last year with the sun beating down on them, showcasing a ton of their new material. Then, to top it all off, they released their new record, Timeshare, in March. Game over. For the strides they've made over the past year, it really is a no-brainer.

Despite the news that Grandkids are moving on from C-U soon (if not already since school has come to a close), we're appreciative of their time here and what they've given to us across the board. No doubt about it. (PS)



I could continue to rave about this band as I just did, but if you don't get it by now, you might get your head out of the sand and listen to this record. It's an early front-runner for our Album of the Year already and it's only May. There's a lot more music set to come in 2013, but this one has been ringing in our ears for the past few months.

Believe us, we didn't plan on picking BEST Band and Album together, but it just kind of worked out that way. If you've listened, you know why.

2012 was a spectacular year for local music. Considering Withershins, Deathtram, Megan Johns, Sun Stereo, and many others released awesome records, it was going to take a serious contender to oust those releases. The fact is, Timeshare is a distinguished piece of work that reflects a band who as Chris Davies pointed out, is on their way up the ranks, and for good reason. 

As I stated above, everything fell into place for Grandkids after a couple of EPs that gave us a taste, but were really just a tease in many ways. It wasn't even a whole bite of what we were about to get with Timeshare. (PS)



Anna Karenina/Anna Karina + Take Care/Withershins/jack of all trades drummer Luke Bergkoetter approached me last year after we picked their Autobiographies EP as one of the best records of the year in 2012 and said, "Really?" I'll chalk it up to modesty.

In all reality, though, the band's Autobiographies EP  is a great indicator of what potential there is on the horizon for them. Stemming from a project between front man Cole Rabenort and Bergkoetter and Midstress' Mikal Brakett, it's easy to see the potential here. This EP has been played many times through my speakers over the last year, and we're looking forward to seeing what they have in store for a full length, if they ever take a break from other projects they have going on. (PS)



We have quite the well-documented love affair with Common Loon here at Smile Politely. We got over it last year. You should too. It's not an easy task to remain a captivating, productive, and relevant band in an insular music scene, but Common Loon pull it off because it always seems to be about the music for them. They aren't in this to get laid. They aren't in this to get wasted. (Nothing wrong with either of those things.)

Robert Hirschfeld and Matt Campell clearly care about their craft and their live shows are a testament to the kind of care they put into their message, into their art. It's this earnest approach to live music that allows them to blow you away each time they take the stage. They don't need party tricks or gimmicks. Loud, lush, and always engaging, Common Loon shows pull you in and force you to reflect. They let the music do the talking and that is a refreshing sight to behold. (CC)



Swimming upstream in a sea of indie-rock hopefuls, the Fights haven't had to work too hard to stand out as one of the best up-and-coming bands in the local scene. Their alt-country twang has been a refreshing change of pace from the usual HUM-hopefuls that have come and gone over the last few years. With plenty of slide guitar and good ole' country heartache, the Fights are poised to riff and twang their way into your heart; or at least your summer plans. Their self-titled EP is a testament to both their honest delivery and, we hope, another year of country-ish tunes. (CC)



WIth the release of a couple of EPs and a full-length on its way later this year, Hank. has been holding it down in the punk scene over the past year. They've been busting their asses on tours and performing here in town, and doing just about everything else in between. Oh yeah, and they make pretty awesome music. They're a crossover band in a lot of ways, but hold up and wave that punk flag pretty damn high. Busting your ass in music can get you a long way if you are up for the challenge, no matter what type of music you're making. They've risen and become one of the best bands in town, not just in the punk scene or genre. All around they're doing great things in this town, and their music speaks for itself. Oh yeah, and this guy you might have heard of, his name is Wayne Coyne? Yeah — he even thinks so, too. (PS) 



With the release of her pleasantly nostalgic sounding debut record, Hey, Lonely, last year, Megan Johns showcased her ability to be more than just a singer with a guitar in her hands. Regardless of her full-band that she performs with from time to time called Moonwish, you know she's the one who has poured herself into that record from start to finish. Her singing and songwriting really tell the story as she put an excellent 2012 in her pocket, and her ability to perform as more than just a performer with a guitar has caught our attention. Hey, Lonely is a testimate of what she is capable of doing, and it's well worth your attention. (PS)



Just the highlights? Kirkwood West was billed with Psychic Twin the set later attracted notice and redistribution by Don-Ray’s Midnight Mauraderz podcast. He  started the Get Deep collective, which produced shows at Café Luna (RIP), Cowboy Monkey, and High Dive. And Kirkwood West helped get a new collective of house and techno DJs, UC: Beyond EDM, off to a great start at Emerald City.

Last summer’s back patio gigs at the HighDive with rotating Get Deep members playing slomo deep house under the stringed canopy of lights and rainless skies were perfect. Recently, Kirkwood moved his Slomo Beat Factory into the heart of downtown Champaign where he regularly collaborates with members of his Get Deep collective, Reed Richards and Jive Davis, to produce 100 bpm tracks. Look for more shows indoor and out from Kirkwood West and the Get Deep collective. — (SB)



With two bars, a lifted stage, amazing sound, and spot on ambiance, the Highdive is hands down the best venue to see a live show in Champaign-Urbana. It's really not even close. Hell, we'd put Highdive up against almost any venue in the midwest. We think it's that good. On those merrits, we think it's time to recognize the Highdive for what it is: the best venue in town.

