In an age where virtually any piece of music can be played on your phone at the touch of a button, young people are buying more and more vinyl records. Why?
By Jeff McCord
Since the beginnings of recorded music, one consumer format has replaced another, each breathlessly promising a brighter future. There have always been holdouts – I have no doubt there were Edison Cylinder purists – but for the most part, music lovers have followed along in lockstep, gobbling up new technologies and trends, and never looking back.
Not any more.
Vinyl record albums were abandoned and left for dead by the record labels when CD popularity peaked in the late eighties. Yet, according to RIAA projections, 2019 vinyl sales will exceed the revenues of CDs for the first time in 33 years (once figures are in). And overwhelmingly, the buyers are under 30.
To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here? How is there nostalgia for something under-thirties have never known? Given vinyl’s evolution, there are no easy answers.
Disc records came along in the late 1800s. For a while, they coexisted with Edison cylinders (records were played on ‘gramophones’, to distinguish from Edison’s ‘phonographs’), but by the 1910s, discs had edged out the cylinders. Recordings were primitive, and the thick discs, initially made of shellac, grabbed noise like a magnet. The music could barely compete.
There were various sizes and speeds, but by the 1910s, the 10” 78rpm was the standard, with a limit of two minutes per side. The 12” 78, introduced in 1903, lasted a leisurely 3 ½ minutes. Initially, 78’s were sold in brown paper sleeves. The first ‘albums’ were sets of 78’s packaged with some sort of artwork.
Lots of other materials, from cardboard to plastic, were tried for discs, but it wasn’t until post- World War II that vinyl, with its durability and lower surface noise, came into common use.
After the Depression killed a false start, the 33 1/3rpm 12” long-play album finally came along for good in 1948. The 7” 45rpm debuted around the same time. It would be 1958 before the first stereo records were being sold, a format already in use on pre-recorded reel to reel tapes (yes, that was a thing, especially before the portable 8-tracks and cassettes came along).
And for decades, the vinyl album reigned. Everyone had a record collection. Record stores and stereo shops were everywhere. Equipment got more and more sophisticated. Cassettes and eight-tracks eventually became popular for cars, portable players and mixtapes (and the subject of inane music biz campaigns like ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’). But vinyl was the mother ship, the ultimate source material. Record prices, initially in the $3 to $4 range, rose higher and higher. By 1981, Tom Petty threw a tantrum, putting his foot down over plans by his label MCA to release his Hard Promises album at a new $9.98 list price. Times were good for the music business, if not for consumers.
They were about to get even better.
Early home computers, connected to nothing except an electric outlet, were little more than glorified typewriters. Yet they were turning data into 0’s and 1’s, and it wasn’t long before that included music. The first commercial compact discs appeared in 1983. At first, early CD players were bulky and expensive, but that would soon change. The format’s promise was enormous.
CDs seemed to solve all the limitations of vinyl we had come to accept over the years. They were lighter, easier to store and transport, not prone to warping, immune to surface noise. The discs had a much wider dynamic range than records – highs went higher, lows went lower – and because they were never touched by anything other than a laser during playback, they didn’t wear out. Vinyl records were limited to about 40 minutes of music. A CD doubled that.
Record companies and retailers saw dollar signs, and from the outset, CDs prices were 1/3 higher than LPs. It didn’t matter; everyone had to have them. Waterloo Records owner John Kunz describes this time as a real “ka-ching” moment for retailers. It was. As one of Waterloo’s early employees, I saw firsthand customers lining up to buy their favorite records over again.
Early CDs, with unreadable artwork shrunk over 50% from their album counterparts, and mastered directly from vinyl, were lacking. Still, CD sales shot up as vinyl sales dropped precipitously. Pressing plants began closing, turntable manufacturers were retooling or going out of business. Throughout the nineties, as CDs improved, most new releases weren’t being manufactured on vinyl at all. People were dumping their vinyl collections wholesale.
Musicians -who always seem left with a smaller piece of the pie of each new format – and vinyl lovers didn’t think so, but these were heady times for the music business. CD sales soared, and wouldn’t slow down until the year 2000. But by then, there were fins circling in the water, and storm clouds overhead.
CD burners, which made an exact digital copy of any CD, were popular and built into many computers, allowing fans to copy CDs for their friends. In the early days of the internet, “friends” grew exponentially. Napster, the peer to peer service launched in 1999 by Shawn Fanning, allowed millions to essentially swap their digital music files for free. Artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre, along with some labels, sued over copyright infringement and shut this thievery down, but it didn’t matter. The cat was out of the bag. Numerous imitators sprung up faster than they could be found and stopped, and as internet speeds grew, and YouTube and Bit Torrents came online, the young and savvy grew up thinking that music was something you found for free online. Record and hi-fi stores slowly began to melt away.
It’s been that way for two decades now. Component stereos have gone into the attic or the trash heap. The music experience for many has come down to badly compressed music played through cheap earbuds or mono Bluetooth speakers. While a few innovative indie record stores have managed to hang on, music retail giants like Tower and Virgin shut down, and other big box stores stopped carrying CDs altogether. Since 2000, CD sales have plummeted 94%. And with no new format in place, the music industry went into a tailspin.
There have been attempts to create a digital revenue stream – Apple’s popular iTunes store (launched in 2003) and line of iPod’s was among the first. But it didn’t reverse the trend. Only in the late 2000s would the industry find another stable way to monetize music, through the advent of subscription streaming services (there are many, but the biggest, Spotify, came along in 2008). While not necessarily profitable themselves, even though only paying artists a tiny sliver of their revenue, the services’ income has managed to stabilize and even grow things business-wise.
Even with their drastic fall, CDs are still being sold, but younger music fans aren’t the ones buying them. Over the past decade, physical music sales are on an upswing. But it’s vinyl, a format left for dead in the nineties, that is leading the charge. And the buyers are predominantly under thirty.
When I first started to hear that vinyl was selling again, it made sense to me. I have a large collection [though much to my regret, I sold about half of it during the CD boom, records that would now take four times as much to buy back, even if I could find them]. But I’m not one of those who ditched my turntable and stereo. I really never stopped playing records, even when new ones were not being made. For me, it was aural muscle memory for a format I grew up with, and an association for when and where I bought my favorite albums.
Plus, I love the sound of vinyl. Battered by the ‘everything loud’ creed of modern digital mastering, the best-sounding records seem more authentic, musical and alive. I was an early adopter of the convenience of digital music and its vastly superior specs. But on a decent stereo, something seemed lost in translation.
When I was a kid, records were relatively inexpensive and easy to find at any local record store. Listening to these albums years later, I ‘m transported back to my initial excitement and discovery, to what made me so passionate about music in the first place.
But seeing the young demographics involved in the revival, it occurred to me that NONE of these reasons really explained what was going on. In a day and age where virtually everyone uses streaming services that can pull up almost any song on their phone, when two decades have gone by for many without a physical format or even a stereo, what is causing them to suddenly seek out vinyl?
