One Man’s Opinion: The Best of 2023
Lyric Michelle, Photo: Marco Torres
Well, another year has come and gone and here we are left to examine what we experienced. The highs and the lows were in grand order, and we got to see more this year than we have in recent twelve month cycles of the past. While we all scratch our heads as to what this new president will do or not do to restrict the progress of the last eight years, we can all agree that this year was like no other. As someone who writes, I feel like it was difficult to catalog every aspect of this year, but in all, it’s been one of the most memorable in a long time. The great art, music, and memories are some that will last years to come, while those we lost will forever be ingrained in our hearts. Here’s the best of 2023.
There’s no easy way to say this, but this year was possibly the most devastative to the arts in recent memory. The literary world lost To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee, who showed us how to start a conversation on race, and how to acts as adults. Boxing legend and civil rights spokesman Muhammad Ali passed after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, and left an echo is his wake. Ali will always be known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest boxer of all time. But, it’s what Ali represented in a time when race was at the forefront of everything including sports that will leave the largest mark. The music world saw more shocking and tragic deaths than I can remember in a long time, beginning with legendary and creative force, David Bowie. For me, Bowie was the bridge between suburban life and the creative ideas of large sprawling metroplexes. His albums were a large part of my musical growth, and his sudden passing forced me to pull of and weep at the loss of such an inspiration and iconic figure. We also lost the darkness of Leonard Cohen, the proto punk genius of Alan Vega, and the nonstop never give up beauty of Sharon Jones. Sadly, in what seemed to come out of left field, Prince left us as well while leaving behind one of the most creative forces in music of the past thirty years. Prince not only was a trendsetter, but an artist who could make his own rules and reinvent the industry. We also lost Leon Russell, the country outlaw Merle Haggard, my favorite Eagle Glenn Frey, and Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive. But, we shouldn’t wallow in sadness over these legends we’ve lost, but rather create new legends to help change the face of our world for years to come.
Miss Champagne Records, Photo: Courtesy of Miss Champagne
Best New Enterprise
Miss Champagne Records
The owner of Miss Champagne has an actual grown up day job, she DJ’s on the side, and she plays in Rose Ette. Yet somehow, after moving here from the Pacific northwest, she decided to start a tape label based off of the energy of our city. Possibly the fairest release process I’ve ever seen between label and artist, she not only helps with the artwork like a boss, but she insists on download codes and she sells cassette players too. If that just wasn’t impressive enough for you, just know that she’s dropped releases from The Wiggins, Black Kite, Buoyant Spirit and Rose Ette. I’d guess you were impressed but if you still aren’t, well she distributes other acts’ music as well as zines. Go ahead, admit that you’re impressed. I know I am.
Best New Houston Band
The best thing about The Cops is that they play their parts respectively from the first song to the last, and act like asshole cops would if they formed a band. With feelings of Hot Snakes and Pissed Jeans all over tongue in cheek tracks that are written from the cop’s point of view, their uniforms and brash attitude are as redeeming as their catchy as hell songs. Their best song is easily “Homicide,” while tracks like “Street Hooker” and “Life On The Beat” are hard to dislike. I can’t wait to see what they bring to the table next year, as their live shows are a lot like a rally, but non-violent and more energetic.
Album of The Year
From the opening of “Nikes” to the obvious hit song sensibilities of “Pink+White,” it’s obvious that Frank Ocean approached this album different than how anyone else would. Aside from the fact that there are choruses that are some of the most beautiful you’ll hear, it’s that approach that make this album so amazing. There are songs that fall under how traditional R&B songs sound but they’re too long to become pop hits. There are songs that break away from how R&B normally sounds, but they’re some of the strongest the genre has ever had. Little ditties like “Close To You,” and “Good Guy” hop on and off the album while their starkly small length leave a larger footprint. Tracks like “Ivy” that aren’t like any other R&B track you’ve heard before are all over the album which breaks the R&B mold while never steering too far from the genre. On blond, Ocean breaks all of the rules while creating one of the strongest releases you had the pleasure of hearing. He reinvents what you know as R&B while making the album that so many other people wished to make, but he did it all on his own. In fact, with minimalist songs like “Solo” and the lengthy “Futura Free,” Frank Ocean places himself on a whole new level of artistry while he rewrites his genre he keeps us all in suspense of what he’s up to next. Thank goodness he’s given us plenty to get down to until he makes his next move.
Best Albums of 2023 (In No Particular Order)
Black Kite, Photo: Amy Monroe
Black Kite-Soft Animus Heart
Only Houston’s Black Kite could get away with calling a five song album a full release, but that being said, what a powerful five songs. From the opening power of “Hunted, Opened” to the dark electronica filled with pop sensibility of “Wanting,” Black Kite takes the electronica world to a whole new place without ever feeling fraudulent or without cause. The way in which the vocals dance atop bizarre synths and live drums creates a world where the duo stand alone dropping tracks that are almost like the darkest and bizarre pop songs you can put in your ears. The intensity and sheer beauty of the song “Terror,” alone make this one of the best electronic albums I’d heard in a long time, and prove why Black Kite is so important. By turning the genre on its head, these two redefine what their genre is without ever leaving the boundaries of how it gets defined.
It’s hard to believe that Bowie pulled one more over on us, and even reinvented himself in death. While he knew he was dying and could have named the album for a type of cancerous lesion, or perhaps it’s Bowie’s place to always keep us guessing. The sadness and darkness that surrounds the album however shouldn’t encapsulate the brilliance behind the music within. Bowie successfully merged jazz, hip hop, and dark electronica with hints of his past lives to create an album that’s truly extraordinary. The title track “Blackstar” is almost ten minutes long yet the thin white duke finds a way to hold your attention from start to finish. The bridge in the song still gives me chills just to hear the sadness filled with hope that radiates throughout the song. Bowie keeps things light but not simple on “Lazarus” where he almost echoes the Bowie from the past in his approach while the jazz he loved so much meanders in and out of the song. Even the track “Girl Loves Me” where Bowie gets as close to rapping as we’ll ever get to hear, has a subtle beauty and an approach that is unmistakably Bowie while still sounding fresh and new. This album is Bowie reinventing what death looks like while going out as only he can. The seven songs within are definitely some of the most creative tracks the legend ever recorded, and should be regarded as such.
