Lifted from CDs, LPs, EPs, little seven-inch wheels of vinyl and the players of MySpace pages, these 40 tracks represent the best chunks of the Triangle's music scene this year. Not only do they speak to the diversity (red-hot roadhouse rock sidles up to astral metal and steamy techno thump) of the place but also to the quality: There's not a track here that doesn't belong, and there were at least a dozen more that just missed the cut.
ALCAZAR HOTEL, "PLAY NICE"
(from Come On! Dig the Unified Theory!, self-released)
Though the rest of Alcazar Hotel's Come On! Dig the Unified Theory! doesn't veer far from the electrified backwoods stomp of blues-based boogie rock, frontman Will Dawson throws a curveball on the album's concluding track, which has more in common with one of Langhorne Slim's plaintive laments. "I think it's obvious the only thing we have in common is that we both hate my fuckin' guts," Dawson begins over acoustic accompaniment, finally promising he'd remove "all the worst bits" if he could only reach that far down his throat. Somehow, though, "Play Nice" maintains a child-like innocence when Dawson—who played everything on the self-produced track—juxtaposes a sing-song melody, junky percussion and playful toy piano against those plainspoken lyrics littered with fucks and guts. —Spencer Griffith
AMERICANS IN FRANCE, "NOSE JOB"
(from Pretzelvania, Odessa Records)
A smart conflation of personal and spiritual doubt, "Nose Job" writhes with jagged, psych-soaked distorted guitar, yoked to a punky, straightforward rush. "So you want a nose job, looks like you could use one," they intone. "Your face looks kind of crooked. You're going to need a new one." There's an expressionistic little break just a minute in, which has something of a dream-pop drift, arresting momentum deliciously like a sultry tease. After 45 seconds, they barrel back into the song, guitars bursting open on each side like geysers. Steaming blasts fog the room before returning for a final verse, this time seeking a new religion. "Looks like you could use one," they intone again. "Your God is sick. You're going to need a new one. Call the priest! Call the nurse! Call everyone in your congregation." It all ends there, too, with four quick repeated measures to capitalize on tension. This is the kind of smart, propulsive, punk-inspired rock you just don't hear much anymore. —Chris Parker
BIRDS AND ARROWS, "HONEYMOON SONG"
(from Starmaker, 307 Knox Records)
Birds and Arrows' full-length debut, Starmaker, has other great songs, but "Honeymoon Song" defines the album and the band. The six-minute epic serves as an intimate window into the lives of husband and wife Pete and Andrea Connolly. Ostensibly about the new couple's honeymoon in the mountains—complete with stopping the car every few miles because it was smoking—the tune works through love, nature, movement and belonging. A study in text painting, piano chimes in, prickling like goose bumps, when Andrea sings, "the air was cold." Cello soars as the lyrics run "the sky was so revealing," and pedal steel graces the line "warm sun rising at our feet." Pete's tribal drumming enters after two minutes, thumping more like a soul rising to meet its match than a heartbeat. These instruments build excitement and expectations, but the tension in Andrea's voice is only resolved when Pete harmonizes with her on the chorus. "It was always you," she concludes. The other instruments fade away, and "Honeymoon Song" ends, appropriately, with only husband and wife. —Andrew Ritchey
BIRDS OF AVALON, "EYESORE"
(from Uncanny Valley, Volcom Entertainment)
Forget the bury-the-needle velocity of the old Birds of Avalon. Besides, all the cock rock in the world has but two speeds: full-on or ballad. This slow-builder moves much more agilely, with a slapback guitar pattern and curlicues of synthesizer wash. It rocks back and forth, hovering. Mixed in colorful layers, "Eyesore" ripples with mild psychedelic tinges that make the vocals feel as though the vodka-clear singing of Cheap Trick's Robin Zander is being blasted through a full swimming pool. In all this surging and swaying, though, this thing rocks, with those shots of guitar shooting up after each phrase in big exclamation points. —Chris Toenes
(from Tarpits and Canyonlands, Ramseur Records)
The foursome known as Bombadil has, or had, (the band is currently on indefinite hiatus, its members flung far) some quirky notions. Case in point: The members preferred to think of instruments as having names, identities and back stories. It's "Peter and the Wolf," indie-folk-pop style. So among the actors on the brief but bracing "Pyramid" are a banjo (Bob—father of two, who's secretly always wanted to be a Dobro), a piano (Patrick—gifted but high-maintenance) and various exotic co-stars—a true ensemble piece. All know their role, and all play it perfectly. The results draw in equal measures from your Arcade Fire types who ride the power surge that comes from the expert application of layers and dynamics and from the Avetts/ Woodentops orbit, where sonic bonfires are built with acoustic instruments as kindling. Even if you know their names, they can still burn. —Rick Cornell
