BLSHS, Abstract Desires Released all the way back in January, Abstract Desires evokes classic synth-pop a la Soft Cell and Ultravox as much as contemporary electro acts like Passion Pit or their local neighbors Bang Bangz. Its six tapestries of nocturnal keyboards and rickety 808 sounds feel spacious, wafer-thin and tightly woven -- paced so deliberately that it's possible to savor every last detail, which is surely what BLSHS intended. Leading the way are Michelle Miers' vocals, singing not on top of the tracks but from deep within them, radiating a wan melancholy that feels softly alien but also all too human. Enigmatic, haunting stuff.
The Grizzly Band, Lost and Found Soaked in lonely neon beer lights and clouds of stale practice-space cigarette smoke, Lost and Found extols the pleasures of passing out drunk, driving out west, and losing yourself onstage with a barrage of brawny riffs, sinewy steel guitar and plucky lyrics. The Clear Lake quintet's cast of underdogs may not always prevail, but they never go down before the final bell and can definitely drink you under the table. Even poppier tunes like "Stand Up" and "Gold Locket" rock with twang and authority.
Hearts of Animals, Another Mutation As the title suggests, Another Mutation is all over the place, but it doesn't come off that way; instead, it's tied together by Mlee Marie's charmingly offbeat personality. Indie-pop queens like Jenny Lewis and Kristen Hersh are obvious reference points, but Mlee may have them both beat for versatility; it's doubtful either one could come up with something as goofy, catchy and, well, porn-y as "Porn From the Seventies." The eerie, trumpet-kissed "Songbird" shows Mlee knows her way around an eerie folk lullaby as well, and the same goes for party-starters like "Money For That" and "Jesus Drug."
Davin James, Buck Owens Freeway Life's little instruction book in album form, as co-written by Johnny Cash and the Rev. Billy Graham and dedicated -- with a tasteful accordion flourish -- to Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield." Elsewhere lies lots of fishing talk on Kevin Fowler duet "Sandbar" and a lesson on putting 'er in "Granny Gear"; a wistful tribute to Blanco's and other bygone drive-ins and honky-tonks, "Once Upon a Time"; and the ode to some especially eye-watering chili in the ZZ Top-ish "Bowl of Red." There were quite a few more refined local albums this year, and tons more that got more hype, but none I heard were any more fun to listen to than this.
Libby Koch, Tennessee Colony Libby Koch may have set this album 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 the rare acoustic-based album that truly deserves to be called "Americana."
Steve Krase, Buckle Up Long-ago H-Town transplant Steve Krase lets his Brooklyn accent peek through on one line of "Blueshound" -- itself a partial tribute to the co-host of KPFT's Howlin' the Blues -- but the rest of Buckle Up flexes some serious Bayou City harp muscle. Picking up where his surging 2013 LP Some Day left off, Krase blows through two songs by local blues immortal Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price, salutes late mentor Jerry Lightfoot on noirish centerpiece "Night Train (From Oakland)" and hands the microphone to the great Miss Trudy Lynn for a spirited cover of the Muddy Waters classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You." Grainy and robust, Buckle Up is punchy modern blues with lungs.
No Refund Band, Current State of Blue Ricky Jackson's H-Town pros put forth a full-bodied sound that holds up against high-powered national names like Roomful of Blues with about half the manpower -- there are quite a few guest musicians here, but at the core it's just the five of 'em. Band members wrote every song here except three, mastering a broad swatch of styles from early Fleetwood Mac to the Meters-like swamp-funk of "Bought & Sold." Well-chosen covers of Derek & the Dominoes' "Bell Bottom Blues," Mountain's "Mississippi Queen" and Northern Irish guitarist Gary Moore's anguished 1990 hit "Still Got the Blues" round out a swinging, satisfying time; Current State of Blue is a blast.
Ragged Hearts, The Champ Another album released this past January, The Champ blows the nagging rumor that there are no good power-pop bands in Houston right out of the water; Ragged Hearts are a very good one. A fusillade of sunburst guitars and golden harmonies, The Champ absorbs the essence of Cheap Trick, Big Star and a few others and tweaks it enough to make them sound great on Soundcloud too. Taking in enough of these songs in one sitting makes the origin of the name "Ragged Hearts" pretty clear, with the exception of sly neighborhood satire "Hip Part of Town." It's criminal this band doesn't play out more often.
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Silver Blueberry, Twin Reverberation You might get a strong whiff of incense from Twin Reverberation, and not just the song about taking drugs in Wyoming. This is a great album if you just like to listen to chime-y guitar playing, with just enough fuzz to take the edge off. The connection to some of the more precious New Wave bands is undeniable; there are ever-so-slight traces of the Cure -- "Boys Don't Cry"-era Cure, not Disintegration -- and quite a bit of Johnny Marr's guitar jangle, but that's hardly a bad thing. Silver Blueberry should try bottling that sort of impervious sweetness their songs give off. They'd make a mint.
Wild Moccasins, 88-92 With all due respect to Cody Swann, 88-92 belongs to Zahira Gutierrez, who shines in this album-length reverie lit by a lone disco ball, and deserves an extra bow or two for "Eye Makeup," "Gag Reflections" and Swann duet "Emergency Broadcast." Kudos to her other supporting cast, too: the rhythm section is tighter, the guitars more interlocking, and the keyboards more atmospheric, all demonstrating how worldly the band has become in the relatively brief time since debut Skin Collision Past. Perhaps even one of the best New Wave records released since 1984.
15 MORE THAT ALMOST MADE IT
Brothers Grymn, G Catch Fever, Shiny Eyes Deep Cvts, Love Grows Def Perception, Def Perception Doughbeezy, Footprints On the Moon John Egan, Amulet Funeral Horse, Sinister Rites of the Master Nick Greer & the G's, Heart On Fire Matt Harlan, Raven Hotel Mark Jones & Twenty Paces, Breaking Even Craig Kinsey, American Roots and Machines Robert Kuhn, Everybody Knows Love Dominique, Love Dominique Tontons, Make Out King & Other Stories of Love Young Mammals, Alto Seco
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