Top Austin Albums of 2012: #10-1




10. Whiskey Shivers – Rampa Head

On last year’s Batholith, Whiskey Shivers were the jokesters who had total command over their instruments. With Rampa Head, this bluegrass quintet convinced everyone that they are one of the most legit bluegrass bands around. As anyone who’s seen their live show knows, they are still party animals, but Rampa Head includes covers of Doc Watson (“Way Downtown”), Tom Waits (“Long Way Home”) and a medley of Barry Louis Polisar and Kings of Leon (“Medley”) alongside positive mantras (“Head Up High,” “WTD”), rousing instrumental sections (“D-Tune,” “Swarm”) and some old-school bluegrass yodeling (“Middlesboro”). These Texans even close out the album with a Tejano number (“Wapita Wapita”). On Rampa Head, they do it all and they do it all as well as or better than anyone else. For fans of: Bill Monroe, Hayseed Dixie, The Devil Makes Three – Carter

Whiskey Shivers - 'WTD'

9. Hundred Visions – Permanent Basement

Anyone who heard last year’s Last Cab From Tunis EP knew that the full length from Hundred Visions would be great this year. Still, it was hard to know the exact extent of that. All three songs of the Tunis EP are included – “Last Cab From Tunis,” “Red Tide” and “The Light That Starts the Day” – and all still sound exemplary, but Hundred Visions expand their range tremendously from that dance-y garage rock. “Walk Right Up” is like a Van Morrison-era Them ballad filtered through 80’s jangle pop. “Let’s Go Young” is a fuzzy classic rock number while “Hot Trash” modernizes 70’s New York punk. It all comes together perfectly on “Where Do I Sign” – one of the most perfect pieces of rock n’ roll I’ve heard in the last few years anywhere. This is rock n’ roll as its founders intended. For fans of: Modern Lovers, War on Drugs, Tom Petty – Carter

Hundred Visions - 'Where Do I Sign'

8. Deep Time – Deep Time

Formerly known as Yellow Fever, Deep Time are Jennifer Moore and Adam Jones. They saw an incredible amount of attention this year for this release – probably more than any other Austin indie artist. They got love from NPR, Pitchfork, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Prefix, Brooklyn Vegan and many others, and it isn’t hard to see why. Deep Time is full of minimalist artsy rock that also manages to be ridiculously catchy. “Coleman” features some silly wordless vocables in a straightforward rock song, while “Clouds” offers a winding, jazzy melody that morphs into a driving round. A mix of accessibility and challenge is one of the hardest things to balance in rock music, and Deep Time achieves that perfectly. For fans of: Talking Heads, Young Marble Giants, The Raincoats – Carter

Deep Time - 'Clouds'

7. Zlam Dunk – Balcones

While never intended to be the band’s swan song, Balcones nonetheless performs admirably in this regard. Having recently called it quits, Zlam Dunk’s 2012 EP saw the group maturing, both instrumentally and lyrically. While still offering a unique blend of technique and danceable punk grooves, the absence of their debut’s synths along with the return of Charlie Day’s impassioned, raspy vocals create a more personal, introspective space on Balcones. There is a definite theme of coming into adulthood and striking out on one’s own here and while it leaves the EP feeling darker than Zlam Dunk’s previous work, it’s all the more powerful for it. For fans of: At the Drive-In, Q and Not U, Cinemechanica – Brian

Zlam Dunk - 'Balcones'

6. Mobley – Young Adult Fiction

In this job, I long to be surprised. With a lot of the other records in this top 10, I was expecting them to be great before hearing a note. Mobley, though, completely snuck up on me. When listening to a song as wonderfully eerie as the shimmering, pulsating “The New Black,” it feels like too much to ask that the next song be as good as “The Editor,” with its multi-layered vocals and patient disco rhythm section. When “Selfsame” starts a few tracks later, you think: “Thank God – a crappy emo song!” And then the percussion comes in and the track turns into another insane dance-pop song that builds into an incredible climax. On the six full songs here, Mobley craft a clear identity and sound that shockingly original and totally irresistible. For fans of: MGMT, Ambulance LTD, Caribou – Carter

Mobley - 'Torch'

5. Literature – Arab Spring

I just bought Arab Spring on vinyl yesterday, and it was an incredibly good decision. This is an insanely warm record, which sounds kind of weird to describe a poppy late-70s punk sound, but Literature manage to do it here. The guitars don’t cut or attack; instead, they wrap you up in their melodic little arms and comfort and caress you. The vocals aren’t mixed up in a way that yells at you, but rather they melt into the overall ambience while still being audible and distinctive. And in an alternate universe, this record is jam-packed with hit singles. “Grifted,” “Criminal Kids,” “I Am Right Here,” “Arab Spring,” really every song on the album is instantly recognizable and inviting. At this point, I can look at the track list and not recall any particular melody, but as soon as a song’s opening notes ring I think, “Oh, awesome! This song!” Every single song. And when these great songs all fit together so well into a cohesive whole? You get Arab Spring. For fans of: the Buzzcocks, the Futureheads, the Undertones – Carter

