Willie Nelson, Spoon, Shinyribs among year’s top local music so far


Willie Nelson’s latest album tops our batch of the best releases by Austin acts in the first half of 2017.

Others on our midyear list include Spoon, Ruthie Foster, Slaid Cleaves, Fastball, Sunny Sweeney and Shinyribs.

How much music is made by Austin artists every year? We don’t get to everything out there, but we try, and in the first half of 2017, our austin360.com “On the Record” column has reviewed or noted more than 100 recordings.

They range from high-profile major-label releases to simple homegrown indie projects, covering everything from indie-rockers to singer-songwriters to electronica adventurers to soulful blues belters to country twangers and beyond. Here’s a look at some that have stood out, for a variety of reasons.


Willie Nelson, “God’s Problem Child.” The best album yet of Nelson’s late-career resurgence mixes originals such as the humorous hit “Still Not Dead” with memorable covers including Donnie Fritts’ “Old Timer” and Gary Nicholson’s great new song about Merle Haggard, “He Won’t Ever Be Gone.” At 84, the legend is still in the making.

Slaid Cleaves, “Ghost on the Car Radio.” A dozen records into a quarter-century career, the Maine-born singer-songwriter stays relevant because he’s gotten better all the time. These 12 songs attest that Cleaves is now a master, from the opening rocker “Already Gone” to the tender car-themed finale “Junkyard.”

Fastball, “Step Into Light.” Once that rare local act with Billboard Top 40 hit singles, the trio of Tony Scalzo, Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield remains Austin’s best rock band. Their first record in eight years features a dozen songs that range from Zuniga’s Beatles-esque acoustic gem “Behind the Sun” to Scalzo’s instantly memorable pop tune “I Will Never Let You Down.”

Shinyribs, “I Got Your Medicine.” Expanded from the original quartet to an eight-piece juggernaut, Kevin Russell’s Shinyribs has pushed the broad boundaries of Americana music even further out than he did during his two decades with the Gourds. The central touchstone is soul, steeped deeply in the swampy roots of Russell’s native Beaumont.

Spoon, “Hot Thoughts.” Still the kingpin of Austin’s indie scene and a national heavyweight for more than a decade now, Spoon continues to innovate. On “Hot Thoughts,” Britt Daniel twists his pop-music kaleidoscope through art-damaged grooves that draw on old soul, modern electronica and even hints of hip-hop.

Suzanna Choffel, “Hello Goodbye.” The onetime contestant on NBC’s “The Voice” left for New York but came back, and she re-engages fully with the singer-songwriter community here on her first album in four years. The brilliant collection of eclectic pop songs rightly places her alluring vocals front and center.

Ruthie Foster, “Joy Comes Back.” Covering everything from Stevie Wonder to Black Sabbath to Mississippi John Hurt, Foster embraces the broad-umbrella nature of Americana music. Soul and gospel are at the core of her boundless energy, but folk, blues, country, rock and more find the way into her wheelhouse as well.

Bruce Robison & the Back Porch Band, self-titled. Recording apart from his wife, Kelly Willis, for the first time in a while, Robison mixes original material with tunes from largely under-the-radar Austin writers including Christy Hays, Damon Bramblett and Joe Dickens. The album’s loose, laid-back vibe recalls the magic of Austin’s 1970s outlaw-country heyday.

Sunny Sweeney, “Trophy.” It’s been a big year for country starlet Sweeney, who opened a couple of shows for Garth Brooks (including his South by Southwest bash at Auditorium Shores) on the heels of releasing her fourth album. “Trophy” balances barroom rockers with beautiful ballads such as “Bottle by My Bed” and Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight.”

Dale Watson & Ray Benson, “Dale & Ray.” The respective bandleaders of honky-tonk mainstays the Lonestars and western swing torchbearer Asleep at the Wheel team up for 10 tracks of often-humorous originals. They dip into Willie Nelson’s deep well for, ironically, “Write Your Own Songs,” a pointed rebuke of mainstream country’s starmaker machinery.


Gary Clark Jr., “Live/North America 2016.” The second live album in three years from Austin’s blues-rock guitar wunderkind whets the appetite for his next studio album.

Sweet Spirit, “St. Mojo.” Red-hot indie-rock pair Sabrina Ellis and Andrew Cashen follow the Merge Records debut of their band A Giant Dog with a new record from their eight-piece, not-quite-side-project.

Black Angels, “Death Song.” The psychedelic-rockers’ local-favorite Levitation Fest took the year off, but the band returned in full swing with their first album since 2013.

BoDeans, “Thirteen.” Kurt Neumann’s Milwaukee-born band now based in Austin delivers more heartland roots-rock.

Darden Smith, “Everything.” One of Austin’s most accomplished singer-songwriters since the mid-1980s brought aboard a first-rate cast including Charlie Sexton and JJ Johnson for this one.

Missio, “Loner.” Electronica duo Matthew Brue and David Butler turned heads with the instant-sensation single “Middle Fingers” from their debut album.

