The 30 Best Texas Albums
Enough about Townes Van Zandt already.
No disrespect to the Fort Worth-born singer, who kick-started his career as an existential poet-musician in the folk clubs of Houston in the late '60s and early '70s and died 16 years ago next month. Van Zandt's songs could be harshly realistic, achingly poetic and unnervingly bleak, sometimes within a verse or two of each other. Think of "Marie," "Snowin' on Raton," "Waitin' Around to Die" or easily two dozen others.
So for years and years, through the efforts of Townes's mentors, peers and admirers — a list that starts with Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett — Van Zandt's body of work came to represent the sound of Texas music as a whole: steeped in the blues, dipped in the honky-tonks, and practiced with wit and honesty by first-class storytellers.
But it's been a full generation since a young Texas singer-songwriter has had the kind of galvanizing talent of Townes and his disciples. (Hayes Carll could, one day.) Inevitably, the sound of Texas music has moved on, to indie-rock, gangsta rap, bruising heavy metal, Tex-Mex punk rock, epic instrumental soundscapes, disturbing psychedelia and the stray classic-pop vocalist or two, singing in both English and Spanish.
But no one ever seemed to bring that up. One day this summer, Houston Press Assistant Music Editor Craig Hlavaty brought in a trade paperback he had found at a local thrift store called The Genuine Texas Handbook. Edited (oops, "rounded up") by Rosemary Kent and published in 1981, the book pronounces "genuine" with a long "I" on every one of its 224 pages. Between a guide to ranching terms, line drawings of a typical Texas beauty queen and oil-field roughneck, and a diagram of a generously greasy Tex-Mex spread — a concept that seemed to be relatively new at the time — the Handbook pours on the folksy Texan-ness like thick chili gravy.
Naturally, the book spends a few pages on the music of Texas, including an amusing essay about the "Willie Cult." A few pages over, past Gilley's, lies "The Required Record Collection," a list of "21 record albums that every kicker must own and play constantly." No one should have any quarrel with the likes of George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker, but Texans are capable of producing other types of music besides country and have been doing so for a long time. Also, that list is awfully white and male, and Buddy Holly has been gone for more than 50 years.
So we decided to update the Texas "Required Record Collection" to better reflect what Texas music (the good stuff) actually sounds like today. In early October, the Houston Press started badgering music writers at newspapers and magazines across the state, asking them for their choices of the best recent Texas albums, no greatest hits, please. Since it's been more or less 30 years since the handbook came out, that seemed like a good round number, both in years and albums.
It seems like it worked. Surely readers will have their own choices, and to be honest, one reason we did this was in the hopes of starting an old-fashioned holiday dinner-table-style argument (comments, please). The following albums came up over and over again, some by artists with one shooting-star record, others by those who have built up such a distinguished body of work they could scarcely be ignored. But Texas is nothing if not long on tradition, so if this list reflects how much popular music here has changed since the early '80s, it also reflects the long shadows that Townes and his kind continue to cast. We think that might make him crack a bemused sort of smile.
(list in descending order)
At just 26 minutes, Amor Prohibido was still long enough to become the biggest-selling Latin album in history for a while and won the Lake Jackson-born beloved Tejano star hordes of new fans. A thoroughgoing pop album with four hit singles, Prohibido mixes in as much reggae, hip-hop and midnight R&B as it does mariachi and cumbia and lifts the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang" wholesale for "Fotos y Recuerdos." Today the production might sound a little dated (check the 90210 guitar in "Ya No"), but the star quality of the one Corpus Christi still calls La Flor remains undiminished.
The Last Real Texas Blues Band
Recorded live, as it should be, The Last Real Texas Blues Band puts Doug Sahm in front of a group of Austin/San Antonio veterans at the famous Antone's for a program of vintage Gulf Coast R&B. (You can hear him call for more vocals in the monitor, and order drinks later.) Whether malt-shop memories ("Bad Boy," "When I Fall in Love") or standards of a deeper blue ("T-Bone Shuffle," Guitar Slim's "Something to Remember You By"), Sahm and company deliver a swinging set dripping with Texas soul.