BOWERBIRDS , "NORTHERN LIGHTS"
(from Upper Air, Dead Oceans)
Phil Moore finally trades his delicate guitar picking for a driving, syncopated up-strumming. Drums shamble ahead, and piano rings out. Amid it all, Moore proclaims what he does and doesn't need in life and love through the band's defining nature motif—"I don't need from you a waterfall of careless praise," he declares. "I do need the wind across my pale face." Almost in spite of himself, Moore admits, "But all I want is your eyes/ in the morning as we wake/ for a short while." Such an uncomplicated and winsome desire, stated perfectly. —Andrew Ritchey
CARLITTA DURAND, "HER"
(from Carlitta's Way: The Prelude, self-released)
We've been arguing with Carlitta Durand over the past year about whether or not this song is about masturbation. She says it's not, but—if only for shock value's sake—we beg to differ. Whatever the case is, this song is extremely erotic, with Durand wielding her authoritarian vocals like a seductive weapon. The question still remains though: Who is "Her"? And why is Carlitta so passionate about keeping her affectionate "Her" by her side? "You can't run and you can't hide/ I'll catch you soon/ just wait for the time," she sings. These days, porn is free if you can use the Internet. If you can cloak your porn love with a great R&B song, we'll all be happily singing along to the tune. Ahem: Some of us are just too shy to admit it. —Eric Tullis
CESAR COMANCHE, "HANDS HIGH"
(from Die in Your Lap, D.O.T.F.W.)
Now is not the time to talk about how 9th Wonder's snare drums sound repetitive, OK? Cesar Comanche and 9th Wonder co-founded The Justus League hip-hop crew about a decade ago. In the years that followed, North Carolina became a rising hip-hop wave. A trademark Justus League throwback, this track is an ode to those days, reminding us when Triangle kids came out in swarms to see their local rap heroes ignite stages. If you've attended a hip-hop show over the past year, you've probably seen that not too many people are willing to wave their hands very high anymore. On this stand-out cut, Chief Comanche demands that this trend change. —Eric Tullis
CHARLIE SMARTS, "ANATOMY"
(from F'Alex, Likuid Sounds)
Having nearly completed work on long-awaited full-lengths from Inflowential and Kooley High, in addition to appearing on a slew of remixes, mixtapes and other one-off cuts this year, the witty Raleigh wordsmith Charlie Smarts would seem to be stretching himself too thin for a satisfying solo release. "Anatomy"—the most infectious cut off his debut, F'Alex—begs to differ. The always flirtatious emcee makes social commentary for the club, championing positive body image while simultaneously beckoning females to the dance floor with a funky beat built around sputtering snare and hi-hat. The bass line throbs, though the keys feel like ice. Marshall Law's sparse production yields the foreground to Smarts, who flows like a chilled-out Andre 3000 while filling verses with sharp, bug-heavy wordplay. "Moved away from Charlotte/ I'm calling her a hornet" goes one highlight. But it's the hook—"I think I got anatomy" —sassily sung by Smarts' sister, Erica Thompson, that buzzes for days. —Spencer Griffith
CHRIS STAMEY AND PETER HOLSAPPLE, "WIDESCREEN WORLD"
(from hERE aND nOW, Bar/ None Records)
With handclaps, harmonies and an invigorating pulse that's half Motown, half, well, dB's, this one's the catchiest-on-impact song from hERE aND nOW. It's also half lark—any excuse to sing "Waikiki," "Borneo," and "the Falklands" is a good one—and half think-piece on our ever-shrinking world. When talking about this record, Stamey has described a floor covered with multiple revisions to "Widescreen World." For those familiar with his work, and Holsapple's (together and separate, behind the mic and behind the studio glass), it's easy to picture them carefully considering and then assembling every word, note and solo. That said, the results don't sound labored, one of the neat tricks that separates consummate pros from able journeyman. Before hERE aND nOW, there was Mavericks in '91. If Stamey and Holsapple hang on for another release in, say, 2025, the pair should just go ahead and call it Songcraftsmen: Then and Now. —Rick Cornell
DAN MELCHIOR UND DAS MENACE, "WRAPPED IN FOG"
(from Thankyou Very Much, S-S Records)
Besides the thunder clouds of creaky organ and guitar spinning this jam, there's a blues shout akin to lines belched by the tattered Durham sages in Blind Blake's crowd—"I feel like a rich man's dog." Melchior gets a lot of gab for his music's primitivism, but he's a rock lyricist capable of stirring visual images, no doubt. Blue turns black during "Wrapped in Fog," when our narrator—unable to see anything in front of his face, holding on only to the salvation his old lady might offer—[his own salvation via his old lady or his old lady's]laments aloud. That's the blues, man, rich in innuendo, lust and mystery. —Chris Toenes
DEX ROMWEBER DUO WITH JACK WHITE," LAST KIND WORD BLUES"
(from Last Kind Word Blues, Third Man Records)
