By Grant Golden
January 5, 2021
To put it simply, 2020 was a bleak year. For many of us there was little to no contact with the world outside of our homes or workplaces, so turning to music gave a bit more solace than usual. And while it’s easy to turn back to old favorites and reminisce on better days, artists all across North Carolina churned out fantastic new music deserving of praise.
Soundtracking everything from living room dance parties to contemplative late-night drives, here are our favorite North Carolina albums and EPs of 2020.
Sylvan Esso – Free Love (Durham)
Durham’s indie-pop duo Sylvan Esso tapped into a new level of greatness with their third full-length record, Free Love. Crafting a dynamic mixture of club-ready (or bedroom, given the times) pop bangers and slow-brooding ballads of self-love and acceptance, Amelia Meath’s songwriting propelled Nick Sanborn’s minimalistic productions to soaring heights. Tracks like “Ferris Wheel” and “Train” showcase their catchy pop strengths, while “Free” and “Frequency” lean into nuanced, subdued soundscapes.
Dream Sitch – Dream Sitch (Black Mountain)
Seth Kaufman has crafted some of the state’s most compelling music as Floating Action, which has garnered praise from acts like Jim James. He’s collaborated with Lana Del Rey in recent years and it’s no surprise his collaborative project with Michael Nau is one of the best releases of the year. Intertwining the fresh and nostalgic, Dream Sitch is equal parts Motown, dub, indie-pop and folk. This amalgamation of genres comes together for a timeless sound, propelled by captivating lyricism.
Black Haus – Mss Thang (Greensboro)
Black Haus is a young Greensboro group that’s carving out their own lane of excellence, landing somewhere between indie rock, funk and R&B. Mss Thang clocks in under 10 minutes, but traverses a wide range of musical territory while still feeling unified. The nu-disco of “Rich Petty” is impressive enough in its own right, but the route they take to make it fit is what sets Black Haus apart.
Hiss Golden Messenger – Forward Children (Durham)
MC Taylor is undoubtedly one of the finest storytellers in North Carolina music today, and hearing those stories embellished with some of the state’s finest musicians is what makes Forward Children such a memorable record. At the top of 2020, Hiss Golden Messenger played the legendary Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro for a two-night stay and, at the top of the pandemic, these recordings were released entirely to raise funds for Durham Public Schools System. The result is a career-spanning selection of songs that are full of vigor and tenacity. We may still be far from live music’s proper return, but releases like Forward Children help to capture that indescribable energy that comes from a room full of people lost in the sound.
Deniro Farrar – Sole Food (Charlotte)
Charlotte’s Deniro Farrar is one of the hardest hitting emcees in the state. Emblazoned with personality and embittered by society, Farrar delivers lines that cut straight to your core. On opening track “King,” Farrar proclaims this is “that music for the spirit,” before baring his soul for the next 30 minutes. He eloquently balances personal struggles with societal inequity, painting vivid pictures of life as a young Black man in America. With dazzling production that bounces from chest-rattling low end to infectious sample-based hooks, Farrar captures your attention from opening to close.
The Muslims – Gentrifried Chicken (Durham)
The Muslims are arguably the finest punk act that North Carolina has to offer. The Durham-based outfit is comprised entirely of queer black and brown artists and they pull no punches in tackling every aspect of America’s widespread oppression. The tracks on Gentrifried Chicken are at once snarling, smart, humorous and heavy. “Punch A Nazi” recounts dragging supremacists through a sundown town, “Call A Cop” outlines the mistreatment of minorities by the police state, and the title track digs heavy into the duplicity of “well-meaning” gentrifiers. Gentrifried Chicken is a pure punk take on the lowest drains on society, greeting them with a middle finger and well-placed f*ck off.
Sonny Miles – Catallabs (Winston-Salem)
The music of Sonny Miles was downright inescapable in 2020, but we’re definitely not complaining. Catallabs dropped at the beginning of 2020 as an outlet for a slew of collaborations, but still boasts a unified vision of forward-thinking soul and funk. Clean, falsetto vocals and harmonies ride atop fat bass lines and staccato keys only to unravel into crisp rap lines spat with intensity. Equal parts pop, funk, and hip-hop, Catallabs sets the tone for another year of excellence from the young Winston-Salem-based songwriter. And with a full-length album on the way soon, we can imagine 2021 will be much of the same.
