Avoiding all the cliches about how awful 2020 has been is difficult when compiling a list such as this. Or really just looking back at the past 12 months in any capacity. It’s unprecedented in so many respects, but particularly from the arts perspective. Concerts shut down. Venues closed. Movie theaters shuttered. Yet, as they will always do, artists found a way. And that way for musicians was to keep plugging along. Sure they couldn’t perform and play in the traditional manner, but they kept grinding. Live streams and album releases kept the music going until they could be joined by socially distanced concerts. In a year that looked and sounded like no other in history, these were the albums, songs, artists, musicians and songwriters that stood out to us.
Reckless Kelly – American Jackpot/American Girls
Being one of the anchor acts of a music scene can at times feel like an albatross, but the Reckless Kelly boys shake off any unnecessary weight and remain true to form with this double disc set full of some of the Braun’s best work.
Wade Bowen/Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer, Vol. 2
Projects such as this are often insufferable toss-offs with few redeeming qualities. Yet for the second consecutive album, Bowen and Rogers strike up the classic country vibes and up the ante on humor. They lean into the tropes and make them fun again. All while delivering performances that evoke their classic individual work.
Lori McKenna – The Balladeer
With Dave Cobb in the producer’s seat and McKenna’s high-quality standard lyrics at the ready, the two collaborated on an album that while perhaps not McKenna’s best (a high bar), it is still one of the year’s best. This is due to the airy feeling that uplifts even the most forlorn lyrics and the way McKenna continues to cut right to the marrow in everything she writes and sings.
Waylon Payne – Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher and Me
We all had to wait over 17 years for Payne’s second album and the wait was worth it. While not quite as solid as 2003’s The Drifter, this collection hits all the right notes as far as authenticity, vocal performance and songwriting.
American Aquarium – Lamentations
BJ Barham has carved out a spot among modern songwriters with his a signature brand of hardscrabble songs that evoke the best parts of Springsteen and Isbell, but with enough Carolina grit to make them completely his own. As Barham’s band has grown and undergone changes, so has his recorded output. The changes are subtle and smooth. On the Aquarium’s latest release, Lamentations, producer Shooter Jennings works to smooth out the rough edges where necessary, yet also amplify them when mandatory.
Kyle Nix – Lightning on the Mountain (and Other Short Stories)
This is an album that is sonically much in line with all of Turnpike’s recorded output. That is to be expected given the cast of characters that came together to make it happen. What stands out as a unique is the writing itself and Nix’s vocals. The writing is forthright, imaginative and creative. He does not paint himself into standard Red Dirt corners and is unafraid to get fantastical. He weaves stories with melodies and goes wherever the song takes him as opposed to pushing the songs in the direction of radio jingles.
Thieving Birds – American Savage
The Birds return with an album full of vervey riffs and crunchy melodies. Ace Crayton’s voice has never sounded finer…both in the vocal booth and with his legal pad.
Sturgill Simpson – Cuttin’ Grass Vol 1
Simpson is a world-class picker and on this project he got to live the dream of assembling an all-star collection of Bluegrass heavyweights. The musicianship is sublime, the vibe is positive and Simpson pushes the familiar songs into new nooks and cranny’s.
The Wilder Blue – Hill Country
This album didn’t receive the due it would have in a normal year, and while that could be said for all of these, it’s particularly true in this case. The group and album were both called Hill Country. The non-specific nature of the name caused issues with people finding it and distinguishing it from similarly titled projects. However, what sets this effort apart is the supreme musicianship and songwriting put forth by Williams, Eason and company.
Zach Aaron – Fill Dirt Wanted
There’s a dry, laconic quality that surrounds Aaron’s songwriting, but that doesn’t stop him from pushing the music in unexpected and fun directions.
Zephaniah OHora – Listening to the Music
OHora returns with another standout collection of throwback Haggard-infused country music. This album sounds like it’s from 1968 in all the best ways possible. OHora continues to carve out a lane for himself that nods to traditions while moving the music forward.
John Baumann – Country Shade
This is a master class in songwriting and something that anyone who is craving real, genuine songwriting should listen to and share with those who need to be enlightened. Country Shade is pure light.
