With new albums by Hayes Carll, Ryan Bingham, Flatland Cavalry, Robert Ellis, and Rob Baird all due for release in the first quarter alone, 2019 looks set to be a helluva bountiful year for Americana and Texas music fans. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s give 2018 its due. Sure, we’ve probably all had better years than that one; but looking back at all of the memorable Americana, Texas, and Red Dirt releases from the last 12 months, at the very least we can give 2018 props for having a pretty solid soundtrack. So solid, in fact, that in lieu of the standard collection of “best of” lists, we decided to just go back and revisit the whole lot of them. Well, obviously not all of them — but all of the ones we felt really made an impact on the scene, were worth a fresh (or belated first) listen, or that we’re still playing months down the line. Some of them we reviewed back when they were first released; others — actually, a lot of others, including many of our personal favorites — we’re just getting around to reviewing now for the first time. And because we wanted to include so many albums in our 2018 year-in-review, we’re splitting it into at least two parts. Here’s our first batch: not ranked, not in chronological order, just sorta on “shuffle” — with “Part 2” to follow soon.

To the Sunset
Silver Knife Records
(released Aug. 3, 2018)
Now this is more like it. As lovely as it admittedly was, Amanda Shires’ last album, My Piece of Land, played more like a languid, chamomile-steeped sigh of domestic contentment than the whiskey-spiked fever dream of desire and morbid curiosity that characterized both 2013’s Down Fell the Doves and 2011’s equally striking Carrying Lightning. The tone shift was by design, and bold in its own right; although not entirely without hints of shadow and self doubt, it was overall the sound of one of America’s edgiest young songwriters consciously dropping her guard just enough to reveal her softer, more vulnerable side, bathed in the happy afterglow of new motherhood. The results netted Shires some of the warmest accolades of her career (including a long overdue “Emerging Artist of the Year” win at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards), but it was hard not to miss that certain air of intoxicating mystery that made the West Texas native’s music so intriguing to begin with — which is why To the Sunset feels like such a thrilling return to form. This is hardly a case of Shires playing it safe by falling back into her old (dis)comfort zone, though; it’s arguably the most adventurous and unpredictable album she’s made yet. There’s nothing “pretty” to be heard amidst the fuzz-bomb din of “Eve’s Daughter,” let alone even remotely “Americana” in the giddy, skittering pulse of “Leave It Alone” or the propulsive New Wave thrust of “Take On the Dark”— just the exhilarating rush of an artist shifting musical gears on a dime and veering into the unknown, “too unafraid to even be brave” and brimming with the tenacious vim and mischievous whim of a serial fire starter. In “Break Out the Champagne,” she plays chicken with apocalypses both literal and emotional (“Let’s get on with the shit show!”), and later punctuates the closing “Wasn’t I Paying Attention” with a shocking scene that somehow catches you unaware (with the same blood-chilling effect) even after dozens of listens. But there’s beauty in spades here, too, heard throughout in Shires’ artful weave of haunting but disarmingly limber melodies and richly poetic lyrics (leave it to an avowed fan of Leonard Cohen to write lines like “storm light through windows paint everything shades of neglected fish tank green.”) My one quibble? The exquisite “Swimmer” was already featured on Shires’ aforementioned Carrying Lightning album, and the new recording here doesn’t really improve on the original any more than her re-do of “Mineral Wells” (first heard on 2008’s West Cross Timbers) did on My Piece of Land. Songs on that level certainly deserve every chance they can to be heard, but so do all of her early albums as a whole. Here’s hoping newer fans take the time to go back and catch up on their own, because if To the Sunset proves anything, it’s that Shires is too damn good to slow down. — RICHARD SKANSE


