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Austin360 On The Record: A look back at Austin music released in 2020

Willie Nelson released "First Rose of Spring" in July.

Austin360 On The Record is a weekly roundup of new, recent and upcoming releases by local and Austin-associated recording artists. This week, take a look back at a select batch of 50 local albums that made waves in 2020, plus a handful of notable EPs, live albums, archival releases and other oddities. For our critics’ personal favorite records of 2020, watch for next week's year-in-review music wrap-up.

FIVE OLD-SCHOOL ACES

Willie Nelson, “First Rose of Spring.” No Grammy nomination this year for Willie, but his latest album, released in July, further extended a decade-long string of acclaimed collaborations with producer Buddy Cannon.

Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Co-Starring.” In his mid-70s, Hubbard is enjoying a late-career resurgence with this major-label album that featured some impressive special guests, and songs that were strong enough to finally get him on the “Austin City Limits” TV show.

Eliza Gilkyson, “2020.” Gilkyson, who turned 70 this year, offered a set of largely topical songs reflecting the sociopolitical turmoil that existed even before the pandemic showed up.

Joe Ely, “Love in the Midst of Mayhem.” Ely mixed songs rescued from his archives with a few recently written tunes for a welcome-surprise album that surfaced in the early days in the pandemic.

Eric Johnson, “EJ Vol. II.” Songs more than solos were the focus of the latest from Austin’s longtime guitar wunderkind, in what was a sequel of sorts to his 2016 “EJ” album.

TWENTY RISING STARS

Jackie Venson, “Vintage Machine.” Pandemic be damned, 2020 was a major breakout year for Venson, who made her “Austin City Limits” TV debut when this album came out in the fall — after she’d already released the two-volume “Jackie the Robot” as well as a live album.

David Ramirez, “My Love Is a Hurricane.” A magnificently emotional vocalist, Ramirez has gotten stronger with each album over the past decade, to the point that he’s now in the top tier of Austin singer-songwriters.

Jonathan Terrell, “Westward.” As with Ramirez, Terrell’s career has been a slow and steady build, but “Westward” was a major breakthrough, fully loaded with great songs and performances.

Sweet Spirit, “Trinidad” / Heart Bones, “Hot Dish.” The common denominator is Sabrina Ellis, who also fronts A Giant Dog but stepped out this year in collaboration with Minnesota’s Har Mar Superstar on “Hot Dish” while also serving up another solid Sweet Spirit set.

Missio, “Can You Feel the Sun.” Now two albums past their surprise 2017 semi-novelty single “Middle Fingers,” Matthew Brue and David Butler continue to churn out intriguing stuff that shows they’re in this for the long haul.

Nané, self-titled. Frontman Daniel Sahad is an instantly captivating singer and performer, as evident this auspicious debut album we featured as our Austin360 Artist of the Month for November.

Caroline Rose, “Superstar.” The indie singer-songwriter came to Austin, departed, and then returned again as she continued her evolution toward indie-rock and pop after a couple of early Americana-styled releases.

Angelica Rahe, “Reina.” In an Austin360 feature story from February, American-Statesman writer Deborah Sengupta Stith observed that Rahe’s album “unfolds in several movements as a portrait of an artist’s transformation.”

Malik, “Spectrum.” A songwriting collaborator with Ariana Grande, our Austin360 Artist of the Month for September stepped out with this intriguing set that featured nine tracks all named after colors.

Ley Line, “We Saw Blue.” The second album from our December Austin360 Artist of the Month was  written largely during the band’s Brazilian sojourn in 2017. These four bilingual women stress multiculturalism in their rhythmically alluring, acoustic-based music.

Whitney Rose, “We Still Go to Rodeos.” The Canadian expat country singer-songwriter’s fifth album in eight years was her best yet, with a dozen tunes that captured the full range of her talents.

Walker Lukens, “Red Headed Strangers.” Lukens applied his adventurous indie aesthetic to a set of Willie Nelson tunes for a tribute album that cast fresh light on decades-old favorites.