Former Austinite Don Radcliffe, who owns the used record shop Ella Guru in Atlanta, has his theories. “I guess there’s some people that are doing it for the same reason that we did. You’ve got to put a little work in. You’ve got to spend money rather than just finding it for free and putting it on a hard drive, when basically all you have to do is press a button to make it go away. And some people enjoy the the the tactile part of it, the cover. Vinyl records don’t hold near as much music as a CD. So, in those 35 minutes or whatever, why did they pick those songs? Why are they sequenced that way? You know, the same dumb stuff that attracted us to it. And they read credits and they look at who produced it. What else did they produce? Or they discover some musicians on it. Jesus, this guy is awesome. What other bands was he in? The web starts getting spun a little bit and they’ve got to figure out where everything sort of fits.”
Spencer Smith, 30, who bartends and is a projectionist at the Alamo Drafthouse, has been a vinyl fan since age fifteen, when he first asked his parents for a record player. “At the time, I was listening the way most kids do, downloading from the internet, mostly illegally. I think something about the process felt kind of cheap to me. I could download a thousand records a day, but I would never really listen to them. You take a kid and put him in the middle of a candy shop. There’s no clue where to go first. Something about having the music physically and listening to every song in order really appealed to me.”
“I didn’t start collecting records until I was in college,” KUTX host Taylor Wallace, 29, confesses. “I’m from a small town and didn’t know anyone who did. My parents grew up in the CD era. This was around 2009-2010, right when it was getting popular. All my friends, and these guys I wanted to date, they all had record collections. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a thing.’”
John Kunz recalls it being about fifteen years ago when he first started seeing a vinyl sales uptick at Waterloo. Superstar artists with clout, perhaps disappointed in declining CD sales, began demanding limited runs of vinyl – because they could. Labels obliged. Stores generally had one shot at ordering them. But their scarcity added to their appeal.
Kunz remembers the advent of Record Store Day, started by a coalition of independent record stores in 2008, as the moment while vinyl sales really began to rise. “The record labels were giving every Circuit City, Borders, Best Buy and Wal-Mart exclusive bonus tracks. And we [independent record stores] were all here saying, you shouldn’t be messing with the core product. That’s really confusing to the customer. Give them the exclusive as a digital download. But we want an exclusive release on vinyl.” [It’s a tradition that continues to this day. Record Store Day 2020 is on April 18th.]
While Austin still mourns the loss of classic record stores like Inner Sanctum and Sound Exchange, it is fortunate to have some pre-2000 survivors – Waterloo and Antone’s Records – and numerous other excellent post-2000 vinyl shops across town, several of them also offering a wide assortment vintage hi-fi gear, including End Of An Ear, Sound Gallery, and Breakaway Records.
Breakaway, which is exclusively analog, is co-owned by Gabe Vaughn and Josh LaRue.
“It’s not a lot of people;” LaRue tells me. “Many young people are music fans but only a few go down the vinyl road. Some people get the nostalgia thing – they saw their parents play records or they saw it in a movie or something.”
“And for some people, it’s an identity. I remember being younger and wanting to be about something, you know, like I’m a collector.”
Not everyone who buys vinyl is a collector. Collecting most anything never makes a lot of practical sense. [If you want to know if you’re stricken with this malady, take this simple test. Read this recent New York Times article about the Archive of Contemporary Music’s collection of three million albums needing to find a new home. If your initial thought, like mine, was “I wish I had room for that”, you’re a collector.]
Other buyers seem to be, um, more casual. All three record store owners who spoke to me told me versions of the same story. When they asked certain young vinyl buyers how they were playing their records, it turns out – they weren’t. They owned no turntable at all.
“I have a conversation on a pretty regular basis where people are, you know, buying dollar records.,” explains LaRue. “Or even more expensive records, you know, like ten-dollar, 15 dollar used records. And I’ll ask about a turntable or what they’re doing right now. And they’re like, oh, I don’t have anything. So some kind of disconnect going on there. Maybe they’re listening to them at a friend’s house or maybe it’s easier to spend 20 bucks on used records than to spend hundreds of dollars on a turntable, or 400 dollars on a system. I get that. But I don’t understand what they’re doing with the record.”
“There are some kids that are buying them just to put the artwork on the wall,” says Kunz. “Others say I just want to support that artist.”
But these are odd exceptions. For the most part, young vinyl buyers are playing and enjoying their records. On what, though, varies widely.
It’s easy to see why. Turntable manufacturers have sprung back in action in the wake of the vinyl revival. But good precision gear, like the best of today’s vinyl pressings, can be expensive. One of the things fueling the vinyl revival was the emergence of low-cost, kitschy all-in-one record players made by companies like, er, let’s call them ‘Crosbys’. [To be fair, the same company also makes high-end turntables.] And at Waterloo, where they sell the portables, they are careful to describe them to customers as “the perfect record player for your eleven-year-old’s slumber party.” Nonetheless, some buyers aren’t getting the message.
Austin musician Scott Riegel, 26, who became a vinyl enthusiast at the age of 12, describes his beginnings. “My dad grew up in the ’70s, and had a pretty decent record collection for a guy his age. He bought me this cheap, all-in-one “Crosby’ player. So I started listening to stuff on that, and then I posted about it on a forum. They started roasting me for playing records on that cheap all-in-one turntable. So I dug my dad’s stereo setup out of the attic.”
Without such treasures hidden in the attic, though, the process gets tougher. New vinyl hopefuls go from “Hey, Siri, play the Beatles” to being told about all they need to make a physical record play. “It’s understandable,” says Kunz.”They start looking at a turntable and we ask them what they’re going to be pairing it with. They don’t know what a receiver is. An amplifier. When they say they’ll be hooking it up to their A V system, you say, does it have a phono input? And they don’t know what that is. Speakers? You got to have all this stuff.”
“There are people who just buy like a pretty lousy record player because they see it at Target. And there’s no way that sounds good,” says LaRue.
Yet despite the steep learning curve, many have pulled it off and are enjoying their vinyl on good gear. LaRue sees that happening. ”It’s hard for me to know what percentage, but there’s certainly a good number of people who are looking for quality pressings of records and buying real stereo equipment to hear it on. They’re aware of and paying attention to how good it can sound.”
LaRue describes vinyl’s audible aura. “There’s a certain human error vibe that’s very relatable. You know, it’s like a lot of hip hop. After a while, they started making the beats not totally perfect. They would still use a click track and drum machines and samples and all that, but they would make beats slightly more human-sounding. And I think people, even if you don’t notice it on a conscious level, [vinyl] feels a little more natural, it feels a little groovy.”
Yet vinyl’s distinct sound, a chief reason why long-time vinyl enthusiasts have put up with storing and lugging around record collections for decades, doesn’t come up as much among younger record buyers.
“I think people have a point when they say it,” says Spencer Smith, who estimates he owns two to three hundred vinyl albums. “But I question how true that is. People say there’s better quality or it sounds warmer. I’m inclined to say that since the streaming services are so good, it’s a hard argument to make.”
It’s true that new bands and releases, in this day and age of recordings being mastered for compressed mp3’s, streaming and earbuds, don’t really shine on vinyl. Yet this seems to be primarily what’s selling at Waterloo. Kunz estimates 75 to 85% of his new music is being sold on vinyl. “When they were doing all the digital mastering to put vinyl on CD, they were using an analog master person. The reverse was true going back the other direction. It was someone that didn’t know what they were doing, and the mastering was fucking everything all up.”
