1.) A couple of years ago, as I was interviewing Calhoun songwriters Tim Locke and Jordan Roberts, the discussion turned to The Orbans’ tremendous debut album, When We Were Wild. I don’t remember exactly how Locke put it, but he basically said that if The Orbans aren’t packing concert halls across the country and scaling the pop charts, there is absolutely no hope for any other North Texas rock band to ever break out. When the best of the best can’t catch a break, how can anyone else even begin to get noticed?
All I can say is that I’m glad that Orbans songwriters Peter Black (vocals, rhythm guitar) and Kenny Hollingsworth (lead guitar) believe the destination is the journey and all that jazz. Chances are that as mind-bendingly fantastic as the band’s sophomore album, Vedere, is –– and it is –– a big break isn’t around the bend. Feh. Children are dying of senseless violence every day, and no-talent dumbasses with more money than God walk among us. Life isn’t fair. The struggle –– the struggle! –– may have actually emboldened Black and Hollingsworth. After losing some bandmates and after Black obtained sole custody of his young son Aiden, simply finishing the album began to look insurmountable. But the guys powered through. And then some.
Recorded mostly with producer Chad Copelin (The Flaming Lips, Sufjan Stevens, Burning Hotels) at his Blackwatch Studios in Norman, Okla., Vedere represents The Orbans at their smartest, most progressive best. They’ve lost none of their catchiness. “Backlit Eye” is one of just a handful of delicious anthems with huge, juicy, Beatles-esque choruses. And even when The Orbans experiment a little –– “Bah Bah” is kissed by New Wave while “Before Its Time” and “Come to Let You Down” are propelled by Rubber Soul –– melodicism still reigns.
The performances and arrangements are also stellar. Black’s supple, slightly nasally voice has never sounded better, the rhythms are anything but four-on-the-floor boring, and Hollingsworth’s vocabulary has expanded to encompass Eastern-flavored harmonics in addition to his signature twang, crunch, and bite. Vedere may be the sound of one hand clapping, but it resonates deeply.
2.) Pretty, gritty, sumptuous melody. That’s what Son of Stan is all about on Georgia. Hailing from that mythical place in the pop canon where Donald Fagen, the Alan Parsons Project, and Frank Stallone overlap, the vehicle for singer-songwriter Jordan Richardson delivers bouncing rhythms and riffs beneath sprawling, giddily melancholic vocal lines (and lyrics). More than Divorce Pop, his 2013 debut recording, Georgia perfectly manifests Richardson’s inspiration, the ennui specific to acres of identical McMansions, lazy days spent driving economy cars aimlessly around tree-lined streets, and dreaming of someplace –– anyplace –– else. Who needs American Beauty or The Virgin Suicides when you’ve got Georgia.
3.) Live at the Kessler is the last recording by Ronald Shannon Jackson, the pioneering Fort Worth drummer/composer who died last year at the age of 73. And it’s a proper sendoff for this international legend. The Decoding Society, the group on this 2012 performance at the titular Dallas venue, is a version of the group that Jackson founded in 1979. That was not long after he relocated to New York City and collaborated with Herbie Hancock, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman (who, along with Jackson and fellow future greats King Curtis, Julius Hemphill, and Dewey Redman, also attended I.M. Terrell High School). Jackson, bassist Melvin Gibbs, violinist Leonard Hayward, guitarist Greg Prickett, and trumpeter John Weir make for a riotous mini-orchestra –– understand that Jackson’s compositions are as much classical (and pop) as they are jazz. Most of them consist mainly of simple yet effective melodies occasioned by jazz-based solos. Engineered by Paul Quigg and co-produced by Curtis Heath and Britt Robisheaux, Live at the Kessler, Jackson’s first official recording since 2000, is highly recommended for fans of, well, just plain ol’ good music.
4.) Jordan Richardson is more than just Son of Stan. He’s also a Grammy-winning drummer (2013 for Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite’s Get Up!) and an in-demand producer. Working out of Barry Eaton’s studio in Justin, Richardson (Oil Boom, The Longshots, Skeleton Coast) deserves some props for Creative Differences. Even if the songs sucked, Bummer Vacation’s debut album would still be groundbreaking. Somehow frontman Paul Hernandez, guitarist/vocalist Ryan Torres-Reyes, bassist Tyler Moore, and drummer Ricky Williford manage to conjure up the ghosts of Joy Division, The Smiths, and The Cure without ripping them off completely and without any digitization. And not only do the songs not suck, they’re neatly structured, superbly performed, and hyper-melodic. In other words, they’re incredible. Based mostly on barreling beats and loud, echoing, chiming riffs of singly plucked notes, every track is densely layered organically, which really punches up the meaty melodies and overall catchiness.
