I always have a hard time when the end of the year sneaks up. All the best-of lists that start sprouting up everywhere make me think about all the new music that I keep meaning to listen to, but haven’t because I’ve been busy listening to the stuff that I like. Luckily, enough of that was new that I was still able to get an article out of it. This is not a best-of list at all, merely the (mostly) new music I liked best this year. Turns out 2016 was a pretty good one after all.
The main challenge for Colonial Blue is crafting songs that can withstand, and stand up to, Stephanie Rice’s formidable voice. Husky and knowing, it elevates the trio’s debut, Dear Misery,, far above its Americana/hard-rock underpinnings. When Rice purrs “forget everything and float with me,” she leaves listeners no choice.
ARNETT COBB/JUKE BOY BONNER
These two lions of the past, and a few other worthy greats, enjoyed a posthumous moment to shine at the Houston History Alliance’s “History of Houston’s Musical Soul” back in October. Especially revealing, to me, was the music of Cobb, the saxophone force who helped spawn the “Texas Tenor” movement; and Bonner, the folk-blues poet who once and forever dubbed Houston “The Action Town.”
Young Mammals have been part of the scene for so long they almost run the risk of being taken for granted. That should no longer be an issue considering how Jaguar, the superb followup to 2014’s Alto Seco, continues refining the Mammals’ bespoke brand of confident, garagey power-pop. Turn it up.
Libby Koch dug up her family’s East Texas roots on 2014’s Tennessee Colony but looked to ‘80s/‘90s country stars like Patty Loveless for Just Move On, her latest batch of gently roiling domestic disturbances. “You Don’t Live Here Anymore” beckons two-steppers, but “Chance on Me” cuts closer still to the album’s underlying strength.
Even if Frog Hair were pure pedigree, they’d still be pretty cool. But the warped roots-rock – and assorted train whistles – of their debut, A Long List of Shortcomings, create something memorable and unique out of scratchy old folk songs, sheets of electric-guitar noise, and most of all the woozy vulnerability of J.J. White’s vocals.
TONY VEGA BAND
The right instrument can mean everything. Tony Vega parlayed a fortuitous find in a local guitar shop into Black Magic Box, which finds the Houston blues-rock mainstay squeezing 12 songs of pure Texas-roadhouse fretwork out of his Gibson 1947 ES-150, whether wry covers (Lyle Lovett’s “Penguins”) or thought-provoking originals (“Moody Park”).
Never mind Kam Franklin’s amazing voice, Chapy Luna’s sparkplug percussion, those punchy horns, or the impossibly tight vintage-R&B grooves. The Suffers’ eponymous debut album is what it sounds like when a group believes in themselves, believes in each other, and believes the sky’s the limit for their unstoppable Gulf Coast Soul.
A word of appreciation for all the slackers, which is not to call the Tomes lazy at all. Rather, the laid-back, largely acoustic-driven tunes of the quartet’s debut, The Importance of Being Shackleton, crackle with the same wisecracking bite and musical ingenuity that made ‘90s acts like Cake so much fun. Cool penguin cover art, too.
In February, Calvin Stanley of erstwhile Houston rockers Pale and ex-Houston Rocket Matt Maloney released CJM, a sleek, sexy album of electronic dance-rock named after Maloney’s late brother. Their intriguing PR strategy is to explore licensing deals for TV, film and other music-hungry platforms ahead of the more traditional airplay and touring. Hope to hear more someday.
QUAKER CITY NIGHTHAWKS
On third album El Astronauta, these Fort Worth boys seem to be confused whether they’re a platoon of intergalactic adventurers or a badass rock band. The difference is negligible. The Nighthawks’ 21st-century blues nods to Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy and the original Space Cowboy as they blast off into an orbit of their own.
EXPLOSIONS IN THE SKY
On leave from their soundtrack duties, the Austin instrumental-rock emperors made their first LP unattached to a film since 2011, The Wilderness. The songs may be a bit softer and shorter here — only one breaks the seven-minute mark — but Explosions’ evocative beauty remains undiminished, and unmatched.
A GIANT DOG
Following previous releases Bone, Fight and House, Austin’s A Giant Dog jumped to Merge for Pile, 15 tracks of bratty fun that celebrate adult behavior with childlike wonder. Wild-child front woman Sabrina Ellis makes an expert guide, but the candy-colored Cheap Trick/Ramones guitars really sell this rock and roll fantasy.
Whiskey Myers sound like they might fight you if you get out of line, but they’d much rather get you piss drunk and lend you one of their guitars for a few choruses of “Sweet Home Alabama.” That is what the swamp-rock vibe and soulful songwriting of the Tyler five-piece’s fourth album, Mud, is all about.
Kevin Fowler’s high-energy honky-tonk can make your head spin. Witness Coming to a Honky Tonk Near You, which takes less than half an hour to skewer Nashville's hit machine (“Sellout Song”), counsel straying lovers, swap ribald road stories, and slip in a lovely love note to his home state, “Texas Forever.”
Renaissance man Terry Allen is a fair piano player, but a killer storyteller with a wit as dry as the West Texas plains. Reissued this year by North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors, his mid/late-‘70s albums Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything) set a standard for smartass Texas songwriters that stands to this day.
It’s hard to describe the feeling when one of your all-time favorite bands makes not just a great album 11 throws into the game, but one that reminds the world that not all white Southerners are irredeemable racists. That is the Truckers’ American Band, which confronts their homeland’s considerable cultural decay and political divisions with ringing guitars and rare insight born of sympathy, not suspicion.
In 2008, Tom Petty re-formed his pre-Heartbreakers band Mudcrutch, made an album, and had so much fun they never quite dissolved. The group’s second LP, 2, reintroduces them as the Heartbreakers’ Gram Parsons/Burrito Brothers-loving doppelgangers, with just a dose of Hypnotic Eye’s psych-pop fun.
For purely personal reasons, I’m really into survivors right now. Leathery yet supple, Post Pop Depression suggests that the 69-year-old human id really is too tough to die. We lost so many near-deities this year, and it’s at least a little reassuring that Iggy gets to stick around a while longer.
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THE ROLLING STONES
No one has said it explicitly, but if Blue & Lonesome does close the book on the Stones’ studio discography, what a way to go. Reinterpreting the songs of blues inspirations like Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Eddie Taylor with wisdom and heart, the Stones spin pure gold.
There’s something very inspiring about Chuck Berry. Not even that he turned 90 in October with a new album due next year, but that his wonderful anthology The Great Twenty-Eight (which I bought this year, at last) still has the power to spur all sorts of teenage mischief, in thought if not in deed. Hail, hail rock and roll!