LaRue hears it, too. “Now that most people listen to super-compressed digital files on earbuds, they try to make recordings sound good for that format, which is hard. A lot of music that’s recorded digitally, straight into Garageband, can sound really great, except that it’s a different type of music and a different type of recording. It’s very different from the 60s and 70s, you know? There are so few pressing plants anymore. They have so much demand. They’re getting digital files like that are just getting emailed to them. They’re doing stuff as fast as they can. And the quality control has dropped.”
“I think a lot of the appeal for me and for some young people getting into records for the first time is the stuff that was, you know, recorded and pressed in the 60s, 70s, even through a lot of the 80s, when the goal was to make it sound good on a record on a turntable. Even like early hip hop and dance, it was about deejays and clubs like with sound systems and turntables, everything was geared towards that.”
Which might explain why this era is now selling again. Don Radcliffe loves getting rare records in his store, but the 60’s and 70’s hit recordings are his go-to records for young buyers. Nestled among the new releases in Waterloo’s top vinyl sellers is Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, an album that looks exactly like it did when it was released with an $8.98 list price in 1977. It sells for $24.99. Waterloo keeps a six month supply on hand.
There’s a lot of mystery around the vinyl revival, but it does seem to be bridging generations. Parents and grandparents are gifting their kids their favorite albums, and discovery is starting all over again.
John Kunz imagines a father surprising his son or daughter, telling them “In the back of my closet, I’ve got all the Led Zeppelin records. All the Supremes records or whatever, they are owned by grandma. And suddenly grandma is not this little old lady that doesn’t know shit. She’s the coolest person on the planet. Music is doing exactly what it should do. It’s bringing people together.”
Years without physical product, with fans essentially renting music from streaming services, seems to have left listeners hungry for something more tangible. They like streaming for musical discovery, but it’s not enough.
“I like owning the album,” says Taylor Wallace, “Especially when it’s about local bands, because that’s money in their pocket. And I like shopping. It gives me another reason to go out and buy something.”
In a world of multiple entertainment options, ownership seems to be adding value back for music fans. “I think that people pay more attention,” says LaRue. “They are literally invested in it. People like going to the store and buying something that they’re into. It’s not just food and clothing. This is something they really like. ”
Hanging out in record stores used to be the path to finding new music. For some, at least, that seems to be true again. But it’s not just the buying. It’s the process itself.
Scott Riegel finds it transporting: “A nice Zen day off for me is putting on a record, hanging out with a cup of coffee. You’re listening to it and appreciating the subtleties of the sound.”
“I think the physical motions of taking a record out of a jacket, putting in on, you know, the whole process, because it’s harder,” says La Rue, “makes somebody much more focused on the music. For me, it still does. My family, everyone has Spotify and all that. And but we play records all the time. My kids pay more attention, you know, just because they pick a record out, they go to the shelf. There’s a lot more to it. It’s a deliberate physical act that takes multiple steps to hear the music.”
Whether it’s the process of obtaining or playing vinyl, one thing is clear – there is no single answer to what is driving young people to buy and play a format that began a century ago. It’s puzzling for a lot of reasons. But discovering music, bridging generations, rediscovering the value of the album, listening more intently – all are big positives for music fans, artists and the industry. And for whatever reason it is happening, everyone seems happy that it is.
I was at a party over the holidays where my friend Andy was playing records. I started discussing the vinyl revival with him and asked if he had any explanation as to why young people were turning to a format that effectively ended before they were born. Without saying a word, he walked over to his records, pulled out his copy of ZZ Top’s 1973 album Tres Hombres and opened it up. And there it was, staring me in the face. An eye-popping 24”x12” gatefold photo, a technicolor burst of cheesy tex-mex gluttony. We both just stood there grinning. Maybe it really is as simple as that.
From left to right: Little Mazarn, Jake Lloyd, Andrew Cashen
Literally hundreds of recordings are released every year in this fertile music city, and invariably, some fail to get the notice they deserve. Instead of our usual Best of 2019 list, we thought it would be fun to ask KUTXers what Austin recordings should have gotten more attention this year.
Host Mon-Thurs 5-8 pm, Fridays noon -4pm
Michael Fracasso – Big Top
Granted this 2019 album was recorded a few years back and then sat on the shelf, but it confirms that Fracasso is not only one of Austin’s most overlooked singer/songwriters but one of America’s. A collaboration with Charlie Sexton and the late George Reiff, “Big Top” should have catapulted Michael to the big time, but in a just world. any of his previous albums would also have done so.
Jesse Dayton – Mixtape Volume 1
Austin-based Dayton has worked with everyone from Waylon to Rob Zombie to Johnny Cash to X – and his covers on this release are just as eclectic. But don’t judge this disc by its, um, cover; yes he chose a Cars song but he sings it as George Jones might. And from Jackson Browne to the Clash to Gordon Lightfoot to AC/DC he puts his singular twist on all his choices.
Host Mon-Thurs 8-11 pm
Sadie & the Ladies- Let Us Make You Money EP
Infiltrating the underground scene this year, Sadie & the Ladies put out their early Strokes-emulating debut EP, putting a fresh spin on a beloved early 00’s rock sound. They may have snuck in at the end of this decade, but they’ll be stuck in everyone’s ears through the next one.
Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band- Nightmare Forever
Keeping the glory of Prog Rock alive and well (and dense with Tolkien lore) are the dozen-or-so members of Nolan Potter’s Nightmare Band, whose instrumentation includes everything from guitars to chimes to Nolan’s flute(!). A lot of incredible music came out of Austin this year, to the point where I thought it would be impossible to pick a favorite, but Nightmare Forever swooped in last month like Gandalf on Gwaihir and gifted the world this true work of art.
Music editor, host Fridays 6-9 am
Little Mazarn – IO
There’s something mesmerizing about this duo’s bare-bones music. Treated, slow-picked banjo, saw, and other odd percussion are the only real instruments on their second album (though Will Johnson, Thor Harris and the Bad Liver’s Ralph White all put in guest appearances). Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston write forlorn dark woods folk that hangs around inside your head. On songs like “Little Blue’, and “Peace Like A River”, Verrill’s vocals resonate with a haunting beauty. There are also covers of Country Willie Edwards’ “Marfa Lights” and, of all things, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”, which excavates the pain hidden inside this MTV favorite. In terms of 2019 Austin albums I keep going back, IO is the one.
Wurve – “Blowout”
We captured a riveting live version of this song in Studio 1A back when this Austin psych outfit was calling themselves Teevee, but this studio version from Wurve’s Memory Bleach album is even better, It begins as if the band has already been playing the song for ten minutes and doesn’t really ever let up. Furious drumming, walls of guitars, and a baited melody buried way down in the mix. In short, a brilliant textbook example of MBV-inspired shoegaze. Play it again.
AARON ‘FRESH’ KNIGHT
Host, The Breaks, The Breaks podcast
Jake Lloyd – MoonLit Mornings
While we on The Breaks play songs from the album and support it, the rest of the Austin Music scene allowed the project to fall to the wayside. If you are into Black Pumas, Leon Bridges, Los Coast, etc then there is no reason you won’t like Jake Lloyd’s sophomore album. With the lead single, “Daily Interlude” being an ode to the Austin lifestyle, the rest of the album is a soulful showcase of Lloyd’s vocal and songwriting abilities.
