COVID-19 stalled many aspects of life in 2020.
And while you can count the live aspects of local music among the casualties, the same cannot be said of local music on record.
Free Times maintains a spreadsheet of every album and EP we’re aware of that’s released each year in the Palmetto State. This year, the tally sits at a staggering 279, easily beating last year’s 238.
That made for even more difficult decisions as we assembled our latest ranking of the best South Carolina releases to come out these last 12 months — based on votes from writers, venue owners and other scene leaders across South Carolina, who were granted anonymity to allow for honest responses.
While the creative impulse was clearly still there, the choice to release music during this hampered year was not an easy one — we asked a few of the artists on the 2020 list about making that choice, and you can find those answers at free-times.com.
One thing that hasn’t changed this year is that there were more than 25 worthy records from in-state talent. And I’m sure many of you will scratch your heads as to why some of your favorites didn’t make the cut. Free Times’ music writers did, too — and you can find us speaking up for some of our forgotten favorites on the paper’s website.
Five of the acts included in these rankings are among the 15 who will join Free Times to perform at our Virtual Music Crawl Dec. 17-19. The free event is accessible via facebook.com/freetimes. We hope it is a comfort for those of you who are sorely missing live local music.
We keep up the tradition of ranking the best albums South Carolina mustered in 2020 for the same reason that we do it every year — to celebrate local music, and to get you all talking about and interacting with it.
Happy listening. And happy arguing. I hope we can do it in person someday soon. JORDAN LAWRENCE
1. Stagbriar, “Suppose You Grow” (Comfort Monk)
Find It: stagbriar.com
Stagbriar’s “Suppose You Grow” isn’t just 2020’s best album from South Carolina — winning Free Times’ poll by an impressive margin. It’s the best indie rock record I heard this year.
It’s easy enough to explain the strides the Columbia band makes on its first album in seven years. The thundering crescendos and gorgeously swerving guitars point to Alex McCollum’s time spent filling out various shades of adventurous rock with ET Anderson and Dear Blanca. The fixation on life’s transitions and shifting relationships is typical for songwriters turning the page from 20s to 30s.
But while “Suppose You Grow” is a natural evolution that finds Stagbriar playing in a familiar sandbox, it far surpasses the status quo for artists exploring such sounds and themes. Jazzy instrumental flourishes and other idiosyncratic choices present the band as a rootsier reflection of the endlessly ingenuitive Ohmme. And the songs are masterfully poetic, blessed with beautiful pathos by the sibling harmonies of Alex and Emily McCollum.
“Suppose You Grow” expresses the exasperation of millennials confronted with a confusing world, stepping into the first truly adult phase of adulthood at a time when nothing seems certain.
“I solemnly swear / That I’m up to no good,” begins the closing “Last Minute Friends,” invoking Harry Potter.
“It’ll suck, packing up / In the back of some truck I borrowed from work,” they sing near the song’s end. “Good god, help me unpack it elsewhere / Dear lord, I’m a little unsure how to get there.”
Me too, y'all. Thanks for making me feel less alone. JORDAN LAWRENCE
(See Stagbriar at Free Times’ Virtual Music Crawl on Dec. 19.)
