For at least the past couple of years, Shuffle Magazine has solicited music writers from across the Carolinas to submit their 25 best records from North and South Carolina artists. The lists are amassed into one imperfect (as noted by the inclusion of but one hip-hop record in an unusually strong year) final product. I make no claims to have heard every record put out in the Carolinas this year, but I tried, and my list is as follows. See www.shufflemag.com/ the-carolinas-top-25-albums-of-2011 for the final list.
1. 9th Wonder & David Banner — Death of a Pop Star
Released so late in 2010 that every Best Of list had long been decided, 9th Wonder’s Death of a Pop Star was more so the rebirth of a would-be hip-hop star. After a couple of notable failures, rapper David Banner was the album’s centerpiece, hulking on signature 9th beats with verses that address societal ills and his own hypocrisy alike.
2. Tyler Ramsey — The Valley Wind
Ranking great guitarists is a fogey’s game these days, but Band of Horses’ Tyler Ramsey is deserving of consideration. On The Valley Wind, Ramsey doesn’t shoot for an utterly distinctive sound. Instead, he strips their arena sound down to its bare bones while still playing the hell out of it.
3. Megafaun — s/t
Megafaun dissect 40 years of folk rock, including bits of what worked and what didn’t work alike for their amazing self-titled release. Hints of Jerry and Neil are masterfully woven into a sonic mélange that rolls along as slow as a Sunday morning and just as peacefully.
4. Floating Action — Desert Etiquette
That Seth Kauffman wrote Desert Etiquette in a matter of two days and recorded in a total of two more is a feat in itself; but that he perfected the rustic soul and country sounds of Laurel Canyon while doing it is what makes the album so great.
5. Mandolin Orange — Haste Make
Haste Make has its feet planted in the realm of traditional bluegrass while taking cues from indie folk on a tin can and string. You can tell where Andrew Marlin’s heart lies, but it’s clear that he doesn’t want this project relegated to the same class and more traditional string music. Here, he gets his wish.
6. Toro Y Moi — Underneath the Pine
If the only songs you heard off of Chaz Bundick’s second album Underneath the Pine were “Still Sound” and “New Beat,” you’d likely have a highly favorable, though not altogether accurate opinion of it. As funky as the two singles are, the album’s best quality is its monolithic analog warmth.
7. Phonte — Charity Starts at Home
As great a singer as Phonte Coleman has shown himself to be with the Foreign Exchange, his solo debut is the album that rap purists have been waiting for since the dissolution of Little Brother. Here, he offers a bitter slice of reality couched in cool beats and biting wit.
8. J. Cole — Cole World: The Sideline Story
First impressions of J. Cole’s long, long, long awaited proper debut can be deceiving; once past the fluffy tracks that feel like they were signed off by Roc Nation’s marketing director, J. Cole pairs beats of the highest caliber with sincere revelations about how he’s coped with his prodigal stardom.
9. Nikki Lane — Walk of Shame
Granted, Lane’s current residence in Nashville might disqualify her from the canon of North and South Carolina artists in the minds of some, but it’s time to accept that Music City is the Cayman Islands of artist warehousing. No one really “lives” there. The Greenville, S.C.-born-and-bred country songwriter’s debut nonetheless is rife with beer-soaked toe-tappers and dark, Patsy Cline-inspired balladry.
10. Love Craft — Future Selves
For all the love that Future Islands got for On the Water, Love Craft had essentially already explored many of those same ideas earlier in the year with Future Selves. Recorded entirely with equipment culled from the ’80s, Future Selves is a propulsive bit of post-punk and alter- native dance that’s more thoughtfully executed than most new wave transmutations.
11. Sinful Savage Tigers — Last Night of the Revels
With a revamped lineup, excellent playing, guest spots galore and copious amounts of dry wit define the second album led by Chapel Hill songwriter Seth Martin.
