2009 was the best year for local music I can recall since I started Houston Calling nearly seven years ago. The range of music coming out of the city is impressive–experimental rock and hip hop, punk, noise rock, folksy singer-songwriters, electronica, and indie pop–and Houston’s musicians really stepped it up a notch this year. It was tough to narrow down the list, but here are the 20 releases by Houston musicians that I enjoyed most during 2009.
Houston Calling‘s favorite Houston releases of 2009
1. Benjamin Wesley, Geschichte
While Wesley’s one-man-band live act is the ideal way to experience his music, this EP succinctly captures his unique cross-section of styles. Here’s some of what I wrote in my review of the EP:
Musically, Wesley does his best to capture the essence of his live sets (for those who have seen his performances, you know; for those who haven’t, check Vimeo). However, what separates Geschichte from the live experience is his lyrics–it’s much easier to focus on what he’s singing about when you’re not standing in awe of what’s happening onstage.
Benjamin Wesley’s is a prime example of what keeps Houston’s music scene thriving and engaging.
WATCH: live at Cactus Music
2. Paris Falls, Vol. III
Houston couple Ray and Jen Brown, along with drummer Mikey Deleon, make classic rock for the indie set. The music is sedate and meandering, without being jammy or stale.
3. Chase Hamblin, A Fine Time EP
Here’s what I wrote about Hamblin’s EP earlier this year:
…a collection of songs that play on the 60s British invasion with a modern twist…with only five songs, Hamblin raises the expectations of how local music can sound.
Yoria’s tongue-in-cheek humor is intact on 281‘s “The Libyans” (“I just want to play my golden fiddle”), “I Don’t Wear Red” (“I’m the one who stays when you leave, but I’m the one who gets free beer”) and the all-too-personal “Don’t Mess With My Rectum If You Like My Erection.” But the experimental pop storytelling of “I’m The Cold One,” the sedate “Tell Me I’m Wrong” and stoner-rific “Blue”—not to be confused with Yoria’s similarly mellow ode to Xanax, live favorite “Little Blue”—are 281‘s high points. Recalling his past anxiety and seemingly constant relationship issues, the songs are obvious outlets for Yoria’s insecurities; he sings about what everyone feels but hardly anyone ever discusses. 281 shows a maturing Yoria comfortable enough with himself to again push the boundaries of his music.
5. Robert Ellis, The Great Rearranger
Ellis is a musician that seems to never be satisfied unless he is making music. From his work with musician Chase Hamblin to various local side projects to old-school country covers at Mango’s to his excellent solo work, Ellis definitely stayed busy this year. The Great Rearranger is a folk album that could have been made at any point in the past 50 years and would still be as strong as it sounds today–and that is a testament to Ellis’ songwriting. After a single listen, I couldn’t get “Good Intentions” out of my head–good luck getting it out of yours.
WATCH: “Good Intentions” live
6. Young Mammals, Carrots
It’s been a pleasure watching this band from its high school beginnings. The band’s first official full-length, Carrots naturally displays the group’s Pixies influence yet also deftly shows that Young Mammals is made up of more than mere influences. One of a handful of local bands with true breakthrough appeal, it will be interesting to see (and hear) how the band progresses.
WATCH: “Dragon Wagon” live
7. listenlisten, Hymns From Rhodesia
The level of local talent creating folk/Americana music the last couple of years is impressive. On listenlisten’s second full-length, the band further delves into the haunting musical territory it explored on its debut. With a dark edge that attracts a variety of fans, Hymns… even helped the band earn attention from Rolling Stone this year.
8. The Literary Greats, Ocean, Meet The Valley
I first saw The Literary Greats at a Free Press Houston block party a few years ago. Since then, the band has steadily progressed–its latest album hit the CMJ 200 and gives off a heavy “We’ve doped up on Wilco and The Replacements since the last record” vibe. There’s definitely nothing wrong with that.
