This article first appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article in its original format.
You’ve likely heard it a few times: “It was a weird year.” Many of us have been holed up for a large part of it, and in that time, music became a vehicle for getting out of our heads. Fortunately for us Texans, our musicians run the gamut, as shown in this list of notable works from 2020. We’re talking world-beating chart-toppers, to under-the-radar acts, to trustworthy legends in hip-hop, Tejano, country, indie, and folk—even masterminds of a sci-fi rock opera.
Whether living at home or abroad, adopted or native, Texas musicians have massive influence over the world of music. They’ve spread through all genres and garnered devoted followings. This year was no different. With that in mind, we set out to gather some notable music from Texans in 2020. The criteria for the list was fairly simple: they were born in Texas or firmly established in the state, and they’ve released an album this year. This list isn’t complete, but please, enjoy it completely.
Megan Thee Stallion
If any musical act put their stamp on the year it was Houston’s Megan Thee Stallion, who earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. The young rapper not only contributed to Cardi B’s “WAP,” considered by Rolling Stone and NPR to be the song of the year, but she also released her sparkling debut full-length to critical acclaim. Megan beams with unabashed braggadocio on Good News, delivering anime references on “Girls in the Hood” and lessons in self-confidence on “Circles.” Good News was great for 2020.
In 2020, The Chicks released their first new album in 14 years—under a new name. The band has, for the past two-plus decades, represented the best of Texans’ lone star personality with bona fide music to match. Gaslighter continues that reputation. The album, among the best-reviewed releases of the year, contains slick, overt production with intensely personal lyrics.
Anjimile is the musical project of Anjimile Chithambo, a Boston-based singer-songwriter who was raised in Richardson by first-generation immigrants from Malawi. This year, the musician released their debut record, Giver Taker, to much acclaim. The album is decisive in its grasp of melody, harmony, and chord progression. Songs like “Baby No More” and “Maker” jump from the speakers with the added benefit of being delightfully danceable.
While not a native Texan, Bill Callahan has been perched in Austin for the better part of two decades, where he continues making the brand of storytelling folk music that he started in the early ’90s under the nom de plume Smog. Gold Record finds Callahan at his best: slow, deliberate, and wry. “The Mackenzies” features a narrator joining a neighborhood family for dinner and a nap after his car breaks down—in front of his house. While that may sound straightforward, the song is enough to bring you to tears.
Welcome to Hard Times
After a spree of six records in five years, country singer Charley Crockett released two more in 2020. Field Recordings: Vol. 1 is a mixtape of sorts, with 30 stripped-down versions of country and bluegrass standards featuring Crockett’s arrangements. Welcome to Hard Times is a proper full-length full of lush production and Crockett’s wide-ranging tastes, from ’50s gunfighter ballads like “Blackjack County Chain,” to crooning, wistful, pedal-steel jaunts like “Tennessee Special.” Both records are worth your time.
Houston-born rapper Fat Tony released two records this year, Wake Up (with Los Angeles-based producer Taydex) in February and Exotica in October. Where Wake Up is a group effort, featuring collaborators on six different songs, Exotica feels like a plush couch, with Tony settling into jaunty, synth-laden tracks. Both albums are good, but offer far different listening experiences.
Filmmaker/producer Charlie Vela and scholar/musician Jonathan Leal, both RGV natives, describe Futuro Conjunto as “a transmedia project that imagines the South Texas borderlands in the distant future.” The duo’s self-titled debut album is a Latinx prog-rock opera whose massive scope features multiple fictional bands and spoken-word storytelling. Futuro Conjunto drifts effortlessly from Tejano trance, to cosmic hip-hop, to comedic interludes. If you only have time for a couple songs, let them be “HEATDEATH” or “La Madre de Las Estrellas.”
La Que Manda
Gina Chavez released her first all-Spanish language EP in 2020, the sprawling five-song La Que Manda. That earned the Austin musician a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Pop/Rock Album. From song to song, La Que Manda offers a different essence of Chavez, flexing beautiful songwriting and rich instrumentation.
Austin’s Jackie Venson spent much of 2020 reimagining her music, resulting in three new records. Venson says the first two, Jackie the Robot, Vol. 1 & 2, are a “journey into the electronic portion of [her] brain.” The third, Vintage Machine, falls somewhere between the electronic works and her previously guitar-forward music. The formula sings: Tracks like “Awake” and “Go My Way” display Venson’s use of guitar, voice, and effects to create perfect pop songs.
“We like stayin’ home/ We like runnin’ round/ Fix my hair and makeup/ When I go downtown.” The first verse on Jess Williamson’s new record, Sorceress, is as Texan as cowboy boots. The Flower Mound native decamped to Los Angeles in 2018, but maybe she had to leave Texas to make a great Texas record. Songs like “Winds on Tin” and “How Ya Lonesome” feel as comfortable in a Laurel Canyon living room as any slick-floored honky-tonk.
