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Music Critics’ Pick Winners: Best in the Nest 2023

The best in Charlotte's music scene as chosen by Nerve critics

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BEST COMEBACK EVENT: Confluence

After a four-year hiatus caused by the pandemic, the Confluence music conference and festival returned in October with a fresh slate of panels, workshops and live music performances spread across locations inside AvidXchange Music Factory and other Charlotte venues.

Local, regional and national industry representatives led panel discussions and workshops on music marketing, tour booking, production essentials, visual content, collaborations, digital service provider (DSP) playlists and more, while a slew of top-tier performers (including many from the list to follow) played shows in Uptown, Plaza Midwood, NoDa and Elizabeth.

Music Everywhere Charlotte is committed to making Confluence an annual event, as was originally planned, building its reputation and recognition over time.

Taylor Winchester, a Confluence organizer, believes resuming Confluence can help pull influential music industry players into a local conversation, benefiting Charlotte’s music economy and, in turn, allowing Charlotte’s music scene to learn and grow from industry professionals.


BEST MUSIC ORGANIZATION: Welcome to the Family

Aged 24 and 26 when we met them in March, Jake Woodard and Dylan Harley might seem young to be the masterminds behind the annual three-day Welcome to the Family Fest, a genre-transcending celebration of the Queen City music scene held each October at The Milestone Club.

Dylan Harley and Jake Woodard at The Milestone
Dylan Harley (left) and Jake Woodard at The Milestone. (Photo by Gloria Zavaleta)

Yet the two have been hosting the festival since November 2019 — with the most recent iteration selling out both days. In January, the pair drew on the expertise and experience gained in mounting the festival to begin booking other shows featuring local artists year-round. Continuity between the inclusive festival and the partners’ business direction is stressed by the name of their promoting brand: Welcome to the Family.

As Woodard sees it, his and Harley’s expansion into booking is driven by a desire to lend a helping hand to the bands and music they love. “Bands … in Charlotte have never been hungrier,” Woodard says. “They’re starting to go out on tour, they’re playing hometown shows and packing them in, but there is not much room for growth in the city. We want to change that.”


BEST BAND: Ink Swell

A soundbite from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet opens Ink Swell’s 2023 single “Lincoln Street.” Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth rapturously huffs nitrous and praises Roy Orbison. Then, over Music Knight’s hissing hi-hats, Adrian Allman’s subterranean bass and Pete Hayes’ bright guitar chords, Jason Vas alternates between reedy alt-rock speak-sing and full-throttle punk shouting.

When did the job of a baker/ Become a needed caretaker?/ The red flag changes course/ Galloping away like a horse…

The Belmont foursome’s psych-prog punk with an indie edge nods to past outsider iconoclasts like Butthole Surfers, but Ink Swell seamlessly fuses their melodic punk, swirling Sid Barrett psych and multiverse-jumping progressive rock in an original and organic way. As Vas freefalls from shamanic musing to down-to-earth existential dread, it’s like watching a confidant’s sanity slip away in real time. He’s a playful and divine madman with something to say.


BEST NEW BAND: Modern Alibi

Some bands grab your attention straight out of the gate with captivating chord structures and irresistible earworm melodies. Others with razor-wire guitar lines and surprising time signatures demand repeated listens that grow increasingly rewarding with each deeper dive. With Modern Alibi, you get both band templates rolled into one.

With dynamic songwriting that evokes 2000s alt-rockers like The Editors, Modern Alibi builds its debut single “Seventies” on driving and dueling melodic guitars and founder/frontman Holden Scott’s nervy, literate and vulnerable wordplay. Vocally, Berklee College of Music student Scott evokes the urban drawl of The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas as he unfurls rapid-fire couplets on the foursome’s swaggering “Silver Spoon.”

I’m telling you/ She shines like stars/ But has a dark side like the moon…

Modern Alibi has raw talent to burn, but Scott’s Berklee-honed songwriting chops focus the band’s inner flame like a laser.


BEST RAPPER: Mason Parker

With the June release of The Paperback Hero Saga, rapper, actor, spoken-word poet and now-author Mason Parker had a chance to show off all four tent poles that have sprung from his foundation of talent in more than two decades of moving within Charlotte’s creative scenes. One might think that with a hybrid album/comic book release, at least one of his mediums may have fallen off, but not the case.

A photo of Mason Parker, a comic-book writer in Charlotte, NC.
Mason Parker (Photo by Alvin C. Jacobs Jr.)

While the 10-track album does serve as a soundtrack to the comic book, its creation actually preceded the first issue that coincided with its release, with Parker currently working on new issues that will each correlate to one of the album’s tracks (Issue 1 correlates with opening single “Petey Pablo”) and eventually come together to form a graphic novel.

All that said, the album could have dropped all its own without any of the corresponding comics and been one of the best releases we heard this year, which was all part of the plan.

“If you want to study it, you can study it if you wanted to. And if you don’t want to get that deep, I’ve had some people like, ‘What is all this futuristic stuff at the beginning?’ They’re not into that, but they were like, ‘Yo, the music is dope,’” Parker told Queen City Nerve. “So that’s what I was trying to go for. Like, if you just love hip-hop, then I think you’ll still appreciate it.”

And that we do.


