Top Austin music of 2020: Our favorite albums, songs and musical moments
In a very strange year with no festivals, few concerts and release parties celebrated online, these Austin artists put out wonderful work that lifted our spirits and helped our hearts.
OUR FAVORITE ALBUMS
Deborah Sengupta Stith
Mobley “A Home Unfamiliar.” One month into the lockdown, pop composer Mobley tapped a community of artists whose lives had just been upended to create quick turnaround audio and video works conceptually guided by the piece’s title, “A Home Unfamiliar.” The stunning lineup of top Austin talent he assembled included Shakey Graves, Sabrina Ellis, Bright Light Social Hour, Deezie Brown and Kalu James working alongside local filmmakers. Collectively they created a haunting document of this moment in time that drifts between cerebral, retro, futuristic and earthly while emotionally moving from uneasiness to aggression to raw pain that will break your heart.
Third Root “Passion of the Poets.” Compiled from a series of EPs released over the last few years, the recontextualized collection from the Central Texas hip-hop crew dropped on Juneteenth, as protests in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis, roiled the streets of cities around the country. The album is a battle cry from the trenches of America’s social justice struggle that rises to meet the current moment. The crew’s purpose has always been bigger than hip-hop, and this album is an instant classic locked and loaded with crucial knowledge and hard-won wisdom
Blakchyl “H02d.” One of the ATX hip-hop scene’s secret weapons since she was a 16-year-old word savant in the high school hip-hop crew the Cypher, the Mindz of a Different Kind rapper comes into her own on this gorgeous platter produced by ATX underground lifer Cooley Fly. Introspective and expansive, she digs deep, baring her scars and battling her demons in a triumphant ode to the resilient spirit.
Nané “Nané.” On their debut release, the powerhouse six-piece churns a tidal wave of emotion that will rock your body and shake your soul. Lead singer Daniel Sahad’s vocals soar on glorious swells of sound rich with funky riffs and exuberant polyrhythms. It’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where a summer of festival sets and packed club shows across the country launched the band into the national spotlight, but all in good time. When it’s safe to rock a party we know Nane will do it right.
Caroline Rose “Superstar” This oddball hero’s journey cloaked in shimmering synth pop is the sarcastic love letter to yourself that made way too much sense this year. Following the album’s conceptual line, the video for lead track “Feel the Way I Want” paints the picture of an awkward would-be influencer on a cross-country trek, but in retrospect, the footage of Rose solo goofing on largely empty streets feels weirdly prescient. In the loneliest year, Rose reminds us to embrace our strangeness and make our own party wherever we go.
Gina Chavez "La Que Manda." Chavez told the Statesman she was "in shock" when her first all-Spanish album (technically a five-song EP) earned her a nod for Best Pop/Rock Album at the 2020 Latin Grammys. She didn't take home the trophy, but this buoyant release showcases her broad range and reminds us why she's lauded as one of Austin's top pop artists.
Heart Bones “Hot Dish.” The glittering synth bomb of a debut album from everyone’s favorite unlikely sex symbols is an emotional ride. In a series of swooning earworms, they serve up a sizzling platter of post modern disco jams made richer with emotional vulnerability. They call this music therapy pop. While enticing your hips, the duo also invites you to slay your naysayers and inner demons with hooky jams.
Nemegata “Hycha Wy.” Victor-Andres Cruz's voice rises with aching fury above a brooding cauldron of psychedelic guitar licks, driving bass and vigorous polyrhythms as the self-described "mystical power trio" packs an impossible wall of sound into their powerful sophomore release.
Sweet Spirit "Trinidad." Darker in tone and more introspective than the bombastic glam pop titans’ earlier work, the May release felt eerily appropriate for this strange moment in time. Loneliness is a common thread on the album. When the exuberant video for “No Dancing” — filmed before the pandemic and featuring students from Eastside Memorial Early College High School — dropped in April, it felt like a salve for the soul.
Deezie Brown and EC Mayne “Candy Blue Like Screw.” The best local album you can no longer listen to carries on the Texas tradition of blunted Southern rap that augments vivid storytelling with harmonious hooks dripping with syrupy soul. Brown's management team said they are "working on some things behind the scenes" and refocusing. The album is temporarily unavailable to stream, but we're hoping it returns soon.
