Despite what some people might think, despite what people who live in neighboring cities may want to believe, 2017 was the best year in Houston music since, well in as long as I can remember. This year we saw so many new acts drop releases that were far ahead of what came out of other cities as well as what was considered to be a national release. Everything from Dollie Barnes to El Lago, from Astragal to Kyle Hubbard, means 2017 was quite the year for Houston music and the Houston music scene.
Album of the year: Caught In A Phase by Dollie Barnes
Two years ago, Houston singer songwriter Chase Hamblin introduced me to the music of Dollie Barnes, and since then I've gotten to watch her tour with The Donkeys, get married to her best friend, and record what would become her debut album. I love every song on this release, and that really never happens. From the sultry notes of the album's opener "Phantom Joke," to the almost Beatles sounding closer "Caught In A Phase of a Dream," Barnes and company hit it out of the park on their debut. Produced by Steve Christensen with arrangements from Austin Sepulvado, all 11 tracks should be a guide for anyone wanting to release music in the future here in Houston. The writing on the record and Barnes' own lyrics are something beautiful to behold and place her ahead of pretty much everyone else making music here. Tracks of note are "Chandelier," "Don't Fall Asleep," "Apple," "Bated Breath," and "Phantom Joke," to name a few.
The Rest of The Great Records, in no particular order
Corner by football, etc.
When lead singer Lindsay Minton told me that she wasn't sure if the band would have enough songs for a full length before this album was recorded by J. Robbins, I didn't know what to expect. What came forth was the best release of the band's career. Every song on Corner is worth lending an ear to, and takes the band closer to indie rock and a little away from their emo past. The songs are all catchy without losing any of the band's edge, and it's been an album I've had on repeat since it was dropped earlier this year. If this is what happens when you're unsure if you'll have enough songs, then hopefully every band in the future will carry that same sentiment before recording. Songs of note are "Save," "Tryout," "Foul," "Eleven," and "Advantage."
She Was Sarcastic To Begin With by The Greatest View
The Greatest View is essentially made up of one guy, David Upp. After finding him while writing "The Best of The Week," I was enchanted by the way he approached songwriting and the sheer performance of it. Presented with little vignettes between songs, She Was Sarcastic To Begin With is ambitious and beautiful at the same time. At moments the music reminds you of Wings or David Gray and at others it's like nothing else at all. The recording sounds more deep and full than that of a typical singer songwriter release, and that's a great thing. Songs worth repeating are "Paris," "Made The Bed," "All That You Owe," and "Seven Minutes In Heaven."
Remains by B L A C K I E
To say that this is B L A C K I E's most accessible record is no lie, but that shouldn't make you think that's it's in any way different from the harsh sounds that he brings to all of his work. More dystopian and stark, Remains offers up yet another reinvention of his already copped by others sound. Mixing in beats that no one else uses, employing the saxophone where it counts, and placing his signature screams in at just the right moment just proves that B L A C K I E will always be far ahead of everyone else in the music world today. Tracks you have to hear are "Academy Academy," "Numbers Not a Name," and "Position Targeted" to name just a few.
Postparty Depression by Cool Moon
Possibly the best indie rock guitar tone you'll hear on a record all year, Cool Moon came out swinging and this album is a great representation of their overall sound. Andrea Lisi's vocals alone should make anyone a fan, but when you couple that with how these three craft a track, you're left with something you shouldn't want to take off your turntable. Songs worth playing again and again are "Splitting Hairs," "Count Down," "Abandonment Issues," and "Massive," for starters.
Talk by Vodi
Aside from the fact that this the best tone I've ever heard on a complete recording, Vodi take soft rock and give it a whole new definition. Reminding the listener of War On Drugs coupled with hints of Steely Dan and Electric Light Orchestra, Tom Lynch's vocals take center stage here where he goes from soft to loud in a half step. The guitars, the drums, and the keys on this record should be a guide for anyone hoping to achieve the perfect sounding record in the future. The only time Lynch isn't taking center stage vocally is when his wife Haley comes in just underneath him to help create a dual vocal that's pretty close to heavenly. Songs worth paying attention to are "Notice," "Pressure," "Gold," "Riverside," and "Night Creature."
Again by Only Beast
This record is different in every way from pretty much every rock record you'll hear. There's something magical in how Jonathan Lee Chan mixed it where the vocals, the drums, and the guitar are all high in the mix without stepping on one another. Like a sonic punch to the face, if you've never seen how intense this trio is when they play live, then you can listen to this record and get a feel for it, because this recording feels more live than the band's actual live record. There's nothing here that should tell you that these three will ever follow the herd, and that's what makes them work so well together. Songs of note are "Again," "Any Me," "Werebird," and "Sissyphus."
A Ruined Oak by Omotai
Omotai has always been the loudest band to come out of our city and with this record they prove that they're the strongest metal act to come out since the days of King's X and Deadhorse. A Ruined Oak takes the already heavy sound that they've become known for and adds more hooks to make it more accessible to those who might not have been deeply into the genre before. There's something epic about a band that's this solid who can make songs so heavy sound so catchy at the same time without feeling like sellouts in the process. Tracks you'll want to repeat are "A Ruined Oak," "Last of the Green Vial," "Blackjaw," and "The Savage Sky."
Colors by El Lago
I don't think I'm speaking out of turn to call Colors one of the prettiest albums to come out this year. There's a subtle grace here in how the guitars and vocals seem to bond with the drums and the bass to craft an artistry that's virtually unmatched throughout the shoe gaze and indie rock world. Without any three-minute pop gems, El Lago proves that great songwriting can be just as catchy as the perfectly timed single. The refinement and elegance of this record from a band that went from sounding like something Kevin Shields would've been a part of to a mix of what would happen if Cocteau Twins and The Cranberries formed a band together. Songs worth repeating are "Dinner Guests," "Room To Room," "Into The Clearing," "Tell Me How It Ends," and "Devotion."
Ancient Cat Society by Ancient Cat Society
The world of acoustic songs with three part harmonies hasn't sounded as good as it does on this record in quite a while. The third in the year of Haley Lynch trifecta, this album may have been recorded four years ago, but it sounds as fresh and inventive as what everyone in Brooklyn was attempting to do in calling themselves folk artists. Hints of Americana, folk, and pop are all over this record in a way that's more endearing than anyone else who tried to do the same thing, and the way Lynch's vocals pair with Sergio Trevino and Austin Sepulvado is pure magic. Songs worth lending an ear to are "The Loneliest Pursuit," "Do You Feel," "The Leaves," "Wildwood," and "Golden Geese."
My New Home by Talking Forever
For some people, emo died when Drive Like Jehu broke up. For Houston's Talking Forever, that just opened the doors for them to come out swinging. On their debut album My New Home, the four piece takes the genre and adds their own special mix of dual vocals and intense song structures to craft a sound that's hard to deny. While parts of this record echo the works of Mineral, Codeine, and Cap N Jazz, the overall sound here belongs to these guys alone. Songs of note are "Unacceptable Behavior," "Cicadas," "Elipsis," and "Close To Home."
Plebeians by Ruiners
Some bands get who they are, what kind of songs to write, and how to perform them, but none I've seen in recent years embody that as well as Houston's Ruiners. On Plebeians the four piece takes topics of depression, anxiety, and isolationism to a whole new place while embroiling them in an intense and fevered manner. The dual vocals, the unmatched intensity, and the unapologetic and raw nature of how the album is recorded works exactly like you'd hope for with this kind of music. Songs worth hearing on repeat are "Anxiety," "Nothing," "Pointless," and "Trippin'."
Versailles by A Sundae Drive
The days of seven-minute rock songs had gone the way of the buffalo prior to this album coming out, but they're done so well here that A Sundae Drive makes you long for their return. On Versailles the group proves that they can still grab our attention with songs that take their time to get going with a payoff that's worth the wait. Tracks worth giving time to are "Fly South," "In Threes," "Beware The Cages," and "Boxing Day."
Merel & Tony with The Woe Woe Woes by Merel & Tony
Since Jeromy Barber of Dinolion introduced me to this intriguing coupling of artistry, I've been hooked on their complex and engaging song craft. There are elements of free jazz and an almost avant garde mysticism on this release that is so different, so quirky, and so beautiful at the same time that you should find yourself listening to the album again and again just to hear something different with each play. Songs of note are "Purgatorio," "The Shame," "The Unicorn in Captivity," and "The Future is Ending." If you're keeping count, that's four of the five on the album. It's that good.
All Good Things Come by Kyle Hubbard
I never got to give this album a proper review when it was released, but if I could go back in time I'd tell the world to put it in their ears as soon as possible. Hubbard returns to reign the city he left a couple of years ago with this release that not only sees him bring a stronger mike skill to the songs, but features song craft that works better than most. The way he spits atop a piano, an acoustic guitar, or just a chopped up beat is masterful while he proves that there was a reason everyone told you to keep an eye on him. Songs worth blasting are "Last Bow," "This is Houston," "Being John Malkovich," and "Point of Life."
Split by Astragal & Donna Hayward
Typically speaking, split releases usually offer up two bands that have very little in common. While that's the case here as well, they share a similar fan base. Astragal offers up a jangly pop sound that's hard not to love and Donna Hayward gives you the emo feels. Songs of note from Astragal are "Brightfellow" and "Crescent," where songs worth repeating from Donna Hayward are "Westover" and "Sink."
Western Groove by Studded Left
You shouldn't be shocked at these two making their way onto this list. They're easily one of the most popular bands outside of Houston that doesn't get the respect they deserve in this town. This album is groovy and chaotic at the same time, but you should have come to expect nothing less from them. I dig all of these tracks, but favorites are "Western Groove," "Taupe and Teal," and "Your Marble Mind."
Who Will save You? by MIEARS
I think it might be the fact that MIEARS taught herself how to compose prior to its release that makes this record extra insane, as she evokes synths in the vein of early Depeche Mode and YAZ. Couple that with her hauntingly beautiful vocals and you have a release that's one of the better debuts to drop this year. Favored tracks are "Reaching," "He Never Loved Me," and "Who Will Save You?"
