Best of music lists are always an exercise in subjectivity. What resonates with a listener is often related to who you are, where you’re at in life, what you need from music as much as it’s related to the raw quality of the release.
After a year spent reviewing local releases for his On the Record column, Peter Blackstock has compiled a massive list of the year’s prominent Austin albums. Here are a few of our faves.
DEBORAH SENGUPTA STITH
Black Pumas “Black Pumas” (ATO Records). With rock songs that feel like prayers, Adrian Quesada and Eric Burton’s breakout rock and soul outfit released the testimonial to the power of love we all needed this year.
Jake Lloyd “Moonlit Mornings” (KeyzStreet). A rich platter of smooth and soulful R&B that cuts hooky strip club love letters and suave boudoir jams with wistful bouts of self examination and evocative story rap.
Vapor Caves “Feel Yourself” (Sign Yourself). Yadira Brown and Andrew Thaggard surround their slinky club grooves with whimsical levity and sly humor that make this boogie funk collection irresistibly fun.
Mean Jolene “Try Harder” (Austin Town Hall) The sophomore album from the power pop five-piece is a delightful platter of guitar-driven rebellion and sugar-coated regret. Vocalist Jolie Cota Flink weathers emotional highs and lows over fuzzed out guitar riffs that feel simultaneously vintage and fresh.
Eimaral Sol “Sol Soliloquies” (11:11 Concepts) With graceful vocals, heart on sleeve lyricism and warm production, the artist also known as Laramie Pouncy mixed defiant breakup tunes and sensual midnight interludes into a body of work that, at its core, is about buoyant self-discovery.
Melat. “After All: Episode One” A dreamy collection of introspective R&B meditations and simmering bedroom burners that might be the strongest work to date from Austin’s soul standout.
Gary Clark Jr “This Land” (Warner Brothers) With the incendiary title track a “paranoid and pissed off” Clark wrote one of the most powerful protest songs of the Trump era. On the flipside, his ode to parental love, “Pearl Cadillac” is sublimely lovely.
Dallas Acid “The Spiral Arm” The ambient trio evolved a live set originally performed at the Scobee Planetarium in San Antonio into a trippy daydream of psychedelic swells, mysterious whispers, ominous echoes and velvety melody.
Montopolis “The Legend of Big Bend” Gorgeous pastoral soundscapes that capture the majesty and beauty of Texas’ natural wonder.
Magna Carda “Ladee” A five-song EP that features the instrumental hip-hop group at their most romantic with rapper Megz unwinding achingly vulnerable love jams over lush and lovely sound beds.
I also enjoyed: Moving Panoramas “In Two;” Go Fever, “Daydream Hawker;” Frederico7 “Exoctico Americano;” Christelle Bofale “Swim Team;” Jackie Venson “Joy;” Grupo Fantasma, “American Music vol 7;” Oscar Ornelas “Some Gospel;” Hovvdy “Heavy Lifter;” CP Looney “The Rebel Tape;” Sasha and the Valentines “Green;” Queen Deelah “Unlisted Mixtape;” Riders Against the Storm “See Me (mixtape).”
Of this year’s major releases I’d count Gary Clark Jr.’s “This Land,” Robert Ellis’ “Texas Piano Man,” Fastball’s “The Help Machine, Shawn Colvin’s “Steady On” “Beautiful Lie” and Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis’ “Beautiful Lie” among my favorite Austin records of 2019. But here’s another 10 to grow on, including my choice for the best local release of the year from Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston, a.k.a. Little Mazarn.
Little Mazarn, “Io” (Self Sabotage). Minimalism is key here: There’s so much open space in “Marfa Lights” that you can almost feel the West Texas desert-sky panorama unfold as Lindsey Verrill’s vocals cast their spell. The crowning jewel is “Vermont,” a shimmering reverie with a beautiful melody carrying the bittersweet realization that “you can’t stay everywhere you leave a piece of your heart.”
Mike & the Moonpies, “Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold.” In which a long-dependable local honky-tonk outfit crossed the pond to record at London’s iconic Abbey Road Studios and made the best music of their career. The Moonpies’ core sound remained rooted in Texas twang, but nine musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra gave these tracks a touch of class, drama and beauty with tasteful arrangements.
Larry Seaman, “Resurrectionist.” Frontman for proto-new-wavers Standing Waves circa 1980s, Seaman has fronted various bands since then, some leaning more toward edgy rock, others more acoustic in nature. “Resurrectionist” covered the full run between those borders, bound together by consistently brilliant songwriting.
The Deer, “Do No Harm” (Keeled Scales). Following up 2016′s impressive “Tempest & Rapture,” the Austin-via-San Marcos outfit further established itself as one of the city’s best bands in any genre with a dozen songs that defied simple genre categorization, drawing from pop, folk, rock, jazz, bluegrass, psychedelia and more.
Mitch Watkins, “Clarity.” An off-and-on member of Leonard Cohen’s band since the 1970s, Watkins paid tribute to his late boss and friend by bookending “Clarity” with heart-stoppingly lovely instrumental renditions of Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “If It Be Your Will.” The material between ranged from rhythmic and angular to playful and gently swinging to hypnotic soundscapes.
Croy & the Boys, “Howdy High-Rise” (Spaceflight). What seemed like good-time boot-scootin’ fare at first glance was in fact full of pointed commentary on the tug-of-war between the haves and the have-nots in 21st-century America, from “I’m Broke” to “It Seems Like You Can’t Just Be Poor Anymore” to “Bananas for Breakfast” to “Luxury (Is a Four-Letter Word to Me).”
Altamesa, “Idol Frontier.” Twanging guitars and a general desert-western vibe are central to Altamesa’s sonic aesthetic, but there’s also an old-soul feel to many of these tunes, gathered on this 1o-song set after some appeared on a string of 2018 EPs.
Freedonia, “Firefly.” The second release in as many years from an ace ensemble of jazz aces plus pop star Christopher Cross was a richly layered 10-song set that highlights the musicians skills but smartly kept the focus on the songs.
Graham Reynolds, “Marfa: A Country & Western Big Band Suite” (Golden Hornet). Part of a West Texas triptych commissioned by arts organization Ballroom Marfa, this 13-track set from the renowned instrumental composer translates the spirit of West Texas geography into artistic expression through music. Reynolds had a lot of help bringing his visions to reality, with a total of 18 musicians taking part.
Montopolis, “The Legend of Big Bend.” In what seemed like a coincidental but near-perfect pairing with Reynolds’ album, composer Justin Sherburn’s instrumental ensemble followed up their “Music for Enchanted Rock” project by drawing inspiration from another natural wonder of Texas in this 11-song suite of exquisitely beautiful music.