There are many bands for which nostalgia is both a crutch and a shortcut, but on their debut album as Bat Fangs, Laura King and Betsy Wright leverage it as an empowering force. Inspired heavily by larger-than-life stadium-rock acts of the eighties, the pair delivers songs whose ingratiating hooks and rafter-rattling riffs become all the more mighty with King’s heavy percussion. The band serves a command to “Turn it Up” on the opening track with such force that one needs no convincing to obey. Supernatural themes—the bats, of course, but reapers and wolves that bite, oh my!—run deep across the record, making for a thoroughly fiendish delight. —Allison Hussey


Plainly Mistaken

Paradise of Bachelors

Durham banjo man Nathan Bowles sprints through some seriously disparate musical settings on Plainly Mistaken while somehow maintaining a common sonic thread. What do you make of a picker who covers U.K. singer Julie Tippetts’ 1975 art-rock ballad “Now If You Remember” and gives it an early Eno vibe, then turns around and blends classic country with crazed psychedelia on “Ruby/In Kind I,” stopping along the way to drop off some reflective, almost impressionistic solo banjo pieces? You’re best off if you simply chuck all preconceptions out the window and delight in Bowles’ eclectic artistry wherever it may lead, because it’s always someplace intriguing. —Jim Allen


Cold Cream


One of punk’s greatest strengths is its ability to synthesize and subvert. Take “First They Came,” from Cold Cream’s self-titled debut. Its title references Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the cowardice of German intellectuals during the rise of Hitler. Its first line references Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” reframing that song’s romantic portrayal of a Spanish conquistador as a metaphor for the modern, self-perpetuating war machine. Elsewhere, the quartet references the Eichmann trial, Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” Wilfred Owen poems, and more. All this is to say: Carrboro’s Cold Cream is not just tougher than you are. They’re cooler and smarter, too. —Patrick Wall


People Are My Drug

Psychic Hotline

Even down to the title, few records reflect their creator as well as Phil Cook’s People Are My Drug. Made in collaboration with his musical community, the soulful album spans Cook’s array of rootsy influences, from the gentle, harmony-rich folk of “Tupelo Child” to the New Orleans piano and brass on rousing closer “Life.” Cook powerfully transcends personal storytelling on “Another Mother’s Son” by connecting the fragility of life he felt during his newborn’s NICU stint with the fears and uncertainty of black parents for their own children—the track erupts in the final minute as a gospel choir joins him in singing “no more silence!” and “no more bodies!”—Spencer Griffith


Unsung Passage

Psychic Hotline

For a decade, Ryan Gustafson has excelled at delivering enrapturing records that sit at the razor’s edge of what might be considered folk-rock. May’s Unsung Passage was more heavily inspired by Appalachian old-time traditions, evident upon close inspection of songs like the spacious “My Other” and “The Giver.” With his lyrics, Gustafson offers his distinct blend of lines that are beguilingly mystical, pointedly beautiful, and achingly familiar—”If you cry, let it dry and bring you near to the broken side of people everywhere,” he sings on one track. Gustafson’s expert balance of ragged edges and pristine polish make Unsung Passage shine like gold nuggets in a creek bed.—Allison Hussey


Affirmation (With Discomfort)


Raleigh’s Matt Douglas has devoted the bulk of his time in the past few years to collaborative ensembles—his own Hot at Nights, as well as Hiss Golden Messenger and The Mountain Goats. But on Affirmation (With Discomfort), Douglas leans all the way into his decades of saxophone studies for an unusual and rapturous solo record. The album is all woodwinds, with Douglas deploying loops and other effects used to build detailed soundscapes that fit complicated moods. Douglas winds his way through knots of anxiety, rumination, joy, and, of course, affirmation. —Allison Hussey



Western Vinyl

In Joseph O’Connell’s vision, Genericana is a “sort of like a lucky mutation, that could lead to a heartier version of Elephant Micah for the digital world.” Those digital mutations of the group’s “folk” songs take many forms: the AM radio static that opens and closes the album, the custom-built synth named “the Mutant” whose buzzing drones appear throughout, the Arthur Russell–inflected space dub of “Fire B.” But it’s in “Fire A” that this new vision becomes fully realized, when a handful of warm synth effects merge subtly and seamlessly with an otherwise straightforward, gleaming song. The effect is ecstatic.—Dan Ruccia