2. Dear Blanca, “Perched” (Comfort Monk)
Find It: dearblanca.com
Dear Blanca mirrored the state of the world this year: perched. Though society remained stagnant, this album surely didn’t — despite its themes of dwelling in an in-between state. At odds with the unbearable inertness, the lyrics search frantically for an escape from the present without any idea of what the future may hold. Meanwhile, the kinetic instrumental layers propel forward like a steadily flowing stream, longing for waterfalls ahead. Dylan Dickerson’s yearning vocals perhaps say it best in lead single “Overpass,” which includes a spoken word intro by punk rock icon Mike Watt: “If I manage to make it through this, I’ll be making some big changes.” KALYN OYER
3. Grace Joyner, “Settle In” (self-released)
Find It: gracejoyner.bandcamp.com
The lush, ethereal sounds of Grace Joyner’s second album “Settle In” may promise vulnerable confessions, but Joyner’s fearlessly honest lyrics tell a different story. “Love is A” recounts a hazy dream where Elvis Presley’s ghost tells Joyner, “Love is a bitch.” “Fake Girlfriend” couches a rejection of romance in sprightly dream-pop. In a change of pace, Joyner duets with her mother Julie Joyner on “Million Dollar Wound,” trading verses about grandfathers and great-grandfathers that illustrate the random nature of life and death. PAT MORAN
4. Gláss, “Wilting in Mauve” (Warm Noise)
Find It: glasstheband.bandcamp.com
“Wilting in Mauve” paints anxiety with a versatile pallet. Inside the Greenville band’s howls and distortion, skronks and drones are the lumbering menace of Swans and the echoing repetition of Rhys Chatham, the leaden intensity of shoegaze and the unhinged ferocity of punk. It’s a lonely record that clamors loudly to be heard. It sounds, to these years, like those moments when solitude turns you feral, simultaneously embracing and rebelling against your isolation by making an unreasonable ruckus. Or maybe that’s just my 2020 talking. JORDAN LAWRENCE
5. Babe Club, “Remember This Feeling” (self-released)
Find It: joinbabeclub.bandcamp.com
On this debut EP, Charleston’s Babe Club weaves together familiar strains of rock and pop. They cite The Cranberries, Blondie and Aimee Mann as formative, while offering hints of Bully’s ragged indie rock and Angel Olsen’s kaleidoscopic folk-pop. Songwriter and bandleader Jenna Desmond finds poignance in slivers of memories, as on “Together,” where she longs for a lost love with memories of “white linen” and “the golden sun shining in.” With an atmospheric backdrop that gives way to throbbing rhythms and jagged guitar licks, Babe Club frames Desmond’s songs with dynamics and melodic hooks as potent as her imagery. BRYAN C. REED
6. Daddy’s Beemer, “Denmark” (Very Jazzed)
Find It: dadsbeem.bandcamp.com
Daddy’s Beemer has been around for so long that it’s hard to believe that “Denmark” is their first full-length. But the band packs years of experience into the album’s 13 tracks, mixing vintage-sounding synths, choppy indie rock guitars, broken-hearted vocals, and a shattering low-end bass throb. The wistful, jittery “Dancer,” the blurry stop-start ballad “Flowers” and the explosive rocker “Best Not To Ask You Why” are the best songs Daddy’s Beemer has written, and producer/engineer Preston Dunnavant gives them a suitably epic sound. VINCENT HARRIS
7. Boo Hag, “Burial Ground”/”Ballads From the Bordello” (self-released)
Find It: boohag.bandcamp.com
The Columbia duo’s two 2020 records couldn’t be more different. But they’re unified by the near mythic presence of Saul Seibert, a frontman with the raw, roots music tendencies of Dexter Romweber and the grandiose, gothic resignation of Joy Division. Enhanced by saxophone, "Burial Ground" tilts toward post-punk with the feel of a band possessed. "Ballads", recorded live in a North Carolina barn with stand-up bass and a suitcase drum kit, showcases vaudevillian flare. KEVIN OLIVER
8. E.Z. Shakes, “The Spirit” (Pow Pow Sound)
Find It: ezshakes.bandcamp.com
In the two years since E.Z. Shakes released their magnificent, fully-realized debut LP “The Wolf,” the group has continued to release a steady stream of music that teased a few possible evolutions for their darkly religious, quasi-Southern Gothic alt-country, from more stripped-down heartland rock to lightly psychedelic full-band jams. On “The Spirit,” however, it's not the sound so much as the songwriting that feels like it’s in a new place, with Seibert bringing a renewed candor to his all-too-human explorations of faith and Christian affirmation. KYLE PETERSEN
(See E.Z. Shakes at Free Times’ Virtual Music Crawl on Dec. 17.)
