The spoils of the Houston music scene in 2011 were bountiful. There was Robert Ellis's big national debut in Photographs, which garnered him virtual ink with most every major music blog, not to mention a host of opening gigs for the likes of John Doe and his hero George Jones.
Online musical clearinghouse Bandcamp allowed bands and artists to show off their musical wares, without having to really make physical copies of a release. Jack Freeman's Lynnie Free's Juke Joint was a late-year surprise, following up 2010's Dark Liquor EP with a set of underground R&B and neo-soul, with a dirty shot of blues on the closing track "Juke Joint."
What follows is two lists — one from me, and one from fellow Houston Press music writer Shea Serrano — featuring the best of what we heard and saw in Houston in 2011, from murky noise, to stalwart punk, to expert Houston hip-hop, and a gaggle of fresh faces we were glad to welcome aboard.
10. The Tontons, Golden
"Golden," the title track from the Tontons' latest EP, wowed almost everyone in Houston — including rapper Bun B, a frequent face at the band's gigs — with its pulsating hookiness and lead singer Asli Omar's fist-shaking, Debbie Harry-biting sensuality. That could be because it's been the most non-Tontons-sounding Tontons song, a strong departure from the usual kaleidoscopic vampiness we've gotten used to since their debut recordings. Houston scene vet/secret weapon Derek Dunivan handled the bulk of the production and engineering, adding his audible fairy dust to the tracks.
9. Cop Warmth, Die Slow
"Drugs Over Food" is all you need to know about Pasadena-bred Cop Warmth's March 2011 release Die Slow. Coming from the same city as the quickly evolving B L A C K I E, whose legend is starting to filter across the pond, Cop Warmth has a weighty pedigree. Continuing in the proud tradition of Houston noise legends like Don Walsh and his Rusted Shut, Cop Warmth's newest ain't pretty, but it doesn't mean she isn't worth a good, lusty, long look. As loud and chaotic as they are, they are deceptively catchy. The boys finished up 2011 with a pseudo-national tour, spreading the Warmth up into New York City.
8. Titan Blood, Titan Soul
This sidetrack from hardcore act The Burden had all the aggression of that band's hardcore work, but with a decidedly different punk swang. "Weird Territory" and "I'm a Goon" sounded like the long-lost debut salvo from a speed-addled Detroit garage-rock band in the late '60s, just as the aural tides were changing.
7. Sideshow Tramps, Revelator
The musical palette on the Sideshow Tramps' full-length Revelator ranged from Django Reinhardt gypsy to grease-stained and scuffed rock and roll, all while keeping two feet entrenched in a sound that can only come from the Bayou City. The band — Shane Lauder, Scott McNeil, Geoffrey Muller and the singing Reverend Craig Kinsey — makes believers regularly with their live shows, and Revelator is the best document you can bring home from a Tramps show, besides, well, an actual band member.
6. Something Fierce, Don't Be So Cruel
This year, Something Fierce released Don't Be So Cruel, the follow-up to 2009 full-length There Are No Answers, and the band's first release since last year's seven-inch "Where You Goin Man." The trio of Steven Garcia, Niki Sevven and Andrew Keith made an album that rolls on a worldly groove that reaches out far past Houston, Texas, and at least the contiguous United States. The tracks are equal parts slow and methodical — an adventuresome task for Fierce — while other entries echo what made you a Fierce fan in the first place five years ago.
5. Poor Pilate, Poor Pilate
Poor Pilate's 2011 album creeped up on us over a few weeks, but once it fully latched into our brain, each spin got sweeter and sweeter. The eponymous self-release from the newly minted quartet made good on the promise of their live shows with such like-minded groups as Finnegan and the Literary Greats. What sucked us in about Poor Pilate on record was the loudness it possessed, perfectly cacophonous without being grating. Singer and keyboardist David Lascoe handled production duties over seven months, leading into the late October release. If you enjoyed J Roddy Walston & The Business's last few trips through Houston, meet your backyard Leon Russell-lovin' heroes.
4. Ryan Scroggins & The Trenchtown Texans, Folk Devils/Move to the Country
This double-shot from Scroggins and company was one of the biggest surprises of the summer, with the band coming forth with not one, but two albums. One was geared towards Lee Perry freak-dub and an antique shop full of noise (Folk Devils) à la The Clash's Sandinista!, while Move to the Country was a more straightforward set from the Trenchtown Texans we have known for close to a decade now. Country is a quaint and introspective piece of work, with songs like "Sunshine" perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon. The farther along we get in years, the more enticing Country's title track will be. These two discs continue to prove that Scroggins is one of Houston's most precious natural resources, like tacos or Lone Star beer.
3. Roky Moon & BOLT!, American Honey
Roky Moon & BOLT!'s second full-length album, American Honey, was recorded in four takes in one day at SugarHill Studios. The album was markedly different from BOLT!'s previous recordings, including last year's self-titled LP, but Honey found the band coming ever closer to perfecting their now-signature, party-ready sound. There's Meat Loaf in "Hot Saturday Night," David Bowie in "Monster" and Andrew Lloyd Webber in "The Lioness." Guitarist Aaron Echegaray was responsible for some of the most adventuresome licks and lines that made Honey such a stunner, especially on "She Goes On."
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2. Balaclavas, Snake People
The last time we visited Balaclavas on wax was for 2010's Roman Holiday, a terse and robotic LP populated by bombed-out guitars, dubby electronics and a dash of trance. On Snake People, the band front-loaded everything we loved about Holiday and their two previous releases, Inferno and a self-titled EP, and went straight ahead into a sort of dance-oriented, Angelo Badalamenti-influenced direction they had only hinted at during the past five years. Balaclavas has always been a decadently glaring, jarring act inside a Houston scene dominated by rootsy smiles and jangle, and Snake People is another album we can point to to demonstrate our position that they are simply the most mature, fully realized band in town.
1. Robert Ellis, Photographs
Houston knew that country-stomper Robert Ellis was destined for great things three years ago when he dropped The Great Re-Arranger, and this past July's Photographs showed the rest of the world what we had been hiding. The ten-track LP exhibited wisdom beyond its architect's years ("What's in It for Me?"), while also proving that he's still very much prone to emotional recklessness ("No Fun"). The young Ellis is barely in his mid-twenties and already showing signs of being a lifer, getting compared to John Prine and George Jones. And honestly, we can't think of any voice better to be stuck with for the rest of the millennium.