BEST PRODUCER: Te’Jani

After singer-songwriter, producer, engineer and multi-instrumentalist Te’Jani Inuwa gained recognition with the Living Quarters collective and Summer Camp project in 2020, he released his eclectic and critically-lauded Gimp EP, followed in 2023 by his vulnerable confessional EP On Prozac.

He also played his first show in New York City this year, shared a bill with local R&B bedroom-pop soulsters Alan Charmer and Cam Cokas at Snug Harbor, then went to Boone to help record emo-rockers Dollar Signs’ new album Legend Tripping, named below (spoiler alert) as the year’s best rock album.

A young black man, musical artist Te'Jani, sits on a window sill wearing a sweatshirt that reads, "When I die don't pretend to care."
Te’Jani (Photo by Kat Osygus)

According to Dollar Signs frontman Erik Button, Te’Jani’s deep wealth of knowledge in a range of genres lent a whole new perspective to Legend Tripping.

“It honestly was very cool,” Button told Nerve of Te’Jani’s process. “He has a background in engineering; he’s engineered a lot of hip-hop and kind of started in the EDM and electronica music world, and has recorded a bunch of stuff for solo singer/songwriters. He’s very good at crafting any kind of sound we want, particularly when it came to the piano or anything specific like that.”


BEST DJ: Fannie Mae

If you’ve attended a Charlotte FC match, you’ve heard DJ Fannie Mae. She’s been the official DJ for the club since its inception, and is proud of her work to support the beautiful game in the Queen City. The self-proclaimed church kid also contains multitudes. She is a curator and facilitator of experiences; she’s performed with the Charlotte Ballet, spun at art exhibits and nightclubs alike, maintained residencies across the South, and released music videos.

Most of all, she’s fearless. Her SAINTED Trap Choir party (more on that later) transcended this physical plane, nevermind genres. We can’t wait to see where she goes next.


BEST R&B/SOUL ARTIST: janee raxanna

Janee Caulton, who composes and performs her jazz-inflected progressive R&B songs as janee raxanna, remembers singing at an early age as a “self-soothing practice.” Attending UNC Charlotte in 2009, she recalls being enthralled with the city’s burgeoning poetry/spoken-word scene, exemplified by artists like Carlos Robson and Boris “Bluz” Rogers.

janee raxanna poses against a wall of tropical plants
Janee Caulton aka janee raxanna (Photo by Quincy Woodard)

Her single “Eyes on You,” is both a culmination and a continuation of raxanna’s ongoing musical exploration. It draws from music across the African diaspora: jazz, soul and Motown, as well as the sounds of alternative rock.

That single dropped in 2021, and she joined friend and fellow artist Quisol’s Dreamworld album in 2022 by cowriting and appearing on the song “Something About You.” Though 2023 did not see the release of any new music, it did see raxanna break out of her shell in another way: performing at her first show devoted to her own music in January, then joining Quisol onstage for a Charlotte SHOUT! performance in April.

“I want [my shows’] takeaway to be a connection to African people both on the continent and the African Diaspora, through languages, rhythms and singing styles,” raxanna told Nerve, “specifically [music] inspired by some of the jazz artists from the United States, as well as some of the incredible artists from the Spanish and English-speaking Caribbean.”


BEST JAM BAND: Wet Basement Project

Wet Basement Project (WBP) is a psych-rock jam collective centered around musical experimentation and collaboration. They first graced Charlotte’s DIY scene in October 2021 with a performance at a house show on Halloween, instantly sending partygoers into a groove.

WBP is the brainchild of Merritt Duncan, Declan O’Dell, Sam Tucker and Ricky Rodriguez-Cue, but has grown to include many others like Cliff Johnson, James Mallette and Quint Gallagher.

The main goal of the band is to make music without creative boundaries whilst extending that opportunity to many other passionate musicians within the music scene in Charlotte. The group doesn’t necessarily box themselves in as one sound or lineup, making each show its very own. Their emphasis is on raw performance, collectively using each members’ musicianship to play off of and letting the music speak for itself.


BEST POP: Oceanic

In “Angel,” the title tune off introspective indie-pop trio Oceanic’s debut EP, Jacob Johnson’s plaintive guitar entwines with Sam Goodwin’s nearly subliminal bass as singer and lyricist Nathan Wyatt’s swooning croon warps around this conflicted couplet:

I can’t live between these simple lines/ I can’t see past my own jealous eyes…

Oceanic shoots the music video for "Change Your Mind"
Oceanic shoots the music video for “Change Your Mind” (Photo by Jon Megna)

Like much of Oceanic’s output, the everyday becomes magical in this surging, subtly icy ballad, and the meaning of Wyatt’s words float tantalizing within reach, yet are not set in stone. Oceanic cannot help but dig deeper, and the search for meaning is as important as meaning itself.

It’s a perfect approach for an unabashedly romantic band that combines the unflinching self-examination of emo with the swirling sophistication of multi-layered pop. With this band, the song is king, with each member’s expertise focused on emotional impact. In Oceanic’s embrace of communal emotions and values, the personal becomes universal.


BEST GOSPEL: Melvin Crispell III

Melvin Crispell III proves true gospel ain’t dead in the South through his music and message. After the loss of his parents and COVID-19’s onset, Crispell poured himself into his music, a hybrid of contemporary R&B sound and worship music inspired by old-school gospel.

