The 10 Best Houston Releases of 2016 (So Far)

You were maybe expecting someone else?
You were maybe expecting someone else?
Photo by Daniel Jackson/Courtesy of Big Picture Online Media

The year is almost half over, and in the face of the musical talents we’ve lost since January — David Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Bernie Worrell, Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Ralph Stanley and Scotty Moore, among many others — it almost seems cruel, or futile, to think about the year’s best new music. Obviously six months, or less, is nowhere near enough time to fill the void created by the deaths of such enormous talents. But the world only spins one way, and an essential component of those artists’ legacy is the high standard they all set. Besides, even in the face of almost unimaginable loss, it’s hard to deny that right now the Bayou City’s grassroots are pretty fertile.

BLOOD OF AN OUTLAW
Southern Hymns
Long overdue yet right on time, Southern Hymns offers up the very best of what metalcore is all about. While similar bands move away from longstanding stylistic constructs toward (clean singing, softer tone), this album defies any pusillanimous backpedaling toward easy-listening, soft-rock flaccidness, bringing it dirty and heavy. It feels like a mean, masterful album recorded under the demonic influence of a dead outlaw still running from his sins. A dark, Old West theme breathes new life into these five boys who play intricate guitar solos (“Foundations”) and can write an aggressively melodic intro (“Guns Up”), yet never betray their core roots (“Wild West”). Sure, there are plenty of metalcore acts around, but when it comes to the best we’ve heard in 2016, the BOAO boys bring the brutality. KRISTY LOYE

THE BROKEN SPOKES
Friday Night Special
Named after the South Austin dance hall that has drawn two-steppers like flies for a half-century — and successfully fought back hungry developers for the past decade — the Broken Spokes could have easily been plucked straight off that hallowed honky-tonk’s hardwood dance floor. Served with generous sides of Texas swing and savory steel guitar, the Spokes’ eight-song debut shores up their standing as a lifeline to an alternate-reality Houston where Blanco’s is still standing. It’s all worth a spin around the dance floor, but best of all are tunes like “Moved Into a Bottle,” where the wordplay is as sharp as the guitar licks. CHRIS GRAY

LIBBY KOCH
Just Move On
After exploring her deep East Texas roots on 2014’s Tennessee Colony, basing its songs on stories passed down within her family for generations, Just Move On tackles the equally daunting theme of modern relationships. By trading Colony's rustic arrangements for the kind of crisp but classic country-pop that has all but vanished from Nashville, this album is almost guaranteed a spot in the libraries of any Rosanne Cash, Mary Chapin Carpenter or Patty Loveless fan. That said, fans who’d rather listen to their country music in a dance hall over a coffeehouse will be rewarded handsomely with “You Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Bring You Down” and “I’ve Been Blind” as well. CHRIS GRAY

LYRIC MICHELLE
Miss Direction
You could steer Lyric Michelle into some narrow lanes. In one, she's a woman excelling in a male-dominated genre, a well-traveled road. In another, she zooms past the slow-moving candy cars of Houston rap. Switching lanes once again, she offers a fresh voice on social issues with a poet's perception. But over its dozen tracks, Miss Direction effortlessly merges all those lanes into a single, broad path toward the final destination of being the best Houston album of the year. Its well-produced beats enhance Michelle's work instead of angling it off course, while some of H-town's most earnest musicians (Lee-Lonn, Fat Tony, Kam Franklin) make guest appearances. These artists are welcome passengers who never try to drive; how could they? Michelle is in full control, her hands firmly on the wheel on these largely autobiographical songs. "My Pain" is the most honest of the bunch, with a memorable, soaring hook and a spoken-word outro for the ages. It's the best song on the best Houston album of the year. And she delivers every track on the record with the steady flow of Sunday-morning traffic. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

OCEANS OF SLUMBER
Winter
It's one thing for the local publication to call Winter badass, but something else for some of the world's most respected metal sites — among them Metal Hammer, Soil Chronicles, ItDjents, Uberrock of Great Britain, Metal Temple, No Clean Singing and Prog Magazine — to agree. Houston's "little" hometown band is indeed making huge waves on the continent that harbors prog-metal's greatest ports of call, accolades that are well-deserved. The talent and skill that saturate every song continuously unfold with each successive listen; few bands, in Houston or elsewhere, can navigate the depths of their musical layering. This collection of siren songs evokes poignant and poetic emotions not often felt in metal. How often do you hear metal described as "beautiful"? Right here. KRISTY LOYE

