Reviews by Richard Skanse (RS), Mike Ethan Messick (MEM) and Andrew Dansby (AD)



Take It Like a Man
Let’s not get carried away and call this the best record that Amanda Shires has ever made, if only because her seven-album back catalog has two, maybe even three, other entries objectively its equal. But there’s no denying that Take It Like a Man is next-level swagger from a West Texas spitfire who’s never exactly played things demure: “Come on, I dare you,” she taunts in the opening “Hawk for the Dove.” “Make me feel something again.” The second side’s “Bad Behavior” mines a similarly lusty vein, but there’s a lot more on Shires’ mind (and at stake) here than just satiating carnal hunger: Namely, the myriad “Fault Lines” that can shake one’s faith in Happily Ever After and torpedo even fairytale unions to rubble if not addressed forthright — be it through confession, counseling or spelled out in brutally honest songs directly addressing the same significant other who just happens to be playing lead guitar. Consider that a spoiler that this is not a “divorce record” — but it’s a shot across the bow from a singularly ferocious Highwoman who demands to be heard. RS


Unless you’re a nasty person, Beyoncé is on your side. Musically, she’s got your back. A purveyor of fairly middle-of-the road pop music as a teen star, she hit the top of the charts and then made a remarkable pivot to create some of the heaviest conceptual pop that’s been made in the 21st century. Her previous work has celebrated Black womanhood, and it’s reveled in the cohesion of the music made by bands at Historically Black Universities. She can quash negativity — personal or societal — in a four-minute song. Few artists can fill such a short artistic vessel with so much data and feeling. Renaissance possesses a different pulse than the artier Lemonade. Here she celebrates a gay dance club culture without making any specific declaration. Her combativeness is in the lyrics, and her feeling for an American culture is in the beats and electronics. This album didn’t come with an accompanying movie, because the beats and vibe generate sufficient movement as to be visual even devoid of images. AD


Obsessed with the West
Signature Sounds

Yes, “Texas Music” is a big enough umbrella to cover all kinds of genres; but for anyone squarely in the “Bob Wills is still the King!” camp, this dream team of Brennen and (Ray) Benson is the best thing in Western swing since 2008’s Willie and the Wheel. It’s not the same old, same old either, as Leigh — as gifted an original songwriter as she is a classic country traditionalist — wrote or co-wrote every track here herself, and there’s not a dud in the dozen. RS



Charley Crockett
The Man From Waco
Son of Davy
Seemingly teetering on the edge of a mainstream breakthrough for the last year or two, the still-young and wildly prolific Charley Crockett delivers one of his most cohesive and engaging statements to date. It’s cinematic in scope, with a recurring Western-movie instrumental theme weaving through and ties of characterization that maintain an emotional and narrative thread while still leaving room for some killer stand-alone tracks. Crockett leans hard into various strains of traditional country music with occasional forays into blues; as per usual, very little of this doesnt sound like it could’ve come out circa 1967. But he never seems to hold it at ironic arm’s length. Vocally, he’s more Charley Pride stoic than George Jones emotive, but more and more he’s grown into the role of truly inhabiting a song. Framed by the subtly crashing chords of “Just Like Honey,” the soul swagger of “I’m Just a Clown” or the steel-drenched chug of “All the Way From Atlanta,” he’s likely never sounded more confident conjuring up the vulnerability great country music demands. MEM



The Deep End
33 1/3 Records

Four years after celebrating the 20th anniversary of their platinum-selling sophomore album, the Austin trio of Tony Scalzo, Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield are now just two years away from their 30th anniversary of playing together as Fastball. Will they make it? Scalzo seems to like their chances: “By the lucky stroke of a magical hand, we’re still playing,” he sings on their eighth album’s autobiographical “Electric Cool Aide,” “and everything’s still the same.” That’s not ennui he’s talking about, either, let alone any kind of delusion about Fastball’s present-day fame: Rest assured these guys all know just how long it’s been since “The Way” took them to No. 1, and there’s nothing on The Deep End that sounds like a calculated play to reclaim that spot. What you do hear though is still one of the best alternative power pop bands this side of Elvis Costello and the Attractions, still rocking its original lineup deep into its third decade and, most importantly, still knocking out songs as solid as Zuniga’s “Soundtrack” and “House on the Edge of the World” and Scalzo’s “I Only Remember the Good,” which is good enough to even evoke the late Doug Sahm at his best. RS



