In a year defined by political rancor and divisiveness nationally and affordability issues at home, Austin music surged forward in a wide range of genres. Among a surplus of quality local releases in 2016, these rose to the top.
TOP 10 LOCAL ALBUMS
David Halley, “A Month of Somedays.” The long-awaited return of one of Austin’s best songwriters of the 1980s and early ’90s lived up to the reputation he earned during that heyday. Producer Will Sexton led an ace backing cast that included Halley’s former bandmates J.D. Foster and Rich Brotherton.
Shearwater, “Jet Plane and Oxbow.” Jonathan Meiburg’s adventurous indie-rock ensemble has long been one of Austin’s most intriguing bands, but they sounded freshly re-energized with these inventive and accessible tunes that addressed sociopolitical concerns on very personal terms.
Eric Johnson, “EJ.” Long renowned for his electric guitar mastery, Johnson turned toward a more intimate means of expression on a mix of vocal and instrumental tunes that placed his acoustic guitar and piano playing in the spotlight.
Jeremy Nail, “My Mountain.” Partly a document of Nail’s hard battle with cancer, the folk-rock songs on this Alejandro Escovedo-produced album didn’t shrink from hard truths, and they emerged from darkness with an inspiring spirit of hope and resolve.
The Deer, “Tempest & Rapture.” Marrying melodic-pop instincts to inventive arrangements and rhythms, the eclectic outfit with San Marcos roots delivered 17 tracks that go down easy even when the music is complicated.
Katie Shore, “Fall Away.” The virtuosic fiddler and singer, a rising star in recent years with western swing kingpins Asleep at the Wheel, stepped out confidently on a solo debut that wove together sultry gypsy jazz, sweet folk-rock, stark torch balladry and more.
Harvest Thieves, “Rival.” A contemporary heir to the hard-twang sounds pioneered two decades ago by the likes of the Old 97’s and the Jayhawks, this band fronted by singer-songwriter Cory Reinisch captured both the tunefulness of their material and the energy of their live shows in a full-length debut.
Croy & the Boys, “Hey Come Back.” Working with renowned local producer Adrian Quesada, Corey “Croy” Baum mixed country traditionalism with an indie sensibility and tinges of Tejano influence on a debut album that established his band as one of Austin’s most intriguing up-and-comers.
Hayes Carll, “Lovers and Leavers.” Setting aside his more rowdy roadhouse persona, Carll honed in on the troubadour-storytelling style that largely drew him to play music in the first place, revealing a more tender side that resulted in some of the best songs of his career.
Mood Illusion, “Strangers in the Night and Other Favorites.” Pedal steel guitarist Bob Hoffnar pushed the instrument’s boundaries far into jazz and experimental territory on this fascinating instrumental disc that combined original compositions with creative variations on the canons of Sinatra, Stephen Foster and Abba.
Honorable mention: Michael Fracasso, “Here Come the Savages”; Bonnie Whitmore, “(Expletive) With Sad Girls”; Basketball Shorts, “Hot and Ready”; East Cameron Folkcore, “Better Off”; Rick Broussard’s Two Hoots & a Holler, “Time Has Shown Me”; Tele Novella, “House of Souls”; Johnny Nicholas, “Fresh Air”; Bill Kirchen & Austin de Lone, “Transatlanticana”; Cotton Mather, “Death of the Cool”; John Evans, “Polyster”; Greyhounds, “Change of Pace”; Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow, “From the Forest Came the Fire”; Bill Carter, “Innocent Victims & Evil Companions”; Don Leady & His Rockin’ Revue, “Poppy Toppy Gone;” Folk Uke, “Star(expletive).”
Deborah Sengupta Stith
Third Root, “Libertad.” In 2016, ATX hip-hop artists stood up, refused to remain in the shadows and took their rightful places as the necessary voice of the bleeding streets. This Central Texas crew put out an epic work of rap scholarship that taps into our city’s “Soul Force” with a host of cameos. “The revolution won’t go viral,” O.G. Bavu Blakes drawls as the album builds to a climax. He’s right. These guys are playing the grassroots long game, building their uplift philosophy into a national movement.