Charley Crockett, “Welcome to Hard Times.” The third album in as many years from the former traveling busker further established his penchant for creating fresh material that draws deeply on old-school American folk-music forms.

Duncan Fellows, “The Sadlands.” The indie-pop quintet’s second full-length release in three years was concise and focused, with nearly half its tracks clocking in at less than 3 minutes.

Andrea Magee, “Only Love.” The Irish expat called this album as “a side project from Beat Root Revival,” but its 10 mostly folk-pop-oriented tunes were impressive enough to suggest Magee could go far on her own if she desired.

Annabelle Chairlegs, “Gotta Be in Love.” The psych-and-blues tinged indie-rock of leader Lindsey Mackin and her bandmates bristles with energy on 10 tracks that significantly raised the ante from the band’s 2015 debut album. 

Diana Burgess, “You Run.” Longtime cellist for classical-crossover collective Mother Falcon and frequent accompanist to singer-songwriter Curtis McMurtry (who co-produced here), Burgess stepped out with an impressive 13-song debut.

EkWhoa, “Champagne Glasses.” Aspiring hip-hop artist Ekow Wellington worked with producers Trench Lord B, Ike and Phenom on these eight tracks, three of which feature memorable vocal contributions from Tricia Battani, Curtis Lee and Kenny Duet.

John Baumann, “Country Shade.” In addition to teaming with three fellow Texas country-rockers on the 2020 debut of the Panhandlers, Baumann also released his third album, which showcases his warm vocal style and lyrics that lean toward old-school country themes.

James Steinle, “What I Came Here For” / “The Man From the Mountain” / “Cold German Mornings.” Steinle had an extraordinarily busy 2020, making up for lost gigs by releasing three records that all had different scopes and personalities.

TWENTY-FIVE LOCAL MAINSTAYS

Reckless Kelly, “American Girls” and “American Jackpot”; Bill Callahan, “Gold Record”; Wood & Wire, “No Matter Where It Goes From Here”; Trail of Dead, “X: The Godless Void and Other Stories”; Tomar & the FCs, “Rise Above”; Pike & Sutton, “Heart Is a Compass”; Greyhounds, “Primates”; Band of Heathens, “Stranger”; Texicana Mamas, self-titled; Joe King Carrasco y Colectivo Chihuahua, “Mariachi Blues”; Brownout, “Berlin Sessions”; Mike Flanigin, “West Texas Blues”; Third Root, “Passion of the Poets”; Holy Wave, “Interloper”; Alex Maas, “Luca”; Gurf Morlix, “Kiss of the Diamondback”; Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few, self-titled; Ray Prim, “Grey”; Scott H. Biram, “Fever Dreams”; Churchwood, “Plenty Wrong to Go Awry”; Seela, “Cool”; Giulia Millanta, “Tomorrow Is a Bird”; Barbara Nesbitt, “Someday, Maybe Sooner”; Robyn Ludwick, “Lake Charles”; Josh Abbott Band, “The Highway Kind.”

TEN EPs

Black Pumas, “The Electric Deluxe Sessions.” An Amazon-only digital release featured new alternate versions of three songs from the Pumas' 2019 debut album plus a cover of Jimmy Webb’s classic “Wichita Lineman.”

Gina Chavez, “La Que Manda.” The five-song Spanish-language release earned Chavez a Latin Grammys nomination.

Peterson Brothers, “The Intro.” Siblings Glenn and Alex Peterson put their best foot forward on this five-song set that was the focus of our Austin360 Artist of the Month feature in February.

Israel Nash, “Topaz.” The Dripping Springs singer-songwriter initially intended these five songs to be one side of an album, but after the pandemic hit, he opted to get them out quickly as their own release.

Universal Seedz, “Rise Up.” Percussionist Michael Longoria worked with a stylistically diverse crew of collaborators on six songs that blend hip-hop, jazz, soul and more, with vocals from Tee Double, Alyssa Grace and many others.

Motenko, self-titled. The debut from the quartet led by keyboardist Micah Motenko sports a classic 1970s rock and soul feel. 