The Astronaut
Patient Grasshopper Music

There are 21 other albums on this list, all by artists who are by degrees or leaps and bounds much “bigger” than this humble young woman who probably feels like she’s putting on airs even telling people she writes songs. But the truth is, calling Jana Pochop a “songwriter” is like calling Gandalf a guy who can throw together a nice fireworks display for a birthday party. Pochop, who moved to Austin from Albuquerque in 2006, weaves words and melodies together with a dextrous intelligence that seems outright supernatural. There are eight songs on The Astronaut, and every one of them is packed to the bursting point with so many utterly brilliant observations and hairpin turns of phrase, you get dizzy just trying to keep up. Even harder is picking a favorite, but “Maps,” which likens the human heart to “hell on wheels” running “on sorcery and science,” pretty much marks the spot. RS



Flatland Lullaby
Rack ‘Em Records
(out Oct. 21)

With all due respect to 2014’s revelatory B484 and 2020’s bewitching Love in the Midst of Mayhem, this little beauty now holds the honor of being the most weirdly wonderful album that Ely has ever made. Another “Pearl From the Vault” culled from his deep stash of unreleased recordings, Flatland Lullaby was originally recorded as a Christmas gift for Ely’s toddler daughter back in the mid-’80s, and until now had only been shared with a close circle of family and friends (including Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Kimmie Rhodes, who both sing on the record). Hearing it now feels like being invited inside a secret funhouse. Songs like “Rock My Baby to Sleep,” “The Cats and the Rats” and “Old Mr. Ghost” all brim with fun-for-all-ages musical mischief and whimsy, but it’s the fever-dream spell cast from the opening “Milkmaid” that really pulls you through the looking glass. RS




One of a handful of genre-busting distinct, youthful personalities to come barreling out of obscurity into the new guard of pop superstardom, Houston kid Lizzo grabbed the world by the ears with a couple of irresistibly catchy (and quotable/meme-able) hits in 2019. Amid the Grammy noms, top-line festival slots and social media ubiquity that followed, the brashness and positivity she brought to the table seem to have been well-founded; she’s on a roll, and Special sounds nothing like a sophomore slump. It’s a tuneful, luxurious, pretty damn joyous celebration of a record. Yes, the famously self-confident Lizzo loves herself, but the all-in-this-together vibes suggest that she loves you, too — or at least very much wants you to join the party. Special is loaded with heady disco struts (“About Damn Time”), hybrid hip-hop (“Grrrls”) and big pillowy ballads (“Naked,” “Coldplay”), all of it served with empathy, attitude and one hell of a sex drive. Even if it’s not your usual scene, you’re at least gonna want to drop by for a while. MEM



12th of June

Like filmmaker Robert Altman, who cast him in his films, Lyle Lovett is first and foremost a storyteller. And on his first album of new songs in over a decade, he undergoes a change. The creeps and killers who lent his music a dark and sometimes comic undertone in the ’80s and ’90s aren’t around anymore, but death still is. So is his sense of humor: There are meditations here about the relative value of pants. But also present is the title track, one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking songs he’s ever made. On “12th of June,” he hits on parenthood in a manner both relatable and heartbreaking: Imagining his own funeral and sending a message to his kids from beyond a grave that has not yet been dug. Dark? Not exactly. Rather he’s attuned to the passage of time in a different way than he wrote about before. — AD



