You know it’s been a great year for Austin records when you have to leave off Grammy-nominated albums by the Greencards and Sarah Jarosz because there’s just not enough room on the “best of” list. And that’s in a year when such perennial top tenners as Spoon, Heartless Bastards, Gourds, Dana Falconberry, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jon Dee Graham, Trail of Dead, James McMurtry, Grupo Fantasma, Hayes Carll, Alejandro Escovedo and the Flatlanders didn’t release studio albums.
We all know that critics’ lists are just the opinion of that critic, a validation of his or her personal tastes. The best critics are fans first, but you listen to music differently when it’s your job, analyzing it and judging it and trying to determine if there’s something special there or are we being conned? Critics sift through the year in records to come up with a definitive ranking because we used to be the only ones who got all the music for free.
With access to millions of tunes via streaming services for free or a low monthly charge, it’s an amazing time to be a music fan. As more songs are being listened to by more people, it’s also a great era for musicians, so long as they have trust funds or married up or don’t mind a house full of roommates. Working musicians in Austin take home the same $50 per gig as they did 30, 40 years ago. But that doesn’t cover half their share of the rent anymore. Austin musicians getting priced out of Austin is a bit like Sherpa guides unable to find affordable housing in the Himalayas. But it’s happening.
These days, this town’s music reputation is built not on Austin talent but on festivals stocked with touring acts. South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits Music Festival and Fun Fun Fun Fest get all the attention and a lot of people make money when the town is invaded with wearers of badges and wristbands. But local musicians get barely a whiff of the windfall. Their job is to keep things chugging along when the town’s dead.
I’ve always felt that playing music was its own reward, but didn’t think that the theory would be put into practice. It’s a tough time to live in Austin and make music for a living, and still, there are Austin artists making great music, as evidenced by this hearty list. If there’s an overriding theme to the records I have selected as the best from local artists this year, it’s that none of these LPs were made to be in fashion or make money. The goal has not changed since Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan and thousands of others who chose music over the straight life walked these streets looking for stages. You want to write and play songs that connect with the listeners, the dancers, the folks who came out because they didn’t know what else to do — and went home inspired.
Austin has changed physically, but the artistic mindset is the same. Can our music reach you? These are the albums by Austin artists that moved me the most this year.
1. “Cheater’s Game” by Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison. Married since 1996, the singer who writes and the writer who sings have long worked on each other’s records, but “Cheater’s Game” is the first one credited as a duo. But this is less a Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty thing where they trade verses than a band record with two singers. Like the ’70s and ’80s country albums that served as inspiration, the foundation of “Cheater’s” is classic country, such as “9,999,999,” a Dickie Lee cover, and the original “Dreamin.’” But in true Americana fashion, pop/rock/folk touches abound. Produced in Nashville by Brad Jones, there’s not a false note on the whole record. And the Blasters’ “Border Radio” could be the cover of the year.
2. “American Sharks” by American Sharks. Smart hard rock without pretense is becoming rare, but this Houston-born, Austin-based power trio blasts nine teeth-rattling, head bobbing songs in 19 minutes to shake the mundane right out of your mind. The self-titled debut, co-produced with Brian Richie from the Sword, buys a round for Turbonegro, Red Fang and New Bomb Turks, then lays them out. All three — bassist/singer Mike Hardin, guitarist Will Ellis and drummer Nick Cornetti — don’t just play their parts, they become the rumble. When I play this on the freeway, I use cruise control or I might just go 100 mph.
3. “Silver Gymnasium” by Okkervil River. After 2011’s “I Am Very Far”’s deconstructed the more linear form of songwriting that made the band indie rock darlings with “Black Sheep Boy” and “The Stage Names,” songwriter/visionary Will Sheff went back to 1986 with a visit to his hometown of Meriden, N.H. This is revenge of the nerd, Pitchfork-style, as Sheff tries to make sense of a time when he felt both alienated and nourished. The LP’s centerpiece is a coupling of “Down Down the Deep River” and “Pink-Slips” that suggests what Springsteen would write if he grew up in a David Lynch small town. Recorded at the Church House studio in East Austin, “Gymnasium” creates a sound that’s both fist-pumping and knuckle-gnawing.
