Austin360 On The Record: A recap of some of 2019’s top local releases
Austin360 On The Record is a weekly roundup of new, recent and upcoming releases by local and Austin-associated recording artists. This week, we look back at the most notable albums among more than 200 we reviewed in 2019, from Grammy nominees and other high-profile releases to personal favorites and dozens more that caught our attention this year.
Seven recordings by Austin acts will be up for a total of 10 Grammys when the Recording Academy presents its 62nd annual awards ceremony Jan. 26 in Los Angeles.
Gary Clark Jr., “This Land” (Warner Bros.). The biggest record of the guitar star’s career is up for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Its incendiary, sociopolitically-charged title track also got three nominations, for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song and Best Music Video.
Black Pumas, self-titled (ATO). It’s unlikely the Black Pumas will win the coveted Best New Artist award with acts such as Lizzo and Billie Eilish in the mix, but just getting nominated after rising out of nowhere in 2018 was a major deal for Eric Burton and Adrian Quesada’s high-energy R&B-rock-soul outfit.
Willie Nelson, “Ride Me Back Home” (Legacy). Nelson will go for his 10th Grammy — he’s been nominated a staggering 52 times — in the Best Country Solo Performance category for the title track to another chapter of his remarkable late-career renaissance.
Patty Griffin, self-titled (PGM/Thirty Tigers). A very personal album that followed her recovery from cancer, Griffin’s latest is up for Best Folk Album. It’s her seventh nomination; she won the Best Traditional Gospel Album category for her 2010 release “Downtown Church.”
Jimmie Vaughan, “Baby, Please Come Home” (Last). A collection of classics from T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Lloyd Price, Lefty Frizzell and others earned Vaughan his eighth Grammy nomination, this one for Best Traditional Blues Album. He’s already won four, counting two for 1990 “Family Style” duo project with his late brother Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Delbert McClinton, “Tall, Dark & Handsome” (Hot Shot). Like Nelson (who splits his time between Austin and Hawaii), McClinton is a part-time Austinite, hanging here when he’s not in Nashville or Mexico. He and Vaughan will go head-to-head for Best Traditional Blues Album. It’s McClinton’s eighth Grammy nomination; he’s won three.
Conspirare, “The Hope of Loving.” A collection of works by Minneapolis composer Jake Runestad, this album is up for Best Choral Performance. Conspirare and director Craig Hella Johnson won that category in 2014; this is their seventh Grammy nomination overall. (Just before the end of the year, Conspirare released another album, “Go Light Your World,” with material from the choir’s 2018 Christmas concert featuring Ruthie Foster and Matt Alber.)
TWENTY MORE MARQUEE RELEASES
Beyond those that got nods from the Grammys were a solid batch of releases from other prominent Austin acts, a mix of long-established names and more recently rising talents.
Bill Callahan, “Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest” (Drag City). His first studio release in five years was a big one, a 20-song double-album covering a momentous period in his life. The 53-year-old lo-fi pioneer got married, had a child, and left Austin for California for 10 months before moving back.
Jackie Venson, “Joy.” Venson spent much of last year releasing a half-dozen singles, which are gathered here along with seven fresh songs and a series of short interludes that serve as transitions between tracks. Taken together, they’re a sort of tour-de-force showing everything Venson can do.
Robert Ellis, “Texas Piano Man” (New West). Ellis recorded and co-produced the album with the same Niles City Sound crew that pushed Leon Bridges into the spotlight. A longtime guitarist, Ellis switched to piano for this album, a shift that resulted in magnificently melodic songs.
READ MORE: Our interview with Robert Ellis
Grupo Fantasma, “American Music: Vol. VII” (Blue Corn). For the seventh album of its two-decade career, the Grammy-winning Latin funk ensemble used Miami-based Colombian producer Carlos ‘El Loco’ Bedoya. Tomar Williams of local band Tomar & the FCs is out front on “Let Me Be.”
Fastball, “The Help Machine” (33-). The power-pop of the band’s 1990s heyday coexists alongside songs that are more subtle but mesmerizingly compelling. It’s the second new record in three years after a nearly decade-long recording hiatus, marking a welcome middle-age resurgence for the trio.
Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis, “Beautiful Lie” (Next Waltz). The country couple’s music is reliably worth hearing in any configuration, but they’re especially engaging when they team up. Their sensibilities both vocally and stylistically mesh together so naturally as to feel interwoven.
Missio, “The Darker the Weather // The Better the Man” (RCA). Singer Matthew Brue and instrumentalist Andrew Butler upped the ante on their second album, which moved beyond the catchy but borderline-novelty appeal of their debut’s highlights with songs that suggest Missio is in this for the long haul.
READ MORE: Our interview with Missio
Midland, "Let It Roll" (Big Machine). Following up their 2017 debut “On The Rocks” (and its Grammy-nominated single “Drinkin’ Problem”), the Dripping Springs-based trio returned with 14 more tracks that largely play toward the melodic twang of 1970s country-rock.