A young Black man, Melvin Crispell III, smiles wearing a multicolored plaid shirt
Melvin Crispell III (Photo by RCA Inspiration)

He confronted much of the darkness he was dealing with in his debut album, I’ve Got a Testimony, released in 2020. His newest album, No Failure, released in July, lays out his path of healing through faith.

“Gospel music is never dead, especially in Charlotte, as long as there’s a few of us who are carrying the torch and still singing, still making music, and you see that every day,” he told Queen City Nerve. “I think we can get back to that place, but the people have to support, too … So it’s just something that we have to work on and work at to make it a bigger, more relevant thing.”


BEST BREAKTHROUGH ARTIST: Jameilyara

Jameilyara Moore began writing acoustic folk music in her bedroom as a kid and slowly transitioned into performing pop and R&B as a teen. As an upcoming artist, she uploaded rough demos to SoundCloud and continued to perform at local Charlotte venues like The Evening Muse with friends. When college rolled around, she joined a neo-soul/hip-hop group, Terrabang, as songwriter and frontwoman.

Jameilyara Moore looks over her shoulder
Jameilyara Moore (Photo by Sarah Devoti)

In the lead-up to the February release of her debut single, “REMShank,” Jameilyara’s friend and local pop sensation Quisol warned us of what was coming, calling her “the long-awaited songbird of the Charlotte area.”

She followed that up with the release of two singles, “Funny” and “Hillside” on Sept. 19. Her sound delves into the electronic sphere while reminiscent of her pop and R&B roots.

“I’ve been wanting to put music out since I was like, 13/14 years old,” she told us in February before her debut release. “I think if my 13-year-old self knew at 28 I still hadn’t dropped anything, she’d be pissed. I just want to do it, just to make her happy.”

Her 13-year-old self and the rest of us are satisfied … and in anticipation for what comes next.


BEST BREAKTHROUGH BAND: Oh! You Pretty Things

Taking its name from a 1971 glam rock anthem by Davis Bowie, Oh! You Pretty Things dazzles with its distinctive brand of alt-rock fusion. This is music brimming with enthusiasm, invention and acceptance from unabashedly pro-LGBTQIA players.

Members of the band Oh! You Pretty Things pose together outside during the day time
Oh! You Pretty Things. (Photo by Connor Schlosser)

All these attributes come into play on Oh! You Pretty Things’ confessional single “NYE,” where vocalist/chief lyricist Callie Wolfe’s draws from her diary entries.

“[‘NYE’] is my most vulnerable song,” Wolfe says. “This was my gay awakening moment.”

Here Paul Swanson’s liquid bass, Joseph Conde’s chunky guitars and Aric Gautier’s precise percussion weave disparate instrumental strands into a cohesive mid-tempo prowl. Enfolded by Travis Wonderly’s cascading guitar, Wolfe sings fearlessly: “Left lying awake throughout the night/ Throw up both hands without a fight/ Can you see what you’ve done?/ You got under my skin/ Lies drip from your lips…

In 2023, “NYE” and Oh! You Pretty Things have gifted Charlotte music fans with their own awakening moment.


BEST NEW SOUND: Featherpocket

Featherpocket’s self-titled 2019 debut album enwraps the listener in 10 carefully crafted tunes that draw on the classic country sound originally born in early-20th-century Bristol, Tennessee, by the likes of The Carter family and singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers. It’s a masterful collection that sounds little like Featherpocket’s current music.

“There’s no more banjo appearing in the foreseeable future for Featherpocket,” Cline says. “There is no more pedal steel either. I’m less interested in creating the classic country sound than I was.”

The band Featherpocket performs
Featherpocket (Photo by Andrew Kingsley)

Instead, the current Featherpocket is an electrified power trio. The band retains a classic country technique and feels and subsumes it into a much more contemporary and urban sound. Cline dubs the style “yeehaw music.”

“It’s rootin’, tootin’ cowboy music to dance and get rowdy to,” Cline offers. “It’s still country adjacent, but also more rock ‘n’ roll.”


BEST COMEBACK ARTIST: Elevator Jay

James Blackmon, better known around Charlotte as Elevator Jay, has always had that rural twang in his rap — a country vibe that’s there in the production and the lyrics, featuring lines about fishing and kicking back. On April 29, Elevator Jay showed that he’s been doing anything but kicking back during the pandemic, as he celebrated the release of his new album, Summer Rooster.

Elevator Jay at Lancasters BBQ in Huntersville
Elevator Jay (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The album was Elevator Jay’s first full project in four years, after dropping the For Y’all EP in July 2019. It was his first project ever as a co-producer; after having always produced his own work, this time he teamed up with Texas producer 2nd Prez for each of the album’s nine tracks. The result does what Jay has always done: It represents Charlotte hip-hop to the fullest. That’s a mission that he’s more proud of than anything.

“A lot of people, they change, you know what I’m saying? It’s almost like the mission changes when they get to a certain level,” Elevator Jay told Queen City Nerve. “I can’t see my mission ever changing.”


BEST MULTITASKER: Liza Ortiz

For more than a decade, Liza Ortiz has embraced and forged bonds with listeners through a series of bands including psychedelic cumbia purveyors Patabamba and tropical pop-rockers Chócala. She also sang and acted in playwright and songwriter Molly J. Brown’s film noir homage Murder & Moonbeams onstage, then reprised her multi-role performance in a film adaptation of Brown’s absurdist detective story.

