As other area “Best Of” polls have shown, the Olive Garden on High Point Road is equally as capable of winning Best Local Band as any actual group of musicians. It’s the downside of leaving it up to the people to decide. It’s why we have things like Electoral Colleges and Grammy committees. The following endorsements are in no way final decisions, but they are nudges in the right direction.
Best Band: Unifier
There was a period when it seemed like Aslan Freeman was fronting a new project every time rent was due, so it’s almost tragicomic that when the talented guitarist and songwriter settles into a band that develops a substantial following, said band gets slapped with a cease-and-desist order over its name. That was the case with Future Ghosts, which the Illinois court system actually recognizes now as a middling Chicago art-rock band of dubious tenure, not a Greensboro quartet that’s built an impressive national following. Aslan Freeman now fronts Unifier, a pop-rock band of one of the region’s grandest nouveau traditions, and their debut album Colorado is a passionate affair, full of mounting riffs, vivid moods and great moments from Freeman’s quirky vocals.
Honorable mention: Estrangers
Best New Band: Ameriglow
The arrangement almost seems too good to be true: One of the area’s most skilled rock units backing a great songwriter who had disappeared for long enough to convince at least some people to honestly think was dead. That is Ameriglow in a nutshell, the new band fronted by former Israel Darling primary Jacob Darden and backed by the de facto On Pop of the World Studios house band the Armory. They have yet to eve play a show yet — their debut will come at the Flatiron on March 1 — but the buzz is sufficient to corral roughly 50 people on a Monday night just to hear the band’s first EP on the Flatiron’s sound system. It was worth it, as the six-song offering Anti- Americana: Speaking to the Unconscious Mind of the Midwest calls forth the best of Lost Highway’s alt-rock side. It’s a tighter, tenser take on Israel Darling’s alt-country sound, tempered by a year in the ether and with its surface barely having been scratched.
Honorable mention: Jenny Besetzt
Best Hip-Hop Act: Beau Young Prince
There’s only one repeat from last year’s endorsements, but Beau Young Prince is absolutely worthy of the honor. Greensboro maybe has one more year of Guilford College undergrad Beau Young before he returns to the nation’s capitol and affirms his identity as a DC hip-hop artist. Until then, he continues to add to a remarkable discography that includes eight mixtapes before ever hitting the legal drinking age, a production side project that grooves like PM Dawn on grape-jelly lean and a really, really solid remix of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” well before it ever took off.
Honorable mention: N’DangR Species
Best DJ (performance): SoundGrave
When he’s not publicly (and sometimes hilariously) sending up wack DJs on various social media, Stiles Fifield finds the time to purvey rather stylish electronic beats. Formerly recording as Square D before taking up the SoundGrave pseudonym, his beats blur the distinctions between his early drum n’ bass format and the cosmic brand of trap he’s more recently adopted. The Mute Chamber Records co-founder’s best work is the kind that winks at the listener a little though. His glitchy electro-lounge remix of Kimbra’s “Settle Down” is not only a complete divergence from the aggro-crunk that comprises his bread and butter, but it’s also one of his most cerebral tracks.
Honorable mention: RedStar
Best Guitarist: Daniel Seriff, The Deluge
If there’s one argument where it’s okay to indulge pure, jaw-dropping technical skill above all else, there’s probably a subsection of Godwin’s Law that addresses the inevitable inclusion of the Vais and Satrianis of the world into any “best guitarist” debate. Mad fingerwork will never not be a cornerstone of what makes a great guitarist, but there’s plenty of room for taste alongside the ability to shred, which is why players like Richard Thompson are the trump card in those contests. Locally, guitarist and educator Daniel Seriff is also superlative on both accounts, steeped in jazz, blues and country, and always a great pleasure to watch perform.
Honorable mention: Patrick Sheehan, Mutant League/Blood Waves
Best Bassist: Seth Barden, The Brand New Life
As the Brand New Life, the Afro-jazz outfit for which Seth Barden plays bass, drifts ever closer toward the psychedelic fringe of African music, more compositional possibilities follow. Their new slew of tunes are at times abrasive while also preserving the band’s hard-groove parameter, and their lineup on stage is always subject to be supplemented by auxiliary percussion or horns, but it’s Barden who remains the rock amidst the chaos. Like Antibalas bassist Nick Movshon, Barden is equally versed in the jazz and classical languages, but cherrypicks tenets both in forming his own voice.
Honorable mention: Christian McKinnie, the Piedmontsmen
Best Percussionist: Jason Ward, Irata
It’s a little tricky to come up with any precise classification for the music that Irata makes; just when they throw a Clutch-inspired Southern groove your way they lace it with enough mathematical trickery to remind that, at their core, they’re stone-cold prog-heads. The most appropriate descriptor might just simply be “heavy”; Irata is just heavy as hell. The SXSW-bound trio is among the heaviest bands in the Triad, but that they achieve that designation without risking the often-alienating “brutal” moniker is their greatest feat. The answer lies in the dynamic between sludgy bass monster Jon Case and drummer Jason Ward’s grueling, nearly fill-free runs, most recently heard on last year’s Kylesa-produced EP Vultures. They seemingly erupt from nowhere, reign high-toned brimstone and spare no one.
Honorable mention: Jeremy Fountain, The Hi-Rollers/Pizza Jam
Best Keyboardist: T. Lee Gunselman
If their were a Best Horn category, it would be a coin toss between T. Lee Gunselman’s Casual Curious bandmates Walter Fancourt and Sean Smith, but as it stands, Gunselman himself creates some of the area’s most infectious grooves — from the lightheaded bliss of “Remote Control” off of 2011’s Lungs to last year’s chillwave take on the Beach Boys’ “’Til I Die.” That they sound equally as great in a full band format as they do in his brave one-man soirees is proof.
Honorable mention: David Todd Murray, Estrangers
Best Singer: Philip Pledger, Estrangers
The Best Singer category is somewhat misleading as it currently stands; it also encompasses those songwriters whose songcraft is equally important to their art as their voice, an often overrated mechanism in fully evaluating their merit. For every 50 “American Idol” candidates, there’s one capable of creating something actually worth hearing. Then there are songwriters like Philip Pledger, possessed of a perfectly pleasing range and timbre, but riveted by characteristics that don’t exist outside of a studio console. Pledger’s Estrangers are awash in reverb and ambiance, a requisite amplifier for his band’s sunshiny pop that burns a little brighter through the right pedals.
Honorable mention: Jack Carter, Jack Carter & the Armory
Best Live Show: R. Kelly, War Memorial Auditorium, Dec. 7, 2012
Forget those who still think they’re the next Lenny Bruce for making an R. Kelly pee-pee joke (looking at you Macklemore), but a lot of people are going to conjure up that Ziggy’s fiasco in January as evidence that R. Kelly is some sort of charlatan who cares not one bit for the people who pay good money to see him — way more people, in fact, than actually went to the “appearance.” This is not true. As his upcoming headlining slots at Bonnaroo and the Pitchfork Festival will attest, R. Kelly’s sold-out War Memorial show in December was a memento of just who wears the crown in contemporary R&B. Sure, he spent a decent amount of time drinking and smoking cigars on stage. That’s just what he does. But on top of awesomely weird recitations of numbers like “Real Talk” and a spot-on presentation of one of Caldara’s most demanding arias, he also revisited 20 years worth of music that one day will have inspired more unplanned pregnancies than Marvin Gaye ever could have dreamed of.
Honorable mention: Wayne Shorter Quartet, Wait Chapel, Sept. 18, 2012
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