12. John Howie, Jr. & the Rosewood Bluff — Leavin’ Yesterday
On what’s John Howie, Jr.’s best record yet, he invokes his punk roots and ups the tempo considerably for a record that would have made Eddy Arnold and Billy Joe Shaver proud.
13. Wesley Wolfe — Cynics Need Love Too
Great records have the ability to make their listeners reckon with a side of themselves they might not want to acknowledge and through pessimistic humor and often self-deprecating ramblings, Carrboro songwriter Wesley Wolfe throws a rock through that pane of the Johari Window.
14. Eric Church — Chief
It’s okay. I truly didn’t expect any other writer to nominate Granite Falls’ most famous son for a top album. Pop country is, after all anathema to the music geek. Church’s self- conceit and tendency to namedrop country legends has been a major turn-off since his first release, but in an epically awful year for mainstream country music, Chief is an uncom- mon bright spot for the lengths it went to buck country conventions.
15. Dexter Romweber — Is That You In the Blue?
Romweber is, without qualification, a genius songwriter and Is That You In the Blue? finds him knee deep in an album that plays like a great book of pulp fiction reads. The charac- ters and settings in his songs are lurid and the with registration black.
16. Porter Robinson — Spitfire
After slaying huge crowds opening for Tiesto, it’s only a matter of time before Chapel Hill native Porter Robinson finds himself ranked among the top 100 DJs in the world. His first album offering is a bit pastiche in that it draws from so many schools of electronic, but it’s likely that it will be looked back upon as a touchstone in a new era of electronica.
17. Bruce Piephoff — Still Looking Up At the Stars
Twenty-one albums and Bruce Piephoff still doesn’t get his due. The singer-songwriter latest album is imbued with plenty of his sage-like wisdom, profound introspection and great bluesy playing by Scott Sawyer.
18. Estrangers — Black Ballroom
Hazy power pop rare sounds as sweet and sincere as it does on Estrangers’ debut release. Hints of the Love Language and the Apples In Stereo dot the EP’s eight tracks that seem to dart past with guileless charm.
19. Young Prince — War
For an artist with little under his belt at the time of this release, Guilford College-via-DC rapper Young Prince sports highly evolved rhymes over some vintage Brenton Duvall beats.
20. Whatever Brains — s/t
Funny thing about the first track on Whatever Brains’ self-titled release; repeated replays of this stomping garage monster may make it a while before the rest of this excellent debut get heard.
21. Naked Gods — No Jams
Despite what Boone prog-pop quintet Naked Gods’ latest album implies, it kinda does jam. They do it with tongues in their cheeks and one hand with fingers crossed behind their backs on woozy folk trips and Malkmus-y wonks.
22. Braveyoung — We Are Lonely Animals
After tossing an entire recording session, We Are Lonely Animals is the album that nearly wasn’t. The Greensboro drone quartet go far away from their doomy, lead-heavy beginnings that focuses on spatial awareness and creating evocative, moody music heavily dependent upon resonance and reverb.
23. Melanaster — Comfort’s Curse
In the year of hip-hop DJs coming out as IDM yogis, prolific Asheville producer Marley Carroll is no exception. The Mr. Invisible wheelman’s chameleonic ways led him to create an EP that owes as much to glitchy Thom Yorke experimentalism as it does the beautiful haze of ‘90s shoegaze.
24. The Leeves—s/t
Sometimes the most affecting records are the ones that touch the nerve center of a very specific demographic, and that undoubtedly holds true for Greensboro post-punk revivalists the Leeves. Some of the best moments on their self-titled debut album are inspired by the more subversive elements of their hometown and as such, their neighbors might be the only ones to really embrace the understated brilliance.
Illpo’s run of mixtapes and EPs up until now have mostly referenced their indomitable work ethic and poise, but early 2011’s Classic simply finds them looking at their own work in awe. Greensboro’s rawest hip-hop duo scaled back the thump with a minimalist production ethos, but verses shot straight from the hip fill the empty spaces.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan