21 Texas Albums
That Defined 2021
From Kacey Musgraves to Miranda Lambert, Leon Bridges to Charley Crockett,
and Explosions in the Sky to St. Vincent, these Texans provided the soundtrack
for another year of big feelings
After last year’s collaborative Texas Sun EP with Houston’s Khruangbin, Fort Worth native Leon Bridges decamped west to Los Angeles to record a new full-length album. The result is Gold-Diggers Sound, featuring the likes of modern jazz luminaries Terrace Martin and fellow Texan Robert Glasper. The result is a merger of Bridges’ previous “vintage” soul sound with modern pop sensibilities. Although the album is Bridges’ most contemporary sounding, it was met with positive reactions from critics and listeners alike.
To the Good People
Austin duo Magna Carda is notable for its absolute nonconformity to genre. Despite that, the coherence Megz Kelli and Dougie Do created on their newest record is staggering. The group’s robust 2021 album To the Good People is a junction of jazz, electronic, hip-hop, exotica, and soul. Songs like “Do It Again” are disruptive in the best way possible, featuring moments of xylophone, blues guitar, trumpet, and IDM beats. Sometimes all at once.
Music City USA
San Benito native Charley Crockett continues his tear of releasing high-quality country-western music with two releases this year, 10 for Slim: Charley Crockett Sings James Hand and Music City USA. The former is a tribute to the late crooner and the latter is a 16-song outpouring that runs the gamut from plucky, fiddle-driven country ballads, to road songs, to lovelorn soul backed by horns. The album is not defined by variety as much as it’s an impressive feat of coalescence. Crockett has, before our eyes, become an artist who can throw whatever he wants on a record and it fits sublimely.
Vincent Neil Emerson
Vincent Neil Emerson falls in line with the ghosts of Texas country’s past: the Clarks, the Van Zandts, the Kristoffersons. Emerson, who grew up in East Texas, is high and low. He’s a new standard-bearer in the sacred art of the word, but he’s also fine getting a little muddy. On his self-titled second album, released this year, the artist effortlessly transitions from songs about Choctaw and Apache land theft to coping with life and the death of his father. And all of it, every single song, is swaddled in charm, self-deprecation, and truth. Emerson is pushing the genre forward, just as his folk forefathers did.
Explosions in the Sky
Big Bend (Original Soundtrack)
Austin-based instrumental outfit Explosions in the Sky released its first album in five years in 2021. Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack for Public Television) was recorded in collaboration with PBS for a documentary called Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas. The 20-song album seems to exist simultaneously as a beautiful score—a series of vignettes about Big Bend subjects—and a pensive refrain from existence for the non-visual listener with no knowledge of its source material. Also, the cover art is by Texas Highways contributor E. Dan Klepper.
Remember Her Name
When talking about Mickey Guyton, what immediately comes to mind are the “firsts” she’s accomplished. Guyton is the first Black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the country category and to perform on, and later host, the Academy of Country Music Awards. In 2021, the Arlington-born singer passed another threshold: her first full-length album. Remember Her Name was released in September, and in November, just a few weeks after she brought the house down at the CMAs, Guyton was nominated for three more Grammys. The album is a soaring achievement in a career that is rapidly ascending.
Natalie Jane Hill
This year, Natalie Jane Hill released her second full-length album, Solely. Although Hill began writing folk music after moving to the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Georgia, Solely feels more influenced by the British folk scene of the late 1960s—acts like Bridget St. John and Vashti Bunyan. Hill, who now resides in San Marcos, blends naturalistic lyrics and fingerpicking with a husky, muscular vocal style that often cuts right through the music. It’s the kind of voice you’d hear across the room at a packed house. Standout tracks include “Little Teeth” and “Pretty View.”
When describing the music or even reading the song titles on Hovvdy’s album True Love, you might find yourself squinting with distaste. Sentimentalism is a lost art. But if sincerity is the vehicle, then joy is the product. Hovvdy’s Charlie Martin and Will Taylor—both from the Dallas-Fort Worth area—seamlessly oscillate between blissful love and childhood melancholy over the course of a few songs. When Taylor sings “Rode our bikes to the Tom Thumb/ Hot summers where I come from,” on the song “Around Again,” there isn’t an ounce of hesitation or insincerity.
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall
The Marfa Tapes
The album The Marfa Tapes works for the same reason we love candid photos: It’s a snapshot of a moment. The moment being the COVID pandemic toward the end of 2020. The risk for singer-songwriters Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, and Jon Randall was audiences wouldn’t understand the stripped down, warts-and-all approach to the album. The reality for the Texans from The Woodlands, Longview, and Dallas, respectively, is when the songs are good, listeners will take them however they can get them. And the songs on The Marfa Tapes are great. The wind, the campfire, the rocks against boots, and even the sound of people breathing just make the songs feel more real.
Big Jade does not exist in ambiguity. The Beaumont rapper says exactly what she means on this year’s Pressure, her second full-length album. Big Jade’s breakneck delivery is matched only by her ability to turn heads. On songs like “No Hook,” she skewers detractors and rivals alike, delivering a whopping 260 words in the first verse over the course of just one minute. Pressure is not for the bashful, but Big Jade’s ferocious ability makes her one of the most intriguing rappers in Texas.
Cool Dry Place
You’re not sure what you’re getting when listening to Katy Kirby’s opening track on her debut album, Cool Dry Place, for the first time. “Eyelids” is subdued for what feels like a lengthy moment, hanging in the air with just a lonely voice and a muted guitar. But somewhere around the 30-second mark there’s a guitar syncopation. Then at the 35-second mark the drums come in. At 1:02, there’s a clarion call, as the whole band falls in line effortlessly. It’s engaging, pleasant indie rock. Kirby, who lives in Nashville, recorded the bulk of Cool Dry Place in Music City and her hometown of Spicewood over the course of several years.
