Speed Stick: Volume One | Don Giovanni Records; Jan. 22

Released in January, Speed Stick’s debut album is kind of a perfect homage to music-making in the first year of the pandemic. Drummers Laura King (Bat Fangs) and Thomas Simpson (Love Language) sent 10 drum tracks to 10 musician friends, including Kelley Deal, Mac McCaughan, and Ash Bowie. They tailored each drum track to appeal to those friends and told them to have at it.

The result is a glorious mishmash of sounds and styles, some expected—like the keening indie rock of “Twin Collision” featuring Simpson’s bandmates in Love Language or the introspective rap of Juan Huevos’s “Lurk on Me”—and some unexpected, like the placid synths of Mac McCaughan’s “SS Grandmama” and Ryan Gustafson’s “Let It Shine.” Still others seem from another dimension entirely, like the almost drum-free ambiance of “Spleed Splick.” Listening top to bottom, you never know what’s coming next, a testament to the range of what drums can be. —Dan Ruccia

Various artists: RH – 101 | Raund Haus; Feb. 26

Raund Haus, the platform for a Durham-based collective of like-minded North Carolina beatmakers, encapsulated the eclectic consistency of its first five years of parties and releases in this compilation album last February. It holds a sped-up mirror before a West Coast instrumental hip-hop evolution that started in the nineties, when crate-diggers like Peanut Butter Wolf unraveled crackly vinyl grooves into stoner-friendly loops, and then evolved rampantly alongside technology that could build samples and shape basses in, like, four or five dimensions.

Vague new taxonomies such as “beat music” and “bass music” have been rushing to keep up with the likes of Raund Haus ever since. RH – 101 includes the chillest study beats and the dustiest breaks to orient yourself by, but these lodestars stretch rays all over: into techno, footwork, and ambient; house; and pop. If Raund Haus was kind of like the Very Online baby of Boards of Canada and J Dilla, its fifth birthday marked how much it’s grown, and the anything-goes-as-long-as-it-knocks vibe has produced nine more releases since then. —Brian Howe

Flock of Dimes: Head of Roses | Sub Pop; Apr. 2

When Jenn Wasner sings “I want to be good / and I want to mean it” on the track “Two” from her new album Head of Roses, there can be no doubt that she does. Wasner’s voice has always been seismic and stylish, but when singing intimate admissions it also quavers with raw, vulnerable conviction, like a window prism redirecting light all around a room.

Head of Roses brims with those raw, elemental moments: written in the aftermath of a breakup, the album reckons with heartbreak at its most mutual and messy alongside satisfying swirls of bass and synth. It’s not just the production and vocals that shine in Head of Roses, though: just this week, Wasner made it onto Guitar World’s list of the best 10 guitar solos of the year. She is good, and when she lights into her electric guitar, she really does mean it. —Sarah Edwards

al Riggs: I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep | Self-released; Apr. 2

The ever-prolific al Riggs was busy again this year, releasing an odds-and-ends compilation, a Christmas covers album, and a fistful of singles in addition to the full-length I Got A Big Electric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep. Billed as “junky, hissing, ultimately triumphant queer country,” Big Electric Fan adds bits of pedal steel and hushed hints of lo-fi twang to Riggs’s warm melancholy, characterized by their comforting tenor and evocative reflections that reward repeat listens.

Riggs’s sweeping sonic perspective is far removed from whatever passes for country on commercial stations these days, while their stellar songwriting is rife with the kind of confessions, conflicted feelings, and clever turns of phrase to make them a Nashville outlaw for a new era. Flanked by queer country icons Patrick Haggerty and James Wilson, Riggs’s rousing take on the traditional “Ragged But Right” serves as an anthem of reclamation, redefining the genre on their own terms. —Spencer Griffith

Khrysis: The Hour of Khrysis | Jamla Records; Apr. 21

The best way to describe Khrysis’s fifth studio album, The Hour of Khrysis, is as a cohesive rap project for grown-ups. On this project, Soul Council member Khrysis shines the light on himself, proving exactly why he is a superproducer. The project features collaborations with a mix of heavy hittas and legendary emcees including Evidence, Problem, Mumu Fresh, De La Soul, Rapsody, Pharoahe Monch, Busta Rhymes, and many more, including Khrysis himself rapping over his own traditional hip-hop beats. One of the highlights of The Hour of Khrysis is the production, including the reunion of The Away Team. —Kyesha Jennings

