It goes without saying that Texans are hardly immune to the pull of nostalgia. We all remember the Alamo, even though no one reading these words was actually there to face down Santa Anna. That affection for the past is particularly pronounced among music fans, who can speak endlessly of the glory days when T-Bone Walker almost single-handedly invented the electric blues, Willie turned his back on Nashville, and Stevie Ray Vaughan almost single-handedly revived the fortunes of electric blues.
But as glorious as Texas’s musical heritage is, if you wallow too long in the past you might fail to notice that today – right now, as 2016 gives way to 2017—is (cue the internet outrage!) the golden age of Texas music. This should not be a surprising, or even controversial statement. Texas is bigger than ever and more diverse than ever, which means that there are more people (and more sorts of people) making music than ever before, more people going out to shows, and more people spreading the word about their new favorite band.
Does all of that music sound like what many people think of when they think of “Texas music”? Well, some certainly does, and some certainly doesn’t. But that just serves to remind us that there’s never really been one Texas music. Any place that can lay claim to Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Selena, and the Butthole Surfers was multicultural even before the term was invented.
In that sense, the list below —which started off as a Top Ten list but kept insisting that no less than twenty would do—is a true reflection of the Texas we have always known and the Texas we know right now. Future nostalgists, take note.
Check out our playlist and read more about our favorite albums below.
A Seat at the Table (Columbia/Saint)
Before this year, the first thing you were likely to hear about Solange Knowles was that “she’s no Beyoncé.” But A Seat at the Table proves that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Solange’s fourth album – and her first to debut at the top of the Billboard album chart – is calmer and quieter than anything her pop-icon sister has released, or ever would release. Where Beyonce hops genres, Solange perfects a cohesive sound; steady drums, misty synths, and a dreamy falsetto (the album owes as much a debt to Grizzly Bear as it does to Roberta Flack), keep Seat floating from start to finish. And where Beyoncé courts ambiguity in order to fuel speculation about her personal life, her little sister tells us exactly how she feels. Songs like “Cranes in the Sky” and “Mad” are straightforward reflections on her sadness and anger, and few songs offer more clear-cut instruction than “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Beyonce (who also did pretty darn well on our list; see below) may be the Queen, but it’s clearer now than ever that the Knowles clan is Houston’s royal family. All hail. —Emily McCullar
Hell hath no fury like Beyoncé scorned. The singer’s sixth album is a lyrical lashing intended for an unfaithful partner—presumably her husband of eight years, Jay-Z—and she didn’t come to the fight alone. She brought Jack White, wheeling electric organs, and Led Zeppelin drum samples to the psychedelic soul of “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” Likewise, throbbing bass and a repurposed Animal Collective hook enter the ring for album banger “6 Inch.” She even assembled a tag team of Louisiana jazz saxophones and Texas-style acoustic guitar for—let’s settle this now—one of the best country songs of the year, “Daddy Lessons.” All of these disparate elements are melded together and led, of course, by the prizefighter herself, who, electric with rage, delivered the best vocal performance of her career. Lemonade moves through the stages of grief, ultimately settling on forgiveness. But Beyoncé’s genre-hopping tour de force leaves us with a clear message: you don’t mess with Texas women. — Abby Johnston
The Weight of These Wings (RCA Nashville)
On this ambitious double album, the biggest payout line comes on the first single, “Vice”: “If you need me, I’ll be/ Where my reputation don’t precede me.” Beyonce’s not the only one who spent 2016 brushing tabloid rumors and commercial expectations off her shoulder: what conceptually connects these 24 songs is forward motion, a readiness to move on defiantly and definitively. And while the rugged first side has just enough quotable quips and kiss-offs to confirm she’s not quite ready to play nice, the second, largely ballad-based set represents the monumental leap; time and again, her voice reinforces the notions that fragility doesn’t equal submission and quiet doesn’t necessarily signal hopelessness. If the albums we remember are the ones that sound like turning points, then this is a record we’ll remember. Bonus Points: An explosive cover of “You Wouldn’t Know Me,” by underrated Texas troubadour Shake Russell. More Bonus Points: This exceptionally Texas line, off “We Should Be Friends”: “If you use alcohol as a sedative/ And ‘bless your heart’ as a negative/ Well then, we should be friends.” — Andy Langer
