We’ve said it before, each week for the past year, and probably each week since I started writing for this paper in 2003. And we’ll say it again: We at Free Times love local music, and we think there was a lot of really good music released by local musicians this year.
Then again, by this point in the year you’re probably sick to death of hearing what Free Times have to say about local music. So we dropped a line to a broad swath of musicians, promoters, club owners, soundmen, disc jockeys, bartenders, photographers, bloggers, zinemakers, record store clerks and other local cognoscenti and polled them on what got their attention in 2013. We kept as comprehensive a list as possible throughout the year, and of the 82 LPs, EPs, singles, seven-inches, cassettes and free-to-the-public demos released by local bands (plus a few high-profile expatriates) this year, 63 received at least one vote in our poll, and 52 at least two votes, out of nearly 40 ballots.
We tabulated the results using a complex algorithm (read: Microsoft Excel spreadsheet). And as such a large amount of data can often lead to a logjam, we sought the opinion of our resident critics to break some ties. We asked each of our cognoscenti to name 15 of his or her favorites; we present the top 20 below.
It’s a list that’s missing a few of our critics’ favorites of the year — Death of Paris’ sleek Gossip, Karmessiah’s ballsy Lushwave, Pornojumpstart’s transcendent For Roreigh, Release the Dog’s killer Out for Justice — but this list isn’t about the Free Times contributors who fill these pages every week. Rather, it’s about the people who make the music scene tick — by playing shows, hosting shows, going to shows and otherwise listening to music made by and for local artists.
After all, we’re Free Times. Who are we to judge? Oh wait.
Also included in this package: Our yearly Great Columbia Mixtape compendium of songs, and some photographs of live local music from Free Times shutterbugs Thomas Hammond and Sean Rayford. Enjoy. — Patrick Wall
People Person | photo by Thomas Hammond
1. People Person, Dumb Supper (27 votes) People Person celebrates the release of Dumb Supper this week (see page 42), even though the record came out back in October. But the songs had been floating out for quite a while: Much of Dumb Supper is a spit-polish of last year’s Swimming for Keeps demo. But the upgrades are key: Jessica Oliver picked up Magnetic Flowers’ Adam Cullum and Evan Simmons as her rhythm section, giving her sweet-and-sour buzz-pop verve and heft. The band tracked Dumb Supper’s instrumental skeleton live at The Jam Room (Oliver finished the vocals down in Charleston with Elim Bolt’s Johnnie Matthews), giving the songs energy and clarity, even through walls of fuzz. Oliver’s melodies, punchy and loaded with prickly sarcasm, slice and shine. But Dumb Supper’s best songs are the newer ones: The surfy, splashy “Dag”; the driving “Portions for Fatties”; and the tenderly dour closer “Frances,” the most affecting of a riveting bunch.
Magnetic Flowers | photo by Thomas Hammond
2. Magnetic Flowers, Old, Cold. Losing It. (24 votes)
Like Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which turned that band from well-liked alt-country outfit to fawned-over experimental-pop heavyweights, Old, Cold. Losing It. finds Magnetic Flowers pushing its music into places many listeners might not be comfortable with, but its songs still maintain the loose intimacy the band’s become known for. This disc is so multi-layered that it’s easy to hear new things many, many times after the first listen, revealing a complexity that is rare in Columbia’s pop scene. On Old, Cold. Losing It., Magnetic Flowers prove to be none of the above.
3. Dear Blanca, Talker (22 votes)
The horn and string embellishments, orchestrated by Charlotte’s Bo White, make Talker’s sometimes dark tales of 20-something catharsis — three of its songs are about the deaths of close friends — more powerful than Dylan Dickerson’s unhinged howl. The arrangements enrich Dear Blanca’s songs, which, if you’ve seen the band live this year you already know, stand pretty tall on their own.
Stagbriar | photo by Thomas Hammond
4. Stagbriar, Quasi-Hymns, Murder Ballads and Tales of How the Hero Died (20 votes)
Quasi Hymns’ strength comes from its approach, with simple acoustic folk (“Eyes Alive”) and gritty blues (“Tom”) progressions given muscle by glittering production, thunderous percussion and atmospheric adornments. But its heart is in the double-helical harmonies of brother-sister foundation Alex and Emily McCollum, their voices intertwining and imbuing their songs with undeniable emotional power.
