The 13th anniversary of the Austin American-Statesman's Austin Music Pundits (AMP) Awards finds the former singer of the 13th Floor Elevators walking away with the award for Best Austin Album of the Year. It wasn't really even close.
We used a different process this year to select the best local records of the year. In the past, we've polled a pack of pundits in the community — critics, DJss, record store owners — and used a point system to determine the winners.
That worked fine, but a flaw of that system was that the acts on bigger labels — who better serviced the AMP voting base — usually did better than some of the more obscure artists, who might have actually made artistically superior records.
We decided this year to determine the best albums through discussion and consensus of the Statesman music team. If one of us felt strongly about a release, it became part of the conversation.
Somehow, "Codename: Rondo" by Ghostland Observatory never came up. (And we decided that Spoon should no longer be considered an Austin act because most of them don't live here.)
So, here we present the annual AMP(ITO) Awards: Austin music pundits in the office.
— Michael Corcoran
1. "True Love Cast Out All Evil" by Roky Erickson with Okkervil River (ANTI-)
The first time I listened to Roky Erickson's triumphant first record in 14 years, "True Love Cast Out All Evil," I couldn't for very long. I got as far as "Electricity hammered me through my head/Till nothing at all was backward instead" before I had to click the pause button. That couplet, only the second verse off the album's second track, "Ain't Blues Too Sad," was too intense, too formidable. What would be a striking metaphor for any other singer was for Erickson a shocking reality, candidly revisited; I felt like I was being let into the mind of a man who'd lived through inconceivable hardships, who'd tangled with madness and tragedy on an utterly alien level. I didn't deserve it; I hadn't earned it. I waited hours before it felt safe to dive back in.
It almost seems unfair to rank "True Love Cast Out Evil" against other records. Other albums are merely albums; "True Love Cast Out Evil" is a whole life, a heartrending meditation on insanity, loss, solitude, love and, ultimately, triumph. Producer Will Sheff distilled 60 songs written across Erickson's life down to 12 tracks sobering and eventually celebratory. Okkervil River serves as a splendid backing band, always accentuating but never overshadowing Erickson's weary, wounded voice as the Austin music legend pleads solemnly on "Please Judge," exorcises demons on the title track and reminds us that even in the darkest of days "God Is Everywhere."
"True Love Cast Out All Evil" is a lament, a chronicle, a prayer and a proclamation, a window into a soul with depths beyond those most of us will ever know. And that makes it the finest release to come out of Austin in 2010.
— Patrick Caldwell
2. "Bright Light Social Hour" by Bright Light Social Hour
The rock critic — vested as he or she is in the act of ascribing monumental importance and deep artistic significance to pop music — can't help but feel a bit powerless in the face of the Bright Light Social Hour's onslaught.
Which is not to undermine neither the considerable creative merits nor the intelligence of the self-titled debut from the hard-charging, congenitally-unable-to-regard-themselves-seriously quartet. But the defining appeal of the BLSH's 40 minutes of funk-fortified rock grooves is strikingly simple: It's fun. Dance-in-your-car-seat, air-guitar-in-your-living-room, chug-your-beer fun.
From A.J. Vincent's jumpy keys on opener "Shanty" to Curtis Roush's scalding guitar on anthemic fist-pumper "Bare Hands Bare Feet" to rock-solid bass lines from famously mustachioed mascot Jack O'Brien, "The Bright Light Social Hour" is Austin's most ceaselessly entertaining record of 2010, delightfully unpretentious for all its excesses.
And there are plenty of excesses — Roush's epic uninterrupted guitar solos on "Detroit" and "La Piedra de la Iguana," the lovelorn, piano-scored nine minutes of "Garden of the Gods" and the creamy jazz fusion center of "Rhubarb Jam." But the Bright Light Social Hour always stops just short of going over the top, with an unwavering commitment to drummer Joseph Mirasole's beats. Mix in a killer sense of humor and a populist spirit and you've got an indomitably amusing 21st-century spin on classic rock and funk.
3. "Myth of the Heart" by Sahara Smith (Playing In Traffic)
Although Sahara Smith of Wimberley was just 21 when she recorded "Myth of the Heart" in Los Angeles with T-Bone Burnett's "Raising Sand" band, she's lived with the songs for years. Their poetry is part of her, so she doesn't sing so much as she opens the doors.
What makes "Myth of the Heart" live up to Burnett's hype are lyrics every bit as good as Lucinda Williams at her best. And a voice that must've learned about emotional ownership from Billie Holiday records.
First single "All I Need" is a passionately romantic song with a unique angle. "I wanna do the best I can," she sings about her commitment to the relationship, "because I never want to sleep in the arms of another man." She wants to be together forever, but if that doesn't happen, she'll get over him. A passive-aggressive love song.
