What were the best things about Austin music in 2017? Every year about this time, we come up with answers, offering our favorite bands, records, venues and the like. But we recognize that while we strive to evaluate records on their critical merits, the process is ultimately subjective.
This year we decided to cast the net wider. We asked dozens of locals with deep knowledge of Austin’s music community to submit nominations, and then cast votes on the finalists, for our first-ever Austin360 Awards.
We’ve kept it simple in this inaugural year, with seven categories: Artist, Album, Song, Breakout Act, DJ/Dance Party, Venue and Residency. Here are the winners and finalists in each category.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: SWEET SPIRIT
Any musician will tell you: Talent is important, but it’s not everything. The artists who top this poll are sonically diverse, but they all have one thing in common: an unfailing work ethic. They push themselves. They evolve. They keep getting better.
There is no pair in Austin music who worked harder this year than Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen. 2017 was a banner year for both the bands they lead: Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog. Each released a very good album. Between multiple tours promoting them, the bands barely touched down in Austin for more than a couple of weeks at a time.
A Giant Dog’s well-established fan base demands rowdy punk bruisers, so Sweet Spirit, the pair’s newer project, becomes a catchall for everything else. “We’ll do a disco song or we’ll do a country song or stuff like that, stuff that I’d never let A Giant Dog do because I want to keep it this punk outfit. I don’t think we’re afraid to do anything in Sweet Spirit,” Cashen said before the band’s Steve Berlin-produced album “St. Mojo” dropped in April.
Lead track “Power” is a hard-driving rock ’n’ roll call to arms. Follow-up single “The Mighty” turns a wistful, power ballad interpretation of a beatitude into an underdog anthem. Ellis channels Dolly Parton on a sweet little country ditty, “Far From Home,” and the album also includes a pop ode to Pamela Anderson.
But we think it’s the band’s live shows that sold our jury on Sweet Spirit. They perform with a brink-of-chaos, ecstatic energy that’s impossible to resist. After a year spent destroying stages across the country, their final Austin gig of 2017 closed out public radio station KUTX’s family-friendly Live at Mueller concert series. The kids went wild.
In the eyes of hundreds of young Austinites, Sabrina Ellis is cooler than Taylor Swift. That’s a beautiful ray of hope to take forward to 2018. — D.S.S.
Magna Carda. On the 2017 EP “Somewhere Between,” this live band hip-hop crew builds on the success of its excellent 2016 album “Cirqlation” by pushing forward in new sonic directions. It opens with Megz Kelli spitting a lyrical blitz of bravado and fury into a grimy echo chamber of club-bumping electro noise on club anthem “Joccin’.” A few tracks later, they slow it down and indulge in sublime loveliness as Megz’s rhymes float through into lush harmonies courtesy of local trio Keeper. Over a three-year period, their live show has transformed from engaging to electrifying, and with the city at their back (they came very close to topping this poll) it looks like 2018 might be the year ATX hip-hop finally sees a national breakout. — D.S.S.
READ MORE: Magna Carda grows into its own
Shinyribs. It’s been a gradual build for Kevin Russell’s genre-defying band, which grew from a small side-project during his Gourds days into an eight-piece outfit centered on Russell’s bigger-than-life performance persona. One minute he’s writhing around onstage in ecstasy, the next he’s leading a conga-line of audience members through the crowd. Russell has consciously kept the band regional in focus, but 2017 was a big year: Their fourth album, “I Got Your Medicine,” helped get them a fall taping of “Austin City Limits,” which will introduce them to national and international audiences. — P.B.
A Giant Dog. After pushing AGD at South by Southwest this year, Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen shifted gears to focus on the April Sweet Spirit release. But in late June, just as we were starting to miss them, they hit us with the video for “Bendover,” a lusty, leather-clad, summer scorcher that rocked us into submission, readying us for the sexy, sweaty madness of album “Toy.” — D.S.S.
Spoon. Any year that involves a new record from leader Britt Daniel, drummer Jim Eno and their bandmates would probably automatically make them artist-of-the-year finalists. (It’s worth noting that this year’s winner, Sweet Spirit, is a band that Daniel has championed.) A creative record-release bash during SXSW in which they played three straight nights at the old Emo’s (rechristened “Eno’s” for the occasion) kicked off a busy year of touring that included a “Tonight Show” appearance and stops at major festivals including Austin City Limits Music Festival in October. — P.B.