Skylar Gudasz – Cinema (Durham)
Skylar Gudasz has long been one of North Carolina’s finest up-and-coming songwriters, but with her second full-length album, Cinema, it’s hard to argue that “up-and-coming” modifier anymore. Cinema is refined but also explorative, traversing musical dualities, dark and vivid imagery with bright instrumentation— then vice versa. “Animal” is a buoyant folk track with powerful self-realization, “Actress” is a lilting tale of double lives and lofty aspirations, and “Play Nice” takes stabs at the “smile and look pretty” expectation of women in society. Cinema follows a larger storytelling narrative while also peppering in enough personality to make for a universal record that’s full of ambition.
Arson Daily – Late Reflections (Raleigh)
Late Reflections is about as strong of a debut full-length a young rock band could ask for. These songs are both concise and exploratory, freewheeling at heart but tethered to ear-worm hooks and captivating melodies. Rooted in alt-rock sensibilities, Late Reflections is an easy listen that beckons you to keep coming back for more and each revisit finds something new to love.
G Yamazawa – Durham vs. Everybody (Durham)
G Yamazawa’s first release since returning to North Carolina, Durham vs. Everybody, proves that he has earned his title as one of the state’s top hip-hop artists. Tracks like “Riddle Me This” and “Yao Ming” highlight the rapper’s finest strengths, head-spinning rhyme schemes and catchy hooks. Many rappers struggle to find the balance between the two, but Yamazawa’s poetic background serves him well, as he weaves together perplexing verses between radio-ready hooks. Couple that with features from some of the finest young rappers of the state (and a remix of his smash hit to boot), and it’s hard not to love Durham vs. Everybody.
Reuben Vincent – Boy Meets World (Charlotte)
Boy Meets World is an age-old hip-hop tale of blazing your own trail while battling with the weight of expectation, something that Reuben Vincent is well versed in. Signed to 9th Wonder’s Jamla Records at age 16, Vincent’s been grinding for years now despite only being 19. Yet Boy Meets World still manages to feel informed by the past while eyeing the future. Tracks like “Cotdamn” and “Albermarle Road” float with finesse and stand tall among a strong half hour of music. Boy Meets World highlights the immense potential of Rebuen Vincent and proves he’s well worthy of the hype he’s receiving.
Curtis Waters – Pity Party (Cary)
Cary’s Curtis Waters may have propelled to internet stardom with his TikTok mega-hit “Stunnin’,” but Pity Party proves that the young artist has lasting power. With sleek production and a wide-ranging style that blends punk, electro, pop and dance, Pity Party boasts both depth and promising potential for Waters.
Body Games – Super Body Games RPG (Carrboro)
Few local acts tout the level of ambition as Carrboro’s electro-pop trio Body Games, and Super Body Games RPG is a testament to such. While the EP itself serves as one of the finest releases of the year, pairing it with the 16-bit self-designed video game it accompanies makes it truly one of a kind. Super Body Games RPG swings for the fences with hours of content, subtle yet catchy scoring, and an incredible collection of unlockable tracks that comprise the EP itself. One wonders where they can go from here, but a crew as creative and innovative as Body Games will surely find a way to outdo themselves.
Carlitta Durand – Kismet Green (Durham)
Kismet Green is a powerful album of acceptance and growth, one that solidifies Carlitta Durand as one of the strongest R&B artists the state has to offer. Tracks like “I Guess,” “My Business,” and “Kismet Green” bridge robust choruses and vocal melodies with groove-inducing productions. Warm piano chords mesh with subtle low-end bass and snappy percussion, serving as a thick bed of sound for Durand’s soulful vocals.
Marlowe – Marlowe 2
Marlowe is easily one of the most underrated and overlooked hip-hop acts in recent memory. L’Orange’s woozy psychedelic production of obscure soul samples and boom-bap percussion meshes with Solemn Bingham’s masterful flow, making for a mesmerizing output. Look no further than opening track “Spring Kick” to find the two firing on all cylinders, then tune out and kick back for 45 minutes of mind-bending excellence.
Curt Keyz – Black Heart (Charlotte)
Records like Black Heart are why you don’t release an end-of-the-year list until after the year is actually over. Black Heart, released in December, is a powerful EP that sits at the intersection of gospel, rock, jazz and R&B, ultimately serving as a statement to the struggles of being black in America. Societal pitfalls and existential inquisition are filtered through distorted guitars and sprawling gospel keys and vocal arrangements to make for one of North Carolina’s most compelling albums in 2020.