Jack White, a rock idol in his own right, must have been thrilled at the chance to record with his own guitar hero, Dexter Romweber, and Dex's fairly accomplished sister/ drummer, Sara. You can hear the excitement in White's voice, even, as he struggles to keep his cool next to Dexter's icicle croon on this Geeshie Wiley classic. But rather than make White look a fool, the juxtaposition of the two voices—and their corresponding guitar tones (Romweber's swings and chimes, White's sputters and squeals—builds tension from a somber heartbreak ballad. Romweber's aching tenor counters White's agitated howl, blowing the hot breath of emotional juxtaposition. The melancholy gets an ignition, and the passion gets a chill. —Bryan Reed
DYNAMITE BROTHERS, "IN TIME"
(from Again, self-released)
The Dynamite Brothers break out the flares for this track, which channels vintage '70s soul for an homage to "the kind of woman that makes a man feel proud of himself," and makes "everything before feel like solitude." The era-specific sound is spot-on, the bass and bongos conjuring a low-light late-night vibe, horns percolating subtly to the surface alongside a low-volume organ ride and brief snaps of guitar. The boy/ girl synchronization the song cites is amplified in the music's come-hither eyes, sidling into a fuller sonic imprint so subtly and imperceptibly, you barely notice it has your shirt off, head bobbing and toes curled as things head into the last minute. "She took my hand, said close your eyes," they sing in unison. "I never felt this feeling inside." —Chris Parker
EMBARRASSING FRUITS, "CORNER"
(from Community/Exploitation, Trekky Records)
Recorded in the summer of 2007—back when jobs were plentiful, the King of Pop was still alive and the Carolina Hurricanes were at least mediocre—"Corner" is an easygoing jangle that knew little of the troubles to come in 2009. Actually, "Corner" is so infected with the nostalgic feel of worry-free summers that Embarrassing Fruits seem as if they'd be unaffected by the apocalypse itself. And indeed they're not: Over a breezy melody, lazily strummed chords and cymbal splashes, frontman Joe Norkus recounts fond memories of poolside dances and conversations about coffee with the girl he's met on the corner. When lightning hits their town and Jesus Christ comes down for a visit, the people scatter—except for Norkus and his summer affection. Hell, they're even making babies while the town burns. —Spencer Griffith
THE FIREHOUSE RHYTHM KINGS, "GREASE AND BEANS"
(online only, self-released)
"Grease and Beans" cooks down gypsy jazz and funky soul into one delicious tune. The head of the song sounds inspired by Django Reinhardt, with violin and piano playing tight, rolling flourishes—almost glissandos—in unison. But the quintet of The Firehouse Rhythm Kings has other plans for the number. Drums, bass and banjo help a funk groove peer out and take over. Violinist and vocalist Joe Troop waxes poetic about the Southern dish of the title, though a sexual energy permeates the tune, suggesting that Troop isn't just referring to the meal when he sings, "You're my inspiration, you mean everything to me." But if that's the case, the lyrics offer up some interesting kinks, like when the aching tenor confesses, "I've got no need for olive oil, just some bacon fat will do." Kinky. —Andrew Ritchey
FREEBASS 808 WITH THE NEW RADICALS, "ULTIMATE BLISS"
(from Moonbass EP, self-released)
Abandoning his blaxploitation, catwalking gig as one-half of the hip-hop duo Camp Lo, Geechie Suede changed his name to Suede Heron and transformed himself into a "cosmic space pony" rider along with Apple Juice Kid (Apple Crack) in the creative duo known as Freebass 808. On this track, the two jacked a vocal sample from late-1990's rock band New Radicals to lead a massive attack on music and its ultimate bliss. This is about as good as "Luchini." Well, maybe not, but we can definitely dance as hard. —Eric Tullis
GRAY YOUNG, "TILLING THE WIND"
(from Firmament, self-released)
The atmospheric vocals of Gray Young guitarist/ singer Chas McKeown are rarely a point of emphasis in the Raleigh trio's dramatic, tension-filled tugs-of-war. Not the case here: The single verse that opens "Tilling the Wind" looks to build hope. "We held dear the notion that all was to come," McKeown sings, his voice washed-out and distant. By the time vocals return, drums have entered, crashing like waves against an outpouring of punishing, circular guitar. "These are the days we're waiting for," McKeown chants over the turmoil, which gives way to a hypnotic riff that spirals around the busy bass line's counterpoint soon enough. The payoff is triumphant, and Gray Young doesn't waste time getting there, either. Three minutes of righteous cinema. —Spencer Griffith
HAMMER NO MORE THE FINGERS, "RADIATION"
(from Looking for Bruce, Churchkey Records)
People (I'm guilty, and so are you) often peg Hammer No More the Fingers for their quirky pop sense and peculiar lyricism, and "Radiation" is a slightly askew, insanely catchy ditty that does little to change such claims. It's about a girl, sure, just one who rides her motorcycle—Geiger counter in hand, of course—through post-fallout Chernobyl. Who hasn't met a girl like that?
