Arts & Entertainment Critics’ Picks 2020

While COVID-19 brought so much of the arts world to a screeching halt — live concerts, theatre productions, art exhibits, etc. — it’s been inspiring to watch how the scene has adapted and continued to create in the absence of live audiences. So many local creatives continued to make amazing work, either despite of or inspired by the shutdowns — and we were proud just to watch from afar.

All categories

Best Creative:
Hannah Hasan

Longtime spoken-word poet and local community organizer Hannah Hasan began focusing more of her energy on storytelling as a form of socially conscious art in recent years, launching the Muddy Turtle Talks event series in 2018 to share the stories of Enderly Park residents facing gentrification and displacement.

When COVID-19 clamped down on the city, Hasan took Muddy Turtle Talks to Zoom and the pages of Queen City Nerve, unstoppable in her drive to share the stories of Charlotte’s oft-ignored citizenry in a way that only she knows how. In recent months, Hasan has expanded beyond Enderly Park to help tell the stories of others around the city with unique perspectives.

Muddy Turtle Talks
Hannah Hasan of EPOCH Tribe.

With “Roots… A Poem For Brookhill,” she brought her unique poetic talents to the chambers of local government, penning the heartfelt poem to be included alongside an open letter from community leaders to city officials demanding that they find a way to close the $13-million gap between private and public funding that offered the only chance for historic Brookhill to be renewed and still include 162 affordable housing units. City council approved more funding for the project just days after the letter was delivered.

On Welcoming Week, Hasan adapted her Muddy Turtle Talks storytelling style for the pages of Queen City Nerve, sharing unique insights from five local immigrants who came to America from a range of different places. Hasan’s work made us feel like a closer community in a time when people weren’t allowed to come together, and we look forward to seeing how she builds on that in 2021.

Best Arts Organization:

Late in 2019, local creatives davita galloway and David Butler teamed with Grammy-nominated producer and rapper David “Dae-Lee” Arrington to launch HUE HOUSE, a creative consulting agency that offers funding and resources to Charlotte’s diverse cultural community. In February, the team formed a partnership with Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) to move their mission forward with The Block, a monthly gathering focused on empowering creatives, artists and entrepreneurs of color.

We all know what happened then. However, the HUE HOUSE team wasn’t about to just throw their events into a virtual forum and call it a pivot. They still had bigger plans for 2020, and they wouldn’t be slowed by a pandemic.

The HUE HOUSE team (from left): davita galloway, David Butler and David “Dae-Lee” Arrington.” (Photo by Will Jenkins)

In August, HUE HOUSE launched a new reimagining of The Block, this time as a publication — a Black-run, Black-centered publication highlighting the work of local and regional Black creatives. Local writer DeAnna Taylor came on as editor-in-chief, helping the HUE HOUSE team tell stories around arts, culture, business and lifestyle in the Black community.

As Arrington told Queen City Nerve regarding The Block event series in February: “People of color need a voice [and space] in order to thrive. Charlotte doesn’t have that for the arts. As a whole, the creative community is a microcosm of the current community. There has been a lot of research done that reveals how divided our city is when it comes to upward mobility.” 

Best Muralist:

When Mint Museum exhibition designer Hannah Crowell decided to broaden the impact of the pottery show Classic Black to engage people who normally don’t go to museums, she knew where to turn: Charlotte’s exploding street art scene. In particular, when the Mint co-hosted the street mural slam competition Battle Walls with Southern Tiger Collective last summer, Crowell noticed the work of collective artist Owl.

Owl (Photo by Daniel Alvarado)

“There’s vertical movement [in Owl’s art] that surrounds and swirls around an object, so your eye has a moment to rest before it dances to the next focal point,” Crowell offers.

The Mint exhibit Classic Black, which showcases the black basalt sculptures made by Josiah Wedgwood and other Staffordshire potters in late 18th-century England, draws vitality from Owl’s immersive designs. In many ways Owl’s design elements are pieces of a puzzle, drawing positivity and energy from her use of line and color.

A Wedgwood sculpture backed up by Owl’s graphics. (Photo by Casey Hendrickson)

The acclaimed muralist, who often appears masked when she’s creating in public, is noted for the “blobs,” that recur in her work, which can be seen in bold murals across Charlotte. The “blobs” are  line drawings of amoeba-like shapes that spiral in successive iterations like fractals. The blobs are like a two-dimensional Rorschach test that the eye reads as 3-D.

“[Owl’s] work is all about the movement of the eye and changing and morphing a line to create a movement of energy,” Crowell says.

Best Residency:
Resident Residency, McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Last December seems like many years ago, but it was then that local artist Janelle Dunlap teamed with McColl staff, current and former artists-in-residence, and other local institutions involved with the EmcArts New Pathways program to curate the Resident Residency, named such because it consisted of five artists who live and work in Charlotte.

The residency centered on Charlotte artists who work in social practice art, a term that refers to artwork that uses social engagement as a primary medium, and included mixed-media artists Dammit Wesley, MyLoan Dinh and Helms Jarrell; painter HNin Nie; and filmmaker Marlon Morrison.

Artists with the Resident Residency at McColl Center in December 2019. (Photo courtesy of Laura Thomas/McColl Center)

At an opening reception titled Tarmac on Jan. 10, the artists explored themes including racism, gun violence, sex trafficking and immigration, with overlapping themes like displacement running like threads through some of the projects.

Speaking with Queen City Nerve following an artists’ talk last December, Dunlap was prescient as she discussed themes that would become relevant in Charlotte again just months later.

“I was thinking back to the Keith Lamont Scott, Justin Carr shootings, and how violently the city responded against protesters, and not just with force, but also with a dialogue that was not very democratic,” Dunlap said. “We took the concept of protesting and we turned it into riots, and then from riots, we had to call it an ‘uprising,’ and I was like, ‘It was protesting.’ The act of protest is associated with activism, so if we can start to think about art as another form of protest, but not label the artists as activists, maybe that’s a way of protecting the actual protests.”

Best Indie Exhibit:
Crown Station, PDA

Last spring multidisciplinary artist Julio Gonzalez and fiber artist Jillian Mueller gathered a diverse group of artists to explore their serious, funny or heartfelt takes on how each of us handle and process public displays of affection.

The result of their call to arms was PDA: An Art Show Exploring Displays of Affection, which went up at Crown Station on Feb. 15, one day after Valentine’s Day.

Julio Gonzalez in front of a mural he did at Charlotte Country Day School. (Photo by Megan Gonzalez)

Fourteen artists shared their visions of empathy and tenderness in the public sphere. Contributors included Elisa Marie Sanchez, musician Sweat Transfer, avant-garde theatre troupe XOXO, painter and mixed-media artist Dammit Wesley, spoken-word performer de’Angelo Dia, fiber artist Sarah Terry Argabrite and more.

Highlights included a series of looped non-linear actions performed by XOXO, de’Angelo Dia’s movement and spoken-word piece that explored how we use the word love with interchangeable meanings, and a park bench where strangers made micro-connections by sitting together and doing whatever kind of PDA they felt like — something that would be come unfathomable just a month later.

“Public displays of affection are important to make people feel seen and loved,” Mueller said. “If we can encourage people to do more of that, then [the show] will have been a success.”

Best Institutional Exhibit:
Mint Museum, New Days/New Works

Last September, when Mint Museum Uptown came out of a lockdown designed to stem the spread of COVID-19, the venerable arts venue launched a one-of-a-kind exhibit, a selection of art drawn across all the different collections and departments within the museum. New Days/New Works is a series of interconnected exhibits that spotlighted everything from African textiles to contemporary paintings.

‘With Side and With Shoulder’ by Summer Wheat. (Photo by Shulamit Nazarian)

“It’s a show that highlights recent gifts to the museum that the public hasn’t had a chance to see before,” Mint Museum Senior Curator of American Art Jonathan Stuhlman told Queen City Nerve. “I think it’s probably the first time in the 14 years that I’ve been at the museum where all the curators worked together on a giant show as opposed to each doing their own.”

Encompassing more than 80 works of art, the exhibition juxtaposed color, material, time and place, from the recently acquired “Arco” by Puerto Rican artist Cristina Cordova to Pilar Albarracín’s “Ceiling of Offerings,” a large-scale installation made up of hundreds of colorful flamenco dresses that hung from the ceiling.

