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The Best of South Carolina Music 2021

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Marshall Brown released "Ay Es Em Ar," which was voted The Free Times' and The Post and Courier's best South Carolina album of 2021. Shane Sanders/Provided

2021 was not the reprieve we hoped for.

The global COVID-19 pandemic refused to wane with another terrible wave at the tail end of the year that is ongoing. 

If there’s a silver lining to any of it, these 12 months offered the best panacea they could, with numerous releases from South Carolina artists. Their work covered the pandemic in every which way imaginable, but the collected albums spanned past that and into the personal and fantastical.

In all, we scoped out various artist pages and our story archives to collect 243 albums that were released in the last year from S.C.–based artists.

Every year, Columbia’s Free Times — this time, with a helping hand from The Post and Courier — chronicles the year in music, asking industry insiders, artists and writers to vote on what they deem the best records of the year. As in previous years, votes for their own projects were ineligible and every voter ranked five to 15 albums.

Collected here are the rankings, starting from No. 1 and listed in descending order. It’s a celebration of the last year in the state’s music, despite the outside circumstances.

This is just the first of our stories, so be sure to read on for our favorite albums that didn’t make the cut, a feature on the top album and our favorite albums from outside of the state.

Enjoy listening. DAVID CLAREY

Editor’s note: A short aside, we made a mistake this year and allowed the inclusion of Adia Victoria to be voted on. Her album “A Southern Gothic” rated highly in the final rankings, but while Victoria is from South Carolina, she no longer resides here and is considered a Nashville-based artist. We’ve removed her from consideration from this list, but wanted to give a nod to it nonetheless — it’s an album certainly well worth your time.

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"Ay Es Em Ar" by Marshall Brown. Shane Sanders/Provided

1. Marshall Brown — “Ay Es Em Ar”

Heavily produced and psychedelic in all the right places, “Ay Es Em Ar” is the lullaby of the year. The record that gets to daydreaming, works through insomnia and leaves us wide awake is the first by Columbia artist Marshall Brown recorded using a computer instead of an 8-track. And we can already hear the expanded sound and power with stacks on stacks of guitars, a robust percussion section, sitar meeting ASMR and even a string quartet.

The journey to falling asleep is a wild one for Brown, and among it are big picture realizations, like you can’t love someone else until you love yourself, and love comes in many different shapes and sizes, but it’s all real. Brown’s '60s rock influence holds up strong, leaving us piano-driven anthems to sing along to and trippy pockets in which to escape into the sound. This concept album is one to be “... Awakened On The Weekend” by, and you might just replay it all Saturday long. KALYN OYER

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“Thank You So Much, We’re Dear Blanca: Live” by Dear Blanca. File/Provided

2. Dear Blanca — "Thank You So Much, We're Dear Blanca: Live"

Let’s face it, most live albums land somewhere between interesting historical artifacts and minor curios in an artist’s catalog. On rare occasions, however, these documents capture the true magic of a band, somehow transcending all of their painstaking studio efforts through a sterling combination of the group’s performative power and the sheer electricity and magnetism of the moment.

Not to get hyperbolic, but Dear Blanca is such a band, and "Thank You So Much" is that moment. While last year’s "Perched" was their crowning recording achievement, a tightly wound ball of anthemic indie rock excellence, those songs (and choice cuts from their back catalog) truly sound as they should here, with all of the ragged, raw and unfettered glory of a great live band at the peak of its powers. That it dropped nearly a year into the worst live music drought of everybody’s entire lives was more than a blessing. KYLE PETERSEN

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"Time in the Sun" by Susto. File/Provided

3. Susto — "Time in the Sun"

Susto’s fourth album finds that the personal and the political were as intertwined as ever in 2021. Frontman Justin Osborne is clearly parsing out the world in his latest release, as he grapples with social movements, the COVID-19 pandemic and his own personal ups-and-downs. In an interview with Free Times on Sept. 20, Osborne noted that he and his wife welcomed their first child and that his father died. The latter takes up the theme of the song “God of Death.”

In all, “Time in the Sun” is a sprawling exploration of the personal's relationship to the political and societal. There’s a stirring honesty in his world view and frank vulnerability in it that ultimately builds towards a sense of strong optimism. In final track “All Around the World," Osborne and the rest of the band offer up a hopeful look towards the future: “All around the world/People singin’ out loud/About what’s goin down/But a new day is comin’.” DAVID CLAREY

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"When the Day Leaves" by Valley Maker. Provided

4. Valley Maker — "When the Day Leaves"

Austin Crane and his musical project Valley Maker returned to Columbia in 2021 triumphantly — even if “When the Day Leaves” isn’t always a sunny listen. What it is though, is a relic of an ongoing time that charts uncertainty and the conflicting idea of a place. Crane intimated as much in an interview on his newest album, where he detailed his move from Seattle back to Columbia and said, “(You’re) very uncertain about what the future holds, but still stepping into that … that’s all you can do right now.”

