2014 is going to go down as one of the tumultuous years of the fledgling 21st century, and Austin wasn’t immune to the chaos and uncertainty that plagued the year. From the tragic deaths at SXSW to the passing of adopted Austin son Ian McLagan, there was plenty of sadness in the Austin music scene, but it was also a year that saw some of the most vital works to come out of Austin in years. We reviewed countless releases this year, but we felt there were ten albums that stood about above the rest, and symbolized the fear, hopes and anxiety of 2014. This is not a definitive list, and it took quite some time for us to decide on these ten, so we hope you’ll let us know your own choices and continue the conversation in the comments.
Taz- Full Blossom of the Evening (Graveyard Orbit)
It’s so hard to be scared by modern horror films. No one is getting stalked by an evil doll or possessed by a Ouija board. The closest thing to real fear 99% of people face is the sound of footsteps in night. “It’s coming from inside the house” might be the scariest phrase of all time.
Taz’s Full Blossom of the Evening is a glorious symphony of things that go bump in the night and is the best collection of dark ambient songs since the Haxan Cloak’s modern classic Excavation. But paired with the album’s unrelenting, unsettling groove is a layer of longing and love in tracks like “bedroom” and “dreams.” Those songs’ use of piano and clarinet (however synthetic) act as your wonderful life flashing before your eyes right before the monster from under your bed finally comes for you. – Dylan Garsee
Purple- (409) (Play It Again Sam)
I’m not sure how much more in depth I can get into how amazing Purple’s (409) is, but it would be a crime to wrap up the year without one final acknowledgment of just how fucking good it is. We’re such unabashed Purple fans that we chased them all the way to the UK, and are already dying to hear the new jams that we’re told feature tastes of hip hop and dance tunes in addition to the overdose of rock Purple has already been steadily supplying like an overgenerous drug dealer.
It has been a huge year for Purple and with a ludicrous desire for seemingly nothing else other than to make music, party and wear bikinis, there is no indication they’re slowing done the output for even one second. From milk chugging and dizzying head thrashing nonsense “Leche Loco” to trippy trouble making boiling point “DMT”, (409) is everything a great rock record should be: varied, unafraid, indulgent and fun as hell. Possessing one of rock’s future shining stars in drumming dynamo Hanna Brewer and natural chemistry and driven tenacity between the trio, the sky is the limit for Purple. While Austin might have to wait a bit longer before the group stops hitting the road and gets settled in Austin, being able to play this record over and over is a pretty sweet consolation prize. – Nate Abernethy
Growl – No Years (Self-Released)
In this line of work, you’re always rooting for everybody. If a band puts out a lackluster release, you want them to bounce back next time. If a young group debuts with a promising EP, as Growl did with last year’s Gallery, you want them to blow through the roof on their follow-up. In Growl’s case, that’s exactly what happened with No Years.
When they kick the record off with those powerful twin guitar lines in “Afra & Me,” your ears perk up. You think, “This is tight and polished.” When you get to “Buffalo,” you say, “This rocks harder than anything this melodic should be able to.” By the time the album closes with the tender “Rosie,” you’re screaming, “How does this band have so much heart?!? How can music this fun be this smart!? Are they more indebted to Vampire Weekend or the Buzzcocks?!” It’s not often that a band makes this kind of leap in their sophomore effort, and at the end of the day, all you can do is soak in every last bit of it. – Carter Delloro
The Sour Notes – Do What May (Self-Released)
On Do What May, possibly their most diverse release yet, The Sour Notes showcase the best of what they’ve done in the past while diving headlong into the future across ten all new tracks. While it was been three years since the last full length release from one of Austin’s hardest working bands, they weren’t resting on their laurels and between touring and various single releases Do What May was taking shape in the wings.
