Despite the best efforts of the world’s leading entertainment corporations — which in their higher echelons often have very little to do with anything entertaining at all — to convince the public otherwise, music and the players who make it remain unpredictable, unruly, incorrigible, indefatigable, hungry. Therefore the multinationals will never quite be able to package and sell audio recordings quite as fluidly as they can trash bags, wrapping paper, mop heads, school supplies, and other assorted dry goods. Which is not to say they haven’t tried; consider the all but complete disappearance of record stores from malls, unless said shopping center happens to contain an Urban Outfitters. But even as artists and retailers alike struggle to convince a skeptical generation that music is indeed worth paying for, the destabilization of the music industry has been a somewhat unexpected boon for those independent merchants who (unlike shops such as New York’s legendary Other Music, sadly) have managed to remain solvent in today’s unforgiving climate for consumer goods often marketed as disposable but that are, in fact, essential. In other words, here are Houston’s ten best record stores.
10. BLACK DOG RECORDS
Black Dog Records has been open for 18 years now, and the current location in Bellaire is more spacious and less cramped than their previous spot; Black Dog is well organized, neat and the aisles are wide enough so you won’t bump into fellow customers when you visit. The place has an impressive selection of music, much of it of the classic rock variety, yet you can find interesting stuff no matter what your favorite genre is. Black Dog carries new, popular releases as well as pre-owned vinyl in excellent shape; the store has a VPI Record Cleaning Machine it uses on all of their purchases. When the owners are not playing some of their favorite records, including the “Album of the Day” they post on Facebook, Black Dog sometimes hosts live music for your listening pleasure while shopping. 4900 Bissonnet #102, Bellaire, facebook.com/blackdogrecordstx
This Montrose mainstay has been a part of the community for decades, and while it's combination of surf & skate-themed clothing with CDs may not be as relevant today as it might have been ten years ago, Soundwaves still boasts one of the more impressive collections in town. They were a little late to catch on with the vinyl resurgence, but when it comes to CDs, they have the city's second-most thorough selection just behind Cactus. What they can boast is not just breadth, but depth, as a browse through their dance section might reveal European imports, and going through their rap section you may find racks of discs from Houston legends like DJ Screw or Z-Ro. With mixtapes pressed on CDs and a decent amount of chopped and screwed CDs, Soundwaves has a selection a bit unlike most of the more rock-focused vinyl shops in town. People may buy CDs much less these days, but Soundwaves remains a staple to browse through and find that gem. 3509 Montrose, soundwaves.com
8. SWEET SPOT AUDIO & RECORDS
Nigel Harrison and his wife Cathy opened Sweet Spot Audio & Records back in 2010 after retiring; their current location in Webster has been open for more than a year, and is bigger, nicer and more inviting than the store’s two previous locations. Harrison is a big fan of vintage vinyl, and Sweet Spot currently carries everything from classical, jazz and R&B to punk, classic rock, metal and more; Sweet Spot sells mostly pre-owned vinyl with a limited amount of new releases. Sweet Spot is unique among Houston record stores in that it sells new and pre-owned audio equipment along with the records; here you can find plenty of turntables and some stuff you don’t see every day, like an old Sears 8-track car stereo that has never been used, reel-to-reel players, cassette decks, and the occasional jukebox among an ever-changing inventory of items. Sweet Spot Audio is the kind of place where you can hang out for a bit, take a seat and talk with fellow customers and Harrison about records and music; it’s not the type of place where you just run in, make your purchases and leave, which is refreshing. This is definitely not a corporate retail place, and that’s a good thing. 16960 Hwy. 3 N., Webster, facebook.com/Sweet-Spot-Audio-and-Records-362043995464/
7. HEIGHTS VINYL
Fact: consumers are willing to pay 10 percent more for a product if it is sold with good customer service. Heights Vinyl might have an ambiguous and slightly inflated pricing policy, but there is no question that interactions with store staff are consistently delightful. Whether getting a player fixed or searching for a specific album, the super helpful and always patient Heights Vinyl staff genuinely want to give Houston music lovers an awesome experience. Additionally, the store's 99 cent bins are packed with some great finds for fans less concerned with pristine quality, and serve as a great place to kick-start a collection. In the often-pretentious world of vinyl collection, service with a smile is a rare gem. 3122 White Oak, heightsvinyl.com
6. DEEP END RECORDS
Of course a club should house a record store. The idea is so natural and fitting that it could have eluded us forever had not John Baldwin and Chris Unclebach finally thrown a net over the shadow of the obvious, and set up camp in the front room of Walters Downtown. Deep End isn’t just a good idea in general, the place is filled with well-picked selections of indie rock, punk, weird psych, and metal. So far, it has a slightly smaller breadth of collections than a full brick and mortar store has to carry to make rent, but all the fat’s been cut off, too. Each album in each rack seems to whisper, “Hey, dog, check out my friend over here, too.” And that — well, that and the posters on the wall — is the abiding attraction of a real live record store, and fundamentally what the Internet has yet to better. Deep End is the kind of store that has records you want, but much more importantly, that has records you didn’t know you wanted. 1120 Naylor, deependhtx.com