Money Chicha, “Echo en Mexico.” Using fuzzed-out cumbia grooves as a springboard for abstract accordion and guitar acrobatics, this acid trip of a Grupo Fantasma offshoot mixes Latin American sounds with psychedelia for a release that sounds like it could have been recorded in Lee Perry’s Black Ark, yet remains quintessentially Austin.
A Giant Dog, “Pile.” The major label debut from these Austin garage scene stalwarts is a glam punk explosion of bawdy, bar-room bruisers. The band rips through 15 songs in just under 40 minutes, playing with a furious intensity that is both ecstatic and apocalyptic. Even at the party at the end of the world we still “believe in those who believe in rock ‘n’ roll.”
MDK, “Foursight.” Native Austinites, raised in our city’s downtrodden corners and nurtured by the ATX hip-hop scene since they were teens, this four-piece crew chants down gentrification, police brutality, poverty and injustice to make a rousing call for unity on their powerful full-length debut.
Melat, “MeVen.” Over the past couple years, the Ethiopian-American R&B singer been rising through the alt-R&B underground in Texas and beyond. Her latest is a gorgeous collection of silky love songs, laced with lush atmospherics, discordant electronics and a persistent melancholy ache. — D.S.S.
Tomar and the FCs, “Heart Attack.” Tomar Williams cut his musical teeth playing and singing with his family band as a child. In the late ’90s, alongside brother Salih, he formed Carnival Beats, a hip-hop production powerhouse that helped define the Texas rap sound. The debut full-length from his scorching soul project alternates mean licks and head-whipping, hip-twitching grooves with earnest slow burners you feel deep in your soul.
Tele Novella, “House of Souls.” Appropriately enough, this psych pop platter dropped in late September. Like the fleeting brightness of summer love, its lilting melodies are colored by inescapable sadness. Gorgeously crafted instrumental textures highlight wistful lyricism on this fully realized release.
Mama K and the Shades “Honey Made.” Reeling from the sudden loss of co-founder David McKnight, who died in a swimming accident in 2015, the 10-piece powerhouse made it their mission to complete his work. The result is a stunning debut that alternates between swaggering funk grooves with breakneck beats and soulful baby-makers that ache with heart.
Dominican Jay, “Reality Rap.” With grimy beats, soulful Southern hooks and gritty street rhymes, this solo joint delivers everything fans of the ATX hip-hop supercrew League of Extraordinary Gz have been missing, including a feature from their late brother Esbe the Sixth Street Bully.
Golden Dawn Arkestra “Stargazer.” God (Goddess?) bless these avant jazz innovators with their grandiose vision and sprawling grooves for evolving the concept of Austin weird into a magnificent interstellar pageant we can all get with.
Honorable mention: Explosions in the Sky, “Wilderness”; Brownout “Brown Sabbath, Vol. 2”; Magna Carda “Cirqlation”; Capyac, “Headlunge”; Hard Proof, “Public Hi-Fi Sessions 03”; Holilday Mountain, “Shia”; Echocentrics, “Echo Hotel”; Tameca Jones, “Naked”; Tank Washington, “Pain”; Tee Double, “Black Mics Matter;” Megafauna, “Welcome Home”; Basketball Shorts, “Hot and Ready”; Jonny Jukebox, “Adonis XIV.”
OTHER PROMINENT LOCAL RELEASES
Willie Nelson, “Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin” and “For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price.” Austin’s No. 1 Citizen celebrated his recent Gershwin Prize with a tribute to brothers George & Ira, and also paid respects to his late, longtime friend Price.
Survive, “RR7349.” The electronica duo’s theme music for the Netflix smash “Stranger Things” made them Austin’s surprise national breakout act of 2016.
Jamestown Revival, “The Education of a Wandering Man.” Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance continued to raise their Americana profile with their second record on major label Republic.
The Wind + the Wave, “Happiness Is Not a Place.” Pop duo Patricia Lynn and Dwight Baker also released their second major-label album in 2016, but they moved from RCA to Island for this one.