Lyric Michelle, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Instagram
Lyric Michelle-Miss Direction
The name Lyric Michelle isn’t a household one yet, but she definitely should be. Michelle teamed up with a ton of collaborators including Kam Franklin, Fat Tony, and Lee Lonn to name a few to make this album come to life. However it’s Michelle’s mixture of mic skills and lyrics that cover everything from hood rat to sex symbol that make the album bigger than the usual Houston faire. Notable tracks are the unforgettable “Weekend (La Di da Di),” the hip hop jam “Directions (feat. Fat Tony),” and the sultry electro pop of “The Motive (feat. Kitty Bebe).” Michelle incorporates poetry, an insane vocal range complete with mic skills, and a narrative of what it’s like to be a black female in Houston, Texas; that truly translates to females everywhere, especially to those in the music industry. From the first listen this album was in my ears until writing this piece because it’s that solid of an album.
A Tribe Called Quest-We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service
The beats from Brooklyn hip hop albums have always fascinated me as they land in their own way. That said, this is one of the best hip hop albums I heard in 2023, with intense rhymes, killer samples, and a flow that seems to be missing from today’s hip hop artists. Tribe gets together and drops a masterpiece that would’ve been best to have come out before Phife Dawg’s passing. I don’t think anyone who has heard Q Tip hit a mic would argue the strength of what happens when these guys get together. Back when hip hop acts were a team sport where crews populated the genre, Tribe comes in and drops their best album to date. All of the tracks jam and hit hard, while the opening track alone “The Space Program” showcase how strong this group truly is. If I had one complaint with this album is that it has one of the worst covers I’ve ever seen, but the songs inside are purely gold and prove that image means very little.
Lace-”My Mask Is Off” Demo
Brash, unapologetic, intensely dark and stripped to the core might be what you think of this hardcore album from Houston’s Lace. Possibly one of the most intense punk records I’ve heard since I was handed a Bad Brains album, Lace strips their sound from any sub-genres of punk and goes straight for the jugular. The live recording makes it’s harsher where the lyrics are indiscernible making it more intense. Tracks like “Youth Hinge,” and “Black Wall’ end as quickly as they begin while “Poison Drum” sticks in your head after the first play. Even after it was self released, Iron Lung records placed it on their storefront only to see it sell out as fast as they uploaded the images. No matter what you think of the recording quality, it’s hard to argue that this might not be one of the most harsh hardcore albums in recent memory to come out.
The first time I heard Detroit’s KMSN I asked myself, “who’s that guy with that killer sound?” Of course, while I kept up with his releases after that night at Warehouse Live, I had no idea that he’d drop one of the sexiest albums to come out this year. On It is. The producer songwriter proves that sex appeal and powerful lyrics can come from almost anywhere. Tracks like “Power,” and “Cruel Intentions” are the kind of jams that are the soundtrack to copulation. Complete with sultry vocals and funk-ay tunes, JMSN ups his game and takes us all to the bedroom with an album that makes you want to get nasty no matter where you hear it. However he mixes it up with tracks like “Funk Outta Here” and “Be A Man Pt 2” where it’s like he’s holding court on the corners of every avenue across this nation. It doesn’t take much to listen, and his strengths as a performer shouldn’t be overshadowed by his sultry tunes, but oh…those tunes.
Adam Bricks, Photo: Jessie Johnson
Possibly one of the best albums I heard all year, I had no idea that Bricks had this sound inside when I met him several years ago. With arrangements from Wes Essary, Adam Bricks finds the perfect way to go heavy when he needs to, or more importantly when to go soft when it’s called for. There are beautifully crafted songs all over the release where Bricks drops an album full of tracks that you’ve been waiting for him to set free into the world. The heavyweight prowess of his voice is enough to give you a tremble, while his high notes are enough to give you delight. I feel like the bulk of the songs are worth noting, though the the ballader nature of “Til The Moon Is Full” is definitely a track of note. Bricks reaches a new altitude as a songwriter and a performer where he ascends above the bulk of the album with a hook that you can’t shake. The album’s anthemic closing that has an almost Beatles element, “Just Like Mine” incorporates other instruments not found on the rest of the album while adding elements of a grand old tale that add to his strengths as an artist. The tone of the guitars, the vocal strengths of Bricks’ own voice, and the arrangements make this one of the strongest albums I’ve heard in a long time.
I think we tend to overlook solid indie rock albums today, especially when some giant label has the nerve to categorize one of their acts as “indie.” However, the San Francisco four piece that tries really hard to keep from getting categorized by incorporating fuzz pop and garage rock, is essentially giving us indie rock, and some of the best of it around at that. When someone asked me to describe this album recently, my response was simply “there are ten songs, they’re full of pop hooks and fuzzed guitar, and all of the songs are incredibly solid.” I stand by that statement, but I’ll say that tracks like “Peace On Earth,” “Jealous,” and “Don’t Worry” are all standouts as the band gets closer to a heavier version of Superchunk in their overall sound.
Frog Hair-A Long List Of Shortcomings
This is one of those releases that comes out of left field and almost blows you away. There are elements of this psych rock band that remind you of what would happen if Butthole Surfers kept their earlier sound in tact. It doesn’t take long to notice that the band’s singer sounds like David Lowery from the Telephone Free Landslide Victory days of Camper Van Beethoven, but the hooks and catchy choruses divert you from that immediately. The track “Lonesome Roads” sounds like it’s being performed by a runaway Gypsy camp, while the song “She Came To Go” is like what it would be like if one of Roky Erickson’s nightmares came true. There are plenty of notable tracks like “Don’t Forget to Save A Spot For Me,” or “Driving My Baby Away,” though it’s the sheer strength and pop hooks of “Cannonball” that make it a hard one to ignore. It’s almost like these guys lived inside a psychotropic daydream that Daniel Johnston created the soundtrack for; only to come to life and make this album. In fact it sounds like what every band on the Burger Records roster was trying to achieve, yet Frog Hair does it with ease and just in twelve songs.
