Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Bottom String's Top 10 North Carolina Albums of 2012

As December begins to roll on through just as swiftly as the rest of the year did, it's been a hard process to narrow down my favorite releases from the state this year.  2012 was yet another fantastic year for North Carolina artists, many of our favorite local darlings have begun to achieve more national success than one could have ever imagined.  Acts like Midtown Dickens have begun getting the national attention they deserve from outlets like NPR, Mount Moriah signed to Merge Records and announced their sophomore LP (to be released in February 2013), and countless fantastic new acts have found their footing and began making waves in our already overflowing music scene.

With Hopscotch growing larger than ever before, bringing in highly esteemed acts like The Roots and Jesus and Mary Chain, the tobacco state has been getting heavy praise for it's tightly packed, deep-rooted community of musicians.  While touring artists were bringing in fans from across the country it was local acts like T0W3RS, Jenny Besetzt, and Hiss Golden Messenger that left Hopscotch'ers floored...and rightfully so!  2012 was filled with an insane amount of wonderful North Carolina tunes, so without further ado I give you my ten favorite releases of the year:

10.  Pastoral - JKutchma & The Five Fifths
The full-time frontman of Red Collar has turned a solo side-project into an absolute gem of a live act.  Much like other local side projects, Kutchma enlisted in the help of fellow local musicians to take time out from their regular bands to participate in one of the finest, most unique releases of the year.  While it's easy to write Kutchma off as a Springsteen-lite, Kutchma brings and intensity and passion to his music that is unparalleled.  Seeing Kutchma command a crowd at Tir Na Nog this past Hopscotch is what solidified his excellence for me, flailing around stage with a sense of purpose whilst combining punk rock furiosity with Americana's honesty and sentimentality, Kutchma's songs range from shouts to whispers.  Tracks like "Teenage DMZ" have a jangly yet gritty bounce to it that makes it easy to take in Kutchma's raw imagery while still dancing around like a fool.  However, the other side of the coin is found within tracks like "I'll Survive", a somber track that details the struggles of coping with the hard times but coming out alive and kicking.  Pastoral is a fantastic release from a versatile group of local artists, one can only hope for more of the Fife Fifths to be popping up in 2013.

9.  Home - Midtown Dickens
Midtown Dickens have been one of the years most talked about bands within North Carolina, and quite frankly Home proves exactly why that is so.  Midtown Dickens have come a long way from their initial jangly, quirky folk beginnings, and while they still maintain the occasional sentiment of carelessness on a hot summer day as found in "Crocodile Mile", the band has grown up and into a tight quartet of multi-instrumentalists who perfectly encapsulate what life is like in the south.  Gripping tales of love and loss are scattered throughout this album, all framed within the eyes of childlike innocence but the bravery of a road worn adult.  Home takes the listener to a place and time, to a front porch swing with a condensing glass of water, to a place where we can enjoy the simple things that life has to offer like the company of a friend or the subtle plucking of a banjo.  Midtown Dickens have perfectly straddled the line between simplicity and intricacy, weaving beautiful instrumentation with rustic phrases and melodies that stay lingering for days.

8.  Baobab - Baobab
Baobab was one of the hidden gems of North Carolina this year.  Admittedly when I happened upon their set at WKNC's Double Barrel Benefit Day Party at Tir Na Nog I saw potential but didn't leave as impressed as I'd hoped.  Going home to check out the studio recordings of these tracks changed my mind completely.  Since this past February, Phil Torres has honed his live craft and fleshed out his incredible and unique style of electronic folk.  Drawing from an array of influences including world music, psychedelic and folk, Torres created a debut album that stands out amongst a crowded North Carolina music scene.  While acts all over the state are falling into the cliche of reverb filled arrangements of lo-fi pop tunes, Baobab is building a niche of their own with devastatingly catchy tunes that contains the rhythmic bounce of Paul Simon with the delicacy of the Fleet Foxes.  This self titled debut is the perfect blend of soothing classical guitar meshed brilliantly with a smooth electronic soundscape.

7.  Transcendental Youth - The Mountain Goats
Throughout the years John Darnielle has proven to be one of the most talented songwriters of our generation, the man can perfectly capture desperation within his often manic vocals but at the same time manage to coax the listener into maintaining a sense of hope for better days.  Darnielle's songwriting takes the listener on an emotional roller coaster, and Transcendental Youth contains this in multitudes.  Transcendental Youth is The Mountain Goats most polished record to date, with crisp recordings of this tight trio backed by a beautiful arrangement of horns from Matthew E. White, the band has come quite a long way from lo-fi bedroom tapes.  From humble beginnings to a triumphant victory call, Darnielle continues to stay true to what gained him notoriety in the first place, songs that build real characters with real emotions, songs that make you feel for these people you've never met before.  Take for example, "Harlem Roulette" a song chronicling the last days of a young Frankie Lymon before he overdosed on heroin.  The Mountain Goats continue on with a mantra of fighting like hell, and whether that be within the confines of a song or within a career that just never seems to falter, The Mountain Goats will do just that.

