Each year, when I begin compiling the list of my favorite local LPs and EPs, I initially question how I will ever make it to 25: Were there even 25 great "local" releases this year? Ones that hung together beyond including a notable song or two? Ones that I will remember when the calendar soon flips?
A few weeks later, though, I invariably start whittling down, reducing a roster that sometimes swells beyond 50 to the 25 spaces I've allowed. And so it went this year, when I had to cut at least 15 area titles I liked a lot in order to get to my list's upper limit. To compensate, at least, I've included a list of honorable mentions—necessary, it seems, during a year when compelling music and stories seemed to emerge from every corner of the Triangle.
BEDOWYN, Blood of the Fall; BODY GAMES, Local Love Vol. 1; CALAPSE, You Know How I Feel; DEMON EYE, Tempora Infernalia; FLESH WOUNDS, In the Mouth; GNØER, Tethers Down; JACK THE RADIO, Badlands; KOOLEY HIGH, Heights; KNURR & SPELL, Ought; LILAC SHADOWS, Brutalism; MAGNOLIA COLLECTIVE, An Old Darkness Falls; SAGAN YOUTH, Cela; THE WYRMS, At Wizard Island
25. NECROCOSM, DAMNATION DOCTRINE (self-released)
Four years after forming, Raleigh quintet Necrocosm went for grandeur with its late-arriving debut LP, the 10-track Damnation Doctrine. Anchored by a rhythm section that's fluid but forceful and accented by a two-guitar tandem that locks into thick riffs before peeling off to spiral into pealing solos, Necrocosm delights with its melodic death metal revivalism. Like a harder, more guarded Skeletonwitch, Necrocosm hangs out serrated-voice hooks and then drives them in deep.
24. HANZ, REDUCER (Tri Angle Records)
A little like DJ Shadow for listeners obsessed with visions of dystopia, Triangle producer Hanz nabbed a deal with Tri Angle Records, a label whose interest in the darker shades of electronica has offered a platform for the likes of The Haxan Cloak, Forest Swords and Balam Acab. On the challenging Reducer, disembodied voices, disjointed drums and disorienting textures build into pieces that introduce you to a logic all their own. Drums hang in hazes of distortion, while break beats splinter over samples that drift into the ether. It's a nuanced, singular record—and a firm rejoinder to EDM's current moment of melodrama.
23. JAKE XERXES FUSSELL, JAKE XERXES FUSSELL (Paradise of Bachelors)
It's one thing to learn traditional folk songs from aging sources and form a reliquary of numbers worth preserving. It's another thing entirely to spend your young life learning those songs and then having the reverence and gumption to reinvent them, to make them speak to an audience beyond old folks and folklorists. Jake Xerxes Fussell, an itinerant Southerner new to North Carolina, does exactly that on his self-titled start. He turns inherited tunes into crackling new visions of folk-rock, traversing swamps and the Piedmont and the Appalachians to arrive near a winning intersection of Johns Hartford and Prine.
22. MAC MCCAUGHAN, NON-BELIEVERS (Merge Records)
Nearing the fourth decade of his recording career, Mac McCaughan doesn't seem content to rest on mighty laurels—like co-founding Merge Records or Superchunk or writing Portastatic's great "Through With People." In fact, he breaks the brand of that former solo identity for Non-Believers, the first LP under his own name, and the results are fresh and telling. As though setting old diary vignettes to personalized reflections of the sounds that might have scored them, McCaughan delivers tales of young-adult enthusiasms in his breaking voice above cheap synths and drum machines, four-track power pop and slow little symphonies. The radiating bittersweetness of "Real Darkness" and playful antiphony of "Only Do" qualify as some of the best work of his career.
21. THE SECOND WIFE, TOURIST (PotLuck Foundation)
In The Dirty Little Heaters, Reese McHenry serves as a barnstorming rock 'n' roll bandleader, her audacious and gripping voice providing old-school bombast over a power trio's measured aggression. But after serious heart problems sidelined McHenry for years, she re-emerged under the catchall solo moniker "The Second Wife" to express herself more robustly. The nine-song Tourist finds her flirting with forlorn country and rambunctious soul and reverting at times to her Strummer-meets-Jett basics. Like Lucinda Williams after rounds of label woes, McHenry returns with a broad new vision—and a voice that can sell any version of it.