This record received universal positive reviews and almost every one of them used the word "sophisticated." It's like, how could someone who looks like a model write a song about going to Laredo with her boyfriend to see if what they've got is real? "Why don't we drive all night until nothing is certain," Smith sings on "The Real Thing," which she and her band performed on "Late Night with David Letterman" in November.
"Myth of the Heart" is moved by a genuine spirit. This natural-born songwriter and singer is often compared to Alison Krauss and Norah Jones, but those two can't write songs like these. The cohesiveness of material and Smith's unforced sweet delivery create a trance from the silence before and the silence after.
— Michael Corcoran
4. "Casual Victim Pile" by various artists (Matador)
The scene compilation was once a powerful object, a glimpse at a time and place. Sometimes they were concurrent with the scene's apex, sometimes they were released afterward. Either way, there are few better ways to gauge what is going on with a particular group of people dedicated to making their lives more interesting by playing in bands.
Then the CD era hit, there were suddenly entirely too many compilations of all sorts and their value as anything but a line item on a discography plummeted. But in the iPod era, when all we do is listen to privately compiled playlists, something with an outside curator becomes compelling in and of itself. Transplanted Austinite and Matador Records co-owner Gerard Cosloy gave a national platform to 19 Texas (mostly Austin) bands he liked. It's more than good fortune that these are excellent acts — dude knows what he's doing. What's thrilling about this thing is how strong it is track to track. Throwing it on for the first time in a few months yields new delights. For every favorite since it was released — Follow That Bird's killer kickoff, Wild America's blazing drunk-punk-pop, the singular Dikes of Holland's "Little City Girl," The Golden Boys' roots-rush "Older Than You" — I hear a half-dozen songs I'd underrated — the No No No Hopes' "Nobody's Fool," the Persimmons' awesomely Feelies-esque "The Notice," the Flesh Lights' rama-lama "Crush On You." Most of these bands, and more just as good as Cosloy notes, are probably playing on Red River Street within the month. You owe it to yourself and them to check them out and expand your definition of the Austin scene, as this set has.
— Joe Gross
5. "Phosphene Dream" by Black Angels (Blue Horizon Ventures)
They're still a good ways distant from the sound of the Velvet Underground song they're (partially) named after, but on "Phosphene Dream" the Black Angels let the sonic fog that surrounded them on previous records dissipate more than ever. What's revealed is a confident fivesome that have authored a batch of lean, elegantly constructed songs dressed up in enough echo and distortion to qualify as psych rock but strong enough on their own to (one can speculate) survive as acoustic pieces.
That the streamlined sound comes on the band's closest flirtation yet with a major label — former Sire honcho Seymour Stein's Blue Horizon Records — is probably no accident. And it paid off in 2010 with high-profile bows such as a David Letterman appearance in September that saw the moody host crack an increasingly rare smile after the band's performance of "Telephone."
Not that fans of the band's feedback-drenched previous efforts need to worry. "River of Blood" is as menacing and musically violent as its name demands, the title cut finds singer Alex Maas as freaked out and paranoid as ever and "Entrance Song" is a postcard from the road that's caked in vocal and guitar overdubs that never become excessive.
What this exercise in restraint got them was a musically obvious and successful tour with sonic cohorts Black Mountain, an invite to the New York edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival (more Velvet Underground juju) and their fourth go-around this coming spring leading Austin Psych Fest 4. That they'd reach such heights isn't much of a surprise. That we'd get to see and hear them so clearly while doing so is.
— Chad Swiatecki
6. "Hippies" by Harlem (Matador)
"Someday soon you'll be on fire/And you'll ask for me for a glass of water," croons Harlem frontman Michael Coomers on "Someday Soon," the sardonic opener to "Hippies." "And I'll say no/You can just let that (expletive) burn."
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a clear winner for 2010's best, cruelest diss. That's Harlem in microcosm — everything about the garage rock trio seems calculated to evoke the image of the disaffected, swaggering rock 'n' roll slacker, whether it's the drunken live show, the stark simplicity of the band's craggy riffs, its songs about drugs and sex and youth, even the snarky wit of Coomers' frequently hilarious Twitter feed ("is it too much too (sic) ask for a beautiful indian (sic) dermatologist to fall in love with me").
As hard as Harlem seemingly tries to make it look like they're not trying, though, you don't make a sophomore record as good as "Hippies" without a boatload of talent and some very hard work. In 16 songs, about three chords and barely a song more than three minutes "Hippies" stays fresh, the sub-two-minute sonic explosion of "Faces" segueing perfectly into the boozy opening harmonies of "Tila and I." And within Harlem's limited parameters the band finds surprising range, from the sensitivity of "Cloud Pleaser" ("And if I had my heart broken, I'm glad it was broken by you") to the Ennio Morricone vibe of "Prairie My Heart" to whatever the heck it is "Gay Human Bones" is supposed to be. In a town where you can't fling a Turtles 45 without hitting someone in a garage rock band, Harlem showed us all how it's done by banging out the year's most infectious strummer.