Kat Hasty – “Pretty Things”
Justin Wells – “The Screaming Song”
Josh Grider – “Country’s Coming Back”
The Panhandlers – “West Texas In My Eye”
Hailey Whitters – “10 Year Town”
Kathryn Legendre – “One Long Sad Song”
Kolby Cooper – “Tom Petty”
Austin Meade – “Happier Alone”
Robynn Shayne – “Devil You Know”
Sturgill Simpson – “I Don’t Mind”
Austin Meade – few artists took better advantage of the Covid hand we were all dealt than Austin Meade. He went to work. Not necessarily reinventing himself, but moreso honing in on the aspects of his music and songwriting that he liked and dropping tropes he no longer meshed with. This led to a dialed up rock flavor, attention from labels and one of the breakout singalong songs of the year. He is poised for a massive 2021.
Kat Hasty – Hasty is the breakout artist of 2020. She has a refreshing attitude, style and point of view. She first gained notice on TikTok prior to the release of her debut EP. Hasty’s music is real, haunting and straight to the soul. This is a singer/songwriter with a detailed point of view and she has the ability to flawlessly deliver it.
The Panhandlers – Supergroups either work well or fall flat. This one is working well. Each member brings a unique flavor to the table that ends up being complementary to the other three. Buoyed by some of John Baumann’s finest songwriting, in any other year this would have been the live show to see.
James Steinle – Steinle is an off-kilter honky-tonker. A songwriter in the mold of Prine. An observationalist who likes to lace that with steel guitar and a cynical attitude.
Koe Wetzel – The numbers speak for themselves. Wetzel continues to be a lightning rod, but now that lightning rod is on a major label and racking up streaming numbers that tally in the hundreds of millions.
Dalton Domino- Domino continues to forge and follow his own path. He turned away from the “Texas Music” radio side of things a few years back and that move has been the correct one. He has proven to be a prolific writer on par with Ryan Adams. The good news for music fans is that there are more repeaters than skippers.
Zac Wilkerson – The soulful guitar slinger released an album amid the pandemic and just kept plugging along. Wilkerson remains one of the most underrated artists in Texas. He can sing and play circles around most, but maintains a humility that makes him relatable.
Corb Lund – The Canadian titan returned with another album of his infectious melodies and riffs layering over his clever lyrics. Lund sets the bar high for a particular brand of country music that is all his own.
Sturgill Simpson – Few artists are as tortured or as difficult to pigeonhole as Sturgill Simpson. His recorded output has run the gamut from traditional to country to electronic rock n’ roll. As with most things during 2020, he looked inward and returned to his roots. The ensuing result was a blast of bluegrass tinged covers of his old songs and an unwavering determination to not suffer any fools, anywhere, anytime.
Van Darien – The Texan bred, Nashville based songwriter brings an artful, intelligent spin to roots music that expands sonic properties and thematic elements.
Mike and the Moonpies – be it virtual or in person, this group continued to carry the Gary Stewart torch in more ways than one.
William Clark Green – whether with The Panhandlers or his own band, each time out Green and company created a ruckus.
Wade Bowen – Bowen always serves as a steadying force on the Texas scene and that has never been needed more than amid the 2020 pandemic. On the few times he was able to play live he made it count. He even dropped a new album called The Waiting. But, where he truly shined this year was with his Wade’s World content. Early on he figured out that streaming was going to be an important piece of entertaining here in 2020 and he invested in it. The results speak for themselves.
Bri Bagwell – Nobody works harder than Bagwell. Amid the shutdowns, she plugged along. Playing shows, livestreams and launching fashion lines.
Giovannie and the Hired Guns – this band is currently trending upward in the realm of breaking through to headliner status across the state. They’re already there in a few markets, but have been exploding all over the place as of late. Rowdy and real, the songs and this band are connecting.
Shaker Hymns – a band that can swing from loud to emotive and make you feel both equally hard. The level of musicianship in a band this young is hard to come by, and they have a bottle rocket attached to their backs as we enter 2021.
Shinyribs – the grand poobah of funky swampy soulrock transitioned to a virtual environment and kept the people dancing.