Liza Ortiz holds a Lite Brite over her head surrounded by a purple glow
Liza Ortiz (Photo by Claudio Ortiz)

Recently Ortiz has expanded her reach with Latin electronic trio Bravo Pueblo, plus her electronic solo synthesizer-driven project La Brava.

All this artistic activity is particularly laudable because Ortiz has been managing depression and social anxiety for most of her life. Starting with the very first song she ever wrote, “Tinieblas” (“Darkness”), released on Chócala’s self-titled 2019 debut album, Ortiz has chosen to face her battle with depression head on, by acknowledging her anxiety through songwriting and sometimes turning it into art. We’re all the better for it.


BEST VOCALIST: Mary Grace McKusick

You may know riot grrrl-inspired vocalist and lyricist Mary Grace McKusick for her uncanny ability to unlock multiple emotions with haunting imagery and scalpel-sharp phrasing as Petrov’s distinctive frontwoman.

It turns out that McKusick has a nerdcore side, and this year she tapped into it to bring individuality and gravitas to the electronic music genre. Like Neil Young releasing the vocoder-powered Trans LP to baffled fans in 1982, McKusick has pulled an interesting about-face, though it’s far more satisfying than Young’s.

Unleashing her solo project Distracted Eyes with the debut EP Enjoy, McKusick turns to horror video game soundtracks for inspiration. On “Pace,” McKusick eschews Petrov’s careening guitars and full throttle vocals, but retains her soul-searching lyrical vulnerability. Distracted Eyes entwines wistful shoegaze singing with clammy yet soothing synths and electronic zombie stomp percussion. The result is a surprisingly warm, sometimes wistful embrace of the uncanny valley.


BEST PERFORMER(S): SAINTED Trap Choir

One can’t script the energy that the SAINTED Trap Choir brought onto the stage in Pasadena, California on June 6 for an episode of America’s Got Talent. But anyone who’s been to one of the SAINTED parties held at The Underground back home in Charlotte, organized by local music icons DJ Fannie Mae and Dennis Reed Jr., knew about that energy long before the two performers and their two dozen choir members hit the national limelight.

DJ Fannie Mae and Dennis Reed wear black while book-ended a group of a dozen members of the Sainted Trap Choir wearing tan outfits.
DJ Fannie Mae (far left) with Dennis Reed Jr. (far right) and members of the SAINTED Trap Choir. (Photo by Jess the Rookie)

The SAINTED Trap Choir first hit the stage of The Underground for their experimental hybrid show featuring trap hip-hop songs sung in a gospel style back in February 2020, complete with prop pews and church fans.

The group has since resumed regular shows at The Underground, also taking things national with a performance at the Lincoln Center’s 2023 Spring Gala Celebration on May 2 and making it to the semifinals on America’s Got Talent. The group will continue to spread their undeniable vibes when they’re featured on the spin-off America’s Got Talent: Fantasy League, premiering Jan. 1.


BEST SINGER/SONGWRITER: Dane Page

Each Dane Page song unfurls like a road trip through an interior landscape that nods to folk, hypnagogic psych-rock and the hardscrabble plain-spoken poetry of Woody Guthrie — all suffused with a mist-laden dream pop aura.

A black and white photo of a man with a beard, Dane Page, playing guitar in the woods
Dane Page (Photo by Enowen Studio)

There are plenty of twists, however, on Page’s odyssey. Just when you are lulled by that coiling, faces-in-the-bonfire spell of “Straight to My Soul,” he unleashes the whiplash snap and transcendent pop of the title track to his 2018 LP Selma.

Page’s latest release, the 2023 EP Fill the Fractures, finds him ruminating on love and loss in a more introspective way. His most personal release to date, the EP extends his folky sound into darker realms. “Don’t Bury Me in Roses,” in which he contemplates his own death, has the heft and weight of a far older song, like an ancient ballad sharing a message of love and support.


BEST COUNTRY/FOLK/AMERICANA: Kadey Ballard

In “The Changeling Well” off singer-songwriter Kadey Ballard’s 2020 album 7 of Cups, still waters run deep. Ballard’s acoustic guitar canters in a seemingly centuries-old rhythm. Her feathered vocals gain force like wind shaking the treetops, as her words cast a spell where human needs and nature’s magic meet.

I ran the path / The darkling trail/ The fairy queen/ And quick of nail … A thousand years down in the well/ A thousand years I fell and fell…

Ballard describes her music as dreamy heartache incantations. Like the emotions evoked, the names of what she calls “acoustic music with an electric hum” are legion. Recently Ballard has experimented with her haunted psych-folk, rerecording two songs off her 2023 LP Sybils with cellist Polina Kermesh and alternating solo performances with sets featuring a string-driven trio with violinist Brenda Gambill (Doubting Thomas) and cellist Hampton Crump.


BEST HARDCORE/METAL: Hellfire 76

We once compared Southern-psych/metal duo Hellfire 76’s devilish grooves to “a triceratops mating with a Sherman tank.” We stand by that assessment, but as with most loud things that deserve your attention, the full picture is a bit more nuanced.