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THE REAL MCCOYS
Folk Drunk
How should I explain why I find Folk Drunk as enjoyable as I do, or whether you'd enjoy it, too? I wish it was as simple as driving you to the place we used to call a "record store" and pointing you to a listening station, where curious fans would gather to don headphones and hear album tracks before buying. I’d dial up “Kankles and Hot-Pocket Sundays” and “Head in the Clouds” to see whether you could quash the urge to dance in front of Marie, the salesgirl with the cute overbite, or if you’d start a mosh pit with the store’s beefy stockers to tracks like “I, Alone” and “Too Seat For Your Fat Belt.” After you’d bought it, we’d listen to it on your back patio and drink to “Drunk & Distracted” like we were at a pub. A few brews in, you’d start quoting the humorous lines from the opening and closing tracks; then, a few beers later, you’d recite philosophical lines from the album such as “doubt’s killed way more dreams than failure on its worse days.” And then, you’d ask me to leave because Marie was on her way over to listen to the whole album with you and chill. JESSE SENDEJAS JR.

 

EVELYN RUBIO
Hombres
Hombres was minted in 2014, but some belated radio attention vaulted it to the upper reaches of Billboard’s Blues Albums, Latin Albums and Latin Pop Albums charts back in March, more than enough reason for it to be considered one of Houston’s albums of this year. Fashioned from demos Rubio recorded with the Calvin Owens Orchestra before Owens passed in 2008, and released in both English and Spanish versions, Hombres delivers plenty of high-stepping big-band blues before moving on to more cosmopolitan jazz-pop numbers like “Freedom” and “I’m Gonna Love You Tonight.” It was never in doubt that Rubio — a beautiful, blond Latina who wields a mean tenor sax and vocals to boot — would become a star; the only question was exactly how long it would take. CHRIS GRAY

THE SUFFERS
The Suffers
Smart management, enviable connections and steady media attention have elevated the Suffers to household-name status (in Houston, at least), but they were a band first — and for being ten members strong, an unusually elastic, deceptively tight one at that. Somewhat easy to forget in the wake of their stardom are all the gritty rehearsals and gigs at Fitzgerald’s and the Continental Club in the early days; above all else, The Suffers represents at least four years of hard, even grueling work. The songs are written about and for lovers, and are brilliantly sung by Kam Franklin, but the album’s lava-lamp ambience can’t quite disguise the fact that they were also meant to sound huge — at outdoor festivals as much as in the bedroom. The genius of The Suffers is that they really do work both places. If three or four songs wind up in car commercials next year, don't be surprised, but it doesn’t matter. Even as far as the Suffers have come, the band remains superior to the brand. CHRIS GRAY

THE WIGGINS
Greater Minds
The Wiggins released Greater Minds a little too quietly a few months ago after nearly a year in virtual hiding. But this album of cranky trash-­rock, outsider ballads and acidic folk music run through sticky distortion, à la Konono No 1, stands out, way out from the crowd, as does the Wiggins on any of the irregular occasions he plays. He’s a great performer in the Cleveland way, with a distinctly anti­-rock charisma and similarly anti-­trend personal-style­­­ windbreaker and loose­-fits. No one around here sounds like the Wiggins. But in a wider context, the garbage­town auteurism of Greater Minds, wherein every little piece of blown-­out sound — from his unmistakeably nasal, end­-of­-the­-night voice to the minimalist drum­-machining and guitar-playing — has only one job and none are allowed to waste your time, recalls The Wiggins’ kinship with crank prodigies like BR Wallers of the Country Teasers/the Rebel, and Dan Melchior, as well as artistic forebears Billy Childish and Jonathan Richman. Just listen to “Annie,” track three; it’s as tightly­ wound as something by Wire, but slow and crumbling, like the interior of a house after a blaze, and then it ends abruptly with a strange Link Wray coda. Even his cover of Randy Newman’s “Burn On” is no longer Newman’s own, but broken in, lightly wrecked and hammered back into form. This is the Wiggins getting into the promised land, playing fast and slow, uncompromising, confident, but not fronting, both circumspect and blistering. TEX KERSCHEN

GERRITT WITTMER
Unknowns
We all have to speak in the language of our time. Code music, written in spaces, silences, alluding to traumas, dreads, breaks in cognitive processing later resumed. I can’t help it­­­ I’ve never experienced abstraction, only newer connotations and groupings. Here and there, rotor ­blades turning, hole­-punches, conveyor belts, repetitive-motion stressors, highway hypnosis, some allowances to mechanical inertia, the end of the session, invading presences, ellipses. A lot of this music usually ends in a flood or a frittering away, but this is fully thought­ out, arranged for you in advance. Gerritt writes code the way Samuel Beckett wrote plays, but heavier on the terror. TEX KERSCHEN


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