It all revolved around the strikingly colorful acrylic painting “With Side, With Shoulder” by Brooklyn-based artist Summer Wheat, which spanned three floors and refracted light spilling into the museum atrium like a stained-glass window.

Best Art Show:
Bree Stallings, To Be Seen and Celebrated

As a visual artist that grew up with genetic macular degeneration and limited resources, local artist Bree Stallings knows to never take vision and eye health for granted.

To Be Seen & Celebrated was a multi-faceted exhibition for which Stallings painted 100 custom paintings of real people’s eyes, then built a master grid installation to be housed at The Metropolitan for 30 days, beginning with an opening reception on Jan. 31, celebrating the people and the stories behind every eye in the exhibit.

To Be Seen and Celebrated (Photo courtesy of Bree Stallings)

Viewing the installation (with a feeling of being viewed back), one could connect with any of the eyes on the wall, then look closer for a description of whose eye it was or why a certain person had the painting commissioned. One painting was a gift from a staff member at West Charlotte High School, depicting the eye of his student Je’Naya. Another read, “In Celebration of 51% Sweetheart, 49% Bitch.”

The exhibit raised $1,475 for the Brookhill Vision Fund to go toward eye exams and glasses for residents of the Brookhill community.

“We may forget the occasion or the weather in moments long past, and even facial features can fade in the memory, but the eyes are never forgotten,” Stallings said.

Best Local Art Pop-Up:
Tough Ass Crew

When Sunshine Daydreams moved out of its 20-year home in NoDa and into downtown Mint Hill, a coalition of more than 60 artists known as Tough Ass Crew wasted no time taking over the room while its future use remains in limbo. On Sept. 20, the crew launched a pop-up gallery in the space.

Just 15 people at a time were allowed in the gallery, where consignment art from Charlotte artists hung on walls freshly sprayed by muralists like Stencil Spray, Arko & Owl, Sydney Duarte, Mike Wirth, Backwoods Barbie, Marcher Arrant and more.

Gallery visitors at the Tough Ass Crew pop-up. (Photo by Kate Galindo)

It’s unclear how long the crew will be showing art in the former head shop, as they are currently subleasing the space from Evening Muse, where owners are deciding between expanding or bringing a new tenant into the space.

The gallery did bring back an old-NoDa feel of art-covered walls and indoor space-making for local artists to put their work on display, with every ince of the wall from floor to ceiling covered in art.

Best Visiting Art Pop-Up:
Cool Globes

Cool Globes: Cool Ideas for a Hotter Planet is a nonprofit organization that curates a traveling public art exhibit created to raise awareness of solutions to climate change. Since 2007, the exhibition has traveled around the United States and the world reaching millions of viewers across the actual globe.

Thirty-five of these globes were housed at Camp North End at the beginning of this year while some awaited touches from local artists and then were put out in Uptown between 11th and Trade streets along North Tryon Street.

Deidre and Clay Grubb of Charlotte-based Grubb Properties were behind efforts to bring the globes to the Queen City, according to Megan Scarsella, executive director of Cool Globes. Scarsella says the exhibit is a way to educate the public on opportunities to contribute that they might not have been aware of prior to coming to the exhibit.

Thirty-five globes currently sat at Camp North End before being placed in Uptown. (Photo by Justin LaFrancois)

The Cool Globes exhibit also works as an opportunity for local artists’ work to be featured on a world stage — figuratively and literally — once the exhibit leaves Charlotte and moves elsewhere, as the globes are never stripped of their artwork.

Other partners on the project include Clean Air Carolinas, Arts and Science Council, Sustain Charlotte, Arts+, McColl Center for Arts + Innovation, Bank of America, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation and Charlotte Center City Partners.

Best Public Art Workshop:
Georgie Nakima, Kindred

Kindred, muralist and community organizer Georgie Nakima’s multidisciplinary public art project, was located in west Charlotte’s Biddleville neighborhood at Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Charlotte’s first minority-owned financial institution.

The project was designed as a series of workshops, to bring artwork outside of art districts and directly into the communities that can truly use it. The January workshop showcased an informal lecture by Johnathan Shepard about the evolution of the educational system in Charlotte’s Historic West End.

Georgie Nakima. (Photo by Jonathan Cooper)

The next Kindred event took place at Johnson C. Smith University’s Arts Factory, a renovated building on West Trade Street less than half a mile from Mechanics and Farmers Bank. It featured historian Maarifa Kweli’s lecture on the African-American Diaspora and a face mask demonstration guided by artist Micaila Ayo Thomas.

The idea behind the workshop series was to pool local creatives under one umbrella, Nakima said, then connect those artists with historic African-American communities to draw a through line from each neighborhood’s past to its future.

Garden Mural. (Artwork by Georgie Nakima)

Before COVID-19 curtailed the series, building community, breaking down barriers and inspiring neighbors were  all on the docket for the Kindred workshops to come.

Hopefully, in a post-pandemic landscape, Nakima can pick up, resuming recognition of Charlotte’s black development corridor as an important part of telling a people’s story, while also asking what that means for the people that are already there.

Best Public Art:
Black Lives Matter Mural

On June 9, a group of 17 Charlotte-based artists made international headlines by painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in a mural across South Tryon Street between East 3rd and East 4th streets. The project was the result of a partnership between the city of Charlotte, Charlotte is Creative, Brand the Moth and BlkMrkt CLT, with each artist paid $500 for their work.

The mural itself represented more than just the art on the street, however. After someone vandalized the mural by driving over it with paint on their wheels shortly after it was finished, the city shut the block down to cars, creating a space for people to come together in Uptown.

Black Lives Matter mural
A bird’s eye view of the Black Lives Matter mural. (Photo by Alex Orellano)

It quickly became a rallying point for ongoing protests, and after that, a space for arts events like the interactive pop-ups held by Brand the Moth and BlkMrkt throughout September and the Charlotte Art League auction held in the space on Halloween day.

The city reopened the street in November, despite cries from the community to keep it closed, but speaking just after the mural was painted in June, Dammit Wesley emphasized that it would leave its mark even if it were washed away.

“Whatever happens to that mural on Tryon, that moment will always mean a lot to those who experienced it,” he said. “It was a cathartic time for those who were looking for answers, for those who needed to express themselves in some way that didn’t result in retaliation from the police. That’s what art is to the revolution.”

Best Dancer/Troupe:

During a two-minute performance at the We Are Hip Hop Festival on Nov. 7, AniMatriXX pulled out all the stops. Moving over a humorous soundtrack that ranged from a Saw theme — allowing him to show off his impressive marionette impersonation — to Mario Bros., with each new style of sound bringing new moves that outshined the last.


A Trinidad and Tobago native whose real name is Ayinde Durante, AniMatriXX spends much of his time in Fayetteville but has been making moves in the local scene for years, hitting events like the Breakin’ Convention or just showing his skills on his YouTube channel.

Keep an eye out for his name on flyers once we’re able to gather again, because videos just don’t do him justice (but they’re cool, too).

Best Photographer:
Joshua Galloway (@thecreativegent_)

Joshua Galloway was one of many photographers that joined Queen City Nerve on the streets to bring you the best coverage we could of Black Lives Matter protests occurring throughout the city this summer. On those nights, he showed an amazing knack for mixing his photojournalism and portraiture skills, even as flash-bang grenades exploded around us.

Protesters in Uptown on May 30. (Photo by Joshua Galloway)

One thing about Josh is, he’ll do anything to get the shot. That doesn’t just mean he’ll run through a cloud of tear gas to get it, but even when shooting portraits, we’ve seen shots of him contorting his body into all sorts of different positions to get the right angle.

He’s going to break something doing that one of these days, but until then, those moves make for some beautiful shots.

We’ll be keeping an eye on Josh in the coming year, as he’ll soon be unveiling details about his debut solo exhibit, In the Line of Sight, to be shown at The Light Factory in January.

Two protesters in front of CMPD headquarters on May 30. (Photo by Joshua Galloway)

Best Skyline Photographer:
Myles Gelbach

A city isn’t a city without an iconic skyline — not that the Charlotte skyline is iconic by any means, but it is to us Charlotteans.

Myles Gelbach does an incredible job of documenting our city’s towering titans from every angle. Myles’ Instagram account only goes back through December 2019, but when it comes to the year 2020 he has completely knocked it out the park.

