2017 was an immensely challenging year no matter how you looked at it. In many ways, Austin was a city under perpetual attack, whether from our own governor, who urged other Texas towns to view us despicable heathens, or from the federal government itself, which sought to make an example of our city for refusing to cooperate with the increasingly more terrifying powers at ICE. And yet despite all that, Austin continues to thrive and grow.
Part of that is due to the resilience and strength of Austin’s artists, whose abilities to bring together and embolden the community were needed more than ever in this volatile year. Music in particular is able to unite people in incredible ways and in 2017 Austin musicians delivered on this to an incredible degree. We already showed some of that energy via our selection of our favorite photos from Austin music this year and our picks for the top 10 videos by local artists, but albums remain one of the most powerful platforms for artist statements and 2017 was no different. Our picks for the year’s best local albums highlight the diversity and adventurousness of the scene, from sprawling hip hop epics to snarling punk to anthemic pop. So without further ado…
Mindz of a Different Kind Borderlinez
Hip hop in 2017 did a lot of looking back, examining not just its own genre history but also the ways some of its most iconic locales have changed. Austin has never exactly been a hip hop city, located as it is in the shadow of Houston, but the city’s rappers are better situated than their rock and country peers when it comes to mining the frequently overlooked social costs of the city’s growth for art, as Mindz of a Different Kind proved with their Borderlinez EP this year.
From its dusty production and its nods towards long gone eras to the “young and built in Austin” status of MDK’s members, Borderlinez is a historical local work that never borders on being an artifact. It helps that MDK brought on the adventurous Brown v. Board to handle the bulk of the production, resulting in tracks like “Never Back Down,” which has a thrillingly off-kilter jazz vibe that aligns with the throwback aspect of the EP while also provoking thoughts of the anarchy of the future. The indication is that MDK know that to master the future and escape the cycles of the past, you must know and respect your history without glossing over the blemishes. – Nick Hanover
Lord Buffalo Lord Buffalo
Lord Buffalo’s self titled debut album is a lonely walk through the desert. Each atmospheric track bleeds into the next, wailing strings suspend time and your vision becomes monochrome dust and warped sun rays. In the hottest parts of summer, Austin feels like a city on the edge of a desert, on the edge of the west, and the sparse, meditative psychedelia of Lord Buffalo makes you wonder what we’re doing here, poised on the edge. Daniel Pruitt croons “Seen the flies/All around your eyes/But I guess that don’t bother you” and we’re on the edge, watching the disappearing West, harbouring the people running away. This record is an understated dirge for uniquely American landscapes and those who would save them if they could. – Allanah Jackson
Lord Buffalo play ABGB this Saturday, December 30th
Protextor American Neon
What is this? In American Neon, Adam Protextor and Brother Bear (aka Matt Puckett of Mother Falcon) have put together an amalgamation of styles and sounds that adds up to something entirely unlike anything else. Opening track “How Bad It Gets” begins with Protextor rapping a cappella. Once the spare arrangement comes in, it’s not clear how to think about the track. It’s not traditional hip-hop, it’s not quite funk (though it’s funky)…what is it? When the track closes with Protextor saying, “Now get the hell out my way,” it’s a warning that what’s about to come isn’t anything we should try to control or define. We just have to enjoy it.
And it’s one of the most enjoyable albums in a long time. There’s the defiant funk of “Not Tonight,” the slinky R&B of “Trouble,” the simple dance of album closer “Can’t Touch Yr Love.” The husky baritone of Protextor serves as the throughline around which the album coheres, whether he’s rapping or singing. His versatility is a critical part of what makes this work. Yet, the team of crack musicians (including members of Shearwater, Balmorhea, This Will Destroy You and more) are also critical. Everyone’s part is in service of the success of each track, and each song coalesces into deliciously groovy wholes. There’s no weak track on the record, and whether exploring anger or love, American Neon is always a great time. So what is this? It doesn’t matter; it’s just excellent. – Carter Delloro
Go Fever Go Fever
For as long as I’ve been aware of her, Acey Monaro has seemed destined for big things. Acey’s magnificent solo debut guided listeners through her riveting journey out of Australia and personal strife but even that felt like the very start of a new journey rather than the middle section of an ongoing one. But with the development of her band Go Fever, Acey appears to simultaneously be right at home and propelling herself towards unexplored terrain.
The band’s rugged self-titled debut doesn’t reintroduce Acey’s songwriting so much as it blows it up and builds something tougher out of the shrapnel. Or as Acey puts it on swaggering power pop number “Nobody’s Business,” it’s “Out, out, out with the old/And in with the blues.” The album’s best moments, like “United States of My Mind,” balance that explosive quality with unexpected tranquility, whether it be lush organ lines or the reverb drenched expansiveness of Monaro’s voice. All in all, Go Fever is an album of beautiful strength, making Monaro and her crew neither unthinking brutes nor gentle giants but great poet warriors, their words and tunes as sharp as their weaponry. – NH
Go Fever play Cheer Up Charlie’s this Sunday, December 31st as part of the Saved by the Ball New Year’s party.