Featuring a stable of local guest talent including: Little Lo’s Bailey Glover, Löwin’s Sara Houser, and Mirror Travel’s Lauren Green, Notes’ front man Jared Boulanger takes a back seat role vocally on many of Do What May’s tracks while still providing sultry guitar work and the occasional lead. Picking up right where they left off on 2011’s Last Looks, Do What May’s sound fills a spectrum from folksy to progressive, with an generous application of psych pop glue to hold it all together. Having raised the bar on themselves yet again, The Sour Notes assuredly rise to the challenge on Do What May and provide the perfect next chapter in a career that shows no signs of losing momentum any time soon. – Brian J. Audette
BLXPLTN- Black Cop Down (Wolfshield Records)
My favorite record of the year from an Austin band was easily BLXPLTN’s Black Cop Down. BLXPLTN (along with winning my award for best band name of 2014, possibly ever) is a fascinating band, and is representative of everything I wish the Austin scene represented more but doesn’t—inventive, original, aggressive and opinionated, and fronted by badass people of color. BLXPLTN sounds like what might have happened if Trent Reznor hadn’t given up on making good Nine Inch Nails music and had made a record with the hip hop community, and Black Cop Down’s blend of punk, industrial, and hip hop sounds works together in a melange of complicated, layered ways.
In our review of the album, David Sackllah pointed out—rightly—that Black Cop Down doesn’t hit quite as hard as BLXPLTN’s live show, and that not all of the album quite lives up to the promise of its high moments. But those high moments are just so high, and BLXPLTN’s sound is so seductive that I don’t mind the weaker moments. And at a fast, breezy 27 minutes, this album’s highs and lows come quickly enough that even its worst moments aren’t exactly onerous. We’re hopeful for bigger, more exciting releases from BLXPLTN in the future, but in the meantime, they still sound like nothing else I’ve ever heard in Austin before, and that goes a hell of a long way. – Jake Muncy
Hundred Visions may have promised some gory spectral shit with the cover of Spite, but what lurked underneath that cover wasn’t a bunch of gloom and doom but an irresistibly hooky album that accomplished the incredible feat of unifying various strains of punk and garage rock. There was the psych-tinged stomper “You’re Gonna Cut Me Loose,” the pop punk anthem “Thanks for Nothing” and the obscenely catchy “I’m Inoculated,” the latter of which hints at some bizarro future for Hundred Visions as bastard children of Art Brut and LCD Soundsystem and hookier than both.
But Spite isn’t an album that doesn’t know what it wants so much as its a showcase for a band that can do whatever the fuck it wants. Frailer acts would have caved under the pressure of trying to navigate so many different musical paths but for Hundred Visions it’s an emboldening exercise, the kind of thing that fills them with energy rather than exhaustion– or at least as far as I can tell, who knows what really happens in the practice room. And that energy is infectious, making the album the kind of listening experience that also rejuvenates and inspires you. That’d be rare in any era, but in a year like 2014 it was a fucking miracle. – Nick Hanover
Jess Williamson – Native State (Brutal Honest)
In a town like Austin that is flooded with great talent, it can be hard to stand out. It’s rare to be able to rise above the fray without getting bigger or louder or flashier. It’s rare, but this year, Jess Williamson proved that it’s not impossible. Native State is a soft album. It creeps up on you. There aren’t strummed chords or drum kits. Instead, there’s an incredible atmosphere of banjos, floor toms, and heart-wrenching harmonies.
The whole thing is anchored by Williamson’s distinctive and captivating voice. Like Joanna Newsom on two packs a day, Williamson’s voice leaps around melodies, evoking emotions with a finely tuned range of tics. It imbues her enigmatic lyrics with the collective wisdom of a century of folk singers. Native State is music you couldn’t tear yourself away from even if you tried, and it put an entire city under Williamson’s spell. – Carter Delloro
Speak – Pedals (Playing in Traffic)
For a band that I once wrote off as just another bubbly electro pop group, I sure have been listening to a lot of Speak’s sophomore LP Pedals these past few months. While the difference may be subtle to some, to these ears Pedals practically sounds like the work of a whole new band. Time, touring, and cutting ties with major labels will change a group though and in Speak’s case it seems to have matured them a great bit. Featuring their signature well-balanced blend of keyboards, guitars, and percussion, Speak’s sound on Pedals has evolved to include a rich, smoky flavor, with nary a hint of bubble gum, though still fun and inviting.