Shot from the Broadstone Queen City apartments. (Photo by Myles Gelbach)

Each image is worthy of a print to be displayed in your home for all of your guests to envy. One of our favorite images is a post from Sept. 7 with a nighttime reflective image taken from the rooftop of a condo that appears to be in South End.

Give him a follow and decide for yourself on the vibrant colors and techniques he applies to enhance his visuals of the pillars that consume the background of our lives here in the Queen City.

Best Hires:
Boris “Bluz” Rogers, Blumenthal Performing Arts;
Jonell Logan, McColl Center

Boris “Bluz” Rogers, who joined Blumenthal Performing Arts as director of creative engagement in September, is an artist, teacher, mentor and Emmy-winning poet and author. Prior to his leadership role at the newly formed “We Are Hip Hop,” he spearheaded “Slam Charlotte” and “Breakin’ Convention.”

On top of that, he’s a kickass DJ, having hosted We Are Hop Hop: The Reveal last month, which featured an old school DJ competition. In short, Bluz is a regional, if not national, treasure, who continues to be an important voice in Charlotte’s cultural community.

Jonell Logan (left) and Bluz cut up during the Best in the Nest photo shoot. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

On Nov. 2, McColl Center for Art + Innovation welcomed Jonell Logan as its new creative director, an equally great move for the museum. Moving to Charlotte in 2013, Logan worked at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture before leaving to start her own consulting company, the 300 Arts Project, which helps cultural organizations become more inclusive.

Starting in 2018 Logan served as executive director of The League of Creative Interventionists (LOCI), which identifies people working on projects that can benefit communities throughout the city and then connects them with the funds, mentoring and peer support.

Logan and Bluz came on our most recent episode of Nooze Hounds to discuss the state of the arts in Charlotte.

Most Exciting Arts Development:
Charlotte Film Society’s Community Cinema

The Manor Theatre may have shuttered its doors, but another set of doors will be opening for film lovers soon. In fact, the Manor’s demise has cleared the deck for a new screening facility for lovers of art house, indie and foreign films.

Brad Ritter, who managed The Manor for over 20 years and is also president of the Charlotte Film Society, has been planning for over a decade to launch a nonprofit community movie theater. Jay Morong, a senior lecturer in theater and film at UNC Charlotte and the program director for the Charlotte Film Society, is partnering with Ritter to  finally open that theater — a cinema committed to movies, film festivals and cinema education.

A rendering of the CFS Community Cinema. (Photo courtesy Flywheel Group and ODELL)

The Charlotte Film Society’s Community Cinema will open its doors next year at 4237 Raleigh Street just north of NoDa. The three-screen theater will be the linchpin of the Trailhead District, a major redevelopment by the Flywheel Group that will include music venues, restaurants, retail, office space, art galleries and residential units, all just a stone’s throw away from the Lynx Blue Line at Sugar Creek Station.

The new theater will feature cult films, host educational lectures and Q&A sessions with filmmakers and provide a venue for dozens of film festivals and screening series that currently have nowhere to screen their films.

“A lot of people were very sad that The Manor closed, and a lot of them were very vocal about it,” Morong told Queen City Nerve. “Now is their opportunity to do something and to support their own Manor which will also be nonprofit.”

Most Exciting Arts Development Outside 485:
Cain Center for the Arts

The town of Cornelius keeps moving closer to seeing its new multimillion-dollar venue, gallery and educational center come to fruition. The Cain Center for the Arts will be the anchor for the north-Mecklenburg town’s new arts district, which has been in the works since 2013.

Cain Center
A southeastern aerial view of the Cain Center.

In 2018, the Cain Center board of directors and leadership launched the quiet phase of a $25 million campaign for the center, which will be located at the intersection of Catawba Avenue and Milling Way, next door to the Cornelius Town Hall and near N.C. Highway 115.

As this paper went to print, the campaign had raised about $17.25 million toward the $25-million goal. For Cain Center executive director Justin Dionne, the completion of the center will mean more for Lake Norman residents than just a place to go for a show and art.

“We want to add and enhance and accentuate the culture of what it means to be here in the Lake Norman area, and here in this Metrolina region of the piedmont,” Dionne told Queen City Nerve. “Sure, on the base level, will this give people less of a commute to get to see an artistic performance? Yeah, that’s the skin deep, if you will. But deeper than that, our goal is to create a place where people can really enjoy community, they can grow community.”

Best DJ:

A-Minor’s resume is unmatched, and so is his work ethic. He’s the official DJ for the Hornets, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, and the NBA’s international games. He’s the lead resident for Knocturnal. He’s co-founder of Black Guys in Hats, a DJ collective throwing ill theme parties.

All of these jobs kept his calendar full as fuck until they got canceled in March. Without missing a beat, he hustled over to Twitch and kept it moving on the livestream tip four to five nights a week. Plus, he dropped a dope merch line.

He’s not the best just because he’s hardworking, though. His catalog is one of the most diverse in the city, and he flexes skills in his sets that few local DJs can these days: cutting, scratching, mixing with finesse, staying true to his turntablist roots. We can’t wait until it’s safe to experience an A-Minor set live again. Until then, we’ll leave his Twitch channel up and keep our private pajama party going.

Best Emerging DJ:
DJ Dillon Jam

According to Dillon Jam’s parents, he was creating tunes to the ABC song at 6 months old, before he could talk. He was making beats at the breakfast table at 1. By 8 years old, he received his first controller as a Christmas gift, then eventually graduated to turntables. So perhaps it’s no surprise that, at just 14 years old, he’s making waves in Charlotte and across North Carolina, where he’s appeared on multiple hip-hop radio stations.

At the We Are Hip Hop Festival in November, DJ Dillon Jam won a fierce DJ battle against DJ Heff, taking home $200, a custom-made Charlotte Hornets jersey and bragging rights to close out the year. You can catch DJ Dillon Jam ripping up weddings with Cool Receptions, but we expect bigger things as he moves into his high school years.

Best Rapper:
Jah-Monte Ogbon

For years, Jah-Monte Ogbon has pushed back whenever we call him the “self-proclaimed” Best Rapper in Charlotte. We couldn’t help it, that’s the only way to make such a bold statement in a journalistic outlet without drawing a ton of WTFs and starting some big debate that overrides whatever we were trying to say in the first place.

But this year, we’re ready to make that statement ourselves. It’s not that Jah-Monte hasn’t been this skilled for a long time, but over the last two years, he’s kept his head down and just put out quality work at a pace unlike anything we’d seen from him in the past.

Last December, Jah-Monte dropped Infinite Wisdom, his fourth project of 2019, following up on Jewelry Rap, Alkaline Water, and God, Body & Soul, respectively. He began 2020 riding the wave of momentum from those releases, pressing vinyl records for his back catalogue of 2019 projects, seeing each one sell out quickly online and in local shops.

Jah-Monte Ogbon
Jah-Monte with his daughter. (Photo by @Ubuntugraphics)

Then he kept things moving, dropping singles with his hallmark run-on song titles, including “She Got Her Second baby Daddy Name Tatted On Her Neck But I’m Still in Love,” before dropping the seven-track project Seventy-Fifth & Amsterdam in September, perhaps his most versatile release of them all.

Jah-Monte brings his trademark flow to each project, and is at his best when he teams with friend and local powerhouse producer FLLS, but while the two do pair up again in Seventy-Fifth & Amsterdam, the project also sees Jah-Monte exploring different styles, even dipping his toes into the trap genre on “Fuck My Old Plug I Wish You Well Though.”

He’s been bouncing around a lot between NYC and CLT this year, so we can only hope we get to see him around the Queen City for years to come.

Best Emerging Rapper:
Too Smoove

Up-and-coming Charlotte rapper Too Smoove has had a busy fall, filming and releasing three full-production videos in three months between September and November. Our favorite choice for both song and video is “Both On Drugs,” a laid-back stoner love song with visuals that send the viewer into a good trip through Uptown.

Too Smoove just busted on the scene, but all her songs are strong, and apparently so is she, as she recently signed with the Carolina Queens, Charlotte’s Independent Women’s Football League team.

Biggest Buzz:
Jaah SLT

Jaah SLT was working in a Steele Creek print factory when he first came across an Instagram video showing Dexter, the titular character from the Dexter’s Laboratory cartoon, walking along a hallway, perfectly on beat with Jaah SLT’s own “Tuff” lyrics, “10, 11 … 13, I don’t fuck with 12 and they don’t fuck with me.”

