Every year in Austin music seems to be a good year in Austin music. And much like the year lacked a consensus top pick, capital-I important album on a national level, Austin releases in 2011 leaned toward shrugging off the hype and focusing instead on just making great music. Some local artists who’ve long been players on the national stage — like Iron & Wine and semi-locals Okkervil River — put out admirable records, and rising stars like White Denim and Pure X caught some attention from the Pitchfork crowd, some of the year’s best full-length releases from Austin acts were from artists who fly a little more under the radar.
5. Sleep ∞ Over, Forever
Evolving from its roots as a three-piece into a solo project, the debut full-length from Stefanie Franciotti’s Sleep ∞ Over fulfills the usual shoegazery requirements of being densely atmospheric and layering all of its statements in washes of thick guitars. But it doesn’t stop there — in addition to the video game bleeps and bloops that Franciotti sometimes utilizes, there’s a percussive energy to songs like “Romantic Streams” and “Stickers” that make Forever stand out in exciting ways. Most records like this are content to rest on their ability to turn thick, distorted guitars into something beautiful — Franciotti ups the ante by doing that on songs you could dance to.
4. Monarchs, The Rise And Fall
The Rise And Fall is such a singular statement of Austin life — from producer Mike McCarthy’s Spoon/Patti Griffin/Heartless Bastards pedigree to its odes to bike dates on the East Side — that it’s kind of shocking that frontwoman Celeste Griffin moved away shortly after the album’s release. Still, after putting out a record as strong as this, which slides effortlessly between soft, country-twinged ballads and a bouncy, indie-pop sounds, the now-Brooklyn based Monarchs probably belong to the world now. We’ll take a record that sounds every bit like what living a certain type of Austin lifestyle in 2011 was like, and hope that Griffin comes back to visit — with a full band in tow.
3. Echotone Soundtrack
The songs and performances on the soundtrack to Nathan Christ’s definitive documentary of Austin music in the contemporary era aren’t from 2011, but as the movie saw its release this year — and subsequent rave reviews in outlets like the New York Times and the Village Voice — the soundtrack cast the past few years of Austin music in a new light, as well. Artists like Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears and The Black Angels saw their profiles rise (sometimes meteorically) in the time since the film went into production, but the document of their early days on this soundtrack captures them as hungry, struggling artists. Tracks by Dana Falconberry, Trey Brown and the White White Lights, meanwhile, showcase the quiet performance power of a hushed room at an unconventional venue like Salvage Vanguard Theater, the full-bore rock and roll freakouts that Emo’s has hosted, and the spaces in between.
2. Explosions In The Sky, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
After nearly a decade of making resonant, instrumental music that practically begs to be described with words like “sweeping,” “majestic” and “cinematic,” one might think that Explosions In The Sky would be getting boring. What the band proved with Take Care, Take Care, Take Care — its richest and most interesting album since the band’s 2003 breakthrough The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place – is that there’s still plenty of fertile ground for them to explore, and room to veer off of the sweeping/majestic/cinematic trail to worthwhile territory elsewhere. With songs like “Take Care, Creature,” which opens with a guitar sound that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Led Zeppelin ballad, and the moody album closer, “Let Me Back In,” Explosions In The Sky continues to do what it’s so great at without ever sounding like an imitation of itself. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care is a heavyweight musical statement from one of the best bands in the world — and one that continues to get better.
1. Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong
At a time when Austin bands seem to largely eschew rock and roll ambition in favor of more stripped-down, minimalist, garage-rock pastiche, Quiet Company swung for the fences in making the year’s biggest, most anthemic rock album – and succeeded in making it the best of the year, as well. Packed with heavy religious themes — the album roughly sounds like a soundtrack to losing one’s faith – as well as sly, nerdy in-jokes (astute listeners will catch the Batman and Star Wars references in the song titles), We Are All Where We Belong is a powerhouse concept album. The song titles are stuffed with exclamation points; one of the record’s signature tracks, “Preaching To The Choir Invisible,” is divided into two parts; and Muse’s voice, which sounds like a mix of Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, sings unabashedly about the big ideas he’s packed into this record. Quiet Company’s ambition pays off huge on We Are All Where We Belong, and in a year where most artists were content not to aim particularly high, it makes this album a clear standout.