On our computer, Rocks Off has been looking at that damn Texas 30 spreadsheet so long our eyes are frosting over. Monday we said about 400 different albums were spread across the ballots we received from almost 25 music-media wags across Texas. We looked at the sheet again after that and it was actually closer to 500. Sheesh.
So here we are at the middle of the middle, albums No. 50-41. Fittingly, because it is getting hard to tell up from down, this range is about the ceiling for one-shot breakout records by acts that burned bright but quick like The Plus and Minus Show, and cult artists who would have been higher up if they had been more accessible or hadn't broken up 25 years ago. It's also about the basement for some very well-known acts whose particular albums were excellent in some ways but somehow off the mark for one reason or another.
Either way, it adds another layer of context to what has been both an enriching and exhausting project for me, sifting through the best Texas music of the past 30 years. Enjoy.
50. Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way (2006) After the long, long "Top of the World" tour, a live album and DVD, and a few babies here and there, the Dixie Chicks regrouped for Taking the Long Way ready to settle some scores with a music industry (especially country radio) that had by then turned its back on them. The music is impeccable, with co-writers including the Heartbreakers' Mike Campbell and Semisonic's Dan Wilson, and much, much closer to adult pop than anything approaching country -- mainstream, alternative, bluegrass or otherwise. But for whatever reason, Long Way just didn't have quite the same zing as its predecessors, and its sales reflected that. Its near-sweep of the 2007 Grammys is practically the Webster's definition of "Pyrrhic victory."
49. Joe Ely, Live at Liberty Lunch (1990) When people of a certain age, mostly men, talk about the Joe Ely Band in tones otherwise reserved for church and their newborn children, Live at Liberty Lunch is what they're thinking about. Led by fire-fingers guitarist David Grissom, Ely's band -- with Jimmy Pettit and Davis McLarty, as good as a rhythm section as Texas had in the '80s, apart from Double Trouble -- blazes through one good-rockin' favorite after another ("Are You Listenin' Lucky?", "Cool Rockin' Loretta") until bringing things down to a whisper on an anguished "Letter to L.A." that stretches past 12 minutes.
48. Steve Earle, Copperhead Road (1988) Pound for pound one of the brawniest records of the '80s, Copperhead Road is where Steve Earle upped his profile as a scruffier, snarlier Bruce Springsteen, identifying himself with outlaws of every stripe and joining the Pogues for rollicking soldier's story "Johnny Come Lately." But it also reveals what a softie he can be in some of his most tender-hearted songs ever, like "Even When I'm Blue" and Christmas carol "Nothing But a Child."
47. Michael Haaga, The Plus and Minus Show (2004) This psychedelic hard rock fantasia by the former deadhorse front man featured a revolving-door cast of the Houston music scene in the early/mid-'00s, and even Haaga's old Superjoint Ritual bandmate Phil Anselmo. Plus and Minus cleaned up at the 2005 Houston Press Music Awards, with Haaga taking Album of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Song of the Year ("If and When"), Local Artist of the Year. But, as John Nova Lomax explains in this February 2006 Press cover story ("Band Suicide"), even by the awards the Plus and Minus Show was a dead band walking. Haaga faded from the scene, as they say, and never released a follow-up. He did come out of retirement (or whatever you want to call it) to portray Frank Black in Catastrophic Theatre's Bluefinger in 2010, but has kept to himself ever since. Unfortunately.
46. Willie Nelson, Teatro (1998) For an A-list star like Our Willie, Teatro is more of a genre picture: Lower budget, less of a crowd-pleaser than something that lets him scratch a more personal itch. Recorded live in an old California movie theater, Teatro lets Daniel Lanois' soft-focus production rub some vaseline on the lens of some of Nelson's starkest material ever, like "Darkness On the Face of the Earth" and "I Never Cared For You."
45. The Sword, Age of Winters (2006) Texas had not seen a metal band like The Sword in at least a generation, if ever -- ponderous, mythological, possibly speaking an arcane language entirely unto themselves. (Hey, you try to decipher songs called "Lament for the Aurochs" or "Ebethron.") Winters is a contemporary hair-flipping masterpiece, but also a throwback to the Sabbath-ruled days before Metallica's cleansing fire swept through metal, and kids stayed up all night playing D&D instead of Call of Duty.
44. Big Boys, Fun Fun Fun (1982) With plus-sized, hypercharismatic goofball Randy "Biscuit" Turner up front and Chris Gates and Tim Kerr in the engine room, the Big Boys pioneered a combination of hardcore punk and ass-slapping funk that served as the template for a good bit of alternative rock in Texas during the '80s and '90s. (Bad Mutha Goose, anyone?) Fun Fun Fun... is only six songs long, saving room for a cover of Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swingin'," but it left a lasting impression.
43. Toadies, Rubberneck (1994) One of the relatively few multiplatinum albums on our survey, Rubberneck took several months to become massive, but once it did after "Possum Kingdom" hit, it rightfully became one of the definitive alt-rock albums of the immediate post-grunge era. What makes it a great Texas album, even still, is front man Vaden Todd Lewis' seriously fucked-up viewpoint regarding society in general and male-female relations in particular. Every time the Toadies come around Houston, screaming "do you wanna die?" with a roomful of fellow otherwise mild-mannered fans still chills us to the bone.
42. Zeitgeist, Translate Slowly (1985) Today Zeitgeist is the kind of band celebrated on blogs like Willfully Obsure. In 1985, Zeitgeist was arguably the top "college rock" band in Texas, a sort of grittier R.E.M., and part of the "New Sincerity" vanguard bringing something besides blooze to Austin clubs. Translate Slowly did wind up getting a fair amount of college-radio play across the South before Zeitgeist was forced to change their name to the Reivers, who eventually scored a deal with Capitol. Front man John Croslin went on to a long career as a top studio hand who helped Spoon and several other top Austin acts polish their musical wares.
41. Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy (2005) On Black Sheep Boy, Okkervil River cuts back a little on the lavish instrumentation of 2003's Down the River of Golden Dreams, or at least directs the band's kaleidoscopic musical palette into the service of punchier songs. Likewise, front man Will Sheff sharpens his pen into lyrics that cut to the emotional quick whether he's talking about himself or his surroundings, which usually concern the comings and goings of an earnest and determined indie-rock band. In fact, Black Sheep Boy is the album that established Okkervil as one of Texas' top indie-rock bands, a perch where it remains today.
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Come back tomorrow for Nos. 40-31 and a special slideshow featuring the Texas 30.