Most weeks, promos come in floods, either by post in big stacks of padded envelopes with thick rubber bands holding five or six together, or by email, with password-protected links or bulky files attached to a string of messages. For all the continued talk about the fall of the music industry, the important stuff—the music—is doing just fine, thank you. In fact, during a year when several of the Triangle's best-known bands didn't release records, area acts released, by my count, at least 30 albums that will henceforth belong in forever rotation.
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When it comes to music, people shrink with worry upon hearing the word Americana. Sure, years ago it might have seemed like a relevant catchall for mutated forms that didn't fit one roots box or another, maybe if it was too literate or rocking to be country or too weathered and mannered to be rock. But the boundaries keep bleeding all over the place, so that what was Americana has seeped into what was indie rock and vice versa. In 2011, you could've described dozens of bands as Americana or indie rock and, with either or both terms, said next to nothing about them—The War on Drugs, Fleet Foxes, Megafaun, Richard Buckner, D. Charles Speer, Bill Callahan, Bon Iver. The list stretches indefinitely.
Poor Moon, the most fully developed album yet by indie rock veteran and new Durham resident M.C. Taylor, might be strong enough to reclaim that noun of convenience. This is, at least, pan-American music, gracefully shading a bedrock of refined songcraft with touches of soul, funk, bluegrass, classic rock and ancient country. Taylor delivers arrangements that are alternately pretty as a Southern daybreak and threatening as a late summer thunderstorm rolling across the horizon. None of these flourishes seems intentional or forced; they simply seem like the output of lifelong synthesis. And on Poor Moon, Taylor takes nothing for granted, evaluating his career, God, sobriety and sanity with an absolute rebelliousness of spirit. Too young to be told and too wise to be foolish, Taylor writes, sings and records from a place of great wonder, as if these old sounds and these proverbial thoughts are new. For these perfect 45 minutes, they certainly feel that way.
Extolling the vivid imagery or pondering the hard-won, bitterly defended survival stories of an album by the Mountain Goats feels beyond redundant 20 years into the oeuvre of songwriter John Darnielle; it's as anodyne as calling The Beatles catchy or Led Zeppelin heavy. But All Eternals Deck is more than Darnielle's first album as the Mountain Goats for Merge and the one where his rock trio featuring Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster finally crystallizes. Rather, in a year of fairly grim realizations, where the very concept of hope was too often dismissed as an empty political promise, All Eternals Deck rode fearlessly against trouble and worry with new focus, force and finesse. "It gets OK to praise the day," he sings. "Believe in sheltering skies and stable earth beneath." This is an album where big losses are beaten back by small victories and steady resolve. It feels welcome, perhaps even necessary.
If you've seen the band Des Ark on a stage (or more likely on the venue floor) during the last decade, you either know Aimée Argote as the mouthpiece leading an efficient, angular rock tempest or as the seething, seated singer-songwriter singing and stomping to her own fingerpicked accompaniment. In the most unexpected and riveting ways, Don't Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker represents both ends of Argote's persona as a performer without sounding like a facile compromise between the two. "Bonne Chance Asshole" is surging, combative rock 'n' roll that's pugnacious with purpose; "Howard's Hour of Shower" augments the solo framework with multiple guitar and vocal lines that interact as much as they intersect. Argote's always been able to tell us how she feels; on Don't Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker, she actually uses the music to make us feel that way, too.
Almost exactly at the middle of his band's debut LP, on a five-minute, mean-as-hell ricochet called "Whatever Helps You Sleep Pt. I & II," Whatever Brains frontman Rich Ivey dips his toes into the tepid waters of false modesty. "I have got a map that was copied from a map," he sings during a parable about fortune and pride. "Abridged by a translator 400 years ago/ He met with several men, and they agreed upon the whereabouts of wealth." There's some truth here. In an era of buzz bands whose first singles make them seem like the biggest band in the world, Whatever Brains have improved in an old-fashioned way, or by following a string of cassettes, singles and CD-Rs with a very long-playing debut. And, yes, there are glimpses of a million familiar strains here, from No Wave and new wave to the Country Teasers and Pavement. But this quartet adds a triumphant dose of implausibility to everything it touches, twisting between disparate ideas and baiting with sarcastic barbs with the spirit of young punks and the know-how of post-grads. Yes, they've read the maps. Thankfully, they burned them, too.