If Bey wanted to show us how far she’s come since the days of Destiny’s Child, then mission accomplished. While I was sad that the album was only available to stream through one platform, that didn’t stop me from falling in love with this release. The power behind tracks like “Hold Up,” the strength and attitude behind “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and the exposed nature of “Freedom (feat. Kendrick Lamar),” Beyonce did more with a hard to get your hands on release than anyone prior. The visual aspect is not to be diminished, but the message of strength and power that flows throughout every track is truly amazing.
Young Mammals, Photo: Trey Ferguson
If a band could improve with every record while never changing too much, you’d definitely call that a miracle. However with Houston’s Young Mammals that’s exactly the path they’ve gone on getting stronger and stronger with each passing release. On their latest, Jaguar they prove that guys who’ve been together since their teens can’t be a bad thing. The squeal of “Crane,” the pop hooks of “Jaguar,” and the streamlined sneer of “Auroras” all signal a band doing things correctly. While they hold onto those pedal drenched notes of the past on “I’m Sleeping” and “Rat in the Summer,” they seem to have found their happy place in getting to where their abilities to craft a catchy pop song have only gotten better with age. At the rate these guys are going, they should be on a larger stage sooner than later, and with catchy tracks like those on Jaguar, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be.
Robert Ellis-Robert Ellis
There’s something about this album that made it difficult to put down and stop listening to. The way in which Ellis’ vocals pepper atop a band playing in their full stride, the notes that echo country of the past, and the songwriting alone are enough to give this record a spin. Ellis finds a way to meld together country and singer songwriter genres with ease while ushering the listener into a new world where he’s taking you away from Nashville to New York city through the eyes of a Texas boy. The first three tracks alone would be enough to make any critic pleased, but country twangers like “Drivin’,” dustbowl ballads like “The High Road,” and epic grandiose tracks like “You’re Not The One” make you realize that if Robert Ellis was attempting to take country music to a whole new place, then mission accomplished. There are moments of beauty, moments of pain, and moments of triumph that flow through each track like that of a life story. Luckily for us, the story of Robert Ellis is just beginning.
Rough Sleepers, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
Rough Sleepers-Savage Dream
The downfall of not reviewing a local band’s material until you see them is that it might take you months to actually catch them live. And while it took that long for me to actually catch Houston’s Rough Sleepers, the proggy and hard edged sounds that these guys create is nothing short of chaotic. There are moments on this album where they feel like they’re in a fever dream for Ed Wood during post production and on the verge of having things fall apart at the same time. All of the songs are worth noting, but my favorites were “Mirror Shades,” “Re-Entry,” and especially the bizarre and at times ambient “Metallic Fringe.” I can’t recommend this band enough as they almost feel like the torch bearers for Bauhaus and The Damned.
Kanye West-The Life Of Pablo
At first listen, it was only the track “Ultralight Beam” that I gravitated to when this record was released, and that may have been for the Chance The Rapper section of the song. But, with time, in fact about six months of playing the record a couple of times a week; I actually got what West was trying to do. None of the songs are bangers but rather slow burns that creep up in your head much further from when you first heard them. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt.1” and “Pt. 2” are both tracks worth mentioning, while the pop structure of “Famous” proves why it was so popular with fans. Aside from the fact that the album is a little too long, tracks that creep in and never leave like “Feedback,” “Waves,” and “Wolves” stick with you after one listen. The standout track that didn’t hit me after the first spin was the Kendrick Lamar featured “No More Parties in LA,” where it’s not lost on even Kanye that having Lamar on a track only helps his brand.
Young Girls, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
Young Girls-Party Blood
How this band went from being an act I’d see occasionally to a band that I wished I saw more of lies with the strengths of this record. There are moments where the tracks here remind me of The Strokes, remind me of Iggy Pop, and remind me of The Jam; yet they don’t ever rip any of them off. Instead, poppy and catchy jams like “For Me,” “What We Do,” and “Broke for Dreaming” all prove how strong this band is. In fact, you could argue that there isn’t a bad song on this record, which wouldn’t be far from true. The band’s use of backing vocals and almost doo wop structuring make these the songs that brighten your day and give you something to groove to from the beginning to the end.
Angel Olsen-My Woman
There were moments when this was in contention for my album of the year. Olsen takes on new instrumentation while elevating her sound at the same time. The hauntingly gorgeous of her vocals on the opening track “Intern” alone should bring any listener to their knees. While she tears at your heart on the sweet and fuzzy pop rock song “Shut Up Kiss Me,” and she embodies her former self on “Not Gonna Kill You;” it’s the strength and charming sounds of “Sister” where Olsen’s strengths really come to the surface. She takes you further into this new world with the lush and attentively crafted “Woman” where it feels like she’s singing directly to the listener. I’ve felt for a long time that Olsen is one of the most underrated performers going, and hopefully this album finally turns some heads.
Ruiners, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
There’s nothing light about the fuzzy and crazed energy of this album. Ruiners sound almost like they picked up where bands like Wire and Wipers left off, and I love that about them. The opening track, “Jhooti” is like a sonic punch to the face with melodic undertones that permeate the entire song. Where “Kaam” feels like the drums could fall over from the band’s intense playing, the slower opening of “Tunda” creates this endearing world with dualized vocals and a self-harmonized backing vocal that you can’t help but love; then the song explodes and comes to life. Easily one of the best bands in Houston, the future looks bright for these guys and they’re definitely group to keep an eye on.