On his opening track “Branch I Bend,” Crane leads with “Hold on, day, don’t cut me loose/Wash my hands, thin my blues. … Hold on goodness, don’t escape.” It’s incisive songwriting that marks the whole of the album and eats at you when you listen closely. The album is as good as any in 2021 at tracking the emotional uneasiness of our current world. DAVID CLAREY

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"Everything I Didn't Say" by Cry Baby. Provided

5. Cry Baby — "Everything I Didn't Say"

Damn, is this album fun. I’m not sure if it’s fair to call it a throwback because the sound is so fresh, but it recalls both the heyday of boy bands and early 2000s electronic R&B. But that’s not really a fair description of what Charleston’s Cry Baby did on "Everything I Didn’t Say." They know every single hook, every single lyrical cliché, every single room-shattering beat from that much more innocent era, and it’s ridiculous how hard they nailed every aspect. If you want to enjoy this album on a surface level of catchy, infectiously danceable tunes, that’s just fine. If you want to laugh along to how well Cry Baby channels the early 2000s, that’s okay, too. Regardless, it’s one hell of a trip. VINCENT HARRIS

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"Staring at the Ceiling From a Cold Bed" by Quality Time. Provided

6. Quality Time — "Staring at the Ceiling From a Cold Bed"

There’s something absolutely heartbreaking about the honesty on display in this album. Quality Time’s “Staring at the Ceiling From a Cold Bed” lyrically lives up to its title. It’s a collection of the thoughts that keep us up at night, from general sentiments like “I wanna tell my mom that I love her/And call my grandparents” on “Eyes Closed” to absolutely desperate pleas like “God I wish I could escape you” on “Let’s Go.”

The music echoes singer Pearson Parham’s emotional turmoil, rising to epic crescendos on some songs and merely pulsing with empathy on others. The easy thing to do would be to call this music “emo,” but it doesn’t do justice to the soul-searching the band does on this album, both lyrically and musically. It’s a heartbroken triumph. VINCENT HARRIS

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"Between the Panels II" by H3RO. Provided

7. H3RO — "Between The Panels II"

There’s always been a puckish upstart quality to Justin Daniels, the emcee who records under the H3RO moniker. Some of that is the nerd-rap reference points and extended superhero concepts that mark his work, but much of it just comes from the relentlessness of everything from his flows and songs to the PR hustle and live band pursuits, which had him constantly striving, pulling his artistry up and over each hurdle along the way.

There’s something different about "Between the Panels II," the sequel to his first “real” LP. Whereas so much of his prior work felt like a creative force coming of age, this record suggests a sort of completion — the superhero finally in full control of his powers and contemplating where life will take him now. The beats too are better and more polished, the guest features more curated and the songs more fully realized. This album feels like the culmination of all those efforts and a crossroads to something else, be it another chapter or a whole other legend. KYLE PETERSEN

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"Been Milah" by Milah. Provided

8. Milah — "Been Milah"

It’s fitting that so many of Milah’s tracks on “Been Milah” include, with parentheses, “Therapy Session.” You can feel the catharsis from the Columbia rapper and R&B singer who exudes an intoxicating self-assuredness that seems to only grow stronger as it's spoken aloud. “No Time This Summer” shuns drama, while “Mirror” is the self-confidence track we all need to amp ourselves up. “I look in the mirror, all I see is me.”

“Sauce Different” is the inescapable twerk anthem of the record, leading into sultry, slow and soulful “Smoove Operator.” In “...Recovery” we finally break past the confidence to arrive at a place of vulnerability, a trend that flows into “Changes (Therapy Session),” but there’s something even more alluring about someone who’s self-aware enough to admit and embrace that they’re still growing and working on themselves. “I gotta get in the business of manifesting” followed by mantra “I’m feeling good today, I’m looking good today” are the words Milah leaves us with. KALYN OYER

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"To Paul." by Todd Mathis. Provided

9. Todd Mathis — "To Paul."

Few albums I’ve ever listened to approach the emotional texture of the four-track EP “To Paul.” Todd Mathis dedicated the collected songs to Paul Bodamer, who died in 2020 and was a frequent recording partner and close friend. Made up of three covers and one original track, it’s a moving reimagining of Wilco’s “Theologians," Faster Stereo’s (a band they formed together) “One More Time” and Willie Nelson’s “Me and Paul.” As one listens with knowledge of the album’s context, it’s hard not to feel a heavy heart even when it strikes playful tones. That’s as evident as any song on “Me and Paul,” where Mathis charts an up-and-down journey that brings the listener along for the ride with the two. Here the two take the place of Nelson and his drummer Paul English. It’s a high place to put oneself and another, but one that any friend would gladly give to a friend if they could. It’s a move that requires almost blinding love, and Mathis lends just that in his reimagination of the track and the entire album. DAVID CLAREY

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"I'll Ruin Your Life" by Baby Yaga. Provided

10. Baby Yaga — “I’ll Ruin Your Life”

Though she be but little, she is fierce. This year’s Baby Yaga release is only composed of two tracks, but that was enough to boost it into our top 15 releases of the year. “I’ll Ruin Your Life” gives us the same punk rock energy we can always expect from Presley Randall, who this year relocated from Charleston to Asheville, but it comes across darker and grungier than the cowbell-laced pop nods of the band's 2020 record. 

