Texas music was all over the map in 2018 – and that’s a good thing. The Lone Star State-born or -based artists who created my 10 favorite albums reinvigorated everything from power pop to hip-hop. Whether they sold out arenas or recorded in barns, they all made a lasting impression.
- “First Flower” by Molly Burch
The mesmerizing Austin singer blends the yearning romance of ‘50s doo-wop with the sultry sass of a jazz chanteuse on her engaging follow-up to last year’s “Please Be Mine.” Her moody voice swoops and swerves, switching octaves and shifting tempos mid-song, sometimes even mid-thought. Songs like “Wild” and “Dangerous Place” grapple with self-doubt and being an introvert (“It’s in my nature to be guarded/I wish I was a wilder soul”), but they also ooze with a sense of wonder and quiet determination.
- “Motorcade” by Motorcade
This Dallas supergroup features members of The Deathray Davies, Pleasant Grove and Baboon who share an affection for The Cure, Depeche Mode and the brooding British pop of the ‘80s. But Andrew Huffstetler’s compelling vocals and the soaring melodies of “Walk With Me,” “Recover” and “When the Hit Comes” emphasize the craft of their songwriting, not their nostalgia for the era.
- “In the Rainbow Rain” by Okkervil River.
There are few rock frontmen who embody their music like Will Sheff. Onstage, flinging his hair or flailing his body, singing or howling, he throws himself into his songs with an intense, trance-like focus. The Austin-bred band’s latest incarnation layers on keyboards and saxophones that make even his most melancholy tunes sound more dreamy than dreary. He even builds a perfect pastoral pop song around memories of his childhood tracheotomy.
- “Good Thing” by Leon Bridges
The Fort Worth soul singer’s 2015 debut, “Coming Home,” introduced him as a finger-popping, charismatic Sam Cooke disciple. His sophomore effort digs deeper while flirting with the polished production and denser beats of modern R&B and uptown funk. From the Stax-style slow jam of “Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand” to the Van Morrison-meets-”Purple Rain” gospel-soul of “Beyond,” his impassioned voice commands attention and assures that his music sounds hipper, but no less heartfelt.
- “Peace Town” by Jimmy LaFave
These are the last 20 recordings by the beloved Austin troubadour who died of cancer in 2017 at age 61. LaFave knew his prognosis when he entered the studio, so cover choices like Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” and Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” resonate as poignant farewell notes, delivered with the reverent grace and soul-baring passion that marked his prolific career.
- “Astroworld” by Travis Scott
The Houston hip-hop kingpin conquered arenas and ruled the charts in 2018. He also graduated from MC to maestro by unleashing this sonic rollercoaster ride of dizzying beats, head-spinning samples, all-star cameos (Drake, Stevie Wonder, Tame Impala and Juice WRLD, among others) and woozy effects that make his rapping sound in your face one minute, underwater the next.
- “The Crossing” by Alejandro Escovedo
As the son of an immigrant, this 67-year-old San Antonio native has chronicled the struggle and pride of growing up Mexican-American before. But his most revealing, and revelatory, reflections fuel this fictional concept album about two immigrants who work in a Texas restaurant and discover they share a dream and a love of rock ‘n’ roll. From the Dylanesque folk-rock of “Something Blue” to the garage-band stomp of “Fury and Fire,” what unfolds as a timeless story expands into a timely statement.
- “Creamer” by Creamer
This sparkling, all-analog power pop project is helmed by Dallas-born Philip Creamer, who cut his teeth as the leader of a Fort Worth band called Dovetail. His bandmates, including brother Daniel, morphed into the mighty Texas Gentlemen. Philip moved to Nashville to write breathtaking tunes like “Bad as You,” “Drugs No More” and the rollicking “Record Machine” that celebrate his adoration for the luscious, harmony-laden pop of Todd Rundgren, the Raspberries and Queen.
- “Con Todo El Mundo” by Khruangbin
The roots of this Houston instrumental trio began at a church where Beyoncé once sang and sprouted over a shared fixation on cassettes of Thailand funk bands. Recorded in a barn in nearby Burton TX, their 2015 debut, “The Universe Smiles Upon You,” made guitarist Mark Speer, bassist Laura Lee and drummer DJ Johnson instant indie darlings. Their latest barn jams have spawned an irresistible, ultra-chill follow-up of dub rhythms, trippy guitars and Latin and Middle Eastern textures that sound out of this world.
- “Golden Hour” by Kacey Musgraves
The Texas album that had the biggest impact in 2018 was also the quietest one. The fourth effort by this Golden TX-born singer-songwriter is more than just a country star’s brave foray into lusher, more atmospheric pop. In between the clever wordplay and melodic finesse of “Butterflies,” “Love Is a Wild Thing” and the galloping disco-twang of “High Horse,” Musgraves dials down the tempos to a heavenly crawl, inserts long pauses, and delivers the subversive move we didn’t see coming – a sublime, unapologetically sentimental triumph about staying mindful in a multitasking world, encouraging us to not just experience life, but to appreciate it.
David Okamoto is a Dallas music journalist and commentator.