Through 14 masterfully mixed tracks, Speak explore a murky landscape often conjuring images of dark pop masters like Depeche Mode, while still evoking more contemporary sources such as: Washed Out, M83, or even Caribou. From opener “Gates”’ unforgettable keyboard riff and pounding rhythm, to “This Much I Know”’s Muse-like progressive build, and penultimate track “The Meantime”’s sky high crescendo, Pedals is about as perfect an electro pop album as I could ask for. I only hope this is a harbinger of what’s to come from what I hope is a long musical career for this band. – Brian J. Audette
Shakey Graves- And the War Came (Dualtone)
Austin’s own outsourced gem, fine southern-gentleman and this card-carrying devotee’s local fav Alejandro Rose-Garcia, aka Shakey Graves, solidified his place as more than a lyrical pied piper with a face of perfection this past October with the release of his hair-raising and highly awaited new album And The War Came. Abandoning his adolescent-centric “burn everything” perception of life and his lone-wolf ways heavily portrayed in his freshman album Roll The Bones, Shakey Graves both labeled up and crewed up to create this introspective, pair-centric, and overall, softer album in late 2014.
Though any lowly Grave-digger like myself thinks this homemade heartthrob is perfect just the way he is, Shakey evolved for the better both personally and sonically in the album to match the difficult subject matter–growth, selflessness, and the building, destroying and rebuilding of relationships. Since the new album is rooted in a much more mature subject matter, it showcased the “less shakey” side of Mr. Graves. Though And The War Came still exemplifies his front-porch-swangin’, sweet-tea-sippin’, southern slide of tongue twang, Alejandro broke free from both the banjo centric alt-country genre and solo drum-case kit act, morphing his sound into a controlled, all out eclectic rock-out that’s anything but caddywompus.
Accompanied by drum master “Boo” on the kit and the exquisite Esme Patterson on support vocals, the 11 track album released includes the grooves “This is the Beginning,” “Only Son,” “Dearly Departed,” “The Perfect Parts,” “Hard Wired,” “Family and Genus,” “Big Time Nashville Star,” “Pansy Waltz,” “House of Winston,” “It’s Not For You,” and “Call it Heaven.” Altogether, Shakey’s sophomore album gives us ten-gallon-girl hopefuls exactly what we were craving all year, a uniquely “Shakey performance.” – Jenny Stark
Feral Future- Haematic (Western Medical)
Haematic was the first album of 2014 that I fell in love with at the very first needle drop and it remains not only one of the finest albums of the year but the beginning of Feral Future’s rise to a punk powerhouse. Where their first EP was noisy and raw but underwhelming in comparison to Western Medical labelmate’s Crooked Bangs self titled debut, Haematic is a fine-tuned gold standard with frontwoman Relle Sonnenschien channeling a melodic and deceptive allure just to punch you in the throat with righteous furiousity that you can’t help but yell along with.
Haematic took Feral Future from promising punkers to the most entertaining and explosive shining example of riot grrrl since Bikini Kill first took the stage. In the same year that saw members of Austin’s police force yucking it up at the idea of a hypothetical rape victim there wasn’t a track more vital not to mention downright enjoyable than manifesto “No Means Nothing.” From crackling and oddly soothing intro “Funeral”, rapid-fire party underbelly celebration “Blackout” with its encapsulation of teen angst, to just downright dance-inducing moments that still possess a ferocity like “The Middle,” it is an impossible feat to discover a second of weakness on this album. Decades from now Haematic will still be talked about as the most spectacular and definitive album to leave its mark on the Austin punk scene. – Nate Abernethy