Nothing teaches the passage of time more than scrolling through your iTunes library to refresh your memory about which local records have been released over the past year. And nothing will teach you exactly how much time has passed – as in Good Lord, I'm getting old – than scrolling through an iTunes library in the first place. So it would be either disingenuous or downright incorrect to label the following albums as the “best” of anybody's year except mine. But of course that's more than good enough for me. Lots of local stuff released on Soundcloud, Bandcamp and other Web-based media deserves some year-end love, too; many of those artists and releases are archived at this link. But because I am still yoked to the ancient practice of rip and burn, these dozen physical artifacts known as "CDs" made the biggest impression in 2015. Kudos to the talented musicians who made them.
BRAD ABSHER & SWAMP ROYALE, Lucky Dog
After back-to-back years of reaching at least the semifinals of Memphis's International Blues Challenge, Absher & Swamp Royale run through a spirited survey course in Bayou City soul, a 12-piece menu that includes gospel standard "Jesus On the Mainline" all the way to well-chosen covers of Leon Russell and Allen Toussaint (R.I.P.). Elsewhere, Abshire's own originals like the second-line stomp "Woman Who Loves Me" and countrified "Not Tonight" pull their own weight with ease.
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JEWEL BROWN & BLOODEST SAXOPHONE, Roller Coaster Boogie
A flashback to her days as the featured vocalist in Louis Armstrong's orchestra, but with a Far-Eastern twist, the jazz diva and Houston Music Hall of Famer teams up with Bloodest Saxophone, a Japanese ensemble clad in sunglasses and fedoras whose sound perfectly matches their hepcat look. With Brown scatting jazzy standards like "One Monkey Don't Stop No Show" and "Twilight Time" alongside a few originals by Bloodest bandleader Koda "Young Corn" Shitaro, this is a swinging international success.
BUXTON, Half a Native
Buxton has now notched more than a decade on local stages as their delicate, eerie style of indie-folk has continued to mature and evolve. Their most accomplished release to date, Half a Native adds a little more rock to songs like "Good As Gone" and "Miss Catalina 1992," but retains the core of imperiled innocence so essential to the Buxton sound — and after all these years, there is definitely such a thing as a "Buxton sound."
GRAND OLD GRIZZLY, Cosmonada
Drawing on familiar sources from Tom Petty and Rodney Crowell to the Supersuckers and "Ghost Riders In the Sky," Cosmonada is the kind of music best enjoyed while drinking or driving, just preferably not at the same time. (Please.) One of the finest slices of Americana cut by a Houston act in quite a while.
JEALOUS CREATURES, The Night Goes On For Days
Sometimes it seems like Jealous Creatures don’t get the respect they deserve within the local scene, but that deserves to change after The Night Goes On For Days, the four-piece's third LP. It alternates bold rockers like “Man and the Wolf” and “As I Fall Apart” with moodier numbers like “Tamed” or “You Can Trust Me,” given extra depth by the knowing, haunted tone of lead singer Sarah Hirsch.
KNIGHTS OF THE FIRE KINGDOM, Knights of the Fire Kingdom
These Knights play the kind of over-the-top thrill-seeking rock that is almost pure id, celebrating the kind of eternal adolescence that pulls as much from Monty Python as Led Zeppelin. Without a second thought, the five-piece taps easily and unapologetically into the spirit of past riff-monsters like Deep Purple, Cheap Trick and Foo Fighters, a state of mind in which everything becomes more awesome the louder it gets. Extra kudos for the dastardly explosive video for “Church of the Retarded.”
MIKEY & THE DRAGS, Make You Mine
Mikey & the Drags bring their three-plus years of experience of rocking Houston's hipper rooms to bear on a full-length debut swimming in trippy Farfisa organ and bursting with fuzz-amp vigor. A taut nine songs clocking in at barely 20 minutes, Make You Mine nonetheless makes plenty of room for soaring surf-rock (“Hey Hey Hey!”), incense-clouded psychedelia (“Hey Come Along”) and a punky cover of the Premiers’ 1964 hit “Farmer John,” a venerable oldie later recorded by Neil Young & Crazy Horse on 1990’s Ragged Glory.
MYSTERY LOVES COMPANY, Rock Symphony Billion
This unique local ensemble labels its music "chamber rock," as well a group where cello and clarinet dominate most of the songs should. Carlos Machado and Madeline Herdeman's dynamic vocal interplay doesn't hurt, either, helping Rock Symphony Billion carry on the tradition of folk music that rocks, from the Waterboys and Gogol Bordello to Texas's own Shoulders and Poi Dog Pondering.
PURAPHARM, PuraPharm EP
Surely the drug reference in PuraPharm's name is no accident, and this four-song EP released at the beginning of the year is potent stuff indeed. Somehow the quintet pulls together a cohesive sound out of Tessa Kole's foreboding vocals; Niki Sims's palate-cleansing woodwinds; and the fog of effects-mottled guitars, any one of which could easily dominate a lesser band. Belongs in the collection of self-respecting Spiritualized, Curve and Siouxsie & the Banshees fans everywhere.
SAY GIRL SAY, Say Girl Say
Much-deserved winners of Best Alternative Act at this year’s Houston Press Music Awards, Say Girl Say put forth a peculiar combination of close-harmony singing, traditional folk music and world-beat exotica. Every once in a while they sound a little like Björk, but Say Girl Say definitely sounds like nobody else in town — and probably nowhere else, either. My pick for Band of the Year.
THE SUFFERS, Make Some Room
It was almost mandatory that Make Some Room be on this list. These four songs were released all the way back in January, and continue reverberating lo these many months later — just like soul powerhouse Kam Franklin's floor-rattling vocals on Letterman. Then they toured and toured and toured some more, pretty much the only way for any band to make ends meet these days. So if an independent Houston act in recent memory had a more successful year than the Suffers did in 2015, I must have missed it. But I'm pretty sure I didn't. See you on New Year's Eve.
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THE WHEEL WORKERS, Citizens
Most of Citizens' eight tracks are as accessible as they are ideological, no easy feat when they carry titles like “Wage Slaves,” “Smokescreen” or “Citizen Incorporated”; the latter is a Devo-on-acid synth-punk screed that snidely rattles off advertising slogans like a priest conducting an exorcism. “Whole Other World” goes after the complicities and contradictions of a consumer-driven society. Conservatives and One Percenters are unlikely to be thrilled with Citizens, and the Wheel Workers sound 100 percent okay with that.
SIX MORE THAT ALMOST MADE IT
With much respect…
** American Fangs, American Fangs
** Another Run, Be Honest
** Folk Family Revival, Water Walker
** Trudy Lynn, Everything Comes With a Price
** Venomous Maximus, Firewalker
** We Were Wolves, Ruin Your Weekend
Note: Some blurbs have been edited and adapted from previously published material.