Who made the best music in Austin in 2021? Our picks for best records and more
Live music was an up-and-down affair as pandemic waves continued through 2021, but Austin acts continued recording new material all the while. Here’s a list of our favorite albums and EPs, plus 20 more high-profile Austin records and another 20 noteworthy releases from the past year.
Top 10 albums
Erin Ivey, “Solace in the Wild.” In a streaming age when singles are king, “Solace” stood out because its songs were so consistently strong from start to finish. In a January review, we called the album “Grammy level stuff”; Ivey didn’t get a nomination, but “Solace in the Wild” is no less deserving of national recognition.
Nobody’s Girl, self-titled. It’s hard to imagine a stronger one-two opening punch than “Kansas” and “Rescued,” catchy pop tunes that quickly make it clear this trio of Rebecca Loebe, Grace Pettis and BettySoo are reaching beyond the acoustic-based common ground they found when bonding at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Producer Michael Ramos deserves credit for extraordinarily clear and crisp arrangements that never get in the way of the women’s vocals.
Jade Bird, “Different Kinds of Light.” U.K. transplant Bird covers a lot of ground on this Dave Cobb-produced gem, from the exhilarating rock & roll of “Punchline” and “Open Up the Heavens” to the moodier grooves of “Houdini” and the title track to the buoyantly melodic pop of “Now Is the Time” to the folksy charm of “Prototype.”
Pat Byrne, “Into the Light.” Working in Nashville with former Austinite Billy Harvey as producer, Irish expat Byrne delivered 11 original tunes ranging from the buoyant pop of “Capsize” to the anthemic rock & roll of the title track to the tender balladry of “Precious Cargo” and “Win Lose or Drown.” A strong supporting cast helped make “Into the Light” one of the best-sounding singer-songwriter albums to come out of Austin in years.
Flatlanders, “Treasure of Love.” On their first record in 12 years, lifelong pals Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock picked up right where they left off with an album that mostly featured tunes they’ve played in concert for years but had never recorded. Covers of favorites from the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan mixed with a handful of original tunes.
James McMurtry, “The Horses and the Hounds.” McMurtry’s first record in six years ranks with his best, partly because almost everything he’s ever released has cleared a high bar. Renowned producer-engineer Ross Hogarth, who worked on McMurtry’s John Mellencamp-produced debut album 32 years ago, cleanly captures both the rock & roll energy and songwriting detail that are equally central to McMurtry’s musical identity.
Heartless Bastards, “A Beautiful Life.” Reclaiming her band identity after a 2018 solo outing, Erika Wennerstrom issued the best album of her two-decade career. Wennerstrom favored longer explorations, with six songs running at least 5 minutes, but “A Beautiful Life” never feels unfocused. The songs were longer for a reason, with a purpose and structure beyond extended jams.
Nuevo, self-titled. Austin’s David Jimenez and Nashville’s Dante Schwebel both grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, where they soaked in sounds from both sides of the border. Their self-described “Tejano soul” was in full bloom on this joyously multicultural eight-song debut with songs sung in both English and Spanish.
Natalie Jane Hill, “Solely.” Originally from Wimberley, Hill spent a few years in Georgia and North Carolina before moving to San Marcos a couple of years ago. “Solely,” her second album in as many years, is a thing of rare beauty — 10 enchanting folk songs set to minimal acoustic arrangements built around the guilelessly soothing tone of Hill’s voice.
Intercom Heights, “Night Measures.” Teaming former Hammerbox guitarist Harris Thurmond with bassist Josie Fluri and keyboardist Meg Bernhard, this new trio drew inspiration from 1980s new wave and 21st-century electronica, projecting a cool sonic sheen that served as a foil for lyrics alive with wide-eyed wonder and hard-earned soul.
DEBORAH SENGUPTA STITH
Blk Odyssy, “Blk Vintage.” Singer Juwan Elcock, aka Sam Houston, spent his pandemic year off disintegrating his rising rock & soul project in a churning cauldron of R&B, neo-soul and old-school funk. The result is an astounding collection of instant classics. Sonically complex and emotionally raw, the album is haunted by a menacing specter of early death and the incessant anxiety around police brutality that can destroy a Black man's mental health. But at its heart, it's a collection of liberation songs. “Blk Vintage” is a gripping portrait of Black America that is alternately defiant, sensuous and devastating.
Abhi the Nomad, “Abhi vs. the Universe.” The globe-trotting, India-born emcee delivers Austin’s answer to the Bruno Mars/Anderson.Paak collab Silk Sonic with a buoyant and blazed collection that cuts introspective lyricism with exuberant funk.
Sun June, “Somewhere.” The self-described “regret pop” from this Austin five-piece aches with a pervasive sadness, but what a beautiful way to brood. Singer Laura Colwell’s airy vocals invite you into a melancholy dream where lilting melodies rise and fall on swells of emotion colored by hints of twang. It’s the perfect soundtrack for star-gazing, tea-sipping or your afternoon cry.
