Smile Politely

Top 20 C-U albums 2010-2014

The idea for this concept came to be out of jealousy, really. When I started as Music Editor for Smile Politely back in late-2011 after the reign of John Steinbacher and Ben Valocchi, and those before them — local music lists were always something I was interested in checking out and being a part of in some way. Lists are trivial, sure, but the Top 20 Albums of the Decade column is still a reference point for me as someone, admittedly, still discovering local music, past and present. Doug Hoepker and his crew of writers and editors crafted one of the most interesting Smile Politely articles to date, in my estimation. Something like that is not easily replicated, at least not without a bunch of hard work and very dedicated local music listeners.

2010 seems like a lifetime ago. We’ve had our yearly albums of the year lists in 2010201120122013 and 2014. If you’re unfamiliar, do yourself a favor and go back and check out some of the stellar releases from this era of Champaign-Urbana music. Some bands transfered over from that decade to this one and continued to put out music or go their separate ways. New Ruins, Common Loon, Terminus Victor, The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra, Hathaways, Paul Kotheimer, Ryan Groff, and plenty of others were still making music past 2009 (and many of them still to this day).

To make this list, we polled eight individuals, similarly to the previous process, and compiled the votes for what their Top 20 of the half-decade looked like to them. After putting everything together, this is what the results spit out, starting with some Honorable Mentions and into the Top 20. Let us know what your Top 20 is in the comments.

See you in 2019 for another full decade list. — Patrick Singer

HONORABLE MENTIONS (alphabetical order)

Honorable Mentions written by Patrick Singer.

DJ Belly — Urban Love Hymns

Everybody’s favorite DJ — DJ Belly — puts out plenty of material, and good material at that. This was his 2010 release, which crafted very meticulous grooves and delivers some bangers in the process.

The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra — This Way Up

A fine showcase of orchestral pop and Americana tunes from Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra, their debut record from 2010.


Jay Moses — #TheGenius

The Gr8 Thinkaz have been on fire over the last couple of years, and #TheGenius is a staple of that heat. One of the first Heirship Records releases is just one of a ton of great material produced by Moses and his team.

Megan Johns — Hey, Lonely
Singer-songwriter acoustic jams that make 90s nostalgia come surface level — Megan Johns’ Hey, Lonely from 2012 catapulted her into a position as one of the best local songwriters.

Midstress — Growing Up Is Getting Old

The product of the name change from the Fresh Kills to Midstress — their 2011 record still stands as one of the best pure punk records to come out of this town in quite some time.

Rusalka — Accent EP

Post-rock crew Rusalka (RIP) reformed at one point for a one-off in 2014, which makes a record like Accent EP even more missed now that we’re revisiting it here.


Swords — Depth

Instrumentally and lyrically, Depth still stands as one of the best produced records in several years in the C-U music scene. Shannon Swords’ delivery is silky smooth, and the full-band sound on a hip-hop record makes a statement.

TOP ALBUMS 2010-2014

All write ups by Patrick Singer, Maddie Rehayem, and Tom Pauly.


“Goddamn Larry is good” was something I took away from the comments section of last year’s year-end albums list. Everything you could think of when it comes to Larry Gates, Jr.’s Curb Service project results in saying, “Goddamn Larry is good.” Gates has put out plenty of material over the past few years, but last year’s Romeo Jive was a piece of work that felt like the complete real deal. A bunch of different influences abound here — whether you’re looking for a club jam or a groove that you could hear at a dive bar around town, Romeo Jive has those compliments within the structure of the record. Damn right he’s good. — PS


Though the Palace Flophouse’s lifespan wasn’t a long one, their time spent around these parts allows them to tell the stories of time spent doing Midwestern things. Though some tracks touch on some of those subjects, throughout Bad Friends Forever, it really is a simple look at the relationship with, well, someone that probably isn’t moving your life in the right direction. The full-band production brings Bradley and Gretchen Bergstrand to the forefront (even more so than their project following this one, Coed Pageant), and manages to craft 10 surprisingly melodic pop songs with a different confidence than they had on the album’s predecessor, Try Not To Get Worried. — PS


Dumb Days by Horrible Things is C-U’s entry into the pop punk books. It’s just nine tracks at just 1-2 minutes each, but the album is still bursting at the seams with pent up emotion and speedily strummed strings. The strengths of this album come from its simplicity — there’s nothing particularly singular going on here, just a four-piece rock band playing unadulterated pop punk, but it’s so immediately catchy there’s absolutely no reason not to love it. — MR


As I discussed yesterday in our year-end list for 2014 — Tara Terra is a band. For a long time it looked a bit different regardless of Emily Otnes’ work as the leader of the outfit. Tara Terra’s year was built around the change of identity, and the result was their debut record Daughter. As one of the younger members of the local music scene, the band is doing the good work to lead the charge with the generation of student bands (Feral States, The 92s, amongst others — we’re happy about that). Daughter is the most realized material I’ve heard from the outfit, and they’re not stopping anytime soon or settling with that. I’m sure there is more where this one came from. — PS