“...Dog House” dives right into a heavy guitar explosion that guides us through the chorus, reminiscing with a cringe on a night out that involved too many shots and getting in trouble with your boyfriend. “Black Hole” continues with thick instrumentals, declaring, “I can’t lie, I wanna see it all burn, I wanna see it all die" but then asking, "Tell me, where do we go (next)?" An epic guitar shred followed by electrostatic plays us out. KALYN OYER

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"Swimming Lessons" by Tourneforte. Provided

11. Tourneforte — “Swimming Lessons”

As far as I’m concerned, this is the indie rock album of the year to emerge out of South Carolina. “Swimming Lessons” by Myrtle Beach’s Tourneforte gives us a heavy dose of nostalgia. It gives us the emotive builds, sun-soaked interludes and bittersweet breakdowns. It gives us the giddy butterflies of falling in love, the summer sweet romance that leaves us breathless and gutted and the hopeful misery of trying to figure out what’s going on in someone else’s beautiful but mysterious head. It’s the longing of wanting to make someone feel better because they make you feel better, and the process of fumbling through figuring out what love means. And it’s all done in a way that makes you feel every second of it. KALYN OYER

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"Linearity" by Jay Van Raalte. Provided

12. (TIE) Jay Van Raalte — “Linearity”

Jay Van Raalte’s "Linearity" is a fantastic collection full of great moments. It’s hard not to feel the breeze when the chorus on “Used To Be” kicks the song into a different gear. It’s hard not to do a little headbanging when “Pennie Lane” launches into that perfect descending riff. It’s hard not to catch your breath a little when Van Raalte gets nostalgic on “Origami Stars” and sings “A picket fence surrounds the backyard in my mind.” The whole EP is full of those types of moments, and it didn’t have to be that way. Van Raalte is a fiery guitarist who could’ve released an album full of shredding and death-defying solos. Instead, what we got were melodic riches, five songs with indelible melodies, indie-rock grit and a heart as big as all outdoors. VINCENT HARRIS

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"Flamingo" by Doom Flamingo. Provided

12. (TIE) Doom Flamingo — “Flamingo”

Doom Flamingo is a band that virtually envelopes you in their aesthetic each time you experience them. A Charleston synthwave supergroup which benefits from bassist Ryan Stasik’s regular gig in the jam band Umphrey’s McGee, the band’s grandiose blend of dark prog, '80s electronic grandeur, yacht rock luxurious and throwback R&B is infectious and inspiring, not the least of which because of powerhouse lead vocalist Kanika Moore. 2021’s "Flamingo," the yin-yang companion EP to the prior year’s "Doom" EP, emphasizes the sunny, gated reverb-laden '80s pop radio qualities of their sound. If it looks and feels like a thrilling car chase from "Grand Theft Auto III: Vice City," don’t worry, that’s a glorious feature, not a bug. KYLE PETERSEN

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"Rumor of a Ghost" by Don Merckle. Provided

14. Don Merckle — “Rumor of a Ghost”

Singer/songwriter Don Merckle has long patched together a distinctive set of influences — the Pogues, Tom Waits, Lou Reed — that give a left-of-center flare to even his most straightforward Americana-tinged offerings. On "Rumor of a Ghost," he careens, as Neil Young would say, into the ditch, letting his new batch of tunes be as loose and off-kilter as they want to be. That’s as true for tunes as standard as ballads like “It’s Alright the Way You Are” and “Just Passing Through,” which rarely end where you expect them to, and electrically charged rockers like “The Devil Walks” and “Sunday Afternoon Killing Spree.” Whether girded by delirious horns, stabs of piano or organ, or flourishes of electronics or vocal filters, "Rumor of a Ghost" is an adventurous studio delight and sheds fresh light on Merckle’s fascinating sensibilities. KYLE PETERSEN

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"Bright" by Tape Waves. Provided

15. Tape Waves — “Bright”

Here’s the really good news about Tape Waves: If you hear one of their songs and you really like it, you’re in luck because they don’t stray much from their chosen sound. And that’s meant as the highest possible compliment. Tape Waves is all giddy rush and sighs and blurry guitars and dream-rock and twilit skies. It’s perfect star-gazing music, but it also rewards close listening with layered guitars, subtle, pulsing bass and gorgeous multilayered vocals. What Kim and Jarod Weldin have created is their own musical world, where elements of classic shoegaze meet a quieter, more considered approach, and it’s a sound that invites you to dive in and simply immerse yourself. Essential headphone listening and guaranteed to ease an anxious mind. VINCENT HARRIS

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

Kalyn Oyer is a Charleston native who covers arts & entertainment and food & bev for The Post and Courier. She's a music festival & concert photographer and used to write about music for the Charleston City Paper, among other publications.

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