But Hammer's imaginative brand of college rock revivalism comes colored with enough rad riffs and punk pogos to make the Durham three-piece deserve the power trio label. Duncan Webster and Jeff Stickley trade strained, overlapping yelps in the verses, which—along with the escalating tension of Joe Hall's minimal guitar moves—coerce the plodding bass and steady drums into awakening when the chorus hits. Stickley borrows a syncopated disco beat, and Webster slings bass notes that undulate like a yo-yo. A brief, spaced-out bridge allows the trio to muster up its strength for a final chorus—a relentless chant of "Ray-dee-ay-dee-ay-tion"—and a short but scorching guitar solo. Maybe revivalism is a misnomer. Were the '90s this fun, dudes? —Spencer Griffith
HORSEBACK, "HATECLOUD DISSOLVING INTO NOTHING"
(from The Invisible Mountain, Utech Records)
The howling doom metal that takes up most of The Invisible Mountain is a sharp contrast to Horseback's previous album, the more ambient Impale Golden Horn. But the peak of Jenks Miller's second full-length as Horseback is a long, beautiful track that splits the difference. "Hatecloud Dissolving into Nothing" buries his deathly screams beneath 17 minutes of calm, rippling acoustics and bright, shimmering reverb. What makes it so hypnotic isn't just the dense wash of sound—something of which Miller has already become a master—but the way that sound coats and colors the gritty voice, melting its red heat into a spectrum of hues, a prism refracting a sunray. If Miller's goal is to stretch metal's horizons, pulling it out of shadowy forests and into sunnier climates, "Hatecloud" goes a long way toward dissolving the genre's dark clouds. —Marc Masters
I WAS TOTALLY DESTROYING IT, "CUP OF TEA"
(from Horror Vacui, Greyday Records)
It's been said that if you despise I Was Totally Destroying It, you might love "Cup of Tea." After all, the slow burner sitting near the front of the quintet's excellent second record, Horror Vacui, trades the band's usual pop-punk energy for a patient build from nearly whispered delicacy to two minutes of sustained shout-along. Rachel Hirsh confides her relationship difficulties to her subject, bandmate John Booker, softly. Finally, she raises her voice, getting to the bitter part of the bittersweet: "You're in love with everyone but me," Hirsh declares, somehow keeping her cool. The band opens up, leaps in and Booker's right there with them, mirroring the romantic woe breath for breath. And that whole business about liking this song instead of liking the band is more than a bit reductive and superficial. "Cup of Tea" succeeds because it belts the painful truth. This year, I Was Totally Destroying It made a full album of such. —Grayson Currin
IMPOSSIBLE ARMS, "HERE ON THE COUCH"
(from Ripped in No Time, Odessa Records)
Time flies and beauty fades, but time fades away and bananas get gross after a few days. You get it, right? Things, especially we people, get old. For all the talk of Chapel Hill's Impossible Arms as a classic indie rock slacker trio, "Here on the Couch" offers a surprising shot of motivation through empirical cynicism and the simple desire to do something better. "Now you're waiting for you're waiting for you're waiting for that time of your life, every night/ This aging plights," sings Mike Myerson, balancing his ennui and anguish on a beam. See, he's not mad at the complacent couchdweller, but he's got better things to do. And that thing is to take two guitar solos that funnel electric Neil into one channel and live Thurston into another, backed by roadhouse support so good you can see the neon. Hey, is Haven Kimmel's mom into indie rock? —Grayson Currin
JOE ROMEO & THE ORANGE COUNTY VOLUNTEERS, "WEARING ME OUT"
(from Joe Romeo & the Orange County Volunteers, Robust Records)
Joe Romeo wrote this song back in his home state of Jersey, and it's the sound of someone plotting an escape. After springing himself and landing in Carrboro, he finally got to record it. The deep-strum, slow-smolder opening signals an epic folk-rock song ahead, and "Wearing Me Out" fulfills that promise. His voice comes confidently out front, and backing from the mighty Orange County Volunteers provides the definition of sympathetic. The lyrics are literate enough to catch your ear but universal enough to connect: "There ain't a friend on Main Street/ They're strangers at the most/ One more drink before I go/ Which stranger should I toast?" Think solo-mode Springsteen (fitting for a Jersey guy) taking on something from Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story, and you're in the ballpark. Then summer became fall, and Romeo—perhaps fearing another case of wear-out or, as his song goes, living in limbo—went back north from Carrboro. He only stayed a month, though. He's back now, for a woman, and with, we can hope, more songs this brilliant. —Rick Cornell
