By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
This was bound to be a big year in local music. After an impressive 2009 that mostly saw notable debut or breakthrough releases from previously unheralded area performers (see: Telegraph Canyon, Teenage Cool Kids, Neon Indian, The O's and Air Review), we knew, heading into this year, that the big guns were coming back out.
Releases from Erykah Badu, the Old 97's, the Toadies and Midlake were all expected. So, too, were debuts from Sarah Jaffe and Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights, two acts with already big regional followings heading into this new decade.
But what was most surprising about this year in local music wasn't the ways in which these old favorites managed to impress; rather, it was that, among all these already established performers, yet another crop of area musicians established themselves in this suddenly crowded market. Heading into 2010, few had heard of names like the Beaten Sea, Analog Rebellion and Leg Sweeper. And yet here we are, looking back on the year, and these artists' releases made easy cases to be considered among the regional best.
To that end, area listeners received quite the treat: What turned out to be among the strongest years in local music memory, also turned out to be among the deepest in history.
20. Mount Righteous
In 2008, this collection of merry suburban misfits, led by singer-songwriter Joey Kendall, debuted as a proudly acoustic, impossibly charming outfit that defied genre classification with its marching band instrumentation and its musical theater-like, sing-along aesthetic.
Just two years later and a few members removed, that's all gone. This year saw Mount Righteous emerge as something wholly different. This second full-length removes the band's "cupcakes in the sky" charm, replacing it with a new, far brasher mentality.
The band calls its now quite spastic material "polka-punk," and, sure, that term works well enough in describing the new, still-broad arrangements. But where the band's When the Music Starts debut charmed even the coldest heart, Mount Righteous is a far more difficult album to breach. It's intentionally abrasive, and at times, it's even a little headache-inducing. Indisputably, though, it's an interesting listen, an album that dares to push the sonic boundaries with more than a little experimentation.
We'll pardon you for not expecting much from Dorrough after the Lancaster-born rapper blew up with his platinum-selling 2009 single, "Ice Cream Paint Job."
But just a year after his debut album turned him into a surprise national star, Dorrough quickly followed up with what turned out to be a far more impressive sophomore effort. And, again, his offerings were welcomed nationally with open arms, with lead single and title track "Get Big" earning a remix with guest spots from the likes of Diddy, Bun B, Wiz Khalifa and others. That bassy track is the clear standout, but the rest of the disc deserves its due as well.
Dorrough's here to stay.
18. The Flowers of God
In & Out of Love With the Flowers of God EP
No worries if you haven't yet heard of The Flowers of God, the new project fronted by former Lift to Experience drummer Andy Young. You'll hear of them soon enough.
And you'll like what you hear when you do—unless you have a hatred for the Velvet Underground, whom Young and his bandmates conjure on this four-song debut EP.
It's a deviation, for sure, from Young's earlier space-rock work, but removed from his perch behind the drum kit, Young reveals himself as a sing-speaking frontman worth listening to as he shares tales of young loves lost and consummated alike.
Through the Trees
(Make It Records)
Ask Ishi what kind of music they make, and they'll gladly claim the title of "folktronic," which is fine if you want to describe the second (and pretty boring) half of the debut release from this set of impressive live performers. There are elements of that "folktronic" sound—acoustic guitar adornments, mainly—in Through the Trees' first half, but they're glossed over, thankfully, with hard-hitting bass, electric guitar riffs and irresistible synth lines.
And that first half of the album is fairly undeniable (see: "Pastel Lights"), as co-vocalists John Mudd and Taylor Rea craft a sexual tension ripe for the times.
16. Sore Losers
Free Loaders: The Soundtrack Mixtape
In 2010, the local underground hip-hop scene blew up in a big way, drawing big crowds to the types of venues—namely, rock clubs—that the radio-friendly rappers of the region wouldn't dare play for fear of small turnouts.
And much of the credit for that change should go Sore Losers' way—and not just because the duo of Vincent and Brandon Blue is backed well on stage by a live band that can capably recreate the sounds of Sore Losers' debut recording efforts. As indie rock-sampling hip-hop started making a splash on the national scene (See: Wiz Khalifa, Chiddy Bang), this twosome followed that same formula to local success—and did so by cutting tracks as impressive, if not more so, than those in the national limelight.
15. Doug Burr
O Ye Devastator
On his latest release, Doug Burr stays on the course that's turned him into a local folk hero and earned him accolades across the country, despite a lack of touring outside of the region.
To that end, O Ye Devastator is appropriately akin to Burr's 2007 On Promenade release, which is to say that it's a deliberately paced collection of somber tales, all told through an 1800s looking glass. But there's some progression to be found here, too, courtesy of Austin's Monahans, who backed Burr in the studio for this disc's recordings and joined him on various occasions throughout the year in live performances. Their efforts seem to have pushed Burr along here, adding a wall of sound to his repertoire and pushing him to incorporate more electric elements into his songwriting.
Perhaps no other regional release is as dense a listen as Florene's debut full-length, Homemade Extacy, which comes off as exactly what it sounds like—if you don't mind a little industrial house music experimentation.