Members of the band Hellfire 76 play rock music on stage
Hellfire 76 (Photo by Jenn Mott Redd)

Over the swaggering blues-rock riff and Rhodan-stomps-Tokyo drums of “Voodoo Mama,” Hellfire 76 guitarist and vocalist Von Bury drawls a street corner preacher’s ravenous recitative.

A lot I’ve seen down in New Orleans/ Strippers and sinners and a Voodoo queen…

As with the other five tunes on the band’s self-titled EP, the tune can be enjoyed at face value, but Von Bury and drummer Mike McGuiness use witches, Satan and Santeria as metaphors to decry mainstream America’s acceptance of power, corruption and lies.

“We’re bringing up stuff about how hypocritical the religious right is,” McGuiness says. “They commit exactly what they preach not to commit.”


BEST ROCK: Paint Fumes

This year, Charlotte’s garage-spawned punk-rock poster boys Paint Fumes did the impossible: Band leader Elijah von Cramon wrote and released an album of melodic love songs. Since launching at dank, graffiti-festooned party house Sewercide Mansion in 2011, Paint Fumes’ go-for-broke image had been bolstered by a growing body of punk-rock folklore, including a severe accident that left von Cramon pronounced dead for five minutes.

A musician in the band Paint Fumes plays guitar and sings into a microphone
Paint Fumes (Photo by Puck Byrne)

Pop craftsmanship has always been part of Paint Fumes’ brilliance. It simply took an unconventional romance to bring it to the forefront on the band’s latest album Real Romancer. The relationship ended, but von Cramon had found a muse.

“[They have] inspired the most songs I’ve written ever, and I like all of them,” von Cramon said. This time, instead of penning tunes about previous topics like panic attacks, heartbreak and desolation, von Cramon is celebrating the rocking power of love.


BEST EXPERIMENTAL: Rasmus Leon

William Stephen Davis, a songwriter, educator and filmmaker who performs as Rasmus Leon, started working on the songs and accompanying videos that became his 2023 EP Rasmus Leon and the Foothills years ago. The process accelerated when both Davis’ parents suffered strokes and he was tasked with rummaging through the family home, deciding what to keep or toss.

“It was like guts coming out of a body in a horror film,” Davis said. He recruited friend Stephen Warwick (Ancient Cities), and the pair recorded all the vocals for the EP in Davis’ hollowed-out childhood home. There is an autobiographical arc to the music on the EP. The swaggering cocky cat’s prowl “Basement” opens with the sound of Davis’ childhood door creaking open. The EP concludes with the buzzing of a 1960 oven timer salvaged from the Wilkesboro home, but it suggests the crackling fossil radiation unleashed by the Big Bang.


BEST INDUSTRIAL: Cicatrice

Sometimes Charlotte’s music scene acts as an incubator. Artists get their footing here and then move on to the wider world. Such is the case with Anastasia Weiss’ hardcore solo project Cicatrice, a word that means “scar” in multiple languages.

A young woman, musician Cicatrice, sits on railroad tracks in the dark holding a red electric guitar
Cicatrice (Photo by Camille Weiss)

Weiss is forthright about her industrial strength activism. With distorted vocals, a heavy snake-charmer guitar riff and a double-entendre title that is a slur for trans women and an acronym for targeted restrictions on abortion providers, “Trap Laws” deliberately draws a connection between the attack on reproductive rights and the astroturfed anti-trans movement.

If you have scars/ Wear them in the light/ If you have fire/ Light up the fucking night/ Remember who we’ve lost/ We will stand in the flames/ And they will call us by our names…

Weiss has moved on to Portland, Oregon, but her fearless musical experimentation continues.


BEST ELECTRONIC: La Brava

In spring 2020, singer-songwriter Liza Ortiz stepped into the spotlight armed with her warm alto and a pair of keyboards. With her synthesizer-led solo project La Brava, Ortiz started weaving rhythmic spells like Spanish-language ecological prayer “Vida Debajo” (“Life Below”).

Nos quieren quitar el aire/ Nos quieren quitar la voz/ El árbol que cae tiene vida debajo…

Translation: “They want to take our air/ They want to take our voice/ But the tree that falls has life underneath…

Robust and embracing, Ortiz’s a cappella vocal suggests a call-and-response, except no response is forthcoming. Of all Ortiz’s projects, the entrancing and hypnotic La Brava may be the most powerful. The solo project spotlights Ortiz’s prodigious and empathetic talent distilled to its essence and unleashed in its purest form.


BEST CONCEPTUAL PROJECT: Thousand Dollar Movie, ‘Give Me a Year’

The indie-rock foursome released their instrumental EP Give Me A Year earlier this year. Jeremy Allen Smith, the bassist for the band, found inspiration for their six-track record between his experiences living in the Queen City, and memories across two decades.

“I moved to Charlotte as a teenager and I was equally terrified and excited to be in a city on my own and trying to do music,” Smith explained to Queen City Nerve. “Twenty years later and I still love it here; it goes from intimidating to feeling like home.”

The band consists of Smith on bass, Dominic Geralds on drums, and Leo Solis and Zach Luper on guitars. The group creates feelings of nostalgia on tracks “If I Break Buy a New One (Trade/Tryon)” and “Central Ave” with melancholic tones that transition into crisp and grungy vibes. Give Me A Year pays homage to the Queen City with boundless love and hope for what’s to come in Charlotte’s music scene.