RELATED: Spoon steals the show at ACL Fest
BREAKOUT ACT: JACKIE VENSON
The 28-year-old blues guitarist’s career has been on a steady upward arc since she released her debut album “The Light in Me” in 2014, as evidenced by her guest slot in the “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” band in 2016. But this was a big year for her, one that put Venson in front of national audiences with the help of a fellow hometown guitar star. Gary Clark Jr. chose Venson as his opening act for many dates on his 2017 summer tour, and this fall, she released “Transcends,” an auspicious EP that followed last year’s live record.
“Elements of rock, soul, blues, pop and more wind through the danceable grooves of this five-song release from the fast-rising local singer-songwriter and guitarist,” we wrote in a September review of “Transcends.” “Venson is inclined toward socially conscious lyrics, as on ‘Fight,’ in which she vows to ‘open my eyes and fight the good fight.’”
Venson, a Berklee College of Music grad, also toured Europe this year, and in July she got one of Austin’s prime summertime gigs when she played KGSR’s popular Blues on the Green series in Zilker Park with Shinyribs. December brought another big accomplishment: At local music patron organization Black Fret’s annual Paramount gala, Venson was one of 10 Austin musicians awarded an $18,000 grant. — P.B.
Survive. The timing on this one was a little tricky, as the local electronica outfit’s big break actually was last year, when the runaway-hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” made its debut with Survive’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein composing the theme music. But a lot of that carried over into this year. At the 2017 Grammys, both volumes of their “Stranger Things” soundtracks were nominated for best soundtrack score for visual media. They lost to John Williams’ latest “Star Wars” work, but in September the Emmys awarded them the trophy for outstanding original main title theme music. — P.B.
Mélat. “I just had to turn down four gigs this week. A year ago I was begging people to play,” the dreamy neo-soul singer told us right before ACL Fest this year. The UT graduate with the haunting doe eyes and cascade of white-blonde curls has been slowly bubbling on the alternative R&B underground in Texas and beyond for several years. We fell in love with her late 2016 release “MéVen,” a fully realized collection rooted in a dark and moody alternative R&B sound that beautifully showcases her smoky pipes, and made her our first 2017 Austin360 Artist of the Month. The rest of the city caught the same bug. — D.S.S.
Tomar & the FCs. Tomar Williams has a storied history in Austin music that spans three decades. It includes stints fronting an R&B pop outfit with his siblings as a teen and crafting grooves for iconic Texas rap songs as part of the production house Carnival Beats in his 30s. With his new project, the 49-year-old frontman of Tomar & the FCs inhabits rafter-rattling shack shakers and heart-searing serenades. After he sizzled through his ACL Fest set this fall it was abundantly clear: Austin has a new king of rock ’n’ soul. — D.S.S.
Missio. Commenting with his final ballot in our Austin360 Awards voting, V. Marc Fort of the Texas Music Office observed: “Missio deserves all the props (even if they don’t win the day in these awards, as their international success feels mostly lost on Austin audiences). They blew my face off with their one-song performance at a recent Austin Music Video Fest, quietly navigated a bidding war and signed a deal with RCA, and released a straight-up fire debut LP that mixes soaring rock anthems with bone-shaking EDM and electro beats. By evidence of the millions upon millions of YouTube views, Missio has the potential to be Austin’s next platinum-selling (sales-equivalent via streaming) artist.”
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SPOON, “HOT THOUGHTS”
After leaving Merge Records for a one-album return to the major-label ranks with 2014’s “They Want My Soul,” Spoon went back to the label that put out its debut two decades ago, Matador, for “Hot Thoughts.” How to measure the results? In terms of chart position, “Hot Thoughts” was a little bit of a dip, topping out at No. 17 after three straight records that had reached the top 10.
Artistically, though, it seemed a clear success, as our poll’s voters acknowledged. On “They Want My Soul,” Spoon split production duties between Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann; they appear to have been more comfortable with the latter, as they reconvened with Fridmann for “Hot Thoughts.”
Our take upon the album’s release in March: “The key to Spoon’s long career is their ability to sonically reinvent themselves with each record while adhering to an artistic sensibility that unifies their entire catalog. That’s certainly the case on ‘Hot Thoughts,’ which features 10 tracks that find leader Britt Daniel continuing to push the boundaries of creativity as a songwriter, from the instant-connection rhythmic pop of the title track to keyboard-driven mood piece ‘I Ain’t the One’ to the fascinating five-minute instrumental ‘Us’ that closes the record. ‘Shotgun’ even gets in some local references, name-checking Rock & Roll Rentals and the Continental (a nice rhyme scheme).”
