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2008 in Texas Albums and Local EPs

Lucinda Williams, Little Honey (Lost Highway): Look out below — Williams has the happy woman blues on far and away her best album since 1998's epochal Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. She cries "Tears of Joy" on that lovely gospel ballad, frets over her "Little Rock Star" and kicks ace band Buick 6 into serious 12-bar overdrive on the stinging, sexual "Honey Bee." Down-and-out Elvis Costello duet "Jailhouse Tears" is already an uproarious alt-country classic, and her knowing, steely cover of AC/DC's "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)" should have Bon Scott applauding from beyond the grave.

Drew Smith's Lonely Choir, Drew Smith's Lonely Choir (Fat Caddy): Exactly the amount of horns and keys you'd expect from an album that starts with a song called "Nilsson Plays Newman" — a lot. And well-used in the service of the Austin-based Choir's songs, which suggest Brian Wilson and Otis Redding (and maybe Jeff Buckley) having a few pints down Van Morrison's pub. This is pristinely pop-savvy rock that's no stranger to the dark end of the street, and "Follow You Down" hits Basement Tapes-times Dylan square on the nose.

Buxton, A Family Light (Mia Kat Empire): While Pitchfork Nation flipped over the quirky neo-folk of acts like Fleet Foxes and Blitzen Trapper, Houston went gaga over this impossibly young La Porte crew. Its debut suggests both Wilco's more acoustic musings (you have to wonder if Sky Blue Sky was in heavy rotation in the studio while they made this) and Sixteen Horsepower's spectral stomp. These are haunted, hopeful songs both brimming with youthful exuberance and wise beyond their years.

Miss Leslie, Between the Whiskey and the Wine (Zero Label): "There are people who will think they know what this album is about," Miss Leslie writes on the inside cover. Obviously, it's about heartbreak — titles include "Hold Back the Tears," "To Get Through This Day" and "You Left Me a Long Time Ago" — but it's also about 40 minutes of the purest honky-tonk to come down the pike in years. Drowning her tears equally in alcohol and heart-wrenching steel guitar, Leslie finds a shot of redemption in her heartsick honky-tonk truths.

Indian Jewelry, Free Gold (We Are Free): This unruly revolving-member collective's torrential noise only occasionally congeals into anything resembling actual songs, but that doesn't stop Free Gold from being the year's freakiest, filthiest listening experience. Like Sonic Youth swapping licks with Little Joe Washington in front of Fela Kuti's rhythm section, Indian Jewelry navigates a drone-y, disturbing path into uncharted musical waters. Both seasick and seaworthy, Free Gold is an international album that could have only come from a place as twisted as Houston.

Honorable Mention: Sleepercar, West Texas; Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One: Fourth World War; Rodney Crowell, Sex & Gasoline; Carrie Rodriguez, She Ain't Me; Scarface, Emeritus; Johnny Falstaff, Honky Tonkin' Daddy; Okkervil River, The Stand Ins; Papermoons, New Tales; James McMurtry, Just Us Kids; Black Angels, Directions to See a Ghost; Nosaprise, Grown Folks Music; Z-Ro, Crack; Toadies, No Deliverance; White Denim, Workout Holiday

Year of the EP

Several of Houston's best up-and-­coming bands just couldn't wait on an album this year, a welcome trend for those of us who think most albums are about twice as long as they should be as it is. Fired for Walking's moody self-titled six-songer roils with churning guitars and moody vocals, particularly on the thrashy, Crazy Horse-like "More Fear Please" and vintage Pearl Jam of "Sinbox"...On Glory Be!, News on the March bathes its country pickin' party in warm California sunshine...Tontons' ­barrier-busting Sea and Stars conjures Billie Holliday's late-night bloodshot vocals, while Jimi Hendrix leads the band...Balaclavas sees Dante's hell with Ian Curtis's eyes on the frozen, foreboding Inferno...Garage kids Something Fierce's Modern Girl gave Houston two new local anthems in bratty scene-stealer "Hey Houston!" and the wonderfully Undertones-ish title track. Most of these EPs are available at local record shops, but some only at shows — all the more reason to go see some of Houston's finest live.

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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