Musicians in Houston had plenty to be happy about in 2011. With the revamped Fitzgerald’s leading the charge for the expanding music scene and various new venues and spots to play around the city–along with relatively simple ways to spread the word about new music online–the Houston musical landscape is as fertile and vibrant as ever. There were a lot of impressive releases this year (Space City Rock did an excellent job compiling an exhaustive list) but there’s a handful of albums that definitely stood out for me. You may have already seen a few of these on my favorites of 2011 list, but here are my favorite Houston albums released this year.
Houston Calling‘s favorite Houston albums of 2011
1. Robert Ellis, Photographs (New West)
This was a great year for Ellis, whose album got him a lot of national attention, and album opener “Friends Like Those” is without a doubt one of the best songs I heard all year. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the album:
Although Photograph‘s folksier moments bring to mind the sincerity and simplicity of early James Taylor–especially on the impressive opener “Friends Like Those”–Ellis’ classic country influences are apparent throughout. The album’s most countrified moment is “What’s In It For Me?” (available on limited edition vinyl at his website and which you can stream here), a throwback reminiscent to any number of 70s-era country songs. And that’s the beauty of Ellis’ music: it’s good enough to hold its own with the greats (he gives nods to “Lefty, Willie, Hank, and Townes” on “Comin’ Home”) while still appealing to a diverse audience. Where a lesser musician playing this style of music might come off hackneyed or derivative, Ellis instead brings a smooth, irony-free approach that lends honesty to his songs. And there’s not much more a listener can ask of an album.
VIDEO: “Friends Like Those” (live)
2. Pale, In The Time Of Dangerous Men (A Blake)
Pale is one of the most ambitious groups in town, and the band’s appetite for the big time is as big as their sound (and their videos). This album further proves that Blue October shouldn’t be the only rock band from Houston in the spotlight. Here’s what I wrote about the album in my review:
Last year, Pale released the single and video for “Catastrophic Skies.” While the song wasn’t exactly a stretch for the band, there were brief hints of a musical shift in focus. In The Time Of Dangerous Men finds the foursome interjecting rawer-edged garage and danceable 80?s New Wave into the over-the-top bombast that’s defined the band’s music for years. For a band best known for its Muse-esque anthems, this is a surprising–albeit welcome–change…Pale always shoots big with its music. If 2007?s Mandatory Ambulance EP was the band moving forward, In The Time Of Dangerous Men is Pale propelling itself into a likely prosperous future.
VIDEO: “That Sinking Feeling”
3. The Answer Page, Orca (Self-released)
A newbie on the Houston music front, musician Nate McKee penned an excellent break-up album that I found hard to put down once I heard it. Here’s what I wrote in my review of Orca:
The songs on Orca document the disintegration of a relationship and a man ultimately coming to terms with being alone. McKee, who not only played all of the instruments but produced, mixed, and mastered the album as well, takes the finer points of the “post-rock” genre–the slow, melodic guitars and gradually building tempos–and adds vocals that complement, but never overpower, his songs. Lyrically, the album starts off with the “all we need is love” adage that so often collapses in on itself in youth. Listeners will easily relate to “Shimmer”‘s “Roll the windows down, let’s leave behind / the things we worried about / no one can ever hurt us here…the summer’s everlasting” heartfelt sentiment. But love quickly deteriorates, and most of Orca finds McKee in reflective solitude, pining away for his lost love. “Cold Blue Light (In Circles)” and “Our Words Without Meaning” (on which he sings, “It’s not the end if I fall in love with the sound of everything undone”) best chronicles this loneliness, and listening to Orca is best when taken as a solitary experience, the better to get entwined with the songs’ swirling guitars and moody, echoing vocals.
4. Sideshow Tramps, Revelator (ZenHill)
This Houston-based collective is made up of some of the city’s finest–and hard-working–musicians whose live shows are frenzied and demand crowd participation. The songs on Revelator are reworked versions of previously unreleased recording sessions, and the extra attention was obviously well-spent. The band’s music is hard to pin down, but there’s a classic quality to the Tramp’s sound, with touches of folk, old soul, and down home country. Whatever it is, there’s no denying its originality.
VIDEO: “John the Revelator” (live)
5. Something Fierce, Don’t Be So Cruel (Dirtnap)
Listening to Something Fierce’s music grow into what it’s become definitely puts a smile on my face. From the band’s raw punk beginnings to the well-honed, late 70s-influenced sound of Don’t Be So Cruel, the band has proven itself to be solid and inventive. This is another local act that’s been able to spread its reach outside of Texas.
VIDEO: “Empty Screens”
6. Scale The Summit, The Collective (Prosthetic)
Progressive metal certainly isn’t for everyone, but there is no denying the talent in this band. Scale The Summit probably gets more exposure outside Houston than any other local act, and it’s well-deserved.
VIDEO: “The Collective”
7. Time, Self-titled (Self-released)
Thank God for Bandcamp. If it wasn’t for the site, I doubt I’d have heard of this album from local musician/producer Chris Ryan. Taking cues from classic psychedelic rock (a la Pink Floyd), unexpected albums like this are one of the reasons I stay in love with Houston music.
8. The Dead Revolt, Vanixer (Self-released)
Hints of The Mars Volta and classic rock permeate this trio’s second release. This one caught me off guard, as I wasn’t expecting it to sound anything like it did. I guess the band’s name threw me,
LISTEN: “Day Of The Dead”
9. The Never Years, Life Of Dreams (Self-released)
The “chillwave” genre comes to Houston, with excellent results.
10. The Tontons, Golden EP (Self-released)
There’s no denying the talent of the musicians behind the voice, and these five songs showcase both elements well. It will be interesting to see how The Tontons progress in 2012.
VIDEO: “Golden” (live)
Albums 11-20 after the jump…
11. Drowner, EP (Self-released)
13. Slovak Republic, Summer Pills (Self-released)
14. The Mathletes, Excalibur (Homeskool)
15. Folk Family Revival, Unfolding (Self-released)
17. The Literary Greats, Black Blizzard (Self-released)
18. The 71’s, Rock & Roll Reaction, Vol. 2 (Self-released)
20. Art Institute, People Love It When You Fail (Self-released)
What were some of your local favorites this year? Anything I missed out on? Feel free to post a comment or send me an email.
Have a safe and happy New Year’s, and here’s to a great 2012…