Here are our 20 favorite albums and EPs released by North Carolina bands and artists in 2021

By Grant Golden

January 6, 2022 (updated)

With a year that feels like it dragged on forever, music gave many of us a respite from the calamity. From party-ready funk grooves to moody roots ballads, North Carolina artists rapidly released incredible music. And with 2021 now behind us, we’ve pulled together 20 of our absolute favorite releases from across the state for your listening pleasure.

Reliably Bad – Space Girl

It’s rare to see an act debut with a sound as refined as Reliably Bad’s. This eight-piece Greensboro outfit wowed listeners across the nation with their effortlessly cool brand of funk-pop. Vocalist Jess Schneider’s expansive vocal range plays well with maximalist arrangements that boast silky horn runs and swelling string sections. It’s hard not to groove along with the tracks of Space Girl, an album that brought undeniable light to a difficult year.

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Solomon Fox – Solomon

Gabe Fox-Pecks’ production work is some of the finest in the state, so it should come as no surprise that his solo debut boasts sensational, soulful arrangements. The songs comprising Solomon are full of yearning and drip with nostalgia, feeling both fresh and familiar at once. Lush harmonies, groove-heavy melodies and crisp beats make this an easy-to-love record, so slap on some headphones and get ready to lose yourself in these dense soundscapes.

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Lute – Gold Mouf

Gold Mouf was arguably the most anticipated hip-hop record North Carolina has seen in years, and Lute somehow lives up to every expectation. This introspective record finds Lute outlining his personal struggles despite his growing success. Lute’s ability to pepper in powerful personal anecdotes can make a listener double-take, giving tracks like “Be Okay” and “Birdsong” a second listen before proceeding through the record. All of Lute’s excellence stands alongside features like Ari Lennox, JID, Saba and Little Brother, making for a powerhouse of a record that exceeds the insurmountable hype.

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Indigo De Souza – Any Shape You Take

Asheville’s Indigo De Souza propelled herself to national stardom with her incredible sophomore album, Any Shape You Take. No other NC act received more acclaim than De Souza in 2021, and it’s easy to see why with her painfully sincere songs. Tracks range from danceable ditties to distressed ballads, making for an emotionally kaleidoscopic aural adventure.

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Shame Gang – No Safe Haven

While Shame Gang was always a standout in the local hip-hop scene, No Safe Haven represents a shift in gears for this rising star. Whether he’s rapping atop beats with sizzling trap flare or a boom-bap swing, Shame Gang brings intense personality and invigorating energy to each track. Driven by the unexpected loss of his brother, Shame Gang made a concerted effort to transcend to hip-hop greatness, and No Safe Haven accomplishes just that.

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Hiss Golden Messenger – Quietly Blowing It

Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor can capture perseverance in a record like few others. Be it internal strife or the pitfalls of societal struggles, Taylor has a way of putting these fears to song and inspiring resolution. With tracks that fluctuate between sparse and plaintive folk ballads to bouncing dub excursions, this cosmic country crooner continues to expand his musical horizon on Quietly Blowing It. And by the time the record closes with standout “Sanctuary,” listeners are ready to dance in jubilation despite the bumps in the road ahead…and if that’s not the mark of a good album I don’t know what is. 

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Mavi – End of the Earth EP

Despite his youth, Mavi’s music contains more wisdom than some artists twice his age. End of the Earth is an exploration of philosophical concepts, cultural conflicts, and internal strife that exceeds any expectations set by his heavily lauded 2019 debut. His sound is built around internal rhyme schemes to build aural tension, and serve as a juxtaposition to the stirring, soulful production. The five tracks pack a potent punch and, whether it be a bass-heavy banger or a slow-brooding burner, Mavi’s music is as insightful as it is exciting.

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Alexa Rose – Headwaters

The serene sounds of Alexa Rose’s Headwaters capture much of the fear, frustration and hopefulness we all experienced in the early onset of the pandemic. Headwaters bounces between dreamy folk and driving roots rock, but is lyrically rooted with a sense of humanity. Through existential pondering, pining for the past, and eager idealism for the future, Headwaters showcases Rose’s exceptional songwriting skills in a beautifully crafted record.

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Greg Cox – Milestone

Larger-than-life personas can be hard to fit into a studio, but Milestone packs all of Greg Cox’s vivaciousness into a concise and compelling record. Cox’s sound combines jazz, gospel, R&B and hip-hop into a unique and infectious product. Milestone is an ode to the ambitious, with sleek production and soaring melodies that outline the highs and lows one encounters on the path to success. Proficient and polished, Milestone is a brief but brilliant record.