Car Seat Headrest-Teens of Denial
There’s no way you can hear this album and not want to run the streets singing its praises. The opening track “Fill in the Blank” sounds like the anthem to teen rebellion as if it was recorded with seventies notations in a modern era. The brash and bombastic sound of “Destroyed By Hippie Powers” sounds like early Guided By Voices but recorded in an actual studio, while the the solo opening of “Not What I Needed” complete with vocals screamed from what sounds like they’re from across the room offer up a more straight melodic sound. Tracks like “Unforgiving Girl (She’s Not An),” remind you of Television and “Joe Goes To School” echo the solo works of Lou Barlow, the band finds a way to keep things interesting from start to finish.
Children of Pop-What Does 69 Mean?
I’m pretty sure that everyone in Houston knows Chase Demaster from one of his many projects, the countless shows he plays, or the fact that he’s spent the last three years juggling these projects as well as starting his own label. However, somewhere in there he managed to make one of the craziest electronic albums I heard all year. From the opening banger vibes of “Manic” to the dance hop sounds of “Painin 4 Luuuuuuv,” Children of Pop keep you guessing while your head is bopping along to each and every strangely crafted note. With tracks like “Suites Your Lies” and “Girls Like,” the duo embody the vibes of eighties electro pop without sounding dated. The vaporwave vibes of “Taking Over,” the nineties under and overtones of “R U N I T 4 L U V ? !,” and the power ballad ending track “Don’t Change for Love (feat. Wrestlers),” Children of Pop prove that they’ve earned any successes they’ve had, and that they’re one of the strongest electro pop groups you can hear. Side note, the song “DREAMCAST SWIRL EMOJI” could easily be one of the best pop jams you’ve ever listened to.
John Evans, Photo: Brandon Holley
There’s just something about how John Evans approaches a song that you can’t deny the power of. The rockin’ nature and crazy hooks of the title track “Polyester” should be enough to make you realize that he’s a gem of a songwriter. The beautifully skilled artistry of “Sweet Dreams” where Evans takes off where Roy Orbison ended, or the sweet and cute sounds of “Love Note” showcase the diversity that Evans holds between his fingertips. While “Instant Society” could be the theme song to pretty much any family comedy that airs on television, it’s the track “Pretty” that’s as close to a hit song that if radio DJ’s paid attention to well made music, would have been one of the biggest songs of the year. In fact, if no one ever options the song for a film at least, it’s easy to say that the track cements Evans’ ability to write a strong song for someone else to perform.
Radiohead-A Moon Shaped Pool
Literally a week before this list was to be released, in a moment of introspection and relaxation, I decided to give this album one more chance. It’s funny, with a clear head and an open mind; I found this to be an album that’s pretty great in its subtle approaches. There are understated nuances in tracks like “Desert Island Disk,” and “Glass Eyes” that convey more than what’s on the surface. While tracks like the upbeat lead single “Burn The Witch,” and the melodic and deep “Ful Stop” where elements of Radiohead’s past merge with who they are today. This is by no means my favorite release from the group, but it’s not my least favorite either. I also wasn’t pleased to know that many of these tracks had been kicking around for awhile. That being said, the end result is that if you put the past work of the group out of your head, and relish what’s here; what you’re left with is an album that’s closer to an onion than any of the group’s releases. As it contains more and more layers with each and every piece that gets peeled back.
Five Really Great Albums (In No Particular Order)
Fat Tony (pictured with Eric Andre), Photo: David Garrick
Even when we’re in a time where pop rap takes precedence on the album charts, Fat Tony somehow proved his prowess with just three songs. The throwback vibes of the opener “Waterfalls” is a welcomed change in a world where legitimate hip hop rarely gets heard. In just a hair over two minutes, Tony follows this with the quick pace and head boppin chorus of “Fast Life.” The forward nature of Tony’s vocals at the top of the mix, the use of production, and the catchy songs are stronger than many full lengths that made their way onto larger spaces this year. In this world full of flakes and fakes, Fat Tony keeps it real while giving us hope for hip hop’s future.
Walker Lukens-Never Understood
I was wondering when the world would notice the power that Walker Lukens had in his fingertips alone, and these four songs are his best invitation to date to experience said power. Enlisting SPOON’s Jim Eno as producer, Lukens gets quirky with the opening track “Jacket on Ya Shoulders” before he drops a light banger with “Lifted.” The album or EP or whatever you’d like to call it is nothing but strength from an artist that felt like he could fall into the depths of the “whatever happened to’s.” But, like every great fighter, Lukens kept punching and these four songs are definitely the knockout blow. Even the slow to get going “The Touch” could be your next late night jam that follows in the guise of SPOON by embarking down the road of being indie rock you can dance to. No matter what you call it, Lukens has definitely done well here and should be applauded for staying strong from start to finish.
Solange-A Seat at the Table
No matter what you might think, Solange is a Knowles but she’s in a different space than Bey. No, this album is held with deeply beautiful tracks like “Cranes In The Sky” and “Weary,” that showcase the subtle beauty and intensity she holds with each softly sung note. While she mixes things up on “Don’t You Wait” and she goes a bit old school on “Where Do We Go,” Solange proves that we should’ve never counted her out as the artistic direction on this album through each and every track is something amazing to behold, and even better to listen to.
Sleeperdrone, Photo: Lisa Ramirez
If you’ve never been awoken by a nightmare where you’ve been cast our into the cold depths of space, then you might not understand the complexities of Houston’s Sleeperdrone. However, if you like heavy riffs, screamy vocals, and an intensity that never lets up; then you’ll love this band. The opening song “La Cancian Rota” is like falling down an elevator shaft after drinking too many 40’s. As a guy who hates screamy vocals, I found this album to be one I couldn’t stop playing. The guitar tones alone kept me on my toes and tracks like “Dirt Nap” and “Meet Me At The Denver International Spaceport” were those that hurt my neck from their head banging intensity. I mean, this is a band that uses harmonics and distortion the right way. Even someone who isn’t a fan of heavier music should give this record a spin, because it’s pretty hard to put down after just one listen.