20. THE CHARMING YOUNGSTERS, MIDDLEWEIGHTS (self-released)
The Charming Youngsters began nearly a decade ago, with a few college kids in Greenville, North Carolina, launching it to some extent as a vehicle for parties. But the 10 tracks of Middleweights perfectly capture the woes, prospects and decisions of the period when late adolescence begins to slip into adulthood. Ennui battles anxiety. Real-world exigencies mitigate snuggles. Faithfulness stares down doubt. A nervy mix of jangling pop and shoegazing rock soundtrack this internal turmoil as bandleader Nolan Smock airs both worry and wonder.
19. JENKS MILLER & ROSE CROSS NC, MUSIC FOR SNOWDRIFTS (Ba Da Bing Records)
Jenks Miller and Elysse Thebner recorded Music for Snowdrifts in their rural Orange County home during the year's unseasonably stormy late winter. For these three psychedelic guitar-and-keyboard washes, the structure hinges on a smattering of acidic riffs, luminescent keyboard melodies and Miller's impressionistic poetry. Snowdrifts is a record of quiet contemplation and heavy questions. It's as if the couple sat in the living room and improvised softly while staring out of a window, contemplating the shape of the world beneath the white.
18. BLACKBALL, 3 SONGS. (self-released)
One of the year's most exciting new arrivals, the five-piece Blackball gathers young punk veterans from Raleigh and Richmond and launches them into a snake pit of atavistic riffs, bruising rhythms and acerbic tirades. Two guitars work in close concert, providing a pivot point for the invective of the electrifying Ericka Kingston, who sells her diatribes in screamed ecstasy. After a feedback impasse, these three songs—recorded in a practice space, released in two tiny cassette editions—race by in less than five minutes. They all leave a heavy mark.
17. NATURAL CAUSES, NATURAL CAUSES (Snot Releases)
On their self-titled debut LP, the three members of Natural Causes—a splendidly defiant outgrowth of the relatively sunny Last Year's Men—seem to smile as they talk shit. These eight songs brim with wry observations and winked imprecations, all shouted and howled in harmony over a splintering mix of drums, guitars and emulsifying synthesizers. But there's a devilish glee to Natural Causes, too, a quality that gives the band's debut an irrepressible, must-hear-again urgency.
16. SEE GULLS, YOU CAN'T SEE ME (PotLuck Foundation)
"Another romantic fail/It's nothing new," sings Sarah Fuller near the start of "Karate Kicks," the second marcher on her band's debut EP, You Can't See Me. A river of romantic disappointment runs through See Gulls' first batch of songs, from boys who just bailed with no notice to others who deserve a little extra surveillance. Self-pity, however, does not last; this sharp, elemental indie rock transmutes disappointment into defiance, with the band daring dastardly love to try and get it down again.
15. BIRDS OF AVALON, DISAPPEARANCE (Third Uncle Records)
For their first release in half a decade and for new home Third Uncle Records, Raleigh's Birds of Avalon kept it low-key, selling just 50 lathe-cut vinyl versions of the five-song Disappearance. But the sounds and songs are perhaps the most intriguing and magnetic the band has ever committed to tape, with florid psychedelic flourishes such as big veils of reverb and oscillating instrumentals suggesting a bold new flight path forward.
14. HOUSEFIRE, BURNTHEMASTERS (Hot Releases)
On burnthemasters, Durham-via-Asheville beatmaker and beatbreaker Luci Waldrup samples thunderstorms and YouTube clips, incidental sounds and pop songs to build rhythms that rise into monuments only to shatter them—through distortion, obliterative repetition or slow and steady fadeaways. Waldrup uses a barrage of sound to engulf an audience with each of these five thoughtful productions, ultimately shifting the systems to push listeners back into a void at will.
