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Best of South Carolina Music 2019

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South Carolina map in retro vintage style - Old textured paper

I’m encouraged by the results of this year’s Best of South Carolina Music poll.

I’m encouraged by the sheer amount of music produced by Palmetto State artists. Free Times maintains a spreadsheet of all the in-state albums we’re aware of, helping the staff writers, outside journalists, music industry folks and various other prominent voices within the South Carolina music scene whose votes determine our annual Top 25 remember what all came out each year. By the end of the 2019 balloting process, that spreadsheet included 235 albums and EPs.

I’m encouraged by how many different albums our voters vouched for. 93 releases appeared on at least one ballot.

I’m encouraged by the varied sounds that made this year’s cut. Benny Starr and Fat Rat da Czar landed a pair of sprawling, South Carolina-focused epics in this year’s Top 10, giving appropriate shine to our fertile hip-hop community. In addition to Starr, this year’s Top Five encompasses brainy folk-rock (The Restoration, SUSTO), an ascendent indie rock songstress (Cayla Fralick) and some truly genre-busting punk (Florida Man). This state’s music scene is wonderfully diverse, and the 2019 list — especially the top half — represents that as well as Best of South Carolina Music ever has.

And I’ll continue to be encouraged when I hear your many strong reactions to this year’s results. Local music is something Free Times is passionate about, and we know many of you are passionate about it, too. Some of you will quibble about albums you feel are placed too low or too high or were unjustly left out. But we hope, as ever, that this list will help you think a little more deeply about the year that was in South Carolina music — and that you discover a few new favorites along the way. — Jordan Lawrence

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1. Benny Starr, A Water Album (self-released)

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Charleston emcee Benny Star thinks big, and A Water Album, his 2019 opus, never lets you forget. Recorded live at the Charleston Music Hall with backing band FOUR20S, Starr masterfully builds a sense of place into every note and line of his songs, conjuring up the dark, murky racial history of the spaces he explores, and tying it sharply and spiritually to present-day political and cultural realities. That such a cerebral mind also happens to be one of the most skilled rappers in the region almost feels too good to be true. — Kyle Petersen

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2. The Restoration, West (self-released)

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Columbia’s The Restoration came back in 2019 after a six-year recording hiatus. It did so with West, its third novelistic effort, and, for a band that has never shied away from ambition, it’s telling that the record is its most adventurous yet. Using frontman Daniel Machado’s family history to chart an epic tale on par with the Faulknerian impulses evident on the group’s 2010 debut Constance, the band enlists backing singers like Tim Eriksen, Kelly Morris (The Mobros) and Alexa Woodward, while adding experimental edges and folk-prog impulses to its already dizzying mix of roots-rock and chamber-pop excess. — Kyle Petersen

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3. Cayla Fralick, Anyway, Here (self-released)

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The history of rock music is littered with devastating breakup albums. But it’s rare to find one as intellectually curious and acute as Cayla Fralick’s Anyway, Here. With a deft sense of pop and a sonic template that fuses singer-songwriter-style indie rock with grandly layered and shimmering production work from guitarist and Archer Avenue Studio producer Eric McCoy, Columbia’s Fralick turns in a set of ornately constructed songs that delve deep into the nature of relationships and communication while also getting stuck in your head for weeks. — Kyle Petersen

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4. Florida Man, Tropical Depression (Spartan)

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Florida Man’s post-hardcore melee embraces a mass of sounds — from shoegazing texture to punk urgency, from noise-rock grit to indie-rock irreverence. And on the Charleston band’s sophomore release, it swirls into an irresistible storm that is as unabashedly catchy as it is loud and heavy. Like Torche, the group merges sludgy hard rock with pop smarts, and like Hot Snakes or Night Birds, it matches an onslaught of riffs with sharp, zig-zagging licks that crack like lightning through the din. It’s as vibrant and compelling a record as you’re likely to find across the strains of loud rock. — Bryan C. Reed

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5. SUSTO, Ever Since I Lost My Mind (Rounder)

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Though it’s the first Rounders Records release for Justin Osborne’s increasingly successful SUSTO project, there’s something that feels smaller about Ever Since I Lost My Mind — despite the fiery, grunge-indebted delivery of the title track. While missing the glow and range of his last effort & I’m Fine Today, the Charleston songwriter is still a keenly adept songwriter, and tunes like “Weather Balloon” and “If I Was” continue to build the SUSTO persona into something music fans will long want to spend time with. — Kyle Petersen


Ranky Tanky's "Good Time" has won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Music Album.