Riders Against the Storm, “Flowers for the Living.” The husband/wife duo frontloads their latest collection with a trio of club bangers that transport you to the next incarnation of the temple of “Booty Sweat.” On crown-claiming anthem “The Ones,” they flex their chemistry and lyrical dexterity over a stylish Afroclub groove. They get a steamy assist from Austin’s empress of soul, Tameca Jones, on the seductive “Red Lights,” and Ghislaine “Qi Dada” Jean is pure electric on “Black Girl Payday.”
Money Chicha, “Chicha Summit.” Members of Austin’s premier cumbia ensemble Grupo Fantasma and Latin-funk powerhouse Brownout lead a trippy aural expedition as they turn a modern gaze on the acid cumbia form popularized in Peru in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Fuzzed-out guitar riffs ride over driving polyrhythms while vintage organ strains conjure a strange carnival of sound. Peruvian guitarist/composer Jose Luis Carballo lends his talents alongside Colombian American vocalist Kiko Villamizar and Nemegata frontman Victor Cruz.
Magna Carda, “To the Good People.” The second full-length from the hip-hop duo of Megz Tillman and Chris Beale, aka Dougie Do, finds the crew at their most romantic (“Spark the Day”), their most militant (“Run It”) and their most introspective (“Better If”). The album goes heavy on R&B grooves that will resonate with fans of 2000s neo-soul, but don’t get it twisted. When Megz declares herself a “catastrophic something like a category 5” in a brutal vocal blitz over a sparse trap beat on lead single “Propaganda,” we believe it.
Emily Wolf, “Outlier.” Album opener “No Man” stomps and thrashes with cathartic fury as it kicks down the door to this fine collection with a much-needed empowerment anthem. A dark horse candidate for Austin’s top rock guitarist for the better part of the decade, this album showcases both her formidable six-string skills and a knack for sweeping, arena-ready songcraft.
Jackie Venson, “Love Transcends.” Austin is changing fast, but the city’s legacy as a hotbed of electric blues is secure for the next generation. On her latest full-length, the prolific singer and ax-slinger takes us back to the Black artform’s roots, using traditional arrangements to take an unflinching look at America today. Released after a year spent deeply entrenched in the fight for social justice across the country and at home, the album is her most fully realized release to date, thoughtful, provocative and ultimately hopeful. Venson will play the album live (which really, is the best way to experience her music) Feb. 18, when she posts up at Lambert’s for the third installment of her first Austin residency in years.
Dayglow, “Harmony House.” Showcasing the popcraft of a young Paul McCartney, the sophomore album from the 22-year-old breakout, aka Sloan Struble, is a gloriously retro collection of upbeat therapy pop that includes the viral sensation “Close To You.” With winks at yacht rock and piano pop from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Struble coaxes the listener to shake off the darkness.
Charley Crockett, “Music City USA.” With a vintage country sound that toes the intersection between blues and retro R&B, the San Benito-born troubadour lets his soul shine through on a satisfying release that’s won him widespread acclaim including an emerging act of the year trophy at this year’s Americana Awards.
Top five EPs
Deer Fellow, “Words Unsaid.” Violinist/pianist Alyssa Kelly and guitarist Matt Salois broke out locally in 2021 with this four-song set of subtle but captivating indie-folk.
Croy & the Boys, “Of Course They Do.” Though it’s all covers, this six-song set from Corey Baum and band stands out as resolutely original, thanks to ingenious recastings of punk classics in a Tex-Mex country mold.
Freedonia, “Bring Back the Dinosaurs.” These four songs left over from the adventurous jazz-pop band’s previous albums served as a bittersweet farewell to drummer Scott Laningham, who died in May.
Belle Sounds, “All About Love.” After a productive 2020 in which they released a single every month, Noëlle Hampton and André Moran’s pop outfit followed with a five-song set about love in all its forms.
Mobley, “Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme.” To follow his intriguing 2020 video-album project “A Home Unfamiliar,” Mobley issued this six-song set anchored by “James Crow,” a catchy pop song with a cutting message about racism in America.
DEBORAH SENGUPTA STITH
Kendra Sells, “All in Your Head.” In a triumph of unexpected sound clashes, thrilling opener “The Cut” lures you in with slinky, seductive vocals before dropping you into a strange electro grinder of jazz scatting swirled with ominous fuzz that somehow congeals into a defiant, singalong hook.
Geto Gala, self-titled. The five-song collection is a celebration of obstacles overcome and aspirations achieved. It’s an ambitious platter of rich lyricism slow-dripped with Texas soul, an opulent ode to Southern swag clad in designer duds.
Los Sundowns, self-titled. Vintage organ strains and lilting guitar riffs segue into sludgy surf grooves on this psychedelic beach trip of a release from Grupo Fantasma’s Beto Martinez and Dos Santos’ Daniel Villarreal.
JaRon Marshall, “The Prequel.” On this spectacular 12-and-a-half-minute opus, the Black Pumas and Nané keyboardist drops rich and masterful jazz compositions, then reshapes them as deep-pocket hip-hop grooves. Emcee Mike Melinoe adds his bars to two of the dopest Golden Era 2.0 cuts this city’s seen in years.