Jaah SLT
Jaah SLT (Photo by Amelia Vanderplow)

From there the clip spread like wildfire, and before Jaah knew it, his music was everywhere on the internet. It’s been a year since that meme first hit, and the one clip from “Tuff” has been featured in hundreds of thousands of TikTok videos. His Spotify streams have held at half a million per month throughout the year, and in February, he signed with Alamo Records, a New York-based record label founded by former Warner Bros. CEO Todd Moscowitz.

“We came across Jaah and fell in love with everything he had out,” said Alamo A&Rs Jacob Gilliland and Zeke Hirschberg in a joint email. “He blends styles from a variety of musical influences, and his sound is versatile and unique. After witnessing the explosive success of ‘Tuff,’ Alamo saw a clear path to making Jaah SLT a household name.”

Best Producer:
Jah Freedom

The most powerful aspect of Jah Freedom’s game is the range. Last December, he dropped  Basquiat Vol. 1: SAMO Suite, a mostly instrumental record that explores the binaries of hip-hop and jazz, with each track taking the name of the Basquiat painting that inspired it. He also brought on poets like Aheem from the Bay Area and Charlotte’s own Bluz for vocals here and there.

Then in April, he partnered with rapper Kil Ripkin for the hard-hitting EP Self Medicate, a tour de force of live instrumentation with a strong foundation in boom-bap providing the perfect backdrop for Ripkin’s lyrical bombardments.

Geoffrey Edwards performing at Petra’s. (Photo courtesy of Brian Twitty)

Then in September, Jah Freedom returned to his artist series, dropping Umoja: Sifu Suite Volume I, an interpretation of local artist Cedric Umoja’s work that plunges listeners into a sonic atmosphere of hip-hop, afro-futuristic, space jazz, funk, future funk, and styles that can’t be labeled. A near-death experience in 2019 drives Jah’s newly inextinguishable work ethic, inspiring his new personal mantra: Die empty.

“It’s that there’s no reason for me to hold on to anything that I have,” Edwards says of the expression. “If you have an idea or if you have a thought or if you have something you want to share with the world, do it. You may not be here tomorrow, because I wasn’t going to be here tomorrow.”

All we know is we’re not taking him for granted today.

Best R&B/Soul/Funk:
Dexter Jordan

In pop music there are a handful of artist-and-producer collaborations that seem so right that it’s hard to imagine what kind of music would have been produced if there had not been such dream teams.

Would the Beatles have made the same worldwide impact if George Martin hadn’t been such a perfect confidant and co-conspirator? Would David Bowie’s multi-faceted art rock be as timeless without Tiny Visconti’s arrangements?

Add R&B crooner Dexter Jordan and producer Jason Jet to that short list of sympatico teams. With airy synthesizers and supple beats, Jet clears a path for Jordan’s luxurious vocals and swarming harmonies on break out track “Be Cool.” By keeping the tracks uncluttered, Jet puts the focus where it belongs, on Jordan’s limpid melodies  velvety voice, which has a timber and sustain similar to John Legend’s.

Dexter Jordan at CLT Loft Sessions in 2019. (Photo by Josh Anderson)

As proficient as Jet is, all the studio wizardry would amount to nothing if Jordan wasn’t so emotional and distinctive. As a singer and composer, he draws on gospel, which is subtly filtered through his experience as a queer Black man in the South.

Each of Jordan’s albums are unique and uplifting because they chart transformations. Amid cooling hues, Jordan’s 2019 debut album Blue traces a journey from sorrow — the singer mourns the passing of his mother — and self-acceptance. Follow-up full-length Dexterity, released last November, charts a course from acceptance to self-love to concern for the environment and compassion  for our fellow man.

Throughout Jordan is a smooth and empathic light, a musical shaft of light piercing glowering clouds.

Best Band:

In Phil Pucci’s musical family tree, Melt begat Pullover. Pucci, the former frontman and guitarist for Charlotte garage rockers Serfs, and promoter for the cutting-edge music festival Reverb Fest from 2014 to 2017, launched  Melt as a shoe-gazey side gig from Serfs’ noise rock. When Serfs disintegrated, Melt became Pucci’s main band. The group’s sole album, Repossession Blues, is a warm, fuzzy and fizzy dollop of punk pop, but anxiety and melancholy still bubble under.

Pullover (from left): Brooke Weeks, Alex Smith, Phil Pucci, Nick Holman and Caiti Mason. (Photo by Brian BT Twitty)

As bassist Caiti Mason, guitarist Nicholas Holman and keyboardist Brooke Weeks joined Pucci and former Serfs drummer Smith, Melt’s music softened and sweetened enough to prompt a name change — something warm and friendly, like Pullover.

Released last February, Pullover’s debut Forever plays like a better-adjusted Melt. Happier doesn’t mean boring, though. It’s just that the band is embracing the whole of life, not just the angsty bits, and the result is Pucci’s richest, most satisfying set of songs to date.

“Beat Up Car,” a surging bucolic pop gem, rides Pucci and Holman’s ringing guitars to a big swarming chorus that conjures memories of Big Star. The galloping chamber pop of “Dream Away” features harpsichord-like keyboard stabs that pay tribute to synth pop. “Ride” beguiles listeners with a cloud layer of strummed guitars rolling over low and rippling post-punk bass.

“When I look at the two albums that I put out two years ago, the one with Serfs and the one with Melt, I can hear the anxiety and how upsetting everything felt around that time,” Pucci said.
“With Forever, it feels like the opposite of that.”

Best New Band:
Yes Chef!

Yes Chef! is the brainchild of songwriter and guitarist Leith K. Ali, a veteran of the Charlotte music scene you might recognize from Ol’ Sport and It Looks Sad.. (punctuation intended) Here he’s joined by fellow Charlotte musicians forming a solid rock line-up of bass and drums augmented with brass and woodwinds.

The band’s latest EP Drive Safe, released in June,  opens dramatically with “Chelsea.” Over grinding guitar and coiling bass, trumpet blares heroically as the track dovetails into Ali’s and bassist KC Marie Roberge’s entwined vocals. Over a tapestry of trilling flutes and ringing guitars, the cautionary lyrics are sung with nerdy earnestness.

“The world is burning on the news/I will die in this waiting room,” Ali and Roberge sing as skirling horns and woodwinds lend texture to the pensive and propulsive “Bank Book.” “Doin’ Okay” slows the tempo to a swaggering strut that provides a sharp contrast to the tune’s rainy-day lyrics. “Empty” boasts chugging and chunky guitars which anchor the tune’s triumphant trumpet and fluttering flute.

The collection closes with the medley “Wax Wings/So Close,” a stuttering, syncopated reminder that simply enduring life’s indignities can be heroic. Leave it to Yes Chef! to craft the perfect emo oxymoron — a wistful introverted anthem, a fanfare for the everyman.

Best Singer/Songwriter:
George Banda

After turning 19, George Banda quit his job in a toxic Arizona copper mine and decided to follow his musical muse. More than a decade later, Banda is a Charlotte folk music fixture, where he can often be seen riding his yellow Harley-Davidson nicknamed Pikachu after the Pokémon character. Boasting degrees in theology and music.

These twin areas of study have helped define Banda’s songwriting. In his spare time, he volunteers to work with forgotten, underserved communities beset by  homelessness and addiction. His compassion for the afflicted comes through in the subjects he tackles, like the couple coming undone in “She Blames the Whiskey” off his full-length album (Two Diminished), released in February.

Banda’s background in music theory and classical guitar can be heard on the album, which ranges from whispery Nick Drake influenced folk to harder-edged hardscrabble country to noise concrete samples set to random texts, and ominous thundering soundtrack snippets that would fit snugly into a classical symphony.

Grounded in the daily lives of average people but ready to take off into fractured modernity and flights of fancy, (Two Diminished) is one of the most eclectic — and finest — records of the year.

Best Country/Folk/Americana:
Southside Watt

Southside Watt is a band that began as a bet. Group co-founder Shawn Wilfong, who had never played onstage in his life,  bet his banjo-playing father-in-law that he could become a better player in a matter of weeks. What started out as good-natured trash-talking became a passion for playing.

After a nerve-shredding onstage debut, the band, comprised of Wilfong on banjo and mandolin, his brother Stephen on lead vocals and guitar, bassist Patrick Faulkner, guitarist Caleb Davis and drummer Dillon Blythe, started getting booked around town.