300 Entertainment

Already on a pretty meteoric trajectory before her Cardi B duet, “WAP,” solidified her spot as a modern cultural lightning rod, Megan Thee Stallion has every reason (and every resource) to go as big and bold as she wants. She’s right in the vanguard of artists celebrating in-your-face sexuality as empowerment, but that’s not all that’s on her mind on Trumazine, which finds her tackling everything from grief to strife to wrangling one’s own emerging-superstar narrative. It makes for some messy emotion but not necessarily vulnerability; Megan’s rhymes come with the kind of whip-crack velocity that would leave lesser rappers breathless — as well as an “I got this” self-assuredness that acknowledges an obstacle in one beat and obliterates it in the next. For the most part the tracks come lean and urgent, like a decision was made to leave most of the glamor to social media and stage presentation while sticking on record with the raw-and-real ferocity that earned the rest for her. Hit-friendly exceptions like the Dua Lipa collab “Sweetest Pie” benefit from her tartness, while tougher tracks like “Her” and “Who Me” downright revel in it. MEM



Miles and Miles of You
Pat Green Music

It kinda does one’s head in to realize Pat Green has now been making records for nearly as long as some of his heroes already had been when he was still just another bleary-eyed face in a dancehall crowd. Even weirder: The college kids who flocked in droves to Green’s shows in the late-’90s and early-aughts, making him the biggest name in Texas music since Willie Nelson came home from Nashville, now have college-aged kids of their own — which means his 14th album (and first in seven years) will probably soundtrack more chilled-out backyard barbecues than rowdy frat parties and sorority mixers. But just like all of those still-older elder statesman that came before him, Green now sounds right at home rocking that country dad-rock ball cap — singing songs about fatherhood, marriage and surviving the long haul with the ones who matter most with the broken-in ease of a man who’s earned the right to celebrate all things “Steady.” RS



Country Coming Down
Lightning Rod Records

From the big white mansion on the cover to the outsized swagger and country disco thump of songs like “Champagne & a Limo” and “F**k You Money,” there’s a lot about Cauthen’s Country Coming Down that suggests it could be full-blown concept album, poking riotous fun at the hedonistic archetypes of Fat Elvis or Bocephus. But while there’s clearly elements of tongue-in-cheek parody at play here, there’s a heaping helping of sincerity, too — and not just on the back end, where Cauthen gets sentimental on the unabashedly earnest  “Til the Day I Die,” “Roll On Over” and the five-star title track. As was made abundantly clear on his first two albums, Cauthen’s talent as both a writer and singer is no joke; but considering this is also a guy who proudly refers to his voice in the third person (“Big Velvet,” thank you very much), you better believe he means it when he crashes into a room telling you he’s “Country as F**k.” RS



Co-Starring Too
Big Machine

In the pop-culture realm, sequels and tribute albums often get relegated to “maybe nice, but not essential.” But tribute albums aren’t usually chock-full of fresh originals made in collaboration with the alive-and-well artist and his guests, and the fact that Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Co-Starring Too (a sequel of sorts to 2020’s equally guest-laden Co Starring) more than earns its keep is testament to the breadth of artists Hubbard has befriended and influenced. The opening track is the only retread, and even that one’s a relatively recent Hubbard highlight (“Stone Blind Horses”) given fresh life by the input of his better-known outlaw compadre, Willie Nelson. Elsewhere he’s bouncing through classic soul shout-outs with Shinyribs (“Groove”), slashing through full-tilt guitar rock with Lzzy Hale (“Naturally Wild”), fleshing out his wry wordplay with big-screen Americana sounds courtesy of the Band of Heathens (“Desperate Man”) or trading windblown poetic barbs with the simpatico likes of Steve Earle, James McMurtry and Hayes Carll. One could call it a victory lap if it didn’t sound so much like Hubbard was actually picking up speed. MEM


