Your 2023 North Carolina Playlist

From jazz to country to rap, local musicians have been busy this past year. Here are the new albums and upcoming projects to look out for.
by David Menconi

Last year was a fantastic one for local music, and the great thing is that plenty more is on the way for 2023. Here’s what some of North Carolina’s notable acts have been up to, upcoming performances to bookmark and the songs that signal what’s next.

“Little Things” by American Aquarium 

 Raleigh’s American Aquarium has always been one of the hardest-working bands in all the land, so much so that it took a pandemic to finally get them off the road. But more time at home agreed with lead singer BJ Barham, who relished the extra time with his young daughter. In this charming ode to family life from the band’s Chicamacomico album, Barham sings that he’s gone from rock star to being “just a father and a husband who knows his way around a microphone.” And yet the stage still beckons. American Aquarium’s eighth annual “Roadtrip to Raleigh” hometown performance is set for Feb. 2 through 4 at downtown Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre. 

“Julie’s Aria” by Rhiannon Giddens 

Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens is running out of worlds to conquer, as North Carolina’s homegrown MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner had another power year on prestigious stages, pages and screens. In 2022, Giddens played New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall, published her first children’s book, Build a House, and, in a nod to her early classical training, debuted her first opera, Omar, at the Spoleto Festival. One of that work’s compositions was “Julie’s Aria,” featuring the otherworldly tones of guitarist Bill Frisell. Omar will play at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on Feb. 25 and 26. Also in 2023, look for her new PBS series, My Music with Rhiannon Giddens.

Photograph by Rob Schanz

“It Doesn’t Change Anything” by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers 

Chapel Hill’s Sarah Shook stayed busy in 2022 with multiple releases, starting with album number three backed up by longtime honky-tonk band The Disarmers. “It Doesn’t Change Anything” is the title track, with typically doomy sentiments (“The devil on your shoulder is your only friend/There he sits just to remind you all good things come to an end”). But fall brought a left turn into new-wave pop as Shook’s side-project band Mightmare released the LP Cruel Liars. For 2023, Shook will get back to country with another Disarmers album.

“Didn’t Care” by Sylvan Esso

The Grammy-nominated electronic duo Sylvan Esso from Durham has always had a folksy streak, so it made perfect sense for Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn to debut their new album No Rules Sandy and its percolating single “Didn’t Care” — released on Sylvan Esso’s own multimedia record label imprint Psychic Hotline Records — onstage at the legendary Newport Folk Festival last July. Elsewhere, Sylvan Esso presided over a series of live local happenings highlighted by a sold-out three-night run at the old Durham Athletic Park, which felt like a lovely celebration of community. There will be more of the same in 2023, starting with a solo album by local fixture Joe Westerlund they’ll release on Psychic Hotline in February.

“If You Love Me, Dear, For Goodness Sakes, Hush” by C. Albert Blomquist 

Carrboro resident Clark Blomquist is a chameleon-like presence on the local music scene, playing a dizzying array of far-ranging styles — psychedelic pop, one-man-band electronic dance music, hardcore punk — under different names. As C. Albert Blomquist, he’s an amiable honky-tonk ghost singing barroom country songs, like this sly number from his 2022 self-titled album. Blomquist has another country album coming out in 2023, and he’s also back playing again with the great Chapel Hill retro-pop band Kingsbury Manx.

“Endless Summer” by Superchunk

What always set Superchunk apart from its Chapel Hill indie-rock peers was catchiness, and that also goes for the group’s 2022 LP Wild Loneliness, the 18th Superchunk album in a career going back three decades. The high point is “Endless Summer,” a perfect summertime song that shimmers with the kind of pop hook lesser bands seek but never find. The first quarter of 2023 will find Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster on the road with one of the other bands he plays in, John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats.

“Dovetail” by H.C. McEntire 

No performer better evokes a North Carolina sense of place better than H.C. McEntire, whose records feel like travelogue dispatches from our state’s rural environs. Her deep voice is in fine form on “Dovetail,” a stunningly emotional ballad released to preview McEntire’s 2023 album Every Acre, coming out later this month.

“It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown” by Ben Folds

In recent years, Chapel Hill ex-pat Ben Folds has spent more time on cool extracurricular projects than making records of his own, including the “Keys for Kids” initiative, in which he raises money for music education across North Carolina. Still, he’s been working on what will be his first full-length album since 2015, which should see the light of day in 2023. In the meantime, he also dropped the theme song to a TV special, “It’s the Small Things, Charlie Brown.”

“90 Proof” by Smino featuring J. Cole 

Rapper J. Cole’s last full-length album came out in 2021, but he hasn’t been idle. He’s kept busy with cameos on other artists’ records, including those of Compton rapper YG, Bia (who rose to prominence on the television show Sisterhood of Hip Hop) and St. Louis rapper Christopher Bjorn “Smino” Smith’s 90 Proof.  He’s also got another Dreamville Festival on the way — and there’s an excellent chance at least one of those acts will be on the bill. Last year’s festival drew 80,000 people to Dorothea Dix Park; expect the same this April.  

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.