Melat, “After All: Episode One.” Could Melat be Austin’s next breakout artist? It wouldn’t surprise us, given her commanding stage presence and this “dreamy collection of introspective R&B meditations and simmering bedroom burners that might be her strongest work to date,” American-Statesman writer Deborah Sengupta Stith observed.
Shawn Colvin, “Steady On” 30th Anniversary Acoustic Edition. Colvin’s Grammy-winning 1989 debut adapted favorably to the solo acoustic treatment on this newly re-recorded version. Revered for her songwriting and possessing an instantly recognizable voice, Colvin is also an extraordinarily good guitarist, something clearly evident in the simultaneously rhythmic and lyrical playing here.
READ MORE:Our interview with Shawn Colvin
Shinyribs, “Fog & Bling.” The track “Highway of Diamonds” instantly vaults into the count-on-one-hand ranks of the best songs Russell has ever written, with a bittersweet guitar hook that feels like painting the western horizon an impossible shade of blue-green-orange.
Hayes Carll, “What It Is” (Dualtone). We may have lost Carll as a local resident after his marriage to singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, but if so, this was a nice homet0wn swan-song, especially its “Jesus and Elvis” song that salutes North Austin’s renowned Christmas-every-day bar Lala’s.
Bright Light Social Hour, “Jude Vol. 1” (Modern Outsider). Written after the suicide of band manager Alex O’Brien (brother to bassist Jackie O’Brien), the psych-rock band took a contemplative turn on the first of two records bearing Alex’s middle name, with the second still to come.
Charley Crockett, “The Valley” (Son of Davy/Thirty Tigers). The Dallas-raised troubadour’s fourth record in two years is arguably his best yet, an admirably hard-to-pin-down cross-section of American music forms delivered with a distinctive old-timey flair across 15 tracks.
Quin NFN, “4NUN” (Ten Thousand Projects). The teenage Austin rapper’s debut mixtape included the single “Talking My (Expletive),” which has drawn more than 20 million YouTube views.
Jack Ingram, “Ridin’ High...Again” (Beat Up Ford). Not a tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker's 1975 classic “Ridin’ High” but very much inspired by its vibe, Ingram’s latest included covers of songs by Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Rusty Weir as well as his Grammy-nominated Miranda Lambert co-write “Tin Man.”
Bayonne, “Drastic Measures” (Mom+Pop). Roger Sellers’ follow-up to his 2015 debut “Primitives” was a shimmering soundscape of synth waves, effervescent beats, keyboard accents and hypnotic loops, casting a spell that reverberated across 10 tracks.
Dale Watson, “Call Me Lucky” (Red House). Watson’s a part-time Austinite since setting up a second residence in Memphis a couple of years ago, but the move hasn’t changed the honky-tonk archetype’s music much, of course; he’s still old-school country to the core on these 13 songs.
Jamestown Revival, “San Isabel” (Thirty Tigers). Following two albums for Universal affiliate Republic Records, the duo of Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance moved to the indie ranks for their third album, which further documented their melding of Americana-folk and indie-pop styles.
Randy Rogers Band, “Hellbent” (Tommy Jackson/Thirty Tigers). The San Marcos outfit traveled to Nashville to record their eight album with renowned producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton), and the resulting 11 tracks wisely blended Music City professionalism with the group’s deep Texas roots,
TEN MORE PERSONAL PICKS
From the records noted above, I’d count those by Clark, Ellis, Fastball, Colvin and Robison/Willis among my favorite Austin records of 2019. But here’s another 10 to grow on, including my choice for the best local release of the year from Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston, a.k.a. Little Mazarn.
Little Mazarn, “Io” (Self Sabotage). Minimalism is key here: There’s so much open space in “Marfa Lights” that you can almost feel the West Texas desert-sky panorama unfold as Lindsey Verrill’s vocals cast their spell. The crowning jewel is “Vermont,” a shimmering reverie with a beautiful melody carrying the bittersweet realization that “you can’t stay everywhere you leave a piece of your heart.”
Mike & the Moonpies, “Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold.” In which a long-dependable local honky-tonk outfit crossed the pond to record at London’s iconic Abbey Road Studios and made the best music of their career. The Moonpies’ core sound remained rooted in Texas twang, but nine musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra gave these tracks a touch of class, drama and beauty with tasteful arrangements.
Larry Seaman, “Resurrectionist.” Frontman for proto-new-wavers Standing Waves circa 1980s, Seaman has fronted various bands since then, some leaning more toward edgy rock, others more acoustic in nature. “Resurrectionist” covered the full run between those borders, bound together by consistently brilliant songwriting.
Deer, “Do No Harm” (Keeled Scales). Following up 2016’s impressive “Tempest & Rapture,” the Austin-via-San Marcos outfit further established itself as one of the city’s best bands in any genre with a dozen songs that defied simple genre categorization, drawing from pop, folk, rock, jazz, bluegrass, psychedelia and more.