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Well$ & Angelo Mota – Zaïre

Records dedicated to newborn children have a damn good track record, and Zaïre sticks true to tradition. Well$ is one of NC’s most consistent emcees, and his collaboration with New Jersey’s Angelo Mota accentuates each artist’s assets. This cautionary tale of a record explores the lessons of life’s mistakes through a seamless blend of biting bars and catchy hooks. Tracks like “Tornado,” “NASCAR” and “Tony With The Nissan” stand tall among this collection of thoughtful, engrossing tracks.

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The Muslims – Fuck These Fuckin’ Fascists

The piercing punk rock of Durham’s The Muslims pulls no punches. Interweaving sardonic humor with plain-spoken political observation, Fuck These Fuckin’ Fascists calls out Republicans, Democrats, cops, anti-maskers and anyone standing against justice and equality. Their no-frills brand of punk rock is full of brisk drum beats, swinging bass riffs and careening guitar lines that accent these coarse yet poignant lyrics. In short, The Muslims are the shot in the arm punk rock’s been needing for years.

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Pat Junior – Gold Fangs On Sunday

Gold Fangs On Sunday feels like the first rays of sun as the clouds begin to part. Pat’s music has always been frank, with topics like mental health, self-love, and societal struggles, but we’ve yet to hear him as confident and passionate as on GFOS. His production levels up with cinematic soundscapes and electronic undertones, but remains subtle enough so as not to overshadow his own lustrous bars. Honestly, any record with a track as stellar as “Black Beamin’” could have made this list, but Pat’s penchant for perfection propels this album towards the top of the year’s releases.

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Abigail Dowd – Beautiful Day

Beautiful Day is a record that revels in resilience. The Greensboro songwriter crafted a vibrant folk record with powerful storytelling embellished by robust instrumentation. Dowd’s smooth vocals nestle quaintly amongst rich keys, pedal steel, dobro and guitar lines. Her lyricism and vocal prowess elicits a sense of comfort and keeps listeners hooked, making Beautiful Day an easy listen you’ll keep coming back to.

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Sam Fribush Organ Trio – Vol. 1: Riverboat

There are moments on Riverboat when it’s easy to forget this record is made by three people. With the enchanting guitar work of legendary Charlie Hunter, the evocative, soulful swing of Sam Fribush’s organ lines, and Geoff Clap’s subdued percussive hits, the Organ Trio is a dazzling outfit. Whether the band is shuffling through a timeless D’Angelo joint or revitalizing a Bonnie Raitt classic, these immaculate tracks are easy to lose yourself in.

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Nia J – Rabbit Hole EP

Rabbit Hole is a whimsical exploration of life’s complexities. This sultry R&B record finds Nia J traversing topics of sexuality, love, anxiety, and all the feelings in between. Nia builds up layers of alluring harmonies atop delicate production, bringing a dream-like quality to this collection of tracks. Rabbit Hole is a vulnerable record that dips into the world of Nia J, and by the end we can’t wait to dive deeper.

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Blue Cactus – Stranger Again

Blue Cactus’ wistful cosmic country tunes land at a perfect intersection of classic and contemporary. Stranger Again nods back to ‘70s country vibes, but peppers in progressive and expansive sounds keeping listeners engaged with Steph Sewart and Mario Arnez’s gripping storytelling. Whether it’s a moody ballad, a raucous rock jaunt or a trippy “Space Country” jam, Stranger Again is packed full of tracks that’ll bring out a little bit of honky-tonk in everyone.

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Tongues of Fire – Burn My Body Clean 

Following up on their 2019 debut album, Everyone Hates Us, Asheville’s post-punk rockers Tongues of Fire, fronted by vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Lowell Hobbs, came strong this year with their follow-up EP, Burn My Body Clean. The five-song project packs a dynamic punch, showcasing Hobbs’ masterful guitar instrumentation with swift tempo changes by drummer Eli Raymer. With hardcore moments throughout the 17-minute EP, Burn My Body Clean, is an amalgamation of multiple guitar-driven rock genres that will leave you craving more from the Western Carolina group. 

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Phil Cook – All These Years

Phil Cook’s footprint is on some of the finest music our state has seen in the past decade, and All These Years marks a fresh foray into instrumentation. Cook pours emotion into these “hymn-provisational” tracks, blending gospel-style chord structures with improvisational key runs that range from ruminative to playful. 

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Lesthegenius – All In Due Time

Lesthegenius has proven to be one of the state’s most persistent up-and-coming emcees. Propelled by placement on Obama’s Best of 2019 playlist, Les’ debut could have easily suffered from lofty expectations. Instead, All In Due Time solidifies Les as an adaptable artist capable of diverse yet cohesive arrangements. Les excites with rapidly changing cadences and tenacious melodies that linger in your head long after the tunes have left your ears. 

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Listen to our playlist featuring songs from our 21 favorite North Carolina albums/EPs released in 2021:

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