Back Porch/ Manhattan
After a string of powerful albums dealing with the most intimate of matters (see Gravity), on Real Animal Escovedo turns his pen on his equally eventful life in music. With ex-T. Rex hand Tony Visconte producing, Animal nods to Bowie, Bolan, Dylan, Iggy and Patti Smith (symbolically) and Escovedo's ex-mates in the Nuns and Rank and File (literally), succeeding as both personal history and a convincing argument that rock and roll should never be left in the hands of children.
Locust Abortion Technician
Touch and Go
"Daddy, what does regret mean?" a young boy asks to open this album. Don't ask the Butthole Surfers. Heavily distorted and often at half-speed, until everything clicks into place on the visceral but oddly touching "Human Cannonball," Side 1 of this synapse-frying album sounds like a twisted joke. Side 2 is more like a protracted freakout, with the Russian-tinged "Kuntz," a troubling phone call to a women's crisis center and plenty more amp-abusing noise. That's what makes it brilliant.
Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind
King George was just one more rising country star when this album came out, but not for long. With "The Cowboy Rides Away," Fort Worth gave Strait his second signature ballad (after "Amarillo by Morning") and remains arguably his strongest record start to finish. Between easygoing shuffles like the title track, Haggardesque turns such as "Love Comes From the Other Side of Town," and Western swing kicks like "Any Old Time" and "The Fireman," Fort Worth really is Strait's total package.
True Believers, True Believers
EMI Music Distribution
True Believers couldn't catch a break, which only added to their myth. A golden reputation in Austin and an opening spot on a Los Lobos tour helped Alejandro Escovedo, brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham's three-guitar army win a sizable regional audience, but their label wanted to go "urban" and left the Believers with little more than a legend as one of the great lost electric-roots bands of the '80s. Rykodisc reissued True Believers with its unreleased (and better) follow-up on 1994's Hard Road, but the original is almost impossible to find, even online.
Today he's one of Texas's most revered songwriters, but Gravity marks Alejandro Escovedo's first recording outside a band. Made while he was coping with his ex-wife's suicide around the time he turned 40 ("Bury Me" sounds like he doesn't expect to live much longer himself), Gravity finds a survivor's grit underneath Escovedo's bereavement, aided by the late Stephen Bruton's expert production. Standouts, to name just two, include the Townshend-esque swells of "Paradise" and the proto-alt-country of "Oxford."
Come Away With Me
As with Adele almost a decade later, Come Away With Me was proof that all you need to build a multiplatinum Grammy-sweeping blockbuster is a spotless set of pop songs and one very bewitching vocalist. With a touch of Vince Guaraldi and a little Diana Krall, Come Away With Me is a rainy-day album that radiates warmth no matter how wistful Jones's voice gets. As a bonus, it contains perhaps the most playful version of Hank Williams Sr.'s "Cold Cold Heart" ever recorded.
Roky Erickson & Okkervil River,
True Love Cast Out All Evil
This dream-come-true pairing on paper might not have worked in reality. Erickson, legendary in psych-rock circles for his work in the 13th Floor Elevators, had not cut an original album since recovering from decades of serious mental problems in the early '00s. Okkervil River had released a string of nigh-adored indie-folk albums and was nobody's "backing band." But Erickson and Okkervil leader Will Sheff (who produced) hit it off famously. True Love is rich with reflection and melancholy, with enough fire that it's still a rock and roll album. (Easily.) On second thought, there's no way this wouldn't have worked, just a small wonder it works as well as it does. A triumph.
Across the Borderline
Across the Borderline was Willie Nelson's last for Columbia Records, his home since Red Headed Stranger, and his first to see him covering younger songwriters rather than heroes and peers (though neither Lyle Lovett nor John Hiatt was exactly a newcomer in 1993). He looked to rock and pop as much as country, in highlights including Paul Simon's "Graceland" and the Bob Dylan duet "Heartland." Most significantly, Borderline is the first album by the ever-youthful Nelson that feels truly autumnal, never more so than on a stunning duet with Sinéad O'Connor on Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up."