Into It. Over It.-Standards
The opening three tracks off of this album should make you an immediate fan. The acoustic guitar and dual vocals of “Open Casket” echo early leanings of the band while the added organ and swift melodies of “Closing Argument” remind you of the previous Into It. Over It. album. But it’s the well written and composed sound of “No EQ” that showcases the future of what this band could be. A catchy hook, emocore elements, and a chorus you can’t forget made the song one of my favorites of the year. Tracks of note include the speedy “Adult Contempt” and the soft “Bible Black.”
Five Pretty Darn Good (Almost Great) Albums (In No Particular Order)
George West, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
I don’t know if you can call the music of Houston’s George West chillwave or not, but it’s definitely laid back. That being said there are some tracks on this release that hit hard when they come on. The head bopping “One to Start,” the dance grooves of “Here Again,” and the thump and overly percussive sound of “Started” all make plenty of waves on this release. Complete with field recordings and an overall mix like no one else is doing, George West is definitely an act to keep an eye on, as his different approach should net him a larger fanbase just because.
Beach Slang-A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings
Even though Beach Slang dropped their debut album last year, this second release avoids the “sophomore slump” by being energized and catchy as hell from start to finish. The power behind the opening track “Future Mixtape For The Art Kids” alone should make you an instant fan. However the band keeps your attention by powering through intense songs like the immensely catchy and hook heavy “Spin The Dial,” or on the even snappier “Punks In A Disco Bar.” The truth is that by emulating a mix of late eighties new wave punk and early nineties indie rock, Beach Slang could drop an album like this next year as well, especially if it’s as solid as this is.
Kemo For Emo, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
Kemo For Emo-A Picture Perfect Romance
I should start by saying that the older I get, the less and less of a pop punk guy I become. I guess it’s because what we associate with pop punk typically feels dated and out of touch with most of the music world today. However, when I first listened to Houston’s Kemo For Emo over a decade ago, it felt like they were making quality pop punk that was behind in popularity but better than the majority of what else was out there. On their return album, A Picture Perfect Romance, they end up beating the pioneers of the genre at their own game. The album is better than pretty much all of the latter year NoFX albums, and does Green Day even qualify as pop punk anymore, or are they adult contemporary? Standout tracks are “The Straightline,” “Heartfelt Hypocrisy,” and “Last Straw” where the band mixes pop punk and straight punk to create one of the most solid pop punk releases you can ever hear.
Bat For Lashes-The Bride
I can’t understand how Bat For Lashes isn’t every music critic’s favorite current artist. With the mysticism of Kate Bush and the artful craft of Bjork, The Bride just adds to the immaculate and stunning world of her sound. The dark overtones and heavy synths of “In God’s House” alone will stick to your ribs as she echoes a haunting vocal atop the track. The album, intended as a conceptual piece leaves the storyboards on the floor while she finds the space between torch songs and ambitious pop. The cinematic quality of “Close Encounters,” the orchestration of “If I Knew,” and the subtle sounds of “I Will Love Again” will all make you rethink what songs of pain should sound like.
Kay Weathers, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
Kay Weathers-Songs For Lucy
Is it fair to mention that I was intrigued by this album from the start, where one person basically created a world for herself that she allows listeners in to for just five tracks? The dissonant style of “Bored Games,” the sultry and sexy vocals of “Burnout,” and the lo-fi aesthetic of “Lucy” make this one of the better standouts of the calendar year. In fact, it always sounds good no matter when you place it on. With a vocal ability that sticks out like an amazing element that usually doesn’t find a place in music today, the follow-up to this EP is definitely welcomed, as well as one I can’t wait to put in my ears.
Five More Good Albums (In No Particular Order)
American Football, Photo: United Talent Agency/Shervin Lainez
Not a rehash, but a return, this reunited album made the best reunion album I’ve heard in years without remaking their last and debut release. Songs of note, “Where Are We Now,” “Born To Lose,” and “Desire Gets In The Way.”
Josiah Gabriel-EP $
If you’ve ever seen this guy perform around town, then you know how bonkers one of his sets can be. Crazed beats, twisted and modulated synths, and catchy sounds are all over these four songs making you yearn for the full length. Songs of note are “Breckon,” “Too Good,” and “Timing.”
Hinds-Leave Me Alone
There’s something pretty amazing about how these Spanish females mixed bedroom pop and garage rock like it was second nature. There are moments where it feels like a more feminine version of what The Strokes were when they began, as the pop hooks stick inside you and won’t let go while the unaffected vocals have a mix of sincerity and carelessness that sounds very freeing. Notable tracks are “Garden,” “Chilli Town,” and “Walking Home.”
Catch Fever, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
Catch Fever-You Have All You Need
Pop rock used to be a guitar, drum, and bassist game. Nowadays it’s not a rarity that electronics find their way into a band’s make up. However when these guys when from a three piece to a two piece, they just stepped up, swapped instruments, and one took on drums and electronics at the same time. The opener “Lost Love” is a real pop jam while the slow burner “I Should Have” stays with you after one listen, and places the band’s sound on a new shelf that makes you curious for what comes next.
The power behind the off kilter indie rock meets emo that The Hotelier brings to the table cannot be overshadowed. The opening of “Goodness, Pt. 2” goes about two minutes with just drums and vocals, and when the guitar kicks, it pays off. The following song, “Piano Player” reminds you of all the things you loved about early Superchunk and latter day Promise Ring. No, The Hotelier won’t make albums for everyone, but this “swing at the fences” release makes them that much more endearing, and this release is a nice Sunday afternoon chill with strong rockers thrown in.
