Chris Gray: My pick is a dead heat between a pair of Lost Highway albums by a couple of artists who just happen to be appearing at Summer Fest this weekend, Hayes Carll's KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) and Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears' Scandalous.
Though he's been one of my favorite Texas songwriters since 2005's Little Rock, Hayes was the early favorite for doing what I didn't think he could do and one-upping his previous album, 2008's Trouble In Mind. For a country (and a state) still coming to grips with an economic, psychological and social meltdown, you couldn't ask for a better soundtrack.
From longneck hellraisers like "Stomp and Holler" and "The Lovin' Cup" to take-a-chance-on-me ballads like "Chances Are" and "Hide Me," he hits the bullseye 12 times out of 12 here. Hayes' psychedelic freakout in the middle of a war zone, "KMAG YOYO," captures the turbulence and confusion of not just a soldier blasted into outer space by both opium and the CIA, but of its times as expertly as its obvious inspiration, Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," did of the mid-'60s.
Coming up fast on the outside, though, is Black Joe and friends' Scandalous. I've been hitting this one big time in the past couple of weeks, and it's chicken-scratch funky from the whorehouse to the churchhouse, a path that leads from "Booty City" and "Mustang Ranch" to "Jesus Took My Hand."
With the guitars and horns in overdrive and Dallas gospel legends the Relatives on hand for "You Been Lyin'," Scandalous has been reminding us more and more of another Texas R&B rocker, Sly Stone, every time we hear it. One of the most pleading, and one of the best, covers of Kirbyville native Ivory Joe Hunter's classic "Since I Met You Baby" tops it off. Not only scandalous, but superlative.
Neph Basedow: As far as Texas-based releases go, while it's not technically a full-length, I've really enjoyed what I've heard of Denton-based songwriter Sarah Jaffe's forthcoming EP, The Way Sound Leaves a Room. She treated us to a couple newbies at her Bronze Peacock show last month and they sounded promising.
John Seaborn Gray: Best local album this year: Finnegan's What Happened to Jaqueline? It's got such a gorgeous, lush sound to it, and all the songs are written and executed so well. Taylor Lee and Sara Van Buskirk trading vocal duties is a lot of fun, and I particularly like the flute/cello combo that fills out their sound. A good, solid album that I would have liked no matter where its composers were from.
Craig Hlavaty: Robert Ellis' Photographs - it's not technically "out" yet, but I am already throwing this one into the ring for best Texas album of the year, and probably in my own top ten at the end of the year as well. You thought that you loved Robert's voice on The Great Re-Arranger? Wait until you hear it miked the way it is on Photographs.
I spent a few days in the country listening to it, and it's a beauty. Now that he and his Boys are on tour, the rest of the nation can get hip to what we have known for the past two years.