Kooley High: Lazy Sunday | M.E.C.C.A Records; Apr. 23

Raleigh’s favorite hip-hop collective gifted us with a concept EP that outlines the perfect lazy Sunday. The EP’s three main singles, “Hold Up,” “Rollin’ in the Hay,” and “Lazy Sunday” are repurposed across eight tracks. Following the structure of early nineties hip-hop projects, listeners can enjoy a single, a remix, and an instrumental of each track. Despite its brevity, the project offers more than enough to make a dedicated Kooley High fan frustrated that the five-man crew hasn’t reached mainstream success—that’s how good it is. And although three out of the four producers are outside of Kooley High’s camp, the EP fits soundly within Kooley High’s sonic landscape. —Kyesha Jennings

Pierce Freelon: Black to the Future | Blackspace x Only Us; Apr. 30

After noticing a lack of diverse content in children’s music, Pierce Freelon set out to prioritize the futures of Black youth. With his second family-focused children’s album, Black to the Future, Pierce Freelon relies on Afrofuturistic influences to offer thought-provoking content to young audiences.

By focusing on emotional intelligence and emotional vulnerability, Black to the Future offers access to an arts-and-science tool kit for raising healthy Black children. Similar to those on D.a.D., the tracks on Black to the Future help parents navigate specific milestones like getting through the first day of school and doctor’s appointments. The Grammy-nominated album uniquely integrates audio artifacts from his family archive into the production, thus layering a deeply personal project with multigenerational stories about parenting rooted in love. —Kyesha Jennings

Bowerbirds: becalmyounglovers | Psychic Hotline; Apr. 30

Dark but not doomed, ruminative but not wrecked, becalmyounglovers was Phil Moore’s first album as Bowerbirds since 2012, following a romantic and artistic dissolution with Bowerbirds bandmate Beth Tacular. Despite being an eagerly anticipated return nearly a decade in the making, the album flew (kind of shockingly) under the radar. Maybe that was a product of the album’s relative calm: though it does churn with introspection, it’s not an angry or overly wounded breakup album, and Moore has had time to process and make meaning out of change.

That’s where the “Sweet Dissonance” of experience comes in, as Moore croons on the 11th track: “We come made for this / That sweet dissonance / Nothing paves the road for us.” becalmyounglovers is wistful, lilting listening—the kind of album you might put on the morning after a long night of good-byes when light clears the way for something new.  —Sarah Edwards

Blue Cactus: Stranger Again | Sleepy Cat Records; May 7

Aptly suited to soundtrack this unprecedented season of inescapable cohabitation, Blue Cactus’s Stranger Again extracts beauty from the broken. The Chapel Hill-based country duo comprises Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, who double as romantic partners offstage. The pair’s undeniable chemistry compounds beyond their simpatico, amalgamating in a palpable reflection on love, loss, and the prickling, lurking presence of both. At the helm with his guitar, Arnez carefully layers in searing pedal steel from Whit Wright, then anchors the production with Alex Bingham’s bass and Gabe Anderson’s percussion.

The resulting soundscape—like a scene from a vintage postcard or a windshield sunset sinking across the American Southwest—serves as a pedestal for Stewart’s surrendering vocals. Her stripped-back storytelling leaves room for the listener to lament. These two lovers reach deep into the pockets of their sonic lineage to revive the high lonesome sound of country yesteryear, hand-delivering it to a new generation through a modern lens. —Madeline Crone

Nnenna Freelon: Time Traveler | Origin Records; May 21

In Time Traveler, multi-Grammy-nominated jazz artist Nnenna Freelon documents her journey grieving her beloved husband of four decades, the world-renowned architect Phil Freelon.

While the title offers the suggestion that time is a construct, the 11-track project reminds listeners that love comes before grief, and love will still be there after. Released after a 10-year recording hiatus, Time Traveler exemplifies what it’s like to grieve and mourn freely. Freelon’s voice is an instrument that expresses pain, sadness, mourning, love, and happiness. Snippets of recordings of her husband’s voice are weaved throughout the project, symbolically reuniting the two soulmates in the form of a sonic love letter. —Kyesha Jennings

Magic Tuber Stringband: When Sorrows Encompass Me ’Round | Feeding Tube; June 25

In the second half of 2021, Durham’s Magic Tuber Stringband have been seemingly everywhere, playing so many house shows, rock clubs, and festival stages that it’s been nearly impossible to keep up. They’ve also found time to release two fantastic cassettes (with apparently more recordings on the way for 2022), which document their peripatetic take on fiddle and guitar music.