Jonathan Terrell, “Westward." Terrell's first full-length album since 2015 was a career-best. Its 10 tracks merge elements of country tunefulness, rock & roll energy, indie invention and folk lyricism into something that sounds effortlessly natural, and entirely his own.
Willie Nelson, “First Rose of Spring.” The latest in a decade-long string of albums with producer and frequent songwriting collaborator Buddy Cannon found Willie still going strong at 87. It largely follows suit with Nelson's recent looking-back-at-life albums, but the next-to-last track, "Love Just Laughed," is an intriguingly deep, dark and bluesy departure.
David Ramirez, “My Love Is a Hurricane.” A deeply personal post-breakup album, the latest from an artist who's moved into the top echelon of Austin singer-songwriters features 10 Ramirez originals in a variety of arrangements that complement but never override the powerful voice that remains his greatest asset.
Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Co-Starring.” The co-stars referenced in the title include Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh, Don Was and Chris Robinson — and that's just on the opening track. Hubbard getting a major-label deal (with Nashville's Big Machine) and finally appearing on "Austin City Limits" in his 70s might have seemed unlikely, but then his career has ultimately felt like one long, slow build.
Pike & Sutton, “Heart Is a Compass.” Musical compatriots since their teen years in Dallas that led to the formation of the rootsy 1990s Austin band Sister 7, soulful singer Patrice Pike and lively guitarist Wayne Sutton reconvened for this new project that finds both of them at the top of their game.
Joe Ely, “Love in the Midst of Mayhem.” Ely has been known to call our current predicament the "pandammit," but his cure for the COVID-19 blues turned out to be a gorgeous collection of largely reassuring songs with titles such as "Soon All Your Sorrows Be Gone" and "You Can Rely on Me." Best of all is "Garden of Manhattan," which joins the ranks of the Texas troubadour's finest compositions.
Bonnie Whitmore, “Last Will & Testament.” The acclaimed singer-songwriter known for her long-running Continental Gallery residency tackled some hard questions on her first album in four years. The subject matter is often apocalyptic, even as the music is full of heart and soul and spirit, with memorable melodies and propulsive rhythms.
Whitney Rose, “We Still Go to Rodeos.” Another Continental fixture — she's had a residency in the main downstairs club for much of the past decade — the Canadian transplant seems to have Texas country in her blood at this point. Her sweetly mellifluous voice is front-and-center on these 12 tracks that testify she's also become one of the city's better songwriters.
Wilson Marks, “True Beauty Is in the Random.” The fourth album in five years from a guitarist sometimes seen supporting other Austin artists is a subtle treasure that lives up to its title, swinging between jazz, pop and folk styles with lyrics that wander in various directions yet seem divined toward beautiful expression.
Tomar & the FCs, “Rise Above.” A longtime fixture on the local R&B/soul scene, Tomar Williams is making the best music of his career. "Rise Above" is effervescent from start to finish, with compelling rhythmic grooves and joyous horn blasts punctuating Williams' fever-pitch vocal delivery.
OUR FAVORITE SONGS AND MUSICAL MOMENTS
Deborah Sengupta Stith
Jackie Venson's "Texas Flood" (featuring Tameca Jones). From curating the first all-Black lineup for a virtual version of Blues on the Green to countless livestreams and a solid new album, Venson had an incredible year all around. The "Austin City Limits" performance that showcased her impeccable skills as guitarist, singer and bandleader was the icing on the cake. A jaw-dropping cover of the Stevie Ray Vaughan classic, with Jones on vocals and Venson scorching the guitar solos, cemented both women's places in the pantheon of Texas blues rock greats.
“Walk With Me,” the city-sponsored ode to Austin. Tapped by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Adrian and Celeste Quesada gathered a monster cast of top Austin talent to create a song to uplift the city. Set against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic, the sprawling single with over 45 Austin musicians stitches together a broad swath of Austin styles to stir your soul and lift your heart.
"Black Everythang Matters" virtual showcase. With emotions running high at the end of a difficult summer marked by confinement, economic hardship and an overdue racial justice reckoning, Rider’s Against the Storm’s Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone blessed us with this brilliant production. Tightly structured with interesting interludes, solid visuals and moving performances by top Black Austin talent, it was a triumph made sweeter by the fact that it raised thousands of dollars for Mahone’s DAWA fund, which provides financial assistance to people of color creatives and healers. Semi-related: "Red Lights," the steamy end of summer jam RAS and Tameca Jones released in October, was straight fire.
