To arrive at this best-of list, the Independent's dozen music writers submitted their favorite local tracks of 2008. We compiled them and culled the Top 40 we present here. Given that we increased our Tracklist from 35 songs last year, it's apparently been a great year for local listening.
(from The Bible and the Bottle; self-released)
American Aquarium's B.J. Barham vacillates between the twin personalities of a honky-tonk hotshot and a heart-on-his-sleeve romantic. Though still in the brash days of youth, Barham sounds much more genuine and endearing when reflecting the world as the latter, through the starry-eyed gaze of a small-town boy. Barham, a Reidsville native, has been California dreaming since before spending the better part of the last two years touring across the country. When he says it's "2,794 miles from here to LA," he sounds as if speaking from experience. The chorus—full of spirited harmonies and warm organ—is as unflagging as those hopelessly optimistic who strike out for Los Angeles in search of their big break. But the verses—all disheartened fiddle, crestfallen piano fills and dejected, near-sighed background vocals—reflect the melancholy of those same naïve souls whom the city eats alive, even as they try their damndest to keep them from dying, too. —Spencer Griffith
AMERICANS IN FRANCE
Download "Liking You"
"Liking You" begins with what sounds like a music box, a miniature universe of sound that will play the same tune forever so long as you keep cranking its handle. The song and its subjects seem to operate on much the same principle of cyclical infinity: Though the tempo and textures of "Liking You" change, they do so in tiny waves, moving from quiet to slightly less quiet to very quiet, adding a distorted guitar tone here and a drum turn-around there. But the song seems like it could spin forever, continuing the self-perpetuating, dangerous crush loops of which drummer Casey Cook sighs and sings so carefully. She recognizes the problems of the relationship ahead, like the drinking and the lack of communication and the desperate clinging of two lonely souls. But in this submerged duet, she goes with it, adding a soap-opera magnetism to the woozy washes of these Beach House shores. You'll recognize these miniature emotional battles. —Grayson Currin
Download "Hardwood Floor"
(from Such Fun; Canvasback/ Ace Fu/ Terpikshore)
"Hardwood Floors" opens more sparsely than any Annuals track. Its threadbare lament comes wrapped into a metaphor of a leaky roof and a floor that, as Adam Baker moans, "swells and moans like it hurts." Likewise, the song soon swells into a swooning, aching mélange of ethereal harmonies and understated guitars that weave into the song's texture. One of the band's most down-to-earth moments, "Hardwood Floors" serves as a departure from the cosmically minded eccentricities that made Annuals into blogger favorites. This is a level of nuance and maturity that promises the band's best work might still be ahead of it. —Bryan Reed
Download "Burning Brighter"
(from Sunshine; Lovitt Records)
Unlike most jagged, D.C.-inspired post-punk, "Burning Brighter" showcases an indelible hook, bobbing like a buoy amidst the squalling waves of guitar. The one-man production is spacious, and the boom-bap drum rhythm sounds far away. That is, until the bass rolls in on 22-inch rims with a wiry guitar melody and distorted overdubs. Shrouded in muscular angularity, the slinky call-and-return hook sounds like Shudder to Think covering "Long Cool Woman (in a Black Dress)." And like that Hollies tune, "Burning Brighter" finds Dave Laney struck by a femme fatale who takes him home with a "promise of deceit." Laney pleas that, if she leaves him, she best "write it down and lie intelligently." After all, is anything more crushing than being dumped by someone who can't compose a cogent "Dear John" letter? —Chris Parker
Download "Depart (I Never Knew You)"
(from Cavalcade; Southern Records)
The awesome thing about "Depart (I Never Knew You)" is how it always manages to ratchet up the intensity another notch, even when that seems impossible. The chain reaction begins almost immediately: We barely have time to register the creeping menace of the dorsal-fin guitar phrase that opens the song before the drums kick in, Heather McEntire begins to howl, and the shark is upon us. Backing vocals by The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle redouble her fury. McEntire might not "believe in logic," but her song does, darkly unfolding with the inexorability of pure desperation. —Brian Howe
BIRDS OF AVALON
(from Outer Upper Inner EP; Volcom Entertainment)