By blending eight-bit sounds, countless synthesizers and various drum machines, Florene's created a capable soundtrack for a post-apocalyptic acid trip on this disc, filling the disc's almost 50-minute runtime with twists and turns aplenty.
13. Leg Sweeper
You want fun? Leg Sweeper will give you fun—enough spirit to turn your whole day around, in fact. And the band only needs the four three-minute-or-so tracks included on this debut EP to prove as much.
Really: Fun's all this irreverent punk duo knows. Look no further than "Sexy Weekend," the band's infectious ode to having a few days off from work to spend with your significant other. No, the band's themes and offerings aren't the most complicated you'll come across, but, three-chord punk rock never hasn't sounded this fresh in decades.
12. Jonathan Tyler & The Northern Lights
(F-Stop Music/Atlantic Records)
The major-label debut from this long-haired local collective opens with a jet engine roar, setting the stage for what promises to be a rocking 45-minute affair. True to form, this disc finds common ground between frontman Jonathan Tyler and his rowdy band's Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz and AC/DC influences.
That aesthetic has paid off quite well for the band, whose songs have been placed throughout the television world, popping up on HBO ("Devil's Basement" scored a trailer for Boardwalk Empire), FOX ("Hot Sake" and other tracks played in various episodes of the Dallas-based The Good Guys) and even ESPN (where "Young and Free" has scored several college football game broadcasts, coming in and out of commercial breaks).
11. The Secret Handshake
Night & Day
(Triple Crown Records)
Luis Dubuc, the man behind The Secret Handshake, is hardly the first artist to mine a Motown aesthetic for new material recently. But his efforts, recorded on the very same tape machine that Berry Gordy and Co. used in their Detroit studios back in the day, still manage to stand out amongst the clutter—mostly because they aren't trying to make photocopies of past hits.
His poppy collection is a shamelessly sunny listen—Dubuc's tunes on this album sometimes come off like the soundtrack for an as-yet-unmade Disney cartoon set in 1970s Detroit—but, considering his Dubuc's mall-punk roots, that's more than understandable. Dismissible, too, when you consider how enjoyable this collection really is.
10. Mind Spiders
Mind Spiders EP
Mark Ryan knows what he's doing: A behavioral psychologist by day, the punk rocker who co-fronted Denton's legendary Marked Men has gone more cerebral on his latest project, adding a wall-of-sound edge to his long-revered garage-punk writing abilities.
Recorded entirely at home, this debut EP, which finds Ryan backed by a supergroup of current Denton punk favorites (including members of Bad Sports and The Uptown Bums), only amounts to some 10 or so minutes of music. But, over the course of that time, Ryan makes quite the impression, coming off like a punk rocker frustrated with the direction of the genre and coming out of retirement to make things right.
9. Spooky Folk
(I Love Math Records)
As diverse a listen as any regional release in 2010, Spooky Folk introduces itself more than admirably on this, their self-titled debut. Fueled by the vast songwriting abilities of frontman Kaleo Kaualoku, the album incorporates elements of baroque pop, Americana and even some New Wave into its intoxicating blend.
Unafraid of changing paces, the disc charms from start to finish. And tying it all together is the dark cloud that hovers over much of Kaualoku's songwriting. He mines themes of disappointment and the distinctly unique, as if he's aware of an impending doom but still wants to appreciate what he can, while he can.
Ashley Myrick is a self-taught pianist and singer, but you'd never guess that much from listening to her brazen first album, which finds the singer's fingertips running the length of her keyboard and her voice fluttering atop that noise in jaw-dropping fashion.
It's truly a stunning debut, filled with timeless, dark piano-pop tracks beefed up with alt-country arrangements provided by backing players from The Beaten Sea, RTB2 and other outlets. Fitting for coffeehouse listening and reverent theater crowds alike, Devil's Nest introduces the 24-year-old Myrick as a thoughtful, tasteful songwriter whose vocals are as pleasing as they are thrilling.
If these songs don't end up scoring a whole host of prime-time TV dramas, then someone isn't doing their job. Simple as that.
7. Old 97's
The Grand Theatre, Volume One
(New West Records)
The Grand Theatre, Volume One is the best album that the band has released in a decade. It's brash where recent Old 97's releases were soft, celebratory where past efforts were sappy, and loud where those other discs aimed for restraint.
It's the sound of a band finally confident in its place in the world. No longer is this a band that fights its alt-country tag and no longer is this a band confused by the pop dalliances of its frontman, Rhett Miller. This, thankfully, is not the pop record the band seemed so intent on trying to perfect lately.
It's alt-country through and through, finding Miller at his charismatic and snarling best, guitarist Ken Bethea at his flashiest, drummer Philip Peeples at his bounciest and bassist/co-vocalist Murry Hammond in his most playful form to date. And, as a result, the disc soars.
6. Analog Rebellion
Once upon a time, Daniel Hunter was stuck in the major-label ringer. He signed with Island Records when he was just 15 years old.
