Texas music comes in all shapes and sizes, but underlying all the best songs from our state is a sense of fierce independence. Texans have launched entire genres and have helped to shape many others, including Latin music, punk rock, country, hip-hop and even techno. With the help of local DJs, musicians and promoters, we've put together a list of 20 songs that stand out from the last 50 years of Texas' music history. These are the songs every good Texan should know.
1. 13th Floor Elevators — "You're Gonna Miss Me"
San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene usually receives all the credit for getting psychedelic music off the ground in the '60s. But quite a few Texans, specifically Austinites, also had key roles. Roky Erikson was a forward-thinking musical prophet, and his band 13th Floor Elevators fully embraced music that sounded like it had been made on drugs. The key ingredient in 13 Floor Elevators' music was the electric jug played by Tommy Hall. It sounds a lot like a Moog synthesizer bubbling above the music, but this was years before synths became popular. "You're Gonna Miss Me," which peaked at No. 55 on the Billboard charts, was 13th Floor Elevators' only hit, but their influence can still be heard in today's psych rock bands.
2. The Red Krayola — "Transparent Radiation"
If 13th Floor Elevators were the prophets of psychedelic rock, Houston's Red Krayola was the innovator that pushed the sound so far out that it took a few decades for the rest of the world to catch up. Red Krayola signed to the International Arts label right after 13th Floor Elevators, but the label had no idea what to do with its very noncommercial sound. With the group's '67 debut, Red Krayola foreshadowed new wave, post-punk and art rock. Legendary British psych-rock band Spacemen 3 gave "Transparent Radiation" extended life on its '89 album, Playing with Fire, a tribute to the groundbreaking psychedelic music of Texas.
3. Archie Bell and the Drells — "Tighten Up"
"Tighten Up" was the first song recorded by Houston's Archie Bell and the Drells, and it reached No. 1 on Billboard in 1968. It also had a second life in the U.K., where it became an anthem for the mod and northern soul scenes. It's been covered a gazillion times since and is almost a requirement for a proper soul party. As Archie Bell says in the opening lyrics, the song is about a dance that originates in Houston.
4. Johnnie Taylor — "Who's Making Love"
In the '60s, soul music largely fell into two camps: the Motown sound and the Stax sound. Dallas' Johnnie Taylor — backed by house band Booker T and the MG's — fell in with the Stax camp. "Who's Making Love," a soul stomper about the perils of infidelity, was his breakout single, and it reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1968. In a nutshell: If you are gonna cheat on your lady, don't be surprised when she moves on to another man.
5. Buddy Holly — "Rave On"
Buddy Holly, a former country western singer who changed his course after crossing paths with Elvis, was a pioneer of rock 'n' roll in the '50s. During his breakout year of 1958, Holly had six singles skyrocket to the top of the charts. "Rave On" stands out from this pack of hits and has become a rock 'n' roll standard. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Marshal Crenshaw, M. Ward and even the Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas has covered it. Holly's star fell unexpectedly when he died in a plane crash a year after this song was released.
6. Texas Tornados — "(Hey Baby) Que Paso"
"When I think of Texas music, I think of the Texas Tornados: Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender and Flaco Jimenez," says music historian and DJ Gabriel Mendoza. "All from Texas — three from San Antonio — and each legendary in their own right. But together, they were a force of nature, so their name does them justice.
"All the songs on the 1990 debut are great, but the one song I think about when I think of them is '(Hey Baby) Que Paso,' sung in English and Spanglish. It’s a party jam. This has been a constant for me since 1990. I heard it at quinceañeras, honky tonk clubs, your basic company party or just hanging around at Double Wide after a gig," Mendoza continues. "When it comes on, the good times are instant. This is Mexico; this is Texas — the cross-pollination of cultures that is everything I love about the Lone Star State."
7. Selena — "Como La Flor"
One of the fastest ways to fill a club in this part of the country is to throw a Selena tribute party, and that's what happens once a year when DJ Mutemor, aka Mike Cuevas, and his crew host their annual Selena Party. We asked Cuevas which Selena song every Texan should know, and he suggested "Como La Flor."
"The perennial Selena song," he says. "Growing up, you would hear this song blasting from your mother's CD player as you cleaned the house, at parties as your aunt and uncle cut a rug, and driving around the city on KNON airwaves. It is one of Selena’s best. If this song is being played, you get a feeling of comfort, memories and an itching to dance till this day. Long live the queen."
8. Erykah Badu — "Appletree"
Neo-soul trailblazer Erykah Badu is one of the most successful artists ever to come out of Texas. "Appletree" was her breakout single, and it set the stage for everything that came in her career after it. "The rise of neo-soul was because of Erykah," says Richard 'Picnic' Escobedo, a collaborator of Badu's. "Badu and D’Angelo had the same manager at one point early in their careers and are also arguably known as the godfather and godmother of neo-soul. ... I’ve actually heard her say this in a interview after a show."
9. Geto Boys — "Mind Playing Tricks On Me"
Houston's Geto Boys are a Texas institution and were way ahead of the pack in terms of Texas hip-hop. In '92, they landed a hit with "My Mind Playing Tricks On Me," which built on a sample from the Isaac Hayes song "Hung Up On My Baby." It became an instant hip-hop classic. “The Geto Boys are pretty much known as the group that not only put Houston and the Fifth Ward on the hip-hop map, but arguably the South in general in hip-hop," Escobedo says. "'Mind Playin' Tricks' was a big one, and I still play it when I DJ."