7. "Well After Awhile" by Shinyribs (Nine Mile Records)
It would be obvious to call this a Gourds album without co-frontman Jimmy Smith, but there's a completely different mind-set here. "Well After Awhile" is all about the full-voiced vocals of Kevin Russell, who croons "Who Built the Moon" to open the record and never holds back.
Produced by George Reiff, "Well After Awhile" is adventurous, while firmly rooted. "Poor People's Store" brings a doo-wop observational vibe to the aisles of Dollar General, while "East TX Rust" sounds like what might happen if Jerry Reed (as channeled by Ray Wylie Hubbard) invited Stevie Wonder to stop by the studio with his clavinet.
This is an album that gives you a favorite new song every day. "Country Cool" is this record's "Tex Mex Mile," a anthem to all that is organic and local. Followed by "Shores of Galilee," with comfortable side vocals by Sally Allen, Russell follows his own lead.
This is a singer's album, a songwriter's album. Gourds fans will dig it, but so will those who think "holler" means only a raised voice.
8. "Voyagers of Legend" by the Young (Mexican Summer)
The Young's debut full-length is the rare album that is both extremely easy to classify while also being difficult to pin down. This is not quite the contradiction it seems. It falls vaguely into the category of indie rock, especially when you consider that indie rock used to encompass everything from Jesus Lizard to Nirvana to Pavement to Fugazi to Heavenly to all those bands that sounded like My Bloody Valentine.
But in an era when the great unwashed think of "indie" as something lighter or more mannered or more acoustic, "Voyagers of Legend" seems to mash all of the above up into a gritty, psychedelic stew both intimate and unknowable. Hans Zimmerman's reverbed vocals sometimes drift, sometimes scream. The whole thing grows on you like a Christmas carol, but the first side is a master's class in pacing, from the rumble and chug of "Captive Chains" to the two minute grime-jam (dig that solo!) "Quintana the Killer" to the oddly perfect xylophone in the sludge on "Phoebis Cluster." Which all seems a lead-in to "Bird in the Bush," maybe the most smartly melancholic-yet-hooky rock song released by an Austin band last year. "If you wanna know what old men know/ make a lot of money, die alone." Or is it "all men"? This is part of the fun: What do they want? What are they trying to discover on their voyage? And how awesome is it that these guys are clearly just getting started?
9. "Halletts" by Dana Falconberry
Pop in the CD of "Halletts" — the compressed MP3 version won't do — and listen ever-so-closely. You can just barely hear a chorus of cicadas, their summertime chirps buried in the mix. A good album can transport you to a time, a place, or a feeling, but few can whisk you away to so exact a location as "Halletts," which was recorded by Falconberry with her all-acoustic band on a long scorching day in an old house in the small town of Hallettsville. And it sounds like it.
That makes "Halletts" a marked contrast with Falconberry's debut, 2008's "Oh Skies of Gray," with which it shares six of its eight songs. But "Halletts" is no retread. Where "Oh Skies of Gray," thanks at least in part to producer meddling, loaded up Falconberry's songs with unneeded bombast and studio trickery, "Halletts" is clean and acoustic and immediate and infinitely more impacting for it. It's Falconberry's first fully realized album, showcasing the folk songstress' greatest strengths: her sweet-yet-worldly voice, her ethereal presence and songwriting that paints pastoral portraits at once intimate and sweeping.
Its charms are otherworldly — queue up "Baby Blue Sky" and let the song carry you away, as Falconberry's magical voice is buoyed by a subtle upright bass and the perfect harmonies of background singers Gina Dvorak and Lauren McMurray. So magical is Falconberry's outing that, when she sings "If I had a bottle big enough/I'd cork up the ocean blue" on "Birthday Song," you just about believe she could do it.
10. "A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)" by Ray Wylie Hubbard
Hands-down possessor of the most cumbersome title of the year (as well as taking the cake for macabre cover imagery), Ray Wylie Hubbard's "A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C)" is a daunting, compelling listen. Shot through with silver strands of barbed-wire resonator guitar and leavened by Hubbard's craggy, weathered vocals, "Enlightenment" resembles nothing so much as a field recording from a dark, often foreboding country — Yeats' "The Second Coming" set to a Delta blues beat.
Orbiting between the poles of primal Pentecostal promise and threat ("Whoop and Hollar," "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse") and the nitty-gritty, often carnal here-and-now ("Down Home Country Blues," "Loose"), Hubbard observes without judging the flawed fellow creatures around him, forcing the listener to see them afresh as well.
