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)

Amor Prohibido
Capitol/EMI Latin

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.

Doug Sahm,
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.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray