JEWS & CATHOLICS
Don’t be fooled by the title of Jews & Catholics’ Civilized. The unholy combo of Eddie Garcia’s ravenous riffs and Alanna Meltzer’s classical iconoclasm on upright bass are anything but. Like the weather, if you don’t like it, just wait a few. Stabbing, abrasive Dino Jr. Jr.-style rock becomes gurgling doom metal on a whim, and twisted jangle finds empathy alongside dreamy shoegaze.
24. SOUL ON FIRE
You won’t find a single feature through the first 11 tracks of rapper ethemadassassin’s streetwise third LP, Soul On Fire. It’s a lonely road he walks, and at times it feels like he’s overcome by the swirling orchestral instrumentals, but there are occasions where he asserts himself as being among the sharpest of underground emcees.
Aslan Freeman is no stranger to change. After bouncing from project to project for a few years, quietly honing his pop-rock chops, he finally settles into the project that could become “the one” in Future Ghosts. Change wasn’t done with him, as the band was hit with a cease-and-desist order over use of its name, the Greensboro band called Future Ghosts became Unifier and their debut album Colorado is a monument to the kind of non-pandering, assertively accessible pop that practically began and ended with Jimmy Eat World. Freeman’s lyrics challenge, his riffs are choppy and bright, the toms and hats want to bust eardrums, and while there’s really not a standout track, it makes for inspiring sonic scenery.
THE BRAND NEW LIFE
The Brand New Life’s last offering before leaving Greensboro for the greener musical pastures of New York City is also a bold departure from the Afrobeat fusion on which they built their name. It does, however, present the Brand New Life at its playful, mischievous best. Its four tracks utilize tricky time signatures meant to fly past all but the most astute listeners, mixed in with conventional four-on-the-floor beats. That it was nearly two years in the making was a far cry from the breakneck two days of live tracking spent on their seven-song 2010 debut.
21. DARK HOLLER POP
You have to admire songwriters who are willing to venture outside their immediate area of expertise to cull a turn of phrase that could either elevate an entire song, or cause it to fall apart upon examination. When Joseph Terrell of Mipso sings “sign me up for experimental laparoscopic cardiology” on the heartbreaker “Red Eye to Raleigh,” no one cares that he’s not singing about an actual medical procedure, least of all the cardiologist-turned-label owner that made a gem of crossover bluegrass and whip-smart folk-pop like Dark Holler Poppossible.
MICHAEL RANK & STAG
There’s a difficult choice to be made between Michael Rank’s two excellent 2013 LPs. Ultimately, it would reflect your preference between the Rolling Stone’s Beggars Banquet and Sticky Fingers. Rank and Stag’s comparisons to the Stones are earned: he makes gritty, passionate country rock with gravelly vocals and reckless, bluesy guitar abandon. His October release, Mermaids, find kinship in the former with its more measured execution and lavish arrangements. After the post-divorce exercise in emotional release on February’s In the Weeds, Rank is evolving in the opposite direction, and on Mermaids his damaged growl finds a new home amidst an ace collection of players like John Teer and Emilie Frantz.
19. ANTI-AMERICANA: SPEAKING TO THE UNCON- SCIOUS MIND OF THE SOUTHWEST
A few years ago, Israel Darling’s Jacob Darden committed a classic rock gaffe: Fed up with making music, he hocked nearly all of his instruments and amps, swearing off songwriting for the less complicated life of chasing a girl around the Northeast. Predictably, the itch for songwriting returned, and Darden flayed away the Biblical complexities and knotty arrangements of his most notable work down to the simplified garage-country found onAnti-Americana, the debut EP of Ameriglow.
18. METRICS OF AFFECTION
Durham chamber-folk quartet Bombadil were strangely silent following their pretty good 2011 record All That the Rain Promises, but their quirky Ramseur Records release, Metrics of Affection, was worth the wait. It fell on the opposite end of the color spectrum from the darker previous record, but its most noteworthy accomplishment was as a spectacular piece to their ostentatious live shows.
17. LOVE IN FLYING COLORS
THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE
It was hard to stand out in a year in which artists like Autre Ne Veut and Blood Orange took grown and sexy sounds into the next millennium, and as such Phonte Coleman and Nicolay’s fourth album more or less maintained a holding pattern from 2010’s Authenticity. Their brand of R&B remains inherently good for your soul, and Love In Flying Colors is like chicken soup in that regard.
16. NATIVE AIR
As tempting as it might be to say that newlyweds Daniel Levi and Lauren Goans make sweet music on their debut album as Lowland Hum, it would be the kind of egregious clich that’s beneath Native Air. It is indeed one of the sweetest, most intimately penned records to come out of North Carolina this year; between their tranquil harmonies and Daniel Levi’s uncanny melodic sensibilities, it moves as impulsively as a new-fallen leaf on an autumn breeze from top to bottom.
15. LOVE & BARBITUATES
E. NORMUS TRIO
The award for oddest arrangement of the year goes to Asheville jazz futurists E. Normus Trio, whose Love & Barbiturates explores the unlikely (or maybe likely) kinship between its two titular concepts via bass clarinet and N/S Stick. Jay Sanders is a force on the eight-stringed N/S, conflating the guitar and bass parts at once against the torrential rhythms of Michael Davis. At its center is Steve Alford, whose melodic ideas are more in line with Dolphy than a traditional clarinetist like Goodman. Together, they’re one of the state’s most interesting fusion combos, and Love & Barbiturates is an exciting manifesto on the future of Tar Heel jazz.
14. SAMANTHA’S VACATION/POSTCARDS FROM MSSR PERDU
One part acid-splashed techno and one part druggy cosmic missive, the debut release by Chapel Hill producer Daryl Seaver under the name Samantha Vacation is the latest territorial expansion by the rigidly DIY Long Island Electrical Systems (LIES) label. If there’s a groove in this glorious mess of neon kicks and ghostly vocals cut on discernibly crappy gear, it’s always one step ahead of you.
13. SHARP OBJECTS
The reappearance of Bear Creek emcee Omniscience from the ether is one of the more improbable occurrences in hip-hop this year, but the one-time major label castoff found believers in Milwaukee beat miners Dope Folks Records. A steady stream of prime wax that began with the reissue of his once-lost ’93 release The Funky Oneliner, a prized relic of Greensboro’s superb rap past, opened the door to more sold-out reissues and recently opened the door for new, independent material. Sharp Objects shows that the old dog can still bark, spitting lines like “Fuck a spoon, I’m a show you how to eat with a pen” in his grainy flow against Debonair P’s meaty boom-bap.
12. WELCOME TO REIDSVILLE
American Aquarium’s BJ Barham sings an eponymous ode to his Reidsville home that paints it as a drowsy small town whose denizens are more concerned with Ford vs. Chevy, and everyone is “too much in love to give a god damn.” From the perspective of rapper Young Dirt on his debut mixtape Welcome to Reidsville, that same Small Town, USA is trapped-out hustler’s utopia, and he’s got his flow tight enough to rise above it while still repping it (he’s sure to distinguish the Tre Fo from his city in the opening bit). Refer also to the tape’s best track, buoyed by an incredible finger-picked guitar sample, the Robb County-produced “Country Boy”: “Passport, laptop, headphones, I’m trippin’ like whose life is this?/ Who’da thought west-end Reidsville be overseas on this business trip?” Awesome.
11. OUR OWN MASTERS
Valient Thorr take an axe to gross consumer culture immediately on Our Own Masters, their first LP in three years, with the razor-sharp “Immaculate Consumption.” It’s a jagged, relentless assault that recalls the best of Thin Lizzy or Pentagram at high RPM, and if it’s a departure from the legend building of the Chapel Hill metal warriors’ first decade, it’s because they’re now imposing their agenda on the legions of Thorrians they’ve accrued over six albums of ball-breaking metal. There is a closing moment of fealty to a greater power, however. Between the hook “My body aches for dry land” and the direct lift of the riff from Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows,” “Call Off the Dogs” plays like a plea for a Kyuss reunion.
10. SEASON OF 1000 COLORS
Few bands have demonstrated the kind of concerted growth in the past two years that Winston-Salem’s Estrangers have. The dreamy summer psychedelia on their 2012 EP Sunmelt might as well have been a different band from their patchy, introverted 2011 debut Black Ballroom (and in some ways, it physically was).
Season of 1000 Colors retains the band’s love affair with fuzz and reverb, but it does so within prescribed limitations, both vocally and melodically. Its greatest realization, though, is the ascension of David Todd Murray’s pristine synths from the melodic underpinning to a key role on tracks like “Love’s Pure Light.”
9. MEMORIES & BIRDS
Kenny Roby presented his first album in seven years as if no one was going to remember the decade of creative stick and move that preceded the layoff. In classic Roby fashion, he’s come back with a haymaker from the blind spot. Ever the maverick, Memories & Birds is eight songs of lush, attentive Americana that radiates lyrical authenticity against a bed a strings and woodwinds while closely admiring the kind of grandiose arrangements that drove Lee Hazlewood to the periphery during his LHI years.