Money Is Time


G Yamazawa’s Money Is Time dosn’t have another certified regional anthem like “North Cack,” but it offers so much more of what hip-hop is missing. Yamazawa celebrates his identity as an Asian-American rapper throughout this project. On “Rap God,” Yamazawa makes it clear he doesn’t do “white music” or “Asian rap,” thus suggesting that one’s racial makeup or ethnic background should not separate them in hip-hop. Yamazawa’s unique lens on Southern identity and his inimitable braggadocio place him in a lane of his own—a Southern rapper with Japanese roots whose cadence is reminiscent of Golden Age boom-bap rap with a familiar drawl. —Kyesha Jennings


Plasty I & Plasty II

Tri-Angle Records

A cracked, unique collection of futurist beatmaking, Durham producer Brandon Juhans’ excellent Plasty series this year stands out, even in an increasingly crowded space for deconstructed beat music. With an eye for detail inspired by his own collage and illustration work, Juhans steers his music toward weapons-grade breakbeats of the sort found in old nineties boom-bap throbbers. However, his weird, kinetic mélange of lo-fi sampledelia knocks them into near–fourth world ambient territory, abstract and strange as a Jon Hassell record, addicting and hypnotic as any dusty beat tape. Both Plasty releases came out on Tri-Angle Records, home to Serpentwithfeet, Haxan Cloak, and other forward-looking talents, an exceptional fit. —David Ford Smith


Never Come Down

Fat Beats Records

After a three year hiatus, hometown heroes Kooley High delivered Never Come Down, executive produced by 9th Wonder. Good vibes abound on Never Come Down, beginning with track titles like “We Don’t Care,” “Grinning,” “Cool Out/Tranquility,” and “Either Way.” Tab-One and Charlie Smarts remain sharp  with their lyrical metaphors and punch lines; the way the two switch off bar for bar, accompanied by the pleasant Charlie Smarts, is reminiscent of the likes of Little Brother, Slum Village, and Goodie Mob. But it’s their “cool kid” cadence that separates them from their hip-hop predecessors and peers. Ultimately, Never Come Down solidifies Kooley High’s importance to North Carolina hip-hop, even without a major label.—Kyesha Jennings



Merge Records

Heather McEntire’s solo debut was a long time coming. The singer-songwriter has been a fixture in Triangle music for years, from her ragged punk with Bellafea, her charming pop project Un Deux Trois, and rangy folk-rock with Mount Moriah. But with encouragement from riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna, McEntire at last issued her first solo LP in the form of a slick country record, Lionheart. She ruminates on love and heartache with stunning imagery, gilding them with graceful touches of harp, strings, and pedal steel. Though “country music” carries a wide variety of connotations, McEntire’s heartfelt entry invites tears-in-my-beer with the best of them.—Allison Hussey


Magic Ship

Nonesuch Records

In a noisy, chaotic world, Mountain Man’s Magic Ship felt like a pleasure cruise to an Elysian haven. Quiet intimacy reigns supreme, and the women of Mountain Man—Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Molly Sarlé, and Amelia Meath—execute it with careful grace. They leverage their sharp, almost preternatural vocal harmonies to build peaceful little worlds, where secretive spiders live tucked away in the eaves and stars guide the way, where it’s possible to find as much comfort in learning not to be wracked by guilt as a good pair of underwear. For all of its gossamer sensibilities, the softness of Magic Ship can take a mighty hold.—Allison Hussey


Choke On It

Sorry State Records

Raleigh’s No Love crams so many strains of punk into their frantic fuzz-bombs that it’s hard to back the band into a corner. It’s thrilling. On one hand there’s the straightforward charge of early West Coast hardcore, but it’s countered with squiggling post-punk guitar licks. Singer Elizabeth Lynch sneers and snarls, but her vocal barbs form unforgettable hooks, too. Angry and upbeat, snotty and complex, Choke On It feels every bit the product of a band that spent plenty of time woodshedding on demo recordings and scores of stages before issuing a proper full-length. And that patience, however unlike punk’s impulsive pedigree, pays off for No Love. Choke On It is one of 2018’s best punk albums, from anywhere. —Bryan C. Reed