Southside Watt (Photo courtesy of Shawn Wilfong)

The band still had no name, but that came courtesy of their biggest booster, Wilfong’s childhood friend, the late Sabrina Watt. Watt died tragically young, so the group she loved honored her memory by incorporating her name into their moniker Southside Watt. Wilfong continues to marvel at how his friend’s support changed the course of his life. This philosophical bent comes across in the nuanced playing that draws on the deep grooves of country music, roots rock like the Rolling Stones and the classic blues of Robert Johnson and Son House.

The band’s 2018 debut EP 8 Track was recorded at Southern rock and soul mecca Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It includes the quicksilver bluegrass of  “Head High,” the chugging, black-as-a-locomotive stack “Ghost Train,” the rattling, high-spirited “Girl From Tampa” and the rolling gospel soul of  “Lonesome Drive Blues.”

Their most recent EP, EP For Willie, Waylon & Cash, includes the chugging hardscrabble country ramble “Down the Line,” the lilting barstool lament “Been Smokin’,” the honky-tonk swagger of “Tonight I’m Drinkin’” and “Chugger,” which recreates the swooping country swing of Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys.

Best Alt-Country:
The Wilt

On their 2019 full-length debut Old Fire, The Wilt tweaked the alt-country template. Their rootsy melodies and melancholy lyrics were set to stripped-down arrangements that were perfectly in keeping with alt country’s lo-fi hardscrabble ethos. What was different was the polish of the spare arrangements, which created space for the band’s six-person lineup, without making the songs sound cluttered.

The Wilt (Photo by Paul C Rivera)

Though country music tropes are present — the holy trinity of heartache, barstool philosophy and rambling down the road, The Wilt freshens them up by presenting them with an energetic pop sheen. This is a band that harkens to tradition while keeping an eye on the horizon.

Jumping on the Four Finger Records roster, The Wilt contributed to the label’s two Quarantine Sessions compilations in the spring. On a cover of labelmate SOLIS’s “Stay Young,” the Wilt ventured further out of the alt-country box, as plangent resonating piano, pointillist guitar and Sage Greer’s yearning free-falling vocals embraced the heartbreak at the core of the original tune.

But the Wilt’s swaying, limpid COVID-19 lament “Break Even” may well become the band’s signature tune. On their Facebook page, the band shared their thoughts on the track, its genesis and how it may shine a light on the way forward: “We wrote this song to help us get through one of the most incredibly difficult and strange times we’ve ever been a part of both as individuals and as a society. We hope that this might help to express some of the ways you’re feeling and release some anxiety in the same way that it has for us. We’ll get through this together.”

Best Metal:

Chris Deitz, lead vocalist with progressive metal and tech death quintet Kairos. (punctuation intended) joined the band  — comprised of himself, bassist Jackson Owens, drummer Dalton Holland and guitarists Tony Davis and Kevin Pearce — four years ago when he replaced the combo’s original vocalist. At first the music afforded him an outlet for teen angst, Deitz says, but he quickly embraced the genre’s challenging, virtuosic playing and its intricate world-building and storytelling.

Kairos., which takes its name from the ancient Greek word for an opportune time and/or place, used to focus on lyrics pertaining to Greek mythology, but the band has moved on to develop their own mythology, telling a longform story that carries over from subsequent releases to their 2018 full-length album Simulgression.

Kairos guitarists Jackson Owens (left) and Kevin Pearce. (Photo by Connor Schlosser/Obscvre Photography)

“I like to think we’re like the universe,” he says. “Once we create something we start zooming outward like the Big Bang.”

The band says their music “blurs the lines between progressive metal and its heavier neighbors to take you on an intense journey through the concept story.” They follow an increasingly heavy and technical path that incorporates black beats, growling vocals and a copious shredding and arpeggios, all in the service of immersive world-building.

In April the band released a self-produced demo for “Unfurling Eyes.” Led by Davis and Pearce’s spiraling vertiginous guitars, the band follows like a rampaging Panzer division. The track is accompanied by a stay-at-home Zoom Video that follows Deitz through his morning routine as the phalanx of drums, bass and guitars thrash away. That same month, the band announced they have finished writing a new album that they plan on recording later this year.

Best Blues Rock:
Late Night Special

Late Night Special’s 2015 debut album Light of the Moon was a mix of old time rock ‘n’ roll, Southern soul and the raw ramshackle Americana of The Band. But where the debut was good, the band’s latest collection, Halfway to Somewhere, is phenomenal, catapulting past Moon into a higher orbit. With twanging blue bent notes on dueling guitars, shuffling percussion and joyful vocals, “Disco” captures the freeing spirit of moving to the music.

Late Night Special

The propulsive “Rail Road Tracks” rides chugging locomotive percussion before surging to grinding power chords. Meanwhile, the lyrics ponder all of life’s paths not taken. Yearning vocals and swarming harmonies thread through the bittersweet “Hold On.” The gospel-infused soul of “The Sunshine Never Comes” plays like a modern-day rejoinder to Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

Like much of Halfway to Somewhere, “Sunshine” evokes a nearly forgotten genre, the shuffling laid-back pop of ’70s bands like Little Feat and the Bob Welch iteration of Fleetwood Mac. Similar to those bands, Late Night Special play jaunty ebullient music that is nonetheless a little unsettling. Beyond the playful hand claps, spectral voices can be heard in the distance. It’s like catching a glimpse of a ghost in the glare of the noonday sun.

Best Pirate Punk:
King Cackle

King Cackle’s protean punk blues sounds so elemental, it’s like it’s been unleashed rather than written and recorded like normal music. Queen City Nerve has described the band’s fuzzed-out guitars, jackhammer drums and growled vocals, to the result of the animatronic Pirates of the Caribbean getting shitfaced and raising a swampy stomping racket.

King Cackle (from left): Doc Caines ,Joe nelson, Aaron Rogers and Justin Bickley. (Photo by Pete McCoil)

Their 2018 self-titled debut EP boasted bludgeoning blues holler “Release the Hounds” and the grimy spaghetti western meets sea shanty “Trolltunga” to “86’d and Out,” a look back at working restaurant gigs for working for too many shitty bosses who look at employees as replaceable components.

In May, the band followed up their debut with the single “Pignose.” Here the swaggering, staggering quartet adds North Carolina’s obsession with barbeque and twangy sling-blade Southern rock to their sirocco of sound.The lyrics suggest the unholy union of a down-home cookout and Lord of the Flies. In William Goldman’s psychological novel, a group of school kids is cast away on an uninhabited island where they devolve into superstition and brutality.

At the climax, they place a severed pig’s head on a stake to placate an imaginary monster, and then hunt one of their own, chanting, “Kill the pig!”

“Esse quam videri,” a Latin phrase meaning “To be, rather than to seem,” is the state motto of North Carolina. That’s us, gathered around a fire watching flesh burn.

Best Pop Punk:

In a sea of male-led and mostly white bands in the pop-punk genre, Petrov stands out in more ways than one. Hands down, Petrov put on some of the best live performances from a local band we’ve seen in recent years (pre-COVID, of course). The easy-going melody paired with distinct lyrics and rich vocals give it that much-needed bite that other pop-punk bands lack.

Nothing beats seeing Mary Grace McKusick, Petrov’s vocalist, move around the stage as if she has no choice — as if the music was compelling her to. The energy they bring to the stage pales in comparison to their lyrics. The words feel personal, almost like a diary entry. Petrov’s lyrics are simple enough to understand but powerful enough to make an impact, touching on everything from struggling with self-love to the trendiness and commodification of social justice.

Petrov (Photo by Garrett Herzfeld)

In the song “Keepers” off of their newest EP Flower Bed, released in October, Petrov shares a refreshing view on the seductive nature of cancel culture and the power trip that people go on in the name of performative justice. Petrov continues to create music perfect for screaming along to alone in your car, and if 2020 has given us anything, it’s a reason to scream.

Best Emo:

The members of Charlotte emo indie rock trio heckdang had known each other for years through attending School of Rock Charlotte together during their high school years, but hadn’t written a full song together until drummer Cole Brooks joined the band in 2019 and helped record their second EP, Never Left Home. This year, the band built on the confidence that comes with a truly collaborative songwriting process, releasing their most polished work yet, Fine, Just Thinking, in August.

