It was shaping up to be a great year for Texas music.
Then suddenly it wasn’t.
The pandemic took away Lone Star legends like Trini Lopez, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver and Charley Pride. It shuttered clubs. It canceled tours. It made gaining any semblance of career momentum impossible.
But it couldn’t stop artists from making their voices heard. Many protested racial and social injustice in marches and on social media, others raised money for charities by participating in living room livestreams. And it couldn’t stop their new music from reaching us, and giving us comfort, inspiration and hope.
These are my 10 favorite albums by Texas-born or -based artists of 2020:
1. Mordechai by Khruangbin
Who they are: An otherworldly psychedelic-funk trio that bypasses formal studios in favor of recording live in a Burton, TX barn
Why they made the list: On the heels of a 2020 EP with Leon Bridges called Texas Sun, guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee Ochoa and drummer DJ Johnson expand beyond instrumentals on their third album by adding vocals. Sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, often in different languages, the voices are most affecting when they are hovering under the soulful grooves and lingering like hushed mantras. There was no song more hauntingly beautiful this year than “So We Won’t Forget.”
Add these to your playlist: “So We Won’t Forget,” “Connaissais de Face,” “First Class”
2. Spinnin’ by Bastards of Soul
Who they are: An all-star live tour-de-force featuring singer Chadwick Murray, guitarist Chris Holt, keyboardist Chad Stockslager, bassist Danny Balis, and drummer Matt Trimble that started out four years ago as a cover-band side project and has blossomed into a collective of modern-day soul music saviors
Why they made the list: Their terrific debut album, featuring 10 originals recorded live to analog tape in the studio, channels the gospel-drenched soul of Memphis and Muscle Shoals with a reverence that feels familiar without sounding derivative. Murray’s voice exudes an admirable balance of force and finesse as he pledges his love, preaches perseverance, and exorcises heartache.
Add these to your playlist: “If These Walls Could Talk,” “There Will Be No Show,” “The Waiting Time”
3. Rosewood by Mike Dillon
Hometown: San Antonio
Who he his: Dynamic vibraphone virtuoso who is a veteran of such North Texas bands as Ten Hands and Billy Goat – he’s also Ani DiFranco and Rickie Lee Jones’ go-to percussionist
Why he made the list: Wielding an arsenal of drum and mallet instruments, Kansas City-based Dillion created one of the coolest-sounding albums of the year. His instrumental compositions veer into jazz improvisation and avant garde exploration – but they always emphasize the gorgeous melodies. The glistening flurry of the vibraphone is the perfect vehicle for his covers of Nine Inch Nails and Elliott Smith, where he unearths the tenderness beneath the torment.
Add these to your playlist: “Hurt,” “Beignet’s Bounce, “St. Claude’s Drone”
4. Night Glitter by Night Glitter
Who they are: Trippy synth-pop act featuring guitarist-bassist John Michael Schoepf and LouLou Ghelichkhani, the Paris-raised vocalist for electronic duo Thievery Corporation who moved to Austin in 2013
Why they made the list: On Night Glitter’s sparkling debut album, Ghelichkhani’s reverb-soaked vocals bob and weave through hazy mid-tempo tracks marked by vintage synthesizers and drum machines. It doesn’t sound like ‘80s new wave so much as lo-fi ‘60s French pop, with a late-night vulnerability that comes across as entrancing as it is soothing.The dreaminess shifts into fierce focus on the sitar-spiked “Tunnels (Serpentine),” one of two tracks produced by Adrian Quesada of Black Pumas.
Add these to your playlist: “Transparency (La Transparence),” “Tunnels (Serpentine),” “Higher”
5. Coping Mechanisms by Tayla Parx
Who she is: In-demand songwriter who has co-penned hits for Janelle Monáe, Khalid, and Ariana Grande, including her Grammy-nominated smash “Thank U, Next”
Why she made the list: For her charming sophomore effort as a singer, Parx returns with playfully defiant pop songs that seamlessly swirl elements of R&B, disco, hip-hop and indie pop. Her maturing voice is remarkably poised as it zigzags octaves and navigates various states of post-breakup angst. There’s also a disarming sweetness to her flow that helps transform clunky words like “residue” and “fixerupper” into hooks and makes even her sarcastic songs sound poignant.
