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Austin360 On The Record: Midyear favorites among local releases

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com

How much music is made by Austin artists every year? We don’t get to everything out there, but we try, and in the first half of 2017, our Austin360 “On the Record” column has reviewed or noted more than 100 recordings.

What follows is a look at our ten favorites so far this year, not necessarily in order. Check out the Spotify playlist above to hear a track from each record.

Slaid Cleaves, “Ghost on the Car Radio.” A dozen records into a quarter-century career, the Maine-born singer-songwriter stays relevant because he’s gotten better all the time. These 12 songs attest that Cleaves is now a master, from the opening rocker “Already Gone” to the tender car-themed finale “Junkyard.”

Fastball, “Step Into Light.” Once that rare local act with Billboard Top 40 hit singles, the trio of Tony Scalzo, Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield remains Austin’s best rock band. Their first record in eight years features a dozen songs that range from Zuniga’s Beatles-esque acoustic gem “Behind the Sun” to Scalzo’s instantly memorable pop tune “I Will Never Let You Down.”

Shinyribs, “I Got Your Medicine.” Expanded from the original quartet to an eight-piece juggernaut, Kevin Russell’s Shinyribs has pushed the broad boundaries of Americana music even further out than he did during his two decades with the Gourds. The central touchstone is soul, steeped deeply in the swampy roots of Russell’s native Beaumont.

READ MORE: Shinyribs grew from little band that could to big band that is

Spoon, “Hot Thoughts.” Still the kingpin of Austin’s indie scene and a national heavyweight for more than a decade now, Spoon continues to innovate. On “Hot Thoughts,” Britt Daniel twists his pop-music kaleidoscope through art-damaged grooves that draw on old soul, modern electronica and even hints of hip-hop.

Suzanna Choffel, “Hello Goodbye.” The onetime contestant on NBC’s “The Voice” left for New York but came back, and she re-engages fully with the singer-songwriter community here on her first album in four years. The brilliant collection of eclectic pop songs rightly places her alluring vocals front and center.

Ruthie Foster, “Joy Comes Back.” Covering everything from Stevie Wonder to Black Sabbath to Mississippi John Hurt, Foster embraces the broad-umbrella nature of Americana music. Soul and gospel are at the core of her boundless energy, but folk, blues, country, rock and more find the way into her wheelhouse as well.

READ MORE: Ruthie Foster comes full circle with “Joy Comes Back”

Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band, self-titled. Recording apart from his wife, Kelly Willis, for the first time in a while, Robison mixes original material with tunes from largely under-the-radar Austin writers including Christy Hays, Damon Bramblett and Joe Dickens. The album’s loose, laid-back vibe recalls the magic of Austin’s 1970s outlaw-country heyday.

Sunny Sweeney, “Trophy.” It’s been a big year for country starlet Sweeney, who opened a couple of shows for Garth Brooks (including his South by Southwest bash at Auditorium Shores) on the heels of releasing her fourth album. “Trophy” balances barroom rockers with beautiful ballads such as “Bottle by My Bed” and Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.”

Dale Watson & Ray Benson, “Dale & Ray.” The respective bandleaders of honky-tonk mainstays the Lonestars and western swing torchbearer Asleep at the Wheel team up for 10 tracks of often-humorous originals. They dip into Willie Nelson’s deep well for, ironically, “Write Your Own Songs,” a pointed rebuke of mainstream country’s starmaker machinery.