While Never Left Home was a project about loss — loss of self-identity, loss of relationships and loss of loved ones — Fine, Just Thinking builds on those ideas.

Charlotte emo trio heckdang
heckdang (from left): Phillip Calhoun, Madga Criswell and Cole Brooks. (Photo by Callie Stuckey)

“At least from a lyrical perspective, it’s a real continuation of those themes, but I was trying to look at it less from the perspective of just cut-and-dry loss and kind of work in some of the nuances of all of those experiences,” says bassist and vocalist Magda Criswell, who along with guitarist Philip Calhoun completes the trio. “For this EP I think the themes have a lot more to do with wanting to care for people and wanting to be cared for. If the last EP was a stage of grief, it would be more just depression, and I feel like this one has a lot more anger and bargaining.”

The depression, anger and bargaining on our end came into play when the three-track EP ended. 

Best Album:
Alright, I’m Doing This to Myself

Built upon the core of married couple Josh Robbins and Sarah Blumenthal — both active Charlotte music incubators as founders of Self Aware Records — Alright delivers the kind of raw, powerful and catchy-as-hell pop punk that should be all over Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora, but inexplicably isn’t.

Josh Robbins (left) and Sarah Blumenthal Robbins of Alright. (Photo by Kara Perry)

Like the best melodic indie rock, Alright’s first full-length release I’m Doing This to Myself, which dropped on Aug. 28, spins a whirlwind of noisy corroding guitars and splintering percussion around melodies that are pure bubblegum pop. “Scraps” kicks things off with Blumenthal’s ratcheting guitars and swaggering yet heartfelt vocals, and then surges to a gallop that never lets up for the duration of the LP.

Her swooning croon cuts through knotted fuzzed-out guitars and jackhammer drums on “Parallels,” and soars over a blistering squall of noise on “Back Bench.” Every song connects, and each seems to end too soon with questions left unanswered. At times I’m Doing This to Myself feels like a phantom radio signal caught on a icy clear night in the middle of the desert. It’s a transmission from a parallel universe where everything released by Merge in the ’90s went on to be mega-sellers, and people do karaoke nightly to Redd Kross. It’s a better world than ours.

Best Visual Album:
Dylan Gilbert,
I’ll Be the Lakebed

I’ll Be the Lakebed, which Queen City Nerve premiered on Oct. 2, combines each of experimental singer/songwriter Dylan Gilbert’s 10 new compositions with an accompanying video in a visual record. It’s a collaboration between the musician and eight directors that traces Gilbert’s personal journey to find balance in today’s fractious world, but does it in such a way that Gilbert’s vision quest resonates with viewers and listeners.

In a world shot through with racism, unrest, economic stress, rising authoritarianism and climate change, Gilbert’s comes to a state of acceptance, hope and humility, the hard-won tranquil end point to the often perilous journey depicted by I’ll Be the Lakebed.

Best Instrumental Album:
Dirty Art Club, Gardens

In 2020, mainstream Charlotte continues to be clueless about what kind of heat this city packs in terms of producers. But that’s ok, because beat heads worldwide know about Dirty Art Club. We were blessed with two albums from the elusive artist this year, both of which stayed true to his legacy of crafting gorgeous tracks with master-level sample curation that manage to simultaneously sound both nostalgic and like that next shit.

We’re going with Gardens as the best, just because we’ve had more time with it.  And you need time with Gardens. You gotta just push play on it and let it be an enhancement to the experience of everyday life.

Sit with it, stroll with it, smoke to it. Give yourself hours to get lost in the layers of its lush sonic landscape that breezes into your ears before its flowers fully unfold in your mind.

Best Debut:
Tecoby Hines, Drip

When you think of a hip-hop EP titled Drip, what comes to mind? We may be following stereotypes here, but based on the slang of today, the first assumption we would make involves somebody flexing their fashion sense. Not saying Tecoby isn’t fresh, but he’s far from flashy, and the five-track EP he dropped in February is less “Look at me” and more “Let me take a look at myself.”

Hines describes Drip as “an introspective project, dealing with different parts of self habits and acknowledging a need to change and grow in order to move forward,” and we’re just happy he let us in on the process. The name of the EP came from the fact that he wrote each song while drinking drip coffee in Enderly Coffee between shifts.

“Each song was written with drip, hence the name,” he told Queen City Nerve, “sitting in a coffee shop, navigating thoughts without hindrance or interruption.”

What came out were five top-tier tracks that serve as the perfect inspirational backdrop for your own navel-gazing journey.

Best Worth the Wait:
Mason Parker, Quantum Leap

When Mason Parker returned to Charlotte in August 2018, just 14 months after having left for Los Angeles with a lot of hype around his coming record, he had no record and no large following. It seems the experience humbled him, while reminding him what was important in life. He shifted his focus to his children and his fiancé, while still making art on the side. He sort of left the rap game — but then again, he sort of didn’t.

Mason Parker
Mason Parker (Photo by Joshua Galloway)

On April 20, Mason Parker finally dropped his debut album, Quantum Leap, featuring 10 tracks that show how he’s only honed his long-known ability to ride the line between swaggering verse-driven tracks and Afrocentric methodology.

While the multitalented Mason will continue multitasking in the coming year, looking for a new distribution deal for his comic book, Quantum Leap proved that the poet/actor/author/rapper hasn’t dropped that last slash from his repertoire just yet.

Best EP:
Reuben Vincent, Boy Meets World

On June 26, 19-year-old Charlotte rapper Reuben Vincent dropped his latest EP, Boy Meets World, an eight-track adventure that gained him national attention and could set him up to be the voice of a generation that labelmate Rapsody has already tagged him as.

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent (Photo by Sayma Waleh)

Each track on the EP shows new growth from Reuben Vincent, who has shown a talent for wordplay and storytelling with his 2016 project Myers Park.

With Boy Meets World, however, Vincent highlights a new range of skill, from the fast-paced trap verses of “Expedition” to the nostalgia of “Albemarle Road,” which calls back to an early ’90s hip-hop that existed before he was alive but not-so-subtly inspires much of his music.

“Growing up, I didn’t really get to travel that much,” Vincent told Queen City Nerve. “My first time going on a plane was because of music, so Boy Meets World is me finally getting to go and see the world. I’m more open-minded to seeing different perspectives on things, but also, don’t let the world change you, where you come from, who you are, and your perspective on life and what’s your purpose.”

Best Song:
Lute, “GED”

It’s not every day (… or month … or year …) that we get new music from Lute, so when it comes we expect it to be good, and he’s yet to let us down. While folks who attended Dreamville Fest in 2019 got to hear “GED” song performed live first, all the rest of us were stuck trying to figure out why Lute was peddling a new credit card called GED earlier this year.

Turns out it was just a teaser campaign for his newest single, “GED (Gettin’ Every Dolla).” The track was the first single off a new album that would have been his first in three years had it dropped this year as scheduled, but we’re still patiently waiting. Until that time comes, we’ve still got “GED” on repeat.

Best Video:
Erick Lottary feat. Cyanca, “Replay”

Fresh off the release of his well-received 2019 project Summer On Central, Erick Lottary returned in February with a new single featuring local vocalist Cyanca. The collaborative record, titled “Replay,” is a light track that features Lottary‘s astute wordplay, while merging a breathy-sung hook that forms an effortless synergy between fire verses and airy vocals.

The song was released on Feb. 4, with an accompanying video dropping a week later on Feb. 11. Bringing the song to life, the video is a visual art exhibition that emerges the viewer in a world created by Erick Lottary and Cyanca, as they perform in creatively constructed spaces that reflect the song’s fun vibe. Directed by Brandon Torres, the visuals bring us to a happy place that existed before 2020 turned into something else. Can we go back?

Best Local Show:
We Are Hip Hop: The Reveal

Scheduled for the Booth Playhouse from Jan. 21-24, 2021, the We Are Hip Hop Festival was conceived and organized by a coalition of local artists looking to highlight the intersection of hip-hop, art and culture in the Queen City.

Break dancers battle it out on the Water Tower Stage during Camp North End’s “We Are Hip Hop: The Reveal.” (Photo by Kate Galindo)

From Nov. 6-8, organizers held We Are Hip Hop: The Reveal outside at Camp North End as a sneak peek at what’s to come, including live performances, DJ battles, dance offs and live painting. With COVID-19 rates continuing to climb, it’s unclear if the event will still be held, as it was recent postponed, but as much as we enjoyed the teaser weekend, this has become our top reason to pray for an effective vaccine.