WATCH: “Show Me The Coast” live
9. Born Liars, Ragged Island
I’ve been a fan of Jimmy Sanchez’ music for years. With Born Liars, he’s veered from his classic punk roots to more of a late 70s brand of punk, a la The Stooges. Like Exit Smiling, a favorite of mine from 2006, Ragged Island oozes the same dirty, bluesy rock that’s been famous for decades–but no one else is doing it in Houston, and no one does it quite like Born Liars.
WATCH: Channel 39 promo spot
10. Wild Mocassins, Microscopic Metronomes EP
This almost-too-cute-to-be-taken-seriously group of indie popsters has taken Houston’s indie music scene by storm over the last couple of years. While I enjoyed its B-52s set more than anything, there is no denying the songs on this EP.
WATCH: The Austin Sessions #11 live
11. Big Sir Junior, Self-titled
Local bassist Rozzano Zamorano (Fondue Monks/Rozz Zamorano Trio) gathered some very talented friends to play an intimate show at Jet Lounge. The result is an impressive live debut. Here’s what I wrote about the album for Houston Press:
A cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Do Yourself A Favor” kicks off the album with a funky vibe similar to Zamorano’s work with Fondue Monks. “Going to Church” is a blues-infected jam, and the cleverly titled ten-plus-minute “Weather Retort” is the group’s nod to Jaco Pastorius, a big influence on Zamorano’s style.While experimental jazz certainly isn’t every music lover’s favorite, Super Live is an impressive snapshot of a live set that suffers only from the fact that nearly all good live recordings leave listeners wishing they had been there for the event itself. Hopefully Big Sir Junior will give us another chance.
12. The Factory Party, After Death There Is Nothing
Two words: Factory Records
Watch: live at The Mink’s Backroom
13. The Watermarks, Thoughts Like Bombs
My favorite quote about this band: “”If Phil Spector made an album with Jesus and Mary Chain and New Order, it would sound like The Watermarks.” The band has been getting a lot of attention as a result of its latest release (with a song on MTV’s Styl’d), and was recently featured on the “Unsigned Spotlight” on Undercontrol.org.uk. Not content to be 80s synthy new wave throwbacks, The Watermarks puts its own spin on the genre.
14. Buxton, “Flint”/”Feathers” 7-inch single
I’ve written before that Buxton is Houston’s Wilco. These two songs (on 7-inch vinyl) are strong enough to make my favorites list this year. Impressive stuff.
15. Bright Men of Learning, Champion Sounds EP
It’s been a few years since BMOL released new music, and Champion Sounds was worth the wait.
Watch: live in 2007
16. Inner Lights, Self-titled EP
Bridging the gap between Britrock and southern rock’s jammier tendencies, Inner Lights may seem like it sometimes has an identity crisis–but with a solid songwriting base and hooks galore, the band’s music speaks for itself. The EP’s songs have a raw, garage-y feel to them. Inner Lights recently recruited a new guitarist so be sure to check out their live sets soon.
Watch: Ahead Shot interview
17. Guitars, White Night White Night
Guitars’ limited vinyl release of White Night White Night was a much sought-after commodity this year. Thankfully, the band still offers the digital release if you ask nicely. Like the similar-sounding Sonic Youth, Guitars owes its sound to late 70s-era NYC.
18. Glasnost, Great Divide
Another synth-heavy 80s throwback that is more Duran Duran than Depeche Mode. But any band that includes drummer Paul “The Falcon” Valdez can’t be bad, right?
Watch: Live from SugarHill
19. Teenage Kicks, Uptight
Teenage Kicks will best be remembered as a band that dripped potential but that ended before it really had a chance to blossom. One of several bands that bit the dust this year, Teenage Kicks at least went out on a high point–Uptight is a good headstone.
20. Something Fierce, “Where Ya Goin Man” / “Spray Coat” 7-inch single
My favorite local punk group returns with another single that shows why the group is the best at what it does. The band mixes a solid punk, DIY ethic with catchy pop hooks that are impossible to deny, and is another one of Houston’s top contenders for making it big outside the city/state.
Please be sure to show your support for these bands by purchasing their music. Have a great Christmas.
See you in 2010.