Mixtape of The Year
Chance The Rapper-Coloring Book
Because Chance insists on calling his releases mixtapes, he’s here instead of the regular album list. Whether it’s a mixtape or not doesn’t really matter, as from start to finish Chance proves why he’s too good to get stuck in the major label world. Bangers like “No Problem (feat. Lil Wayne & 2 Chainz),” and “Smoke Break (feat. Future),” alongside just reinvented jams like “All We Got (feat. Kanye West & Chicago Children’s Choir)” are just a couple of examples of a rapper who can’t be stopped. Maybe one day he’ll stop calling these albums mixtapes, but do you really care about the label? No matter what it’s known as, the word fire comes to mind at first listen.
Four Best Mixtapes of 2023 (In No Particular Order)
Guilla, Photo: Courtesy of Artist/Facebook
Guilla-Rap, Trap & Drums Vol,II
After dropping a concept album and having to sit on a project that might not ever see the light of day, the Houston rapper when into the studio upset and came out with a release that’s almost like a “revenge” album. Tracks of note are the opener “Glow On,” the anthemic “Step Back,” and the strangely electronic sounding “NO NO NO.” Rumor has it that there’s something coming sooner than later from Guilla meaning that if that occurs, he’ll have dropped three albums in less than a year. Whatever happens, this mixtape is a nice holdover where the rapper returns to his more abrasive side.
Young Thug-I’m Up
While Thug would release a full length later this year, there are some tracks on this mixtape that make you wonder how they ended up on this release. The flow that Thug employs here that are stronger than those on his albums. Certifiable jams like “F Cancer (Boosie)[feat. Quavo],” and “For My People (feat. Duke)” elevate the rapper to a new place where “Hercules” would’ve been tight to hear anywhere other than buried on a mixtape.
Royce da 5’9”-Trust The Shooter
Detroit’s Royce really dropped a collective of songs that you could sink your teeth into. I don’t even do drugs and all I could think after hearing “Mind Right” was that I needed to “smoke some fuckin dope and try to get my mind right” as per what Kid Vishis repeat throughout the track. Songs of note are “Which Is Cool,” where Royce spits disapproval and “Tabernacle” where the gospel is just sick mic skills. The heavy handed “The Banjo” goes hard, “Dead Presidents” is hard to forget, and “Universe” is a different track all entirely. Royce da 5’9” outdid himself here, and makes you wish for this kind of creativity from him on everything he does.
While it’s really time for Houston’s Raymond A to drop an album, this mixtape will be a nice hold over until that full length comes out. Tracks like “Panda,” and “All the Way up” showcase Ray’s strengths on a mic where “Dark Sky (feat. DJ Baby Roo)” lets you hear how strong the two of them are together.
Best Live Music Venue
Walters, Photo: Cruz Stuart
For the second year in a row, the most eclectic bookings and incredible sound of Walters took the prize for best music venue. While I liked the heart behind other spots, and the cleanliness of White Oak Music Hall; it was the quality mix of shows that Walters had on their calendar that really made it for me. The best shows I saw this year were at the venue, and with a staff that sees music first, hopefully that won’t change. Shows of note were definitely Ceremony, Diat, and recently DJ Earl from Teklife.
Best New Venue
The Secret Group
The team behind this comedy club that has music waited over a year to get open, but the shows and nights have been happening pretty frequently since. Since opening they’ve hosted a ton of touring comics as well as touring bands, they’ve already had a comedy festival, and they have a pretty stacked calendar of just whatever nights as well. Click above, see what they’re about, and go see a show. Because with a calendar this strong, they should be open for a good while.
Biggest Disappointment Albums of 2023
Boy, when they dropped the lead single “Hardwired” I was so hopeful that Metallica was going to relive the days of my youth where Master of Puppets and Kill Em All would make their return. However, that lead song was about as solid as the band could muster as they offered up another stinker. The only other half decent track is “Moth Into Flame” and it’s barely redeemable. Maybe the rest of the album is just the never-ending reminder that the band has changed for the worse, and probably far from returning to their former glory days.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis-This Unruly Mess I’ve Made
If an album where ever truth in advertising as its title, this sloppy and haphazard release is a great example of just that. Messy and all over the map, there are dumb lyrics all over the record that feels like two rich white kids who only know privilege complaining about the successes they’ve had. #Vomit
Violent Femmes- We Can Do Anything
Well Violent Femmes, you can do anything except make a good record again. I mean, it sounds like the Femmes, it has all of the elements, and then the boring and often trite lyrics just make you wish for some sort of emotion. Instead you just go dust off another of their earlier albums and try to forget that they made this record.
I feel sorry for anyone who has to fill the shoes of a former singer in a popular band. However, the singing isn’t the problem, in fact it’s the highlight of this album that feels dated and out of touch. I mean, maybe they could’ve just copped one of their more popular albums, but instead they decided to soldier on with an update of sorts for that last stinker, Neighborhoods. There’s a song called “Bored To Death,” which was how I felt halfway through just one listen.
Fitz and The Tantrums-Fitz and The Tantrums
Okay, can we stop calling this band decent, please? I’ve never gotten the allure honestly, but this album is utter shit. Like the most formulaic and soulless “neo soul” album you can ever hear. Bands that suck this bad are what’s wrong with the music industry making me think that their music is as manufactured, bought, and paid for as it sounds.
Best Local Music Video
Deep Cuts, Photo: Anthony Flores
Deep Cuts-While The House Fills Up
Complete with silly headsets and an appearance from a Motorola flip phone, the guys from Deep Cuts ice skated onto the screen while utilizing some of the cheesiest video effects used all year. Dressed in turtlenecks and suit coats, if the band was aiming for that “edited with 1991 technology” look, then mission accomplished. The best parts of the hilarious video are the moments of some of the members crying.
