This year, South Carolina artists again managed to create noteworthy albums with delicious licks, head-bobbing beats and meaningful lyrics.
One group was nominated for a Grammy. Another was signed to the record label whose artists include Alison Krauss, Robert Plant and Gregg Allman. Several of our featured musicians are up-and-coming; some have been around for a decade or more.
Here are my personal picks for top South Carolina albums of the year.
1. "A Water Album" by Benny Starr
The eloquent Benny Starr is a social justice activist, youth mentor, rapper and a maestro of words. He's impressively in tune with himself and his history and speaks intelligently on just about every topic. This year, his live album recorded at the Charleston Music Hall, "A Water Album," showcased his best qualities while intricately exploring themes of heritage, gentrification, marginalization and feminism. Chill-inducing lyrics that make you rethink your place in the universe merge with a captivating blend of jazz and hip-hop, and it's all heightened by a series of ethereal guest vocals from local black artists.
2. "Good Time" by Ranky Tanky
Charleston group Ranky Tanky, combining elements of gospel, folk and jazz, released a Grammy-nominated album this year. "Good Time" features a mix of original songs and traditional Gullah tunes, rearranged and performed with passion. Trumpeter Charlton Singleton grew up with many of these old songs sung by relatives in Mount Pleasant’s Ten Mile neighborhood and among the pews at church. Those classics — like call-and-response “Shoo Lie Loo” and “Green Sally" — get a modern twist, while "Freedom" and "Let it Be" shine as new creations and offer a powerful message of love for a city that struggles with its history of slavery.
3. "Ever Since I Lost My Mind" by Susto
While 2017's "& I'm Fine Today" remains my favorite Susto album, this year's 12-song album came pretty close to upsetting the crown. Opening track "Homeboy" sets the mood for a more rock-centric disc compared to its predecessor's experimental effervescence. Yet the range is still there, with "Homeboy" melting into the soft, guitar-driven ballad "If I Was," followed by the sweet, piano-powered love song "Weather Balloons." There's even a track in Spanish, "Esta Bien," inspired by singer Justin Osborne's time in Cuba. "Last Century" is another bubbly and nostalgic pop-rock number. There's more love than heartache on this disc, and it's not a bad thing.
4. "And You Loom Over Me Like a Mountain" by J.S. Terry
The names of the songs on J.S. Terry's 2019 album are art in themselves ("The Unmistakable Sound of a Heart Beating in Love"; "Weak Eyes / The Migration of the Blue Ghost Fireflies"), but the beautiful and often bittersweet arrangements that alternate from full string sets to acoustic guitar are what will take your breath away. There's even some spoken word in there, with a mystical echo overlay. It could be a movie soundtrack.
5. "Rosa's Cantina" by Youngster
This album is one that satiates my indie pop-rock tendencies. Youngster immediately dragged me in with the catchy opening track "Every Night," with a steady bass and just the right amount of reverb. I couldn't escape; 10 songs later and I emerged, blissful. It's a polished studio album, recorded by Matt Zutell at Charleston studio Coast Records, that allows emotions to rise to the surface. Lead singer Blake Ratliffe's vocals are easy on the ears, and the instrumentation is interesting and easygoing. It's my feel-good record of the year.
6. "Akin to Sin" by Art Star
Have you heard the song "Art Star" by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs? If so, that'll give you some idea about this new Charleston project led by Mia Mendez, who delivers melodic, hardcore vocals over a shoegaze-noise backdrop. She can explode into full-scream and also command attention with a vocal melodic slide laid down over a guitar and bass breakdown, wavering between controlled and chaotic.
7. "Many Thanks" by Keon Masters
Brave Baby-breakout Keon Masters, who also bartends at the Palace Hotel, finally released his solo effort in 2019. Masters, who exudes an aura similar to Ezra Koenig (lead singer of one of my favorite bands, Vampire Weekend), dropped this bright, pop disc that rides the line between retro and modern in a variety of sounds and techniques, from vintage synth beats to new-era drum machines. Masters includes unexpected elements that bump this record up a tier from your average indie rock album.
8. "By Blood" by Shovels & Rope
Shovels & Rope is the local husband-and-wife duo known for founding High Water Festival and for starting one of the most successful bands in South Carolina history. "By Blood" was the natural transition from the group whose original acoustic folk and Americana leanings have been slowly edging toward electronic-infused rock 'n' roll. "I'm Coming Out" starts the album with a heavier sound than we've heard from them before, and hit single "The Wire" oozes the surf rock, sun-soaked sounds of Folly Beach combined with the pluff-mud squelch of the Edisto River.
9. "Live on Record" by Contour
Another live album graced my ears this year with producer and vibe master Contour's aptly titled "Live on Record." Contour (Khari Lucas) blends smooth vocals with smooth jazz, enhanced with expertly-placed electronic details to maintain the mood. Electronica melts into R&B.
10."Talkin' to Breathe" by Quinn Cicala
I'm a sucker for a simple acoustic guitar and heartfelt lyrics, and Myrtle Beach-based singer Quinn Cicala (of full band Cicala) released just that with "Talkin' to Breathe." It's fleshed-out, though, with some indie rock layers and harmonies that heighten its quality. And did I mention that guitar? So lovely. A shoutout goes to the full band's album "Post Country," which also debuted this year.
11. "Hideaway" by Newgrounds Death Rugby
New on my radar this year was Newgrounds Death Rugby, a band I discovered in a Taylor Swift mosh pit at a house show. I'm not making this up. Unpolished in a good way, "Hideaway" is a let-loose emo indie album, a bedroom recording that, frankly, isn't the best quality. But this band is so good live that the album made my list. It's all about the energy.
12. "Live Album" by Secret Guest
Benny Starr's album wasn't the only one recorded live at a local venue this year. Secret Guest, the psychedelic rock band of grungy DIY dreams, created a musical kaleidoscope at The Royal American over two nights. (On the first night, the bandmates were sober; on the second, they were drunk). There's plenty of crowd banter among 18 tracks that lean a little dark with abrupt flashes of bright and blinding lights. Summary: lots of guitar shredding, chords that don't seem like they should go together but do, wailing vocals, surfy segments, and Andrei Mihailovic playing guitar with another guitar. It's a whole thing. Either you'll be a little put off or turned on. This one doesn't officially drop until Dec. 31.