Music director, host – Left of the Dial, Uptown Saturday night
Andrew Cashen – Back In Texas
I think Austin slept on this album, which is a shame because when Andrew is out in front, he’s just as engaging as Sabrina Ellis (his partner in Sweet Spirit and A Giant Dog). “Paradise” is my favorite track on the record.
Speaking of Sabrina, I loved the three singles they released with Har Mar Superstar. There’s undeniable chemistry between the two and you can’t beat the ’80s-flavored cotton candy. I hope they continue to work together.
Will Johnson – Necessitarianism (Fred Merkel’s Blues)
Will’s voice has always captivated me and this song harkens back to his Centro-matic work. On first listen, this seemed one-note. Then I listened again. It rewards you with what I call sneaky layers; song elements you only get upon repeated listens.
Sanco Loop – Mars
I find this band fascinating because they merge elements that seemingly shouldn’t go together: an art-rock voice with dusty pedal steel. Frontman Peter Wagner’s voice is a howitzer that can hit numerous octaves. Cary Bowman’s pedal steel belongs to some distant, treeless mesa. When these sounds are brought together it creates an unexpected earworm.
Host, Saturdays 7am – 10am
Eimaral Sol – Sol Soliloques
Eimaral Sol’s album, Sol Soliloques fills you with love and purpose and takes you on a journey to your higher self. Not only is she aware of the universal consciousness, but she also shares her knowledge of the universe with the listener while her lyrics send them positive vibes. Her sound reminds you of the greats such as Erykah Badu and Amy Winehouse, with songs like “Sunflower” and “Systematic Transcenda,” she keeps the listener moved by her soulful vocals and beautiful energy! Sol Soliloques is not just an album, it is a spiritual guide through this thing we call life.
Torre Blake – ”Summertime Fine”
Torre Blake’s single “Summertime Fine,” pays homage to the beauty of her hometown (Austin). Her sultry vibes convince you that there is no better place to be on a perfect summer day than at the local hot spot, Barton Springs. In “Summertime Fine,” she expresses what her idea of relaxation is at one of Austin’s local crown jewels. In the end, Torre’s captivating lyrics illustrate her admiration for the Summer days in Austin, Texas; in only a way that a fellow Austinite can truly understand.
Host, Elektikos, Mon-Thurs 7-9am
Elias Haslanger & Church on Monday – For Being There
What a wonderful recording this is. Recorded right here in Austin at the Continental Club where Haslanger and his Church on Monday band are regulars. Mixed and mastered by well-known jazz pianist and master of many things, Eddie Hobizal. Released on Cherrywood Records, what else! The band features Elias on tenor sax, James Polk, organ, Daniel Durham, bass, Tommy Howard, guitar, and Scott Laningham, drums. Intimate to expansive, some worthy tracks!
Graham Reynolds – Marfa A Country & Western Big Band Suite
Lots of big band sounds, jazz, country, rock, pop, and just about whatever you can imagine. Featuring Ricky Davis and Red Volkaert. Talent oozes. This is the first part of THE MARFA TRYPTYCH, Graham Reynold’s three musical portraits of west Texas, inspired by his interest in the Texas-Mexico border population and the Chihuahuan desert landscape.
Producer – My KUTX, host Sundays 10 am- 2 pm
The Infinites – The Infinites
The Infinites are the product of dozens of small details interacting in surprising ways. On the band’s self-titled debut, Dan Le Vine’s bubbly guitar bounces off the nervy rhythm section, propelling singer Jared Leibowich’s intimate storytelling. Each song is framed like a snapshot, establishing a character and a scene before abruptly ending. There’s something subversive and honest in the way their songs glitter and die so quickly. In the Infinites’ universe, zero and infinity are bandmates.
Erika Wennerstrom – “Be Here To Love Me”
There’s a stark beauty to a lot of Townes Van Zandt’s music. The best versions of his songs tend to be acoustic and live, allowing his words to slowly unfurl and haunt the room. His pitchy singing is also part of the appeal; too much polish obscures the rough-hewn magic of the songs. Erika Wennerstrom’s version of “Be Here To Love Me” is reverent to all this, but it’s not a museum piece. She takes the desperate, darkly-funny pleading of Van Zandt’s original and blows it up to cosmic country proportions. It makes you hope Wennerstrom has more of these covers in her back pocket. It also makes you wonder what Van Zandt could’ve done with this kind of color palette.
RF Shannon – Rain On Dust
Shane Renfro, RF Shannon songwriter, was born in the Texas Panhandle and raised in the pines of East Texas. This stark contrast of scenery would eventually come to inform the minimalist brand of hazy pastoral music that he and the band creates.
Ley Line – “Oxum”
The women of Ley Line transcend language and genres to create a sound that seems to emerge from deep within the earth. Dynamic harmonies run like a current through textures of stand up bass, guitar, ukulele and percussion. Ley Line creates a global soundscape; blending rhythms and influences from Brazil, Latin America and West Africa.
Host, Saturday 2-6 pm
Gold Leather – Churl
Sometimes life is one big fat shit sandwich that takes forever to chew and even longer to digest. When it feels like this, I like to remind myself that not everything is elegant or neat, it’s absurd and chaotic–and Austin’s Gold Leather channels that liberating nihilism in its most raw form. Gold Leather are like a hellspawn formed from METZ and King Crimson and it’s just as beautiful as one can imagine.
Will Maxwell – Calm a Painter
You may know Will Maxwell from the Austin trio the Oysters, you may not know he released the most honest, unpretentious, and beautiful solo record of 2019. With the Oysters, Maxwell can obscure his tender and heartbreaking lyrics beneath sometimes ridiculous live shows (I once saw him perform in a diaper at the Hole in the Wall for chrissake), but he has nowhere to hide on his solo album Calm a Painter. Similar to writers like Raymond Carver, Maxwell’s storytelling imparts the ordinary with magic and significance in such a way that you may find yourself crying about a couch by the end of the album.
Host, This Song podcast, Saturdays 10 am-2 pm
Jackie Venson — Joy
Jackie Venson is an Austin artist who is not afraid to evolve. Venson started her musical life as a classical pianist, but switched to blues guitar after a particularly soul-crushing interaction with a teacher at the Berkley School of music. Though she started off playing the blues, she hasn’t stayed stuck in the genre. Every release has shown her add more and more influences into her work. Her 2019 record Joy is a major leap forward for the artist. You can hear some blues, yes, but she also blends pop, reggae, rock and electronic music to create a sound tha makes me excited about the artist she’s become and interested to see what the next step in her evolution will be.
Melát — After All: Episode One
I’m sure you’ve noticed that Austin R&B is on the rise, and Melát is one of the vanguards of the scene. Here July release, After All: Episode One is a collection slow burning grooves that will get even the stodgiest listener in the mood for love. And her video for “After All” is one of the most delightful visual celebrations of both Austin and the black creatives who are making some of the most interesting work the city has to offer.
Host, Mon-Thurs 12 pm – 2 pm
Church On Monday – For Being There
We don’t play much jazz during our regular programming but this album, recorded live at the intimate Continental Club Gallery, captures the excitement of eight of the band’s best recent performances from their Monday night Gallery residency which, incidentally, is now in its eighth year. Saxophonist/leader Elias Haslanger along with B-3 organist/Austin legend James Polk and guitar wiz Tommy Howard are the inspired soloists, all at the top of their game. My favorite Austin jazz album of the year.
