Watching Old Bricks play in Kings as most of Raleigh spent their post-tornado hours in the dark; seeing black metal bad boys Inquisition play in a North Raleigh sports bar; hearing Hiss Golden Messenger's Poor Moon for the first time, and every time since; marveling at how different the Cat's Cradle felt with a few walls reconsidered; seeing Archers of Loaf open for The Love Language: Those are just a few of the ways I'll remember the year in local music that was 2011. But it's mostly over, and it's time to move along.
So we close 2011 with a look at 10 topics—be they bands, albums, trends, clubs or conjectures—that might matter the most next year.
BOWERBIRDS AND MIDTOWN DICKENS: For their third album, The Clearing, The Bowerbirds migrated north, recording in the studio owned by their pal, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, before returning to Pittsboro to finish their album in a ramshackle cottage built during Reconstruction. The result, which will be released on March 6, is without doubt their best work yet, taking the kind of special songs they've always written to dizzying, redemptive new places. Keenly composed, adventurously arranged and arrogantly executed, it's an album that will adjust expectations of and for the Bowerbirds. A week before the band offers The Clearing, Trekky Records will release another stunning third LP—Midtown Dickens' Home. At last a consistent quartet, Midtown Dickens returned to Scott Solter's studio in Western North Carolina to record a ruminative collection full of the band's most accomplished arrangements and declarations. In the span of five years, Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton have moved from performers who too often hid their feelings behind cuteness to writers with painfully precise pens, able to devastate with a couplet and comfort with a chorus.
YEP ROC 15: Housed just west of the Triangle proper in Haw River, Yep Roc and its partner company, the massive Redeye Distribution, are often overshadowed by the credibility factory that is Merge Records. But Yep Roc has done important work in its decade-plus, from helping launch the careers of Chatham County Line, Two Dollar Pistols and Thad Cockrell to giving the catalogs of legends like Nick Lowe and Billy Bragg new energy. In 2012, they'll tout their own brand with a series of celebratory shows and such, most likely in Orange County. Mayflies USA? Something grand with Chris Stamey? The Jesus of Cool himself? In any case, Yep Roc has at least two fantastic records lined up next year—Cheyenne Marie Mize's We Don't Need and Jim White's Where It Hits You. Not a bad start for such a big year.
HEAVIER SOUNDS: We'll get new material from Corrosion of Conformity in late February via Candelight, adding yet another chapter to the band's very twisted saga. After a couple of reissues and an excellent if delayed collaboration with Texas' Pyramids, Horseback will finally return next year with the proper follow-up to The Invisible Mountain, the stunning 2009 LP that shot Jenks Miller from provincial drone circles into heavy metal acclaim. Not only has Miller's Horseback advanced to major metal indies like Relapse and Hydra Head, but it's also remained entrenched with more experimental imprints while building a formidable live set. What's more, Holidays for Quince, the label Miller co-owns with Mount Moriah bandmate Heather McEntire, will release the new LP by the mighty Caltrop in the first quarter of next year. Also expected on tap: new work by Raleigh supergroup Grogh (featuring members of The Love Language and a co-founder of Between the Buried and Me), Hog, MAKE, Knives and Lurch. And Loincloth, featuring the remains of Raleigh's Confessor, will release Iron Balls of Steel via Southern Lord on Jan. 17. Hopefully it's not so punishing you won't be able to deal with the rest of next year's heaviness.
NORTH CAROLINA HIP-HOP: In 2011, talk about North Carolina hip-hop was everywhere—and by everywhere, we mean on the Twitter accounts of a handful of area emcees, producers and fervid boosters, but pretty much nowhere else. This state's hip-hop has felt a bit like a tired animal these last few years, subservient to a few marginally famous folks who seemed to hold the reins on the whole place. People seem tired of that: More local rappers are starting to make interesting music without the aegis of anyone ever involved with Little Brother or the Justus League. Just as the hip-hop mainstream has slowly started to embrace no-name upstarts with something to say, the Triangle scene might finally be fallow enough for a new share of provocateurs—and, let's hope, their loads of energy.