Empty Plans by We Were Wolves
If rock music is dead then no one told Houston's We Were Wolves. Returning with a vengeance on this E.P. the four piece proves that they're just as strong as when they called Beaumont home. The guitar and drums on this record should be enough, but the band proves that chord progressions and solos can still sound epic. Songs to blast are "Millionaire's Pie," "Charred Pasts," and "What I'm Turning Into."
Soft Spot by TEE VEE
If you don't want to attempt to pigeonhole this duo as electro-pop, synth-pop, or just bedroom pop, then you should at least know that they embody all three collectively. Full of lush jams that would make even the least likely person want to get down, this E.P. is full of catchy head boppers from start to finish. Songs to dance to are "Angel Eyes," "Another Way," and "Echoes."
Church Is Poison by POIZON
I wasn't shocked to hear that Kyle from Sugar Shack had a new band, but after seeing them live I was surprised that I found myself loving their sound so much. Like a mix of Dead Boys and Australian garage rock, this four piece makes the kind of music that should send anyone who hears it into a frenzy, or at least some sort of spiritual awakening. Songs worth repeating are "Bayou Waterbed," "What Do You Say To That?," "Turned-off Man," and "Cool Mom."
Macgregor Park by Fat Tony
Fat Tony has never been one to not drop a killer album, but this record has him sounding his best. Full of beats and rhymes that make you wish for the California sunshine that Tony divides his time with, the record is full of bangers from the opener to the closer. Songs of note are "Drive Thru," "H-Town To L.A.," and "Money All Around."
Death Chants by Ak'chamel
I would be lying if I said that I knew how to categorize the music that this group makes, but it's easily the most intriguing music you'll hear all year. Are they making up words, is it improvised, are they shaman? Who knows? It's bizarre and all over the place while being dark and mysterious at the same time. Songs worth examining are "Life Is Not For Me," "The Boar," and "He Who Hung The Earth."
Don't Be Afraid by De'Wayne Jackson
You might not know this guy but you definitely should as he mixes hip hop and R&B like it's second nature all over this E.P. Full of strong beats and a mic prowess that makes you think he's been at it longer than he has, Jackson drops jams that make you either want to get down or get affectionate. Songs worth blasting are "Watchin," "Do What We Want To," and "Truth Is."
Freshdirt by Moths
Moths are chaos, crazed intensity, and support the immediacy of now with their grime infused punk meets screamo sound. Their live shows are in the dark, on the floor, and louder than a shotgun blast; yet they find a way to work math heavy progressions into their songs. Songs worth checking out are "Likes" and "Scums."
Burn The Ships by Clay Melton
When you can play guitar like Clay Melton can, you have two options as to what kind of album you can put out. One is to celebrate your skills and show it off and the other is to hold back and let that skill out only when it's warranted. Lucky for the listener he chose the latter on this album. There's blues, rock, soul and even a little pop; but it's all worth checking out. Songs of note are "Wind & Wave," "Secrets," and "Rain."
Best Place to see a Show
Walter's is my go to venue in this town, hands down. They host the hippest bands, the staff is super nice, and they promote low covers and cheap drinks. No merch cuts for bands, the fairest rental rate for shows, and an easy to work with in house promoter with John Baldwin. Add to that housing the best sound guy in Houston with Terry Nunn, a record shop in the front with Deep End, and a varying array of food for sale on their back patio and you have a model for what every venue in Houston should strive to become.
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Most Important Person in Houston Music
Lauren Eddy fronts a band called El Lago, she books her own shows in Galveston, and she publishes her own zine with Wake The Zine. But aside from the fact that she does all of these things like it's just what an artist does, she's done one thing that no one before her was ever able to do; she's made Galveston feel a lot closer than it is. In my entire life, every writer and promoter has attempted to make Galveston feel like it's right up the street, but none succeeded prior to Eddy. By booking touring and Houston bands regularly, by writing about movers and shakers from all over, and by showing that there are people on the bay who are just like you, she's made Galveston feel like it's worth the drive.
Best New Houston Band
You might not know punk trio ImposterBoys just yet, but they've figured out the perfect way to play a mix of D.I.Y. punk shows and opening for touring acts in proper venues. On their Demo that dropped this year, you can hear sounds that are as solid as it can get with a three piece playing punk, and the fact that they're women showing up a lot of the boys in the scene, makes them even stronger contenders.
Best Local Show You of the Year
B L A C K I E sets are always worth making it out for, but at the album release party for Remains at Civic TV, he upped his game by not only playing longer than his usual fifteen minutes, but he made everyone there want to buy the album as soon as they could. While I missed the set from Baby Horse, I can at least say that the support set from Ruiners gave me chills and reminded me of sweaty Autumn nights catching Fugazi when they still toured.
That's about it for this year. While you may not agree with this list, I'm sure there are some acts here that you'll want to get to know, as 2017 was so impressive that making this list as short as it is was a trial in itself.