A friend of mine aptly described their sound as the meeting point of Tony Conrad and John Fahey, observing how they fuse joyous, open-tuning folk songs (either their own or well-chosen covers) with enveloping drones. Evan Morgan and Courtney Werner know how to spin out a line, be it a simple waltz or a spinning, interlocking melody. Once they get going, it feels like they could just keep going off into the sunset. —Dan Ruccia

Hiss Golden Messenger: Quietly Blowing It | Merge Records; June 25

The old adage “We are our own worst critics” rings true throughout M.C. Taylor’s 10th Hiss Golden Messenger release, Quietly Blowing It. Penned amid a breakdown compounded by a global health crisis, Taylor weighs in on the existential from the confines of his Durham basement studio.

At first pass, Taylor’s dynamic musicianship is almost hypnotic: Songs like “The Great Mystifier” and “Painting Houses” meld into a gentle, rhythmic meditation. But if you listen closely, his lyrics, like a rallying cry out into the ether, shake you from a trancelike state. “Way Back in the Way Back” and “Hardlytown” present more questions than he claims to know the answers to. Yet instances of careful optimism breakthrough, like eminent rays piercing through towering storm clouds—a reminder that the answers to the hard questions are, in fact, worth seeking.

Madeline Crone

The Mountain Goats: Dark in Here | Merge Records; June 25

The steady evolution of The Mountain Goats has carried the once-solo project of songwriter John Darnielle a long way from the lo-fi storytelling of his earliest albums. With the 20th Mountain Goats album, Dark in Here, Darnielle’s writing resides in the familiar stories of lost souls seeking redemption amid biblical allusions, poetic details, and galvanizing turns of phrase.

But the band—now mostly solidified into a quartet comprising singer/guitarist Darnielle, drummer Jon Wurster, bassist Peter Hughes, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas—has gifted Darnielle’s perennially affecting tales with polish and fluid dynamics that give a jazz-inflected, cinematic gravitas to Darnielle’s songs. —Bryan C. Reed

Pat Junior: Gold Fangs on Sunday | Self-released; July 7

The Raleigh-raised rapper and beatmaker Pat Junior is known for eloquent, soul-baring dispatches on the pains of being a Black man in America, and that didn’t change on Gold Fangs on Sunday. Nevertheless, he always pits trauma against joy, which, against all 2021 odds, decisively prevailed on his third album. While still a maestro of overcast moods (as in the single “Rest!”), Pat greeted the world with a sunny new smile on tracks like “Black Beamin’,” where he flaunts his writing degrees in flawlessly structured verses extolling universal Black love.

Retaining his ideal of strength in vulnerability, Pat bolstered his tried-and-true form of lyrical southern rap through close scrutiny of film-music titans like Joe Hisaishi and Hans Zimmer, upholstering rugged basses and ticking triplets in layered orchestration created by his own custom sample company, Pelham & Junior. The sweeping widescreen sound lent a justly towering scale to his large-writ personal dramas. —Brian Howe

BANGZZ: You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back | Potluck Foundation; Aug. 13

Without a doubt, BANGZZ’s You Took My Body Long Ago and Now I Am Taking It Back was one of the most exciting full-length Triangle debuts to emerge out of the muck of 2021. Bandmates Erika Kobayashi Liberi and Jess Caesar’s cathartic garage punk is rowdy and hilarious, with song subjects as assertive as the album title: “Hell Is Other People” declares one, followed by “Your Asian Fetish is Racist” and “Never Speak of Marriage As an Achievement.” Gloriously noisy and defiant, the band leaves no doubt that they have plenty more to say. 