13. ACE HENDERSON, ANALOG YOUTH: YESTERDAY IS OVER (self-released)
As both an emcee and an artist, Raleigh rapper Ace Henderson seems to be a bit undecided. Does he want to lean into hard, caustic rhymes or lean back into soft, pensive bars? Does he want to embrace boom-bap classicism or float off on a cloud of weed rap? Does he want to be fiercely original or work as a musical magpie, borrowing bits from mainstream hits? He does all of this on Analog Youth: Yesterday Is Over, an uneven but considerably entertaining listen that suggests he's got the rapping chops, production ear and gusto level to follow some of the trails out of "local rap" already blazed by the likes of King Mez, Rapsody and perhaps Phonte. Many great rap songs stemmed from the Triangle this year. But end-to-end, Analog Youth is its finest album-length moment.
12. WHATEVER BRAINS, LP (Sorry State Records)
Recorded in the month following Whatever Brains' last show, the band's fourth and final LP finds the wonderfully nettlesome five-piece throwing any cares they ever had about perception (which were always very few) out of the window. These synthesizer-and-drum-heavy permutations on post-punk lambaste malevolent cops and bands with plans on one side and send up scene guardians and self-made prognosticators on the other. No one gets off easy here, either as victim or listener, as these songs qualify as some of the most compulsive and twisted in Whatever Brains' entire—and now, done—run.
11. POLYORCHARD, COLOR THEORY IN BLACK AND WHITE (self-released)
Polyorchard was born a collective. Founded by upright bassist David Menestres, the always-evolving, forever-improvising ensemble could sprawl into a big lineup or shrink into modest formats. For Polyorchard's debut, Menestres anchored two distinct trios—a "Black" trio with viola and cello and a "White" trio with trombone and saxophone. The string-based group is more prone to dig deep into ideas, as when they explore every millimeter of a textural drone late in "Black 1." With horns, though, Menestres' crew grows only more conversant and communicative. "White 4," for instance, is a low and slow fireside circle, while "White 5" suggests a gaggle of chattering birds, sending signals to one another across an otherwise blank space.
10. DANIEL BACHMAN, RIVER (Three Lobed Recordings)
Solo instrumental guitar albums can often land too squarely on one side of a line or another. They can be too reverent to the likes of Fahey or too revisionist, as if trying to ignore the past. They can be overly narrative and direct or grossly abstruse, like no story worth telling ever existed. But River, the album that firmly establishes Daniel Bachman as a frontrunner in his busy field, makes no such distinctions. He covers some heroes, including Jack Rose, but builds winding songs that don't adhere to structural limitations. He balances bright eyes and heavy hearts during a two-song suite, and positions "Won't You Cross Over to That Other Shore" as an anthem for emotional ambiguity. It's a complete, complicated work.
9. THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE, TALES FROM THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY (+FE Music/Hard Boiled)
More than a decade after the The Foreign Exchange started as a file-sharing duo between Little Brother's Phonte Coleman and Dutch producer Nicolay, the pair's artistic preferences have been validated by the mainstream. Scan the dial or Spotify charts, and you can hear reflections of their love of old-school soul, updated for a generation with smartphones and new mores. Tales From the Land of Milk and Honey, The Foreign Exchange's fifth album, is a crucible of such trials, a place where peppy party anthems and apologetic pleas mingle beneath the same bright, modern glow of Nicolay's production. Tales scans like a busy Twitter timeline, populated by an intriguing mix of lofty loverboy fantasies and harsh relationship realities. Coleman, as always, is a righteous narrator.
8. AMERICAN AQUARIUM, WOLVES (self-released)
On Wolves, the burden of great expectations weighs heavily on American Aquarium leader B.J. Barham. He worries about overcoming the addiction-plagued ghosts of his gene pool, the small-town strictures of his home and the toil of the road. He doesn't want to let down his bandmates or fans, his wife or family. These troubles define his lyrics, and for the first time, he sings as though he's trying to be no one but himself. Aided by a team of imaginative producers, the band steps up, wrapping his words in a sort of art-country glow that's afraid neither to be simple nor sophisticated. For years, the road-loving American Aquarium has been a popular, club-filling band; Wolves is the first guarantee they can be a great one, too.
7. LACK, PERHORRESCES (More Records/Hot Releases)
Warning: When listening to Perhorresces, the more abstract of Philip Maier's two 2015 releases under the name Lack, you may begin to question if the rhythms you hear are real or illusory. Maier drapes his electronic drums in distortion so that they linger, then disrupts them with smaller beats that sound like popping static or skipping discs. During "Escutcheon," he does this all over an organ's sustained pitch, creating an uncanny headspace in which time seems to spin in a slow oval. These productions are as imaginative as they are unapologetic.
