2018 The Year’s Best Sounds

As usual, Raleigh’s music scene was vibrant this year, with strong releases across genres—from veteran bands returning to glory and promising newcomers alike. Here we offer a rundown of some of our favorite new albums coming out of the Oak City and its surrounding areas.

By Bryan C. Reed


Breakout Band
American Aquarium, Things Change
(New West)
Stream it on: Bandcamp

It’s a been a long, hard road for Raleigh’s alt-country stalwarts American Aquarium. After 2015’s Wolves saw the band stretching its sound into new directions and expanding its audience accordingly, the band backing frontman B.J. Barham left for other projects. But Barham, true to his troubadour mission, recruited a new crew of players and signed with the bigger label New West for Things Change. The band’s profile has further grown, but so has Barham’s songwriting. With Things Change, Barham joins fellow luminaries like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, who’ve taken their lumps in life and come out wiser and more assured in their voice because of it. Easily American Aquarium’s most mature effort, Things Change is likely also to be their most lasting.


Next Big Thing
New Reveille, The Keep
(Loud & Proud)
Stream it on: Spotify

Deftly straddling the broad appeal of country chart-toppers and the vibrant storytelling and roots-music affections of indie Americana headliners, Raleigh’s New Reveille feels primed for a major breakthrough. To wit, this year’s The Keep premiered online at Billboard, the iconic music industry publication. Having grown fully from a studio project into a cohesive band, New Reveille now plays with the poise and confidence of seasoned pros. It’s no surprise the band scored gigs at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh and Americanafest in Nashville. We can’t help but think even bigger things await the band in the years ahead.


Comeback Stars
6 String Drag, Top of the World and 7 Songs Live
(Schoolkids Records/self-released)
Stream them on: Bandcamp

Kenny Roby has a simple vision for his newly revived and reinvigorated band, 6 String Drag. That is to be “a good bar-rock band that also has songs that you want to listen to their records.” The one-time alt-country hopefuls have lived up to that mission with Top of The World. Roby’s storytelling is sharp and emotional, and his band veers from tender Americana balladry to Elvis Costello–worthy pub-rock with finesse and fluidity. And if that wasn’t enough to prove their bona-fides both on stage and in the studio, 6 String Drag followed their studio LP with a quick-hitting live album mere months later.

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Heavy Meddling
Corrosion of Conformity, No Cross No Crown
(Nuclear Blast)
Stream it on: Spotify

The ever-evolving Raleigh hard-rockers reunited with frontman Pepper Keenan (also of New Orleans metallurgists Down) for this, the band’s eleventh album. Keeping in character, the band also shifted its approach, bringing in more winding, serpentine riffs to delve deeper into proto-metal and doom than they have previously. From the lumbering, Sabbath-y riffs of “The Luddite” to their burly cover of Queen’s “Son and Daughter,” COC draws upon classic influences to create a new classic all their own.

Late Night Vibes
Oak City Slums, Not Well
(Raund Haus)
Stream it on: Bandcamp

Oak City Slums (a.k.a. Rodney Finch) has rightly become a fixture in local dance music scenes. His latest effort, Not Well, makes a clear case for his ascendance as a beatmaker and producer. From moody soundscapes like the opening track “Enter,” to more kinetic dance tracks like “Stay,” Oak City Slums crafts detailed collages of samples with a keen knack for complex rhythms that stimulate the brain as much as the body. Through its 10 tracks, Not Well evokes a late-night scene across dimensions, from bleary insomnia to wired excitement. It’s rare to find dance music that so fully creates a sense of time and place.


A Lot, From A Little
Christy Jean, The Winter Project
Stream it on: Bandcamp

Though it comprises only two songs, Christy Jean’s The Winter Project is a distillation of everything that has made her songwriting so great in former guises, Nola and The Tender Fruit. On “Own Your Sadness,” a drifting bed of synths and subtle percussion buoys an equally ethereal vocal. On “Caroline,” spartan folk strumming gives the vocal plenty of room to swell and recede, adding earnest dynamics to a plaintive song. Coupled with an evocative, economical approach to the lyrics, The Winter Project leaves room for listeners to bring themselves into the songs, making this two-song effort feel as emotionally powerful as many much longer works.

Adrenaline Rush
No Love, Choke On It
(Sorry State)
Stream it on: Bandcamp

No Love made no haste in releasing their full-length debut. The punk band, comprising members of scene veterans like Logic Problem and Devour, issued two demo tapes and a 7-inch single between 2013 and 2015 before finally releasing Choke On It. It was more than worth the wait. Brimming with full-throttle punk energy, Choke On It embraces influences as wide ranging as classic hardcore and underground post-punk, but never loses immediacy or urgency in its explosive, hook-driven arrangements. Calling it pop-punk would be misleading, only because that doesn’t capture the intensity, or the infectiousness, of these 13 should-be hits.


Pop Rocks
Ghostt Bllonde, Birthday Party
Stream it on: Bandcamp

The indie-pop band helmed by Raleigh’s Marc Kuzio returns with this delightful long-player that revels in clever effervescence. Kuzio drives fuzzy guitar licks into big, shining hooks that polish the grit off the band’s garage-band roots. Mirroring the evolution of bands like The Love Language or Shannon & Clams, Ghostt Bllonde has a keen understanding of classic pop-rock fundamentals, but steers them into continually thrilling directions.


Old-School Revival
Kooley High, Never Come Down
(M.E.C.C.A. Records)
Stream it on: Spotify

Ten years after forming at N.C. State University, Kooley High has dispersed geographically, launched the career of the now-twice Grammy nominated MC Rapsody, and carried on the legacy of North Carolina hip-hop with their third full-length effort. Jazzy, sample-driven beats lay a laid-back bedrock for rapper Tab-One and Charlie Smarts to volley upbeat rhymes with the easy chemistry of acts like A Tribe Called Quest or Little Brother. The group’s old-school affections offer a refreshingly easygoing vibe to the record, as well, keeping the act rooted to hip-hop’s classic era even as they bring a fresh insight to the familiar template.


Offbeat and On-Point
Winchop, Look Who’s One!
Stream it on: Bandcamp

On their third album, Look Who’s One!, Winchop builds on the same eclectic foundations as previous outings, drawing together a clear affection with influences as disparate as pop-punk and musical theater. “It’s like Billy Joel and Green Day had a love child up in here. Oh, and David Byrne was holding the camera,” the band offers. This time, though, Gus Vieweg and Wilson Slagle deliver their rangy and playful songs with a newfound polish and confidence.

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