Sarah Edwards

The Muslims: Fuck These Fuckin Fascists | Epitaph Records; Sep. 24

“Trigger warning: fascists may be offended,” Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz tweeted last summer, unleashing the title track of The Muslims’ first album for his big-deal punk label, Epitaph Records, on an unprepared punk populace. And fascists—or at least the weird coalition of anti-progressive interests that now reflexively rally around them—indeed were. The YouTube comments were a tumult of cheers and jeers: the sound wasn’t punk enough, the message wasn’t deep enough, touting antifascism was just cozying up with the corporate media. Never mind that the Durham band’s album, which starts by depicting Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten getting punched in the face and ends with a song called “John McCain’s Ghost Sneaks into the White House and Tea Bags the President,” has deep influences thrumming under its catchy hooks, with wiry shards of classic English bands like Crass and X-Ray Spex.

Never mind that simple fascist-fucking is (or used to be—and the naysayers are all about “used to be”) an ancient punk trope. It was one thing to be a queer, Black and brown punk band with a Muslim background. But to, like, make a big deal about it, after being admitted to the white man’s canon, and maybe sort of imply that the fascists are coming from inside the house? As the pearl-clutching purists’ own evident shock should have proved to them, it was the punkest thing that happened in 2021. —Brian Howe

Nora Rogers and Kristopher Hilbert: Light in the Left Hand | self-released; Oct. 1

Though best known for her pyrotechnic guitar work in Solar Halos, Object Hours, and, recently, Deep Fog, Nora Rogers has been quietly crafting dense and dynamic drone since her 2019 solo debut, Lapilli.

But where that album echoed some of her Solar Halos tones, with crackling guitar taking the lead over swells of cello, her latest venture, Light in the Left Hand, goes deeper into textural explorations. Working with producer Kristopher Hilbert, who adds guitar and pedal steel, Rogers has crafted something more meditative and enveloping.

From the title track’s throbbing tremolo and slow crescendos to the smoldering reverb that gives “Late Watch Shift” its spacious and contemplative mood, Rogers and Hilbert make great use of effects to transform the timbres of their instruments into something otherworldly. In whole, the album feels at once grounded and transcendent, its slow-moving meditations offering opportunities for both reflection and escape.  —Bryan C. Reed

Cochonne: Emergency | Sorry State; Oct. 8

So much of Cochonne’s sound comes down to singer Mimi Luse’s vocal acrobatics. She can go from bored request to sarcastic come-on to paranoid rant to ecstatic squeal to disaffected recitation all within a matter of seconds. It makes for a ragged, raging propulsive force to these songs, with the rest of the band frantically trying to keep pace. It’s no surprise, then, that they choose a rampaging brand of post-punk, complete with jerky guitars and swirling synths, akin to the darker side of The B-52’s or the Triangle’s own Fitness Womxn. No other sound could really keep up. It’s a shame that this all-too-brief album is also the band’s farewell. —Dan Ruccia

Various Artists: Sacred Soul of North Carolina

Bible & Tire Recording Co. / Music Maker Foundation; Oct. 15

In the world of the church, there’s a reason for the holiday season—and Sacred Soul of North Carolina centers the Lord in rousing fashion. Recorded in February 2020 in the small eastern North Carolina town of Fountain in an exultant pre-COVID sprint, these 18 soul-stirring songs do more than just sing Jesus’s praises, though.

Eleven different powerhouse groups rooted in the churches of tight-knit communities around Greene County honor the jubilee tradition’s ancestral roots while documenting its electrifying evolution from a cappella folk style to today’s hard-charging funk, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll mode. Whether you’re a believer or not, you can’t deny the intrinsic joy and revelatory power of gospel music. Grounded in the enduring ties of family and faith, Sacred Soul of North Carolina pays necessary tribute to the intensity and ecstasy of this vital Black art form. —Nick McGregor

Rodes: All Of My Friends: Self-released; Nov. 19

The debut album by singer-songwriter Rodes (MK Rodenbough) is an ode to the unrequited. We learn, as the final guitar break and chorus from “I’m Not Gonna Get What I Want Tonight” fade into “Man on the Moon,” that unseen forces, earthly and cosmic, tamper with outcomes, keeping us at arm’s reach. Across these songs, warm, ponderous chords rub against shiftless, mid-tempo drums and semi-isolated vocals, as significant modes of address are deftly transferred from palate to ear.

The album title comes from a line in the acoustic ballad “Bricks”: “I’ll make amends with all of my friends come Monday / Won’t be the one who ruins the fun or stops it halfway.” The titular “friends” are the songs themselves just as much as the studio collaborators, confidants on lonely nights, accompaniment in moments not documented in song, small green shoots in a swath of dense forest. —Harris Wheless

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