The most compelling Texas music of 2011 was not about topping the charts so much as laying foundations. My 10 favorite releases came mostly from young artists finding their voices and intriguing side-projects testing the waters.
At number ten is The Carry On EP by People on Vacation, a collaboration between Bowling For Soup frontman Jaret Reddick and Ryan Hamilton of quirky Dallas duo Smile Smile. Clever songs like “Better Off Dead” and “She Was the Only One” aspire to match the pop perfection of Fountains of Wayne and come impressively close.
Photographs by 22-year-old Houston songwriter Robert Ellis comes in at number nine. Blessed with an old soul and a laidback tenor that echoes the honey-coated twang of Lefty Frizzell, Ellis rhymes “window” and “Nintendo” with a straight face and effortlessly merges folkie introspection with honky-tonk heartache.
Miranda Lambert’s Four the Record is my number eight pick. The Longview native continues to subversively challenge what passes for country music in Nashville, covering Brandi Carlile and Gillian Welch and mixing distorted vocals and menacing slide guitars with blunt references to eating disorders and cirrhosis.
Austin’s Leatherbag roars in at number seven with Yellow Television, a tribute to the hard-nosed, low-budget rumble of the Velvet Underground and early Elvis Costello fueled by frontman Randy Reynolds’ sneering wit and soulful sincerity.
Mark Ryan of Denton’s Marked Men unleashed the self-titled debut by his new punk-pop project Mind Spiders, who come in at number six. Ryan’s twitchy, lo-fi songs pinball between ‘60 garage rock, ‘70s glam and ‘80s new wave, celebrating his influences without mimicking them.
Austin scene veterans Johnny Goudie, Kacy Crowley and Jeremy Nail have joined forces as Liars and Saints. Their four-song Web release comes in at number five, thanks to jangling guitars and soaring harmonies that elevate tunes like “Caroline” and “Everything Falls Apart” from sunny to sublime.
Number four is Blessed by Lucinda Williams, a raucous, soul-scouring effort in which her craggy voice sounds like healing bruises look – dark and a little scary at the center, but with light around the edges.
Follow Me Down, the second album by Wimberley’s Sarah Jarosz, is my number three choice. The former teen mandolin prodigy is now turning heads with a smoky voice that perfectly suits her banjo-flecked covers of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist.”
Lake Highlands High School graduate Annie Clark has broken out as an alternative-rock darling named St. Vincent. Her third and finest album, Strange Mercy, was recorded in Oak Cliff and ranks number two on my list. Swarmed by old-school synthesizers and guitar freakouts, Clark’s eerie voice now sounds more chilling than cold.
But my favorite Texas album of 2011 was I Am Very Far by Austin’s Okkervil River, whose thrilling September show at the Granada Theater reminded us that they are as ferocious live as they are ambitious on CD. Coming across both ornate and ornery, these 11 songs manage to sound raw even as leader Will Sheff layers on strings, horns and whacked out textures. Rarely has dense sounded so delightful.
David Okamoto is a content production manager at Yahoo! in Dallas. His music reviews have previously appeared in such publications as Rolling Stone, ICE magazine and the Dallas Morning News.