Cody Jinks – one of the largest names in independent music has continued to cultivate his brand and following from the comforts of his RV amid the pandemic and hasn’t lost a step. A late year release of a live album recorded at Red Rocks solidified the Jinks bonafides.
Josh Weathers – through his random shows in person and his special livestreams he maintained his title as the most eclectic and electric entertainer in Texas. But, it was truly his cover videos as part of Nate Coon’s series that stand out the most in a live music world that doesn’t look like it normally does.
Sequestered Songwriters – when the shutdown first happened and the bars closed, there was a momentary time when there was nothing musically happening. Then, the social media feeds were overrun with streamed performances. A band of songwriters led by Courtney Patton, Jason Eady and Matt Hillyer took this opportunity to a new place. The monstrous undertaking of a weekly, virtual guitar pull started with Haggard songs and is ongoing eight months later. Each Monday night at 6pm on Facebook one will find a string of the best singer/songwriters in this country paying tribute to an artist they admire. In a year of shuddered performances, this group shines brightly.
Shaker Hymns – these San Marcos based southern rockers are the next in a line that includes Whiskey Myers and Statesboro Revue as Texas bands that have some of that Muscle Shoals funk all over their music. Nyles Robakiewicz is a singing, songwriting, guitar playing triple threat that has mountains ahead of him, he’s going to climb them and move them.
Kolby Cooper – while not a completely new name, like most on this list, 2020 was a transformative year that saw Cooper growing in stature and artistry.
Cody Hibbard – Hibbard dropped his debut music in 2019, but it wasn’t until 2020 when it began to click. Buoyed by the buzz of the few live shows he was able to perform in 2020, he has managed to make himself a favorite with streamers, concertgoers and radio programmers.
Jessi England – Fort Worth songwriter England has been bouncing around for a few years now, but it was her 2020 release that solidified her skills on a larger audience. England employs some indie rock production stylings alongside her Americana songwriting to create a style all her own.
Mason and the Gin Line – the latest band to emerge on the regional scene from the Lubbock, this crew carries the ethos of all those that came before them. Sonically in line with Flatland Cavalry.
The Wilder Blue – hard to call a band that has Zane Williams and Paul Eason a discovery, but they are a new act in this form and after distancing from the generic name of Hill Country, their music gained a foothold. Excited to see what these boys cook up with the new name and focus.
Gabe Lee – Lee’s debut album came out in 2019 and made waves, but his 2020 release cemented those sentiments. Fiery heartland rock mingles with blistering telecasters to create a country music sound that is equal parts testimony and party.
John Baumann – Baumann provided the heavy songwriting lifting on The Panhandlers project and then continued to release his own thoughtful solo work. Once again proving that he is a cut above his peers when it comes to the art of writing songs.
Drew Kennedy – the most consistent master of the current generation of Texas songwriters had another standout year due to his Topo Chico collaboration with Josh Grider and his timely “Thinking With My Thumbs”.
Lori McKenna – Frankly she may be America’s best songwriter currently cranking out new songs. She drops banger after banger and they are always smart, strong and introspective.
Brent Cobb – Cobb made his bones as a Music Row songwriter, but it continues to be his solo material that prove he is a songwriter with something meaty to say.
Dalton Domino – as noted above, Domino continues to chase his muse wherever it leads, perceptions and expectations be damned. It’s a wonderful thing to watch.
Kat Hasty – as mentioned earlier, Hasty has a unique and fresh approach to songwriting. She’s the first Gen Z songwriter to bring that outlook to songwriting in the manner in which she does. It will be awesome to watch her grow, learn and evolve.
Zach Aaron– part Ryan Bingham, part Robert Earl Keen. There’s a grit to Aaron’s work that is equaled by his mischievous whimsy.
Juliet McConkey – much like Hasty, McConkey’s songs are fresh and different from the rest of the pack. She tackles the familiar with unfamiliar words.
Willy Braun – Wrote or co-wrote a double album project two decades into a career that many would be coasting on. Braun isn’t satisfied to rest on the Crazy Eddie laurels, he continues to push himself with each RK release.
BJ Barham– Barham has managed to cultivate a brand, style and viewpoint that is all his. When you hear an American Aquarium song you know it’s going to be intelligent, melodic and most likely rip your heart out.