This is not a Top 10 Charlotte music list, because Top 10 lists suck. How could they not? The very idea that any Charlotte music writer could have heard the 10 best releases in the city and is also qualified to write about them is absurd, particularly in Charlotte. There is just so much amazing music being produced now by local artists, writers and technicians in studios, basements, backyards and living rooms across the city that attempting to pin it down, lacquer it, and mount it for display in a top 10 Charlotte music museum of the mind would be impossible — and completely undesirable.
So instead, here’s a list of albums and EPs — in this case consisting of 10 — by Charlotte artists that have caught our ear and brought us joy. Whether it’s the breathtaking breakneck flow of DaBaby, the thundering triceratops riffs of Old Moons, or the gruff Gregorian chant folk of Andy the Doorbum, this is cool Charlotte music that has helped us transcend our daily routine of pandemic, economic uncertainty and political cage fighting — at least for the three- to four-minute duration of each song.
So, we thought we’d share some thoughts with you about the music, and highlight some of our favorite Charlotte artists to have released new music since the pandemic hit our city. In the end, it’s not so much a matter of us telling you to check it out. It’s more like us asking you, “What did we miss?” See you on the flip side.
From Charlotte With Love
What’s in a name? Plenty, if you’re Rel Mariano. The Charlotte rapper released his first mixtape in 2010, performing as Schyler Chaise. Then last year he hit the reset button by dumping his music biz moniker and adopting a shortened version of his given name, Jerrel Mariano Dunlap.
With From Charlotte With Love, Dunlap embraces fatherhood and maturity — but “maturity” here doesn’t mean settled and boring. The four-track EP takes off with “Day Ones,” which could have been subtitled “Portrait of the Rapper as a Young Man.” Over slinky assured beats and trumpet-like synths, Dunlap recapitulates a thorny upbringing during which he witnessed murder at age 5, bounced from school to school and had run-ins with the police.
With a funky, syncopated swagger Dunlap dives down greed’s addictive rabbit hole with “Count It.” Riding bright cascading keyboards, the track observes how the stuff we acquire can end up owning us.
Initially dreamlike and disconnected, “Flying High” dramatizes a turning point. Here Dunlap remembers the moment, when weary of losing friends and family to prison and death, he decided to go for what he wanted from life, difficulties be damned: “Black butterfly/Won’t you fly high?/Remember when they said/You can’t see the light?”
“Can’t Stop” is a propulsive powerhouse, a driving, soulful mission statement where Dunlap commits to fulfilling his purpose. With a message like that, the track could have turned preachy, but instead it jolts and swings like a hip hop James Bond theme.
Matter of fact, forgiving and brutally honest, From Charlotte charts a personal journey through music toward acceptance and self-awareness. With insight and an eye for the telling detail, Dunlap invites us on his quest, sharing hard-won wisdom along with the warmth of his proffered hand.
Late Night Special
Halfway to Somewhere
Full Time Pilot Records
Late Night Special’s 2015 debut album Light of the Moon was a mix of expertly played good time rock ‘n’ roll, Southern soul and the raw ramshackle Americana of The Band. But where the debut was good for Charlotte music, 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” is a rolling soulful celebration of moving to the music on the dance floor and beyond. It captures the freeing spirit of disco while sounding nothing like the genre disco.
Bubbling bass and odd fluting keyboards propel the lively yet cautionary “Don’t Forget Your Past.”
“Have you ever took a big chance/To swing on a broken branch?” queries the moody lyrics to “Rail Road Tracks.” The propulsive tune rides chugging locomotive percussion before surging to thundering rhythms and 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 piano-driven 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, echoing and spectral voices can be heard in the distance. It’s like catching a glimpse a ghost in the glare of the noonday sun.
Blame It on Baby
South Coast Music Group/Interscope
Kanye could claim he’s the second coming of Jesus, and he still wouldn’t put a dent in DaBaby’s up-to-the minute relevance. Just check out the cover of the third album in 13 months to come from perhaps the most successful artist in Charlotte music history. Decked out in a protective COVID-19 face mask like it’s no big deal, DaBaby’s not about to crumple from fragile masculinity like the male Karens ranting in Costco. He’s got better things to do.