The Sour Notes Darkest Sour
After a three year release hiatus, The Sour Notes came back in a big way late this year with the release of their fifth LP Darkest Sour. With the band coming up on ten years of activity and following some tumultuous times leading up to and following their last release Do What May, Sour Notes frontman Jared Boulanger did some musical soul searching. The result was new equipment, new collaborators, and a renewed vigor for songwriting.
On Darkest Sour, the Notes reinvent themselves in a way without ever straying far from home. Still reveling in brevity and eschewing repetition in favor of variety, Darkest Sour features the same psych-tinged, dreamy pop rock that fans have come to expect, but a greater focus on guitar tone and intensity adds a welcome edge, taking the band off in all new directions. It’s a formula that feels both fresh and familiar and seems to have breathed new life into this Austin mainstay. – Brian J. Audette
The Sour Notes play Hotel Vegas on Wednesday, January 10th.
DDotElles EFA Demo: Take 3
The bio on DDotElles’ Bandcamp page casually states “I spend a lot of time in my own head and this is what it sounds like.” Normally this kind of remark is a self-deprecating bit of cuteness, something to endear listeners to an artist they’re likely about to blow past. But DDotElles’ impressively epic full length EFA Demo: Take 3 is one of the rare works that truly does feel like a tour inside the mind of its creator.
Over the course of 18 tracks, DDotElles provides a crash course in the Austin scene in all of its weirdo glory, merging together not just styles from his hip hop peers but also figures from the indie fringes, as is the case in the narcotically hazy “Sepia” and its sampling of Bohl’s gutter punk poet frontman Arthur Castro. EFA Demo: Take 3 is paradoxically a masterpiece of digital distraction and creative cohesion, where ideas weave in and out of the mix at a rate that demands more and more listens while DDotElles’ breezy flow and impeccable taste in production holds everything together. EFA Demo: Take 3 is an album that matches the city that birthed it in its capacity for change, surprise and ambition. – NH
US Weekly US Weekly
US Weekly have slowly been transitioning away from the more aggressive beginnings of their career and it’s an interesting evolution to watch. Their most recent self-titled finds the band in the center of a bunch of different styles, from vocalizations reminiscent of Ceremony to more rigid, post-punk song structures, to long, psyched-out noise jams. The careful fusion of all these different styles makes US Weekly impossible to ignore, with the full length showcasing a band willing to experiment and branch out, something that too many of their peers struggle with. US Weekly’s eponymous record is a stand out in a year full of incredible local work, but are importantly it indicates this band is just getting started. – Bram Howard
Sweet Spirit St. Mojo
Over the past couple of years, Sweet Spirit have morphed from an intriguing A Giant Dog side project to a devastating and unstoppable force, complete with a killer live show featuring a band nearly double that of A Giant Dog and a bonafide hit in glammy teen rebel anthem “The Power.”
That hit kicks off the band’s victory lap of an album, St. Mojo, where the “the greatest hits of the ‘70s” vibe of its predecessor Cokomo is replaced by a more focused and muscular sound. Much of the sweetness Sabrina Ellis coated her vocals in on that preceding album is also gone, with Austin’s most dynamic front woman amping up the brassy qualities of her voice, with co-band leader Andrew Cashen similarly getting in on that action on tracks like “I Wanna Have You.” But what remains is the band’s envious talent for writing inescapable hooks and framing them in needle sharp arrangements. Ellis and Cashen have been contenders for Best Songwriters in Austin for years but with St. Mojo, it felt like they rocketed past whatever competition there was. – NH
Sailor Poon B-Sides and Rarities
Sailor Poon’s B-Sides and Rarities is an odd and entirely fun collection of offbeat tracks that give an experimental perspective on this garage-meets-riot-grrrl bunch. While it features plenty of ‘60s-esque songs one has come to expect from this band, like “Marry Myself” and “Confessions,” it’s the odder moments, like stripped down rap “FUPA” or the jazz-y No Wave track “Gimme That Sax,” that really make this album unique. Unifying all this, though, is the trademark sarcastic lyricism that criticizes male-dominated culture and expectations forced on women, which feels particularly cathartic in this brutal, misogynist year. – BH
Sailor Poon play Hotel Vegas for Free Week on Tuesday, January 2nd.
Blastfamous USA Blastfamous USA
Appropriately scathing and topical, Blastfamous USA’s debut record released on July 4, 2017. Indie hip-hop artist Zeale weaves provocative war and resistance themes into dark, blasting, soundscapes provided by beat anarchists NGHT HCKLRS. He rallies and spits the fiery anger of 2017: fuck the president, fuck the delegates and the fucking cops. It’s catharsis at its best – with beats like bombs, Zeale illustrates a war torn America brought to life by our nightmarish dreams of revolution. With ten commandments of violence, fists in teeth and corporations sucking dicks, this record compels us to remember 2017 as the year we considered guns, fists and war. – AJ
Blastfamous USA play Cheer Up Charlie’s for Free Week on Tuesday, January 2nd