Quaker City Night Hawks
El Astronauta (Lightning Rod)
The third full-length from these Fort Worth rockers sounds like the sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke and Billy Gibbons convened over drinks and smoke to produce a collection of interplanetary boogie tunes that get things moving on both the dancefloor and the open road. It’s not a matter of if these guys join fellow Cowtowners Maren Morris and Leon Bridges on the big stage—it’s when. — Christian Wallace
Robert Glasper Experiment
Artscience (Blue Note)
Since its 2009 debut, this quartet, anchored by the Houston-born keyboardist, has blurred the line separating traditional jazz from hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul, and rock. ArtScience furthers that vision but deviates from the band’s typical m.o. of enlisting big names for vocal cameos by keeping everything in-house, proving that the group has all it needs to realize its aesthetic vision. — Christian Wallace
Day Breaks (Blue Note)
On “Flipside” – a subtle, timely meditation on our fractured politics—Jones slips in a telling moment of self-analysis: “I finally know who I’m supposed to be/ My mind was locked but I found the key/Hope it don’t all slip away from me.” Six studio albums into her career, Day Breaks finds Jones, who’s been notoriously reluctant to replicate the sound and feel of her massive debut, doubling-back and doubling-down, with a set of songs that mark both her return to the piano and to her jazz roots. The results range from nuanced to smoldering and revelatory to familiar, making it entirely worth the wait. — Andy Langer
Pearls to Swine (Fat Possum)
The Austin songwriter’s breakthrough album evokes the sort of weariness and solitude that a thousand other songwriters, armed with nothing but their beatup copies of old Nick Drake and Mazzy Star albums, have tried—and failed—to fabricate. So what made Pearl to Swine the feel-bad hit of the summer? The miraculous combination of austere-yet-robust melodies; spare, just-right arrangements of acoustic guitar, violin, and not much else; and Torres’s effortlessly eerie falsetto. — Jeff Salamon
Lovers and Leavers (Hwy 87)
This album sounds more like Sunday afternoon than Saturday night, a big change from Carll’s rollicking last album, 2011’s KMAG YOYO. The acoustic guitar is up front and the percussion, slide guitars, and piano are quiet and distant, like they were recorded down the hall somewhere. Carll’s voice sounds as halting as the damaged characters he’s singing about, some of whom seem to have gone through a divorce, as he did recently. The best track here, “Sake of the Song,” is a nod to Townes Van Zandt’s tune of almost the same name, and it, too, will someday be considered a classic. — Michael Hall
Hero (Columbia Nashville)
It’s easy to come up with a critique of this Fort Worth native’s chart-topping sort-of debut: It’s just two great singles padded out with a bunch of shameless swings for the fences. But one of Morris’s charms is how unashamed she is about her shamelessness; this is the sound of a young woman discovering how much fun it is to flex her muscles in public. Subtlety can wait. — Jeff Salamon
Explosions in the Sky
The Wilderness (Temporary Residence)
These Austin post-rockers deviate as much from the formula of “sad yet triumphant instrumental rock band” as they ever have on this record, but adding electronic elements and getting away from the delay pedal only brought new layers out of their music. — Dan Solomon
Unflinching self-deprecation? Check. Tall tales of shady characters trying to outrun big mistakes? Definitely. But this isn’t your average singer-songwriter’s album and the self-title is no accident: Ellis’ most satisfying record yet is also his boldest refusal to be defined by his twang. He’s carving his own sweet spot at the crossroads of traditional country, piano pop, and modern jazz, enough so to suggest that soon enough “Americana” will seem like a reductive description. — Andy Langer
Stiff (Downtown Records)
These virtuosic Austin weirdos have been heading closer to the mainstream for a while now, but nothing in their catalog prepared anyone for this full-tilt, pop-savvy boogie assault. Guitar-based party record of the year? — Jeff Salamon