In a Statesman feature on the band before its ACL Fest appearance in October, freelance writer Chad Swiatecki observed: “‘Hot Thoughts’ finds the band sounding decidedly synthy and almost Radiohead-ish in spots, musically speaking, with lead singer Britt Daniel’s pointed and personable lyrics still acting as the band’s unique identifier. It’s still very much a Spoon album — singles ‘Can I Sit Next to You’ and ‘Do I Have to Talk You Into It’ are among the band’s catchiest songs ever — but it’s one where keyboardist Alex Fischel makes is presence more known than ever.”
In the long run, where will “Hot Thoughts” rank in Spoon’s extensive discography? Too early to tell, but it’s a fair bet that the album will rise to the upper half. — P.B.
A Giant Dog, “Toy.” It’s fitting that the only Austin band to top AGD in this category is Spoon. Britt Daniel has been the band’s biggest champion, and he deserves a lot of credit for introducing them to Merge Records and the rest of the world. Their second Merge release, which follows last year’s “Pile,” explodes with the anarchic energy that made Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen’s glam punk hooligans Austin’s top dive bar destroyers. But it’s not all grit and grime. The album is locked and loaded with flashy hooks and top-of-the-lung singalongs. — D.S.S.
Black Angels, “Death Song.” Freelance writer Bryan Rolli, who voted in our poll, had this to say about the psychedelic band’s fifth album in a Statesman feature story about the group earlier this year: “Musically, ‘Death Song’ bears all the requisite psych-rock hallmarks: ethereal vocals, slabs of guitar feedback, militant marching tempos that owe themselves at least peripherally to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit.’ Yet it also gently pushes the subgenre’s boundaries via blistering guitar leads on ‘Currency,’ the forceful waltz of ‘Comanche Moon’ and the seductive space-grooves of ‘I Dreamt.’ Lyrically, the album offers vicious, paranoid ruminations on greed and corruption.”
Molly Burch, “Please Be Mine.” The debut album from this Los Angeles-raised guitarist and singer-songwriter who moved to Austin after studying music in college in North Carolina mixed elements of troubadour folk, old-school torch jazz and lo-fi indie-pop, centered on Burch’s engaging and distinctive vocal delivery. — P.B.
Octopus Project, “Memory Mirror.” The first (nonsoundtrack) release in four years from Austin’s premier art rock outfit is an adventurous platter. It’s a cinematic journey through the looking glass where psychedelic loops and muscular guitar riffs crash up against wafting melodies that ache with nostalgia then fade back into the dreamscape. — D.S.S.
SONG OF THE YEAR: WILLIE NELSON, “STILL NOT DEAD”
Here’s a case where the winning entry not only recognizes an artist’s stellar work of achievement this year, it also helps to tell what 2017 was like for them. Back in January, fans were a bit worried: First Nelson called off a string of Las Vegas shows, and then he had to cancel three California dates. At 83, was he finally maybe not able to keep going “On the Road Again”?
So we checked up on Willie when he played the San Antonio rodeo in February, and we were pleased to report that it was one of the best shows we’d ever seen him play. It included a perfect message of assurance to fans, a humorous new song he’d recently written with his producer Buddy Cannon about the rumors that have been flying for years.
“I woke up still not dead again today,” he sang. “The news said I was gone, to my dismay. Don’t bury me, I’ve got a show to play. And I woke up still not dead again today.”
In April, that song surfaced on “God’s Problem Child,” which we contended was the best album Nelson had released since the 1990s. “Still Not Dead” is a novelty song, yes, but its lighthearted message and melody offered a dose of good news and good humor that was hard to come by in 2017. — P.B.
Sweet Spirit, “The Power.” When the band debuted this song, playing it live during their 2016 fall tour, fans assumed they wrote it for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Later this year, it became the theme song for Samsung’s pinnacle product, the Galaxy Note. But “the power” referenced in the foot stomping, rock ’n’ roll call to arms was never meant to be that specific. It’s a general empowerment anthem for anyone feeling downtrodden. “It’s about whatever you need it to be, because that’s what we’re saying: It’s inside yourself,” Sabrina Ellis says. — D.S.S.
Mobley, “Tell Me.” Like most of the tracks on Mobley’s excellent 2016 EP, “Some Other Country,” “Tell Me” has the feel of a catchy love song. You don’t get the full intensity of the song’s deeper meaning until you watch the video. It’s a savvy short film that opens with what Mobley calls “hipster porn,” a beautiful woman dancing to the song in her living room. The scene turns dark when Mobley, singing in the front yard next door, suffers a devastating take down at the hands of the police after the woman we thought was our heroine calls the police. We realize that when he sings, “Tell me what you want me to be,” he’s speaking not as a lover, but as a black man in America. “I think there are things that you can illuminate with metaphors sometimes, but you can’t say them directly,” he says. This is Mobley’s brilliance. He can deliver a gut punch of a message while making you dance. — D.S.S.