9. Baby Yaga, “F#!k” (self-released)
Find It: babyyaga.bandcamp.com
Presley Randall, the mastermind behind Charleston punk band Baby Yaga, is also an erotic artist who practices witchcraft. So naming her EP “F#!k” and having a song on it called “Going to Hell” just fit. For the project’s first disc, producer Matt Tuton helped shape the raw edges of the band’s rowdy and riveting live shows into something more crisp and pop-driven, but with nostalgic ‘90s touches. There’s cowbell in “I’m Going Back,” and it works. KALYN OYER
10. Amethyst in SC, “Amethyst” (self-released)
Find It: Available via Amazon, Apple and Spotify
More than 40 South Carolina rappers and producers came together for this historic album, which was recorded in just 72 hours in a Charleston studio. “Amethyst” shows — for anybody in need of such proof — that local hip-hop is far from one-dimensional, exploring a wide range of sounds. It also showcases a collaborative, improvisational spirit. Egos were checked at the door and several artists contributed verses and beats to every track, most on the spot. KALYN OYER
11. Abacus, “Pellicule” (self-released)
Find It: abacustheband.bandcamp.com
On this sophomore effort, Columbia’s Abacus focuses its attack on only the most potent elements in its hybrid-metal arsenal. Packing an album’s worth of riffs into every song, the band lunges from math-metal lacerations to metalcore beatdowns, from grinding blasts to death metal surges. Abacus is still a shapeshifting assailant, only more controlled and accurate in its sudden stabs and slams. BRYAN C. REED
(See Abacus at Free Times’ Virtual Music Crawl on Dec. 18.)
12. Dead Swells, “Dead Swells” (Artist Formula)
Find It: deadswells1.bandcamp.com
Paul Nederostek is Dead Swells on this record, playing everything but drums on the self-titled first full-length. Nederostek’s collection of smoothly groovy psychedelic tunes are soulful and dance-friendly, but they’re tethered to lyrics about obsession and anxiety. While deceptively sunny, Dead Swells’ grooves evoke both a lazy-hazy day at the beach, and the coiling undercurrents just offshore. PAT MORAN
13. Flower Shopping, “Most Improved” (Bathtub)
Find It: flowershopping.bandcamp.com
"Most Improved" mostly concerns itself, to borrow a phrase from another local band, with good and types of growing, as leader Ross Swinson winnows out ways to grow up and grow into a better human through sharp introspection and humane, empathetic observation. Swinson’s songwriting grows sharper here, and so, too, does the band around him, with Swinson’s live crew decking his songs with winning filigrees. PATRICK WALL
14. 2 Slices, “Vision of 2” (self-released)
Find It: 2slicesofficial.bandcamp.com
Charleston’s 2 Slices refine their blend of bleary indie rock emotionalism and dayglow psychedelic dance music on their second album, a soundtrack for the parties we wish we could have had these last nine months. Pulled fully into the fold, bassist Brett Nash and drummer Nic Jenkins bring energetic complexity, and Grace Joyner adds pristine vocal embellishments. JORDAN LAWRENCE
15. Bathe, “A Field Guide to Dead Birds” (Sludgelord)
Find It: batheus.bandcamp.com
Columbia’s Bathe more precisely renders its chaotic squall on album three. The riffs still veer suddenly from sludgy clobbering into sharp needling. The rhythm section still unites and separates at unexpected intervals. Alex Strickland still roars with pulpit-worthy conviction. The swirling metal mayhem is intricately layered and executed, making it an absolute thrill to be caught in the eye of the storm. JORDAN LAWRENCE
16. Niecy Blues, “Cry” (self-released)
Find It: niecyblues.bandcamp.com
Columbia's Niecy Blues is one of the most incredible gems the city has to offer. Not one to be captured in any one box, she packs this three-song EP with plenty of soul, cloudy synths and other alt-leaning touches, and seemingly whatever the hell else she wants (The Internet is a solid reference point). When the ‘rona is over, she’s the first artist I want to see live. PREACH JACOBS
17. Saint Joan, “Ashes” (Coast)
Find It: saintjoan2.bandcamp.com