BEST INSTRUMENTAL PROJECT: Jah Freedom, ‘Kahlo’

Charlotte DJ and composer Jah Freedom has outdone himself with his instrumental project Kahlo, a strong follow-up to the 2019 release, Basquiat. His album pays reverence to Mexican painter and feminist/LGBTQ+ icon Frida Kahlo and each of the seven tracks is named after one of her paintings.

Jah Freedom points at someone off camera while sitting in a music studio
Jah Freedom at a July listening session for his new project, ‘Kahlo.’ (Photo by Jonathan Golian)

While composing each piece of the album, Jah Freedom said he would study the painting each song was named after and imagine what the art would sound like, he told Queen City Nerve. His second track, “What the water gave me” is both upbeat and urgent. The song starts off with a cascade of rain before upbeat music composed of electronic melodies, cymbals, drumming and a trumpet takes over and nearly drowns out the still ever-present drip of water.

Frida Kahlo created her painting of the same name depicting a woman’s legs stretched out in the bath as a chaotic scene unfolds in the water in 1938. The rest of the songs in Kahlo maintain a similarly hopeful and thought-provoking tone, one the artist herself would surely admire.


BEST INSTRUMENTALIST: Emanuel Wynter

There’s a moment in “From Orbit,” the title track from Emanuel Wynter’s 2023 live album, in which the vocalist and violinist’s ace band slips gravity’s grasp, creating a space for Wynter’s cosmic corkscrewing violin and playful vocals to soar.

Weightless infatuation/ While we’re dancing on Saturn’s rings/ Won’t take for granted the times we made/ Laid it all down by Jupiter again…

Emanuel Wynter performs onstage at Evening Muse
Emanuel Wynter performs at Evening Muse. (Photo by Daniel Coston)

Wynter’s ebullient yet grounded songs and his soulful playing embrace a broad emotional spectrum. Love, loss, nostalgia and imagination all jostle for a fleeting yet joyous moment in the spotlight. The music that acts as jewelers’ settings for these gemstone melodies is similarly diverse yet coherent.

Wynter lets his bandmates shine, but his soaring, spiraling violin, which harkens to Stéphane Grappelli’s gypsy-jazz bowing and Vassar Clements’ rapid-fire bluegrass fiddling, pulls us through his musical adventures through outer and inner space.


BEST EMO/POP PUNK: sayurblaires

Inspired by bands like The Brave Little Abacus, Crying, and South Korean outfit Parannoul, which use MIDI tracks and samples to create emo albums, Blaire Fullagar set herself the straightforward task of writing and recording an LP with no bass, guitars or drums — just synths, samples and vocals, all played and performed by Fullagar.

sayurblaires (Photo by Amber Kelly)

The resulting album, you no longer live inside my head, i’m just waiting for you to take shape, dropped in December 2022. Questions about identity and self-acceptance surface throughout the album on songs like “Portside’s a Funny Place, But You’ll Grow to Like it Here,” in which distant disconcerting screaming doubles the cloud layer of catchy childlike vocals amid head-bopping verses and catchy K-pop style choruses.

You’re trapped in this body/ But how much noise can you make/ When the door isn’t open/ Can anyone hear me?

Fullagar’s songs resonated with other musicians, so she adapted them to be played by a full band. Solo project sayurblaires quickly went from a one-woman show to an ongoing ensemble including bass, guitars and drums.

“I don’t think I set out to achieve anything other than expressing myself and making good music,” Fullagar told Queen City Nerve. “I’m still after that.” We think she achieved the latter just fine, but there’s always room for more.


BEST SOUTHERN NEW WAVE: Donnie Doolittle

The South doesn’t get credit for fueling the eclectic pop explosion called new wave, an adventurous ’80s esthetic that invigorates pop to this day. Too many critics, bless their hearts, fail to realize this region has been a new-wave powerhouse, launching artists who invented the genre, including Pylon, The B52s and R.E.M.

Add Donnie Doolittle to the list of artists keeping that spirit alive. With his sepulchral sexy baritone, reverberating guitars and leathery R&B grooves, Doolittle nods to Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” and Lee Hazelwood’s “Some Velvet Morning.” His 2021 single “When a Woman,” celebrates a woman’s right to embrace her sexuality, while “I’m a Man” ruminates on the steel trap of toxic masculinity.

Doolittle’s self-titled 2023 debut album delivers 12 pulsing tunes that delve into the subconscious and approximate the shared cultural dreamscapes of films.

“The scariest monsters are the ones that you don’t see,” Doolittle said.


BEST HIP-HOP ALBUM: Reuben Vincent, ‘Love Is War’

Reuben Vincent’s Love Is War was an intensive two-year project for the east Charlotte artist resulting in a deeply personal album that documented the journey and pitfalls of finding love in your early 20s. Vincent’s style evolves throughout the album, transitioning from the style he built his name on, as seen in “Butterfly Doors,” to something more mature and refined.

Some of the songs on Vincent’s 11-track album call out toxic cycles, masculinity and the pitfalls of greed while others are deeply vulnerable and show a desire to break free of these trappings. Vincent finds a way to ruminate on these thoughts, his inner monologue, and the endless cycle of love, heartbreak, hope and disappointment.


