After a year of jack squat happening in the world of live music, 2021 saw a twinkle of hope for the music scene. Venues started reopening, outdoor shows were happening, and thanks to the vaccine and mask requirements, indoor shows began again which means music all year round. Yes, virtual performances were happening in 2020, but they don't scratch the same itch that live shows do. 

As we close off BEST week, let's recognize the beauty of music and live shows and its ability to bring people together. Concerts are a place where we can let loose, forget how horrible the world can be, and enjoy in a collective experience. We all have been longing for a sense of community again, and the artists and venues on this list have helped us in achieving that feeling. The persistence of musicians and venues through the last two years is incredibly inspiring. This is a list of some of our favorite musical artists, projects, venues, and more. However, there is a whole wide world of music in our community that is well worth getting out and exploring on your own.

— Sean Wilkinson, Music Editor


BEST anniversaries: Polyvinyl, WEFT

Outdoor mural on the side of Polyvinyl Record Company. It reads Photo by Anna Longworth-Singer.

Two staples of Champaign-Urbana, the town would not be the same without them. Both add so much life and variety to our community. Polyvinyl — celebrating 25 years — has provided me personally with some of my favorite bands over the years, and has been a talking point whenever I tell someone I’m from C-U. WEFT  — celebrating 40 years — has continuously been a place for unique music and community, hosting live performances, as well as wonderful radio shows. We look forward to many more years. (SW)

BEST booking: Rose Bowl Tavern

A performer sings and plays guitar on stage at the Rose Bowl Tavern to a crowd.Photo from Rose Bowl Tavern's Facebook page.

I mean come on, every single damn week the Rose Bowl has a stacked lineup with some sort of event every night. Not only do they have a wide array of performances to choose from, they have some of the best performances to choose from. From hosting Bartees Strange, to Prairie Noise Invasion festival, to Yasmin Williams, the Rose Bowl isn’t afraid to branch out and bring new and exciting artists. (SW)

BEST resurrected SP column: The Overture

The band Deafheaven performs on stage, with a large crowd of people watching. Photo from Pygmalion's Facebook page.

I am no music expert. I know what I know about C-U’s music scene from reading this here publication. The return of The Overture marks two things, for which I am grateful. First, the return of live music. Thanks to vaccines, we are able to once again come together to enjoy live music, in real life, in front of the people who play the instruments and sing the songs, etc., etc. Second, the need for a Music Editor at Smile Politely. The pandemic snuffed out the Music section, and it’s really nice to have a full editorial staff. The return of the column means things are slowly returning to normal, and we can once again celebrate artists who give so much of themselves so the rest of us can tap into our own feelings and experiences in a way that is socially acceptable. (JH)

BEST live show: Punch Brothers at ELLNORA

Action shot of the Punch Brothers performing on stage. Image from Punch Brother's Facebook page.

If you’ve run into me in the last few months, I want to apologize, as this show is one I still cannot stop talking to everybody about. The energy and showmanship that Punch Brothers brought to ELLNORA is absolutely unbeatable. I left this show feeling inspired by their level of creativity, as well as a heavy desire to learn bluegrass music. (SW)

BEST EP: Living Room by Sweetmelk

Album cover of Sweetmelk's EP. Kenna Mae lays nude on a couch, the words Album cover from Sweetmelk's Bandcamp.

Living Room is ten minutes of chill-inducing vocals from Kenna Mae, and beautiful production from James Treichler. The three songs are stripped back and haunting, touching on self-reflection, one's place in the world, and outrunning gloom. The shifting tone of Mae's voice within a single song is stunning. On a song like "Living Room," Mae's voice sounds shaky one second only to turn around the next second and unleash a scream in frustration. Reminiscent of Sharon Van Etten and Julia Jacklin, their vocals are right up front and shining over top of a tremelo-ed out guitar. It feels retro and current at the same time. Check it out on Bandcamp.

BEST hidden gem record: Primer Acto by Efecto del Teatro

Album cover of Efecto del Teatro. The lead singer faces sideways holding his guitar, looking down. Image from Efecto del Teatro's Bandcamp.

Ah, the wonders of Bandcamp. Sometimes I like to explore the Champaign-Urbana tag on Bandcamp and see what kinds of music is floating under the radar. I came across this Latin rock album by Efecto del Teatro, a project formed during the pandemic by José Alejandro Medina. The album is beautiful, danceable, and fiery at times. Well worth a listen. (SW)

BEST live band: Mhondoro Rhythm Success

Mhondoro Rhythm Success plays inside the Rose Bowl Tavern, the members smiling and dancing on stage.Photo by Charlie Harris.

This Zimbabwean pop outfit might be one of the more slept on acts consistently performing these days. You can most often find them at Rose Bowl pushing out some of the most danceable tunes imaginable. They’re probably the best local band you’ve never heard of, and that should change for you as it did for me a while back when I first saw them perform. They are simply electric and would highly recommend attending one of their shows if you have an opportunity. (PS)

BEST local-ish live band: LLO LLO 

A portrait of the four members of the band. They are on a rooftop in Chicago, the Willis Tower in the background. The band looks off into the distance.Image provided by LLO LLO.

Okay, technically LLO LLO — pronounced "yo-yo" — is Chicago/Urbana-based, but I just love this band so much that I had to throw them into the mix. Their shows are always so fun, packed with personality and humor, and of course some kick-ass original songs. I've seen them twice, the second show even better than the first. You can see the band growing, I am so excited to see where they are headed, as everything they churn out is gold. Check out our interview with the band to learn more about them. (SW)

BEST scene camaraderie: C-U Folk and Roots Fest

Outdoor action shot of The Dig Three, a blues band playing outside of the Urbana Free Library. A group of seated people listen to the band play.Image by Sean Wilkinson.