5. Those Lavender Whales, Parts & Pieces, Goose & Geeses EP (20 votes)
Aaron Graves writes songs that simultaneously make me want to grow up and be a better person while also making me feel like it’s OK to still be a bit of a kid and not have things figured out. I’m not sure how he does that. Anyway, this EP feels like a quietly assertive cementation of the band’s aesthetic that was fully established on Tomahawk of Praise, with thoughtful, personal songwriting and arrangements that both challenge expectations and delight in their own quirkiness. (Full disclosure: Music editor Patrick Wall plays in Those Lavender Whales, but he did not vote for the record.) Kyle Petersen
6. The Restoration, New South Blues EP (19 votes)
The Restoration’s made its name with whip-smart concept records about a fictionalized version of its hometown of Lexington. New South Blues abandons the history, but not geography. Here, The Restoration presents the South as it is — a complicated conundrum of beauty and ugliness. It doesn’t know whether to laugh (“New South Blues”), or cry (“Possible Country”), so it does both.
7. The Unawares, Absinthe Acres (18 votes)
Absinthe Acres doesn’t find The Unawares doing anything differently (in fact, its B-side is a re-recording of its 2007 EP Tooth Dip), but it finds the trio in ultra-fine form, filtering progressive rock, jazz and classical influences through its three-minute avant-punk rumbles.
Toro Y Moi | photo by Sean Rayford
8. Toro Y Moi, Anything in Return (18 votes)
Chaz Bundick and the rest of the Toro Y Moi crew have long since fled Columbia for California, but Anything in Return has Carolina on its mind. Anything in Return is Toro Y Moi’s darkest and most anxious record, but it’s also Bundick’s best and most charismatic.
Burnt Books | photo by Thomas Hammond
9. Burnt Books, Burnt Books (16 votes)
Like People Person’s Dumb Supper, Burnt Books’ self-titled full-length is an expansion on a demo released in 2012. Like Dumb Supper, Burnt Books, released nationally by At a Loss Records, builds on an already excellent base, its savage, pummeling hardcore burning hot and bright. Smartly, it balances its scalding heavy moments with disquieting quiet ones via Zoe Lollis’ brittle banjo tunes.
Coma Cinema | photo by Sean Rayford
10. Coma Cinema, Posthumous Release (15 votes)
Mat Cothran’s a polarizing figure in Columbia’s music scene, but there’s no denying his songwriting skills. Recorded in an honest-to-god recording studio, Posthumous Release strips most of the wow-and-flutter of Cothran’s lo-fi Coma Cinema records, meaning his trademark intensity gets the full focus. It’s the best Coma Cinema album to date — though Failure, released under Cothran’s birth name, might have been his best collection of the year.
11. Valley Maker, Yes I Know I’ve Loved This World (12 votes)
Valley Maker’s carefully constructed follow-up to the theologically oriented self-titled debut, which explored the tales of the Book of Genesis, turns inward, asking philosophical questions about life, the universe and everything.
12. Chemical Peel, Bike Thief EP (11 votes)
Bike Thief is the ever-improving Chemical Peel’s best release. It’s crisp and clear, riding fluid basslines, complicated guitar lines and exact drumming to pointed post-punk shout-along choruses.
13. Pandercakes/Pussy Wizard, “Compassion Fatigue” b/w “Dunno (Translucent Blue)” split seven-inch (11 votes)
This split from too-rarely-seen home-tape outfits sounds like lost Elephant Six B-sides: Pandercakes’ A-side is all streaks of sunshine; Pussy Wizard’s B-side is all gloomy haze.
14. The Post-Timey String Band, Porch Songs (11 votes)
Porch Songs was actually recorded on the porch, but its songs would carry a back-porch ease nonetheless.
15. Pan, Meta Major EP (10 votes)
Pan’s post-rock abounds with pop-punk energy; Kayla Breitweiser’s violin adds a new dynamic element that shines.
16. Todd Mathis & Whiskey Tango Revue, Please … Don’t Tread on Me (10 votes)
Todd Mathis’ introspective alt-country tunes honk the honk, Whiskey Tango Revue’s twangy backing tracks tonk the tonk.
17. Sein Zum Tode, beeep(10 votes)
Beeep is weird, wild and wonderful, its barrage of avant-noise and mercurical grindcore belying the trio’s sharp and demented sense of humor.
18. Marshall Brown, Through Viridian Colored Glasses (10 votes)
Marshall Brown’s Viridian is weird, wild and wonderful, too, but trades abstract brutality for psychedelic haze, all kaleidoscopic layers and lush arrangements.
19. Small Sanctions, Feather Habits EP (9 votes)
Feather Habits isn’t complicated, but complex, its riffs intersecting at odd angles, propelled by an undercurrent of skittering rhythms.
20. Cancellieri, III(9 votes)
Ryan Hutchens traded electronic soundscapes for easy Americana on III, and proved himself a surprisingly sharp songwriter.
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