Mitch Watkins, “Clarity.” An off-and-on member of Leonard Cohen’s band since the 1970s, Watkins paid tribute to his late boss and friend by bookending “Clarity” with heart-stoppingly lovely instrumental renditions of Cohen’s “Suzanne” and “If It Be Your Will.” The material between ranged from rhythmic and angular to playful and gently swinging to hypnotic soundscapes.
Croy & the Boys, “Howdy High-Rise” (Spaceflight). What seemed like good-time boot-scootin’ fare at first glance was in fact full of pointed commentary on the tug-of-war between the haves and the have-nots in 21st-century America, from “I’m Broke” to “It Seems Like You Can’t Just Be Poor Anymore” to “Bananas for Breakfast” to “Luxury (Is a Four-Letter Word to Me).”
Altamesa, “Idol Frontier.” Twanging guitars and a general desert-western vibe are central to Altamesa’s sonic aesthetic, but there’s also an old-soul feel to many of these tunes, gathered on this 1o-song set after some appeared on a string of 2018 EPs.
Freedonia, “Firefly.” The second release in as many years from an ace ensemble of jazz aces plus pop star Christopher Cross was a richly layered 10-song set that highlights the musicians skills but smartly kept the focus on the songs.
Graham Reynolds, “Marfa: A Country & Western Big Band Suite” (Golden Hornet). Part of a West Texas triptych commissioned by arts organization Ballroom Marfa, this 13-track set from the renowned instrumental composer translates the spirit of West Texas geography into artistic expression through music. Reynolds had a lot of help bringing his visions to reality, with a total of 18 musicians taking part.
Montopolis, “The Legend of Big Bend.” In what seemed like a coincidental but near-perfect pairing with Reynolds’ album, composer Justin Sherburn’s instrumental ensemble followed up their “Music for Enchanted Rock” project by drawing inspiration from another natural wonder of Texas in this 11-song suite of exquisitely beautiful music.
READ MORE: Montopolis brings Texas to life in sound
THIRTY MORE OF NOTE
Any of these (and more) warrant further attention; check our Austin360 On The Record archives at austin360.com/music for more about them.
A Giant Dog, “Neon Bible,” remake of Arcade Fire’s 2007 album (Merge)
A. Sinclair, “Catpaws” (Nine Mile)
Andrew Duplantis, “Ghost Stories” (East Liberty)
Beat Root Revival, “Up” (Surfdog)
Christine Smith, “Meet Me on the Far Side of a Star” (Foxy Loxy)
Church on Monday, “For Being There”
Don Leady, “Dos Rios”
Golden Dawn Arkestra, “Darkness Falls on the Edge of Time” (11A)
Gurf Morlix, “Impossible Blue” (Rootball)
Hector Ward & the Big Time, “Smile Into Life” (Blackfinger)
Hot Club of Cowtown, “Wild Kingdom” (Gold Strike)
Jeremy Nail, “Ghost of Love”
Joe Jacksons, “Forever” (White Couch)
Los Coast, “Samsara” (New West)
Mitchell Vandenburg, “Red River Church”
Moving Panoramas, “In Two” (Modern Outsider)
Not in the Face, “Phase” (Electric Factory)
Oscar Ornelas, “Some Gospel”
Ray Prim, “Unconditional”
Rebecca Loebe, “Give Up Your Ghosts” (Blue Corn)
Rosie Flores, “Simple Case of the Blues” (Last)
Scrappy Jud Newcomb, “The Third Party”
Shelley King, “Kick Up Your Heels” (Lemonade)
South Austin Moonlighters, “Travel Light” (Station House)
Susan Gibson, “The Hard Stuff”
Terri Hendrix, “Talk to A Human” plus “Who Is Ann” EP (Wilory)
Walker Lukens, “Adult” (Modern Outsider)
White Denim, “Side Effects” (City Slang)
Will Johnson, “Wire Mountain” (Keeled Scales)
William Harries Graham, “Jakes”
Andrew Nolte, “Climbing Uphill”
Ben Ballinger, “Something to Show for It” (Mr. Pink)
Go Fever, “Daydream Hawker”
Caroline Says, “Ohio River” (Western Vinyl)
Jeff Plankenhorn, “Covered/Uncovered Vol. 1”
Savage Poor, “All’s Well in El Dorado”
The Mrs., “The Arena”
Reid Umstattd, “Pockets of Clouds”
FIVE ARCHIVAL RELEASES
Spoon, “Everything Hits at Once: The Best of Spoon” (Matador)
Uncle Walt’s Band, “An American In Texas” (Omnivore)
Michael Fracasso, “Big Top” (Lucky Hound)
Commandos, “The Lone Star Sessions” (Jungle)
Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom, “The First Semester”