For a song called "Earthbound," Birds of Avalon certainly reaches to new heights. Those signature Siler & Kumar guitar-monies are still in effect, slicing through Scott Nurkin and David Mueller's rattling rhythm section like an exacting knife cutting through a patch of bubblegum. But BOA heads for the cosmos, adding textures (listen for the faint harmonies beneath the track's last minutes or how the guitars smear into one another) and shapes (listen for the periodic motion in that intro) to a tune that could have been another jab-and-out rocker. Perhaps it's time the band spent at Mitch Easter's analogue-only Fidelitorium talking. Perhaps it's a band with chops finally choosing to stretch them beyond the obvious influences working. Either way, this one should get you lifted, "Earthbound" or no. —Grayson Currin
Download "Cavaliers Har Hum"
(from A Buzz, A Buzz; Ramseur Records)
Bombadil plays soldier in "Cavaliers Har Hum." Pan flute and charango—a high-pitched South American lute—open the song, establishing a sense of innocence. An upbeat call to arms extols the virtues of cavaliers and invites the listener in with a chorus, "Cavaliers, sing out in glory, har hum." Like a growing procession of kids marching to the neighborhood creek, a ramshackle collection of percussion, voices and horns joins the fray as the song progresses. When Bombadil's army discovers the enemy has run away in fear, the song structure deteriorates in celebration. But the cacophony of sound reminds the listener of one of the last lines, "Branches, bark and motor oil, we left a dreadful wake." The song ends suddenly, and it is unclear whether "Cavaliers Har Hum" is a joyous battle cry for all battle cries or a poignant criticism of the war in Iraq. —Andrew Ritchey
Download "Sixth Hunkth"
(from Recycled Music; RRR Records)
Triangle free-music collective Boyzone has long been known foremost for its onstage antics—elaborate costumes, manic behavior, performance art oddities. But this four-minute movement survives without the support of stunts, primarily because it raises more questions about the band than it attempts to answer. In fact, I'm reluctant to call this an improvisation at all, as it moves with definite tension, like a through-composed dirge for pop modernity. The instruments coalesce, too, reeds and synthesizers squealing tightly but lazily above tape clicks and percussive pointillism. But the instruments themselves are a mystery: Are those pennywhistles? Backward vocals? Analog keyboard sustains? It barely matters: If you've ever wondered what Ash Ra Tempel would sound like gliding off the rails and into a bucket of lithium-laced LSD, you've finally found an answer that's sharper than Badgerlore. —Grayson Currin
(from World Class; Holidays for Quince Records)
Lazy, I know, but... fuck yes. I can't imagine any other conclusion upon hearing the climax of Caltrop's "Sliceolator," a concise, convoluted instrumental metal masterpiece that showcases almost every talent of the Carrboro quartet in three perfectly built minutes. The interchanging rhythm and lead guitars boast the tone of champions and the note-selection of both the Allman Brothers Band and Helmet. The bass claws and jabs, twisting with melody and rhythm, the perfect conduit between the band's charging bifurcate body. And, with 30 seconds left on the clock, John Crouch—perhaps the Triangle's most skillful but least selfish drummer—finally puts on a show, constantly racing beyond and collapsing back into the beat. So much instrumental metal sounds pieced together in a sterile laboratory by men wearing latex gloves and surgical scrubs. But this is an after-work jam by dudes who play just to sweat just to wipe the day's grime from their faces. —Grayson Currin
CHATHAM COUNTY LINE
(from IV; Yep Roc Records)
Though bluegrass and folk both have long, distinguished traditions of liberal politics (how many pickers have you heard tackle Dylan?), Chatham County Line's "Birmingham Jail" works through radical subversion: Almost exactly 25 years after the Birmingham church bombings killed four black girls in Alabama, four white men from North Carolina playing traditional instruments release a thundering rock song about a tragedy meant to discourage Southern integration eight months before America elects its first black president. It's a progress report. Regardless of its relationship to politics past and present, "Birmingham Jail" is a perfect song, written with Dave Wilson's image-driven perspicacity (you can smell the smoke in the air, see the rubble in the streets). He sings it like it's the most meaningful thing he's ever written, and the band backs him with heavy playing, leaning into their instruments with regret, rage and a sense of urgency that seems to ask, "Are we bigger than this now?" There's always hope. —Grayson Currin