Champaign-Urbana is a college town full of college kids and it turns out a few of them like to make music. Dan Durley was one of them, and as his band the 92s made their album Television Fuzz, Durley was in the midst of the uncertainties and indecisions that come with having the end of a 4-year bachelor’s degree stint in sight. The result? A beautifully earnest, musically complex, poppy arrangement of songs by and for the young’uns of C-U. — MR


A band like Deathtram didn’t always have bright spots throughout its existence. In the early years, the band didn’t have really any type of sound that made sense or worked well. Though, when discussing their self-titled tape that came out on Error Records back in 2012 — Deathtram hit a vein that made everything they’d done before that seem like a completely different band.

The band’s psyched-out, dirty garage rock licks isn’t really what you might draw comparisons to in other local garage outfits like The Dirty Feathers or even the grime that fills some of The Leadership’s Frontiers. It just feels like a trip within the realm of psych-rock that fills your head with haze from front to back. The band called it quits a short while after this record was released — which is probably about the same time the smoke settled. — PS


In 2014, Rebecca Rego and her band, The Trainmen, made a serious push with this record’s release. To me, the album is most definitely a grower. And I mean this with all due respect — you don’t realize how it would hold up after a listen or two. The quality of the folk songwriting crafted into a full-band sound is something to behold, and Rego’s Tolono was a pleasant surprise here and in our 2014 year-end album list.


Hank. would sound incredibly weird and disorienting out of context. Pinched., the culmination of band’s musical output, is already a rollercoaster of a record full of frantically tapped out mathy guitars and screams, yelps and growls but as a Midwest, and more particularly C-U album, there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary going on. It’s a luxury for this peculiarity to be what feels like the norm here. — MR


Much like a young man who is sexually inexperienced, the Leadership was a band that came early and left entirely too soon. They lasted here basically less than a year before moving to Nashville and eventually splitting up. All of that aside, they left us with Frontiers — a record that owes a lot to the Wilcos and My Morning Jackets of the world. The vocals of Jon Childers and the lead guitar of Jared Park linked together perfectly, playing off one another and working together like Hulk Hogan and the Macho Man against Andre the Giant and the Million Dollar Man at SummerSlam ’88. I’m not sure that there’s been a better or more-straightforward rock ‘n’ roll album from Champaign-Urbana in quite some time. — TP


In 2011 — this record was criminally underrated (and undervoted) in our year-end poll. Why was that? There’s honestly no telling. Because We Make Our Own Bad Luck was good as hell and it didn’t stack up to some? Maybe because it was more refined than their debut The Sounds They Make? This Life Is Not Ours To Keep was New Ruins swansong into becoming the band that was such a huge part of what made the music scene glow between the era of bands like Absinthe Blind, Shipwreck, Beauty Shop, and other outfits of the early- to mid-aughts in our fair cities.

Their time logged with producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Fruit Bats, Iron & Wine) was a clear factor when it comes to the sound that is lathered all over TLINOTK. Little did we know that New Ruins would fall into that group of defunct outfits that existed in the aforementioned time period in the C-U scene. Their blend of Americana and indie rock that fills this record, one that closed the books on the band, solidifies their position as one of the best (and most missed) outfits of the last decade. — PS


Withershins is a Champaign-Urbana band through and through. As I discussed back in 2012 with the year-end list of local records (a list which Silver Cities topped), they unapologetically clinch onto portions of what has made the C-U music scene memorable over the years. Silver Cities is the band’s marquee moment, even with the dynamic that they integrated with this year’s terrific Mt. Fuji In Blue and their debut Aeriel — which still features some of the most quintessential Withershins tracks to date. Silver Cities exists as one of their records always worth revisiting, and mixed between a pair of high quality local records that I just mentioned, it resonates as a record made by a band that wouldn’t exist in any other place.

Silver Cities exists as the purest balance between everything that they love — and wear on their sleeves unapologetically. This record acts not only as the staple to what the band does so well, but positions the band as a product of the environment from which it exists and shaping that environment simultaneously. By the people, for the people in C-U, you might say. (PS) 


For my money, this is the best record on this list. Off Your Horse is a perfect encapsulation of the Midwestern Atmosphere. Twangy-but not too twangy alt-country, in the vein of Uncle Tupelo but without the ego and nonsense of Tweedy and Farrar. Truthfully, I’m having a hard time dragging this out. Just listen to this record now and buy it and pay money when the Fights play. We need more of them. — TP


Yes Yes Yes is truly a product of dedication and hours and hours in a studio to craft one of the more talked about local releases in recent memory. Elsinore’s 2010 record brought a very personal story and gave the listener one hell of a trip while listening. The dymanics within the walls of Yes Yes Yes give it the legs that it needed, mashing hushed tracks with some of the biggest anthems this town has ever heard. This record was a statement of purpose from the band’s early go-rounds, and within the spectrum of the local music scene, the impact was massive. Everyone knows the songs that make this thing a reality. Sure, it is easy to point to chief songwriter and ringleader Ryan Groff to why Yes Yes Yes propelled itself skyward, but this is just as much a full-band record as anything we’ve seen in quite a while. — PS