The Misfit

If you’re a fan of the Old 97’s but haven’t kept up with frontman Miller’s prolific solo output, don’t let anyone tell you a deep dive into his nine-album catalog isn’t worth your time: quality abounds. That said, The Misfit is easily the most irresistible of the lot since 2002’s The Instigator, which matched his day band’s insanely catchy Satellite Rides hook for hook. What makes this year’s model really stand out, though, is the fact that it sounds nothing at all like the 97’s, with Miller and producer Sam Cohen committing right from the opening electronic thump and pulse of “Heart Attack Days” to a sumptuous psychedelic New Wave aesthetic that evokes the best of Summer Teeth-era Wilco, Revolver-era Beatles and a sweet ’80s mix tape packed with New Order, Cure and Cars tunes. RS



Lucifer on the Sofa

Forks and knives are pointed, but spoons are perhaps more functional than other utensils. They’ve helped people escape prison, and they’re designed to leave nothing behind on a plate or bowl. A band name that seemed rounded and harmless has over time been fitting for Britt Daniel’s music. Sometimes Spoon is rounded and dance-y. Other times it’s sharpened into a weapon. The group has made 10 albums in 25 years. The early days were clearly indebted to the Pixies. But at the turn of the century, Spoon found out how to make Spoon albums. With each album since Girls Can Tell, the band has proven it can modify what a Spoon album can be. Lucifer on the Sofa is prison Spoon: sharp angles and lyrics that tear. But Daniel is brilliant at balance. Take opener “Held”: “For the first time in my life, I let myself be held like a big fat baby,” he sings, sweetly nasty. But don’t get too comfy. “I let the jets fly,” he sings. The guitars match the lyrics, rangy and barbed. AD



Married Alone
Aunt Daddy Records

Sweeney has, over a handful of albums, provided a welcome alternative to so many Nashville narratives. Her songs feature strong women not on revenge trips by keying cars or such; rather she connects back to Loretta Lynn, who wasn’t a genius because of fist city threats but rather because she was determined to stake out her own space in the world. The women in Sweeney’s songs are full of longings both primal and superficial. Some are cool with a one-night stand (“this isn’t going any further than tonight”) while others seek some indescribable something more. Married Alone isn’t a concept album, per se, but it clearly captures a songwriter cutting a path after a divorce. That path is full of discovery and regret, and it ends with “Still Here,” a song that speaks to her belief in resilience. AD



Dead Oceans

Vieux Farka Touré, the son of the international superstar Ali Farka Touré, wanted to honor his father. But with the elder Toure’s work still in print, how best to do so? The younger Touré decided he wanted a band from Europe or the Americas. His manager suggested Khruangbin, a Houston trio capable of wielding restraint just as adeptly as virtuosity. The band’s albums started as instrumentals but have grown over time to avoid the pitfall of exotica. They prove a perfect match here: Touré and Khruangbin honor the Malian master’s mix of American blues and African forms, while nudging them forward for an audience intrigued by Khruangbin’s stylish and also substantive sound. It’s a lovely collaboration that moves from Africa through the Caribbean, into the Americas and then across the Pacific. It’s big music that makes the world feel smaller. AD



Somewhere Between the Secret and the Truth
Bowen Sounds

Bowen might not have come along early enough to help create the “Texas country” scene that took off in the mid-’90s, but he was a key figure in keeping it airborne and moving it forward. Already usually shooting for something deeper than the average beer joint singalong on his early work, he’s forged a better trail than most into musical maturity. Never one to waste too much time on “Nashville sucks” orneriness, he’s found collaborators across the spectrum of modern country and roots music to expand his own approach and appeal. Appearances from Lori McKenna and Vince Gill lend Bowen’s latest a bit of marquee juice, but Bowen has a lot more going for him here than just good company. Songs like “Everything Has Your Memory” and “Burnin’ Both Ends of the Bar” could’ve lived on catchiness alone, but they reach for something deeper and grab it. And then songs like “A Beautiful World” start out deep and get someplace transcendent. MEM