6. Ranky Tanky, Good Time (Resilience Music)

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Possibly the most Charleston Charlestonians ever, Ranky Tanky has taken a jazz plank and poured the Gullah/Geechee tradition over it, Lowcountry-boil style. The band isn’t shy about deploying topical tunes such as “Freedom,” but the Gullah roots shine through on the traditional call and response of “Pay Me My Money Down” and “Shoo Lie Loo.” Serious jazz players all, the musicianship here nonetheless gets seriously fun and funky, with vocalist Quiana Parler wailing away over top of it all. — Kevin Oliver


7. Fat Rat da Czar, Exposed/Tribe (Czar)

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Rap albums as big and varied as Fat Rat da Czar’s double-length Tribe aren’t often so purposeful and cohesive. While the veteran Columbia emcee and a lengthy list of talented collaborators work through myriad stylistic wrinkles — from the rabble-rousing tag-team of “Carolina” to the bluesy folk-hop of “In My Head” to the twilit speak-singing of “18 Months” — it’s the album’s compassionate but clear-eyed appraisal of South Carolina hip-hop’s past and present that unites and elevates it. That it arrived mere months after the disarmingly unguarded romantic confessions of Exposed is even more impressive. — Jordan Lawrence

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8. Contour, Live on Record (self-released)

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As the production moniker of Charleston’s Khari Lucas, Contour continues to evolve in gloriously unfettered ways. While the clearly-more-than-a-beatmaker might continue to do most of his best work behind a laptop, this live band project suggests organic collaboration might prove a necessary corollary to his pursuits in the future. These jazz-driven soul jams feel like something entirely new — equal parts Thundercat funk fury and Toro y Moi indie-R&B haze — while defining a compositional aesthetic formed organically between Lucas and his bandmates. — Kyle Petersen

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9. E.Z. Shakes, Summer Cut (Pow Pow Sound)

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It should say something of the songwriting of Columbia’s Zach Seibert that this hodgepodge EP, released between “proper” releases, still wound up on this list. But the casual ease that drives this gloaming glow of “TV Screen” is as compelling as the spartan solitude of “Hey Beautiful.” Live cuts, from WXNA and Third Man Records, offer a rawer, but no less earnest angle on the band. This sort of Americana, done right, always fits like a good pair of blue jeans, versatile enough to cover most occasions, but rugged and broken-in enough to feel like a second skin. — Bryan C. Reed

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10. The Mobros, Characters (self-released)

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Doing the two-man blues band thing since they were teenagers, Charleston-via-Camden’s Kelly and Patrick Morris have progressed from gritty, gravel-voiced blues riffs to the kind of classic pop tunes present on this EP, including “When I Have You In My Sight,” which careens from Clash-style crashes to a warbling, retro chorus, and the Todd Rundgren-worthy strains of “Carrie Anne.” Maturing without stagnating or finding themselves lacking new ideas, the Morris brothers are on another, higher plane here. — Kevin Oliver

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11. Mids, Wellness Check (self-released)

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While this Black Sabbath tribute act turned quasi-supergroup formed by members of Columbia’s Dear Blanca and ET Anderson will likely remain one of those acts you “have to see live,” it rips through this four-song set with more than a hint of the furious tenacity and left-field aesthetics that make it so unforgettable on the stage. — Kyle Petersen

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12. Art Star, Akin to Sin (Rosewater)

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A potent mix of dream-pop blurriness and angular noise-rock squall, Art Star’s debut EP is a startling, beguiling and unpredictable set of songs. The tempos shift with balletic precision and brutal efficiency. The guitars twist indie rock riffs into unrecognizable, funhouse doppelgängers. And through it all, singer Mia Mendez coos, snarls, screams and croons like she’s five people at once. The Charleston quintet’s sound is so assured and so complex that it’s difficult to believe it’s the group’s first release. — Vincent Harris

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13. Jordan Igoe, Sober and Sorry (self-released)

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This Charleston chanteuse relocated to Columbia in 2019 and marked the occasion with an EP that serves as a reintroduction, of sorts — encompassing the retro pop and regal country leanings of Igoe’s established style on the title track and leaning into confessional indie folk territory on “Walking Contradiction.” — Kevin Oliver


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14. Canopy Hands, I Can’t Keep Doing This (self-released)

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The dream-pop on the sophomore EP from Charleston’s Canopy Hands is decked out with plush synths, stimulating bass and some seriously danceable beats. Check out “Dextro” for serious attitude delivered with a knockout chorus: “I feel the stimulation lately,” Thomas Hickman sings, stretching every syllable to its melodic limit. — Ethan Fogus

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15. Tom Angst, Matthew (self-released)