Not Well

Raund Haus

Rodney Finch, or Oak City Slums, has a talent for finding the right grooves and sample loops in a dance track to make people not just dance, but lose themselves when he deejays. His ten-track Not Well showcases Finch’s impressive artistic growth, with a departure from his usual sample-heavy remixes and an embrace of analog synthesis. He stays true, though, to his eclectic tastes as a deejay with influences of rap, house, drum-and-bass, and more sprinkled throughout the album. Though Not Well is intended for full consumption, one of the standout tracks, “Sleep,” featuring KX, who provides elegant R&B vocals behind Finch’s scattering drum patterns and soft synth pads. It’s a touching song about loss that takes a sonically soothing approach to a usually anxious topic. —Charles Morse


Personality Cult

Drunken Sailor Records

Personality Cult’s debut takes Ben Carr’s songwriting in unexpected directions, but that in itself is hardly a surprise. Throughout previous exploits in pop-punk, twangy garage rock, and synth-driven proto-hardcore, Carr’s knack for sharp hooks and clever, self-deprecating turns of phrase have made him a consistently compelling bandleader. Here, effectively solo, Carr churns out upbeat pop gems that recall iconic acts like The Buzzcocks and The Undertones as much as cult acts like The Spits and Marked Men. But, as ever, Carr doesn’t shy from his influences, but neither is he beholden to them. Big, brash hooks, propelled by punchy backbeats and needling guitar work drive Personality Cult’s brief, brilliant first outing. —Bryan C. Reed



Bloodshot Records

On her second LP commanding The Disarmers, Chapel Hill-based alt-country singer-songwriter Sarah Shook touches on tradition while digging deep inside to mine some intense emotions, giving the whole marvelous mess a raw, rock ’n’ roll kick in the pants before sending it out the door. The honky-tonk roots of “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” and the Bakersfield-worthy licks of “New Ways to Fail” blend with a roughneck rocking sensibility on an album full of regret and resolve in equal measure, equally useful as a soundtrack for lamenting one’s past mistakes and forging a clear-eyed path forward. —Jim Allen


Someday Everything WillBe Fine

Merge Records

Dan McGee strains into falsetto to sing the titular line to Someday Everything Will Be Fine at the end of “Reckless,” the rangy, raucous song that kicks off the record. He sings the line four times, repeating it as though it were a mantra. At the end of the fourth, the song ends abruptly, cymbal crashes and reverb trails fading into silence. In a trying year, it was hard sometimes to believe McGee when he sang those words—perhaps doubly so given his propensity for littering Spider Bags’s back catalog with absurdist messages. But Someday, while still weird, is a markedly mature record, one wherein McGee ponders his own insouciant misadventures and unearths trenchant insight into the nature of man. Someday, McGee incants, everything will be fine. And you believe him. (Disclosure: Spider Bags bassist Steve Oliva is the INDY’s art director.) —Patrick Wall


What a Time

to Be Alive

Merge Records

Fury has always suited Superchunk. (See: “Slack Motherfucker”; “Precision Auto.”) But across all its records—What a Time to Be Alive is number eleven—Superchunk has never sounded so furious, and has never written such defiant social commentary. Written almost entirely between Trump’s election win and his inauguration, the album doesn’t idly rage against the machine. It pointedly rails against those in power and the people who put them there. It superbly articulates the anger, anxiety and frustration of the sociopolitical miasma that’s choking American discourse. Politically oriented records inherently have an expiration date; once the bastards are out of office, pointed protest songs lose their target and just sound quaint. By focusing on the root issues—regressive belief systems, stratified social orders, hate—Superchunk’s made protest punk for the long haul. —Patrick Wall




Earlier this year, the Kobie Watkins Grouptet, the latest iteration in a long line of ensembles led by jazz drummer Kobie Watkins, released their percussive, joyful album Movement. True to its title, the album’s eclectic rhythms and finely tuned arrangements carry it from song to song. The first three tracks are their own exceptional progression: the jaunty “Catch This,” followed by layers of “The City,” then concluding with the bombastic titular track. What makes Watkins a pleasure to listen to as both a musician and bandleader is his combined assurance and playfulness, and this album is certainly the work of a musician at the apex of his abilities.—Katie Jane Fernelius


The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs

Merge Records

For most of its life, the band Wye Oak revolved around what its two members, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, could execute simultaneously. But for their sixth LP, April’s The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, the pair decided to rid themselves of their self-imposed limitations, leaping headfirst into more intricate arrangements. Their efforts gleam brighter than ever in the rich, immersive environs of songs like the undulating “It Was Not Natural,” the heart-quickening “Symmetry,” and the record’s thrilling title track. The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs feels less like an album than a breathing organism, one that reveals new details with every listen. —Allison Hussey