Grupo Fantasma – American Music Vol. VII
This is perhaps my favorite Austin album of the year, overall, from this Grammy-winning juggernaut. Although we’ve played the song ”Cuidado” extensively this year, there are several other tracks that deserve your attention. My favorites include “The Wall”, a politically timely tune that features members of Ozomotli and Locos Por Juana, “Nubes” with its tropical vibe, “Let It Be” featuring Austin’s Tomar Williams and the appropriately titled scorcher, “Hot Sauce”. Caliente y muy picoso!
Host Mon-Thurs 2 pm – 5 pm
Will Cope – Denial River
From his 2010 debut Sunset Craves, to this year’s fantastically recorded and produced LP Denial River, Wil Cope has consistently manifested some of the most haunted noir-folk ennui that a wayward soul could bleed from his darkest recesses – and perhaps from a few drug-addled journeys on desert landscapes. As I’ve obsessed over before in several Austin Music Minutes, Cope pens all the heartache, broken connections and broken dreams into superbly spooky, moody odes to a lost highway of no return. And Denial River, arguably his strongest work to date, carries the magic of longtime collaborator and producer Doug Walseth at the helm, helping bring to life those otherworldly shadows inhabiting Cope’s dusky world.
The Ghost Wolves – Crooked Cop EP
Another longtime favorite of mine goes and unleashes three dirty-wicked tracks invoking the spirit of The Cramps with minimalist garage-rock/dark-punk fever, and it even gets the attention of Third Man Records. So much so that TMR releases The Ghost Wolves’ Crooked Cop EP on 7-inch vinyl – yet it’s still mystifyingly under the radar. Dynamic duo Carley and Johnny Wolf are some of the hardest-working musicians around, touring constantly throughout the world to get the word out, so there’s a growing momentum for sure. Meanwhile, sink your fangs into “Crooked Cop,” “Fist” and “Day Will Follow The Dawn” to experience the killer vibe. These Wolves are worth your while.
Host Mon-Fri 9am -12pm
Little Mazarn – IO
They fancy themselves as hillbilly psychedelia, but the Austin duo of vocalist, banjo-player Lindsey Verrill and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Johnston are partisans of the primitive folk revival but with dreamier, more atmospheric modern touches. His saw bowing, and her subtle banjoing and plaintive singing create quite a mood and it really draws you in. Makes this jaded music fan wanna go out on a Tuesday night (!) and see them at Hole in the Wall, especially when Ralph White joins them. Check out their cover of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” from their second album IO released this past May and recorded at Ramble Creek Studios here in Austin.
Live Music Booker/Producer
I’m a sucker for harmonies and this five-piece band has some Dirty Projectoresque harms. Earlier this year, the band put out several singles (including my favorite “Someone Who Can Do Both”) but took time off from playing to outfit a new recording studio. Here’s hoping a full length is coming in 2020!
Flora & Fawna – “Slow Burn”
Sometimes you wanna eat mushrooms and listen to a song over and over on repeat. Flora & Fawna’s “Slow Burn” is good for that.
John Doe walks into his own North Side Bar
By Jeff McCord
It’s a late summer Tuesday night at the Long Play Lounge, and I’m leaning over the bar trying to read the label of a record spinning on the turntable. A few feet away, manager Tate Mayeux is chatting up a couple of regulars. There’s about twenty of us in the cozy low-lit surroundings, paired off among the tables. The music – a garage band called the Detroit Cobras – rumbles warmly from the stereo.
Until late last year, the Long Play was a gastro pub called Royal Jelly. “I remember driving past and they always had different signs, which was confusing,” remembers Long Play partner John Doe, co-leader of X, who relocated from the West Coast to Austin’s St. Johns neighborhood two and a half years ago. “But a few neighbors would say it’s got some pretty good food. I never went in there. I was like, huh, Royal Jelly, I don’t really want either one of those things.”
Will Tanner, who has owned Austin mainstay the Hole in the Wall since 2008 and another East Side newcomer, Stay Gold, noticed Royal Jelly, too. For sale. On Craigslist. “I went on, typed in ‘bar’, and it was the first listing that appeared, like seven minutes old. It’s up north, south of 183, and immediately I knew what it was. I emailed the guy and he called me within two minutes. We got it bought in about a week. And we just started working.”
John and Will, friends since Doe started playing SXSW day parties at the Hole in the Wall, stay in touch. “Will said ‘It’s your neighborhood,” Doe recalled, “So why don’t you come in on this thing?’ I came in as the bring-it-over-the line investor. But Will put most of the money in, and had the whole concept complete – which is no Spotify, no fuckin’ Pandora. No sports TV. It’s LP’s, straight up cocktails, nothing super fancy, but good liquor, good beer. And that’s it.”
The Long Play vibe is like a friend’s living room. It’s a small space. Drinks flow and records play. The selection is varied and can be eclectic. But it’s not overly fussed over. Customers make requests. Entire sides of albums blend into one another. And despite a first-rate sound system, the music doesn’t dominate. Conversation comes easy.
But if you’re there for the tunes, the staff will oblige. Most all are musicians. “I intentionally didn’t bring on seasoned bartenders,” Will explains, “so if you want to talk about the music, you’re with people that have put in 10,000 hours. Tate especially has a really rangy knowledge, he just carries all over the board.”
Tanner started with 300-400 of his own LP’s, a nice mix of the new and not-so-new, and as regulars have gotten to know the staff, they’ve gifted the Long Play other records they think they might like.
And then, there are the audiophiles, the occasional customers, who, according to Mayeux, just appear, and plant themselves flat footed in the center of the bar facing the speakers.
The speakers. Don’t get Tanner started. “It’s a Danish company called Dynaudio and they’re handmade – this is gonna to be a little dorky technical, but it’s a mastering rig that goes from super high all the way down to 18 Hertz without losing anything. So, whatever they did you can hear. Like the best monitor you can get. Truthfully, I’d been looking for an excuse to buy these speakers, and I was able to shoehorn it into the budget.”
Tanner’s more than a longtime vinyl collecter. “So many people will concentrate on getting the records and they’re playingthem through garbage. What’s great about analog is it’s unlimited. There’s a lot there to be heard. So not only do we find a lot of people that are already interested in records coming in, but they’re also listening. In my opinion this is the closest way to doing it right – flat EQ’s, powerful high-end speakers. And if you don’t care about that, you can come in, hang out and have a cocktail on the patio. That’s just the way that we’re listening to music. It’s not a bunch of people needling over stuff.
I ask Doe if he’s a hi-fi guy. “Not that much. Will goes deep and I’m grateful for that.” His disdain for algorithm-driven apps like Pandora comes down to this: “Whatever band you put on eventually cycles down to Sublime or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
“I do like vinyl,” John says. “Sounds good. I don’t have a huge collection. I got rid of a bunch of stuff and I constantly cycle through. There are some old 60s records from when I was a kid that I still have and a couple of old country records from back when you would find things in thrift stores, and I’ve got a test pressing of Black Randy and the Metrosquad [a joke LA punk band that included members of X and the Go-Go’s, among others]. But I don’t have walls and walls of records.”