Sure, we want to see our families and stuff, too, but mostly… We Are Hip Hop Fest.

Best National Show:
Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers

When Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers decamped at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center in March, both were considered the torch bearers for old-school country music. Childers lived up to those expectations offering outstanding storytelling country, but longtime fans may have thought  Simpson had gone off the rails.

For many fans, it wasn’t a problem. Simpson’s adventures in psychedelic rock have wowed and thrilled plenty of audiences who enjoy both sides of the singer. However, there were numerous others who didn’t quite get it and were seen leaving the show early.

Tyler Childers at Spectrum Center. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)

After Childers played a solid 75-minute set of outstanding country music, Simpson launched into a feedback-laden setlist drawing heavily from his fourth album Sound & Fury. The tunes traded the plaintive guitar work of Simpson’s breakthrough album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth for full-tilt cheese, sleaze and balls-to-wall shredding. The set was a sharp left turn into scuzzy synth pop, careening boogie rock, disco and funk. 

For anyone doubting that the concert would be a departure from the sound that garnered Simpson a Best Country Album Grammy, clues abounded before the show.

Sturgill Simpson at Spectrum Center. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)

The launch of Sound & Fury was accompanied by a 41-minute anime film on Netflix that was essentially an album-long music video. Simpson’s talents teetered between genres with ease and his stop at the Spectrum Center was a brilliant showcase of his fearless and iconoclastic art. And we have to respect any artist that gives a shout-out to Thirsty Beaver during his set.

Best Sorta Kinda Reunion:
Phil Lomac, Petra’s

Singer/songwriter Phil Lomac has been either performing solo or playing in North Carolina bands since 1993. Instead of focusing his sound into a specific genre, Lomac draws on music he likes and artists he respects — ’80s new wave, the alt-country rock of Wilco and the ’70s Laurel Canyon sound exemplified by singer-songwriters like Neil Young and Jackson Brown.

After performing and making music in Charlotte, Asheville and Montreat, Lomac played a different kind of Queen City gig on Jan. 24 at Petra’s, one that illustrated his advocacy for breaking down barriers between music styles and performers.

The show was a reunion of sorts, a triple bill of colleagues and fellow regional music veterans whose paths have crossed multiple times over the years.

Phil Lomac (right) plays with Sean O’Shields at the Evening Muse. (Photo by Shane Combs)

Joining Lomac at the Plaza Midwood venue was Asheville’s Laura Blackley, who plays rock infused with high lonesome Appalachian blues and bluegrass. Also on the bill, was Marc Higgins and the Chainsaw Bears from Spartanburg, South Carolina, a band that has been likened to a Southern version of ramshackle indie punk godfathers The Replacements. As with all his musical efforts over the past 25 years, Lomac laid down some enjoyable tunes at Petra’s, but a message was enmeshed with the enjoyment.

“I always hope that people take away that the lyrics have some depth and meaning, that I put some time and effort into them,” Lomac said before the show. “The lyrics are the backbone of the songs.”

Best Livestream Performance:
Josh Daniel, Quarantine Sessions

Soon after social distancing and stay-at-home orders swept through Charlotte, singer/songwriter Josh Daniel was trying to figure out how to keep on making music while paying the bills.

The family’s financial picture was complicated by the fact that Daniel’s son Sonny had to have a major operation on his skull. Sonny was born with Apert syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause the skull to fuse thereby hampering brain development. So Daniel put his speakers outside his home and played for the neighbors, who became instant fans and asked Daniel if he would come back and play tomorrow. Tomorrow turned into hundreds of days.

No two shows have been alike, and the largest audience Daniel reached is not even in his neighborhood. Daniel live-streams the concerts on Facebook to virtual viewers, about 700 per show. Daniel’s shows raised about $5,000 for the Craniofacial Children Foundation, an organization created by Sonny’s surgeon, which provides surgeries like the one Sonny had to children in developing countries. 

In the meantime, Daniel continues to play as long as the weather allows. He’s brought joy to countless music lovers, because when he was deprived of venues, he turned his home into a concert hall.

Best Quarantine Project:
Four Finger Records, Quarantine Sessions

Four Finger Records co-founders Leonardo Solis and Jeremy Smith have released two compilations recorded remotely in homes around Charlotte, sent to Solis for mixing, then put out as complete packages sounding like perfect in-studio performances.

COVID-19 survival mode is what led to Quarantine Sessions Vol. 1, in which the members of five Four Finger bands recorded new music from their homes and let Solis work his magic through file sharing. Solis mixed the tracks, Daniel Hodges mastered them, and Smith made sure they reached the ears of the people. On May 1, they released Quarantine Sessions Vol. 2, a compilation of cover songs in which six Four Finger bands covered singles originally done by one of their labelmates.

(Cover design by KC Roberge)

The decisions for who covered whom were made at random with a spinning wheel and live-streamed on the internet, resulting in a genre-bending blend of sounds that Smith and Solis hoped would not only get a few bills paid for the out-of-work musicians on the team, but help each band take the next step in their respective evolutions.

“It’s an organic cross-promotional tool,” Solis said of Vol. 2. “When you start covering other people’s music you start learning about your own sound even more, so it’s going to push these bands into a completely different sonic landscape, and I think that’s such an incredible tool to have.”

Best Venue:
Middle C Jazz

As of this writing, Middle C Jazz in Uptown Charlotte remains the only music venue open in the pandemic. Larry Farber, a music industry veteran who started booking acts in 1973 with talent agency Hit Attractions, had originally opened Middle C Jazz last November. With a strategic Uptown location at 300 S. Brevard St., proximity to the light rail line and an on-site restaurant, the music club was a sound business venture.

Middle C Jazz Remains the Only Music Venue Open in a Pandemic
The Eric Brice group performs to a reduced-capacity audience at Middle C Jazz club. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

With the club’s successful launch last year, Charlotte finally had its top-shelf jazz venue, one named after the middle note on a piano’s keyboard, one that hit the sweet spot for Farber’s lifelong dream. Then in March, as the coronavirus surged through communities, the country began to close for business. After being open for only four months, Farber was forced to put shutters on his dream.

In May, Gov. Roy Cooper loosened restrictions with Phase 2 of his reopening plan. Because they were a restaurant as well as a sit-down club, Middle C Jazz was allowed to open again with limited seating capacity, a privilege not afforded any other live music venues in town.

They’ve been open ever since with limited seating guidelines and other safety measures. Staff are taking patrons’ temperatures, removing almost two-thirds of the club’s chairs and tables to ensure proper distancing, and putting up protective Plexiglas in the venue’s entryway. In the bathroom, they only use every other sink and toilet.

Though the club can’t break even with the seating restrictions, Farber is happy to open the doors and keep them open. One reason for reopening, says Farber, is that the club wanted to retain a pulse in the city’s admittedly scaled-back music and nightlife scene. “We wanted to give Charlotte a place to hear live music again,” he says.

Best Jam Session:

Prior to the pandemic, you could walk into Tyber Creek Irish Pub in South End on the last Sunday of any given month, and hear the instruments of a far-away land wafting down from the second floor, where Charlotte-based traditional Celtic band ClannDarragh hosted its monthly Irish music sessions, inviting any and all nearby residents to grab their flutes, fiddles and tin whistles to join.

At January’s event, a group of around 20 people were still going strong three hours after the start time of 6 p.m. They played ClannDarragh songs and improvised jams before wrapping with “The Parting Glass,” a traditional Scottish song dating back to the 1600s that had everyone on the top floor of the bar singing along, no instruments needed.

Musicians jam out at Irish Music Session at Tyber Creek Pub in January. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The vibe was similar to a bluegrass jam session, where anybody can step up and flex their musical muscle — or lack thereof — without fear of being judged.

As more and more musicians found out about the informal sessions, and flocked to sit in the musical get together turned into a kind of brand. But it never became an event with a planned itinerary — it remained what it will still be when the jam session returns — a group of people getting together to have a good time.

Best Wishes:

A little over a year ago, we were calling Reason|Define hard rock with a bright future. The band, comprised of vocalist Paolina Massaro, bassist Caitlin Rutkowski, guitarists Savannah Ruff and Shelby McVicker, and drummer Sydney McVicker were upending the status quo in the rock ‘n’ roll boys’ club with their dynamic hard-charging rock.