THE KINGSBURY MANX, "CREST"
(from Ascenseur Ouvert!, Odessa Records)
"Crest" comes right through The Kingsbury Manx's wheelhouse—a sweet, meandering folk tune fueled by pretty chiming guitar and a melancholy sentiment. But boy, do they drive it. It opens with a poignant comment, maybe about striving or perhaps about sex: "When you reach the crest with pains in your chest, there's not much a lady can do." The music lightly swirls around the guitar backbone like snow flurries, a simple intermittent snare snap, a bit of piano and some warming harmonies. "With no one to trust, learn to do what you must, hopeless and heartless," Bill Taylor intones, the cello arriving to underscore the sad sentiment. "Won't you believe, there's only arms up my sleeves," he pleads, asking for faith over a loping lilt. There's no happy resolution: The song merely recedes into the horizon, cresting without denouement. —Chris Parker
KINOEYE, "MEAN OLD WORLD"
(from "MKB/ Mean Old World," W.T. Records)
During the intro to this year's mix album for London's Fabric club, Detroit producer Omar S. pronounces, "The music on this CD is fully 100% analog—no computer bullshit programs! Shouts go out to those who ain't scared!" On this breakout 12", Kinoeye (an alias of Zeke Graves, who also works as Datahata) appears ready for Omar's challenge. Making subtle, sleight-of-hand music with beats is a lost art being dug up occasionally by record-heads and only occasionally by big-name labels. And the satisfaction—head-nodding, eyes-shut bliss—is the kind one gets from any good funk groove or deft hip-hop production blip. It comes simply from cycles of rhythm, a deep-voiced sample with bottomless character, and a latticework beat makeup. As it builds into the vocal, edging along and clipping more of the vocal into the bumping frame, the ride is on, and the release is sweet. —Chris Toenes
LONNIE WALKER, "FEELS LIKE RIGHT"
(from These Times Old Times, Terpsikhore Records)
How appropriate that Raleigh-via-Greenville quintet Lonnie Walker slashes into "Feels Like Right" from a 20-second pastiche of blurred tones and chopped drones: For a band that's favored fragments and epics for songs, this is an awfully concise and captivating pop number. Both structurally and lyrically, "Feels Like Right" works much differently than other Lonnie Walker tunes, yielding the majority of the spotlight to an unforgettable hook and stringing the iterations together with a thin guitar tone that works like fishing line. And where frontman Brian Corum has sometimes seemed as though he simply wanted to hear himself sing the clever words he might write, he sounds like an empathetic, mass-appeal sort here: "One once was two/ Then I kissed your lips/ Fast forward," sings Corum, stretching the syllables until the band resolves beneath him. "It feels like right." If this is what a good band tightening its focus and aiming to be a great band sounds like, it indeed feels right. —Grayson Currin
THE LOVE LANGUAGE, "LALITA"
(from The Love Language, Bladen County Records)
As soon the lyrics "We've got one more to go" ring out, you know you're in for a war. It's frontman Stuart McLamb's war, and it's a smash-and-grab of reluctance, joviality and lust. Plant your flag here. The only casualty is Lalita (whoever she is). Imagine the anguish she might feel after being called out as the aggressor. This is a beautiful-trash can-sort-of-love-song that, between the echoing cries, demands a sympathetic listen or shrine—whichever you choose. Lalita is an angel-person that we all know. We hate her and we love her. We can't find her, but she's right there. Our only compass is a guitar that's screaming her or his name in every direction and language. Eventually, maybe, we'll find our Lalita. —Eric Tullis
(from Gather, Form & Fly, Hometapes)
Any of the 13 cuts from Megafaun's Gather, Form and Fly—our top album of 2009—could have been picked for this Top 40. While I'll stand by my assertion that "The Longest Day" is the best song of the year—local or otherwise—it's an inaccurate representation of the full scope of Megafaun's sound and abilities. Consensus favorite "Guns," however, encapsulates the trio's essence in a seven-and-a-half minute shell.
