John Egan The Big Easy, January 5
Give John Egan credit for taking chances. The longtime solo Houston bluesman's 2014 album, Amulet, is in some respects the polar opposite of its 2012 predecessor, Phantoms. Besides bringing in a few side musicians and respected Americana producer R.S. Field (Billy Joe Shaver, Webb Wilder), Egan has expanded his songwriting reach to include Latin-tinged jazz and melancholy pop, showing he's less reliant on his Resonator guitar's unforgiving tone but comfortable keeping the instrument as his anchor.
The end result is a softer mood than Phantoms, whose songs sometimes showed visibly bared teeth, but Amulet's overall disquieting feel suggests Egan has done little to ward off the same tormentors who were after him last time.
Free Radicals AvantGarden, January 5
Free Radicals is both Nick Cooper's revolving-door ensemble that at any given moment could be playing free jazz, Latin funk or brass-band music, and also Cooper's ongoing testimonial to how much he digs being a member of the Houston music community. He has so much experience at this point that he has very much become a one-man hub of that community.
In 2012, Cooper brought that same kind of musical civic pride to the Radicals' first album in several years, The Freedom Fence, and watched it win a well-deserved Houston Press Music Award for Local Album of the Year. The group's weekly jam, wherever it may be, is a true local-music institution. For a while (off and on) it's been at AvantGarden, a local-music institution of its own.
Libby Koch McGonigel's Mucky Duck, January 6
Libby Koch may have set her 2014 album Tennessee Colony in the tiny East Texas settlement near Palestine where her ancestors settled in the days of William B. Travis, but the lively arrangements -- a frisky blend of country, folk, bluegrass and gospel set to some mighty fine fiddle, banjo and mandolin -- not only make Tennessee Colony sound daisy-fresh, but also like the rare acoustic-based album that truly deserves to be called "Americana."
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Mike Stinson Under the Volcano, January 7
A craftsman of a songwriter capable of both great wit and poignancy, Mike Stinson has raised the bar for local troubadors since moving to Houston in 2009. His 2013 LP Hell and Half of Georgia put a rockin', radio-friendly sheen on some damn fine turns of phrase, and was named that year's No. 42 album by former Washington Post critic Geoffrey Himes in Paste magazine. It also netted him a well-deserved Houston Press Music Award for Best Country Act the following year.
Clutch House of Blues, January 7
Clutch has put in two decades in the hard-rock trenches without ever selling a whole lot of records or making a whole lot of headlines, but in the process has developed the kind of fluid chemistry that makes them one of the most satisfying live experiences going, hands down. Boasting the kind of chops that most jam bands would envy, the Washington, D.C.-area quartet instead channels their sound into tightly compressed, low-center-of-gravity songs that bear the mark of Clutch's abundant experience. Their most recent album and first released on the band's own Weathermaker label, 2013's Earth Rocker, may be their best yet. With Torche.
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