Los Coast and Gary Clark Jr. “A Change is Gonna Come.” The rising rock 'n' soul act teamed up with Austin's guitar hero for a searing take on the 1964 Sam Cooke classic. The song, which Los Coast leader Trey Privot describes as "a cry for equality in the justice system" and "a plea for a fair shot at the American Dream," was released in early July with proceeds benefitting DAWA.
Black Pumas' virtual Austin City Limits Music Festival set. As the wind whipped through Eric Burton's dreadlocks during the band's ecstatic soul shakedown, filmed at the Tito’s Handmade Vodka farm, the obvious was made apparent. The Austin sensations are now international superstars. If there was any doubt about this, it was clear a month later when the band received Grammy nominations for record and album of the year.
Mobley, "James Crow." On the surface, this is an insanely catchy pop song, performed with radiant zeal by one of Austin's most talented and versatile musicians. Digging deeper into the lyrics finds a biting message about enduring racial divides in America. My hands-down choice for Austin single of the year.
Greyhounds, "Primates." The title track to Andrew Trube and Anthony Ferrell's latest album features discordantly funky verses that carry a message of urgency, before the song transforms with a spectacular chorus that pushes Farrell’s deeply soulful voice to the fore, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.
Wood & Wire, “Home and the Banjo.” The highlight of the Grammy-nominated bluegrass outfit's latest album strikes a vein of deeply bittersweet longing as Tony Kamel hits a beautifully melodic turn in the chorus when he sings, “The old home is gone, and everything I’ve loved has turned the other way.”
EkWhoa with Tricia Battani, "Sometimes (I'm Tired)." The hip-hop upstart's album "Champagne Glasses" largely flew under the radar locally, but this track was one of the best things I heard in 2020, with steadily propulsive chants from EkWhoa (aka Ekow Wellington) leavened by a richly melodic counterpoint from Battani.
Belle Sounds with Ray Prim, "Stay Alive." Married couple Noëlle Hampton and Andre Moran's pop group released a single every month in 2020, and they saved the best for last. Issued just last week, this collaboration with self-described "singer-soulwriter" Ray Prim sets an empathic meditation suited for the hard times of a pandemic to a splendidly ethereal melody.
Emily Shirley, "Everyday Heroes." Also released this month, and by one of Hampton and Moran's Belle Sounds bandmates (they co-produced here), this tune was written as a "soul-o-gram" for health care workers during the pandemic, with an accompanying video that featured photos of medical professionals on the job. "May your courage be contagious," Shirley sings, and it's so beautiful that my eyes well up every time I hear it.
AUSTIN360 ARTISTS OF THE MONTH
January: Harry Edohoukwa. Edohoukwa’s style stands out among local hip-hop artists. He’s emotional and raw, and each of his songs carries a strong message. He believes music is a tool. He wants to move people.
February: Peterson Brothers. "We’ve always just really enjoyed what we do," Alex Peterson said when asked about the brothers’ amiable demeanor onstage. "The music is always spontaneous; it’s always fun. We’re always smiling and just going at it." Those smiles are contagious. Look around the room (at their Continental Club residency) and you’ll see the Petersons’ good vibes catching on with what’s typically a very diverse audience.
March: Sam Houston & Blk Odyssy. Once an aspiring East Coast soul artist, Houston was seized by the spirit of rock & roll when he moved to Texas a little more than four years ago. “It had soul, but it wasn’t clean soul. It wasn’t always love songs. It was about pain,” he said. “I felt more pain in the guitars. I felt more pain in rock music. I felt more aggression. I felt more anger.”
April: Pike & Sutton. "Heart Is a Compass" will be a very welcome and timely gift to fans of Sister 7, and for those who’ve long been regulars of Pike's Thursday night residency at the Saxon Pub. She got the gig nine years ago and didn’t expect it to last as long as it has, but when Sutton started joining her for the shows, it rekindled a creative spark that stretched back to their teenage years in Dallas.
May: Tiarra Girls. The sister act once charmed Austin audiences as precocious tweens who punched above their weight class in the rock chops department. They have grown into a fierce trio of poised young women with formidable musical skills and a sharp new approach to songwriting that blends incisive lyricism with catchy grooves informed by reggae, ska, rock, cumbia and other Latin sounds.