Robert Earl Keen,
These days all anyone remembers is "Merry Christmas From the Family," which is hardly Gringo Honeymoon's best song. No. 1 may be closer "Dreadful Selfish Crime," which sprawls past seven self-loathing minutes like something off Dylan's Blood on the Tracks. Here also are jilted-lover ballad "Lynnville Train" and Steve Earle's outlaw tale "Tom Ames' Prayer," all polished to a rich mahogany by Keen's mostly acoustic combo. His saucy beatnik-jazz take on Texas's favorite food, "Barbeque," is in a lighter humor, but even "Merry Christmas" is no deck-the-halls carol.
...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead,
Source Tags & Codes
At their best, Jason Reese and Conrad Keely's dark Austin art-rock crew pile moments of sublime beauty and blinding rage on top of each other with Zeppelin-like agility. Source Tags is their shining moment, sprinkling splenetic depth charges ("Homage," "Days of Being Wild") with serene pop contemplation ("Relative Ways"). One of the first albums to earn Pitchfork's coveted 10.0 rating, which for once was not far off the mark.
At the Drive-In,
Relationship of Command
El Paso's At the Drive-In was once as hot as molten lead. When Relationship of Command appeared in September 2000, nothing else in alternative rock sounded quite like it, a grisly prog-rock/post-hardcore pileup between Bad Brains, Pink Floyd, Drive Like Jehu and The X-Files. The album was so entropic that ATDI went on "indefinite hiatus" the next year and shortly splintered into Sparta and The Mars Volta, but Relationship of Command stands as a vivid souvenir of Y2K-era angst funneled into sizzling guitar rock.
Explosions in the Sky,
The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
Explosions in the Sky took the cathedrals of electric guitar conjured by the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, dispensed with the lyrics and won the hearts of jaded indie-rockers everywhere with awe-inspiring music of vast grandeur and deep humanity. The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is almost a living organism, equal parts emotional and aloof, intricate and inscrutable. It flowed directly into the Austin quartet's soundtrack to the 2004 Texas-shot film Friday Night Lights, then the NBC series, then almost every TV drama of the past ten years.
The Houston Kid
After about 25 years as a top Nashville artist who sent an astounding five singles from 1988's Diamonds & Dirt to No. 1 on Billboard's country chart, Crowell took some time off and returned as a sort of transfigured prophet-troubador much too intelligent and dignified for mainstream country. With novelistic lyrics presaging 2011 paper memoir Chinaberry Sidewalks, Crowell recounts his rough east Houston upbringing through revolving sketches about his tyrannical father and the armed robber of "Highway 17," among others. The Houston Kid seals his reputation as the most perceptive songwriter ever to hail from the Bayou City limits.
Music World/ Compadre
When the jobs moved overseas, politicians sold us out and the circus moved on to another town, Childish Things fought postmillennial malaise with a wily, resourceful set of cantankerous roots-rock. McMurtry's withering snapshot of George W. Bush's America, "We Can't Make It Here," drew the most attention, but the more intimate dramas of "Six-Year Drought" (which recalls Springsteen's "My Hometown") and "Restless" retain a quiet dignity and stubborn perseverance when they could easily be hopelessly bleak.
Girls Can Tell
"Don't say a word," opens Girls Can Tell. "The last one's still stinging." Every note stings on Spoon's third album, which doesn't so much smooth out the jagged edges of the scrappy Austinites' first two full-lengths as sharpen them to an even finer point. Keyboards and strings accent Britt Daniel's more vulnerable side on "Anything You Want" and "10:20 a.m.," while Daniel's eternal guitar pas de deux with simpatico drummer Jim Eno — always one of the biggest reasons to love Spoon — approaches jazz-like precision on the strutting "Take a Walk" and noirish instrumental "This Book Is a Movie."
Pontiac presents Lyle Lovett as a sophisticated Sinatra-style crooner who happens to be a tried-and-true Texan. His troubled characters are consistently believable and complex, such as the regret-stricken rodeo cowboy of "Walk Through the Bottomland" or the sardonically resigned husband of "She's No Lady." But Pontiac doesn't feel fully three-dimensional until Lovett's minutely detailed arrangements kick in, whether widescreen country-rock ("L.A. County"), somber folk ("Simple Song") or lightning swing ("She's Hot to Go").
Too Far to Care
Breakout Wreck Your Life gave the Old 97's every indication they were about to become big-time rock stars. Follow-up Too Far to Care is where they anted up with a set of songs that, ironically, was a little too savvy about the music biz to get big-time airplay. Still, it's tremendous fun, a sharp-witted and tuneful affair that charts a furious succession of gigs and one-night stands while pondering what leaving home for good truly means. As many hearts as the Old 97's were breaking (and having broken) in the process, Too Far to Care makes it obvious they were having the time of their lives.
Erykah Badu appeared when R&B was dominated by street-tough divas and multi-octave ex-church soloists, but Baduizm puts out a strong enough bohemian Billie Holiday vibe to back up the reincarnation talk permeating songs like "Next Lifetime." This is no mere throwback, though, with a subtle hip-hop flavor and very '90s girl-power attitude. Creatively, Baduizm plays it fairly close to the vest compared to later albums like Mama's Gun and the New Amerykah twins, but its ultra-chill after-hours ambience is its own kind of cool.
We Can't Be Stopped
Rarely have three men minced fewer words than the Geto Boys do on We Can't Be Stopped. Whether the topic is sex, more sex, murder, drugs, poverty, paranoia or George H.W. Bush's Iraq war, almost every eye-popping lyric is as graphic as the infamous cover photo of the trio wheeling Bushwick Bill into the Ben Taub ER. Bolted to trunk-rattling beats and funky hooks that pushed "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" into the R&B Top 10, We Can't Be Stopped is still a little bit shocking and occasionally funny as hell.
Tramp On Your Street
Here Billy Joe Shaver smartly enlists his son, Dickey Betts-schooled guitarslinger Eddy, to give the old man's weatherbeaten honky-tonk tales some extra wattage. Waylon Jennings guests on the first two songs, and it feels a little like Billy Joe brought in his old compadre just to show off what the kid could do. Eddy repays the elder Shaver's confidence in fretboard-stinging spades, on "Georgia on a Fast Train" and "The Hottest Thing In Town" especially. Tragically, Eddy died of a heroin overdose in 2000, but Tramp on Your Street endures as one of Texas's top musical father-son collaborations.
These days Bun B is such a lovable personality/rap elder statesman/Rice professor, it's a little easy to forget that UGK was hard. Both he and Pimp C (R.I.P.) were limber and inventive MCs whose thoughtful critiques of ghetto life always rode shotgun with their unapologetic playa tales. Ridin' Dirty is swimming in weed, bling, cash, 'Lacs, keys, syrup, steak, shrimp, DJ Screw and violence — a proper Gulf Coast gangsta gumbo, in other words — but its luxuriant slow-rolling production and UGK's electric charisma make it, in Pimp's words, "shine so clean."
Vulgar Display of Power
Vulgar Display of Power's vinyl reissue comes with a sticker on the plastic wrap that says "Completely Fucking Hostile." That about sums it up. Like going 11 rounds with a gut-metal heavy bag, Vulgar Display is 52 rib-sticking minutes of bile and aggression, but not hate — "Rise" is about as savage a self-empowerment anthem as you can imagine — one in which the only elements lighter than "skull-crushing" are the minor-key acoustic-guitar flourishes of "This Love." For Pantera, love means never having to say you're sorry when "fuck you" will suffice.
When Natalie Maines made "those" comments about the Iraq war in March 2003, the No. 1 country song in the U.S. was the Chicks' tear-jerking (and completely appropriate) "Travelin' Soldier." Their sudden fall from grace is no fault of Home, where bluegrass frolics like "White Trash Wedding" and "Long Time Gone" sit side by side with Patty Griffin's poignant "Top of the World" and Stevie Nicks's "Landslide." Today mainstream country is sorely missing acts with this much talent and integrity, not to mention the Chicks' near-perfect harmonies. Come back, ladies. All is forgiven.
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Similar to The Houston Kid, Car Wheels is Lucinda Williams's musical road map of her equally stormy relationships, from "Lake Charles" to "Jackson" to "Greenville." Every so often someone does her right, but Car Wheels's strongest tracks ("Joy," "I Lost It") find Williams taking back her self-respect without bothering to ask permission. The rest of the time, her heart is pushed to the breaking point in a flawless set of chiming folk-rock infused with the essence of Lafayette zydeco, bottomland Delta blues and Muscle Shoals soul.