8. MIRACLE TEMPLE
Strangely enough, North Carolina did not stop making music after all the praise that there was to be shoveled in 2013 was heaped onto Mount Moriah’s Miracle Temple by February. It still seems like ages ago that Heather McEntire and Jenks Miller released the album that was said to recast country music with a more earnest purpose, but ironically, its resignation towards times and sounds that can’t be had again have kept it strong and playable.
Chapel Hill’s Toddlers ran the gamut of releases in 2013. Their surprise February EP 19 was a promising sampling of murky pop noir and sonorous post-punk that hinted at a heavy Cure influence, which was followed by a brooding RSD single that paid homage to darker sources, like Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy. Their Mitch Easter-produced full length in October buffed out the grungy topcoat and offered great, if icy power pop, propelled by Nathan Toben’s corduroy vocals and disconsolate lyricism.
6. HOME ADDRESS FOR CIVIL
WAR EROS & THE ESCHATON
How Adam Hawkins and Kate Perdoni found a home in Greensboro is a marvelous story of its own, one that seems to evolve with every telling, but the basic premise is that things just happen. Their debut as Eros & the Eschaton, Home Address for Civil War, is reflective of that. Their amorphous harmonies are lost under fuzzed-out, sea foam melodies, their meanings purposefully left to individual interpretation. It’s a seraphic union that obliquely recalls Mike Milosh of Rhye in its rigorous androgyny, but it’s a record that demands attentive listening — what the takeaway is, is less important.
5. BLOOD DRIVE
Every single track on Blood Drive, the fifth album by Wilmington sludge-rockers ASG, sounds like it could crack the rotation of your typical modern rock station. Now, that’s not to say that ASG makes the kind of butt metal that gets played these days; just the opposite. It’s that their sound is so ingenuously simple that metal fans would demand that music like that of Blood Drive penetrate the airwaves instead. It’s Mother Love Bone meets Clutch — frontman Jason Shi’s anti-gravity vocals float above riffs so sludgy it’s like wading through the Cape Fear River basin after a hurricane in flip-flops.
4. SHE GOT GAME
If you follow producer extraordinaire 9th Wonder on Twitter, you know he retweets EVERY. SINGLE. INSTANCE of praise for his protege Rapsody’s excellent mixtape She Got Game.That in and of itself was a full-time job, and the praise (even if to excess) was deserved. In a year in which the most prevalent story in country music was that female artists were becoming the torch bearers of its truest traditions without the financial success of their male counterparts, there’s a case that Rapsody was hip-hop’s Kacey Musgraves. She’s an old-school firebrand with a full quiver of emotions at her disposal — anger, hope, resentment, pride and love — and she deploys them all to outstanding effect as she went bar-for-bar with the likes of Phonte, Ab-Soul, Chance the Rapper and Raekwon.
HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER
Michael Taylor came to North Carolina to study and record the state’s abundant folk music traditions and in the process, his band Hiss Golden Messenger became one of their healthiest tributaries. The band’s fourth albumHaw assimilates historical Tar Heel influences like it does great sidemen. Phil Cook, William Tyler and Nathan Bowles all make their mark amidst Taylor’s roots poetry, songs that deal in death, family, spirituality and the endless joys of self-discovery. It’s a country record at its heart, if only by proximity, but it’s also an expression that’s too righteous for labels.
2. THE PATRIARCH II
It’s not an indictment of Charlotte rising star Deniro Farrar that some of the audience who heard his set at a Show of Hands concert back in the fall complained to organizers about the emcee’s lyrical content, but on the audience themselves. There’s imminent truth in his words that shouldn’t be casually dismissed. Farrar spits it how he lives it, walking the line between the light and the dark, always leaning one way while being dragged in another. On The Patriarch II, he offers some of his most poignant verses, begging for the freedom of his brother while asserting that his career isn’t predicated on fame or money — though those will come — but just to have his family whole again.
To say that Asheville music polymath Marley Carroll has been swimming against the EDM current following his deeply affecting 2007 debut album, Melanaster, provides an incomplete picture. A classically trained pianist with an almost symbiotic relationship to the groove, he just hasn’t been bound by the same creative constraints as your average ProTools wiz kid. On his new album Sings, Carroll shines in reconciling the tricky relationship between melody, space and beat with tunes that could stretch across an African veldt (“Speed Reader”) or create a inescapable sense of claustrophobia. More so, he transcends the lockstep comparisons to Caribou’s Dan Snaith that have harangued him since Melanaster simply by making this completely intuitive as a dance record, while also maintaining the level of sophistication that has become his calling card.