After spending years on the West Coast, Sarah Weyman returned home and wrote the indie pop-rock album “Ashes,” which rises like a phoenix from a season of heartbreak. The alto-voiced songwriter hits head-on the bittersweet nature of longing for and analyzing the past after leaving a relationship, remembering the good but also the bad. KALYN OYER
18. SunRhé, “LAVENDER” (self-released)
Find It: Available via Apple, Spotify and other services
SunRhe explores Black womanhood as an intoxicating force of serenity, sensuality and strength; a gateway to higher illumination. Love-and-lust-infused aromatherapy from this pop-meets-R&B album leaves the listener longing for silk sheets, amethyst gemstones and candlelit romance. Is it an album or a love potion? KALYN OYER
19. WVRM, “Colony Collapse” (Prosthetic)
Find It: wvrmgrind.bandcamp.com
On "Colony Collapse", the Upstate grindcore vets in WVRM hone their blitzkrieg to a Panzer-like powerhouse. Its 14 aggro cuts blur by in just under 27 explosive minutes, with murky, crushing riffs buttressed by guttural growls and visceral shrieks. PATRICK WALL
20. Jah Jr., “Here I Go” (self-released)
Find It: jahjr.bandcamp.com
“Here I Go” sees prolific Charleston rapper Jah Jr. provide a concise summation of what makes him one of the Lowcountry’s hottest hip-hop acts. Capable of raspy old-school bars and melodic, R&B-influenced hooks, listening to Jah seamlessly switch between modes over these eight tracks feels like a pure burst of triumphant flexing. KYLE PETERSEN
21. Brandy and the Butcher, “Dick Circus” (River Monster)
Find It: brandyandthebutcher.bandcamp.com
Not giving a damn can be a great thing for a rock band. Brandy and The Butcher is a quartet of music veterans (most notably guitarist Jay Matheson, owner of Columbia’s Jam Room recording studio), and they have no illusions about making it big. So they just made the kind of music they’d want to listen to. The result is a no B.S. rock ‘n’ roll album, highlighted by meat-and-potatoes riffs and singer Elizabeth Hale’s sneering swagger. VINCENT HARRIS
(See Brandy and the Butcher at Free Times’ Virtual Music Crawl on Dec. 18.)
22. Barnwell, “Everything’s Coming Up” (self-released)
Find It: barnwell-music.com
Barnwell’s sweeping indie rock catharses have never bristled so brightly as they do on “Everything’s Coming Up.” Singer Tyler Gordon slings feelings with power and grit, while Ross Swinson charges every crescendo with guitar lines that spark and sparkle. Turn it up loud and listen long enough to start hollering along. JORDAN LAWRENCE
23. Boomtown Trio, “Wild Wanderer” (self-released)
Find It: boomtowntrio.bandcamp.com
Instrumental virtuosity isn’t a prerequisite for great roots music, but sometimes combining masterful playing with deeply traditional styles sounds like this. Bassist Craig Butterfield has classical and jazz bona fides, while Kristen Harris is a championship fiddler and a classically trained violinist. Kelley McLachlan’s ancient-sounding warble takes center stage, but it’s Harris and Butterfield’s chemistry that makes the Columbia group special. KEVIN OLIVER
(See Boomtown Trio at Free Times’ Virtual Music Crawl on Dec. 17.)
24. Contour, “Weight” (self-released)
Find It: ar-contour.bandcamp.com
Contour’s four-song EP of experimental hip-hop might be called Weight, but there’s a dreamlike lightness to it, even when the unpredictable beats slam hard. Rap-singing with reams of echo on his voice, Contour floats over wandering keyboard lines, subterranean bass and constantly shifting rhythms, creating an otherworldly atmosphere that you can (almost) dance to. VINCENT HARRIS
25. Corpsemower, “Corpsemower” (self-released)
Find It: corpsemower.bandcamp.com
With its debut EP, the Greenville juggernaut Corpsemower reimagines death-doom for the riff-worshipping stoner-rock crowd. Where most fusions of death and doom result in just grimier, more cavernous sorts of death metal, Corpsemower brings back groove and (relatively) concise song structures for a sound that is as intoxicating as it is brutally heavy. BRYAN C. REED
Free Times Virtual Music Crawl
Dec. 17-19. 8 p.m. facebook.com/freetimes.