Ghost Stories
Red House Records

As the daughters of a folk singer and an opera singer, multi-instrumentalists Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore have marinated in played music their entire lives. They’re no strangers to the recording studio, either, both as session players and on their own (Bonnie as a solo artist and Eleanor with her husband, Chris Masterson, as the Mastersons). But it took lockdown to finally coax this no-brainer of a sibling duo project out of them, and the result is sublime. The sisterly harmonies and seasoned chops are every bit on point as one would expect, and the songs deliver delights in spades, too. The nine originals here are among the best either Whitmore has ever penned, and the two covers — one absolute corker by friend Aaron Lee Tasjan and the other by Paul McCartney originally written for the Everly Brothers — are equally inspired. RS



Baker Hotel
Bill Grease Records

Having scrapped his way to someplace close to the top of the modern Texas country heap a little shy of a decade ago, William Clark Green goes a little bigger with each release. Baker Hotel thrives on the kind of widescreen, big-production sound that his predecessors often shied away from, perhaps to avoid overwhelming kinda small voices that benefited from more stripped-down surroundings. Green, in contrast, has a big, rangy tenor that can hold its own against the most opulent wall of sound, whether buoyed by arena-rock crunch (“All You Got”), folk-pop bounciness (“Feel Alive”) or modern country-ballad beauty (“Me, Her & You”) — and he’s gifted enough to infuse it with enough gut-level personality to avoid the sort of anonymous competence some country-pop stars drift into. He’s also unafraid to give voice to some darker yet relatable sentiments where most modern country types lean into empty positivity; his narrators often doubt themselves, get pissed off and disgusted, push others away and walk that fine line between love and hate with friends and lovers. Green doesn’t need to self-mythologize an outlaw facade for himself; at his best, he gets that regular life is compellingly tough enough if you’re sharp enough to get real about it. MEM



A Beautiful Time
Legacy Recordings

At an age where survival itself is an accomplishment, Willie still manages to hit the studio with longtime producer/collaborator Buddy Cannon about once a year to put his latest round of compositions and finds on record. It’s always welcome and worthwhile, often transcendent, and A Beautiful Time has an even better batting average than usual. The simple but striking “I’ll Love You Til the Day I Die,” courtesy of no less than Rodney Crowell and Chris Stapleton, sets the stage for homespun depth like “Energy Follows Thought,” “Live Every Day” and “I Don’t Go to Funerals.” Most of it touches on mortality, with obvious relevance, even though really Willie’s been fluent in that sort of gravity since he was barely middle-aged. And if singing live doesn’t come as easy to the legend as it used to, in the studio he still finds plenty of depth in nuance, phrasing and more range than you’d probably guess if you hadn’t tuned in in a while. That’s especially clear on kind-of-surprising covers of the Beatles and Leonard Cohen that make perfect sense for getting high with a little help from your friends in that tower of song. MEM



RAW: “That Little Ol’ Band from Texas” Original Soundtrack

Never mind the cumbersome “soundtrack” tag, which unfortunately suggests little more than just another bog standard “greatest hits” cash grab — the kind bands of a certain age (and/or their record labels) love to recycle ad nauseam. Recorded lean, mean and live (sans audience) at Gruene Hall during the filming of the band’s 2019 Netflix documentary, RAW, may indeed stick to the tried-and-true playbook in terms of song selection (i.e., not a lick of anything post-1983’s Eliminator), but damned if it isn’t the best 46 minutes of unadulterated ZZ Top ever captured on tape. Two years later, bassist Dusty Hill would be gone and Billy Gibbons and Frank Beard would opt to keep on rumblin’ on without him, reportedly as he would have wanted them to, but thank the gods of groove and thunderous Texas boogie that he was still around for this. By all means, hang onto those original albums if you’ve still got ’em, but next time you want to hear the now definitive versions of “Heard It On the X,” “La Grange” or even MTV-era “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” Raw is where it’s at. RS