No matter how you look at it, 2015 was a great year for Austin music, bringing a dizzying number of remarkable works from new and established bands in every corner of the scene. Choosing just ten works to showcase was extremely difficult, but we feel these are the ten albums that stood out the most in Austin music in 2015, highlighting where Austin music has come from and where it might potentially head. As always, let us know what you think and what you would have chosen.
Quiet Company- Transgressor
Talk about tough acts to follow, Quiet Company’s Transgressor had the daunting task of following up 2011’s watershed album We Are All Where We Belong, a soul-baring conceptual masterpiece that nabbed the band eleven Austin Music Awards following its release. Given plenty of time to gestate, Transgressor follows in the wake of the band’s re-recording/re-issue of their debut LP Shine Honesty and of frontman Taylor Muse’s divorce, the later fueling much of the album’s introspective subject matter.
As Muse wrestles lyrically with the burdens of balancing being in an up-and-coming rock band while also being a being a husband and father, Transgressor undergoes its own tussle, shifting between raucous pop and quieter, more introspective tones throughout. While less self-assured and determined than its award-winning forebear, Transgressor manages to provide the kind of sincere, heart-on-sleeve power pop Quiet Company are known for and while it may not break new ground, it’s another quality release from a group that refuses to relent on their march to the top. – Brian J. Audette
After signing to Sacred Bones Records and releasing the phenomenal Salt EP, Institute unveiled Catharsis, their debut full length. The album hearkens back to 1980s post-punk with its simple delivery and execution, as well as the self-deprecating lyrics from vocalist Moses Brown. Catharsis is an exciting entry from one of the most promising new acts in the Austin punk scene. – Brie East
Every song on Kokedama, the swooning but consistently sharp synthpop album Leach put out this year, seems perfectly designed to soundtrack any number of the real life mini-epics that we all collect, which define both our romantic and our capital-R Romantic lives. The rush of “Waiting on You” is meant for the moment a lover races through the airport to catch The One before she departs, security logistics be damned. The delicately optimistic “Down to a Science,” by equal turns soft, sad, and sweet, should kick in as a seemingly crumbling couple revives their commitment with the right kind of subtle smiles and eyes. And “Grown Up,” with its playful lyrics and commitment to atmosphere, seems constructed as a dizzy, glittering homage to the highs of a so-late-it’s-early, kiss-under-the-neon-lights kind of night to remember.
What sets these songs, and the rest of Kokedama, above the fray is Leach’s stellar, inventive pop craftsmanship, meticulous production, and surprising lyrical statements. When you expect the language to skew broad it is beautifully specific, when you expect boastfulness Leach instead trembles with uncertainty. Kokedama is pretty pop with a racing pulse and a complete lack of pretension (and pretty’s no insult); it’s an album to reach for when you think you might be ready to fall in love again but you need a reminder of why. – Kayleigh Hughes
Popper Burns- Popper Burns
Popper Burns’ freaky anthem “Too Punk for Punk” might as well have been the defining statement of Austin music this year. The best acts to emerge from Austin’s punk scene in 2015 were the weirdo outcasts who mutated the punk label and found new life not in its sonic limitations but in the myriad ways you could push its meaning. On their remarkably consistent eponymous debut, Popper Burns provided a brave new vision of punk that was unapologetically sexual and lusty as well as aggressively eccentric and unpredictable.
That unpredictability enabled Popper Burns to be a work of intense vision, imbued with far more character than the frequently monotonous hardcore acts that endlessly emerge around the country. The album may begin with the perfectly titled No Wave jam “Freak Out,” but it also offered moments like the classic punk of “Pretty Little Pig” and the Athens retroism of “Body Issues,” unified by Patti Melt’s pouty vocal performance and the band’s hip swaggering rhythms rather than burdened by an anonymous wall of rage. Popper Burns may have been too punk for punk in 2015, but if Austin punk is smart, it will start taking notes and opening its mind. – Nick Hanover
East Cameron Folkcore- Kingdom of Fear
I righted an awful wrong this year by finally listening to East Cameron Folkcore and as luck would have it, I did so just before they released their third and arguably most important and ambitious album to date. If you follow ECF’s trajectory from their 2011 debut Sound & Fury through sophomore release For Sale, the eventual release of something with the gravitas of Kingdom of Fear seems to have been inevitable. Part Woody Guthrie, part Phil Ochs, and part Dead Kennedys, East Cameron Folkcore’s bold ensemble fuses the righteous fury of punk with the brutal honesty of socially conscious folk music. Kingdom of Fear even adds a bit of a progressive bent into this already solid mix with it’s conceptual narrative and tight sequencing.