BEST COLLABORATIVE PROJECT: susong, ‘we are in this together’

In susong’s single “Tinseltown,” ratcheting guitar and insistent electronic percussion set the wistful tune’s tempo as Matt and Michael Susong’s brotherly bone-deep blood harmonies soar.

Cables disconnected days ago, and the lights left us behind/ Pick the cap out of your feather, say your goodbyes we’re not leaving together…

In a top-down view, two men pose looking upward toward the camera
Michael and Matt Susong. (Photo by Tommy Cary)

With songs about memories and goodbyes, the brothers’ entrancing five-track EP, we are in this together, details how the two brothers reconciled and reconnected through music. With Matt living in Charlotte and Michael in Winston-Salem, the Susong brothers had become separated by distance plus the demands of career and family.

Following the death of their father, Matt and Michael took a chance on collaboration, a musical dialog spanning 80 miles and many years apart. The resulting songs explode with invention and experimental production techniques, as they overcome time, separation and divergent lifelines.


BEST EP: Tré Ahmad, ‘Kttn’

In the wake of their breakthrough debut LP The Bedroom Popstar in 2021, Tré Ahmad’s life seemed to fall apart. Awash in the mental health issues that have plagued them most of their life, Ahmad took a hiatus in Europe. That decision came with a price. Nearly a year and a half passed between the release of The Bedroom Popstar in 2021 and the 2023 release of the playful three-song EP Kttn.

A top-down look at Tré Ahmad in the woods with his hand reaching toward the camera
Tré Ahmad (Photo by Lou Vacquie)

“In my generation that’s like taking a decade off,” Ahmad told Queen City Nerve. They need not have worried. A spirit of adventure, perhaps spurred by Ahmad’s positive European sabbatical, imbues Kttn.

Optimism pervades the eclectic EP, where Ahmad’s confident wordplay corkscrews around experimental production, beats and backing instrumentation on “L’avion Freestyle.” Entwining melodic hooks and staccato verses through a thicket of splashy hi-hats, Ahmad sounds jubilant on the Django Reinhardt-does-acid-jazz gem “Kindly.”


BEST ROCK ALBUM: Dollar Signs, ‘Legend Tripping’

There’s no place like home/ If you’re born in the Twilight Zone...” Dollar Signs frontman Eric Button bellows in “Can’t Go Home Again,” the lead track on the band’s pop-punk-folk horror masterpiece Legend Tripping. Over 11 tracks, Button grapples with a Gordian Knot of obsessions, including down-home atomic annihilation (“Nuclear Family”), spooky kids chanting “Bloody Mary” three times in the mirror (“RESONATOR!”) and the anti-nostalgia that fuels novelist Thomas Wolfe, The Gin Blossom’s “Hey Jealousy,” and The Clash’s “Stay Free.”

Dollar Signs sit and stand along a staircase in a creep black-and-white photo
Dollar Signs (from left): Luke Gunn, Tommy McPhail, Erik Button, Arion Chamberlain and Dylan Wachman. (Photo by Dylan Wachman)

The band’s galloping guitars, rollicking pianos and jackhammer drums combine bittersweet alternative and anthemic punk, produced for maximum impact by Te’ Jani. Primarily, Dollar Signs wrestles with the haunted past. A classic horror movie trope is never stray off the main road, because that’s where the redneck cannibal zombies dwell — but what if those Jungian horrors define your roots?


BEST SONG: True Lilith, ‘Urban Decay’

With Chloe James’ snaking ’60s spy movie guitars and Anna Spurrier’s clambering new wave synths, True Lilith kicks off its April single “Urban Decay” with a sense of shivery delight. James’ ethereal vocals evoke a sensual succubus luring listeners in like a Venus flytrap.

Chloe James of True Lilith plays guitar and sings into a microphone
Chloe James of True Lilith. (Photo by Genevieve Moore)

It’s clear True Lilith approaches musical genres as suggestions rather than boundaries. Shoutouts to inspirations are as likely to include New Orleans R&B legends The Neville Brothers as alt-art-rock icons Siouxsie and the Banshees.

With its mélange of alt-, indie-, psych- and post-rock, True Lilith’s sound cannot be reduced to just goth, but the genre is still central to a spirit of inclusion the band has adopted. Much maligned even during its 1980s heyday due to fans’ preference for black clothes, pale makeup with industrial levels of eyeliner, willowy “tree-in-the-wind” dances and enough hairspray to punch a hole in the ozone layer, goth has been a genre that has welcomed all — gay, trans, nonbinary and bullied — throughout its history.

“Our music is trying to be our personal safe space for anyone who wants to listen,” drummer Jared Stone said. “I hope [people] will feel as accepted in our fan base as I’ve been accepted in this band.”


BEST VIDEO: Rasmus Leon, ‘22’

Tasked with cleaning out his abandoned childhood home, musician and filmmaker Will Davis (Rasmus Leon) explores life’s in-between spaces — points where you leave a situation but haven’t yet stepped into the next, in his video for “22.”

Davis documents these magical spaces through the ephemera of discarded objects. A synthesizer hovers as the camera pulls out from a dusty bed of crystal globes. Twanging guitar reverberates as we skim past a series of empty rooms. Then Davis’ wounded-sounding tenor kicks in.

