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Texas Albums

2007's best Texas albums, from Houston, Austin and beyond

Back in June, when my friends learned I was leaving the Austin Chronicle for the assistant music editor post at the Press, most of them reacted like I had just told them I was moving to Siberia. Let's face it, as far as music scenes go, Houston will never be Brooklyn, or Berkeley, or Austin, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

Thirteen years is a long time to stick around any city, even one as laid-back and inviting as Austin, so by the time the Press job came open, I was more than ready to leave. With all due respect to the hundreds of talented, dedicated musicians in the capital city, all its festivals, "entertainment districts" and relentless self-hype as the "Live Music Capital of the World" (please) have turned Austin into nothing more than a musical theme park, somewhere tourists come to gawk at the longhaired, tattooed types and buy a few trinkets at Waterloo Records or on Sixth Street before heading home.

Furthermore, Austin's rampant real-estate boom is finally coming home to roost, as skyrocketing property values — even on the previously placid Eastside — force musicians and others employed in the bar/nightclub industry to seek refuge in more affordable rural enclaves like Buda and Bastrop. And a proposed noise ordinance that could drastically alter downtown Austin's musical landscape looms overhead like an especially angry thundercloud.

Houston, meanwhile, has its mind squarely on other things, like (from what I can tell) football, theater, museums and money. Mostly money. This does not always bode well for its music scene — Houston's long history of paving over and/or ignoring its rich heritage, musical and otherwise, has been sufficiently bemoaned elsewhere for me to go into it here — but it's not all bad, either. It means that musicians who do choose to stay here — and enough do that Houston has as legitimate a claim to being Texas's second city as Dallas or Denton, and certainly more than San Antonio, Fort Worth or El Paso — can create and operate free of the often-overwhelming expectations that come with plying their trade in an overcrowded, hypercompetitive market like Austin.

Besides, the Houston and Austin music scenes have long since developed a bizarre sort of symbiosis. More than a few Austin bands are made up of members born and/or raised in the Houston area, and those bands in turn count on the Bayou City as one of their primary touring markets, often drawing bigger crowds at their Houston shows than at "hometown" gigs. Otherwise, Houston's sheer size dictates it will be a touring destination for all but the most niche artists, and many of those still drop by just before or after SXSW and ACL.

Houston's reputation as a nest of tin-eared philistines isn't founded, either. Last year, critical darlings like Interpol, Spoon, New Pornographers and Rilo Kiley sold out some of the city's largest venues with little to no commercial airplay. Others, like Wilco, Six Organs of Admittance and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are on the way. And last I checked, there's no Austin date on the Van Halen reunion tour.

So let's all just relax, take a deep breath and get ready for 2008. Here's hoping it's as fertile a year for Texas music as 2007. Following are my picks for last year's outstanding Texas albums, more than half of which make me right proud to call Houston home.

Okkervil River, The Stage Names: Now that Spoon's Britt Daniel has relocated to soggy Portland, Okkervil frontman Will Sheff is line-for-line Texas's finest under-40 songwriter in any genre, drawing from several (pop, folk, indie-rock, etc.) for his starkly detailed, emotionally saturated character sketches. On Stage Names, Sheff stops worrying and learns to love life in a band, sailing toward the next gig on a grand refashioning of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." See Also: Ian Moore, To Be Loved; Zookeeper, Becoming All Things; Jana Hunter, There's No Home

Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, It's Not Big It's Large: Klein's best-dressed bandleader returns with a CD/DVD combo of Lyle being Lyle, by turns playful, reverent, despairing and pie-eyed in love. Bing Crosby meets bottomland blues, with mentor Guy Clark guest-starring on "South Texas Girl." See Also: Gene Watson, In a Perfect World; George Strait, 22 More Hits

Bring Back the Guns, Dry Futures: Had all gone according to plan, Futures would have made this list in 2006, maybe even 2005. But after one of the worst recording experiences in recent memory — fired bassists, erased hard drives, etc. — the local quartet's debut is a herky-jerky, prog-influenced testament to the power of perseverance. See Also: Octopus Project, Hello, Avalanche; Motion Turns It On, Rima; Explosions in the Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone

Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: It didn't exactly do Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift-class sales, but this Lindale (near Tyler) spitfire's second album single-handedly showed that mainstream country can still be down-to-earth ("Famous in a Small Town"), self-effacing ("Guilty in Here") and, if you happen to be the ­abusive-boyfriend type, downright dangerous ("Gunpowder and Lead"). "Love Letters" was one of the year's better ballads, too. See Also: Patricia Vonne, Firebird; St. Vincent, Marry Me; Hearts of Animals, Lemming Baby (EP)

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