Libby Rodenbough – Spectacle of Love (Durham)
Libby Rodenbough’s work on Spectacle of Love showcases a brilliant musical mind. While Rodenbough is mostly known for her work as a member of Mipso, Spectacle of Love lets her soulful, ethereal blend of folk music take on a life of its own. Tracks bounce between melodic folk ballads, swaggering R&B, and upbeat pop jaunts, all the while masterfully utilizing tension and dynamics to keep the listener engaged. One can only hope that we get more solo releases from Rodenbough to further delve into her rich songwriting.
The music of husband-and-wife duo Chatham Rabbits is a stellar example of how to reconceptualize traditional tropes in a modern context. While Chatham Rabbits’ music is deeply rooted in harmony and simplistic instrumentation, The Yoke Is Easy, the Burden Is Full expands into atmospheric territory with pedal steel embellishments and remarkable use of negative space. Sonic achievements aside, The Yoke Is Easy… shines brightest with Austin and Sarah McCombie’s powerful stories of love, rebirth, loss and tradition. It’s like the penning of a fresh new chapter in an old, familiar book.
Mique – How You Want It (Durham)
2020 was a big year for local acts striking out on solo endeavors, and Mique proved to have one of the strongest debuts of the year with How You Want It. Best known as the frontman of Durham’s Young Bull, Mique brought five party-ready anthems, infusing old-school soul, pop and gospel with R&B roots. As Mique’s raspy vocals glide atop futuristic productions, it’s hard not to find yourself playing back these addictive jams.
Anhad + Tanner – In Other Words (Durham)
Anhad + Tanner released one of the most finely produced albums of the year. In Other Words is a musical tour de force, blending elements of western electronica with traditional and classical Indian music, and doing so with a jazzy, approachable flair. Their robust electronic arrangements are texturized with raga rhythms, chopped vocals, and warm bass lines, making In Other Words an easy record to get lost in. It’s hard to think of a better excuse to pop on some headphones and turn off your brain, something we all need a little more of right now.
Petrov – Flower Bed (Charlotte)
While Flower Bed is only the second EP from Charlotte’s Petrov, it’s a defining step forward for the young band. Blending elements of pop-punk and indie rock, Petrov’s angular guitar riffs and driving percussion serve as a dense background for vocalist Mary Grace McKusick’s soaring vocals. With crisp production, emotional lyricism, and heart-wrenching dynamism, Flower Bed grabs your attention and doesn’t let go until the climactic final notes of “New Routine” ring out.
Jooselord – Moshpit Messiah (Durham)
Moshpit Messiah is a tone-setting release that establishes Durham’s Jooselord as one of the state’s most remarkable artists. Jooselord’s sophomore release, Moshpit Messiah is a record that’s full of character, blending authoritative statements of his own greatness with recontextualized chants and observations from the Black Lives Matter protests to speak on society at large. Tracks like “Kick in the Door” capture Joose’s tenacity and drive, “Mukbang,” and “Dink” showcase his charisma and sense of humor, while “All Black,” “Gangland,” and “1312” speak on cultural appropriation, police brutality and political corruption. Moshpit Messiah is an all-encompassing album that feels like an artist tuned into the cultural vibration.
When Dinner Party was announced it felt like a brief reprieve amid a dark summer. Comprised of Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and 9th Wonder, the debut single “Freeze Tag” hit like a lightning bolt, encompassing a slew of emotions from the George Floyd murder and BLM movement. And once the full record dropped, this 23-minute release somehow managed to live up to the tremendous expectations set forth. Dinner Party leans equally on the strengths of each artist, feeling like a dream team performance from some of jazz and hip-hop’s finest talents.
Cheeno Ghee – To Whomever It Concerns (Charlotte)
Cheeno Ghee is a rare artist that’s as full of talent as she is ambition. To Whomever It Concerns is a record brimming with passion, faith and sincerity while also delivering boastful punchlines that steal your attention. Tracks like “Bodega,” “You Know Damn Well,” and “Savoir Faire” feel effortless with polished production and Ghee’s unrestrained, poetic flow. But the content of these raps shows that this success came with countless hours of hustle and hard work– hard work that’s soon to pay off in droves with output like this.