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Tom Angst’s beguiling, dreamily melodic Matthew is both a beginning and an end. The four-song EP is probably the last release by the talented four-piece, and it’s essentially a calling card for singer/guitarist Danielle McConaghy’s solo career. Whatever the name is, the band’s knack for eerie jangle-pop is still intact on this final release, and McConaghy’s voice remains a bright, airy, mysterious wonder. — Vincent Harris

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16. Coma Therapy, No Lights Here (self-released)

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Listening to Coma Therapy’s No Lights Here is like diving into a musical maelstrom where The National, early U2 and The Cure have decided to team up and see what happens. The guitars echo into the stratosphere, the vocals intone like they do on the darkest goth music, and the rhythm section is downright menacing in its machinelike thud. It’s a haunting and compelling trip into the shadows. — Vincent Harris  


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17. Cicala/Quinn Cicala, Post Country/Talkin to Breathe (Acrobat Unstable/Shibby)

Though recorded with different backers, Post Country and Talkin to Breathe make similar arguments for the songwriting of Myrtle Beach’s Quinn Cicala. Whether bounding and bursting with twang that’s Built to Spill, as he does with his eponymous band, or exposed in stark bedroom intimacy, as he is on his solo outing, Cicala catalogs relatable flaws and anxieties with anthemic conviction. — Jordan Lawrence

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18. J.S. Terry, And You Loom Over Me Like a Mountain (Pablo Generation) 

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Campobello’s J.S. Terry and a close group of like-minded collaborators created this beautiful release, an art-folk-rock gem full of exquisite heartbreak. The largely acoustic arrangements layer strings, musical saw, horns and a choir of backing voices into a set of gorgeous, impressionistically sorrowful songs, and the overall effect is both whisper-intimate and grandiose.  — Vincent Harris


19. Motel Glory, Let ‘Em Live (Real South)

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Playing like a hybrid of The Lawrence Arms and Meat Puppets, the third album from Rock Hill’s Motel Glory fuses rabble-rousing pop-punk singalongs with rootsy twang and indie rock idiosyncrasy. Take, for instance, “Lucky,” which leads with a Memphis garage teang into a shuffle worthy of Meat Puppets II before launching into a harmonized refrain: “Still searching for your four-leaf clover /  Sweatin’ out your last hangover.” It practically begs you to grab a pint and join in.  — Bryan C. Reed

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20. Slush, Parallel Basements (self-released)

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On its second EP, Columbia’s Slush explores old-school indie rock ideas with youthful ingenuity. The band offers mumbled verses and cutting crescendos, shoegaze-y heft and sparkly haze, propulsive rhythms and reflective melodies, presenting them with impressive skill and combining them in such a way that they actually sound fresh. — Jordan Lawrence

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21. Keon Masters, Many Thanks (self-released)

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The erstwhile Brave Baby frontman Keon Masters brings his sly indie pop passions and wry, anxiety-laden lyricism to this solo project, and the Charleston musician’s strengths shine all the better in the absence of his bandmates, even if he can’t quite hit the same ecstatic heights as he can with his mates by his side. — Kyle Petersen 

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22. Solar Punches, The Qualm Factory (Rod Iron)

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Charleston dance-punkers Solar Punches throwback to early new wave acts like Joy Division with rip-roaring synthesizers and purposefully lifeless vocal delivery. That’s a compliment. The group’s material is a textured collage of social commentary and reflections on consumerism paced by oscillating drum pads. And even when it feels a bit too pretentious, it will still get you up and moving. — Ethan Fogus

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23. Harry & the Hootenannies, 

Farewelcome Home (self-released)

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Hopscotching across tropes from ska, folk, pop, alt-rock and more, Columbia’s Harry & the Hootenannies’ still manage to find the hooks at the core of its songs on the rangy and Farewelcome Home, using sweet choruses and bouncy rhythms to propel clever wordplay and poignant commentary with equal irreverence. — Bryan C. Reed

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24. The High Divers, Ride With You (self-released)

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The latest from Charleston’s The High Divers explodes from your speakers with all the gnarled muscle and grit you’d expect from a band that’s been doing the dang thing for five years now. From the swaggering title track to the searing closer “Still Kickin’” and the salsa swing of “Our Love is A Fire,” the EP is a promissory note of what’s to come from an already polished rock group. — Ethan Fogus

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25. The Lovely Few, Sad Disco (self-released)

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Rather than continue to explore the space-ways as part of its Meteor Series, The Lovely Few turns inward with lush electronic pop on the aptly named Sad Disco. This is sumptuously melancholy dance music that resembles what bands like New Order and Electronic did in their late-‘80s, early-‘90s heyday — Vincent Harris

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