With Blame It on Baby, the main focus seems to be, “Where do we go from here?” On several tracks off his latest collection, the prolific artist seems to be to falling back on formula, to which we say, “Why not?” After all, when DaBaby repeats himself, he replaying a template of his own devising.
Propulsive opener “Can’t Stop” trots out several of DaBaby’s recently minted clichés, including a rapid-fire flow so fast it creates its own gravitational pull. As DaBaby reels out his slippery and surprising rhymes, the breakneck track threatens to slip into a vortex and disappear.
Another facet of DaBaby’s formula is that his velocity is matched with unapologetic frankness. Though DaBaby’s no-fucks-left-to-give admissions are often delivered with a grin that lets us in on the joke, some of the face-slapping phrases that drop into the flow might leave the listener thinking, “Did he really just say that?”
And so, the bouncy and buoyant “Lightskin Shit” skips gaily over potential speed bumps like “Put my dick down her throat ’til she throw up.” On “Rockstar” a reminiscence about his daughter also takes an unexpected left turn when he prophesies that she will kill a man before she reaches age 2.
If half the album reveals DaBaby staying in his comfort zone, the other half features risks and experiments that show the artist catapulting past his previous work. Over the rattling blown-out bass of “Rockstar,” DaBaby bolsters his tumbling coruscating raps with honest-to-god melodic singing!
Megan Thee Stallion stands out in a project overstuffed with cameos, including Roddy Ricch, Future and Quava. On “Nasty,” Meg and DaBaby trade sleazy single-entendres that boast the gynecological specificity of hardcore porn. It’s more silly than sexy but that’s probably the point.
But the stand-out cut on this collection is the title track. With characteristic humor, DaBaby calls attention to his versatility as his raps flow freely through four whiplash-inducing beat changes. There’s a genuine sense of giddy fun as he deftly negotiates each hairpin turn: “Why you switched the beat?/Because my flow neat.”
It’s here, where DaBaby pulls a high-wire balancing act without a net, that Blame It on Baby comes alive. He’s like a magician telling us how he does the trick as he performs it, and we’re still left baffled and breathless. Exhilarating experiments like this make Blame It on Baby worth the price of admission.
Andy the Doorbum
Even When the Cat Comes
As singer/songwriter and performance artist Andy the Doorbum, Andy Fenstermaker is a unique phenomenon. Singing in a gruff baritone pitched midway between hardscrabble folk and Gregorian chant, Fenstermaker spins modern-day myths into tunes that sound as ancient and mysterious as Merlin’s incantations. So, what are we to make of this one-of-a-kind artist when he does the unthinkable and covers other people’s tunes?
Even though he decamped for California in 2015 after many years on the local arts and music scene, Fenstermaker retains close ties to the Queen City. That’s evidenced by Even When the Cat Comes, in which he interprets 13 songs by artists he knows personally, many of them Charlotte music all-stars like The Emotron, Benji Hughes, Bo White and David and Robert Childers.
With a gargled razor blade delivery, Fenstermaker brings Hughes’ mordant condemnation of hypocrisy “What a Pretty Color” into swampy Southern gothic territory, replete with rubbery pedal steel and a cavernous mix. Multi-tracked vocals, churchyard organ and thundering zombie-stomp percussion lend an eerie majesty to Bo White’s “Taxidermy.”
Plangent shuffling guitar gives David Childers’ “In the Early Morning” the austere simplicity of primordial country music. The Emotron’s “Kill the Pain” rides massed vocals and wheezing keyboards to a crescendo of sound and emotion that is almost unbearable.
The title for this ensemble of Charlotte musicians is drawn from the expression “birds of a feather flock together until the cat comes,” Fenstermaker writes.
“I feel honored to exist within artistic communities that, rather than scatter to the wind when trouble is on the horizon, we birds of a feather flock together ‘Even When the Cat Comes.’ When times are dark. When tragedy strikes.”
