Population estimates suggest that since we here at OVRLD started this music review site/blog/e-zine back in February 2011, there have been an additional 60,000 new people that moved to our fair city. That breaks down to nearly 75 new Austinites every day (assuming that no one has left). This staggering growth means that we have to reinforce our physical infrastructure, but we also have to reinforce our cultural infrastructure. Austin has a deep and rich cultural history, and any new Austinite needs to become familiar with that. As local music aficionados, we’d like to offer our suggestions of essential local artists with which any newcomer to the Live Music Capital of the World should become familiar.
Since our wheelhouse is rock music, those are the artists upon which we will focus (though we could run similar lists for almost any other genre). Today we will look at the super-established artists – those who rose to national prominence in the first decade of the 21st century. Tomorrow we will look at nine rock artists who are essential to understanding the current landscape of local music, and on Thursday we will look at nine rock artists who are poised to breakthrough this year or beyond to prominent national attention. Familiarize yourself with these 27 artists and you will have a great starting point from which to approach live music in the Capital City.
Spoon is the single most important rock band to come out of Austin in the 21st century, and you will hear samples from their discography all over town. “I Turn Your Camera On” will soundtrack your West 6th bar experience. “Don’t You Evah” will come on your car radio. Spoon drummer Jim Eno has probably produced one of your favorite new artists (Heartless Bastards, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Mates of State, Voxtrot, My Jerusalem). Their songs have been featured in Veronica Mars, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, House, (500) Days of Summer, Cloverfield, The Simpsons and many more. And their albums get consistently high reviews from everyone. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga from 2007 is the quintessential Spoon album, but if you want one track that sums up Spoon’s pop genius, it’s 2002’s seminal “The Way We Get By.”
The Black Angels
The Black Angels are the leaders of Austin’s booming psych rock scene. Thanks to their Austin Psych Fest, the Black Angels have helped foster a local scene that is exploring the outer limits of a genre rooted simultaneously in the psychedelia of the 1960s and the ideas of what futuristic rock might sound like. From the 2006 single “The First Vietnamese War” through this year’s “Don’t Play With Guns” and “Evil Things,” The Black Angels have spent four albums and three EPs marrying heavy rock riffs and a bracing rhythm section with a darkness in lyrics and spirit that evokes a weariness emblematic of cynical Millennials. The song that best exemplifies all these characteristics is the pulsating “Bad Vibrations,” the lead track off of 2010’s Phosphene Dream.
Explosions in the Sky
The Black Angels aren’t the only national Austin band to have a major impact on the local scene. If you’ve ever heard The Calm Blue Sea, My Education or Equals (among so many others), you were paying tribute to the enduring legacy of Explosions. While they were merely following in the footsteps of other instrumental post-rock bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Explosions mixes soul-crushing melodrama and breath-taking optimism like no other group of its kind. Their songs are carefully crafted works of art with layers of emotion and musicianship that slowly reveal themselves over multiple active listens. While 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care was a master class in instrumental rock composition (and “Trembling Hands” is probably the closest thing they’ll ever have to a “single”), The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, from 2003, is one of the great statements in the genre of post-rock, and the evocative “First Breath After Coma” is a great encapsulation of the heights Explosions in the Sky are able to reach.
Will Sheff is a master wordsmith. Even an average Okkervil River could still stand on its own as a work of poetry. Our fandom of Sheff’s work was probably evident when we named “Mermaid” – a B-side that didn’t make it onto that year’s I Am Very Far – as our number one Austin song of 2011. What makes Okkervil River’s songs so much more than just poetry, though, is the way that the music complements and enhances the listener’s understanding of the lyrics. Sheff’s songs always operate on multiple levels, whether it’s the physicality of “The Valley” or the sly winking of “Plus Ones.” They continue to explore their abilities in all aspects of the songwriting medium. Both I Am Very Far (2011) and The Stage Names (2007) have a lot in them to like, but Black Sheep Boy (2005) is an essential piece of the mid-2000’s indie rock landscape. Its raw emotions and fantastic imagery are simultaneously tender and powerful, and the schizophrenic “For Real” is essential listening.