Literature - 'Grifted'

4. Shearwater – Animal Joy

It’s understandable when some of the bands on this list don’t get the love they deserve because of a lack of distribution or the general challenges of trying to break through the mass chaos of today’s music industry. But the indifference toward Shearwater’s masterful Animal Joy starts to feel personal. How is this not universally acknowledged as one of the most beautiful pieces of music to be released in 2012? Jonathan Meiburg delivers impressionistic lyrics with the grace of a prophet while his musical cohorts produce impeccable backdrops. The glory of “You as You Were,” the percussive creep of “Insolence,” the frantic discord of “Pushing the River,” the pure beauty of “Animal Life” – everything here is a carefully crafted emotional picture that Shearwater somehow managed to set to tape perfectly. In a year when few Austin artists saw wide national exposure, Shearwater represented our great city as well as anyone could have dreamed. For fans of: Talk Talk, Belle & Sebastian, Nick Drake – Carter

Shearwater - 'Animal Life'

3. Bobby Jealousy – A Little Death

Bobby Jealousy kick off their debut LP by hitting you over the head with joy. Repeatedly. “Flamethrower” is all “Ooohhh”s and “Woo-ah”s, and proudly announces that you will be faced with the most unrestrained power pop of your life for the next 45 minutes. And thank to the high level of songwriting from Mark Stoney, Sabrina Ellis and Seth Gibbs, it’s some of the most fun you could hope to encounter. The way Stoney twists the minor-key word jumble of “Cock of the Walk” couldn’t be more different from Ellis’ bouncy morbid love song “Earthquake” that follows it, but under the Bobby Jealousy tent they are both filled to the brim upbeat backing vocals and soaring hooks that tie everything together. As the album goes on they deliver more treatises on sex and death that continue to surprise: “Pass You By” is a light-hearted exploration of mortality, “Shake Me Baby” is a doo-wop-y ode to a lover’s comforting arms in the face of turmoil, “House of Mirrors” tackles fear head-on in a rushing chorus, and all of these songs are the sorts of earworms that just can’t get out of your head. When it culminates in the unbearably sunny “Rainbow,” you realize that you’re dealing with an embarrassment of riches. By packing A Little Death to the brim with amazing songs, Bobby Jealousy put together a tour de force of modern power pop. For fans of: New Pornographers, Roxy Music, Harry Nilsson – Carter

Bobby Jealousy - 'Rainbow'

2. Dana Falconberry – Leelanau

This might as well be ranked 1b on our list. It just sounds like a record of the year, and any other year it might have settled in at number one. Falconberry’s masterpiece is a quantum leap over her 2008 debut Oh Skies of Gray in the same way that OK Computer is a giant advance over The Bends. She took what was already good songs and arrangements and brought them up to a whole new level of excellence. You can look at the interplay between music and lyrics on “Crooked River,” for example to hear a teetering song that evokes a river skittering along over rocks and through forests while the river-oriented lyrics actually dispense advice to an insecure friend. Throughout these 14 tracks, Falconberry uses the natural Michigan landscape around which she grew up to explore family relationships, romantic relationships, mortality, coming of age, and so many more aspects of humanity. This lyrical and musical sophistication produces some incredible songs, like “Petoskey Stone,” “Birch Bark,” “Copperleaf,” “Maple Leaf Red,” and the title track closing out the record. It’s an incredible text that immediately vaults Falconberry into any discussions of the best young musicians in town. For fans of: Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird – Carter

Dana Falconberry - 'Petoskey Stone'

1. The Eastern Sea – Plague

Many commentators seem really preoccupied with Plague’s backstory. They like to note how this record took nearly a full year for Matt Hines and company to finish, and they had to battle technical problems, inter-band tensions, wildfires, condemned buildings and so much more in order to bring it to light. It’s a triumphant story that would undoubtedly make a great Hollywood movie, but none of that would make any difference if it wasn’t such an amazing record. Hines eschews traditional choruses and plays with the structures in his songs in ways that keep the listener surprised for dozens of listens in a row. What’s most telling to me, though, is how no one can agree on what the best song is from this album. “Wasn’t for Love” was an early contender with its darkly insistent beat, and it really kicks off the momentum of the album in a definitive way. “The Line,” though – the album closer – is one of those unspeakably beautiful songs about love transcending this mortal coil. We went with “The Match” as our best song from the album, but we could easily have gone with “A Lie” and its incredible hook or “Santa Rosa” and its haunting melody and gorgeous closing arrangement. The Eastern Sea clearly threw everything they had into Plague, and they made one for the ages. It seems to have been worth the challenges they went through, and deserves to be recognized as the truly great musical accomplishment that it is. For fans of: Broken Social Scene, The National, Wilco – Carter

The Eastern Sea - 'The Match'