"Guns" bursts out of the gate to the brisk clip of a bright acoustic guitar and a triumvirate of harmonies at once triumphant and forlorn. After the midpoint, the fraternal voices chant "All we'll ever be/ all we'll ever need" like a mantra, which slips away in a wash of feedback and abstract percussion. The structure dissolves into a deconstructed collage of guitars and gongs. This seamless synthesis of experimental electronic techniques with organic instrumentation and traditional arrangements defines Megafaun's bizarre beauty. —Spencer Griffith
MIDTOWN DICKENS, "THE FISH SONG"
(from Lanterns, self-released)
On Oh, Yell!, the debut from Durham duo Midtown Dickens, the listening first seemed so easy and fun—an earnest tune about guitars and lies, a jazzy little number about someone at the door, a missed-harmony hymn for eggs, toast and a lover. And then, in the five spot, came "The Job Song," Catherine Edgerton's heart-wrecking lament about service industry frustration and futility. It didn't permanently ink the record's often casual atmosphere, but it did demand that Edgerton and Kym Register be taken seriously as songwriters, not just good-natured entertainers. Lanterns, the band's second record and first as a five-piece, is witty, certainly, but given its finessed performances and its focus on lost love and faced fears, it certainly doesn't seem light. But "The Fish Song," which also checks in at track five, is a wrecking ball, jokes or no. It's Edgerton again, debating whether public embarrassment is worse than no one noticing when you're out of place. Singing as a fish out of water, and then a horse and a pig, she sells the scrambled metaphors like an expert witness. This fish is so happy to be here, but the air is going to kill her. Maybe "being out of water is the best way to drown"—or live. —Grayson Currin
MOTOR SKILLS, "RIGHT AS HELL"
(from Hear Here: The Triangle, Terpsikhore Records)
One of the several surprising successes on this year's excellent Hear Here: The Triangle compilation, "Right as Hell" is also, as far as we can tell, the recording debut of Raleigh duo Chris Hutcherson-Riddle and Mike Dillon. It's a riveting way to begin: Dillon has been luring someone into his sympathy by not being himself—lying, charming and joking until, as he puts it, he "became one himself." The beat hits hard and jerks harder, recalling the uneven tremor of Radiohead's "Idioteque" in the way it drives both unease and the dance floor. But Dillon sings like he's over it, like he's committed his crime, pondered it and moved on to turning the memory into a melody. After all, these were "little, little lies," and—as Dillon hopes here—they do keep us on the nigh, waiting for more Motor Skills. —Grayson Currin
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS, "GENESIS 30:3"
(from The Life of the World to Come, 4AD Records)
If you're wondering, this is the moment in Genesis where Rachel, Jacob's wife, falls to jealousy. She's unable to bear Jacob children, and so, to compensate and to keep up with her sister's fertiloty, she demands that he sleep with Bilhah, her maidservant. Suddenly, things so sacred and familiar—love, marriage, childbirth—become complicated because of someone's feelings for the world around them. So, here, John Darnielle seems to see the child as a snapshot of innocence and possibility, both of which begin to fade as soon as they're glimpsed. "You only see it once and then it steals into the dawn/ And then it's gone forever," he sings sweetly over piano, referring to the first light the child sees. Some people criticize Darniell's "inside voice," or that he's now as capable of crooning as he is belting. This beautiful song deserves quiet reflection, and Darnielle delivers. —Grayson Currin
THE OLD CEREMONY, "WALK ON THIN AIR"
(from Walk on Thin Air, Alyosha Records)
A simple four-note guitar progression lulls frontman Django Haskins into a fog, so he opens "Walk on Thin Air" singing hollowly, "I woke up dead again/ I could not comprehend." The Old Ceremony completes the air of numbness—quietly rolling cymbal, tentative vibraphone. Haskins continues, delivering his words as if through a haze. "I want to lock you up," he muses, expressing the thoughts of a thousand jilted lovers while also implicating himself in the failed relationship. Ultimately, though, Haskins sees that it's not up to him. The quintet brings in strings, organ, and pleading dissonance for a chorus that says she must decide whether or not to "walk on thin air." It's about a willingness to fall in love, which can soar to great heights or come crashing to the ground. And that is Haskins' one consolation: "If all this pain is real/ then so is everything/ I'm not afraid to feel." —Andrew Ritchey