5.) Are Bitch Bricks the best band in town? No one can say for sure, but frontwoman Schuyler Stapleton, drummer Alena Springer, and bassist Jennifer Rux make a compelling argument with their debut recording. To the unsuspecting listener, The I’s of Man could have come out in 1967. Ear-splittingly loud, clanging, angry, and sounding as if it had been recorded over a payphone, the album is a masterstroke of lo-fi brilliance. Produced by Rux at Dreamy Soundz, the studio she runs with her husband, Robby Rux, the album is 11 tracks as ragged and raw as they are enticingly structured, arranged, and melodically hued. Stapleton’s voice is amazing. Going from aching to seductive to downright scary, sometimes all within the same song, her instrument rides ringing, jiving basslines, skipping or stomping beats, and steely, reverberating, jangling guitars. “Stop Smiling in My Direction” embodies glorious punk simplicity while “Mermaiderator/ADD DDR” is ominous but downright danceable. Best song title: “Flippin’ Burgers and Bitches.” Whatever that means. It’s cheeky. And awesome.
6.) Formerly the brain trust behind the twang-rocking Will Callers, co-songwriters Jacob Murphy and Daniel Slatton have gone in a new, waaay more psychedelic direction. Maybe they discovered acid. Their new project, Natural Anthem, is so good you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve been mining The 13th Floor Elevators, CCR, and The Beatles for material for decades. Natural Anthem’s debut recording, the EP Thread, is spellbinding. The first single, “Paranoid,” is a mythical mashup of The Grateful Dead backing pre-Yoko John, consisting mainly of softly strummed acoustic guitar, quietly splashing drums, and, overhead, Murphy’s strung-out-seeming voice. Murphy and Slatton, indeed, have no compunction about advertising their love of all things Fab Four. “Sicker” lurches and trips over the White Album and Sgt. Pepper, and the slightly deranged, definitely warped title track could have been an overalls-era George Harrison hit. As great as The Will Callers were, boy, Natural Anthem couldn’t be more welcome.
7.) Another Jordan Richardson production, The Longshots’ self-titled debut album is an insta-classic. Released on Mock Records, part of the Frenchkiss Label Group (founded by Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas), this collection of nine blistering rockaroll tracks is the sound of young turks who love pure punk but who love beer and chicks more. Lots of crashing cymbals, ringing guitars, and gravelly vocals. And it’s all tight as hell. Quality Stones-influenced rock right here.
8.) Duell does desert rock just about as good as anyone else on the planet. The genre, a mix of metal with grunge and pop, everything seemingly recorded with one mic in a tin can, also relies on a vibe of merciless isolation. And the Fort Worth/Dallas quartet’s debut album is about as soul-destroying as Shakespeare in a bitter mood or any Lars von Trier movie. But in its superb musicianship and songwriting, Back to Drunk is also invigorating. Led by frontman Belvedere, the band blends thunderous grooves and creative bone-crunching riffs with sumptuous vocal phrasings.
9.) This year, The Voice semifinalist Luke Wade also put out one of the finest slabs of soulful rock ’n’ roll ever to come from North Texas. Sure, Wade is a hot commodity now, but we’ve been singing his praises for years, and for good reason. He’s got a great set of pipes that he doesn’t overuse, and he really knows how to inhabit his lyrics. The River is top-notch from front to back, though my favorite tune, the Bruce Hornsby-like “Eyes on the Horizon,” is ready for radio yesterday. What’s up, America? Get on this.
10.) On his debut album, Who Is Lou?, Lou Charle$ offers the best of all worlds. Drawing from just about every era of hip-hop, the young TCU grad sounds as much at home with gangsta flavor as he is with mellifluous pop.
11.) Owner of the No. 1 spot in my 14 favorite songs of ’14, JJ & The Rogues’ sophomore effort, Sweet Talker, is a righteous pianistic rocker. The first track, “Jacobite,” as I wrote in March, sounds “as if Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Steely Dan have converged, naked, on a coke-strewn recording console.” Sweet, funky keyboards and sweet, slick, swanky guitar solos, unite! The rest of the album, while not as porn-inducing, is equally superlative.
12.) Simply gorgeous. And it’s not, like, Mozart or anything. It’s just rock ’n’ roll. Precisely arranged, expertly played, deliriously melodic rock ’n’ roll. Cleanup’s sophomore recording, the album Sun Life, is loaded with bubbly but not wonky fretwork –– lots of accessible tapping and pulling –– and locomotive rhythms wed to uplifting vocal harmonies.
13.) Hex Hex Hex is some haunting, malevolent shit. Recorded with the Ruxes at Dreamy Soundz, The Fibs’ debut album churns and grinds like Satan’s giant fangs on the limbs of The Fillmore West’s dancing ghosts. Think: Jefferson Airplane fronted by Arthur Brown or Hawkwind backing Nico. Brilliant, darkly.
Honorable mention: Blank-Men’s Fact or Fiction?, The County Lines’ Cool Fort, and Frequencies, Vol. 5, the Fort Worth Weekly’s annual charity compilation of select Music Awards nominees’ music recorded live. (Oh, sue me.)