4. “American Kid” by Patty Griffin. Actually played the long-delayed “Silver Bell” much more, but since it was recorded (and rejected) in 2000, the also-great “Kid” is the sanctioned entry from Austin’s Artist of the Year. Griffin and co-producer Craig Ross (who also co-helmed “Silver Bell”) went to the Delta to get North Mississippi’s Dickinson brothers and made this record about family roots in Memphis to bask in the source. La Patty could sing on the moon and it would be the best reason to buy this record, but because she has such natural vocal talent, her songwriting is underrated. Play “Irish Boy” and imagine Tom Waits singing and you’ll see what I mean.
5. “Dream River” by Bill Callahan. Designed as the last record you hear before you go to sleep, the spare songs on “Dream River” are bathed in Callahan’s soft and sturdy baritone and patted dry by Beth Galiger’s flute and Matt Kinsey’s guitar. But lyrically, Callahan is wide awake. Hard to top “The Sing’s” description of a lonely man at a hotel bar “looking through a window that isn’t there.” “The only words he’s said all day are ‘beer’ and ‘thank you,’” Callahan sings, adding “beer/thank you/beer/thank you/beer” like the mantra of a dead man drinking. Recorded at Cacophony Studio by Erik Wofford, and released on Chicago’s hip and credible Drag City label, “Dream River” is a gorgeous album that stimulates as it sedates. Not a bad song or a broken spell.
6. “Gulf Coast Museum” by Shinyribs. This is the album that put the Gourds on hiatus. Co-frontman Kevin Russell made a very good solo spinoff with 2010’s “Well After Awhile” and its accidental anthem “Country Cool,” but the follow-up (also co-produced by George Reiff) is a more organic-sounding band collaborative. The roots country sound also found a new set of fans with the so-called “red dirt” country scene and, suddenly, the prolific Russell and Gourds drummer Keith Langford could make a living doing their own thing instead of having to wrangle the rest of the Gourds. And Shinyribs doesn’t have to do “Gin and Juice” every night.
7. “Unknown” by Bill Carter. The former Stevie Ray Vaughan/T-Birds songsmith experienced a writing spurt that excited him, so he called Austin’s go-to drummer Dony Wynn and they went into East Austin Recording without rehearsal to lay down 23 tracks in three hours. That session comprised 90 percent of an album that feels like Dylan in the ’70s, especially on opening track “Fire In the Wire,” but becomes its own thing on “Final Sacrifice,” a haunting number inspired by the idea of a son listening to his dead father’s music. For a graceful accent, the album contains “Anything Made of Paper,” which Carter and wife Ruth Ellsworth wrote about wrongly imprisoned Memphis 3 suspect Damian Echols, but then rocks on home with “That’s What I’m Doing Here.”
8. “The Runaround” by Wild Child. Caution: These songs will stay in your brain longer than you might feel comfortable with. Platonic musical partners Kelsey Wilson and Alexander Beggins prove 2011’s “Pillow Talk” wasn’t beginners’ luck with this Ben Kweller-produced follow-up that shows songwriting progress with “Here and Now,” “Anna Marie” and the title track. And yet they don’t lose the charming naivete. They’re the Austin breakout act of the year, but a complete lack of pretense makes their success hard to begrudge.
9. “Warren Hood Band.” Producer Charlie Sexton wrote intros for many of the songs on this self-titled LP, giving parlor space to new songs by violin virtuoso Hood, as well as old ones, such as Walter Hyatt’s “Motor City Man.” Though she’s the newest member of the band — which features Willie Pipkin on electric guitar — Emily Gimble would have stolen a weaker album with her sultry “Pear Blossom Highway.” But the best song could be the pop original “The More I See You,” which adds to an overall Lovin’ Spoonful feel. We know these musicians can play with fingers o’ fire, but the pocket groove soul is a satisfying surprise.