It's not always an easy trip. Co-produced by Hubbard and George Reiff, much of the album has a murky, almost willfully opaque quality which lends an air of timelessness to the tracks. Even the sprightly numbers such as "Pots and Pans" and "Drunken Poet's Dream" (done delightfully last year by its co-author Hayes Carll) are freighted with tangled imagery.
Still, there's no question that Hubbard knows exactly the territory he's striking out for. The kind of effortless craftsman who can embody a woman as the type of gal "who ain't much for the bluegrass fiddle/She likes that bottleneck slide," he leads the listener on a compelling journey through enlightenment and endarkenment both.
— John T. Davis
The Next 10
11. "Constellations" by Balmorhea. Austin's finest instrumentalists veer away from the lushly orchestral "All is Wild, All is Silent" on their spare, impressively evocative fourth album. — P.C.
12. "Street Songs of Love" by Alejandro Escovedo. Probably better than "Real Animal," which won the 2008 AMP awards, yet sans the element of surprise this Tony Visconti-produced follow-up is not as significant a physical/ spiritual triumph. — M.C.
13. "Last Day of Summer" by White Denim. Leave it to White Denim to toss out a pay-what-you-want downloadable album on a random Thursday in September and have it be every bit as funky, fun and listenable as their top-notch debut "Exposion" and its lauded follow-up "Fits." — P.C.
14. "The Golden Archipelago" by Shearwater. Like the other albums in Shearwater's island trilogy, "The Golden Archipelago" is a grower, but Jonathan Meiburg's rich songwriting, cerebral approach and haunting voice make it worth the investment. — P.C.
15. "Carryin' On" by Dale Watson. He's still the closest thing out there to vintage Merle Haggard — next to Hag, that is. — M.C.
16. "Warp Riders" by the Sword. Metal die-hards could object to its more accessible sound, sure, but "Warp Riders" is a science fiction-inspired high-concept blast of a hard rock record. — P.C.
17. "Hexadecagon" by the Octopus Project. What began as a trippy multimedia extravaganza cooked up for a one-time performance during the South by Southwest Music Festival turned into an involving, evocative adventure from Austin's universally beloved indietronica engineers. — P.C.
18. "Let the Light In" by Amy Cook. Radio loves "Hotel Lights," but there's so much more to this folkie with a rocker's heart. — M.C.
19. "Downtown Church" by Patty Griffin. Not as good as Tom Jones' gospel record, but with P.G.'s amazing voice, this hits more than it misses. — M.C.
20. "Be Brave" by the Strange Boys. It might have dropped a mere year after their debut, but "Be Brave" finds the band growing by leaps and bounds, still hitting the fun garage rock notes while incorporating blues and jazz for a varied and impressive sophomore effort. — P.C.
Austin 2010 playlist: 20 songs to download
"All Creatures of Our God and King" by Patty Griffin
"Size of the Sun" by Mother Truckers
"Carrie" by Speak
"How Do You Do It" by Quiet Company
"Country Cool" by Shinyribs
"World's on Fire" by Sahara Smith
"Faith" by Alejandro Escovedo (with Bruce Springsteen)
"Give Me the Beat" by Ghostland Observatory
"Arrows in the Dark" by the Sword
"Forever" by Roky Erickson
"Phoenix Burn" by Alpha Rev
"Up!" by the Black and White Years
"Sabado en el Parque" by Grupo Fantasma
"The Ghosts That Wake You" by Follow That Bird
"Far Enough Away" by TV Torso
"Too Late" by Miranda Dodson
"Sierra Diablo" by Darden Smith
"Telephone" by the Black Angels
"Save the Ghost" by Royal Forest
"Raise the Colors" by Superlitebike
Honorable mention (albums):
"Van Tour" by Mother Truckers
"El Existential" by Grupo Fantasma
"Reform School Girl" by Nick Curran and the Lowlifes
"Disasterkrft" by Zeale
"Up Close" by Eric Johnson
"En la Oscuridad" by Deskonocidos
"The Laziest Girl in Town" by Elizabeth McQueen
"Cookin' " by Tortilla Factory
"Goodnight Lane" by Colin Gilmore
"Patterns" by the Black & White Years
"Distortionist" by the Murdocks
"Dikes of Holland" by the Dikes of Holland
"Somewhere in Time" by Reckless Kelly
"Dear as Diamonds" by Hollywood Gossip
"It's Not Gonna Be Pretty" by the Sour Notes
"The Derailers Live! From Texas" by the Derailers
"In and Out and Back Again" by Woven Bones
"Still Life" by Mother Falcon
"Mechanical Bride" by One Hundred Flowers
"Songs for Staying In" by Quiet Company