If you think of Texas Tornados as a sort of Tex-Mex Beatles, it totally works, especially on their first album. Doug Sahm was the groovy rock and roller, Freddy Fender the melodic balladeer with a soft touch, and Flaco Jimenez the mystical shaman with the magic accordion (in for George's sitar). And like Ringo, Augie Meyers quietly held the whole thing together, both with his relentless Vox organ and the goofy comic relief of "(Hey Baby) Que Paso." Every band should have this much fun.
Eliminator is diamond, with more than 10 million units sold, and bulletproof. If you're not into fuzzy guitars, slick sequencers, bad girls, greasy Mexican food and horrible double entendres, you may want to seek your pleasures elsewhere. (What, do you hate fun?) But Eliminator is about more than just the babes and the beards and that 1933 custom Ford coupe. The singles sold it by the semi, but the sharp-dressed men's sharp-edged "Thug," "TV Dinners" and "Dirty Dog" embodied "deep cuts" as ZZ refined their Rio Grande mud into space-age boogie. Oh mercy.
Steve Earle didn't invent alternative country on Guitar Town, but he could have. His first album actually topped the country chart and spun off two Top 10 singles, but it rocked entirely too hard to have much traction in a scene besotted with "new traditionalists" like Randy Travis. Ironically, Guitar Town is largely about Earle's awareness of his role as a modern-day troubadour, as he salutes heroes such as Townes Van Zandt ("My Old Friend the Blues") and Bruce Springsteen ("State Trooper," added to the 2002 reissue) in a brash, history-minded voice that, even in Earle's early thirties, was completely his own.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble,
Roots music was old hat by 1983, even in Texas. The great bluesmen like Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters were already starting to die off, and rock fans had begun jumping ship to punk, new wave and hip-hop. In stepped Stevie Ray Vaughan and Texas Flood to resurrect the idea that a guitarist could be a Hendrix-like folk hero, which the otherwise soft-spoken Vaughan played to the hilt onstage. Texas Flood not only kept the blues going for another generation or two, it created its own strain of Texas rock still thriving today — just look at arguably 2012's top Texas album, Gary Clark Jr.'s Blak & Blu.
Neph Basedow, Houston Press
Jim Beal Jr., San Antonio Express-News
Tom Buckley, Texas Music
Jason Cohen, Texas Monthly
Michael Corcoran, Austin American-Statesman/Texas Monthly
Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle
Kelly Dearmore, Dallas Observer
Doug Freeman, Austin Chronicle
Chris Gray, Houston Press
Eric Grubbs, Dallas Observer
Raoul Hernandez, Austin Chronicle
Craig Hlavaty, Houston Press
John Nova Lomax, Houston Press
Rick Mitchell, Houston International Festival/ex-Houston Chronicle
Margaret Moser, Austin Chronicle
Joe Nick Patoski, author of Selena: Como la Flor and Willie Nelson: An Epic Life (among others)
Austin Powell, Austin Chronicle
Hector Saldana, San Antonio Express-News
Shea Serrano, Houston Press
Audra Schroeder, Dallas Observer
Richard Skanse, Lone Star Music
William Michael Smith, Houston Press/Texas Music
Mario Tarradell, Dallas Morning News
HOW THEY VOTED
Voters were asked to choose their 30 favorite Texas albums recorded and released between 1982 and 2012, to rank them in descending order and to be as clinical (or not) as they wanted to be about how they defined "favorite." We defined "Texas album" as a full-length original album released by an artist born in Texas (or a band formed in Texas), someone who got here as soon as he or she could, or a native who has since moved away but qualifies under the "once a Texan, always a Texan" rule. The results were entered into a Google spreadsheet and calculated with the invaluable assistance of Houston Press Web Editor Brittanie Shey. Not all voters listed 30 albums, but each score was calculated using 30 points as the top value.
Watch our Rocks Off music blog for much, much more on the Texas 30.
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