(If the audio player to the right of the graphic above isn’t loading properly, try opening the page in a non-Google Chrome browser. That will let you listen to all of the songs continuously. If it’s working for you, then…awesome!)
Retro is in right now. The Eighties synth sound is big on the national scene. In Austin, there are tons of bands reviving a 70s punk rock sound. Cowboy & Indian have taken this retro approach and pushed it all the way back to the 40s and 50s. “Ledbellies” sounds like a bunch of guitarists just gathered on a front porch jamming on a favorite gospel tune. There are handclaps, tambourines, and loose electric guitar leads in between the verses. This is just stripped-down country-rock in its purest form, and is just one of the many good reasons, Cowboy & Indian scored a spot at the ACL festival this year.
Ghostbunny is brand new this year and their self-titled EP experiments with a bunch of different styles, all of which are good, but none of which come together as perfectly as this perfect piece of pulsating pop. “Tell Me Your Secret” vacillates between quiet moments of tenderness and squalls of rock guitar distortion, between tight guitar riffs and drawn-out billowy chords, but it never loses its propulsive beat. With an “ooo-ooo-ooo” chorus and an appropriately pleading vocal from Nick Hanson, Ghostbunny draw you in almost immediately and keep you gripped until the very last cymbal splash.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is so gratifying about this song. It could be the strain on James Eldridge’s every time he squeezes “Lights out / scout’s honor!” through his vocal chords. It could be the random tempo change two-thirds of the way through the song. But I think it’s the way the band sounds like it’s about to fall apart at any minute. The drum fills only barely fit into their allotted space, the distorted guitars drag into the spaces where the rest of the band stops, and yet they somehow hold it all together. It’s a thrilling ride because you just don’t know if you’ll make it to the end, and it’s that much more exhilarating when you do.
Tao of the Dead is full of great proggy hard rock. It encapsulated everything that Trail of Dead does so well. What’s remarkable about “Weight of the Sun” is how they’re able to pack so much into two minutes and nineteen seconds. It’s an epic track with the runtime of “Paperback Writer.” It begins with an easy-going triple meter (“How much fun to be drifting along…”), but quickly explodes into a heavy chorus with the lyrics, “You will pay for your new soul!” Trail of Dead, though, avoid heavy-handedness through the track’s catchiness and energy. It’s a great gateway into a fantastic record.
This pop gem is full of pounding bass drums and fat, swirling synthesizers. The vocals offer a sensitive falsetto that implores for his audience to just come out and party, while assuring, “You can take your heart’s advice, and we can take it slow.” And the band then delivers on the kind of music that makes partying inevitable. It’s an infectious, hooky song that is nearly impossible to shake from your head, and was a great introduction to Sphynx’s Human Beast record. Just put this song on, and let the dancing begin.
Sleep ∞ Over became something of indie darlings this year when their debut album, Forever, garnered a positive review on Pitchfork. They make just the kind of electronic hazy dreamscapes that many indie music reviewers have been attracted to this year (and last year, and the year before). What sets Sleep ∞ Over apart is the emotion that Stefanie Franciotti is able to bring into her work. Her lyricless chorus still manages to convey all kinds of love-related emotions – almost like a Rorschach ink blot where you’ll feel Franciotti’s pain if you’re heartbroken and you’ll feel her passion if you’re smitten. It’s a tender, sentimental, beautiful piece of work reserved for those quieter moments in life.
With ‘Imitation Generation,’ Leatherbag has crafted an anthem in the vein of Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation.” Not only does it cop Hell’s late 70s aesthetic (they even specifically namecheck the year 1977 in the song), but it also shares Hell’s anxieties about generational identity. Leatherbag are concerned with the prevalence of “retro” that we discussed above with the Cowboy & Indian song. They’re worried that “love is dead, and so is rock and roll” and we’re just left with facsimiles. And the delicious irony is that they use an entirely retro sound to convey those concerns – reinforcing the very concerns that they have. And when it comes down to it, the song works because it just fucking rocks.
This is the lone hip-hop entry on our list this year. Austin doesn’t have a huge hip-hop scene – we have to leave that to Houston – but there is a solid presence. Without big releases from MC Overlord and Zeale this year, it was up to Phranchyze to hold up Austin hip-hop this year. And while his two releases, Gucci Phran and French Phrantana, were uneven, he shines brightest when he just lets himself freestyle. “Back On My Shit” takes a sick horn-addled beat from Kydd Jones and turns it into a verbal playground. Phranchyze is having the time of his life as he references rappers, ballers, and hotspots around Austin without a chorus or break of any kind for three and a half minutes. This is Phranchyze at his best.
Last Looks was an awesome album, and we were torn between recognizing this song or the emotional ballad “The Moment You Feel It.” But “Hot Pink Flares” rocks that much harder, while not sacrificing any of the emotional punch. When you hear the wailing strings under the “aaahhh” chorus midway through the song, it’s hard not to feel something stirring in your heart. The song ably balances the vocals between Jared Boulanger and (who I can only assume is) Elaine Greer, while the band shifts to arpeggiated ballad from grand alt-pop rocker. “Hot Pink Flares” is a journey that never feels overwrought through its grandeur.
The first thing that strikes me about “First Story” is the Preservation’s tight harmonies. For the first 52 seconds of the song, those vocals are the only thing moving the song, since the band is playing the same chord over and over. It’s not a drone, though – it’s like running in place. There’s still a frantic energy to their harmonic stillness. As the vocals rise and fall around the chord, you know that something bigger is coming. The horns start to swell and the drums continue their frenetic pounding. Yet, at just over two minutes, the song crashes to an abrupt end. It’s all anticipation and build up, just leaving you wanting more. It’s more that The Preservation deliver over the course of the Two Sisters album, but “First Story” is the band showing that they are capable of willing a catchy song into existence through its most basic elements.