Sir Woman, “The Bitch.” Kelsey Wilson branched out from her role as co-leader of Austin indie darlings Wild Child with this set we featured in October for our Austin360 Artist of the Month series

Jamestown Revival, “A Field Guide to Loneliness.” Written in pandemic isolation, these five songs found Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance exploring a quieter and more reflective side of their duo’s artistic persona.

Jesse Dayton, “Gulf Coast Sessions.” Dayton’s self-described "house party love letter to I-10 from Beaumont to NOLA” is a lively six-song set of swampy rock & roll.

Joe Barksdale, “Sincerely.” The former LSU and NFL football player blends blues, funk, soul, pop and R&B with a confident and versatile voice.

FIVE LIVE ALBUMS

Ruthie Foster Big Band, “Live at the Paramount.” Recorded at the downtown Austin institution in 2019, Foster’s latest brought her fourth Grammy nomination.

David Grissom, “Trio Live 2020.” Compiled from shows during the guitar master’s long-running Saxon Pub residency, this mostly instrumental set mixes Grissom originals with a few blues classics.

Don Harvey & A Is Red, “No Place to Fall: Live at the Townsend.” The mostly instrumental band’s live set ended up serving as a farewell of sorts to the Congress Avenue bar, which closed during the pandemic.

Jon Wolfe, “Live at Gruene Hall.” The tuneful Texas roadhouse troubadour headed to the historic New Braunfels dance hall to record his second live album. 

Twang Twang Shock-A-Boom, “Live at the Cactus, Vol. 1 and 2.” The trio of David Garza, Chris Searles and Jeff Haley got their 30-year reunion in just under the wire before the pandemic hit. This fall brought two volumes of recordings from a February three-night stand the storied University of Texas campus venue.

FIVE ARCHIVAL RELEASES

Jimmie Vaughan, “The Pleasure’s All Mine.” Vaughan’s 2010 and 2011 albums “Blues, Ballads and Favorites” and “More Blues, Ballads and Favorites” are combined on this set that showcases the guitar great’s blending of boundaries between blues, R&B and country

Jimmy LaFave, “Highway Angels…Full Moon Rain.” Originally a cassette-only release, this was the late Oklahoma native’s introduction to Austin when he moved here in the 1980s, but it had not been available on CD until now.

Townes Van Zandt, “Somebody Had to Write It.” Austin label Chicken Ranch worked with former Van Zandt road manager Harold Eggers in compiling this batch of live acoustic tracks plus a snippet of the late Austin DJ Larry Monroe interviewing Van Zandt.

Bill Kirchen, “The Proper Years.” Combining three LPs made for the U.K. label from 2006 to 2013, this two-disc set captures the rootsy guitar-slinger’s broad-ranging musical horizons.

Christopher Cross, ‘The Complete Works.” The limited-edition box set, available only through Cross’s website, includes CDs of his 12 albums, a bonus disc of rarities, and a pink vinyl LP with a song from each album selected by Cross.

FIVE ODDS & ENDS

Deluxe Edition: Black Pumas, self-titled. An extended version of the group’s 2019 debut got a surprise Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.

Spanish Language: Alejandro Escovedo, “La Cruzada.” A new version of Escovedo’s 2019 album “The Crossing” features Alex Ruiz of Del Castillo on lead vocals and hit the top 10 of Billboard’s Latin Pop Albums chart.

Video Album: Mobley, “A Home Unfamiliar.” An eclectic and adventurous artist, Mobley teamed with 30 local musicians and filmmakers to document the unnerving transition to pandemic life with this fascinating audio-visual project.

Soundtrack: “Yellow Rose.” Accompanying a film that stars honky-tonker Dale Watson, this set features songs Watson wrote with Diane Paragas, plus a score from former Alejandro Escovedo keyboardist Chris Knight.

Compilation: “The Next Waltz, Vol. 3.” The latest vinyl set from Bruce Robison’s label features tracks by Shinyribs, the Panhandlers, Robert Ellis and more.

» RELATED: Our 2019 Austin360 On The Record year-end recap