Last Man Standing
Legacy Recordings
(released April 27, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Golden Hour
MCA Nashville
(released March 30, 2018)

golden-hourAfter a game attempt at a game-changing mainstream country career, Kacey Musgraves and the Nashville establishment seem to have come to a truce: they give her an award now and then, she lends them some cred, and they stick to the pander-happy usual suspects on the radio while she provides an example of how a hip, adventurous, truth-speaking young woman can hack it in the business. Like her obvious influence, Dolly Parton, Musgraves retains the sweetness of her twang while embracing the more glamorous possibilities a big budget and a high profile can bring. “High Horse” goes damn near full disco, with the bulk of Golden Hour embracing a sort of bells-and-whistles dream-pop vibe (best sampled on semi-mainstream-hits like “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies”). And although some fans might miss the more classic-country textures of her breakthrough records, Musgraves deserves (and received!) credit for breaking out of her well-worn groove of kinda-tart, slightly-ironic redneck songwriting in favor of something more expansive and genre-bending. But Golden Hour also proves she knows how to branch out without getting so far out on that limb as to be unrecognizable; wrapping things up with a solo piano ballad like “Rainbow” is more than enough to remind you of the simpler charms at the heart of Musgraves’ music. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK



May Your Kindness Remain
Fat Possum/Mama Bird Recording Co.
(released March 23, 2018)
Click here to read our original review




Downey to Lubbock
Yep Roc
(released June 1, 2018)
downey-to-lubbockEffective as they may be for publicity, ticket sales, and award nominations, duo collaborations by established solo acts rarely result in objectively great albums. Quick: try to recall one song from 2016’s Colvin & Earle, let alone from either of the highly lauded but not-especially-revelatory recent sets by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. But damned if Downey to Lubbock’s curious pairing of California roots punk Dave Alvin and Texas cosmic folkie Jimmie Dale Gilmore isn’t just a rare keeper but jam-packed with genuine surprises at every turn. Roaring through a diverse but cohesive set of vintage border radio rhythm & blues (Lightnin’ Hopkins, Brownie McGhee) and top-shelf contemporary songwriter fare (Steve Young, Chris Gaffney, and Alvin himself), both men deliver some of the most inspired performances of their respective careers. And this isn’t just two pros swapping turns at the mic, either. There’s real chemistry at work here, with Alvin’s “wild blues Blaster” guitar drawing Gilmore out of his “old Flatlander” shell and, well, vice versa; often as not, it’s Gilmore taking the lead on the rowdier numbers, practically daring his slightly younger West Coast amigo to turn it up and keep up. And while both men bring sincere, haunt-you-for-days gravitas to the more somber selections (most notably Gaffney’s “The Gardens” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”), it’s the amped-up, playfully self-referential bonhomie of the title track and the shock of bracing new life they bring to that old ’60s hippie warhorse “Get Together” that best sums up the magic that happens when these two do just that — making Downey to Lubbock not just memorable but worth many a return trip. — RICHARD SKANSE


The Tree of Forgiveness
Oh Boy Records
(released April 13, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Don’t Let the Devil Ride
Perpetual Obscurity Records
(released March 23, 2018)

dont-let-the-devil-rideConsidering that the lord and the devil are two of Paul Thorn’s favorite subjects, and his songs have suggested long-term relationships with both, it now seems inevitable that he would do a full-on gospel album. And considering that he and the McCrary Sisters, Nashville’s go-to gospel soul-shakers, hooked up so successfully on his 2014 album, Too Blessed to be Stressed, it makes total sense that they’d help him revisit the music that gripped his soul during a childhood spent trailing his Pentecostal preacher dad throughout Mississippi and Alabama, singing and beating his tambourine at tent revivals. But Thorn didn’t stop there. He and co-producers Billy Maddox and Colin Linden also recruited the Preservation Hall Horns, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Texas-born singer Bonnie Bishop, who spent her adolescence in Mississippi, to sing on 14 tracks originally done mainly by black southern gospel artists. To record, the Tupelo, Mississippi-raised Thorn went back to “the Motherland”: Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis, FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, and Preservation Hall in New Orleans. And you can tell; each song is infused with a sense of place. The Crescent City vibe, for instance, is unmistakable in the slow-burn blues march of “Something On My Mind,” on which Bishop slays her guest vocal, and the FAME funk slides along “One More River.” Opener “Come on Let’s Go,” an old-time call-and-response rave-up, sets the tone for an album full of bluesy, jazzy grooves so good, you’d almost swear they belonged in the bedroom, not the sanctuary. But the truly transformational moment comes toward the end, when Thorn and company locomote the O’Jays’ Gamble & Huff hit, “Love Train,” into a majestic gospel masterpiece. A keyboard-powered, slow-turning, steam-building soul train that refuses to leave one listener behind. People all over the world … get on board. — LYNNE MARGOLIS