“I did get to visit [Canned Heat vocalist and famed record collector] Bob Hite a couple times. I mean he had test pressings of Leadbelly records. It was insane. You never knew what you were gonna get with Bob. One time we went over there and he was naked the entire time, but his belly was so big that you couldn’t see anything down there. Okay, whatever. He played nothing but Bing Crosby instead of all this great blues stuff, and that was a little much. Unfortunately his collection got savaged when he passed away.”
There’s been no Bing Crosby night at the Long Play – at least so far – but they have had a few guest DJs. “I even deejayed once – my one and only deejay set,” says Doe. “I played the Cramps, the Big Boys, Lee Dorsey, some reggae stuff. We’re trying to find people who want to have listening parties. If you’ve made a record, rather than having to play at your party, come over, just hang out, drink and play your record.”
Tanner says they’ve already done a few of these. “We have Fastball on the books for October 12th.”
In a way, having no space for live bands expands the musical discussion exponentially. Without a performer to focus on, the music can roam anywhere, from Can to Jerry Jeff Walker. “We have people that come from pretty far away just because they they’re super into records,” says Tanner.
But records or no, at its heart, the Long Play is a neighborhood bar. “I live five blocks from the place, which is both good and bad,” Doe relates with a smile.
I ask him what made him want to get in the bar business. “I had some extra money and I wanted to invest in the community.”
Friends initially brought Doe to Austin. “I’ve been coming here since 79 or 80, playing with the Big Boys, the Dicks …it’s always been great. We were living in the Bay Area had been for about 10 years and my daughters lived up there. I liked it, but I could never buy a house there and I ended up in [the St. John’s] neighborhood because I kind of saved a 50s house. You get more house there, and I don’t have to deal with too many young people at the grocery store.”
He recalls other neighborhood haunts. “When I was in my early twenties I played in a bunch of bars down in Fells Point which was kind of where John Waters crew hung out. I met John down there and we’d just play Thursday nights for tips. It was a bunch of artists and weirdo’s, because Fells Point is right down by the water in Baltimore. It was like Hoboken, even more bars per capita. There were some bars that didn’t have a sign, just a house. You just knew that. Oh that’s the place. And Hollywood, too, when I was there, had great dive bars.”
You’d be hard pressed to call the Long Play a dive – everything still feels new. On this Tuesday, women outnumber men, and as the evening wears on, the crowd thins. It’s still warm out, but we move to the deck, where the music plays through outdoor speakers. The radiator shop across the street has some weird rocket attached to it reflecting what little slivers of daylight are left. The music has changed again – T Rex now. A few people walk up, they all seem to know each other. We sip our beers, watch the neighborhood wind down, and listen to Bolan’s nonsense lyrics. “I could never understand the wind at all…” It’s easy to see the charm of the place.
“It’s a business,” says Tanner, “but for both the staff and the people, I’ve seen some real relationships grow. You really can become a sort of community center. We have some weird stuff happen, but mostly people kind of connect and it’s great. The other day, we’re looking at a pretty full patio – it was a Friday. Not a single phone was out. People were talking. You think, oh yeah, this is cool.”
One of the nation’s largest music festivals, the Austin City Limits Fest, returns to Zilker Park in a few months. This year they’ve got Mumford and Sons, Tame Impala, Guns N’ Roses, and Cardi B among the headliners. Big names, sure, but there’s not much synergy among them. For some seasoned festivalgoers, the thought of enduring the huge crowds, obstacle courses of folding chairs and overworked porta-potties is not appealing. You want to see Thom Yorke, but in bright daylight from hundreds of yards back, all while Billie Eilish reverberates nearby?
There’s no doubt the all-things-to-all-people model provides much excitement and fills a huge space for multiple weekends. Founded in 2002, and expanding to two weekends in 2012, ACL Fest has shown no signs of slowing down. But moments of unity like Paul McCartney’s adored sets last year are rare. You need to focus and move around a lot to find your moments.
ACL Fest is staged by Austin’s C3, as is Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park (estimated annual attendance at 450,000 and 400,000 respectively). California’s Coachella is even larger (est. 600,000). But not every festival aspires to these numbers. As the mega-fests have proliferated, so have smaller niche events. Events of this kind have always been around. With a lack of headliner budgets, they’re targeted and developing artist-centric. And hand-to-mouth; some make it, some don’t.
Austinites have always had a lot of these choices – every few weeks there’s one popping up on the calendar. There’s the long-running Americana-themed Old Settlers, nearby camping-heavy alternatives like the Kerrville Folk Festival and Utopia Fest. And those that have come and gone – Aqua Fest, which in its early days featured speedboat races, and brought a lot of star acts to the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The alt-rock heavy Fun Fun Fun Fest took over the same site for its last few years, 2011-2015.
Music fans have options like this wherever they live, festivals that offer a sense of unity and purpose. Everyone is there because they like the same things – you can roam and enjoy without fear of culture shock, in a much more chill environment.
A communal experience I will never forget was attending Austin Psych Fest. Psych Fest was started by Austin’s Black Angels, and has since morphed into Levitation. Levitation holds not only an annual 4-day event in Austin clubs In November (this year will feature the Flaming Lips and John Cale among its headliners), but also stages a festival in France.
For their first couple of years, though, Psych Fest was shoestring. In 2011, they took a big leap, moving from the Mohawk into the then empty downtown Seaholm Power Plant, and greatly expanding the lineup of bands. The cavernous structure created an otherworldly environment. Wild lights and weird projections strobed everywhere, as each band tried to outdo the strangeness of the one that came before them. Everyone there had a “can you believe this?’ look on their face. It was as if we’d all been dropped on another planet.
Most music festivals work alike. One price to get in, watch what you want, stay as long as you want, leave. But when artist curation and unique settings work closely together, it can create a kind of magic. Take in point two festivals I attended this year.
The Big Ears Festival, which celebrated its ten-year anniversary in 2019, is held in sleepy Knoxville Tennessee’s clubs and theaters. I’d been meaning to go for years, but the event is held immediately after SXSW – not ideal in my book. This year’s event featured the likes of Nils Frahm, Nik Bartsch, Makaya McCraven, Meredith Monk, Thumbscrew, Harold Budd, David Torn and Sons Of Kemet. Haven’t heard of them? That’s kind of the point. But for curious fans of brave, experimental music, Big Ears is nirvana. If you’re lucky, live in the right place (or happen have a brave promoter like Austin’s Epistrophy Arts), you might catch a handful of these kinds of shows a year. Big Ears features four days of them, plus art exhibits, panels, and a smattering of better-known acts (Richard Thompson, Spiritualized, Bill Frisell and Carla Bley were also on the 2019 bill). There was also an overnight 13-hour drone concert. I expected a small throng of effete snobs wandering from one dive bar to another. Instead, the large, diverse crowds (est, 15,000 to 20,000 a year) spread over the revitalized city were electric with excitement. Where else can you find a line stretched around the block for the Art Ensemble Of Chicago?