Carolyn Wonderland, “Moon Goes Missing.” Though she’s renowned for her blues-firebrand guitar solos and vocals, Wonderland’s first studio record since 2011 shows a broader range of her musicality.

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, “Backlash.” The first record in four years from funk-blues-punk stylist Lewis features a reconstituted Honeybears bolstered by a brass section, as well as strings on one track.

Matthew Logan Vasquez, “Does What He Wants.” The second record in as many years by the Delta Spirit frontman mixes more mainstream pop and rock tracks with quirkier, offbeat material.

Ty Richards, “Zillion.” Richards’ “Going Out for a Cigarette” has gotten heavy airplay on KUTX, and deservedly so; it’s one of the best radio singles to come out of Austin in quite some time.

10 Honorable Mentions: John Wesley Coleman III, “Microwave Dreams”; Ray Prim, “Live at Strange Brew Lounge Side”; Laura Scarborough, “Reflection”; Sam Baker, “Land of Doubt”; Bluebonnets, “Tonewrecker”; Curtis McMurtry, “The Hornet’s Nest”; Wendy Colonna, “No Moment But Now”; Robyn Ludwick, “This Tall to Ride”; Gurf Morlix, “The Soul & the Heal”; Will Johnson, “Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm.”

20 More to Grow On: Lili Blessing, “Lifeline”; Knife in the Water, “Reproduction”; My Education, “Schiphol”; Eliot Lipp, “Skywave”; Seela, “Track You Down”; Molly Burch, “Please Be Mine”; Kiko Villamizar, “Aguas Frias”; Abram Shook, “Love at Low Speed”; Jon Wolfe, “Any Night in Texas”; Bobby Earl Smith, “Calling Me Calling You”; Band of Heathens, “Duende”; Go Fever, self-titled; Octopus Project, “Memory Mirror”; Robert Kraft Trio, “North Bishop Ave.”; Later Days, “Lost in the Sound”; Daisy O’Connor, “Lightchasers”; Barbara Nesbitt, “Right As Rain”; Scott H. Biram, “The Bad Testament”; Rich Hopkins & Luminarios, “My Way or the Highway”; Heybale, “Play Me a Cheatin’ Song: The Songs of Wayne Kemp.”


Digital Wild, “Tall As Trees.” Co-leaders Chelsea Seth Woodward and Chantell Moody are writing some of the most engaging songs in Austin right now, and this five-song EP leaves us eagerly awaiting a full-length record.

Christina Cavazos, “Cold.” Just 17, singer-songwriter Cavazos quickly established herself as one of the city’s most promising young talents in quite some time with her second EP in as many years.

Tje Austin, “I Belong to You.” An early contestant on “The Voice,” Austin serves up soul, R&B and more on this attention-getting seven-song release that highlights his arresting vocals.

Letting Up Despite Great Faults, “Alexander Devotion.” A decade into a run of more than a half-dozen LPs and EPs, the trio of Mike Lee, Kent Zambrana and Daniel Schmidt continue to release some of Austin’s most compelling electronic pop music.

Beth // James, “All in Life.” The sophisticated folk-pop of Mikaela Kahn and Jordan Burchill (whose middle names are Beth and James, respectively) on this six-song debut is quite harmonious.

Honorable Mention EPs: Adam Torres, “I Came to Sing the Song”; Hunter Sharpe, “Forced Landings”; Whitney Rose, “South Texas Suite”; Carry Illinois, “Garage Sale’”; Katie Marie, “Together.”


Tim Henderson, “The Legacy Collection” (6-CD set). Dozens of original songs, from Texan tales to protest anthems to humorous larks to tender ballads, are gathered on this definitive collection that aims to give long-overdue recognition to a Lone Star hidden treasure.

Blaze Foley, “The Lost Muscle Shoals Recordings” (Lost Art). Recorded in 1984 at the classic Alabama recording studio, this recently unearthed material further fleshes out the catalog of the mercurial songwriter who was shot and killed in a 1989 domestic dispute.

Nakia & His Southern Cousins, “Wine to Wine: The Water to Wine Outtakes.” The 2011 contestant on “The Voice” recently revisited “Water to Wine,” the album he made with his mid- to late-2000s band, and assembled a full record’s worth of additional material for this release. They’ll celebrate with a reunion show at Antone’s on June 29.


Matt the Electrician, “The Doubles.” This ambitious 26-song set is the end-result of an extensive undertaking in which Matt released a series of singles in collaboration with six local acts: Wood & Wire, Little Brave, Dana Falconberry, Wilson Marks, Paul Curreri & Devon Sproule, and the Deer.

Cotton Mather, “Wild Kingdom.” The latest from indie-pop Svengali Robert Harrison collects just 11 tracks from the amazing 64 total songs he has been gradually releasing through his website in a project called “Songs From the I Ching.”

Tara Williamson, “Evolution One.” The former backing singer with Austin classic-soul band the Nightowls is embarking on a four-volume set of EPs, starting with this initial five-song collection. Stay tuned for more.

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