Places of Consequence
Cameron Knowler is no doubt a son of the West. He grew up in Arizona and Houston, and he now lives in Los Angeles. Knowler has the geographical credentials of an American Primitivism guitarist and the chops to go with the distinction, though he prefers the terms “rural” or “old-time” music. Knowler released two records worth of the stuff this year alone, including Anticipation (with Eli Winter) and a solo effort, Places of Consequence. Knowler seemingly uses the solo album as a catchall for experimental ideas and meanderings, ranging from bustling road songs to contemplative banjo ballads. The multi-instrumentalist lists the instruments he plays on the album in the liner notes, among them, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and kitchen utensils.
WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
Two years after his critically acclaimed album Brandon Banks, Houston native Maxo Kream is back with WEIGHT OF THE WORLD. Maxo’s distinguishing quality has always been his ability to talk about the harsh realities of life and crime, but what stands out this time around are the personal moments he reveals. Maxo jumps from lines about the tragic death of his brother to pure joy on songs like “BIG PERSONA,” featuring Tyler, The Creator. Maxo boasts about his ability to take care of his mother financially like no other, saying “Friendly neighbors, pearly gates/ Sippin’ Arnold Palmers with my mama, chillin’ by the lake.”
Buck Meek, a native son of Wimberley, is well known for his work with Big Thief. The Brooklyn-based indie rock band released four critically acclaimed albums in a span of five years, with a fifth coming in early 2022. As a solo artist, Meek has also released multiple works, including this year’s album, Two Saviors. Across 11 tracks, Meek stretches himself from motel blues to desert folk jams, with moments of ragtime syncopations and heavenly pedal steel. The album’s framework is built around Meek’s shivery, lilting voice—a drawl that balances on the head of a pin.
Since her 2018 album Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves has enjoyed saintly status in her native Texas. Her music crosses over between country and pop so successfully that all types of Texans have been able to appreciate the Grammy winner’s work, and her newest album continues that thread. On star-crossed, Musgraves shares her story of love and love lost as she rises from the ashes of her divorce. Songs like “justified” and “breadwinner” win popularity contests, but Musgraves is almost always at her best when she softens, like on the track “camera roll.”
Buffalo Nichols was born in Houston but spent most of his life in Milwaukee before landing in Austin in 2020. In between, he spent years traveling abroad—from Europe to Africa—wandering, working, writing, and certainly collecting a few stories. This year, he released that energy into his self-titled debut album. Standout tracks like “Lost & Lonesome” showcase Nichols’ ability to sit with his guitar and string together words and chords into a compelling narrative. It feels lazy to call it the blues, but that’s likely only because the word gets thrown around so much. Nichols absolutely plays the blues, full stop, but he plays it with its unadulterated, original intent at the front of his mind.
Nuevo is an Austin-based duo featuring well-traveled musicians Dante Schwebel and David Jimenez. Both men are natives of the Rio Grande Valley, and Schwebel formerly founded the band Spanish Gold, which featured Black Pumas’ Adrian Quesada. Playing what the band describes as “Tejano Soul,” Schwebel and Jimenez’s vocals are immaculate counterparts, creating concordant harmonies on upbeat tracks like “Querido.” Their eight-song self-titled debut album came out in March. Impressively, the band has already shared the stage with the likes of Los Lobos at Austin club Antone’s.
Hayden Pedigo hails from Amarillo and released his seventh full-length album, Letting Go, this year. Pedigo is another entrant in the new wave of American Primitivism, but the genre doesn’t matter so much as does the feel of the album. Over 30 minutes of avant-garde instrumental Americana, Pedigo tells stories with his guitar on seven songs including highlights “Tints of Morning” and “Rained Like Hell.” Stories that, outside of a title, need no words to illustrate their richness. To turn a phrase, it’s all cattle, no hat.
Faking My Own Death
Like so many Texans before her, Allison Ponthier left the state only to find herself reembracing it on her own terms. On her 2021 debut EP, Faking My Own Death, the North Texas native reinvents her small town, Western roots, simultaneously creating an artistic vehicle for queer identity. Standout track “Cowboy” is backed by Ponthier’s honeyed vocals, slide guitar, and lush production. It reaches new esteem when paired with its campy music video à la David Lynch and Roger Corman.
Strand of Oaks
Strand of Oaks is Tim Showalter, not a Texas native, but one who adopted Austin right before the pandemic. Showalter’s new album, In Heaven, is an artful extension of folk-rock traditions, with organic moments of krautrock and jam-band progressions. The album centers around the track “Galaticana,” a sort of galactic Americana, which also legitimately describes the sound of the album. On the song, Showalter goes through stream-of-consciousness admissions. “Laughing as a self-defense/ Crying at my own expense together,” he sings, mixing the ideas with nostalgic moments from his own life. The track is big and fits flawlessly alongside subdued stylings like “Somewhere in Chicago,” written about the death of folk royalty John Prine.
With St. Vincent’s every reinvention, listeners receive a jolt of something new. Dallas-raised Annie Clark has never been afraid of pushing the boundaries of her music. She continued on an otherworldly timeline this year with her new album Daddy’s Home, drawing parallels to the sleazy, dirty-realist rock of early ’70s New York. Smooth tracks like “The Melting of The Sun” could’ve easily shown up as a B-side on Lou Reed’s Transformer. Through warped guitar and production, there are times when the record feels like it’s hanging by a string, but Clark always wills it back on course.