6. MAKE, THE GOLDEN VEIL (self-released)
MAKE pays little mind to boundaries on its second LP, the brazen and excellent The Golden Veil. Pulling at liberty from doom metal and drone metal, post-rock and psychedelia, the alternately heavy and heavenly MAKE turns all of those factors into long, arching, seamless pieces. They churn and drift, scream and sing, float and fight, finding unlikely connections between Spacemen 3 and Sleep. The Golden Veil is as much about escapism, or getting high and floating off, as it is about actuality, or reckoning with one's own faults and dilemmas. It's a difficult interstice to explore, let alone express, but on these seven tracks, MAKE takes its time—and the sounds it needs—to do just that.
5. DES ARK, EVERYTHING DIES (Graveface Records)
Many of the songs on Everything Dies, the first Des Ark album in four years, initially existed as solo folk numbers, delivered only by Aimée Argote with a guitar or banjo. Here, though, rich orchestrations recorded in several states and over the course of several years give the tunes new flesh and renewed connective power. So many of Argote's best songs are acute portrayals of individual agony, where the victim seeks support and solidarity in abysmal situations. Everything Dies gives these characters what they need—a chance to have a bigger voice and to find community in the midst of catastrophe.
4. BOULEVARDS, BOULEVARDS EP (self-released)
The four cuts that Jamil Rashad, aka Raleigh funk lover Boulevards, delivers on his introductory EP clock in collectively at less than 12 minutes. But put them on a loop, and you can party for hours. From the stop-time delirium of "Sanity" to the lascivious-but-loyal "Honesty," Rashad has the enviable ability to make deep grooves bounce and spring into life. His voice is likable enough, and his lyrics do more than toast the room. But it's the way he wedges both into his electrofunk vision that makes him a likely bet to be one of next year's breakout successes. Makes sense, as his career began with this total exclamation mark.
3. EARTHLY, DAYS (Noumenal Loom)
Edaan Brook and Brint Hansen, or Earthly, revel in the possibilities of sound. On Days, the debut from the Carrboro duo, the pals and collaborative producers build beautifully throbbing ambient pieces, turn a preponderance of tiny samples into pointillist pop and manipulate voices and found sounds into electronic music's equivalent of hokum. They alternately suggest popular counterparts like The Field, The Books, DAT Politics, Four Tet and Ratatat—signposts as to just how jubilant and enjoyable their curios can be. Days feels intimate and esoteric but strangely accessible, too, like friends speaking in a supposedly secret language that everyone else can understand.
2. SARAH SHOOK & THE DISARMERS, SIDELONG (self-released)
During the last two years, America has expressed a growing interest in outlaw country upstarts, from the hirsute Chris Stapleton to the metaphysical man Sturgill Simpson. But Sarah Shook's brilliantly written and rendered Sidelong boasts more attitude and aplomb than works by either singer. Backed by the stainless, versatile Disarmers, she apologizes to Mama, swears off a half-dozen bad lovers, begs for death or prison and pours down the whiskey and beer until she's left only with water. Shook crafts these words into classic songs, moving from bouncy country-rock to forlorn honky-tonk as each despondent declaration requires. If you want to experience country's roughest frontiers, Shook is a vital tour guide.
1. PHIL COOK, SOUTHLAND MISSION (Thirty Tigers/Middle West)
Did anyone else have as much fun this year while making music as Phil Cook? With the memory of Megafaun fading, and with added gumption from the support of an ace backing band, Cook seemed to delight in every second of Southland Mission, his nine-song debut as a bandleader. "Ain't It Sweet" ripples with the energy of both backwoods blues and front-porch gospel, while the horns, harmonies and handclaps of "Sitting on a Fence" suggest a slowly gathering grin, which arrives by way of the song's exalting exit. Cook sometimes gets tender or sad, nostalgic or prophetic, but sheer joy—in the craft, in the moment, in the communion of bringing together his buddies to make a modern Americana classic—anchors all those far-flung feelings. From the album's front cover, Cook smiles out sheepishly; drop the needle, and it's hard not to smile back.