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Farewell to the Twenty Nickel

"Next year local rapper Slim Thug will break big nationally, big things will come out of the Swisha House posse, and the city's hip-hop scene will have its best year ever."

So we wrote in these pages some 53 weeks ago, and so it has come to pass. Of course, we made the same prediction about H-town hip-hop at the end of '03, and in the sentence following the one above we declared that "Thug's new Neptunes-produced single 'Like a Boss'…is a 100 percent-certain smash hit," and we were wrong on both those counts, but we're pretty happy hitting .333 here in the Racket Cave.

But how right we were about the hip-hop this time around. Houston has never had a year on the charts quite like this one -- hell, few cities anywhere have. Thug's Already Platinum, Bun B's Trill, Who Is Mike Jones?, Paul Wall's The People's Champ and Chamillionaire's The Sound of Revenge all made the Billboard top ten, while the reunited Geto Boys and Z-Ro both released critical hits in The Foundation and The Life of Joseph W. McVey. As for local R&B, Destiny's Child's greatest hits package #1's hit the top of the chart, and teenage diva Brooke Valentine came out of nowhere to score big both commercially and critically.

It was freaky how the whole nation rocked to H-town's grooves. Sioux teenagers on the rez in North Dakota were asking each other "Who Mike Jones?" and ten-year-olds in D.C. were running up huge phone bills hittin' Mike Jones on the low at 281-330-8004. Suburban white kids in Marina del Rey were hollering out "Free Pimp C!" (On a trip to San Francisco this year, I made sure to sport my vintage orange Astros cap, which won me a few appreciative "H-town!" shout-outs as I strolled through a tough 'hood near the Greyhound station.) And as Paul Wall famously drawled ad infinitum this year, the sound of Houston had the "Internet goin' nutz."

Not since the post-"Smells Like Teen Spirit" Seattle of 1992 has American pop seen such an onslaught of music from one city -- and the major-label feeding frenzy is only continuing, with every dank-smokin', drank-sippin', slab-bangin' playa in the city signing to labels like Sony Music, Interscope and Atlantic.

So what do we do for a follow-up? Damn if I know -- we're in uncharted waters. I put the question to local hip-hop blogger, promoter and journalist extraordinaire Matt Sonzala. "I really don't have any idea what it's gonna do next year," he says. "It better change up a little bit and expand. If Pimp C gets out there will probably be a UGK record, and that will be big."

As we all know, Pimp C did indeed get out of prison this month. And once Pimp teams up with Bun and does cut that UGK record, it will indeed be as huge a release as anything this city has seen. Of all the records that came out this year, only Bun's Trill presented us with a three-dimensional, realistic human being behind the mike -- as opposed to some blinged-out, bitch-runnin' fool out of hip-hop video dreamland. Whereas Thugga, Jones and Wall offered mainly only primers on local slang and variations on the flossin' theme, only Bun told us "The Story" of his rise, fall and redemption in great detail. (Jones's "Back Then," while entertaining, sounded like a teenager's tantrum by comparison.) Only Bun got overtly political, if not nearly often enough. And only Bun sounded utterly confident and authoritative from beginning to end on his album.

You've got to hope that all post-Katrina Gulf Coast rap is going to be about more than just havin' thangs, sippin' drank and blowin' dank. I'm not saying the party's over down here, or that every tune should lace into FEMA or examine the finer points of neocon domestic and international policy, but there definitely should be more topical statements like Bun's "The Inauguration" and the Legendary K.O.'s "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People." We need just a touch more Gil Scott-Heron and Chuck D -- or hell, at least some Eminem -- amid our codeine-drenched hooks and beats. Otherwise, Houston will be as much a passing hip-hop fad as Hammer pants and dooky chains.

Speaking of Katrina, and I hate to even say this, but New Orleans' terrible loss has been Houston's wonderful gain. As of right now, the Crescent City's top under-40 ambassador, Kermit Ruffins, is based here, as is its top under-30 musical ambassador, UH student Lil' Wayne. The hyper-funky New Birth Brass Band is also here, as are the soulful jazz and R&B singer Teedy Boutte, trombonist/singer and incredible showman Glen David Andrews, world-class trombonist Corey Henry, clarinet master Dr. Michael White and several members of the Rebirth Brass Band. Enjoy them while they're here -- and here's hoping they can plant the seeds of their amazing culture before they go home. (And if they want to stay, that's fine with us too.)