A concept album in four parts, Kingdom of Fear views the plutocracy of modern corporatist America through a dark lens and manages to focus broadly on issues at large, while also zooming in tighter for a more personal touch. The result is a dark and yet paradoxically sobering and invigorating album, set to the thunderous sounds of East Cameron Folkcore’s guitars, horns, strings, keys, and drums. It’s an album for the times and an album for all times and certain to go down as a watershed moment for this band. – BJA
US Weekly- Void of Devices
Bringing their anger-soaked music to the Austin punk scene, US Weekly came out with their debut album Void of Devices in March. Reminiscent of the ramblings of the weird kid in the back of the classroom, Nordahl’s lyrics delve into dark, taboo subjects. The album also delivers bombastic drums and atonal guitar lines, making it one of the most explosive experiences in Austin music this year. – BE
Sweet Spirit- Cokomo
Sometimes all you want is a great pop record and few acts in Austin could fulfill that need better than Sweet Spirit did this year on Cokomo. Like some modern Austin twist on the best of the ’70s, Cokomo ably delivered on all the promise of Sweet Spirit’s early singles and EPs, mashing together the band’s glam, garage and dance influences so perfectly you’d think they were a lost artifact from the time of mirror balls and frequent bathroom coke trips…which I guess makes sense since arguably that is any night in Austin.
What made Cokomo stand out from rival works by Austin’s fleet of bellbottom pretenders is that it is light on posture and heavy on reclamation. The Stones pillaging in “Break Your Bones,” for instance, effortlessly recalls its sonic heroes, but it turns the sleazy misogyny of Mssrs. Jagger and Richards into a slam of male recklessness and the expectation that the women should pick up the pieces rather than turning said men into pieces. Even Austin’s pouty rebelliousness gets playfully called out in “Rebel Rebel,” Sabrina Ellis’ softly delivered vocals barely masking the disdain for dudes who won’t grow the fuck up. So yes, Cokomo is one of the best pop rock efforts from an Austin band in recent memory, but it’s also one of the smartest albums by Austinites in, well, forever. – NH
Wild Child- Fools
Having made a name for themselves in indie circles across the country with their sophomore album, Wild Child released their much anticipated Third LP this fall in the form of Fools. While certainly no concept album, a definite thread runs through much of Fools, tying together moments from a relationship in crisis that eventually implodes. It’s these moments on the album, backed primarily by Kelsey Wilson’s electrifying and mesmerizing vocals, that Fools soars.
As has been a trend since the band’s inception, Fools sees Wild Child again moving away from a more traditional folk sound and into a less definable, but arguably more pop territory. The roots of the band’s earthier outset run deep however and ground much of the album in a way that maintains and bolsters the sincerity of heart-on-sleeve lyrics amid the sparkling production. In a less synth-obsessed mainstream climate a song like “Break Bones” could almost be a top 40 contender and yet feels right at home here alongside more subdued songs like “Reno.” Pop, folk, indie, or somewhere in between, one thing is certain and it’s that Wild Child seem to know exactly what they’re doing and if they don’t then they shouldn’t change a thing, because Fools is another worthy notch on this band’s already impressive belt of accomplishments. – BJA
LNS Crew- LNS Mixtape Vol. 2
Austin hip hop may have continued to struggle to get noticed this year (and suffered some major setbacks, like the cancellation of Weird City) but for anyone who was paying attention, 2015 was the first year that the rise of Austin hip hop seemed like a certainty rather than a pipe dream. A massive amount of impressive releases came from this year’s scene, but for my money, LNS Crew’s second mixtape stood out as the best, highlighting truly great material from the best crew in the scene while also functioning as a swan song of sorts.
Featuring verses and production from core LNS Crew members Kydd, Pac Boi Tank and Cory Kendrix, the mixtape also showcased contributions from top talent in the scene, ranging from Magna Carda’s Dougie Do to Sdot of the League of Extraordinary G’z to hot shit future pop star Max Frost. It’s not the array of talent that makes the mixtape stand out, though, but its scope and ambition, displaying LNS Crew’s enviable capacity to approach hip hop from a number of perspectives and sounds. If you were on the fence about the state of Austin hip hop last year, LNS Mixtape Vol. 2 should have pushed you firmly over to the optimistic side. – NH
Big Bill- The Second Bill
The best Austin album of the year was also one of the first releases of the year. Unleashed in mid-January to immediate acclaim (from me, at least), Big Bill’s The Second Bill instantly sealed the band’s reputation as one of the most adventurous and rewarding indie acts in the Austin scene. And for good reason– it’s a uniformly excellent full length that expands on the promise of Big Bill’s debut EP without sacrificing any of the spontaneous fun that defined that prior work.
Produced by Slugbug’s Paul D. Millar, The Second Bill is warm and loose, the mix leaving abundant space to spotlight Big Bill’s masterful arranging skills as well as Eric Braden’s off-kilter adenoidal vocals and clever lyrics. It’s the kind of album that immediately grabs you because it sounds like it was left behind by some alien pranksters– you can recognize that it was made by some sort of advanced civilization, but it’s slightly off and you can’t stop listening to it. If there’s a drawback to The Second Bill, it’s that it’s over tragically soon, its mere half a dozen tracks demanding repeat listens just to keep you satisfied but honestly is there even a number of Big Bill tracks that could be considered enough? Every song on The Second Bill deserves to be some bizarro land hit so picking favorites is a Herculean task. Is it “Sweet Boy,” with its power pop riffs and addicting “are you a good man? are you a bad bad man?” group chant? Is it the mischievous surf rock of “I Wanna Do Evil?” Or is it the workaday body horror ballad that is “Two Weeks?” Please don’t make me choose. I love all of it so much. – NH