Evil Tents quietly — yes, they are good at that — snuck into the realm of the Champaign-Urbana music scene around 2010/2011, and Night Air on the Midway was the beautiful result. After a release prior to this one, John Isberg’s project crafted Midway, which is a gorgeous collection of flowing acoustic tracks that mesh perfectly with dreamy undertones and subtle details that demand your attention. The listen is a great one, and though you have to listen a little bit closer than other albums you might experience — you better believe you’ll be rewarded for doing so. — PS


Details are probably a little hazy, but I lived next door to most of the Fresh Kills during/while this album was being made. This record made me appreciate the punk scene and the house show scene in the area and when I was voting I thought that I might be biased. But after going back and listening to this one again it was pretty clear to me that this is not only one of the best punk albums to come out of Champaign-Urbana in awhile, but it’s one of the best albums, period. — TP


The droned-out intro to “Irish Wristwatch”, the opening track of Santah’s full-length debut White Noise Bed — folding nicely into a quietly picked acoustic guitar all within the first minute — nicely sums up this record in just a short stint. Santah’s variables within the walls of their debut range from howlers like “Chips of Paint” and “Merry Ann” to hazed out tracks like the first number and “Overgrown”. The band evolved from students in a band to songwriters making really great music, and this record is completely filled with memorable tunes that showcase some of their best work to date. White Noise Bed was the testament to that leap into the “elite” — as I used that term loosely here — of locals during the time they resided here in C-U. Every track on White Noise Bed could be your favorite — and still stands as one that defines the band’s early years in C-U. — PS


Until the Easter’s cassingle came out this year on Rat King Records, their demo, aptly titled Demonstration, was their only recording. That wasn’t really important though, because even though the band’s rotating lineup would play the same songs at every show, their dedicated fans around town would relish in the chance to see Easter each time, and sing along to those familiar songs. Kyle Lang, the mind behind Easter even battled cancer and came back to playing shows twice as strong. These songs are so special to so many people here that it’s hard to even talk to them objectively as musical works. Of course they’re good, but it’s the sentimental value that counts with this one. — MR


There’s no point in making psych rock if you don’t do it right. The Dirty Feathers let it all hang out and did it like it should be done on Midnight Snakes. As sexy as it is funky, this album defines the perfect blend of those classic psychedelic garage rock tones — wailing distorted guitar solos, bellowing vocals and oh-so-groovy organ melodies. Not to mention, these guys totally look the part with their long hair galore. — MR


Honestly, there’s a lot that runs through my mind when addressing this record. Common Loon’s The Long Dream of Birds set the bar very, very high when it came out in 2010 for local releases. The most modest of fellas put together one of the more astounding albums I’ve heard that has come out of Champaign-Urbana, hands down, out of any time period. The Long Dream of Birds is a sonic trip of dream-pop and psychedelic soundscapes, all created by a couple of guys with a vision and the ability to execute it. And when I say a couple of guys, I mean it — guitars, synths, keys, drums, vocals, everything — you name it (in the live setting, too).

Realizing the beauty of what they’ve crafted is as simple as running down the line and trying to wrap your mind around just how deep it is. Singles like “Mexico” and “Happy Ending”, hazy dreamers “Outside” and “Greenland”, straight-up jams “Lisa’s Pixie Cut”, “Ho Hum Apolcolypse” and “Palestine Everywhere” — and on top of that, a monster closer cut in “A Moment of Energy Transfers” to slam the door shut on it all. Whoosh. And I haven’t really even touched on the lyrical content. This could take all goddamn day. 

All in all, the result is a true gem of a record, and as cliché as it sounds — a record that is a gem whether it was created here or not. It’s that good. — PS


Of all the songs on Grandkids’ golden album Timeshare, “Collegiate Peaks” is the only exception to its otherwise relaxed nature, making it the standout track — the one that simmers into a noisy frenzy by the end. The rest of the songs have a steady, relaxing rhythm fit for an old country band but played with youthful vigor. It’s this combination that made this album a triumph for Grandkids, yet it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Timeshare radiates such warmth. It could be the folky acoustic guitar, strummed and picked, the zest behind Vivian McConnell’s voice when she sings her wily words over it, or the gentle drumbeat behind it all. Perhaps it’s the comforting memories tied to listening to Grandkids. Students and townies alike have fond memories of the countless shows they’ve played on stages as big as The Canopy Club and also at more intimate spots like The Velvet Elvis. In their time, the band has taken their act as far as SXSW in Austin but remain humble lovers of their Champaign-Urbana roots, and even after making the move to Chicago, they don’t neglect to come back and play for us—and they are welcomed with open arms. — MR

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