5. SOUND EXCHANGE
Sound Exchange is one of those little places in Montrose that reminds us that this neighborhood used to be much weirder, grosser and funkier than its current incarnation. Holding fast against the incursion of townhouses, mattress shops, and self-storage monoliths, this little house on Richmond certainly looks dingy and unassuming from the outside. But inside, music lovers will find a thick collection of vinyl geared more toward long-haired collector types than bike-riding hipsters. Vintage stuff, underground punk and metal, and local releases are the main draw, with a nice selection of CDs hanging out off to one side and some restored turntables available, too. Sound Exchange has also played host to some pretty cool live-music experiments, including freaky local noise artists. A beyond-jam-packed show there in July by mostly-defunct Houston grindcore legends Insect Warfare was a fire marshal’s waking nightmare. 1846 Richmond, soundexchangehouston.com
4. SIG’S LAGOON
Sig's Lagoon Record Shop is a sunny spot on Main Street; the store is cartoonish and colorful compared to its dingier Midtown neighbors, and the kitschy tiki aesthetic is a cheery vision of '50s Houston that never really was. But don't let that veneer fool you; hiding in Sig's crates are the records you'll love for a lifetime. Many a weeknight after one too many Double Trouble cocktails, I've wandered upstairs to delight in the stunning array of vintage country, jazz and blues, and the quirky miscellany that can only be found in a collection glued together with love. So many weird centerpieces of my collection came from Sig's, from the mildly sexist Robert Mitchum album Calypso to the compilation of Bollywood Disco hits to my beloved (if basic) re-issue copy of Regina Spektor's Soviet Kitsch. The store's delightful claustrophobia — its stacks hidden under crates hidden under shelves — means you'll not often be disappointed. And if you are let down, say, by them being sold out of the limited edition Record Store Day release of Disney's Silly Symphonies songs (not that I was...at all), you're sure to be consoled by their talented, unaffected staff. What a gem. 3622 Main, sigslagoon.com
3. VINAL EDGE
Perhaps we should consider record stores more like monastic enterprises rather than the big-ticket concerns of the American dream, namely arms trading and human trafficking. Certainly, Chuck Roast is a mad monk, wild-eyed and in thrall to strange sounds from the beyond. Furthermore, Vinal Edge has always been a place that preserved esoteric human learning amid the barbarians. More than 30 years ago, this strange little record store opened its doors to a godforsaken strip-mall parking lot in North Houston. For many of those nearby, it was much more than a shop, it was a crash course in the underground, a countercultural hub, a place for freaks to stay connected, home to various in-store performances by the weirdest of the weird, and offering all the paraphernalia necessary to keeping teen dreams alive and totally contraband. The inventory was both Borgesian and irresistible, arrayed in crates and on shelves in an impossibly dense agglomeration of desire. Its charms traveled far and wide, bringing fans of metal, noise, free jazz, and other forms of outmusic to the suburban wilderness, like so many Muhammads traveling to the mountain. Now, years later, Vinal Edge has relocated its enduring brand of unholy evangelism to the Heights at such a time when the neighborhood itself has become ground zero for $20 juice stands, crossfit dungeons, and antique shops. Vinal Edge is a contrarian institution, operating on the lines of that famous motto that all musicians and lovers of music understand, “Punish the children, and scare the church.” 239 W. 19th, vinaledge.com
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2. SCREWED UP RECORDS & TAPES
When DJ Screw opened the doors of Screwed Up Records & Tapes in 1998, he had crossed over into a higher sense of ownership. No longer would fans have to step to his front door in order to get a Screw tape. He could once more regain a sense of peace without police cars lurking around his house, thinking he was an everyday drug dealer as opposed to the most influential DJ the state ever produced. The idea and aesthetic of the Screw Shop, as it's affectionately referred to, is just the same as it was with Screw’s house. Today the building has moved locations, but the idea and purpose behind it remains the same. There are hundreds of Screw tapes still on sale, to go with the various DJ Screw paraphernalia like T-shirts and quotes and sayings. A TV runs music videos and a mural dedicated to Robert Davis splashes loud in purple as soon as you walk in the door. The large list of Screw releases remains intact and Screw’s brother still runs the shop, still checking customers out the same way Screw did before — hand to hand, with an appreciation of the culture. Screwed Up Records & Tapes is an institution and still remains one of the few pure landmarks Houston has ever produced. 3538 W. Fuqua, screweduprecords.com
1. CACTUS MUSIC
Cactus is The Godfather of the local record-store circuit, and with good reason. Cactus has the space and musical selection to cater to any number of tastes, and novelties such as apparel, toys, lunch boxes and posters offer a little something extra. Plus, with records, CDs and cassette tapes, Cactus offers arguably the deepest musical inventory in Houston. It's also become the go-to spot for in-store appearances from both local and national acts, which usually means live music and free St. Arnold's beer. Hard to top that. 2110 Portsmouth, cactusmusictx.com
Written by Brandon Caldwell, Selena Dieringer, Chris Gray, Clint Hale, Tex Kerschen, David Sackllah, David Rozycki, Nathan Smith and Katie Sullivan