BEST OF 2012 – First Quarter Share
OK, let’s try it a little different this year.
Everyone’s welcome to their favorite album of the year, me included, but perhaps trying to rank 30 albums (all ranging from worthy & solid to downright excellent, to these ears) is a fool’s errand. It’s a music scene, not a horse race or a cage fight, and under the right circumstances everybody wins (ideally including the listener). And it was a great year for the Texas and “red dirt” strains of loosely defined Americana, indie country, roots music etc. so there’s plenty of spotlight to go around.
So here’s my optimistic, glad-I-heard-it rundown of some of the year’s best music. Many of these folks have already appeared on the Texas Music Scene show and others may be showing up soon, but all of them are well worth an ear. I’m sure I’ve missed a band or two, but no one was left off intentionally … enjoy, and Happy New Year amigos. We’re gonna take this month by month.
Lincoln Durham – The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones – His invariably solo live shows have built up Durham’s incipient legend as a volcanic talent, ramping up timeless country blues with youthful urgency and (at least by Texas Americana standards) no shortage of dark, noisy edges. His first full-length record does nothing to break down that reputation, with ample lyrical mystique and gritty vocals hanging from spare but biting electric riffs. He might be one opening tour for Jack White away from being among modern music’s next big things.
Roger Creager – Surrender – Still a vocalist and live entertainer of boundless energy, Creager hasn’t changed much since his late-‘90s debut but he doesn’t make many false moves either. Time and maturity has added depth to his more reflective numbers (“Bad Friend to a Good Man,” “Something To Believe In”) but it hasn’t dulled his swagger (see “Crazy Again”) a bit. Why the major labels haven’t rolled the dice on Creager yet is anybody’s guess, but Surrender is evidence that there’s still plenty of time.
The Washers – Tired Eyes – Full of the sort of what-the-hell enthusiasm and guitar heroics that fueled early Pat Green and Cross Canadian Ragweed shows, the woolly bar-band tunesmiths have been making their joyful noise around the Gulf Coast for just a handful of years now. Loose, energetic, and diverse in their approach (lead vocal duties get passed around like a plastic flask at a chili cook-off), they’re a worthy soundtrack to a carefree afternoon with the likes of “Good Ol’ Days” and “Bag of Bones.”
Eleven Hundred Springs – Midway – Sticking to their honky-tonk guns after a couple of decades in action, Matt Hillyer and company would rather sharpen the saw than change tools. The result is vintage-sounding country music that’s as clever (“I’m An S.O.B. When I’m S.O.B.E.R.”) and heartbreaking (“Some Place Else To Be”) as one could ask for. Much like corn whiskey in a charred oak barrel, time has only made them stronger and richer.
Lyle Lovett – Release Me – Heavy on covers and contractually obligated, this could have been a bitter or boring record in lesser hands. But Lovett just doesn’t hit sour notes, and his respect for the folk, blues, and classic country that birthed his unique sound runs deep enough that even the borrowed numbers carry a whiff of revelation. Obscure numbers like “Dress of Laces” and “Understand You” get a well-deserved unearthing, and familiar songs like the title track and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” get a classy new coat of paint.
K Phillips – American Girls – Too often in this scene, eclecticism loses out to a wary sense of professionalism. K Phillips refuses to let his music run together with the usual genre pieces and, much like elder Austin mainstays like Bob Schneider and Alejandro Escovedo, gives his imagination and talents free run on hip-shaking R&B (“Does It Hold Water”), sweet acoustic folk (“Lincoln City (Keep It Safe)”), and vintage-sounding heartland rock (“Kat’s Song”) with several welcome shades in between. It’s not a perfect diamond, but it’s a gem of many colors anyhow.
Jordan Minor – Cottonwood Tree – Maybe the best under-the-radar record of the year, depending on how high your radar’s set, young Hill Country fixture Jordan Minor finally put out the full-length record that all those folks who’ve caught him at Gruene Hall, Cheatham Street, etc. have been yearning for for awhile now. Basically a collection of intriguing short stories set to an earnest, dusty country-rock backdrop, it’s a grand and gritty debut starring bootleggers (“Still Shinin’”), immigrant laborers (“On The Rails”) and Billy the Kid himself (“The Ballad of William Bonney”). Much like Robert Earl Keen and Fred Eaglesmith before him, Minor’s got a knack for making his characters three-dimensional and their motivations substantial.
Mark Allan Atwood & Brimstone – Burned At The Crossroads – A music veteran with diverse bar-band roots, Atwood already has a career’s worth of experience to pull from even though he’s just getting started as a recording artist. There’s some bluesy grooves here (“Liar”), some outlaw country there (“And Whiskey”), and most spectacularly some power balladry (“Strong Enough,” “Ghost,” et al) that could fill an arena if someone gave him a chance. Collaborating with Adam Odor as producer was a big step in that direction, as the musical chops match Atwood’s vocal gusto.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – Grifter’s Lament – I don’t know if Ray Wylie Hubbard’s got the blues (he seems happy enough) but the blues have definitely got him, dominating his latest with variations that split the difference between the sparse, wiry sound of his last album (A. Enlightenment etc.) and his hardest-rocking one (Snake Farm). Full of distinctly world-weary lust (“Train Yard”), ragged mojo (“Hoochy Coochy”), and offbeat spirituality (“Ask God”), Hubbard’s got enough wit to keep his groove from feeling like a rut. If it was a rut, it was one of the year’s finest ruts.
Coming soon: the best of April through June.