Jack Ingram, “Midnight Motel.” The Texas troubadour’s first record in seven years featured rambling intros and background chatter that pulled listeners inside an intimate recording experience.
Reckless Kelly, “Sunset Motel.” The Idaho-bred Americana band that moved to Austin 20 years ago revisited their roots by returning to Arlyn Studios, where they recorded their 1998 debut. The album’s packaging earned a Grammy nomination.
Blue October, “Home.” The Austin/San Marcos-via-Houston outfit delivered radio-ready songs leaning toward the commercial-pop end of the alternative-rock spectrum, drawing more from classic ’80s new-wave than from the contemporary indie realm.
Robert Earl Keen, “Live Dinner Reunion.” A sequel to Keen’s fan-favorite 1996 live album found the raconteur and his band returning to John T. Floore’s Country Store near San Antonio.
Shawn Colvin & Steve Earle, “Colvin & Earle.” Only half of this is local, as Colvin has called Austin home since the mid-’90s, but Earle is a native Texan, and the two found common ground on tracks both old and new.
Randy Rogers Band, “Nothing Shines Like Neon.” The San Marcos country institution drove home its ballads and boot-scooters with plenty of twanging guitars and sweet fiddle runs.
Carrie Rodriguez + the Sacred Hearts, “Lola.” Long renowned in Americana circles, singer-songwriter and fiddler Rodriguez branched out with her first bilingual album.
White Denim, “Stiff.” Leader James Petralli regrouped after two members moved to Leon Bridges’ band, recording more tight R&B-influenced rock with noted producer Ethan Johns.
Matthew Logan Vasquez, “Solicitor Returns.” Nearly a true solo album, this 10-song rock and pop set from the Delta Spirit frontman features him playing almost all of the instruments.
Brownout, “Brown Sabbath, Vol. 2.” One volume of Latin-funk takes on Black Sabbath metal just wasn’t enough, so Brownout followed up its acclaimed 2014 album with a sequel.
Dale Watson, “Under the Influence” and “Live at the Big T Roadhouse.” Austin’s omnipresent honky-tonker cranked out a tribute to many of his country heroes and a live album recorded at his bar in San Antonio.
The Sword, “Low Country.” Last year’s Adrian Quesada-produced “High Country” was a bold creative step for these metal heavyweights, and “Low Country” pushed even further, with acoustic versions of the previous record’s main tracks.
Israel Nash & Bright Light Social Hour, “Neighbors” EP. Just three songs, but an auspicious pairing of two prominent local acts who have pushed psychedelia in fascinating rock and folk directions, respectively.
Explosions in the Sky, “The Wilderness.” The atmospheric soundscape masters issued their first album in five years after doing soundtracks for three films.
Black Pistol Fire, “Don’t Wake the Riot.” The Toronto-born, Austin-based duo’s barrage of furious guitar licks and tortured vocals over hard-driving drums resulted in some of the best garage rock to come from a city that prides itself on rocking garages.
Terri Hendrix, “Love You Strong.” A fairly traditional country-folk album, this launched Hendrix’s adventurous “Project 5” series that included a bluesy EP and a still-to-come book.
Jesse Dayton, “The Revealer.” After touring as a guitarist with punk legends X and in X leader John Doe’s band, Dayton returned to his own music for his first record in five years, one that bristles with barroom rock ’n’ roll energy.
My Jerusalem, “A Little Death.” Leader Jeff Klein and his bandmates’ third album was a largely dark and haunting rock affair, with high-profile cameos from Elle King and Erika Wennerstrom.
The L, “I Will Find You No Matter What: The Songs of Luc and Bob Schneider.” The locally omnipresent Schneider wrote and recorded these 14 songs with his son, who’s now 11 years old, over the span of many years.
Residual Kid, “Salsa” EP. The first Warner Bros. release from the Austin teen band featured hard-edged yet melodic songs attuned to the ’90s heyday of post-Nirvana alternative rock.
Meat Loaf, “Braver Than We Are.” The only surprise greater than the resurgence of the melodramatic Mr. Loaf was the news that he now apparently lives in Austin.