If artist-curated playlists are your thing, there’s a festival for that, too. Put together by Wilco, Solid Sound takes place in early summer. From the start, the founders played it smart. Set in the picturesque small town of North Adams MA, the museum whose grounds host the festival, Mass MoCA, is worth going to see on its own. Housed in a sprawling, refurbished 19th century mill, it’s a premier modern art facility (Stunning exhibits from James Turrell and Laurie Anderson were up during the fest). Wilco keeps Solid Sound small and manageable, only a few outdoor stages and museum shows. (Attendance figures for 2019 haven’t been released, but estimates ranged as high as 10,000. North Adams’ population is only 17,000). The closest thing this year to another headliner was Courtney Barnett. The fervent church of Wilco fans is there en masse, enjoying Jeff Tweedy’s band and their eclectic side-project offspring. But they’re also checking out fringe acts like Lithics, Wand, Mdou Moctar and Lonnie Holley. Musicians intermingle: Barnett sat in with Wilco, the Minus 5 were joined by Pete Buck, Mike Mills and Steve Wynn, Jeff Tweedy sang with the Feelies. And because everyone there made some effort to get to an out-of-the-way festival that only happens every other year, it feels exclusive and joyous.
Themed gatherings like this exist virtually everywhere, for every kind of music. (In Europe, many are publically funded). While many are drawing large crowds, they’re still only a fraction of what the mega-fests need to survive. If you’re thinking you’re done with the outdoor music experience, take some time to shop around. The alternate universes these events create, if only for few days, can be intoxicating, and just the thing for festival burnout.
Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUTX
The 2010s are about to be history, so we managed to track down some Austin music makers. We thought it would be a lot of fun to find out one of their absolute favorite albums of the decade. Um, wrong. We churn out these kinds of lists regularly here at KUTX, so it seemed to us that artists would have a great time chiming in. Apparently, we underestimated the difficulty of picking ONE album from an entire decade. Imagine that! Those willing to take this daunting mission on made comments that ranged from “this is really hard” to “HOLY CRAP! THIS IS REALLY HARD!!”. Others gave in and sent us multiple picks. We commend the fortitude of those who saw this through, getting back to us from as far away as Europe, in the recording studio, asleep on the couch… Your efforts are appreciated. Our unscientific survey reveals picks that range from Pulitzer prize-winners to cool obscurities and everything in between. If we made your lives difficult, sorry, but thanks for playing! The end result is definitely fun!
– Jeff McCord, Music Editor
ABHI THE NOMAD
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib – Bandana (2019)
My favorite album of the year / in the last decade or so. The production on the entire project was incredible, Freddie spills his guts over dusty loops and dirty samples that accompany his adventures as a drug dealer and musician. Coming off his recent legal stint, Bandana is the raw, unadulterated black American experience.
Solange – A Seat at the Table (2016) / When I Get Home (2019)
If there is any album(s) that shifted my perception of musicianship and inspired me to be my true self as an artist and a human being, it would be these albums. They painted a picture of black culture in a way that a lot of us could relate to, especially as Southerners. She broke boundaries, even on architectural levels and with her being from Texas, it just pushed me to become the male artist that could resemble that level of artistry, heartfelt creativity and provide a view from the South that could create national attention. In a way, these albums made a noise like what OutKast did in 1994 for the South in the hip-hop world.
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass (2015)
I listened to this constantly around the time I was working on my first record. I was so attracted to Natalie’s voice and the production of the album — it inspired me so much while I was navigating recording for the first time. I felt like she was my friend! So cheesy but true Anytime I listen to it now I get nostalgic for that time in my life where I was entering a whole new chapter.
ERIC BURTON (BLACK PUMAS)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
(Eric just sent a list of albums. Pimp topped the list but he also listed Good Kid m.A.A.d City by Kendrick, Kamasi Washington’s Heaven and Earth and The Epic, Alabama Shakes’ Sound In Color, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories).
Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free (2015)
Brilliant songwriting. So many great songs that have a depth and substance to them that few artists can match. It’s also catchy as hell. This record moved me as much as anything I’ve heard this decade. “If It Takes a Lifetime” sums up the quest to keep moving forward as a human being. “24 Frames” is smart and undeniable. “Teach Me How To Forget” is heartbreaking and relatable.
ANDREW CASHEN (A GIANT DOG / SWEET SPIRIT)
Ty Segall – Melted (2010)
This came out a year or so after I watched him open for Thee Oh Sees as a one-man band on the floor of Beerland. I knew he was talented but did not expect the 17 or 18 albums he would put out in the coming decade, and the thousands of bands he would inspire. This album is no longer listenable due to the wear and tear of constant plays it got at the house A Giant Dog shared in the early aughts (if that is what we are calling this era).
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories (2013)
This record broke the sonic mold. It’s everything that I love about music. It dances and takes you on a hella good ride. Nile Rodgers is a guitar funk master disco God too. ⚡️⚡️⚡️
Father John Misty – Fear Fun (2012)
While coming into my own as a songwriter, I stumbled across Fear Fun and my brain was instantly struck with his storytelling and vulnerability.This album has heavy influence on my views of how wordplay, melody and production should snatch a listener’s soul, thus making it one my favorite albums of the 2010’s.
BRITT DANIEL (SPOON / DIVINE FITS)
A Giant Dog – Pile (2016)
This has got to be one of my favorite LPs of the decade. It’s a record made by pure hearts playing pure rock and roll. To me, this record summed up Austin when it came out — trouble, euphoria, rock and roll, love, consequences, boom, and decay. And yes, I sing a little on the second to last song but that’s got nothing to do with it.
JOHN DOE (X / JOHN DOE THING)
Skating Polly – New Trick (2017)
The first track, “Louder in Outer Space” is HIT song that carries on punk rock’s legacy. This record was produced by Louise Post & Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. They’re celebrating their 10th anniversary as a band & the two sisters Kelli Mayo & Peyton Bighorse are 19 & 24 respectively. If this is the future, count me in.
Tom Waits – Bad As Me (2011)
This was the first Tom Waits album that I anticipated the release of- as an adult, I’d previously always been catching up on old Tom Waits music. The afternoon it came out, I sat down at the kitchen table and listened to all of it. Tom Waits in real time! (Sort of.) After I listened to the whole album, I went back to track #8, “Back In The Crowd” (my new favorite song!) and kept it on repeat until I learned it entirely. The writing of that song is perfectly heartbreaking, the production feels amazing, and to me, it’s the quintessence of perfect pop arranging. It sounds like a lost Roy Orbison song complete with the odd arrangement.
David Bowie – Blackstar (2016)
David Bowie meant so much to me. His career was prodigious, prolific. It was courageous. Just like Bowie.
SABRINA ELLIS (A GIANT DOG / SWEET SPIRIT / HEART BONES)
Ezra Furman – Transangelic Exodus (2018)
My favorite album of the decade came out last year. It’s a thematic album about a society in which some people transform into angels. The transformed angels are outlawed and hunted by the government. Within the album, Furman threads her coming-out story. The production is awesome. The lyrics inspire envy in me. The first song rhymes “Pasadena” with “Deus ex Machina”. Emotional intensity is turned up to 11 throughout.
JIM ENO (SPOON)
D’Angelo – Black Messiah (2014)
Broke the mold for innovative production, sonics, and vibe. This record has been one of the most referenced by any band I have worked with. “Sugah Daddy” with the great James Gadson drumming on his lap is a highlight.