Burn Band
Scriptorium Rex

(released Sept. 7, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Peace Town
Music Road Records
(released July 13, 2018)
Beloved Austin music veteran Jimmy LaFave lost his battle to cancer back in May of 2017, but his influence looms large among generations of folk-rockers, especially in his old Texas and Oklahoma stomping grounds. Seeing as how LaFave always sang as if his life depended on it, his posthumous record feels less like a haunting and more like a blessing: one last labor of love from a country-rock-folkie who was “Americana” before anyone even called it that. Twenty tracks deep, Peace Town revisits LaFave’s longtime penchant for covering his ultimate influence, Bob Dylan, as well as some left-field choices like Pete Townshend (a lovely opening rendition of “Let My Love Open the Door”) and David Ball. It’s not as if “sweet and wistful” is a new groove for the late LaFave, but that’s the pervasive lean of both the originals and covers here, and it both stings and inspires a bit more under the circumstances. One of the originals that LaFave would sometimes downplay in favor of honoring his heroes and the tradition he treasured, “Goodbye Amsterdam” is as heartfelt a note to close out on as any. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK




Steak Night at the Prairie Rose
(released Feb. 2, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Underground Sound
(released June 29, 2018)
departed-3Confusing as it may seem for Cody Canada & the Departed to have titled their fifth release 3, the math here actually checks out — and not just because they issued the album with three different covers. If one rules out both 2012’s Adventus on account of it being credited to just the Departed (that being back when Canada shared frontman/lead-guitarist duties with former member Seth James) and 2016’s In Retrospect (a country covers detour billed as a “Jeremy Plato & the Departed” joint), then 3 really is only the third Cody Canada & the Departed album officially released under that handle. Most pertinent of all, though, is the fact that the Mike McClure-produced 3 is the first proper document of the band as a pared-down classic power trio: Canada, bassist Plato, and drummer Eric Hansen (the band’s third to date, but with three years — hey, more three’s! — already under his belt). Of course there are some guests in the mix, too (most notably Robert Earl Keen, who duets on a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Footlights”), but from start to finish this is the leanest and meanest sounding Departed album yet — and arguably the band’s most focused since their 2011 debut, This is Indian Land. As was the case with 2015’s HippieLovePunk, putting the spotlight back on Canada’s distinctive voice and guitar evokes the heyday of Cross Canadian Ragweed, but his songwriting has matured immeasurably. Sure, the Oklahoma boy he was back then always had a knack for hooky rockers and radio-ready Red Dirt anthems; but the 20-something kid who wrote “17” would have been way out of his league matched against the 42-year-old grown-ass man heard here, as utterly convincing singing a beautiful, road-weary original lament like “1800 Miles” as he is throwing down the funkiest licks of his life covering Todd Snider’s “Betty was Black (Willie was White).”— RICHARD SKANSE



Culberson County

Culberson County
7013 Records/Thirty Tigers
(released March 30, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Live from the Ryman
Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers
(released Oct. 19, 2018)
Sometimes when you’ve got a stack of albums to review and you’re listening to one you’ve heard often, you might fast-forward here and there. Just a bit. But there’s no fast-forwarding through a Jason Isbell album, no matter how many times you’ve played it or heard live versions of its contents. You can’t skip through his tunes; they’re too compelling. Whether he’s exposing bruises on the skin of his soul or detailing the lives of characters as desperate and restless — and as real, even if they are fictional — as any of those etched by our beloved Bard of the Boardwalk, his songcraft demands to be savored. Recorded over several nights at the legendary mother church of country music, Live from the Ryman draws almost equally from Southeastern and Isbell’s two Best Americana Album Grammy winners, Something More than Free and The Nashville Sound. But here, he and the 400 Unit give these songs an even edgier, angrier feel. On “White Man’s World,” Isbell’s slide and Amanda Shires’ fiddle practically snarl at each other; on “24 Frames,” his self-condemnation sounds even more brutal. The desperation of “The Life You Chose” and “Cumberland Gap” is tangible; “Elephant” haunts like the wail of those mammals in mourning. Unfortunately, inappropriate audience whoops and cheers disturb what should be the pin-drop-quiet reverie a song like “Cover Me Up” deserves, but at least they stay quiet through “If We Were Vampires,” his gorgeous, devastating acoustic duet with wife Shires — a song about a love so strong, knowing that one of them will die first already fills him with dread. “It’s not your hands, searching slow in the dark/or your nails leaving love’s watermark,” he sings. “It’s not the way you talk me off the roof/your questions like directions to the truth.” You don’t hear lyrics like those every day — unless you put Isbell on repeat. Live from the Ryman contains 13 reasons to do just that. Every song here (two of which earned Grammys of their own) provides yet another example of why Isbell is regarded as one of the best singer-songwriters of his generation. Don’t skip a word, or a note. They all matter. — LYNNE MARGOLIS