Joshua Ray Walker
Glad You Made It
In July, Rolling Stone published an article calling Dallas’ Joshua Ray Walker “country’s most fascinating young songwriter.” A day later, when Walker released his second album, everyone else was invited to the party. On Glad You Made It, Walker bares his soul on 10 tracks with songs about drinking, love, and pain. The whole record is strong, but “Voices” is a forlorn triumph and “Boat Show Girl” is just plain fun.
Khruanbgin, a trio out of Houston, has been creating trim, easygoing psychedelia for nearly a decade. This year they paired up with Fort Worth’s Leon Bridges for the Texas Sun EP and released a full-length, Mordechai. The latter is a continuation of the band’s steady dub drums and smooth, relaxed instrumentation. Standout songs include “Time (You and I)” and “Pelota.”
Couldn’t Wait to Tell You …
Liv.e’s music can be hard to pin down. The Dallas singer and experimental musician’s new album, Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, finds as much influence in India.Arie as it does Boards of Canada or Martin Denny. To her credit, Liv.e isn’t trying to sound like anyone but herself, and it shows. The songs on her new album meander through purring vocal tracks, samples, jazz, and electronic interludes. Numbers like “You the One Fish in the Sea” and “LazyEaterBetsOnHerLikeness” are top-shelf jams.
Lomelda’s fourth record, Hannah, takes musician Hannah Read’s brand of bedroom pop and continues to elevate it. Read now resides in Los Angeles, but she stays close to her roots, recording the eponymous album at her brother’s studio in her hometown of Silsbee. Standout songs include “Kisses” and “Hannah Sun.”
Introducing Martin Solis and Los Primos
It’s not every day you find an artifact that changes the landscape of Tejano music history. But that’s exactly what happened when Martin Solis’ son Frank discovered rare reel-to-reel recordings of his father’s home-recorded music. San Antonio-born Solis, a Tejano R.O.O.T.S. Hall of Fame member, is a musical pioneer who helped bring the genre to the Midwest after his family moved to Michigan in 1942, when he was 13. The lost recordings were released by Jack White’s Third Man Records as the 16-track album Introducing Martin Solis and Los Primos.
Unless you DM rapper Outlaw Mel directly on Twitter, you won’t be able to hear his new album. Don’t let that stop you; Dallas, Texxxas is one of the best hip-hop records released in Texas this year. It serves as a continuation of Mel’s work with The Outfit, Tx, his duo with Outlaw Jayhawk. The Oak Cliff native’s solo album feels like a cohesive one-stop shop for everything Mel loves: heavy production, methodical drawl, and Dallas, Texas.
World on the Ground
Sarah Jarosz wrote an album about small-town Texas from her home in New York City. Having grown up in Wimberley, she has plenty of material. On the Grammy-nominated World on the Ground, she crafts little dramas and personalities into a Hill Country version of Dubliners. “Johnny” shows her aptitude for storytelling and helped the album to receive critical praise.
Terry Allen and The Panhandle Mystery Band
Just Like Moby Dick
Although Terry Allen has lived in Santa Fe since the ’80s, the man will forever be a Texas legend for his norm-breaking country albums from the ’70s: Juarez and Lubbock (on everything). If Allen did nothing else, he would have done enough. But as evidenced by his 2020 record, Just Like Moby Dick, he still has more to say. Playing alongside his Panhandle Mystery Band, Allen sings of pirates, vampires, and catastrophes with the kind of poetic sarcasm you’d hear someone rattle off on a creaky porch.
The Texas Gentlemen
Floor It!!! is the second album from Dallas’ The Texas Gentlemen. Like latter-day scholars of the Grateful Dead and The Band, the Texas Gents craft lengthy, mellow jams tailor-made for sinking into the sofa. “Ain’t Nothin’ New” and “Easy St.” stand out on the 13-song album.
Will Johnson’s career is partly defined by the frequency of his output, from releases with his bands South San Gabriel and Centro-matic, to nine albums under his own name (some with various collaborators). Another part of Johnson’s career is defined by the weight of his music. His newest release, El Capitan, feels like a slowing down for Johnson, who made his early career in the Denton music scene, though he now lives in Austin. “El Capitan” and “Teruel” are two remarkable tracks—intentional folk songs on an album full of them.
First Rose of Spring
No Texas list is complete without Willie Nelson. Herein we’ve grouped Willie and his son Lukas together because both released albums in 2020. The senior Nelson put out First Rose of Spring, a sparse, stark album—his 70th studio release. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real hatched Naked Garden, upbeat fare with country-rock flair.