This was my first year at the Folk and Roots Festival, and oh man, I had a blast. The wide range of musical genres was incredible, but what really struck me was the sense of community that was present at the festival. Everyone seemed like family, and I felt incredibly warm and welcomed. The workshops, jams, and sing-alongs allow the audience to join in, turning what could be a typical run-of-the-mill music festival into something truly magical, and I eagerly await the festival next year. (SW)

BEST piece of music scene lost: Bryan St. Pere

A portrait of HUM drummer Bryan St. Pere. He has drumsticks in his hand and is looking intently at his drum set.Photo provided by HUM.

All of the accolades Bryan St. Pere earned throughout his life have been mentioned in so many ways across the internet already, so I won’t take up much time describing his influence and impact on the world for you here. Just know that St. Pere was an astoundingly impactful musician, an absolute dynamo on the drum kit, and certainly paved the way for so many worldwide just by making music in HUM. We all have the privilege to still experience his work following his tragic death earlier this year, and while his music lives on, our community lost an irreplaceable talent, and that will be sorely missed. (PS)

BEST collaboration/collaborative effort: Jason Finkleman’s Improviser’s Exchange

Portrait of Jason Finkelman playing the berimbau, an African/Brazilian instrument.Image by Natalie Fiol.

Jason Finkleman’s Improviser's Exchange is a wonderfully beautiful experience, focusing on collaborative improvised music. The beauty of every performance is that no performance is the same. You are getting a unique experience every time, that will never be heard again in the same way. Plus, members of the community can join in, making the project even more unpredictable and exciting. Finkelman and his work adds so much to the community. (SW)

BEST jazz group: The Data Waves 

Portrait of the four members of The Data Waves smiling and laughing. Image from The Data Wave's Facebook page.

I guess technically, best jazz/funk/soul group, but close enough. These guys bring instrumental proficiency together with expert song-crafting to produce some incredibly vivacious and vibey jazz music. You can really tell that The Data Waves know their stuff, not to mention they are making big waves — haha, get it — around the area, as well as collaborating with other artists. Keep an eye, or ear, on this group. (SW)

BEST new band: Kangaroo Court 

The band Kangaroo Court plays at The Canopy Club. They are on stage with lights shining down.Photo by Patrick Singer.

Keeping up with the ever-changing house party scene is a task in and of itself. When you want to know who “the kids” in this community are into, you should certainly take a look at the U of I campus, specifically the Urbana house scene, in order to find it. As an aging music scene person, I feel a disconnect at times, but always find some more energy and enthusiasm when there’s a discovery of one of those house scene bands that just loves hitting the stage and figuring out who they are as a band right in front of their fans. Kangaroo Court makes me feel that way, and there’s no hiding that this band has fans that actually turn out to their shows and do what it takes to support them. (PS)

BEST music video: "Nightbloom" by Mermaid Heaven

Not a lot of music videos came out this year, but even if there had been a plethora to choose from, I still think Mermaid Heaven would have taken the cake. I feel like music videos these days tend to jam pack a bunch of unnecessary elements into their videos to try to make them more visually interesting. However, sometimes it's more effective to keep it a little more simple, which is what Mermaid Heaven seems to have done here to their advantage. This video is truly gorgeous, with some goosebump-inducing shots and a beautiful color palette. There is nothing too over the top here, but every element seems to be carefully thought out. A killer video from a killer band who consistently put out killer tracks. (SW)

BEST experimental happenings: Soundscapes at Sipyard + Immersion Fest

Image of the alleyway at Sipyard, with graffiti covering the walls, and a group of people watch musicians playing.Photo by Patrick Singer.

Seeing several multi-venue events make Urbana their home this past year, I was pleased to see what Immersion Festival put forth for their return following COVID-19’s year of virtual experience, as well as the work being done by the Soundscapes crew. Whether you were visiting Urbana Dance Co. or Sipyard or another space during Immersion or another Soundscapes event last summer, you were being presented with interesting and experimental music and visuals that you aren’t often served these days in our community. These events are exactly the right texture to contribute to the evolving and burgeoning Downtown Urbana creative community, and we’re here for its continued growth and evolution in 2022. Kudos to the organizers of both Soundscapes and Immersion, as they are filling the void with sounds and sights that we should all probably pay more attention to. It is much more exciting than staring at the screens in the palm of our hand. (PS)

BEST virtual performance: Castle Finn, WEFT Sessions

WEFT had a ton of live sessions this last year, but few held my attention and blew me away like Castle Finn’s did. They have so much energy and are incredibly tight as a band. Every member is incredibly talented on their respective instrument, and the group just looked like they were having a blast. You can check out the performance above. (SW)

BEST survival mode: Canopy Club and other music venues

Image of the front of the Canopy Club. The marquee says Image from Canopy Club's Facebook page.

What more appropriate way to close off BEST music than paying homage to the venues that made it through the last two years. 2020 was obviously a terribly shitty year for the music industry and 2021 was only slightly better, if we can even say that. We at least have venues opening up again, and to the ones that made it through, we applaud you and thank you for your hard work. It’s hard enough to keep the music venues open without a pandemic happening, so to be able to come out the other side and still be able to put on great shows is incredible. (SW)

Jessica Hammie, Patrick Singer, and Sean Wilkinson contributed to this article.

Top image by Smile Politely.