Add these to your playlist: “Fixerupper,” “Dance Alone,” “Sad”
6. Glad You Made It by Joshua Ray Walker
Who he is: The most moving singer and cleverest new songwriter in Texas country music
Why he made the list: Walker’s stellar second album picks up where 2019’s Wish You Were Here took off. His yodeling voice evokes last call at a honky tonk, while his lyrics are laced with subtle wordplay and concrete imagery that paint empathetic portraits of characters battling addiction, depression, and loneliness. While Walker has always sounded earnest, there’s a harder-rocking urgency to many of these tracks, no doubt the influence of his role as lead guitarist in twang-punk band Ottoman Turks.
Add these to your playlist: “Boat Show Girl,” “True Love,” “Voices”
7. Welcome to Hard Times by Charley Crockett
Hometown: San Benito, TX
Who he is: The prolific distant ancestor of Davy Crockett, a former busker who has released eight impressive country and blues albums in five years.
Why he made the list: Bouncing back from 2019 open heart surgery, the Austin-based singer-guitarist teams with producer Mark Neill (Black Keys, Anderson East) to employ fictional fates of Old West outlaws, betrayed lovers, and desperate gamblers to reflect on the harsh political and social realities of the present. “The dice are loaded and everything’s fixed/even a hobo would tell you this,” Crockett laments over deceptively chipper arrangements anchored by steel guitars and saloon pianos. The contrast between the smooth sound and foreboding lyrics makes Welcome to Hard Times unfold like lost countrypolitan classics that could have filled a jukebox on Twin Peaks.
Add these to your playlist: “Welcome to Hard Times,” “Heads You Win,” “The Poplar Tree”
8. Mercury Transit by The Taylor Young Band
Who they are: Jangle-pop quartet fronted by the guitar-strumming half of country-folk duo The O’s
Why they made the list: Young and producer-bandmate Toby Pipes of Deep Blue Something recorded and played most of the instruments at Pipes’ home studio in College Station. At times sounding like a twangy Teenage Fanclub, these 10 original songs embrace all the hallmarks of vintage ‘70s power pop, including soaring choruses, chiming guitars and hopeful romanticism. The results are not just irresistible – they’re timeless.
Add these to your playlist: “Get Around,” “Out of My Mind,” “Make You Wanna Stay”
9. Floor It!!! by The Texas Gentlemen
Hometown: Dallas/Fort Worth
Who they are: Chameleonic collective that began as the Lone Star State’s answer to The Wrecking Crew and has never met a singer they couldn’t back, or a genre they couldn’t master
Why they made the list: Since the departure of founder Beau Bedford, the Gentlemen have solidified as a quintet by stretching their rootsy sound to crash-land somewhere among the majestic pop of Nilsson, the country-soul of The Band and the horn-fueled funk of The J.B.’s – sometimes in the same song. As the title suggests, Floor It!!! resembles the soundtrack for a cross-country roadtrip with everyone in the car attempting to hijack the Bluetooth connection.
Add these to your playlist: “Bare Maximum,” “Train to Avesta,” “East St.”
10. Love in Motion by Jessi England
Hometown: Bronte TX
Who she is: Fort Worth-based Americana singer-songwriter whose bigger sound should lead to bigger things
Why she made the list: England had just wrapped up in the studio when the pandemic hit, leaving her without a full-time job and with nowhere to play. But she believed in these six full band performances so much that she spent her savings to finish this EP, which retains the passion of her acoustic country roots while surrounding her deep, soul-baring voice with the influences of the latter-day Cardigans and Full Moon Fever-era Tom Petty.
Add these to your playlist: “Love in Motion,” “Fever Dream,” “Break My Heart”
David Okamoto is a commentator for KERA-FM and Art & Seek whose work has previously appeared in Rolling Stone, Jazziz and The Dallas Morning News.