Consider the synopsis: Mount Moriah is a country band that combines some of the area's best players—lead guitarist Jenks Miller leads the ultra-inventive heavy metal band Horseback, after all—with the endlessly striking voice of Heather McEntire. She sings love songs for her girlfriend and tells her mother that happiness with her own lifestyle is more significant than any deity's approval. Mount Moriah, then, is a perfect band for this region of North Carolina, a unique rendezvous of time and place where tradition and legacy lend a hand to activism and awareness. Of course, politics aren't at the center of Mount Moriah's gorgeous, refined debut, at least not at first. These songs are exact and electrifying, with McEntire's crisp, concise writing fitting Miller's elegant, economic arrangements like one hand inside the other. "Hail, Lightning" offers a tortuously slow burn, while the rollicking "Social Wedding Rings" explores controversial scenes with devilish exuberance. Between these extremes, Mount Moriah captures something both urgent and immediate.
The talk about the third album from Megafaun has insufferably centered on its new sense of normalcy, or the way the bulk of these songs hew more closely to the straight lines of alt-country than the zigs and zags of "freak-folk," the amorphous term by which Megafaun has long been circumscribed. Sure, "Second Friend" is a breezy Western jangle, just as "State/Meant" is a forlorn creeper about crippled communication. But listen to the way Megafaun layers noise like gauze beneath its most standard tracks, the way Joe Westerlund pushes and pulls the rhythm on the barn-burning "Resurrection" or how they shift from spasmodic jazz to more balmy passages on "Isadora." It's common for weird bands to eventually settle back into bedrock; it's rare for them to not do that while happily convincing most everyone they have.
For years, and against the odds of four older dudes playing in a busy hardcore band, Double Negative remained steady enough: frontman Kevin Collins, bassist Justin Gray, drummer Brian Walsby and guitarist Scott Williams. But due to recent fatherhood, Walsby left the band earlier this year, ceding the throne to Charlotte drummer Bobby Michaud. And two months ago, the band's punk-house pinball of a frontman, Kevin Collins, took his leave. These two 7"s are the first pieces of a series whose covers will form the band's unmistakable logo. Given that this Walsby-and-Collins lineup was on its way out, Double Negative sounds perfectly like an explosion, where the band's various aspects come flying out in unordered pairs. There's sludge and noise and a hint of pop, too, all united by the ideal that no second should be left unbattered.
Recombination—or the need to put a little bit of this with a little bit of that, ad infinitum—comes at such a premium. Fans feel the need to hear something new, so bands struggle to keep up by trying to make just that, to produce something that won't be outdated by the time someone finally hears it. That's why Trephine, the first album by Chapel Hill metal band MAKE, feels so refreshing. A concept album of fugue states and splintered emotions, Trephine falls at a familiar place somewhere between doom metal, stoner metal and drone metal. It offers nothing new but a well-developed and sharply executed batch of songs that work as a narrative and atmospheric whole. If the last two decades of heavy metal have been of interest to you, you've likely heard something that sounds like Trephine. These days, it's rare for this breed of heavy music to sound so fresh and unfiltered.
With a self-aggrandizing Twitter hashtag, a stilted reunion between Phonte Coleman and producer 9th Wonder, and a major-label debut by J. Cole, you'd think that North Carolina hip-hop would be the prime topic at the close of 2011. Once again, though, most of the state's hip-hop output proved tepid, inflated and strangely beyond its expiration date. Only David Thompson—Kooley High's sad-eyed missive about the troubles of trying to make it outside of #nchiphop—seemed rooted in the moment. Charlie Smarts and Tab-One have never before seemed so well-adjusted in their roles as foils, playing off intriguing beats from guest producers with a candor that's both invaluable and endearing.
After four years and two albums of trying to write, tour, perform and generally behave in spite of the truth, Kelly Crisp and Ivan Howard finally exhale on Loud Planes Fly Low, their first album written and released so as to acknowledge their divorce. The sorrow of the circumstances is everywhere here, from Howard's woefully idle chorus on "Go Ahead" to Crisp's desperate cocktail of loneliness and confusion on "Come Visit." With the secret out, though, The Rosebuds sound recharged, racing through the nervously yearning "Woods" to settle at "Worthwhile," a sweetly sad closer that's more about sweeping up the broken pieces than the breakup itself.
The above 10 albums don't really get to the breadth of North Carolina's output this year; below, in alphabetical order, is a summary of the state's other strong efforts (EPs, LPs, reissues and box sets), both inside and outside of the Triangle.