6.  Shake My Head - Spider Bags
The garage rock craze has ignited once again within the past few years, but few are doing it as well as this Carolina band.  Fusing their balls out rock style with elements of psychedelic and country, Spider Bags created a fantastic album this year that touches on the struggles of day to life from the pedantic to the self deprecating struggles with loneliness.  Shake My Head contains multitudes, it's not very often that you'll hear an instrumental track with hints of xylophones tossed into a garage rock album, it's even less often when it fits perfectly with the pacing of the album.  Until recently Spider Bags have been riding the wave of 7"s, but hopefully with a fantastic release such as this one we'll be getting more full length efforts from this marvelous band.  This album has just enough fuzz and grit to rock out to, but with equal amounts of jangly pop rhythms to keep the listeners craving more.

5.  Some Army - Some Army
2012 may as well just be the year of Some Army.  The band burst onto the scene with a 7" earlier this year and have only continued to build steam throughout the year.  I had high expectations for this self titled EP yet it still blew my mind.  Some Army is built upon dreamlike soundscapes, blending psychedelic rock with equal hints of pop and Americana influences.  Tunes like "We've Been Lucky" boast poppy yet brooding melodies that float in and out of a massive background of powerful, delicate instrumentation.  Some Army have been playing countless amounts of shows lately, heading out on a North Carolina tour with Naked Gods and Schooner, opening for Poor Moon at the 506 and of course a stellar EP release show in Chapel Hill.  Some Army can do no wrong so far, one can only expect great things from this band.

4.  The Clearing - Bowerbirds
Bowerbirds are a band thats beginning to hold a special place in my heart, it's hard for them not to grow on you with tunes that are as raw and gorgeous as those found on The Clearing.  The folk duo have beautiful harmonies that lay delicately upon a dense layer of classically inspired folk tunes, but can shine even brighter within their simpler tunes.  Bowerbirds embrace the unknown on this album, both lyrically and musically.  Their songs provide a sense of comfort, their lyrics are powerful and introspective, surrounded perfectly with a gorgeous blend of brass, strings, and keys.  The Clearing is a wonderful aural adventure that touches upon gorgeous yet dark sentiments of mortality, longing and struggling self worth, but its filled with shimmers of hope and courage.  Bowerbirds have made an ambitious album that paid off greatly, the band has showcased an unparalleled knack for creating wonderful music that explores and emotional depth that few bands are comfortable to tread in.

3.  Primitive Ways - Oulipo
Oulipo were a band I'd never listened to before Primitive Ways, but I immediately regretted that fact once the first notes of build it up came through the speakers.  Jaunting electronic rhythms and textures are complimented with bouncy pop melodies and ambient undertones.  Oulipo's ways are anything but primitive on this incredible EP, the band explores musical grounds untouched by many in the North Carolina scene.  Comparisons can echo equal amounts of Animal Collective and Radiohead, but Oulipo has begun to create a sound that they can truly call their own.  They're able to craft luscious instrumentation on their own or by means of sampling as found in "Hanging Hook", a track where they take a tune from fellow locals Motor Skills and give it an airy indie rock r&b spin.  Oulipo is a band that creates unique music filled with mesmerizing textures and catchy vocal hooks, they're a band with limitless potential and the ambition to push their music to territories that haven't yet to be touched upon.

2.  Only - Jenny Besetzt
Jenny Besetzt have single handedly focused my attention on the Greensboro music scene, when I first heard "Teenage Lions" on the DiggUp Tapes mix I knew that I need to hear as much of this band as I possibly could.  When Hopscotch rolled around they were the first group I saw during the festival, their set was easy to lose yourself in and from this moment on I knew that I was going to love this bands music.  Only is an album filled with distant yet abrasive instrumentation, theres equal parts shoe gaze as there are punk and pop.  Tracks like "Always" are driving and brash while others choose to weave in and out of their abrasiveness and delicacy.  Jenny Besetzt have thoroughly caught my attention, they're a band filled with euphoric, day-dream worthy melodies,  a band capable of painting nostalgic images through catchy hooks and powerful instrumentation.  Only is an album that I still find myself craving more and more, it's such an easy listen but such a pleasing one as well.  As this young band evolves I must say I'm giddy with excitement to hear the output.

1.  A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door - River Whyless
River Whyless is a band that contains everything I love about music.  From the opening track we hear the very essence of this bands approach, "Leaf" begins with a lone acoustic guitar and the resonating vocals of Ryan O'Keefe bearing his soul to the listener, but gradually builds into a gorgeous arrangement of violin, percussion and harmonies that few can pull off with such finesse.  Both vocalists contribute to the songwriting which provides for a diverse album that ranges from classically inspired folk tunes to Fleet Foxes inspired anthemic tracks like "Stone".  The song clocks in at almost eight minutes but follows a more free flowing pattern, rather than verses and choruses the song feels as if it could be broken into movements.  The song goes from driving folk tunes to an orchestral take on baroque pop then back yet again.  River Whyless explores intense emotions through beautiful release, their lyricism contains bold imagery and instant relateability that makes for a moving listening experience.  Listening to River Whyless is an invigorating experience, their songs beckon singalongs but also contain thoughts and images we'd rarely wish to speak of.  O'Keefe sings of "weeping in the stairwell" in tracks that chronicle the feelings that some may not wish to delve upon, loneliness, struggles with faith, and the need to belong.  River Whyless runs the emotional gamut with an unfiltered sense of sincerity that makes their music truly special.

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