When Trump was elected President last November, media members suggested that the coming political storm would generate a mountain of art reflecting the emotional response of the nation to the train wreck that is the Trump Administration. While there has generally been an increase in art that is critical of the current Western political environment, most of the albums in this list of top records made in Austin are simply great recordings for any music fan and don’t necessarily provide social or political commentary. We believe this year’s list of best new music of 2017 has set the bar high for new releases in 2018 from Austin acts.
Our list may not be the most well-rounded in terms of genres represented but it reflects new, local records we’ve listened to and enjoyed most in 2017. Before we get into it, we would like to remind readers that purchasing local music from independent sellers is always a good idea. If you’re considering purchasing an album, buy directly from the artist if possible. We’ll link to artist pages where you can buy direct if the option is available. Where there is not that option, heading to your local, independently owned record store is a good bet or order from those stores online. Some of our favorite shops include: End of An Ear, Waterloo Records, Breakaway Records, Friends of Sound Records and Exploded Records at Juiceland.
Our list is in order of release date. Asking us to order these talented acts from best to last is near impossible. We love all these records and artists.
In January, top ATX Afrobeat tastemakers, Hard Proof dropped the full-length “Stinger” on Modern Outsider, a local independent label. What that means is if you purchase this record, a bunch of Austinites get paid. It also means you get one of the best Afrobeat-fusion records of the year. Not just in Austin but nationwide. Produced by The Bubble studio owner and producer Chris “Frenchie” Smith (Built to Spill, Meat Puppets, the Toadies, Otis the Destroyer and a ton more local bands), the record is a great listen from front to back.
It was difficult to choose, but title track, Stinger, Incendiary and A.R.A,S. stand out on a record that is consistently a great listen. By that we mean not only is the entire record good, but it’s a pleasure to listen to multiple times a week. From the crack horn section of Jason Frey, Derek Phelps and Joe Woullard to the precise beats by drummer Stephen Bidwell and percussionists Tony Congas and Tommy Spanpinato to Joe Sokolik’s driving bass lines and the guitar work of John Branch, Gerrado Larios (now a member of Spoon) and Aaron Sleator these guys are all among the best working musicians in town. With Smith guiding the production ship, the result is an album that could just as well be considered for a Grammy with the proper exposure.
February brought Austin neo-pyschrock pioneers, The Black Angels‘ first new record in four years to the masses. Entitled “Death Song,” from their Velvet Underground track namesake, “The Black Angels’ Death Song,” this album might be the sole member of this list that addresses the gloom and anxiousness the American public is feeling about the current political and economic status. That feat is remarkable considering the group penned and recorded most of the tracks during the Presidential elections last year.
Shortly after the album dropped we caught their second Austin City Limits TV taping. The setlist included many of the tracks from the new record. It quickly became apparent The Black Angels made their darkest record to date. It’s also one of their best releases to date. From opening tune, “Currency” which tackles consumerism and despair to the driving ferocity of “Commanche Moon’s” indictment of native genocide the album presents a bleak commentary.
Tracks “Medicine” and “Life Song” come closest to appealing to a broader audience. The former nearly a pop song while the latter evokes a psychedelic space fantasy of Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” This is definitely a must-own record for any psych-rock music fan.
There is no working Austin rock band more successful than Spoon. Over 20 years of making relevant, exquisitely written indie-rock songs with the core of Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have produced a body of work that has gotten the highest average Metacritic score of any group in that time span. An impressive feat for a band that has seen it’s roster evolve over the years yet manage to hold onto their musical identity while exploring other genres to incorporate into the raspy vocals and insistent drum beat of Spoon’s founders.
The release of Hot Thoughts in February and the ensuing world-tour complete with multiple late-night television show and festival appearances has reaffirmed the group’s dominance into the late 2010s. Singles “Can I Sit Next to You” and “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” are instantly recognizable as classic Spoon compositions that somehow delve into what feels like newer musical territory. The former is a crowd-pleaser live while DITTYIT evokes 80s arena ballads while avoiding the cheesy factor that often accompanies such songs.
The new album and subsequent tour has been an affirmation of Spoon’s continued success. The return to their original indie label, Matador, the renewed energy and superior songwriting have served the band well. The Spoon engine is clicking on all cylinders. Everyone should own this record.
Austin glam-pop act Sweet Spirit has enjoyed rapidly rising notoriety not just locally but nationally after three years of constant touring. The April sophomore release of St. Mojo produced by Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin on Nine Mile Records further elevated the group’s status as single, “The Power” enjoyed frequent radio play locally and on listener-supported and college radio nationally. The full force of vocalist Sabrina Ellis’ impact is felt on the record bolstered by catchy riffs penned by Andrew Cashen and backed by a large collection of fine players.