June: Bonnie Whitmore. “What I'm really wanting to do," Whitmore says, "is give people a reason to start having these hard conversations, because we can't keep ignoring them. We can't pretend that they don't exist. My goal with this new record is to create a space to get those conversations started.”
July: Third Root. “It's unapologetic. You know, in terms of the group's mission. In terms of what we stand for,” Jeff “Chicken George” Henry, the group’s DJ, said after the group's latest, "Passion of the Poets," dropped on Juneteenth. The album is a potent call for Black and brown unity. This is real hip-hop. But it’s from deep in the heart of Texas, recorded on land that, lest we forget, at one point was Mexico.
August: Jonathan Terrell. "Westward," his third solo album since moving here from Longview in 2006, (is) one of the first great Austin albums of the new decade.
September: Malik. "By his early teens, Malik was posting mixtapes to online music platforms. "I was putting out music ever since I knew that you could," he says. "It’s all self-taught. It was just me searching for YouTube tutorials and figuring it out."
October: Sir Woman. With her band Wild Child, Kelsey Wilson's sound skews toward whimsical twang, but away from the group, Wilson had always gravitated to soul, funk, gospel and R&B. “I've never really been able to explore those worlds. But that's all that I listened to,” she said. Leaning into the sounds that inspired her for her solo project was “scary,” but “incredibly rewarding,” she said.
November: Nané. The group recorded their debut in the early part of 2019, simultaneously debuting a live show featuring the energetic 10-song set on the album. The shows crackled with electricity and the buzz spread quickly. By the time January 2020 rolled around, they pulled a capacity crowd for a headline set at Empire Garage during Free Week.
December: Ley Line. The songs on new album "We Saw Blue" stress the women’s four-part vocal harmonies in languages that range from English to Spanish to Portuguese to French.
Jan. 1: Tommy Hancock (age 90). Hancock helped shape 20th-century popular music in Lubbock before moving to Austin in 1980 with his Supernatural Family Band
Jan. 5: Rich Harney (65). Harney was a widely respected pianist, composer and recording artist who was an integral part of Austin’s jazz community for decades.
Feb. 12: Paul English (87). English played drums with Willie Nelson for more than 50 years and was the subject of Nelson's song "Me and Paul."
April 25: Joe Priesnitz (66). Priesnitz managed Austin guitar great Eric Johnson for nearly 40 years and helped further the careers of Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others as a booking agent or manager.
April 30: Ray Hennig (91). Hennig's Heart of Texas music store was a fixture on South Lamar Boulevard for decades.
June 28: Manuel "Cowboy" Donley (92). Donley earned the title “Godfather of Tejano music” after a decades-long career as a singer, multi-instrumentalist, arranger and composer.
Aug. 22: Chet Himes(73). Himes was a recording engineer who worked on Christopher Cross’ 1979 debut album that swept the major categories at the Grammys.
Aug. 25: Riley Osbourn (73). Osbourn recorded and toured with dozens of local and national acts, including Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen, across a five-decade career.
Sept 5. Guadalupe "Shorty" Ortiz (78). One of Austin's Tejano greats, Ortiz was founder of the popular ‘60s band Shorty and the Corvettes and the lauded family ensemble Mariachi Corbetas.
Oct. 16: Johnny Bush (85). Bush co-authored “Whiskey River,” the song Willie Nelson has used to open his concerts for decades.
Oct. 23: Jerry Jeff Walker(78). Walker moved to Austin after becoming famous with the song “Mr. Bojangles” and helped to change the landscape of Austin music in the 1970s.
Oct. 28: Billy Joe Shaver (81). Shaver rose to prominence amid the outlaw country uprising in the early 1970s and ultimately had songs covered by major stars ranging from Willie Nelson to Waylon Jennings to Elvis Presley.
Nov. 23: Hal Ketchum (67). Ketchum was a member of Nashville’s prestigious Grand Ole Opry who launched his music career in the Austin area in the 1980s.
Dec. 6 Margaret Wright (78) Wright was an accomplished singer and pianist who spent her 40-year career thrilling Austin audiences with effortless recreations of jazz standards, torch songs and pop favorites.