POLVO, "BEGGAR'S BOWL"
(from In Prism, Merge Records)
"Beggar's Bowl," the first song released from Polvo's superb comeback album, In Prism, is also its finest and its most representative. Polvo 2.0 isn't the same band it was a decade before. This band is more muscular and rhythmic—almost metallic, really—and entirely accessible. Ash Bowie's voice is more pronounced in the mix than ever before. Steve Popson's bass stomps like it's wearing lead boots. The guitars ride a single riff to its logical conclusion, matching Popson's plod and heaving the song toward a Southern metal groove. Even as Bowie and Dave Brylawski cast off fills, the song sets a template for a Polvo that has grown into something stronger and more streamlined, without shedding the serpentine guitar melodies that made the band interesting to begin with. This Polvo might be more ear-friendly, more rockist and less dependent on the skewed stuff. It's not a bit less volatile, though. —Bryan Reed
RED COLLAR, "THE COMMUTER"
(from Pilgrim, self-released)
Jason Kutchma needs exactly 14 words to make you understand that his dilemma is yours, too: "This new morning/ with the sun on my face," he speak-sings not unlike The Hold Steady's Craig Finn. He pauses and flips the switch. "When I return, sunlight replaced." "The Commuter" is about the life-draining cycle that, these days, you're lucky enough to experience—waste your life at work while you're trying to earn enough money to simply have a life. Like the band's mix of Springsteen grandiosity and Fugazi angularity, none of this is revelatory or new. But delivered in Kutchma's strained voice, with the band shouting behind him like a chain gang bound to break free, "The Commuter" feels urgent and essential. And my regrets if the fact that four of the five people playing here did in fact trade stable jobs for a touring van earlier this year doesn't make you stare out of the window with wanderlust. —Grayson Currin
RYAN GUSTAFSON, "SUDDEN SADNESS"
(from Donkey LP, Drug Horse)
Durham songwriter Ryan Gustafson spent 2009 transitioning from his familiar role fronting modern rock band Boxbomb to finding his place as part of the fledgling talent pool of Chapel Hill musicians dubbed Drug Horse. Just in time, too: Gustafson's debut solo LP—recorded and released with the help of his Drug Horse collaborators— judiciously grafts Americana onto the collective's retro obsession. Pastoral imagery abounds between the rural gravestones and the country churches of "Sudden Sadness," an album standout driven by plucky banjo and acoustic guitar. James Wallace's soulful organ lines offer a tasteful addition, while a quartet of offhand harmonica solos from Carter Gaj bridges the verses in a sunny way, belying the melancholy contained within Gustafson's scratchy voice. Gustafson's ex-Boxbomb bandmate Rob McFarlane lends handclaps and a gang-chorus coda that feels lifted from a late-night boozer. If so, drink up. —Spencer Griffith
SOFT COMPANY, "STARK & JESPERSON"
(from EP, So Tiny Records)
The lively, big-chord piano opening and walking bass line suggest a classic Stax single, though the accompanying guitar has a new wave tinge. Missy Thangs' scintillating soprano lords over the top like an energized version of the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser, possessed of a certain grace and carriage. Girl group backing vocals pop in as Thangs asserts decisively, "I'm a record-maker." The song emanates a sanguine spirit to match the song's ebullience. "We ask for dreams, disenchanted children, secret hope and your selfish visions," Thangs sings before making a request: "Just believe in me." Though it's not entirely clear, the references to Peter and Paul seem to refer to Paul Stark and Peter Jesperson, producers of The Replacements' Hootenanny. But even without being able to definitively divine the meaning, the vigor and joy it enthuses are difficult to resist. —Chris Parker
SPIDER BAGS, "TEENAGE EYES"
(from Teenage Eyes, Odessa Records)