READ MORE: Mobley’s pop packs a meaningful punch
Black Angels, “Currency.” The song that seemed to connect most deeply on the band’s “Death Song” album was this darkly impressionistic five-minute rumination on the effects of greed on an increasingly dystopian society. “Print and print the money that you spend/Spend and spend the money that you print,” they chant, digging at the deep soullessness of chasing green paper trails. — P.B.
Missio, “Middle Fingers.” The ATX electronic duo set out to trash models and Perrier with this instantly memorable youth anthem. But months of hurricanes, earthquakes and political strife later, their smash hit feels like it might as well be the theme song for 2017. — D.S.S.
DJ/DANCE PARTY OF THE YEAR: CHULITA VINYL CLUB
The all-vinyl DJ collective for self-identifying women of color was founded in Austin by Claudia Saenz in 2014, and in the three years since, it has grown into a national organization with seven chapters in Texas and California. With 15 members, the Austin branch is the second largest.
The women of CVC are music aficionados and fervent record collectors, but Austin chapter leader Xochi Solis says the crew’s mission “goes way deeper.”
“It’s wanting to have conversations not only about music and our vinyl collections but also about the cultural impacts of archiving and telling our own narrative,” she says.
Case in point: Their Soundcloud currently features a mix by Colombian native Ana Calle aka DJ LaPhDj, an Austin CVC member who’s also a music scholar. The songs are from forgotten 45s, unearthed at secondhand record stores on a research trip to Lima, Peru. Other tracks come from their family’s collections. Songs that have defined their communities.
The crew travels with a posse, and their gigs have become gathering spaces for like-minded music fans. They take to heart a slogan commonly printed on vintage Latin American records: “el disco es cultura,” which translates to “the record is culture.”
“It’s about us celebrating our culture through music and the enjoyment of a safe dance floor,” Solis says. — D.S.S.
DJ Mel. When Nasty’s changed hands this year, Mel was forced to shutter his weekly residency on Monday nights at the club. It was the longest-running hip-hop weekly in the state of Texas, an event that shaped the collegiate years of many generations of UT students. It was astonishing that even after rocking big stages at ACL Fest and Lollapalooza and becoming President Barack Obama’s personal DJ, he continued to return to the north campus dive. It was the end of an era when he was shut down. But fear not, Austin’s top party rocker still plays plenty of local gigs, including his regular Rock the Casbah parties, which provide the alternate ’80s prom soundtrack you never had. — D.S.S.
Jimmy Eat Wednesdays at Barbarella. Our Statesman social media editor Eric Webb, who also voted in our poll, offers: “C’mon, do it like Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump always said: Dance, dance. You always hear about how you’re supposed to find your tribe, and Austin’s MySpace diaspora unites every first Wednesday at Barbarella for a night of emo and pop-punk catharsis. Want to get soaking wet on a work night to ‘Ocean Avenue’? Perhaps sing the requiem of ‘At Your Funeral’ like it’s a radio banger? Strap on those Vans and get to moshing.”
Body Rock. Every month for nearly eight years, DJ Chorizo Funk and Chaka and Qi Dada from Riders Against the Storm have been hosting this throwdown. The party is essentially the temple of “Booty Sweat,” and the hosts invite you to dance away any toxins and leave feeling lifted. — D.S.S.
Peligrosa. Ten years ago, a trio of DJs decided to shake up Austin’s dance music scene with irresistible rhythms from around the world. Over the next decade, they built on that vibe to grow a mighty collective that now boasts over a dozen members from across the state, a record label and a vibrant monthly residency that serves as home base (and community safe space) for a variety of dance fanatics. — D.S.S.
VENUE OF THE YEAR: MOHAWK
There’s a reason this beloved local spot regularly appears on national lists of the best venues in the country. The sound is fantastic, and the layout is well-designed and easy to navigate. Outside, the upper deck provides a fine stage view for the vertically challenged among us, and the indoor space is intimate and cozy. There’s even a fireplace.
The club presents a well-curated roster of acts that run the gamut from punk legends to hip-hop upstarts and all kinds of indie rock in between.