AREA BOOKING: Cat's Cradle holds a few hundred extra folks. Glenn Boothe, who has done an excellent job steering Local 506, now lends a hand to talent-buying at Motorco. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Pinhook's going to sound like a bona fide tour stop. The Nightlight continues to improve its space, while Chapel Hill Underground offers a place for locals to have an easy gig. With the addition of a young booking agent and the attentive tentacles of outside promoters, Kings looks to have finally found a stable booking strategy. Chris Tamplin is back at Tir na nOg, and the Triangle now has a legitimate magnet for touring metal acts, Lechuza Booking owner Michelle Temple. Maybe the competition for shows among all these venues has increased, but with all of these stations vying for your business, it seems like a favorable time to want to see your favorite band close to home. That can only be a good thing.
DUKE PERFORMANCES: Aaron Greenwald has served as the director of Duke Performances since 2007. In that time, he's built the state's best academic arts series, with smart but accessible themes, relentlessly focused curation and a general belief that Duke's riches of presentations should not be limited to the cloister of the campus. This year, he's continued to do that not only by booking indie rock and dance music (Thurston Moore and Big Freedia, offered by a university program?) but also by getting those events into the rest of Durham. Hayti Heritage Center, Carolina Theatre, Durham Performing Arts Center, Casbah and Motorco Music Hall have all become fair game for Duke Performances, making the series' "In Durham" motto more than convenient lip service. Look for more of that progressive metastasis in the year to come.
WHATEVER BRAINS AND DOUBLE NEGATIVE: Given the amount of material they've released in just a few years and the general stylistic exploration of it all, there's little wonder that Raleigh's Whatever Brains have already readied the bulk of the follow-up to their great 2011 debut. And judging by recent live performances, this band's the best it's ever been. That same topic is up for debate regarding their labelmates Double Negative, who've had significant turnover this year. But with a new drummer and frontman, they seem to be sorting through a lifetime of hardcore anew, finding weird ways to reshape everything again. The next 12 months promise excitement from both bands.
HAW RIVER BALLROOM: Arguably the live music jewel of the Triangle, Haw River Ballroom, which finally opened its doors this summer, has steadily used its thoughtful and unique design to recruit shows that used to belong in more traditional spaces. After a rainstorm, the ballroom saved this year's TRKFest with a mix of shelter and outdoor space. Stephen Malkmus even brought his post-Pavement reunion to Saxapahaw. Megafaun raved publicly about the space after they played there with Bowerbirds in November, and The Mountain Goats subsequently announced that their upcoming Triangle show would be headed to the Haw, too. Essentially, the uncompromising Haw River Ballroom is the kind of space a booking agent might send a band to, even if it's a little bit off a tour's route; its design and delivery are that special.
MOUNT MORIAH: Rather than self-release their excellent debut LP to no interest or acclaim or settle for a middling record deal that wouldn't have done them any favors, Mount Moriah held onto their music, playing shows and finishing tours before finally releasing their first batch of eight songs. As such, they're sitting on another set of tunes ready to be recorded, and they've built a substantial bit of buzz for their start. After a Pitchfork review and several slews of dates with the Indigo Girls, they'll join The Hold Steady's Craig Finn for a full national tour in early 2012. Theirs is certainly a gospel worth spreading.
ANOTHER FESTIVAL: When Troika announced in 2011 that the 2010 festival had been its last, two central themes of debate emerged: Had Hopscotch—the festival owned by Independent Weekly and co-directed by me—killed Troika? We'll let less-biased heads answer that. And more constructively, why not start another music festival? Between Hopscotch and MoogFest, North Carolina now seems covered when it comes to festivals bringing in national and international acts. Despite Hopscotch's substantial regional booking, though, the Triangle now lacks a multi-day, highly controlled festival that focuses only on this rich musical region. Organizing and executing such a thing isn't easy, but, as Troika proved, it is possible. So can all the talk become more than that?