GREG GONZALEZ (GRUPO FANTASMA / BROWNOUT)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
I heard a lot of good music this decade, but this one stands out to me as an album which both redefined a genre and embraced its history. As a fan of hip hop from the golden era I was discouraged to see so many young popular rap artists abandoning the lyrical delivery and style of their predecessors to embrace auto-tune “singing” or more staccato trap style rapping without showcasing a diverse or profound vocabulary that for me exemplified the art of hip hop rapping/lyricism. This album truly bridged the gap for me, showcasing a wide range of styles from party-anthems (“King Kunta”) to spoken word (“For Free”) and social-commentary (“Blacker the Berry” “Alright”) as well as experimental and poetic personal statements. Combine that with a diverse sound palette and production that embraced modern techniques as well as orchestration and moments of musical genius from Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and co. The result was an album both timeless and timely. To me, the album is like a Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going on?” type statement.
Tweedy – Sukierae (2014)
A solo record that turns into a father-son record? Soft and hard all at the same time? Catchy and challenging? New and old? This record has it all; a mood and quality that hasn’t stopped inspiring me since my first listen.
Mavis Staples – We Get By (2019)
Maybe it’s just because it’s fresh, but I’m going to say Mavis Staples last record… I mean first…she’s 80!!!!! Beyond that, it is truly a gift – and I’m amazed how she’s stayed on message all these years. Wow. She really goes for it on this record. It’s truly deep and there’s no messing about. You’re getting the real thing. It’s just got great performances and songs. Ben Harper did a great job on the production – super minimal – play great and get out of the way kind of stuff. Sounds like her touring band, but I’m not sure. It makes me cry and I’m so grateful for Mavis!
Rihanna – Anti (2016)
It took me some time to think about. What album do I still play to this day? This album introduced me to the vocal and pen talent of Sza (Consideration). It was the “anti” pop album for Rihanna and ushered in her international domination as a makeup, lingerie, and high fashion mogul. Will we get another album from Rihanna? Who knows. One thing I do know is that this was the last piece of musical work before Rihanna chose to be more than a pop icon. My favorite tracks on this album are “Consideration,” “Same Ol Mistakes,” and “Kiss It Better.”
MEGZ KELLI (MAGNA CARDA)
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Probably the most perfect album of this decade, at least in my opinion. I don’t know any other album that gets you a Pulitzer Prize. TPAB is important to me because it’s one of the few albums that beautifully explores the state of politics in this country, racial issues, and Kendrick’s own personal problems. On top of it all, it’s entirely influenced by a whole spectrum of black music genres/sub-genres aided by some of the greatest musicians of our generation (Sounwave, Terrace Martin, and Robert Glasper – just to name a few). The discussion is already there, but I think in a year or so people will really start to consider where this album falls in the top 10 Hip-Hop/Rap albums of all time.
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon (2015)
The lyrics, the production and vibe all the way thru this album is so organic and inspiring. Definitely would be a dream to be a fly on a wall during their creative process!
Yelawolf – Love Story (2015)
This is a tough one as so much music from 2010 to now has helped mold me. This decade is when I really started listening outside my comfort zone of familiar genres I grew up on. But I think my pick for this decade is going to be Yelawolf. Up to that point the Alabama native who resided on the Shady Records imprint had been known for southern beats with equally southern lyrics, but on this LP, he mixed in sounds of outlaw country, and even experimented with folk. It was exactly what I was looking for in 2015 when I was at a pivotal point in my artistry.
ALEX MAAS (BLACK ANGELS)
Clinic – Free Reign II (2013)
I chose this record because I feel like Clinic channeled cyborgs looking for understanding freedom and emotional stability in the near future. They are trying to understand love and human connection, with only images of jungles, the animal life and the planet earth that once was through a time capsule they found somewhere in space. I’m always left standing hypnotized until the record needle stops and I’m brought back to reality. Time travel is real.
BETO MARTINEZ (GRUPO FANTASMA / BROWNOUT)
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II (2013)
This record has been a constant for me since it came out in 2013. Great sounds and overall vibe. Really inspired me as a sort of bedroom recording. And no cymbals! (Beto also listed runner-up’s: Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and Altin Gün – Gece).
TOPAZ McGARRIGLE (GOLDEN DAWN ARKESTRA)
Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You (2015)
One of my favorite records of the decade. I love how they blend world music, funk and psychedelic grooves. Interestingly it really borders on easy listening which I think says a lot about how noisy our world has become, sometimes it’s just really nice to breathe and get into some stripped-down mellow vibrations. Also, they’re from Texas!!!
TREY PRIVOTT (LOS COAST)
D’Angelo – Black Messiah (2014)
The timeliness of his message seemed so urgent as a comment on police brutality, while he still managed to make a super accessible and danceable record. The musicianship is top-notch and his voice is near perfect. It is and will always be a go to for me.
ADRIAN QUESADA (BLACK PUMAS / BROWNOUT)
Michael Kiwanuka – Love and Hate (2016)
It’s hard to pick just one but one album of the last decade but this is the one that impacted me the most in recent memory. I didn’t fully digest it until a year or so after it came out but it has remained in steady rotation for me. I had been a fan of his previous releases but this felt like a statement/concept rather than just a collection of songs, his sound was the record felt grand and cinematic, and had some poignant themes throughout. He spent a few months living in Austin, so bonus points for the ATX connection too.
Teho Teardo – Music for Wilder Mann (2013)
Teho Teardo first came to my attention as a film composer. I listened to his score for Diaz on the way to Marfa when I was working on a commission out there in the desert. It was inspirational. Digging deeper into his catalog I discovered Music for Wilder Mann, based on the photographic book by Charles Freger. The main instrument featured on the opening track is the spring reverb! That got me hooked. Then come the strings, guitars, keyboards, and various electronic and other miscellanies. This is an album I wish I had made.
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (2016)
I would have to say Cohen’s You Want It Darker – his last record released just days before he died. It’s clear he was aware of his impending departure from the world. And he made this his final farewell. Then stuck around just long enough to make sure it was properly realized. The weight of the songs is not without humor and love. Truly a collection of wisdom and reassurance to those of us who follow behind. His music and poetry will live forever.
LESLIE SISSON (MOVING PANORAMAS)
Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentleman (2011)
Josh is a longtime close friend since we were teenagers in DFW and has been like a brother to me through the years. He even starred in the first Moving Panoramas music video. This album was released days before my mother’s death. I have vivid memories of seeing Josh perform at SXSW that year and spending time with him and our friends after one of his shows when my mom called me asking if we were still meeting up for lunch that day, which I totally spaced on and felt massive guilt for, wishing I’d spent that entire visit with her nonstop in retrospect. I’m immensely grateful for what I didn’t know at the time would be my last days with my mom the month this record came out and every time I hear it now, I think of her…. and how proud I am of my brother from another mother, Josh Pearson.
STEVE TEREBECKI (WHITE DENIM)
Cass McCombs – Mangy Love (2016)
My selection for best record of the 2010’s. I think that Cass is the best songwriter of our time. Today’s Bob Dylan. His lyrics are thoughtful, humorous and filled with deeper meaning, which is getting incredibly hard to come by lately. His music is rooted mainly in rock n roll, but it’s more art rock, with carefully considered arrangements and instrumentation. It was hard to pick my favorite of his 6 records that came out in the 2010’s.