The bombastic “The Mighty” is another favorite on this record along with garage-rocker “Pamela” and doo-wop ode, “Pretty Baby” which features Cashen taking a turn on lead vocals.
If Sweet Spirit aren’t a national sensation within a few years, we’re doing something wrong here in the Live Music Capitol, that much is certain.
If there is a single band we admire most for their work-ethic and commitment to their craft it’s The Octopus Project. The four-piece, electro-pop, indie-rock hybrid consistently puts out great material and April’s Memory Mirror is no exception to that rule. The group’s DIY approach has led to collaborations with former University of Texas film school classmates that won a Sundance Film Festival award for best score, toured the world and even appeared on KLRU documentary show, Arts in Context in the past couple years. Despite forming over 10 years ago, members of the band continue to create all aspects materials including album art, visuals, graphics, lighting and even packing and shipping their vinyl and merchandise. The band really does it all.
The new record continues the band’s exploration into popular electronic sounds and textures with video-game inspired track, “Brounce” and the proggy, “Gone Wrong.”
The Octopus Project recently produced a multi-sensory experience featuring 9-channel surround sound, immersive multi-screen visuals, rumble seats, indoor weather effects to promote the new album and complete their supporting tour at the Texas State History Museum to much critical acclaim.
If you aren’t already swayed, give that album listen and join the cult of The Octopus Project like the rest of us.
If there’s a dark horse in this list it’s Kay Odyssey‘s What’s A Woman To Do produced by Nada Surf’s Louie Lino. That said, this dreamy, shoegazey, psych-rocker album by an all-girl lineup led by songwriter and front woman Kristina Boswell is a force. We’re huge fans of this quartet of supremely talented women. From Liz Burrito’s stellar guitar work which she modestly describes as “just following what Kristina’s doing.” to Vajaja Vallejo’s furious drums to Boswell’s awkward hipster there’s a whole lot to like about this band and their Spring release.
Recently the band released a new video to compliment the fantastic, surreal “Mountains In My Step” song, garnering a lot of attention to the clip which features some nudity and oddly compelling visuals that aren’t as sexually suggestive as one might imagine. The echoey guitars and vocal delays draws in the listener.
The title track is equally appealing, beginning with Boswell’s lone lyrics, launching into shimmery guitars and a steady beat stretching out into a languid pace. We love this record and this band.
If you want to rock out, there’s none better to help you along than Otis the Destroyer in our opinion. In September the quartet dropped Frenchie Smith-produced, Keep Bashing after teasing the record with successive single releases, “Van Rosita,” “Cheetah” and “Monster Eater.”
What we love about founder Taylor Wilkins’ band is the same element that attracted us to his previous incarnation, The Couch. The band just flat out rocks with an intensity and foundation in quality songwriting. Other standout tracks include the furious “Animal” and title track, “Keep Bashing.”
If you haven’t caught Otis yet, take a listen to this record then plan on getting out to howl at the moon with these guys. They’re that fun to watch.
The vocal gymnastics of Walker Lukens just slightly supersedes the performer’s predilection for humor and theatrics. Perhaps the most surprising Austin release in terms of national reaction, Lukens’ has made a record, Tell It To the Judge that has attracted the attention of NPR, ABC News and Rolling Stone among other esteemed publications.
Billboard Magazine called the new album genre-busting and perhaps that is the most apt description. Lukens flatly refuses to be categorized into a single bucket, eschewing traditional songwriting forms in favor of vocal effects, distortions and an experimental approach to his music.
Produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, the record delves into ambient electronica just as easily as folk, rock and even elements of rap. The singer’s refusal to be pigeon-holed into a definitive style is a big part of his appeal.
Track “Where is Thunder Road” demonstrates Eno’s influence on the recording while emphasizing synthesizers and a pop influence on “Don’t Wanna Be Lonely (Don’t Wanna Leave You Alone).”
Black Pistol Fire‘s Deadbeat Graffiti nearly slipped by unnoticed with a late September release date but the hard-charging duo’s fifth record is a dozy. Setting a reckless tone right out of the gate with fuzzy guitar rocker, “Lost Cause” then leading into the incendiary “Last Ride” singer/guitarist Kevin McKeown and drummer Eric Owen demonstrate why The Black Keys and Dan Auerbach have nothing on these Candadian-turned Texans.
We caught the band headlining the Derby in the City Event back in May and the guys were ready to rock the new tunes long before the new material made it’s way into the public view. The only question now is how long can this talented pair continue to fly just below the radar of popular culture? Their work has made its way into countless video games and television shows. It’s only a matter of time.