Everybody says they know/ when they try to name me/ Everybody says they care/ when they try to maim me…

Gradually the music acquires textures as tactile as the photographed places and things, and Davis declares his intention to leave the abandoned littered landscape behind.

And I know/ Just where I have to go/ And I’ll be/ The only one who leaves…


BEST LOCAL SHOW: Tré Ahmad’s Homecoming Festival at Neighborhood Theatre

After a restorative sojourn in Europe, rapper Tré Ahmad returned with his transcendent Charlotte homecoming show at Neighborhood Theatre in June. Ahmad performed the trauma- and doubt-stricken material from his debut LP The Bedroom Popstar, entwining it with their newer, playful tracks — and they did it surrounded by friends, collaborators and inspirations including Deep October, Te’Jani, Nia J. and The Bleus.

With energy and empathy, Ahmad and his extended musical family easily achieved their goal for the show, which Ahmad shared with Queen City Nerve prior to the gig: “I want the show … to feel like you just walked out of one of the best movies you’ve ever seen,” Ahmad said. “You relate to it; it has a happy ending. It was a matinee and the sun is out, and you’re still thinking about that movie and the characters.”


BEST NATIONAL SHOW: Chris Shinn at Snug Harbor

Former Live singer and Charlotte native Chris Shinn captivated a full house at a spine tingling Snug Harbor gig in June. Shinn debuted his solo album, Falling Up, at his first live performance since December 2019. A hometown talent — Shinn’s father George launched the Charlotte Hornets in 1988, and subsequently moved away amid a tsunami of fan venom — Shinn was lead vocalist for Live from 2012 to 2016.

Unlike Live’s progressive alternative, Shinn’s solo material is richer and more satisfying. Shinn, drummer Jason Gerken and former Live bassist Patrick Dahlheimer pulled the audience along for a hypnotic journey. On the harrowing “Inside,” Shinn’s hair-raising vocals ascended amid grinding guitars and clashing cymbals. Shinn’s hushed, confessional vocals surged forward over strummed guitars and stuttering drums on “The Artist.”

It was a stunning performance that left the crowd temporarily hushed before erupting in ecstatic applause.


BEST VENUE: Snug Harbor

In 2007, Snug Harbor launched in a Plaza Midwood that would be unrecognizable to the neighborhood’s residents today. The nautically themed club was ground zero for musician, painter, makeup artist and interior designer Scott Weaver’s full-blown variety show Shiprocked! The innovative party changed Charlotte’s nightlife, transforming drag and how it was perceived.

With the now semi-retired Shiprocked! and other parties, Snug built a reputation for inclusion. That openness is reflected in the cross-genre bills and outsider artists Zach Reader still books for the club.

The drummer in a band that is all wearing masks stands on a chair that's being lifted by crowd members while playing a drum set that's also being lifted in the air by crowd members during a performance at Snug Harbor
Daikaiju performs at Snug Harbor in March 2023. (Photo by Jonathan Golian)

Hosting an increasingly eclectic bill of local and national alternative, rock, folk, metal, country, classical, rap, Latin, dance, electronic, R&B and more, the sturdy haven for diversity has arguably become Charlotte’s most vital independent music venue.

“I don’t think we would last if we … were forced to cater to some specific thing,” Reader told Queen City Nerve. “I think there’s authenticity in having everything be so eclectic.”


BEST NEW VENUE: VisArt Cafe

Located in Eastway Crossing shopping center, right next door to its sister shop VisArt Video, the doors recently opened at VisArt Cafe (temporarily called 3102 VisArt until a few days before we went to print), a new intimate listening room and event space for indie performers in a city that’s starved for just such a thing.

The venue is located in the space that was once home to EastSide Local and for a very short time after that Loto Café. Now the folks at VisArt Video, who have owned the space throughout that time, have turned it into a cultural venue that includes indoor and (covered) outdoor seating, beer, wine, non-alcoholic provisions, a java bar, and a food menu while remaining friendly to dogs.

On Tuesday nights they host a singer/songwriter series called Listening Room (catch perennial BIN award winner Kadey Ballard’s performance on Dec. 5), but it’s not only about the music. In November, they hosted Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which marked the raunchy return of Nicia Carla’s PaperHouse Theatre after a years-long hiatus. Somehow, Eastway Crossing just keeps getting cooler.


BEST FREE MUSIC VENUE: Tommy’s Pub

Thank the music gods for Tommy’s, the neighborhood joint anchoring one end of the above-mentioned Eastway Crossing. The comfy club is a mecca for rock, folk, punk, Celtic, instrumental and so much more. Incredibly, club owner Jamie Starks keeps this tuneful cornucopia free for lucky listeners.

Despite all the love shown the pub by longtime customers, Tommy’s doesn’t get enough credit for booking musical gems that may otherwise fall through the cracks in the Queen City’s gigging scene.

Local bookings include such cherished unclassifiables as R-rated Renaissance Fest habitués The Reeling Rogues and The Angels, legendary surf-rock guitar slingers Aqualads, and eclectic electronic/progressive rock/soul jazz trio Rich Skeleton, just to name a few, then throw in diverse day-long music festivals, film screenings and collaborations with other businesses on the strip.

Tommy’s Pub boasts an eye for Charlotte’s musical past, unclouded by nostalgic glaucoma and with an insatiable appetite for the new.


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