Forget your Spotify Wrapped and its (obviously, definitely) erroneous insistence that you listened to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” 223 times. It can’t be, shouldn’t be right, because this year was full of songs by Texas artists from across the state, and across genres, that we all had stuck on repeat. There were major releases from Dallas-raised pop stars Demi Lovato, who humbled us with their radical honesty about struggles with addiction (Lovato is nonbinary and uses the pronouns “they” and “their”), and Selena Gomez, who stepped outside of her comfort zone to release her first Spanish-language EP. In country music, Golden’s Kacey Musgraves pushed the boundaries of the genre with her post-breakup album Star-Crossed, while Arlington’s Mickey Guyton wowed with a bold and honest debut album that placed her Blackness front and center. And just a few months before she returned to Houston to walk the stage as a college graduate, Megan Thee Stallion showed off the freestyle talent that made her famous and paid homage to her hometown on Something for Thee Hotties. Here are twelve songs from Texas stars who shone bright this year.
“Camera Roll” — Kacey Musgraves
As Musgraves has continued to experiment with her sound, drifting further away from her country roots and sparking controversy in the process, songs like “Camera Roll” show she still has the storytelling chops that made her a country star in the first place. With her tender delivery, Musgraves sings, over a mournful waltz, about scrolling through old photos of her and her ex. The pared-down acoustic track stands out against much of the psychedelic, disco, and electronic instrumentations featured on the rest of Star-Crossed, but amid an album centered on her divorce, this song is a simple, beautiful reminiscence on heartbreak.
“Details” — Leon Bridges
Bridges hasn’t abandoned the nostalgic soul and R&B sounds that made him famous, but his 2021 release, Gold-Diggers Sound, proved that he’s constantly evolving. Over a nineties R&B-tinged track, Bridges pleads with the person he loves on the intoxicating “Details,” asking her to realize that no one sees her the way he does. Accented by saxophone and horns, the track floats along on an infectious groove that goes down just as smoothly as Bridges’s voice.
“Black Like Me” — Mickey Guyton
For over a decade, Guyton tried to fit herself into the predominately white world of country music, altering everything from the way she dressed to the lyrics she wrote. On Remember Her Name, Guyton finally set herself free from those pressures and centered her music on her identity, and it paid off. Though it features some fun country-pop moments, much of the album is a powerful testimony of her experiences as a Black woman in the South. On the album’s standout track, “Black Like Me,” Guyton sings with power and pride about what she knows best: her own story.
“Megan’s Piano” — Megan Thee Stallion
After yet another banner year, Megan Thee Stallion returned to her roots, releasing Something for Thee Hotties—a compilation album of the freestyles, archival material, and unreleased songs that show off the skills that first gained her acclaim. In “Megan’s Piano,” Meg puts her foot on the gas over a relatively sparse Lil Ju piano-driven beat and never lets up. The undeniably catchy track features the rapper in all her glory, finishing off the song with a burn: “Beefin’? You just mad we ain’t speakin’ / And I’m the one that put the roof where you sleepin’ / Phony, I don’t need no new homies / I’m the reason all my opps ain’t homeless.”
“In His Arms” — Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram, Jon Randall
It’s hard to overemphasize the beautiful simplicity of The Marfa Tapes’ opener, “In His Arms.” Recorded in Marfa after the pandemic halted touring and live performances, Lambert and her fellow Texan collaborators Ingram and Randall decided to get away from all the bells and whistles of the traditional album recording process. The resulting songs are unpretentious and inviting, with “In His Arms” in particular highlighting the emotion in Lambert’s voice and the delicate harmonies between her and Ingram. You can almost hear the campfire crackling as she sings mournfully about her lost love.
“Buscando Amor” — Selena Gomez
After years of pleas from fans and a decade after she originally promised it, Selena Gomez finally released her Spanish-language EP, Revelación. The reggaeton and R&B-infused tracks perfectly complement Gomez’s sultry vocals. On “Buscando Amor,” she sings about letting down her guard and losing herself to the rhythm. Gomez isn’t a fluent Spanish speaker, and she worked on her pronunciation with a vocal coach during the pandemic. Judging by the easy confidence she exudes on “Buscando Amor,” her work paid off.
“The Melting of the Sun” — St. Vincent
With Daddy’s Home, St. Vincent once again reinvented herself, introducing her listeners to a new persona that’s straight out of the grimy, angst-filled world of seventies rock. On “The Melting of the Sun,” the singer makes references to Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, and Marilyn Monroe as she sings about watching the world burn down around her.
“The Way You Don’t Look at Me” — Demi Lovato
Lovato is known for their impressive belting, but on an album that centers around one of the most difficult periods of the singer’s life, “The Way You Don’t Look at Me” stands out for its understated vulnerability. Released three years after Lovato’s hospitalization in 2018, the acoustic guitar–driven song references their overdose while also touching on their struggles with body image and eating disorders. Over the song’s simple instrumentation, Lovato’s emotion comes through as they sing “I’m so scared if I undress that you won’t love me after.”
“People Watching” — Conan Gray
Though the Georgetown-raised singer-songwriter released his debut album, Kid Krow, just as the world was shutting down in 2020, the pandemic didn’t slow him down. He earned two platinum singles that year, and kept busy in 2021, releasing four new singles to tease his yet-to-be-named sophomore album. Known for his introspective songwriting, Gray often touches on themes of unrequited love. On “People Watching,” he turns the simple act into a yearning meditation with a soaring chorus as he reflects on what it’s like to be surrounded by love but not have it.
“Close to You” — Dayglow
Following up on the release of his 2018 debut album, bedroom pop artist Sloan Struble (known as Dayglow) hit his stride with Harmony House—a soft-rock-inspired album that leans into the artist’s fondness for retro soundscapes. The album’s lead single, “Close to You,” is an earworm of a track featuring a danceable synth beat straight out of the eighties. In an interview with Texas Monthly, the Fort Worth native described listening to Doobie Brothers and yacht rock during the making of the album, describing the resulting sound as something you might find “if you were digging through your dad’s records.”
“Picket Fence” — Summer Dean
You wouldn’t know it by listening to her, but Dean is relatively new to this whole country thing. On her debut album, Bad Romantic, the schoolteacher turned singer sounds like a seasoned country vet, expertly delivering Texas twang–filled songs over pedal steel guitars. The album’s first track, “Picket Fence,” sounds like a twenty-first-century version of Loretta Lynn’s “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl,” in both style and substance. Dean shows her talent for off clever lyrics as she declares herself less than interested in playing housewife: “I don’t want to kiss the frog and meet my prince . . . I just wanna sing along to these old country songs and kick down that picket fence.”