Worst Live Music Venue
Axelrad Beer Garden
There are redeeming qualities to the shows at Axelrad like the fact that it’s being booked by good people. It’s also a pretty easy to get to location and the staff is definitely kind and helpful and the bands get paid a respectable amount. But, the biggest downfall of seeing a show here are the patrons in attendance, but this isn’t on them. Let’s make this clear, Houston is not Austin, and that’s a wonderful thing. Fifteen years ago someone started this ridiculous trend of placing live music in spaces where the patrons weren’t there for the music and that’s what’s happening here. Do you really want to overhear two thousand loud conversations happening at the same time while a band attempts to wrestle to a loud enough level where you can actually hear them? No thanks. Live music is supposed to be a wonderful experience, not a commodity. I’m pretty sure that in a spot where you can’t hear the bands from the bar’s exit into the beer garden; it doesn’t feel like a positive experience at all. And that’s before we attempt to tackle the parking issue in an area that should have plenty of parking, or the insane fact that in a place that’s big enough to play football inside of, there is only one bathroom. Side note to the owners if they read this, when you knock down that house next door, make it a parking garage and add like three bathrooms, please.
Worst Thing I Saw All Year
The talking that never seems to end, the keeping a flash on when you snap a pic with your phone, the random acts of violence towards venues; enough already. Some of you shouldn’t attend shows if you can’t behave. Maybe it was watching people throw trash on Kanye’s floating stage, or putting graffiti on any surface it can be placed that set me off. Maybe it was the fact that now when I go see a show, there are things that I don’t even get upset about like I did two or three years ago. But whether it was a Houstonian who vandalized some of the art at Day For Night or not, it wouldn’t shock me to find out that it was. Side note, the way you behave is why so many acts don’t like coming here, trust me-I hear it all the time.
Best Live Show
Ceremony at Walters
The guys from Ceremony came out and started strong with “Sick” from 2023’s Rohnert Park with the same crazed intensity that they used when they played it live six years ago. Carefully mixing in tracks from their last non hardcore release The L-Shaped Man with older hardcore tracks, the band walked a fine line between their former selves and their new direction. They played like it was their last show ever with plenty of energy and fan interaction, and honestly you can’t ask for more than that as a concert attendee.
Best Festival Set
LIMB (Day For Night Performance), Photo: Ismael Quintanilla
LIMB at Day For Night
I was unbelievably delighted that Aphex Twin was anchored by those behind Day For Night for their second year. And while Squarepusher, SOPHIE, and Liars all dropped incredible sets at the festival, it was the energy and emotion behind the LIMB Octa set that I was most impressed with. The eight speaker surround sound experience with synchronized lighting designed by Eric Todd, Daniel Schaeffer, and James Templeton would have been enough for many people; but placing a live performance inside of the exhibit is what made it pop. Surrounded by a room full of people, LIMB ran through an hour of compositions where he danced and interacted with those around him like he was performing for his freedom. There were moments during the set, where the varying sound and use of darkness and light made things feel more elemental, thus making it one of the best sets I saw all year.
Best New Thing in Houston
End Hip End It Festival
While I really hated the name of this festival, these guys went the opposite direction of everyone else and had a festival in Old Town Spring. Filled with psych rock and metal, performances from a ton of locals alongside Golden Dawn Arkestra, Radio Moscow, Black Tusk, and Christian Bland & the Revelators showed that even some guys you don’t know can bring something amazing together. Things ran smoothly, the staging and sound were on point, and if attendance were better, this would’ve been one of those fests that everyone speaks about for years to come.
Best Festival Lineup
Squarepusher, Photo: Julian Bajsel
Day For Night
Do we have to examine a festival that had Aphex Twin back in Texas for the first time in almost twenty years, with performances from SOPHIE, Liars, Arca, Squarepusher, and Butthole Surfers? The intense art, the acts that had never played Houston as well as the acts that are big names until you place them next to acts that rarely visit our city; it was all amazing and the lineup alone blew me away,
Best Large Scale Concert
Kanye West at Toyota Center
Tethered to a floating stage that hovered above the floor crowd at Toyota Center, Ye mixed hits from this year’s The Life of Pablo with your favorites from Yeezus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and more. I’ll say it again, a floating stage. You’d think that one man, lowly lit by himself on a stage wouldn’t be worth witnessing, but you’d be wrong.
Best Live Show You Didn’t See
A Giant Dog, Photo: Daniel Jackson
A Giant Dog at Satellite Bar
I wasn’t expecting this show to be so packed that I couldn’t move, but I wasn’t expecting it to be less than fifty people on hand. For those who are unaware, Austin’s A Giant Dog has made quite the name for being one of the best live bands going, and on this evening they didn’t disappoint. Stripping ensued, gyrating moves and borderline acrobatics were displayed in all of their glory, and the band tore through their latest album, this year’s Pile like a scolding knife to butter. It was a sweaty night and the band’s theatrics just made it that much hotter, making it a show I wished I’d seen more people attend. And just think, if you read band bios, you’d have known that members of the popular group Sweet Spirit are in this band.
Best Show on a Bad Night
Kevin Devine at White Oak Music Hall (November 8)
I doubt that there were any Trump supporters at Devine’s upstairs show that evening. I mean, the guy’s pretty left wing and it’s my experience that most right wingers adore music that’s not the kind that Devine makes. But, with tensions mounting as to who would win the election, yet with the fullest sound I’ve heard in that room since it opened, the Brooklyn based singer soldiered through a set containing a slew of fan favorites both old and new. While tracks from his previous two releases sounded on point, it was the new tracks from his recently released Instigator that sparkled and shined on a night that many people would echo over for a long time to follow. There were moments where Devine explained that the tour was booked before he considered the night’s importance, and while he addressed the crowd more like close family than patrons, he made the best out of a bad situation thus cementing it as the best thing that occurred that night.
Best New Eats
It should be noted that I don’t eat out a whole bunch, but after a member of Buxton raved about this place, I swung by to pick up a pie, and I must say that I’m impressed. The bread of the crust is different, but not in a way that’s distracting. Like any good pizza spot the ingredients are all very fresh, but unlike most pizza spots, they go at a pizza in a new way that isn’t obtrusive. The Prosciutto & Arugula pizza is pretty damn killer, if not only for the lemon vinaigrette drizzle. Because I’m a pizza snob, I was shocked that I liked Luna so much, and I’ve been back several times since.