Good People
Boot Strap Records
(released March 2, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Rifles & Rosary Beads
In the Black
(released Jan. 26, 2018)
rifles-rosary-beadsIn a political era where too many people feel compelled to a) pick a side and b) see how many people they can piss off on the internet before midnight, it’s heartening to see an unexpected alliance not only form, but also put its efforts towards talking about high-stakes, literally life-and-death matters with maturity. With a credibility and perspective that many of us haven’t earned, real-life American military veterans with no pre-existing music careers lent their co-writing perspective to Mary Gauthier. And if they didn’t know going into it that her clear-eyed, unsentimental approach to songwriting might fit their hard-earned memories of glory, grit and trauma like a glove, they (and we) sure know now. There’s a risk inherent in something like this coming off as either a nice gesture that never fully pans out or, worse, some unseemly emotional tourism by a songwriter in search of an unconventional muse. Gauthier and her new collaborators never allow it to veer into either ditch, delivering round after round of complicated tales of faith, duty, fear and courage. If Rifles & Rosary Beads doesn’t move you, you’re not listening. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK


South Texas Homecoming
(released Aug. 17, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Out Past the Wires
Welding Rod Records
(released March 30, 2018)
out-past-the-wiresA New England kid reared on classic rock who caught the folk-music bug a few decades back and hit Nashville with everything he had, Rod Picott’s songs might not have made him a household name, but plenty of listeners have found themselves right at home in his ballads of resilient down-and-outers and hardworking regular folk. And there’s plenty of elbow room for them on Out Past the Wires, the prolific songwriter’s double-disc, 22-song magnum opus. Fans of Picott’s frequent collaborator Slaid Cleaves might have actually first heard a couple of these songs (“Primer Gray,” “Take Home Pay”) on his most recent album (2017’s Ghost on the Car Radio), but as has often been the case when the two longtime friends each take a crack at recording their co-writes, Picott’s versions here sound several shades duskier and closer to the bone, like demos captured late at night in a motel room and left raw by choice. Picott himself has recorded his share of fuller-sounding albums, but Out Past the Wires finds him retaining that hushed, Nebraska-like intimacy across both discs, demanding rapt, listening-room-quiet attention but rewarding it in turn with song after song of hard-earned insight and wisdom. “You can take a measure of what a man treasures by what he takes with him when he’s on the way down,” Picott urges about a quarter of the way through, and sings with the conviction of someone who’s dragged a guitar through whatever backroads, backwoods, ghettoes and trailer parks he needed to in order to bring back these haunted yet engaging songs to the rest of us. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK




Hard Time Are Relative
Proud Souls Entertainment
(released May 18, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Silver & Stone
Compass Records
(released Sept. 7, 2018)
Mike Farris’ last album, Shine for All the People, earned him a 2015 Grammy for Best Gospel Roots Album. But his latest, Silver & Stone, might be even better. At last, Farris’s songwriting has reached the point where his originals can outnumber his covers — and more than hold their own next to well-chosen numbers written by Willie Dixon, Bert Berns, Bill Withers, Bill Cook (Sam Cooke’s manager) and young Canadian songwriter William Prince. Regarding the latter, he turns Dixon’s “Let Me Love You Baby” into a funky groover, and Withers’ “Hope She’ll be Happier” into a dramatic, heart-rending saga. Not surprisingly, his take on Berns’s “Are You Lonely For Me” leans more toward the Freddie Scott and Al Green versions than the Otis Redding/Carla Thomas rendition, but when it comes to soul, Farris has a wide comfort zone. Here, he heads north and south, pulling references from Detroit, Philly, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. One minute, he’s conjuring Sam Cooke fronting the Fairfield Four or Blind Boys of Alabama (“Tennessee Girl”) and the next, he’s luring Gamble & Huff into 926 E. McLemore Ave. (“Can I Get a Witness?”) — and ladling servings of doo-wop to everyone. Then he gives Prince’s “Breathless” an almost country-pop feel, with a “Walking in Memphis” vibe. Farris meshes several vocal influences into the syncopated-funk-meets-rockin’-pop of “Snap Your Fingers” and pays homage to Al Green in the slow groove and sweet falsetto of “Movin’ Me” (featuring co-writer Kevin McKendree on Wurlitzer organ and a guitar solo by bluesman Joe Bonamassa). But he really outdoes himself on “When Mavis Sings,” a terrific tribute to the reigning queen of gospel soul. The album itself was an anniversary present to his wife, but when Farris belts out this joyous ode, “we get the message, the message of love” on a wavelength meant to reach around the world — and straight up to heaven. — LYNNE MARGOLIS



(released July 27, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



I Travel On
Old Guitar Records
(released Aug. 10, 2018)
Since 2013’s AM Country Heaven kicked down a lot of doors for him as not just a gifted songwriter but a uniquely blessed traditional-country vocalist, Jason Eady’s been kind enough to walk right back through those doors with an admirably prolific reliability. He’s not a stuffy purist — the folk-rock writing of his earliest work has gradually seeped back into his hard-country blend — but he does work wonders within the acoustic-framed lines he’s drawn for himself, pouring his ever-richer twang into tales of despair, resilience, and motion while dobro and fiddle licks haunt the corners like ghosts made of 90-proof vapor.  Whether his material is as dark as “She Had to Run” or as laid-back as “That’s Alright,” Eady sounds like he’s been fortunate enough to get wise well before getting old. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK



Dancehall Dreamin’: A Tribute to Pat Green
Greenhouse Music

(released May 4, 2018)
Click here to read our original review




And the Sky Caught Fire
Star Catcher Music
(released July 13, 2018)
and-the-sky-caught-fireAn Austin songwriter (originally from Colorado) gifted with sly charm that rolls off her voice and her pen with equal deftness, Nichole Wagner wields subtlety like some artists wield volume or shock value. Her advantage lies in just how much better her gifts are likely to age. Building on the stripped-down promise of her 2017 EP, Plotting the Constellations, 2018’s full-length, full-band approach offsets her sweetly keening vocals with some electric-guitar edge and smartly complementary keyboard work. The engaging bounce of “Let Me Know,” the winsome wordplay of “Rules of Baseball,” and the slow-burn folk of “Yellow Butterfly” are among the brightest spots on a record rich with them. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK



What It’s Like to Fly Alone

(released Feb. 16, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



Things Change
New West Records
(released June 1, 2018)
things-changeRaleigh, North Carolina songwriter and American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham started finding his way around a gritty folk-rock anthem 12 or so years ago, growing into his craft and his voice on stages all over the nation and patiently watching the buzz accumulate. Recharged with a new backing lineup on the aptly titled Things Change, American Aquarium barrels through the album’s top half with something between punk abandon and Springsteen working-class poetics (most fully realized on the undeniable, bracing “Tough Folks”) before settling into a potent alt-country growl towards the home stretch. Unafraid to risk telling some uncomfortable truths about his past missteps and even spit a little political fire in “shut up & sing” times, Barham & Co. lay a lot on the line and come away winners. — MIKE ETHAN MESSICK




In the Shadows (Again)
Shotgun House Records
(released May 4, 2018)
Click here to read our original review



But wait … there’s more! Our 2018 review round-up and catch-up will continue in Part 2, featuring albums by Kelly Willis, Alejandro Escovedo, Jaimee Harris, Billy F Gibbons, Eliza Gilkyson, Jesse Dayton and more.