With Spider Bags' clear nods to countless "teenage" theses and thoses, this song is not about pretending to be under 20. It's about feeling a sense of youthful excitement. "She gave me teenage eyes," Dan McGee says of the song's object of affection. He might be past puberty, but he's not past infatuation. And fittingly, the song's pulse races with wired Jerry Lee piano banging, jittery tambourine shakes and a peppy guitar riff that winds itself around McGee's nostalgic boasting. Coming from a band with plenty of hits to choose from this year, "Teenage Eyes" is a clear standout for its sheer infectiousness. Spider Bags are the kings of boozy garage rock, but here they're giving an overenthusiastic toast to pretty girls and the fits of joy they bring. C'mon, guys, you're giving us "Teenage Eyes" again. —Bryan Reed
TERRY ANDERSON AND THE OLYMPIC ASS KICKIN TEAM, "WILLIE MAYS"
(from National Champions, Doublenaught Records)
This is a dual-purpose number: It carries a blistering condemnation of Barry Bonds while celebrating the eternally graceful ballplayer of the title (who just happens to be the godfather of Bonds, whose late father, Bobby, played with Mays on the San Francisco Giants.) The song never mentions the all-time home run leader by name, as if those two words are much too sour to chew on. But line after line, the song makes it clear who's the villain and who's the hero, leading to this perfect closing dismissal: "But now you should be erased/ Gone without a trace/ You'll never take the place of Willie Mays/ Because when his ball went out of sight/You knew that he did it right/ You ain't nothing like Willie Mays." Of course, you also need to sell things musically, or else you just have a Sporting News essay. No sweat—Anderson and team are without peer when it comes to blending power pop and roots rock. "Willie Mays" sports 660 hooks, all of them clean. —Rick Cornell
THAD COCKRELL, "ROSALYN"
(from To Be Loved, self-released)
In the late '90s, when the then-Wake Forest-based Thad Cockrell began crashing open mics and open radio stations with guitar and songs in hand, he was a country singer. Courtesy of his tenor, the times and his knack for hurtin'-heart lyrics, he really didn't have a choice. Fast-forward a decade, and Cockrell's To Be Loved shows that any country music he's making now is of the politan variety. Even that's stretching a label to a snapping point. That album's centerpiece, "Rosalyn," is pure symphonic pop, a sun shower of a song with well-placed piano droplets and a chorus that bursts bright. Cockrell's writing still focuses on matters of the heart, though, and "Rosalyn" hands out a little tough love: "The way you walk around this town/ You think you own the corner on the market of a broken heart/ Have I got some news for you/ You're not the only one who's stood there where you are." After a glorious crescendo, he offers one more bit of cardiac advice: "Take that heart down off your sleeve." —Rick Cornell
VEELEE, "TRAMPOLINE/ DEADBOLT"
(from Three Sides, self-released)
This is a tale of hide-and-seek, voyeurism versus privacy: The pair in the first verse is sweating the pair in the second, anxious over what the neighbors might be up to in the backyard, behind closed doors and between window frames. "We're dying to see exactly what they do next door," Matthew Park and Ginger Wagg sing in unison as they empty into barrage of curious, cooed oohs. The couple in verse two either suspects the inspection, or they're paranoid: "We don't want the people next door seeing what we do." Thing is, we don't know who's right and who's wrong. This short little number plays hide and seek, too—with the facts. Everything's a generalization, and we're left asking if the first couple is warranted in their interest—or, to be more exact, exactly which sin couple two is hiding. An intriguing match of form and function. —Grayson Currin
WHATEVER BRAINS, "ELI PORTER, CLASS OF 2005"
(from Saddle Up, Bull City Records)
Whatever Brains' lo-fi approach to Descendents-meets-Jay Reatard pop-punk has long lent the band a sound that seemed inseparable from low-ceilinged basements, sweat and beer stains. But with their second single for Bull City Records—and especially on this re-imagining of a cut from the band's Soft Dick City demo tape—Whatever Brains don't feel limited at all. The sound is as snotty and dingy as ever, cutting guitars through static and Rich Ivey's spittle. But "Eli Porter's" yeah, yeah, yeah, yeahs and the subsequent oohs and aaahs became more than syllabic filler. They jump out of the record's grooves, stuffing whatever space it encountered with a hot, wet, drunken rage. Suddenly, Whatever Brains sounds less like a local favorite than a big-leagues contender. That's all to say that this song delivers more than the promises of young punks. —Bryan Reed