10. “#League S—-” by League of Extraordinary Gz. Wish this record wasn’t so uncomfortably explicit at times, but this racially mixed collective goes heavy without apologies. After the shocking death of spiritual leader Octavis Berry in 2011, the LOEG were in a daze for about a year. But “#League” spitfires out of the speakers with a galvanized appreciation of life. “My brother’s dead, but I’m still alive” is the sentiment on the opening track (featuring Grupo Fantasma) and it fuels the furious pace throughout. These guys are on a mission to honor through effort and the use of strange samples — which sound ripped from “blaxploitation” soundtracks — give an eerie echo. It’s gangsta with a conscience and probably the best hip-hop record to ever come out of the ATX.
11. “Churchwood 2” by Churchwood. Singer Joe Doerr and guitarist Bill Anderson go back more than 25 years together, with the great, underrated Ballad Shambles and then Hand of Glory. But the juices, made from creative pulp, are still overflowing. This record, which hammers massive blues riffs on top of lyrics based in French surrealism, doesn’t sound like anyone else. Imagine Howlin’ Wolf singing ”Aranzazu, you there in the briars/ the hounds pursue me and I’m redolent of fire” and you’re in Churchwood’s area code. The band also inadvertently had the video of the year when someone played “I Have a Devil In Me” on a YouTube clip of a fat guy in a thong dancing. Top that, Rimbaud!
12. “Still Fighting the War” by Slaid Cleaves. Some would put this wonderfully concise collection of songs higher, making this the year of New England in the ATX (like Griffin, he’s from Maine). Cleaves has long been one of the very best songwriters in town and a weightier sense of mortality makes this LP as good, if not better, than 2000’s career-making “Broke Down.” But Cleaves’ voice is just a little too plainspoken for me, giving this LP the feel of a song-plugger’s demo. But the lack of ornamentation fits such working class songs as “Rust Belt Fields,” where “no one remembers you for working hard” and the sad and poignant relationship recap “Gone.” And “God’s Own Yodeler” is the tribute Don Walser deserves.
13. “Ghost In the Attic” by Reed Turner. This Austin native, who did Nashville and Portland for awhile, has had a big year, winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Troubadour award in July and then releasing this Matt Noveskey-produced album, which is a step up from Turner’s promising debut EP. Turner has realized he’s not a folk singer but a pop star in waiting and with a sweet voice and tastily arranged backing, “Ghost” approaches adult contemporary without hesitation. This is a commercial-sounding record that fans of the Civil Wars will dig. But beyond the radio format ID, there’s a lot more going on than a lush chill in such songs as “Room for Doubt,” modern murder ballad “Killed That Girl (Cause She Was Killin’ Me)” and the sultry duet with Phoebe Hunt on “Long Gone.”
Honorable mention: “Sunday Morning Record” by Band of Heathens, “Corsicana Lemonade” by White Denim, “Electric Slave” by Black Joe Lewis, “Nineties” by Frank Smith, “Sweetheart of the Sun” by Greencards, “Burning Days” by Sons of Fathers, “Valentine” by Seela, “Rattle My Cage” by Patricia Vonne, “You Can’t Fall Off the Floor” by What Made Milwaukee Famous, “Bone” by A Giant Dog, “Build Me Up From Bones” by Sarah Jarosz, “Dupree” by Dupree, “Say Grace” by Sam Baker, “El Rancho Azul” by Dale Watson, “Nectar” by Wendy Colonna, “The Wild and Hollow” by Colin Gilmore, “Old-Fashioned Gal” by the Carper Family, “Fever Forms” by the Octopus Project.
(Note: “Sway” by Blue October is one of my favorite records, but the members are from Houston and live in San Marcos, so I don’t consider them an Austin band. The very good “Way Down Low” was also ruled out because Kat Edmonson released a slightly different version in 2012, before it was released by Sony this year.)