Torre Blake, “Love Is Real.” With fevered urgency, Blake winds her spellbinding voice in smoky curls through perilous R&B soundbeds on a breathtaking lament for a broken dreamer in “Pipedream,” the lead-in to this powerful debut EP.
20 more high-profile Austin albums
Willie Nelson, "That's Life." The living legend's second tribute to Frank Sinatra in four years earned him another Grammy nomination.
Willie Nelson Family, self-titled. Willie shared the spotlight with sister Bobbie, sons Lukas and Micah, and daughters Paula and Amy on this November release.
Black Pumas, "Capitol Cuts: Live From Studio A." There's no new material on this set that features live versions of songs drawn mainly from the band's debut album, but that was good enough to make the band a Grammy nominee for the third straight year.
Asleep at the Wheel, “Half a Hundred Years.” The Western swing kingpins celebrated their 50th anniversary with a 19-song set that included guest appearances from Willie Nelson, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and more.
Carolyn Wonderland, “Tempting Fate.” On her first album for influential blues label Alligator, Wonderland enlisted Grammy-winning musician Dave Alvin to produce and got spectacular results.
Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall, “The Marfa Tapes." Only Ingram is from Austin among this all-star country trio, whose collaboration earned a Grammy nomination for best country album.
Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, “Hunter & the Dog Star.” The former Dallas band's members all live at least part-time in the Austin area now and are in the midst of a surprise resurgence, with two acclaimed albums in three years.
Israel Nash, “Topaz.” Black Pumas guitarist Adrian Quesada produced this set from the Dripping Springs psych-folk-rocker, which added five new songs to a set he'd issued last year.
Strand of Oaks, “In Heaven.” Relocating here from Pennsylvania after a half-dozen records that established him as a nationally recognized singer-songwriter, Timothy Showalter issued his first album as an Austin artist.
Shinyribs, “Late Night TV Gold.” The 'Ribs weathered a hard year that included leader Kevin Russell's bout with COVID-19 and the death of bassist Jeff Brown from epilepsy complications, but their seventh album was a welcome bit of good news.
Explosions in the Sky, “Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack for Public Television).” The atmospheric instrumental outfit created this 20-track set to accompany “Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas,” which premiered on PBS earlier in the year.
Sue Foley, “Pinky’s Blues.” The Canadian-born blues guitarist's second album in four years further reconnects her with Austin, where she recently returned after having lived here for a stretch in the 1990s.
Alejandro Escovedo, “La Cruzada.” A Spanish-language re-recording of Escovedo's 2018 immigration-themed album "The Crossing" features new vocals from Del Castillo's Alex Ruiz and earned Escovedo his first-ever appearance on Billboard's Latin charts.
Paul Oakenfold, “Shine On.” The world-renowned English DJ/producer moved to Austin recently and issued his fourth album, which includes collaborations with CeeLo Green, Aloe Blacc, Azealia Banks and others.
Bob Schneider, “In a Room Full of Blood With a Sleeping Tiger.” On his first full-length release since 2018, Schneider honed in on what he does best: the pop-oriented singer-songwriter fare that fueled his 2000 breakthrough “Lonelyland.”
Mike & the Moonpies, “One to Grow On.” Mike Harmeier's long-running local country outfit extended a recent hot streak with this nine-song set that included contributions from Shooter Jennings and the Shinyribs Soul Sisters.
Molly Burch, “Romantic Images.” The indie singer-songwriter's fourth album since 2017 was full of richly melodic arrangements leaning toward synth-pop.
Tony Kamel, “Back Down Home.” A Grammy nominee with bluegrassers Wood & Wire, Kamel stepped out on his own for a record that mixes in country-folk, old-time and Cajun influences.
Conspirare, “Close To You: Carillon Christmas 2019.” The Grammy-winning choral ensemble's latest release was a live recording from a holiday show two years ago at a historic local chapel.
20 more noteworthy local releases
Amigo the Devil, “Born Against”; Buffalo Nichols, self-titled; Curtis McMurtry, “Toothless Messiah”; Go Fever, “Velvet Fist”; Grace Pettis, “Working Woman”; Hovvdy, “True Love”; Ida Red, “Harmony Grits”; Jason Boland & the Stragglers, “The Light Saw Me”; Joe King Carrasco y Colectivo Chihuahua, “Beer Bars & Guitars”; Matt the Electrician, “We Imagined an Ending”; Montopolis, “Texas Workforce Commission Hold Music”; Nori, self-titled; Pocket FishRmen, “We Are Masters of These Levels”; Ray Prim, “When It’s All Said and Done”; Robert Harrison, “Watching the Kid Come Back”; Rod Gator, “For Louisiana”; Terri Hendrix, “Pilgrim's Progress Project 5.5”; Suzanne Santo, “Yard Sale”; Wayne Sutton, “Blue Worm”; Zach Person, self-titled.