Then there is the staff. “These are people who love their jobs, love this world,” general manager Cody Cowan once told us. “Most of the time (they) have been coming out since they were kids, just obsessed with the music world and the lifestyle … (they made) a very conscious decision to live life in that sort of world.”
The club’s motto is “All are welcome,” and the reason it’s so special is because you can feel the love. — D.S.S.
Continental Club. I’m still kind of scratching my head at how the venue that got the secret Killers show during ACL Fest finished second in this category. But then the Continental’s true value to Austin is less about high-profile events — even with occasional touring aces such as Grammy-winners Dave Alvin and Bill Frisell — and more about its residencies that have long made it a home base for much of the city’s top talent. Late 2017 marked 30 years since Steve Wertheimer took over the historic South Congress room, and this year was one of his best. — P.B.
ACL Live. No marquee hall in Austin is more important to the city’s identity than the place where “Austin City Limits” tapings happen, but that’s just one part of this theater’s value. My own highlights here this year included Brian Wilson, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile, Patty Griffin with Anais Mitchell, and Ringo Starr, but ask anyone else and they might mention five other top-notch touring shows. Another banner year for the Moody wraps up with Willie Nelson’s traditional three-night New Year’s stand. — P.B.
Empire. In the four years since it opened, Steve Sternschein and crew have transformed this former auto shop into one of the finest midsize venues in town. Recent improvements to the bathrooms and the addition of benches in the Control Room were welcome upgrades, but bookings make a club, and Empire’s monthly calendar is adventurous, mixing ample hip-hop, electronic music and DJ parties with good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll. — D.S.S.
Barracuda. The magnificent renovation award goes to Jason McNeely. In two years he transformed one of the Red River district’s diviest dives into an unpretentious beer garden with ample seating areas and a beautiful antique bar. The brilliant part? Many of the noise outfits and punks who called the old club home play the new space. — D.S.S.
RESIDENCY OF THE YEAR: AUSTIN MIC EXCHANGE AT SPIDER HOUSE
Leah Manners, host of KOOP Radio’s “Hip-hop Hooray,” and rapper Adam Protextor launched a weekly hip-hop open mic event at Spider House Ballroom five years ago. Their aim was to create a space for young emcees on the local hip-hop scene to develop and connect with like-minded artists. They built it, and the people came. The event rapidly grew into a vibrant and creative scene.
All emcees were welcome on their stage, and they made special efforts to encourage women who rap. Through their run, they hosted over 300 shows, events they say were marked by “dopeness, rhymes, community and building something bigger than ourselves.”
Though they continue to promote events under the Austin Mic Exchange banner, their decision to retire the weekly in September left a hole in the heart of the ATX hip-hop scene. The event’s legacy will live on through the countless Austin emcees who found courage to develop their craft on the Spider House stage.
Spoon at “Eno’s” during SXSW. Everything about this idea was genius, from Spoon’s decision to trade a ballyhooed outdoor record-release for a string of intimate club shows to the renaming of the old Emo’s space in honor of Spoon’s drummer. Mostly we were looking for long-standing or continuing residencies with this category, but it’s nice that the band’s creativity was recognized. — P.B.
Carrie Rodriguez Laboratorio at Cactus Cafe. Singer-songwriter and fiddler Rodriguez started this midyear residency “to delve deeper into the diverse genres within Latin music,” the Statesman’s Nancy Flores wrote in a column on the series. Top local musicians such as keyboardist Michael Ramos and bassist Roscoe Beck joined her, and each month featured a stellar special guest from the community (including Gina Chavez and Adrian Quesada). Here’s hoping Rodriguez picks this back up in 2018. — P.B.
James McMurtry/Jon Dee Graham/William Harries Graham at Continental Club. It’s too easy to take many Austin residencies for granted, especially this one that features two legitimate nationwide Americana all-stars every Wednesday night (when they’re not on tour). In recent years, the bill has expanded to include Graham’s son William, now a University of Texas student and respected enough to draw Grammy nominees and Willie Nelson bandmates into his backing crew. — P.B.
Bonnie Whitmore at Continental Gallery. Plenty of Antone’s, C-Boy’s, Saxon Pub or other Austin institutions easily could have warranted finalist status in the Live Music Residency Capital of the World (that unofficial subdesignation is beyond doubt). Still, we rather liked that Whitmore’s Thursday late shows upstairs from the Continental’s main room got just enough nominations to make the list. She mixes it up by bringing in different guests each week, but the real draws are the songs and voice that have made Whitmore one of Austin music’s secret weapons. — P.B.