Last summer, though, after becoming jaded by the crowded mall-punk market and frustrated with the musical style of his teen years, Hunter embarked on a 180-degree turn. He left Island, changed his performance name, and struck out on his own.
And how. In 2010, the prodigious Hunter, now 21, released a grand total of 65 songs via various full-length, EP and B-sides releases—in part because he could, but also because he found endless influence in his new direction. Combining elements of the Secret Machines, the Paper Chase, the Pixies and the Postal Service into a massive, epic blend, Ancient Electrons stands as a powerful, defiant statement against mass consumption, as Hunter provocatively explores themes of rebellion and assimilation.
5. The Beaten Sea
The Beaten Sea
Benj Pocta and Jamie Wilson, the songwriting tandem behind The Beaten Sea, never suffered through the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl. But after watching a film documenting the Southern music created during those difficult times, these close friends found all the inspiration they needed, and soon started writing songs fit for that era.
What's most fascinating about their efforts is the authenticity that surrounds them—and not just because Pocta and Wilson both boast enviable character in their wavering vocals. The duo carefully studied the music they found so inspiring. And on this debut, they show off well what made those songs so touching in the first place.
4. The Orbans
When We Were Wild
(Sheffield Avenue Projects)
Like the Old 97's before them, Fort Worth's the Orbans have a thorn in their side—if you call them country, they'll snap at you.
But the should-be heirs to the 97's' throne do have some country elements at play in their otherwise fairly straightforward rock—and that's hardly a bad thing, since it's these pedal steel and banjo adornments that give the Orbans' music such an enjoyable flair. In the band's defense, there are, of course, other elements employed in the vast instrumentation of their phenomenal full-length debut, When We Were Wild—including some synthesizer, which maybe explains the band's anti-country stance.
Fact is, it's all still rock 'n' roll to the Orbans. And who are the rest of us to judge? Nobody—not when the Orbans have released the best rock 'n' roll disc the region has seen in years with this wholly self-funded affair. Highlighted by frontman Peter Black's vocals and clever wordplay and backed by a band as comfortable with restraint as it is with all-out bombast, When We Were Wild shows the Orbans harping on a muse of missed chances and terrible decisions.
Here's hoping there's still some material to mine for future efforts.
3. Erykah Badu
New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh
(Universal Motown Records)
In 2008, Erykah Badu, after having hid from the limelight for five years, returned in a big way with New Amerykah Part I: 4th World War, an album that found the Queen of Neo-Soul exploring a space-age, electronic-infused sound and earning the best reviews of her career.
So maybe it was a little surprising to see that, with her follow-up, this year's New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh, Badu, turned down the dial on her newfound weirdness. This new disc, she promised from the onset, is a return to her roots, an album meant to recall her debut and breakthrough disc, 1997's Baduizm.
Thing is, while New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh indeed reminds of that first release because of its often straightforward R&B arrangement and reliance on Badu's vocal prowess, it scores mostly because it's a blend of both the old and the new, at least in style.
The Courage of Others
No other record released regionally in 2010 even approaches the depths of Midlake's three-years-in-the-making The Courage of Others. And the disc suffers as a result—it's not an easy listen. Not at all, actually, as the band crafts a not particularly enjoyable, faux-historical medieval landscape for its flute-heavy folk-rock to score.
Thematically, it's equally dense: Frontman Tim Smith's lyrics focus on ideas of feeling lost, feeling useless, feeling empty, feeling unfulfilled—lots and lots of feelings, and mostly somber ones at that. Actually, listening to The Courage of Others isn't a pleasant experience at all—it's more likely to make you curl up into a ball and start crying than it is to elicit smiles.
But that's the thing: This disc is an impossibly engulfing listen. As Smith fills your head with enough questions to put you into a tizzy, his bandmates' lush arrangements and impeccable performances surround you, sealing in that sense of bewilderment.
The Courage of Others is a monumental accomplishment—something that will surely be appreciated over time.
1. Sarah Jaffe
It seems as if the entire region had been waiting years for this, the full-length debut from the most promising singer-songwriter North Texas has spawned in recent memory. And Sarah Jaffe's Suburban Nature hardly disappointed.
If anything, it surpassed expectations, having almost instantly thrust Jaffe to the very top of the local music heap.
Propelled by lead single "Clementine," Suburban Nature has earned Jaffe countless accolades from regional and national outlets alike in 2010, and deservedly so. Smartly arranged to highlight both the delicate folk-rock instrumentation and the vulnerability of Jaffe's vocals, the disc is a shockingly intimate listen.
It's almost too private for comfort at points, actually. And maybe that's why it's so enticing a listen. Throughout the album, Jaffe emotionally belts out her tales of heartache and uncertainty with an enviable, reckless abandon and willfully entrusts her audience with her vulnerability. It's a bold move that would be unwelcome if its presentation weren't so tender and, more important, relatable.
Jaffe, it turns out, isn't different from anyone. And that's what makes her and, in turn, Suburban Nature, so unique. It's a disc for everyone. It just so happens that Jaffe is behind it.