The local rock and country scene had a fair-to-middling year. Michael Haaga succumbed to the Houston Press Music Awards jinx: He and his band scooped up five awards only to implode almost immediately thereafter. On the other hand, both Spain Coloured Orange and Fatal Flying Guilloteens signed with national indie labels, the former with Chicago's Lucid Recordings and the latter with NYC's Frenchkiss. (Expect heavy touring from both bands and a full-length from at least the Guilloteens. Guitarist Brian McManus only half-jokingly said that his band's hardcore psycho blues-punk may even end up on The O.C. ) Meanwhile, both Christian-tinged alt-rockers the Finalist and Beatlesque pop-rockers Astra Heights signed with majors; look for albums and/or tours from both of them in the '06 too.

In other local rock and country news, Los Skarnales is in the process of recording an unplugged CD, and their frenetic current album Pachuco Boogie Sound System is flying off store shelves in Madrid, Seville and Barcelona, and -- oh, hell, we'll lapse into ellipses here…Late-'90s faves the Hollisters reunited for a couple of epic shows at the Continental, while early-'80s legends the Judy's reunited for just the one gig at their former junior high school in Pearland…Miss Leslie and Her Juke Jointers and Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys kept old-time real-deal honky-tonk alive and well in Houston and across Texas…Houston-bred country singer Clint Black and Houston-tied alt-country icon James McMurtry figuratively squared off, with Black singing the Bush administration's praises on the National Mall while McMurtry pledged his support to Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey in Crawford…Tody Castillo's glistening pop-rock masterpiece Independence Day was the top-selling record at Cactus for a month or so this summer, and only Robert Earl Keen and John Prine got more Americana radio airplay than Woodlands-by-way-of-Crystal Beach troubadour Hayes Carll.

That whole Americana chart has a definite Houston feel -- Keen's a Sharpstown product, and other current or former Houstonians or Houston-tied artists on the list include current resident Mando Saenz, Rodney "The Houston Kid" Crowell, Compadre Records artists James McMurtry and Billy Joe Shaver, Blue Corn artist Sarah Borges, Houston-born singers Charlie Robison and Tift Merritt, and an assortment of pickers and players who were once based here, including Sonny Landreth, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson and Jesse Dayton. (It's too bad so few of them ever lived here at the same time.)

In contrast to the chaos of 2004, 2005 was a relatively stable year for local radio, which isn't to say that it doesn't suck here. We probably have the worst commercial rock radio of any major city in America -- a somewhat decent station no one can hear in KIOL, mostly inoffensive if seldom adventurous classic rock and oldies outfits in the Arrow and KLDE.

As for our "alternative" station, Jesus wept. It's still churning out a ceaseless moldy output of all the worst rock of the last few years -- a dire miasma of Creed, Korn, Puddle of Mudd, Staind, Trapt, Nickelback and 3 Doors Down -- hell, they're still spinning plenty of Marilyn Manson. This station makes our local white kids -- in hip-hop blogger Byron Copeland's memorable phrase, the "angry young cracka" element -- seem like they must be a bunch of drooling simpletons.

Enough already! If our city leaders are serious about Houston's becoming a "world-class city," they'll revoke the Buzz's license at once. Seriously -- it's important: As it stands now, a savvy visitor to Houston would determine from this station's putrid emissions that a huge portion of Houston's angry young crackas are whiny, behind-the-times, wife-beating paint-huffers who can't afford pot good enough to enable them to dig the Mars Volta. And we can't have that if we want to be considered a rival to London, Paris and New York, so we need to kick this crutch out from under these freaks. Once they're deprived of the endless font of free crap music, they'll pack up their RAV4s and migrate north to Garland, Mesquite and Arlington -- or better yet, the speed-freak fastnesses of Oklahoma or Arkansas, which is their natural habitat.

And that's my fondest dream for 2006.


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