…And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead
Mixing hard rock and emo, Trail of Dead presented something immediate and vital at the turn of the 21st century. So much emo lacked any sort of power (ahem, Jimmy Eat World) as it got diluted by mainstream attention. Trail of Dead drew more from genre stalwarts Sunny Day Real Estate in bringing an overwhelming dynamic roughness to their earnest rock. Their magnum opus, Source Tags & Codes from 2002, will forever define their career, but they have continued to pack a powerful punch over the course of their career. Tao of the Dead (2011) and Lost Songs (2012) were devastating back-to-back proof of their ability to have a visceral impact on a listener and were packed with brilliant tracks like “Catatonic,” “Lost Songs,” “Pure Radio Cosplay,” and “Weight of the Sun” that mixed their prog-rock inclinations with the direct power of their earlier work. But Source Tags & Codes remains the most essential item in their catalogue. Though “Another Morning Stoner” might be the most famous track from the record, you might as well start with “It Was There That I Saw You” and let this masterpiece keep rolling.
Ghostland Observatory are testament to the power of live performance. They still have not made that one album that is a start to finish masterpiece (see: Source Tags & Codes, above), but they have garnered hundreds of thousands of fans around the world thanks to their enthralling live shows. (Perhaps the inconsistent quality of their discography is why they aren’t more critically acclaimed – get out of the house, music writers!) Fortunately, Aaron Behrens and Thomas Turner have managed to put more than few sublime moments down on tape. From “Silver City” on their 2005 debut delete.delete.i.eat.meat through to “Give Me the Beat” on 2010’s Codename: Rondo, they have concocted funky, electronic dance numbers of all varieties. Their quintessential track, though, is 2006’s “Sad Sad City,” an irresistible head-bobber that is unavoidable at late night coffeeshops all over the capital city.
White Denim have explored so much sonic territory that it’s easy to forget that we should have seen this coming from the 2007 EP Let’s Talk About It. What appeared on the surface to be simple lo-fi punk rock songs were augmented by tape effects, psychedelic rock stylings and rhythmic auxiliary percussion – all in just the first track. Since then White Denim have refused to be pigeonholed, mashing together psych-rock and punk on 2009’s Fits and then exploding into a million groovy pieces on 2011’s D, with the swirling guitars of “Anvil Everything” giving way to the Latin polyrhythms of “River to Consider” and then detouring through the entire late 1960s on “Drug.” If you like Tame Impala, then in White Denim you will find kindred spirits. The most straightforward distillation of their manic, uncontrollable energy is “I Start to Run” from Fits.
Listening today to the early Shearwater output, it’s hard to imagine how it must have come across. Today it’s clear that there are the Jonathan Meiburg songs and then there are the Will Sheff ones. Sheff’s songs sound a lot like his later work in Okkervil River, and Meiburg’s tracks lay the blueprint for the Shearwater that we all know and love today. That Shearwater arguably began to take shape in 2006 when Sheff relinquished creative control over the group’s songwriting and Meiburg commenced crafting his vision. Shearwater sounds like very little else in the 21st century – sort of like late Talk Talk fronted by Jeff Buckley. It’s epic, emotional and evocative – instantly memorable and inarticulately beautiful. Almost everything they’ve done is underrated (including last year’s immaculate Animal Joy), but Rook (2008) is rightly recognized as one of the great albums of the latter half of its decade. There is perhaps no more perfect track in the discography of Shearwater than the penultimate one from that album, “The Snow Leopard.”
Balmorhea/The Octopus Project (tie)
Octopus Project Photo by Drew Reynolds
Though there were only nine spots available on this list, we couldn’t decide between these last two. Both are largely instrumental projects and neither are post-rock in the Explosions vein, but that’s about where the similarities end. Balmorhea crafts elegant elegies to the natural world. Their string arrangements mix with insistent pianos and mild guitars to produce engaging experiences that are simultaneously relaxing and thought-provoking. The quality of their output is so consistent that you can’t really go wrong with any of their records, but we wanted to start you with “Settler,” the lead track from 2009’s All is Wild, All is Silent, for the way it introduces to all sides of the group’s approach. On the other hand, The Octopus Project has been wildly inconsistent, and no one can seem to agree on their best record. Is it the frenetic overload of 2004’s One Ten Hundred Thousand Million? The 2006 collaboration with Black Moth Super Rainbow on The House of Apples & Eyeballs? Or the sonic experimentation of Hexadecagon in 2010? No matter where you turn, The Octopus Project are pushing the envelope – even if they’re pushing it towards the dance floor as on last year’s “Whitby.” We wanted to share the IDM-brought-to-life track “Music is Happiness” from 2005 because for The Octopus Project, it’s clearly a true statement.