I’m Doing This to Myself
Self Aware Records
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, Pandora and the rest of those greedy bastards’ platforms, but inexplicably isn’t.
Like the best melodic indie rock, Alright’s first full-length release I’m Doing This to Myself, which drops on Aug. 28, spins a whirlwind of noisy corroding guitars and splintering percussion around melodies and vocals that are pure bubblegum pop. There’s some Buzzcocks DNA in here as well as Superchunk, but if you could squint your ears, you would also hear The Monkees.
“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.” She reaches out for a connection over sheets of distortion on “Wild Dunes,” and seems to catch a sleepless glimpse of what she needs on the ping-ponging “Dewdrops.”
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 star-studded 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.
The new EP Drive Safe pitches headlong into a tangle of jangling guitar, whirligig flute and blaring trumpet.
Is it emo free jazz or just the band warming up? Before you can make up your mind the song ends in less than 20 seconds with the players shouting out the band’s name: 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. 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 released its debut single, “Chelsea,” last May, and it leads off the EP to dramatic effect. Over grinding loping guitar and coiling bass, heroic trumpet blares as the track dovetails in 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 an appealing 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 color and texture to the pensive and propulsive “Bank Book,” while “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.
“You weren’t even 18/When you were struck by lightning,” Charles Walker sings in “Heatwaves in Raleigh” on his self-titled debut album. As plangent spiraling acoustic guitar enfolds Walker’s fine-grained, slightly frayed-at-the-edges voice, it seems like we’re in for a poignant snapshot of a freak tragedy disrupting everytown America. But when we get to the chorus, Walker blows that notion all to hell. The tune turns into a soaring chunky folk rocker, an admonishment that sudden death should be a wake-up call for the survivors to start living.
This collection of original music by the Charlotte native was recorded throughout North Carolina and tracked in studios, basements and living rooms throughout Boone and Asheville. So, it’s not surprising that the compositions are imbued with wanderlust, anxiety and the exhilaration of steeping off into the unknown.
Anchored in folk and lilting alt-country, Walker’s songs also draw on cantering indie rock and the uncluttered and layered pop of the 1970s Laurel Canyon scene. There’s as much Buffalo Springfield here as there is Jason Isbell and Wilco.
On “Freedom to Crawl,” ringing electric guitars wheel overhead, still tethered to the dark currents coursing through the lyrics: “I had a pit in my chest today/Like everyday.”
The pensive pulsing “Tightrope” foreshadows the rippling “Floating Above,” where whiplash tendrils of pedal steel snake through Walker’s weirdly calm out-of-body reverie. It’s the capstone to an assured and uncompromising debut album. Walker’s unflinching look at anxiety and restlessness celebrates the piquant poetry that makes living worth the effort. He takes the painfully personal and slingshots it into the universal.
Autumn Millner, who performs and records as Autumn Rainwater, has remained remarkably consistent in a recording career that ranges from her 2017 debut album Leaf to a pair of experimental and eclectic EPs released earlier this year. The consistency of Millner’s music and muse is driven home on her EP Cloudy, which dropped in March.
The collection, produced by Simon SMTHNG, consists of three tracks originally recorded during sessions for Millner’s debut. While it contains elements of electronic dance music and jazz vocalizations that threaded through Leaf, Cloudy is not a throwback. In many ways it plays like an alternative Leaf, or a glimpse of Millner’s 2017 sessions performed in a parallel universe.
With a lyrical synth line that mimics a muted trumpet, the EP opens with “Nthng Into Smthng.” Millner, slipping into the lower end of her range, unfurls a stream-of-consciousness vocal that unpacks her doubts about an unsatisfactory partner. As the melody surges to a chorus, she shifts to full blooded R&B with scattered phrasing that flirts with rap.
“Blue Light” follows with subtly surging keyboards and skittering rhythms that sound like ’90s drum ‘n’ bass. The soundscape takes a backseat to Milner’s smooth crooning that stretches from airy soul to yearning almost world-weary R&B.