So, when I went tagged along with a local promoter so he could eat, I was shocked at how stellar the three bites of Curry Fat Fries I had were. Two days later I went back and grabbed three baos of my own, a Memphis, a Big Byrd, and a Curry Beef and all three were pretty great. I actually went back the next day and grabbed a Panko Fish and a Spicy Thai, and they were on point as well. You don’t have to know what a bao is to enjoy this place as they have a way of mixing sauce with dough and ingredients in just the perfect way. Give it a shot, it’s all been good so far.
Best Food Truck
Boombox Taco, Photo: Senior Jukebox
For the second year I found myself munching on these tasty tacos more than normal, and the addition of pineapple to some of the tacos is definitely welcomed. When a corn tortilla is made correctly it can make you forget about flour, and when you make street tacos better than they are in Mexico, you have this truck. I even went to spots just to get tacos which I never do with a food truck. Oh yeah, these tacos aren’t expensive and after catching touring acts roll through Walters and chow down on them like they were made from spun gold, I think it’s safe to say that they’re tough to beat.
Wake The Zine
Sometimes Galveston can feel like it’s far away, but this zine does a great job of tying the island and Houston together in a way that makes you long for the gulf coast kissed air. The zine features Houston, Galveston, and touring acts with art, interviews, and show listings that make it feel bigger than it is. If you can’t get the FREE zine delivered the you can click their website here and read what they’re up to. Oh yeah, they also book shows at legit venues where there’s no BS, misogyny, or hate. When you hear that a killer indie band is playing down there, it’s a pretty good chance that Wake was who put on the show. Finally Galveston feels closer and is getting shows that aren’t the usual “who again?” or the “washed up and clinging to fame” acts that the island seemed to attract twenty years ago.
Tacos of Texas
It’s crazy that this book hadn’t existed before now, but with a team of people including Marco “Loves Tacos” Torres, the photos, the history, and the types of tacos inside are pretty damn mouth watering. As a guy with a fat kid living inside of him, I’ve eaten at the bulk of these spots and I’d be lying if I said that they weren’t dead on with each spot I’ve had. The Laredo section is so insanely spot on that I felt like he the authors had been with me when I ate there.
Best Poster Art
Eric Castorena Poster Art, Photo: Courtesy of Artist
Castorena doesn’t do a ton of posters anymore, but his poster for The Sour Notes and Dollie Barnes had Barnes’ dog on roller skates depicted so sweetly and accurate, that it was like watching the dog at Hayley’s feet. I wish poster art paid better, as Castorena did some others this year that I loved, but this one took the cake.
Julian Bajsel-Live Photography
When the photographers were stuck in the rafters at Toyota Center for Kanye West, it was Julian’s pics that I found the most intriguing. His crowd shots show emotion and his live shots show energy. Just like they should.
Daniel Jackson, Photo: Daniel Jackson
Daniel Jackson-Live and Portrait Photography
Jackson will go to a small scale or a large scale show and shoot the bands he likes, whether or not they’re popular or not. Aside from that the punk rock aesthetic of his portraits is pretty damn amazing. His playful eye brings out the best in most bands, and through his use of humor or reality, he shows a side to bands that you don’t normally see conveyed.
Marco Torres-Live Photography
I see Marco at a lot of the shows I attend, as it should be for a guy who shoots live music events. However, for a guy that’s shot for brands like Red Bull and Nike, Vice and Rolling Stone, it’s the events I don’t see him at where I find his truly beautiful work. The emotion and story in his live pics leap off of the pages, as you want from any photographer.
Marshall Forse Walker, Photo: Marshall Forse Walker
Marshall Forse Walker-Most Enthusiastic
Marshall is an interesting guy who’s been getting in on the best spots. His portrait work is inventive and his live shots are on point. However, it’s his enthusiastic nature that sets him apart from most photographers. While most photographers in Houston are nice and chill, it’s that Walker gets giddy about shooting in general, meaning watching him get excited about the subject is the biggest delight.
Houston Albums To Look Forward To in 2023
A Sundae Drive
Ancient Cat Society
B L A C K I E
The Wheel Workers
Best Retail Location
When I heard that Emily from Boo Town and Lindsay Beale were opening this shop, I guess I didn’t realize that it would become my go to gift stop. A carefully curated clothing and accessory collection for all made up of rarities and vintage finds, new art including shows to debut the world, and home goods all don the shop’s four walls. I mean, the fact that the belt buckles are so damn cool should be enough, but there’s also an in-house tailor in case you find the perfect digs but they’re just not suited to fit you. The selection changes frequently enough that it’s like a new shop on the weekly, and in all honesty, that’s what you want from any boutique shopping experience.
Best Record Shop
Deep End Records, Photo: Marshall Forse Walker
John Baldwin is working too much. Primary booker for Walter’s, booker around town including primarily for Satellite Bar, and drumming in the bands Rose Ette and LACE. The last thing he should do is curate a record shop, yet he and Chris Unclebach of Insomnia Video Game Culture placed a record shop in the front of a music venue, Walters. For starters, I’m pretty sure they have the lowest priced records in Houston. They have ultra rare albums in the regular bins, new and used records below everyone else’s prices, and an extensive local and touring cassette selection. Buttons that are hilarious, occasional toys and rarities from your childhood and non-sports trading cards as well as video cassettes and an impressive slew of local vinyls are all on hand. The walls are plastered with rare vinyls that are actually under priced and it’s like people who care more about you getting great music opened a shop, rather than someone trying to sell you on a culture away from the music. Finally.
All in all, 2023 was a year full of twists and turns coupled with excitement and beauty. While we lost some pioneers and innovators, we’ve also gained new artists to look forward to in the future. The world definitely changed in 2023, but there’s plenty of hope in what the future will bring as well.