My Gospel (New West)
The solo debut of this Tyler native has all the style and swagger of outlaw country’s greatest legends, but there’s more to it than a polished baritone and steel guitars. Like the best Willie and Waylon records, there’s substance in the lyrics and a burning conviction in the way Cauthen sings, like his life depends on it—and maybe it does. — Christian Wallace
The Beat Is Dead (Cosmica Artists)
In which the frontwoman of San Antonia punk trio Girl in a Coma declares not just her independence, but her love of synth-pop, middle-period Talking Heads, and, no joke, Linda Perry-style radio anthems—all in the service of exposing her rawest wounds and making clear how much sinew there is beneath them. — Jeff Salamon
Jet Plane and Oxbow (Sub Pop)
Jonathan Meiburg penned this protest album long before 2016 had been fully engulfed in a political dumpster fire. But this Austin outfit’s ninth LP, which dropped in January, isn’t the slogan-ridden railing that we’ve come to expect from protest music, nor is it aimed at anything in particular. There’s room for all manner of American discontent in Meiburg’s incisive lyrics, which are set against shimmering eighties-inspired anthems. It’s a cathartic and—now, more than ever—much-needed album. — Abby Johnston
The Outfit, TX
Green Light: Everythang Goin’ (self-released)
The fact that the best Texas hiphop record of the year is a mixtape from an unsigned group tells you everything you need to know about the Texas rap scene: lots of great music being made in the big cities, and almost none of it is getting the love it deserves. This Dallas trio’s latest collection also reminds us that rap fans focused solely on Houston are missing something big happening in the revivified Deep Ellum district. — Katy Vine
Ain’t Who I Was (Plan BB)
This Houston native’s attempt to cut ties with the music industry didn’t last long—after retreating to the Texas Hill Country with every intention of putting singing behind her, she was lured back to Nashville by producer-of-the-moment Dave Cobb. Her brief break did, however, loosen the constraints on her voice, erasing a decade of middling country crooning and pushing her to full-tilt, Memphis-style soul that ultimately propelled her husky alto—and her career—to new heights. — Abby Johnston
A Giant Dog
Pile (Merge Records)
On the Austin band’s third album (and first with mega-indie Merge), Houston high school friends Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen belt out their harmonies for 15 pounding, swaggering rock and roll songs with such enthusiasm that foreboding lyrics like “but I love you honey/ stay away from me” sound like an anthem. — Katy Vine
Washington Phillips & His Manzarene Dreams (Dust to Digital)
Phillips and his strange, ethereal gospel music—18 songs recorded in the twenties—have long been mysteries. Is that a dulceola? A harp? An old-time music box? Did he really die in the state mental institution in 1938? No, says Smithville writer Michael Corcoran, who spent months knocking on doors in East Texas, finally figuring out that Phillips lived in tiny Simsboro, 50 miles east of Waco, where he preached and sang and lived until 1954. Corcoran also figured out what instrument Phillips played, something the preacher called a manzarene, two fretless zithers he cobbled into one. Phillips used his own tunings and made his own way, creating some of the most exquisite music you’ll ever hear, songs about heaven in a voice that longs to be there. Corcoran wrote a short book about his search and what he found; it comes with the CD and shows that the dedication of the writer almost matches that of the singer. — Michael Hall
When an artist puts out twelve albums in the same year, it’d be hard for any of them to stand out—unless one of those albums includes unexpected gems like the summery beach pop of “Running Away” and “Some Sort Of Justice” to show that he’s capable of a whole new sound. — Dan Solomon
And Twenty More Albums We Really Liked This Year:
Parquet Courts, Human Performance; Stranger Things soundtrack; Amanda Shires, My Piece of Land; Money Chicha, Echo in Mexico; Elijah Ford, As You Were; Worldwide, Castles Made of Sand; Charley Crockett, In The Night; Doyle Bramhall II, Rich Man; Jack Ingram, Midnight Motel; The Suffers; Cotton Mather, Death of the Cool; Alejandro Escovedo, Burn Something Beautiful; Okkervil River, Away; Bonnie Whitmore, F*@k With Sad Girls; Jackie Venson, Live at Strange Brew; P.T. Banks, Moonlight is Sunlight; Bayonne, Primitives; Cellars, Phases; Boyfrndz, Impulse; Gloves Intl.