Rolling through a fogbank of rolling synths and ticking percussion, the EP wraps up with “Questions,” in which Millner’s assured vocals play with elastic phrasing that snaps ahead or drops back behind the beat. As her airy alto flutters in freefall, she questions an unsteady relationship that seems to shift like sand as the tide rushes in.
Listeners familiar with the smoothly sung bangers and sassy raps of Milner’s previous EP Raincheck may be in for a surprise with the relatively chill sound here, but by embracing all the twists and turns of honest emotion, Cloudy provides a crystal clear picture of the human heart.
Nothing Grows Here
When hard rock trio Old Moons dropped its first full-length release, Nothing Grows Here, in March, it was accompanied by an album-long music video. While it was cool to see archival protest footage, 1960s classroom science films and trippy retro animation cut together to reflect the Panzer division crunch and restless rhythms of the band’s songs, ultimately Nothing Grows Here is powerful enough to get its point across without the visuals.
The songs here are short and to the point — no choruses, no verses, just a thicket of hard-charging riffs. Dovetailing seamlessly from thundering Black Sabbath-style riffs to breakneck rhythmic switchbacks and lyrical psychedelia, the collection merges the heavy and the mystic, with gruffly growled vocals buried in the mix like they’re part of the rhythm section.
The collection kicks off with the rapid-fire staccato of “Feel Warm,” before tumbling into the hard-hitting one-two punch of “Sleeping” and “Fever Dream.” The trio, comprised of vocalist/guitarist Rob Grauer, bassist Trey Quinn and drummer Evan Boggs, is by turns crunchy and elastic, bludgeoning with gale-force power before swaggering like ’70s cock rock on “Deathbed Fantasy.” Then they turn tight on a dime to swing like Peter Brotzmann’s machine-gun jazz on “Supposed To.”
As the album progresses it grows more playful and trippier. Jittery bass slaloms through “Hangman.,” while swaying blues rock riffs tumble on “Like Kin.” With the magisterial “Pavement,” the album concludes with a synthesizer pulsing like a warning beacon through a thicket of dreamy psychedelic guitar textures.
Tonight’s No Good For Me
It was a long and winding road for late Bloomer’s last album. True to its name, Waiting took a long damn time to finally appear in 2018. Along the way, the alt-rock power trio scrapped an album’s worth of recorded material and started anew with producer Justin Pizzoferrato (Pixies, Speedy Ortiz). Upon its release, Waiting garnered acclaim for its dissonant, syncopated and shape-shifting tunes, while the band’s jettisoned session languished in the vaults — until now.
Tonight’s No Good For Me, which drops on July 24, dusts off two tracks from those sessions, placing Pizzoferrato once again behind the mixing board. The result is anything but nostalgia or archival crate digging. With Josh Robbins’ stuttering bass, Scott Wishart’s skittering drums and Neil Mauney’s twisting corroded Morse-code guitar, “All the Gold” roars and rumbles out of the gate before downshifting into plaintive alt pop punctuated by plangent guitar strums.
The syncopated shuffle surges to a Hüsker Dü-infused gallop laced with Mauney’s rubbery guitar and an increasingly frenetic rant of a chorus “I refuse to pretend that/All the gold was worth the wasted years.”
“Soapy Water” rides a moody Joy Division bassline and anguished vocals through a thicket of chiming guitars that shimmers like a bangled beaded curtain. Then the angular marching rhythm section drops out, isolating Robbins’ vocals as he struggles with trust and doubt.
Slowly, layers of grinding guitars, swarming vocals and shifting, sidewinding drums drag the knotty and labyrinthine track to a haunted crescendo.
With just two tracks, Late Bloomer manage to hit more emotional highs and lows than a battalion of emo bands. They do it by deftly mixing post-punk, hardcore and alt rock into satisfying songs that seem like they could carom out of control at any minute.
It makes you wonder what else they have hiding in the vaults.
Check out our feature story from March on how the oncoming pandemic was expected to affect Charlotte music.