Houston musicians again proved the city’s soundscape in 2012 was about more than just Beyoncé and ZZ Top. My favorite albums veered from dramatic pop-rock to hip-hop and jazz, from epic statements to brisk EPs. And the best part — some of it is free.
Take a look, then a listen, to what the scene has been cranking out in the shadow of superstars:
1. “Burn Out Like Roman Candles,” New York City Queens: Smart, hooky pop that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This coed band from Kingwood, of all places, crafted an album that revels in modern influences while still sounding familiar. Vocalists John Allen Stephens, Daniela Hernandez and Kitty Beebe play off each other easily and effortlessly. The entire band creates a wall of sound sturdier than anything else this year.
2. “Lovers,” the Manichean: Members Justice Tirapelli-Jamail and Cory Sinclair describe their sound as “overtly dramatic narrative rock.” Indeed, there’s purpose and force behind this album, which takes on dark tones in its tale of a complex relationship. The songs move through rage, romance and regret, with recurring lyrical and musical themes. The Tontons’ Asli Omars adds some allure as the album’s female protagonist.
3. “You’re Not That Special,” Kyle Hubbard: Houston’s hip-hop/rap scene continues to be a national force. But some of the best music is still bubbling underground. Hubbard’s soulful effort both adheres to and flies in the face of genre standards. He’s an arresting, charismatic rapper whose gift is documenting personal struggles in a way that’s accessible to a larger audience. And he’s found a perfect match in producer Djay Cas, who softens some of the sharp edges. (Available as a free download at kylehubbard.bandcamp.com.)
4. “Featureless Beast,” the Answer Page: DIY musician Nate McKee is two for two with this album, which follow’s 2011’s terrific “Orca.” “Featureless Beast” is an even stronger effort, thanks to brighter instrumentation and more confident vocals. McKee says he wanted the record “to reflect the excitement and general happiness of being a young person entering the adult world for the first time.” It’s the second part of a trilogy chronicling his life from 2001-06.
5. “Grandfather Child,” Grandfather Child: Sweet and soulful. Bluesy and blustery. Gorgeous and gospel-infused. There are endless ways to describe this supergroup featuring Lucas Gorham, Ryan Chavez, Robert Ellis and Geoffrey Muller. But we’ll just call it an innately Houston experience. Gorham’s sublime vocals hold it all together.
6. “Two for the Road,” Tianna Hall: Hall teamed up with the Mexico City Jazz Trio for her fourth disc, which features her elegant take on well-worn standards. There are surprises, too, including jazzy spins on Soundgarden (“Black Hole Sun”) and Radiohead (“Creep”). Now if only we can get her to truly let loose on a dance remix.
7. “As Is,” Tyagaraja: Unfettered by production and presentation, Tyagaraja relies on just voice and guitar for this EP. (Available as a free download at tyagaraja.bandcamp.com.) The result is a clean, brisk collection of songs that showcase his compelling way with a lyric. He’s truly one of the best vocalists in the city.
8. “Bang Bangz,” Bang Bangz: Mario A. Rodriguez, Elizabeth Salazar and Vik Montemayor built buzz quickly for this electro-pop outfit via shows and singles. This subsequent, self-titled EP worked because of the trio’s chemistry and a backward/forward dynamic. The dreamy tunes were steeped in some ’80s nostalgia but still felt modern.
9. “Nocturnal,” Kathryn Hallberg: The Woodlands teen makes music that feels older and wiser than her 18 years. It’s a little folk, a little country, a little pop — and emotional without going over the top. Hallberg’s voice is striking in its beauty, particularly on kickoff track “Moving On.”
10. “The Maybe Laser,” the Ghost of Cliff Burton: Jef “With One F” Rouner and Bill Curtner (of the almost-famous Black Math Experiment) created the year’s strangest album. It incorporates rock, pop, hip-hop, R&B, goth, dance and every one of the pair’s musical idiosyncrasies. And somehow, it makes perfect sense.
1. “Nothing Here Seems Strange,” Buxton: Buxton isn’t the first roots band to kick the verse/chorus/verse template to the curb. But where Fleet Foxes’ songs aim for the sky and float that way, Buxton’s race into a dark forest and head for the rabbit hole. Dark, eerie and at times hard-driving stuff.
2. “GEN,” B L A C K I E: Nothing Michael LaCour has done thus far prepared me for this stomping monster of a record that steps away from experimental hip-hop and into an apocalyptic tempest of instrumentation and roaring vocals. The point of reference for me is Tom Waits — not because of a similarity in sound, but rather an all-in certainty in a singular vision.
3. “Milton Hopkins & Jewel Brown,” Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown: Third and Fifth Ward greats unite for a brassy and sassy collection of songs that have all the requisite soul, gospel and horns that mark the best of Houston blues.
4. “Music Inspired by Freedmantown,” Reggie Quinerly: The HSPVA grad and drummer marries a few standards from yesteryear to a series of tight and varied originals full of the jazz, soul, gospel and blues that reflect an old Houston neighborhood.
5. “Hussy,” Weird Party: Weird Party isn’t the hardest band I’ve heard, but its relentless drive is about the closest musical approximation I’ve found to the time I got punched squarely in the nose. Compact and direct rock songs that don’t twitter about. It’s cover art is also without peer.
6. “Grandfather Child,” Grandfather Child: Having seen the band live a bunch, I expected this one to storm out of the gates. Instead, it opens with soulful and slow-grooving nuance and gradually builds to the rave-ups. Savvy sequencing makes it a journey rather than a rush.
7. “Beg Upon the Light,” Venomous Maximus: This set is none-more-black hard rock rather than metal or doom metal, which isn’t to suggest softness. The songs are dark and will leave your teeth loose.
8. “Angel Dust,” Z-Ro: The drug-title conceit (this one follows “Meth,” “Cocaine” and “Heroin”) suggests a toughness offset by a disarming vulnerability as the rough-voiced rapper contemplates freedom versus time spent in the clink. The acoustic guitar on “Heaven” is a curveball that will lock your knees.
9. “Think/Thoughts,” Benjamin Wesley: True to the title, Wesley’s songs are full of thinky thoughts about the gristle of existence, and the arrangements are an intriguing matrix of classic wood/wire and modern electronic.
10. “Lovers,” The Manichean: This is a beguiling album whose gentle tones sometimes obscure its experimental bent. A sweeping set of songs with barely a breath in between that are too prickly to be called breezy. It rewards repeated play and the use of headphones.
One from the past
“The Complete Moving Sidewalks,” The Moving Sidewalks: Broken up bands are among the less horrible things that can be blamed on the Vietnam War. Yet Billy Gibbons’ pre-ZZ band was onto something with its scuzzy psych rock with at least one foot in the blues. Bootlegged for years, their limited output is now readily available with some unreleased cuts and Bill Bentley’s excellent liner notes.
A few more
"C'est la Vie," Skruncha-roo: Skruncha-roo is the experimental, instrumental hip-hop project that is the brain child of drummer Kyle Vento. The visuals that accompany the music are just as out there as the ambient sounds.
"How To Escape," Square and Compass: Emo isn't dead. On "How To Escape" they channel bands like Braid, Taking Back Sunday and 1990s emo while still sounding fresh and progressive in the process.
"And the Peasants Rejoiced,” Blackmarket Syndicate : "And the Peasants Rejoiced" is an instant Houston punk-rock classic. The album is a raised-fist battle cry for the working man and the middle class.