With their energetic 2017 debut album Far From Strangers, and the 2019 follow-up, In Memory…, it looked like the quintet would be the next big thing to break out of Charlotte. But then the announcement came last month on the band’s website.

Reason|Define at The Milestone (from left): Paolina Massaro, Savannah Ruff, Sydney McVicker, Caitlin Rutkowski and Shelby McVicker. (Photo by Austin Spruill)

“All good things must come to and end,” the message said. “Over the past 7 years we have played shows in more cities, met more people and touched more lives that we could ever imagine. We have grown, changed, learned and loved together. However, it is time for us to go our separate ways and explore other avenues.”

We respect the difficult decision reached by Massaro, Rutkowski, Ruff and the McVicker sisters. We will miss the band and the magic it exerted over its audiences, and we look forward to hearing about the amazing things these young women will achieve in the future.

Best Nonfiction Book:
Rachael Brooks, Beads

A difficult but important read, Beads: A Memoir About Falling Apart  and Putting Yourself Back Together Again shares Raleigh author Rachael Brooks’ terrifying yet hopeful journey from rape victim to resilient survivor. She speaks to the challenges that sexual assault victims face and the range of emotions they experience throughout the recovery process. Her story shows how the assault is only the first violation, as Brooks describes the many injustices she experienced within the justice system in the years to come.

Rachael Brooks.

Best Fiction Book:
Megan Miranda, The Girl From Widow Hills

New York Times-bestselling author Megan Miranda ramps up the tension as protagonist Arden Maynor’s childhood past catches up to her in The Girl From Widow Hills. She was just 6 years old when she was swept away while sleepwalking during a terrifying rainstorm. Against all odds, she was found alive, clinging to a storm drain. Fame followed, with fans and creeps and stalkers, and every year, the anniversary brought them and the media attention back.

Arden changed her name and disappeared from the public eye, but just before the twentieth anniversary of her rescue, she begins sleepwalking again, and one night she wakes with the corpse of a man she knows from her previous life at her feet. Arden becomes both murder suspect and victim on the run in this latest psychological suspense thriller by Megan Miranda, whose pages seem to turn themselves.

Best Poetry Collection:
Dannye Romine Powell, In The Sunroom with Raymond Carver

In this collection, Dannye Romine Powell addresses the many struggles of life, starting with her fictional conversation with Raymond Carver, one of American’s greatest writers, in which she asks him how he managed to “grab at happiness” in the face of tragedy and admits she’d like to “feel the wind in my hair…down to the roots” and “wrap my arms around the world and sing. But the words get stuck in my throat, Ray. They get stuck.”

Dannye Romine Powell (Photo courtesy of Press53)

Powell writes about her alcoholic son, addiction, longing, divorce, lost love, marriage and grief. Patricia Hooper, author of Wild Persistence, calls the book “a treasure” and Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina Poet Laureate and author of The 13th Sunday after Pentecost says In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver underscores Dannye Romine Powell’s “abiding reputation as a poet of breathtaking candor and precision, the consummate craftswoman, who painstakingly parses syllables into words as if sifting for gold.”

Best Art Project Turned Book:
Arial Robinson, The Modern Day Black Alphabet

When the Mecklenburg County stay-at-home order came down, 19-year-old NC A&T student and North Mecklenburg High School grad Arial Robinson knew she’d be in Charlotte a while longer, so she decided to get to work on a new project.

She went online to her bookmarked pages for inspiration and found a photo series she had discovered last February titled The Black ABCs. Created by two public school teachers in Chicago in 1970 with the help of the Society for Visual Education, The Black ABCs was a set of flash cards and posters that were eventually used around the country by Black teachers who needed a more representative learning tool.

(Photos by Arial Robinson)

As that project hit its 50th anniversary this year, Robinson released her own updated version called The Modern Day Black Alphabet, a children’s book with photos and illustrations that she created during her time quarantined at her family’s Charlotte home.

Robinson told Queen City Nerve that social media inspired her to take a more serious look at her own experience as a Black American and eventually to begin work on The Modern Day Black Alphabet.

“Now that I’ve gotten older and I’ve started to realize how much Black representation lacks in lots of different media platforms, I realized when I was growing up I didn’t really see a brown girl in this space, or I didn’t see anybody talk about it.”

She saw a problem and she fixed it. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Best Film:
Among Mountain Crags

With Among Mountain Crags, sisters Erin and Kyle Frederick have together created a film that is as surprising and dark as it is lovely. Set in a nondescript town in Appalachia in an indecipherable era, this film is the result of a years-long conceptualization, a crew of just a handful and a minimal budget raised through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

Protagonist Coralie Whitt, played by Erin, is a teacher in her small mountain town. The handful of school children she teaches seem to have little respect for her, revealing with snide remarks heavy-weighing family secrets. When a mysterious stranger played by Hunter Hutcheson comes through town, Coralie is drawn to him, eventually deciding to leave with him on foot to begin their lives together.

Among Mountain Crags
Erin Frederick (left) and Hunter Hutcheson in ‘Among Mountain Crags.’ (Cinematography by Michael Patrick O’Leary)

The two decide to leave town via mountain trails, carrying next to nothing. As they meander through the mountains, the stranger’s true nature slowly begins to show, resulting in a sinister shift from what the film initially leads you to believe is a tale of growth, redemption and love.

With scant dialog and a dreamy, painterly milieu, the story tells itself, guided by a haunting soundtrack. The resulting mood gives the viewer a chance to become entranced alongside protagonist Coralie, until the terrifying reality sinks in that women are taught to follow men before their own instincts.

Best Pandemic Pivot:
Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

When COVID restrictions meant that theaters could no longer hold shows in person, Children’s Theater Charlotte (CTC) pivoted their programming to offer free streaming of pre-recorded versions of The Invisible Boy and Journey to OZ.

By using professionally recorded footage of past productions bookended by live Zoom discussions with actors, writers, and production crew, CTC was able to capture the excitement of real time interaction while maintaining the safety of all audiences and artists. For even more accessibility in such an uncertain environment, these performances were streamed for free and were available to the public for four full days.

Best Arts Podcast:
Jack of All Spades

Inspired by a kickball game that brought together a wide range of interesting folks that they all knew, three friends — David Spellmon, Ken Wabibi and Lloyd Whitfield — launched the Jack of All Spades podcast in July 2019, dropping two episodes a month. The guys enjoy introducing their audience to the people, places and things they should know, highlighting hidden gems in the crown of the Queen City.

Jack of All Spades cohosts Spellmon, Whitfield and Wabibi.

Jack of All Spades builds community by steeping information in hip-hop culture and relating much of the content to music in general. The result helps show Black and brown youth that they can do something positive too.

“We are highlighting the positives, and hopefully a young person will listen and want to do this too,” said Spellmon. “Or, they get information where they can advance themselves.”

Best Performing Arts Event:
Joyride at Camp North End

On the evenings of June 6 and 7, audience members cruised through Camp North End’s sprawling warren of streets, encountering dance pieces, poetry readings, live music, theatre performances and films projected on warehouse walls — all from the comfort and safety of their cars. Performances for this event, titled Joyride, were designed to take full advantage of the car-bound audience and Camp North End’s geography.

Musicians JM Askew and Casey Malone performed a composition to play from stereos in two cars. One CD with half the music emanated from the left car, and another CD was played from the car on the right. Experimental theatre troupe XOXO created a series of looped solo performances that were scattered throughout the maze-like grounds of the campus. Sculptor and designer Matthew Steele projected an animated film onto a large wall. The screening was accompanied by an original score composed by Ben Geller, principal violist of the Charlotte Symphony.

Goodyear Arts XOXO
Joy Davis and Eric Mullis perform ‘Land of Nod.’ (Photo by Amy Herman)

Utilizing a follow-spot that cast dancers’ giant shadows on a brick wall, Eric Mullis and Joy Davis performed a duet from Mullis’ evening-length dance theatre piece “The Land of Nod.” Renee Cloud contributed text pieces drawn from her Shiny Language Project, which included hand-embroidered 16-inch sequined letters that spelled out comments collected from the internet. The two evenings of drive-by art were capped by poetry readings and music by free jazz duo Ghost Trees.

“The arts have always been an outlet for our pain, processing, and celebration,” said contributor de’Angelo Dia. “COVID can’t stop creativity.”

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