Over the last two or three years, I’ve noticed a certain pattern emerge when it comes time to assemble this list.
The better the previous 12 months have been in and around the local music scene, the more difficult it will be to winnow down the mountain of worthwhile releases to just 10 selections.
(To wit: This year marks the first time in my tenure at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that I have ever had a tie for the top spot.)
Such is the case in 2015, a banner year for all of North Texas music and a year in which, quite frankly, a list such as this one only serves to scratch the surface of all that transpired.
While these 10 albums and EPs are a fine starting point, there is so much more to hear, whether it’s hip-hop (Lord Byron, Smoothvega, Dru B Shinin’, Justus and The Outfit, TX all released great work this year), pop (Jessie Frye, LEV and Pearl Earl shone brightly in ’15), frayed punk (Sad Cops), dirty garage rock (Bad Blonde) or exquisite country (Andrew Combs; Matthew McNeal).
In other words, while these 10 recordings in particular stood out to me, all of them reveal to anyone who listens that it is a wonderful time to not only be making music in North Texas, but also to be listening to it.
1 (tie) Doug Burr, ‘Pale White Dove’/Leon Bridges, ‘Coming Home’
Some records grab you from the first note, and others come at you sideways, tugging on your sleeve until you take notice. Two of the best local albums I heard this year each made an impression in distinctly different ways.
For Denton troubadour Doug Burr, it was a record freed from the subdued folk meditations of his previous work. Make no mistake: Burr was plenty compelling in that mode, but there’s an electricity to Pale White Dove that makes songs like Never Gonna Be Young Again crackle against the elegiac closer, The Last Confederate Widow — showcasing the full sweep of his songwriting powers in less than an hour.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Crowley-bred and Fort Worth-based Leon Bridges? The dishwasher turned Grammy nominee, in less than a year’s time? There’s no other way to describe Bridges’ ascent from open-mike nights at Magnolia Motor Lounge to the stages of Saturday Night Live and the American Music Awards other than, simply, magical. The journey began in June, with the release of Coming Home, his confident, lo-fi debut. The record, bathed in an analog warmth, is a vivid homage to R&B, soul and gospel greats. While the singles — Better Man, the title track — turned heads, Bridges showed the way forward with River, the album’s stirring, reverent closer.
3 Brent Best, ‘Your Dog, Champ’
Sometimes, the wait is worth it. Singer-songwriter Brent Best’s solo debut accrued over a period of five years — a turbulent time Best recounted in a shockingly candid blog post this summer — but every single second was worth it, as Your Dog, Champ is a record where that passage of time can be felt in every note. Best, who has gigged with area favorites Slobberbone and the Drams, has an evocative voice, streaked with whiskey, gravel and regret, and an even sharper pen. At its best, Champ functions like a sonic novel, placing the listener right inside these dust-stained stories.
4 Telegraph Canyon, ‘You From Before’
Speaking of albums spawned from strife, Chris Johnson’s life fell apart after the triumph of Telegraph Canyon’s The Tide and the Current. But, with an unswerving focus on the music and the support of his bandmates, You From Before blossomed into being over the last six years, a bold reimagining of what constitutes the Telegraph Canyon sound. Those befuddled by the sinuous strut of Why Let It Go might find solace in Wheel to the Garden, but make no mistake: Telegraph Canyon, always a band capable of going anywhere, intends to do just that — and succeeds magnificently.
5 Maren Morris, self-titled
Leon Bridges isn’t the only locally grown musician having a breakout year — Arlington’s Maren Morris, long a fixture at weekly showcases in the area, decamped to Nashville two years ago to work in the songwriting trenches (her tunes have turned up on albums by Kelly Clarkson and Tim McGraw, among others). Now, the spotlight has been turned on her, thanks to this fantastic, self-titled, five-song EP that is, wonderfully, all over the musical map. There’s nu-country on My Church, resting comfortably next to the merrily profane, sun-kissed Drunk Girls Don’t Cry and the gleaming pop of 80’s Mercedes — Morris’ powerhouse pipes connect it all. Given how much heat Morris has generated since signing with Sony Music Nashville in September, it seems like 2016 might be an even bigger year for her.
6 Bobby Sessions, ‘LOA (Law of Attraction)’
By now, it can feel like Groundhog Day talking about how much talent is percolating in the world of North Texas hip-hop. Given the surfeit of skill on hand, singling out an album or two from the plethora of projects released in the last 12 months is something of a fool’s errand, but nevertheless: Dallas’ Bobby Sessions made a profound statement with the release of his gripping debut, LOA (Law of Attraction). By turns politically charged and powerfully personal, LOA marks Sessions as a MC of substance, threading food for thought into raps so forcefully and imaginatively delivered as to nearly leave listeners dazed.
7 Anna Robyn Thomas, ‘Symptoms’
I first stumbled across Denton singer Anna Robyn Thomas’ debut, Symptoms, way back in March, and its precocious charms never really left me. (Thomas was all of 19 years old at the time of Symptoms’ release.) While it’s clear Thomas is a student of idiosyncratic pop in the mold of Regina Spektor or Fiona Apple, Symptoms makes a profound impression regardless, thanks to its intricately conceived alt-pop songs, delivered with the enthusiasm of someone who’s waited her whole life to cut loose in the studio.
8 Jake Paleschic, ‘Again, At Last’
Fort Worth is no stranger to troubadours knocked about by life, but, despite the occasional rough patch, who always seem to emerge bruised but carrying a song. One of the city’s finest such tunesmiths, Jake Paleschic, left for Austin last year and, guided by Britton Beisenherz, created a striking document. Again, At Last echoes with the ghosts of Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett and a half dozen other Texas troubadours — from the lonesome shuffle of the opening track, The Time, through to the contemplative finale, Insider, Paleschic distinguishes himself as one of the sharpest songwriters in the 817.
9 The Demigs, ‘Welcome to Hard Times’
Despite a string of consistently fantastic albums and a justly deserved rep as a crackerjack live band, Denton’s the Demigs, for whatever reason, remains frustratingly below the radar for a lot of local music fans (and, if I’m being honest, a lot of the local press, too). Maybe lead vocalist/chief songwriter Chris Demiglio’s punchy, erudite dissections of suburban ennui are too much to take, especially when dished out in double-LP form, as he and the band did this year on the 20-track Welcome to Hard Times. If so, that’s a shame, because the Demigs are one of the region’s best bands, in any genre.
10 Margot Dunn, ‘Drifter’
Margot Dunn is the nom de tune of Fort Worth singer-songwriter Lauren Hagood, and you’ll want to memorize both names after hearing the gorgeous debut EP Drifter. Working with producer Britt Robisheaux (whose name on any local release is always a good indicator of quality), Hagood and her bandmates spin out five irresistible songs — good luck dislodging the shimmering More from your brain anytime soon — that will leave listeners aching for more as soon as the final notes of Redwood fade from the speakers.