But our praise doesn't come without a bit of criticism. The problem we have with the Highdive is it just doesn't seem to bring in the mid-major bands it is perfectly situated to lure into town. Whether it's a lack of drive or a lack of opportunity, this beautiful venue is seriously underutilized. When the Highdive is crowded, it's easily our favorite place in town. But outside of Pygmalion and the spot headliner here and there, the Highdive simply leaves us wanting more. Here's to hoping for more shows like Sufjan Stevens, Built to Spill, and stacked local bills, please. (CC)



This space is a place to behold as a living space. Most of the time, you go to a house show, and you're on top of the person next to you because you're crammed into someone's living room. Sure, there's an upside to experiencing a house show with a bunch of sweaty people crammed into a 15' x 15' space. That's all great. When you combine intimacy, with an awesome ability to book quality talent, with an insane location, and above average acoustics (for a house venue), you've got yourself a winner. The Velvet Elvis is that place, hands down.

If you've seen a show there, you know what I'm talking about. If not, there are many avenues to figure out where and when you can see shows. Just use the internet and you'll go far. It's worth it in the end if you're not a fan of a bar scene, but still want to see good music. Local and national bands stop through frequently and bounce sounds around at this place. Truly awesome. (PS)


BIG FREEDIA at Pygmalion Music Festival on Saturday, September 29, 2012

"Well. Goddamn. I don’t think I’ve had that much fun at a show ever."

"This has to be one of the most exciting and one the best, if not the best, shows of the entire festival."


These were just some of the comments that came rolling in from the editors here at Smile Politely just hours after attending this late night party/show after Saturday at Pygmalion. It's no easy task to upstage the likes of Dinosaur Jr, Grizzly Bear, and Cloud Nothings, but that is exactly what happened that night. Big Freedia brought her raunchy, ass-shakin' New Orleans bounce music to this somewhat modest midwestern town and brought out a side of us we had never seen.

The energy at the Highdive for this set was unbelievable. The place was packed and the dancing was unavoidable. At one point there were a dozen local residents up on stage, bent over, shaking their asses right alongside Big Freedia like there was no tomorrow. Can't say we've ever seen that before, or ever will again. The party was so loud, so crazy, even the fellas from Grizzly Bear and the famed J. Mascis left their green room to gawk in awe at this ass-shaking hip-hop party throwdown. It clearly left a mark on Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. as well. He mentioned the show as a highlight of his time at Pygmalion (of which he is a huge fan).

That night was unbelievable. Ass really was everywhere. (CC)

Special Runner Up: HUM, PSYCHIC TWIN, DIRTY FEATHERS, THAT'S NO MOON at Pygmalion Music Festival on September 27, 2012 (pictured below)



DIY is pretty stellar in this town, and some people wanted to show it off to others. Sure, people think they can do it, or aspire to do so, but to pull it off on the first go-round and have success? Not always easy. Skeletal Lightning Fest threw down in its inaugural festival at the beginning of April, showcasing what Midwest Underground really means. Even though only half the festival was technically underground (Channing-Murray above and Red Herring below), they might not be so underground anymore. People will know about this event next year and years to come if they continue to build it. 

There's no way I can top our pal Ben Valocchi's recap of the festival, but if you couldn't tell by the photo above, the organizers and the bands who performed (over thirty from around the Midwest + locals) threw down. Our props to all involved. (PS)



Error Records is a new all-ages music venue, art space, and record store that just open on South Neil in Champaign in early spring. The goals of the venue and retail space are pretty straightforward: to provide an opportunity for those who don't always get to experience live music in this community a chance to do so. That's a venture we can fully get behind.

More than just a new local business, Error Records is Nathan Landolt's labor of love. As we wrote about earlier this year, he has put plenty of time, sweat, and ambition into this project, and with a little luck and a lot of support from the music community, it is poised to be a scene staple for many years to come. (CC)



An awesome display of animation and creativity from this video gets the nod from us. Pretty plain and simple. I'm not a huge fan of music videos to begin with, but overall this is a creative video from the Fights. (PS)



The line between independence and non-indie have become increasingly blurred over the course of the last few decades with the consolidation of the music industry and such. Major labels and distributors aren't as evil as they used to be, but certainly when shit like this happens, they look about as bad as they possibly could look.

When it was announced that HUM's You'd Prefer An Astronaut was getting the vinyl reirelease treatment earlier this year, people got excited. Sure, who wouldn't? The album was basically unavailable in that format. Certainly HUM would be getting a good piece of that pie, right? Not the case. As John Steinbacher dug up from the Earth Analog website, these records were being manufactured as a deal between SRC and Sony that violated the band's contract with RCA, but was happening anyway. 

Onto the fun part: HUM still had a bunch of the original pressings in house, and they were made available for purchase. If you got a chance to grab one (only a dozen or so were made available on Record Store Day this year), you were in luck. Luckily, I picked one up, and it felt pretty damn good. (PS)


This article compiled by Patrick Singer, Cody Caudill, and Sarah Boyer.