TOP 5 EPS/MIXTAPES
Deborah Sengupta Stith
Mobley, “Some Other Country.” He packs an arsenal of soulful dance pop, loaded with instant singalong hooks. His arena-rocking charisma makes his stage show electrifying even when he’s doing it solo. His Spotify spins are in the hundreds of thousands and he’s on the road relentlessly. This time next year we will all be talking about Mobley.
Various artists, “Slack Capital Compilation.” Austin Town Hall Records’ Nathan Lankford and Big Bill’s Eric Braden are your tour guides on a sweaty, body-bashing scuffle through Austin’s garage rock and punk underground. It’s an excellent snapshot of a scene raging against and evolving within our rapidly changing city.
Keeper, “Corners.” Abandoning the slick mix of eurocool club grooves and ‘90’s R&B throwback vibes that defined their early work, the self-described synth soul outfit’s new release has the ominous atmosphere of a fractured fairy tale. Moving slowly through a turbulent dreamscape where imminent heartbreak lurks in the shadows, the four-song suite is their strongest work yet.
Riders Against the Storm, “RE:Mixtape.” This thoroughly engrossing collection showcased the husband/wife hip-hop team’s versatility. “RE:Fresh,” a remix of Lianne le Havas’ “Green and Gold,” is one of the most beautiful love songs I heard anywhere this year.
C.A.K.E., “2016 Mixtape.” Anastasia, the “Kale and Yoga” pimping rapper formerly known as Anya, also put out an excellent solo mixtape this year, but this blockbuster collection, featuring nine top talents from Austin’s hip-hop, R&B and reggae scene, soars. In a year defined by divisiveness, these women reminded us of an alternative world — one where we all rise together.
Jon Dee Graham, “Knoxville Skyline.” Five new songs from the longtime Austin rocker and singer-songwriter sway strongly toward the personal. From start to finish, a perfectly constructed half-album.
Jonathan Terrell, “Color Me Lucky.” Terrell’s hard-hitting rock band Not in the Face got some major-league attention and his more country-leaning solo material was an intriguing turn, but everything comes together on these acoustic-based rock tracks.
Migrant Kids, “Primordial Soup.” The trio of Miguel Ojeda, John Zakoor and Bryan O’Flynn tapped into an enchanting mix of dance-oriented contemporary pop and old-school new wave, and the single “Thread” was one of Austin’s best songs of the year.
Nightowls, “Royal Sessions.” Following last year’s “Fame Sessions” album recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the old-school soul revivalists traveled to Royal Studios in Memphis for another historically inspired recording experience.
Kathryn Legendre, “Don’t Give a Damn.” Building on the country-folk foundation of her 2013 debut album “Old Soul,” Legendre served up four new original tunes ringing out with Texas twang.
OUR FAVORITE NATIONAL ALBUMS
Deborah Sengupta Stith
1. Beyonce, “Lemonade”
2. Solange, “A Seat at the Table”
3. Chance the Rapper, “Coloring Book”
4. Various artists, “The Hamilton Mixtape”
5. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service”
6. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
7. Mitski, “Puberty 2”
8. Emeli Sande, “Long Live the Angels”
9. Frank Ocean, “Blonde”
10. Kaytranada, “99.9%”
1. David Bowie, “Blackstar”
2. Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”
3. Drive-By Truckers, “American Band”
4. Margo Price, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”
5. Lydia Loveless, “Real”
6. Case/Lang/Veirs, self-titled
9. Basia Bulat, “Good Advice”
8. Alejandro Escovedo, “Burn Something Beautiful”
9. Sarah Jarosz, “Undercurrent”
10. Robbie Fulks, “Upland Stories”
1. Frank Ocean, “Blonde”
2. Mitski, “Puberty 2”
3. Basia Bulat, “Good Advice”
4. Bon Iver, “22, A Million”
5. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Emotion B-Sides”
6. Beyoncé, “Lemonade”
7. Kanye West, “The Life of Pablo”
8. Blood Orange, “Freetown Sound”
9. American Football, “American Football (LP2)”
10. Lucy Dacus, “No Burden”