TiaCorine is operating in a lane of her own with her self-described ‘anime-rap,’ but it’s hard not to imagine a slew of imitators down the road. 34Corine is simultaneously bubbly and over the top while maintaining a sense of grit and grime with raunchy lyricism. “Lotto” has amassed hundreds of thousands of streams and gives a snapshot into TiaCorine’s vibe, a bouncy beat, a slew of clever punchlines, and an undeniably catchy hook.
The work of Carrboro’s Chris Frisina exists in a rare plane, channeling innermost thoughts and feelings through a brilliant sheen of humor, astuteness and longing. Carolina (Out of My Mind) displays this brilliance in droves, highlighting the minutiae of everyday life and turning it into hard-hitting, evocative music. Tracks like “Carnival Cruise Talkin’ Blues,” “Took You Out on the Road” and “Back Patio” feel like a new-aged approach to John Prine’s sound, crafting timeless folk tales that blend the personal and societal in a way that captures your attention and never lets go.
Josh Kimbrough – Slither, Soar & Disappear (Chapel Hill)
Josh Kimbrough has been in the Triangle scene for nearly two decades, known best for his work in indie-rock outfits with the Trekky Records collective. But never before have we seen his music as striking as his solo debut Slither, Soar & Disappear. This instrumental record is contemplative and subdued, embedded with themes of nature and solace. Slither, Soar & Disappear is as sonically impressive as it is soothing, with whirls of acoustic guitar, flute, upright bass and pedal steel that lull you into a trance.
The Hamiltones – 1964 (Charlotte, Morrisville, Greensboro)
Like many other projects in 2020, The Hamiltones’ 1964 digs deep into the complexities of civil rights issues that Black Americans have faced for centuries. Each track oozing with emotion, 1964 is a remarkable effort from one of the state’s most acclaimed R&B groups. Including snippets of historic speeches from civil rights leaders as interludes, The Hamiltones blend contemporary R&B production structures with entrancing melodic interplay.
Toosii – Poetic Pain (Raleigh)
Toosii is arguably one of the hardest working artists in North Carolina. His three releases for South Coast Music Group have amassed tens of millions of streams, and Poetic Pain showcases some of his finest work to date. Toosii’s songs are built around smooth melodies, biting honesty, and trunk-rattling production. With features from Lil Durk and Summer Walker, Toosii is poised for hip-hop superstardom if he continues churning out at such a breakneck pace.
Al Riggs – Bile and Bone (Durham)
Durham’s Al Riggs is one of the state’s most prolific artists, and out of his wide array of releases in 2020, Bile and Bone proves to be one of the most impactful. Blending tender folk tunes with cinematic arrangements (thanks in part to collaborator Lauren Francis), Bile and Bone is at once weighty and delicate. The album’s strongest moments come from finding that balance, allowing Riggs’ fantastic songwriting skills to shine through.
Listen to our Best of North Carolina 2020 playlist:
In this article
- 9th wonder
- Al Riggs
- amelia meath
- Anhad + Tanner
- Arson Daily
- Austin McCombie
- Bile and Bone
- Black Haus
- Black Heart
- Black Mountain
- Body Games
- boy meets world
- Carlitta Durand
- Carolina (Out of My Mind)
- Cat's Cradle
- Chatham Rabbits
- Cheeno Ghee
- Chris Frisina
- Curt Keyz
- Curtis Waters
- deniro farrar
- dinner party
- Dream Sitch
- Durham Public Schools System
- Durham vs. Everybody
- floating action
- Flower Bed
- Forward Children
- free love
- G Yamazawa
- Gentrifried Chicken
- HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER
- How You Want It
- In Other Words
- indie rock
- Josh Kimbrough
- Kamasi Washington
- Kismet Green
- Late Reflections
- Libby Rodenbough
- Marlowe 2
- Mary Grace McKusick
- Michael nau
- Moshpit Messiah
- Mss Thang
- neo soul
- nick sanborn
- north carolina
- pity party
- Poetic Pain
- Reuben Vincent
- Robert Glasper
- Sarah McCombie
- Seth Kaufman
- Skylar Gudasz
- Slither Soar & Disappear
- sole food
- Sonny Miles
- Spectacle of Love
- Super Body Games
- sylvan esso
- terrace martin
- the Burden Is Full
- The Hamiltones
- The Muslims
- The Yoke Is Easy
- To Whomever It Concerns