10. UGK — "International Playboys"
UGK demonstrates Texas' unique take on hip-hop. Rapper Pimp C died in 2007 when he was just getting warmed up. "Pure Southern excellence," Texas emcee Doc Strange says of UGK. "We get arguably the best rap duo from Texas with Atlanta's absolute best lyricists. Topped off with the Willie Hutch sample 'I Choose You,' it adds up to essential down-South riding music. It was planned before Pimp C's death for UGK and OutKast to collaborate on a joint project. This is an incredible example of what could have been."
11. The DOC — "It's Funky Enough"
Despite his humble beginnings in Dallas, The DOC went on to lay the foundation of modern hip-hop with Eazy-E and NWA. "It's Funky Enough" was his breakout, according to Luke Sardello of Josey Records. "The DOC's 'It's Funky Enough' is the hip-hop song that put Dallas on the international map, with apologies to Nemesis' 'Last Night,'" Sardello says. "Produced by Dr. Dre and featuring the ubiquitous Foster Sylvers 'Misdemeanor' sample, 'It's Funky Enough' became the hip-hop anthem of 1989, catapulting DOC from a locally known member of Fila Fresh Crew to hip-hop royalty as an extended member of the NWA crew with Eazy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre. It became a top 40 hit and an instant classic that every Texan should know."
12. Freddie King — "Going Down"
Freddie King exists at the nexus of Texas and Chicago blues and is considered a cornerstone of electric blues. Bands ranging from the Who to the Butthole Surfers have covered "Going Down." It's a total stomper that could match wits with rock 'n' roll bands such as MC5 and even Led Zeppelin in terms of heaviness. The original still rocks the most; none of the covers can top it.
"I discovered this record while learning about Texas blues, especially DFW heroes, and it dropped me," says Fort Worth DJ and producer Adrian Scientias, aka Kataylst. "Recorded with Leon Russell and written by Don Nix, it was a melting pot of that down-home blues that turns your face with a punishing groove laying the pocket. 'Going Down' was definitely a song drenched in a rock-oriented sound, but its influence is unparalleled in blues and rock. King's tone and bend is as recognizable to me as BB King's vibrato. All hail."
13. Steve Miller Band — "Macho City"
Steve Miller Band is best known for its '70s hits, but this out-of-character B-side to chart topper "Abracadabra" taps right into the roots of Texas psychedelia. "A very wry narrator — Steve in newscaster/soundbite/spoken word — alludes to war mongering and military domination of the age, to say nothing of a glib critique of hegemonic masculinity, as the title suggests," says Dallas DJ Jonathan Graham.
"Macho City" stands out from Steve Miller's catalog. It has more in common with the British psych rock of Pink Floyd or Can's cosmic Krautrock explorations, taking a full 18 minutes to complete its journey. "Upon release, 'Macho City' became a cult classic not on airwaves, but in underground discos of NYC, getting rotation at David Mancuso’s Loft parties and Paradise Garage," Graham says.
14. The Dicks — "Hate the Police"
Unlike their much weirder fellow Austinites the Butthole Surfers and Scratch Acid, the Dicks played classic punk rock. Using that template, they wrote an anthem for punk rockers all over the country. "The Dicks were like the Austin version of Fear," Jeff Liles, artistic director of Kessler Theater, says. "Songs were real succinct and short."
Much like Fear, the Dicks were controversial, which makes sense given track titles such as "Hate The Police." This song got a second life when the grunge pioneers of Mudhoney recorded it for their second EP in 2007. It's still a staple in Mudhoney's set.
15. Scratch Acid — "Owner's Lament"
If Nick Cave's early punk band the Birthday Party had started in Texas, it might be Scratch Acid. Frontman David Yow has fessed up to the Birthday Party's influence numerous times. "I remember with really early Scratch Acid, there was some live recording ... and I was going, 'Oh my fucking God, I gotta stop that,' because it sounded like I was trying to be Birthday Party Nick Cave — which I was," he told Spin in 2013.
"Owner's Lament" stands out from the band's catalog by introducing classy melodic string passages over the chaos of noisy guitars and David Yow's drunk-sounding vocals. It's a timeless tune from one of Texas' most infamous rock bands. Half of Scratch Acid moved to Chicago after the group's split and eventually became underground legend the Jesus Lizard.
16. Butthole Surfers — "Human Cannonball"
They were sick, they were twisted and they said, "Fuck you, we're from Texas." Punk rock has always been outsider music, and in much the same way that Red Krayola and 13th Floor Elevators played with the boundaries of rock 'n' roll, the Butthole Surfers morphed punk rock into something significantly more strange. "Human Cannonball" is one of their anthems and a good example.
17. Toadies — "Tyler"
The Toadies are the most modern band on this list, a position that's well deserved considering they have their own official holiday in Fort Worth. You can find Toadies fans in every corner of the Dallas music scene. "So I was in middle school when Rubberneck came out," says local hip-hop promoter Callie Dee." I remember friends of mine who had older siblings talking about running into them in Deep Ellum, and I thought that was so cool. I mean, that record from beginning to end was pretty amazing. But my favorite is that beginning guitar on 'Tyler' and the drop. Once I got older and realized what the song was saying, it was so dark and twisted. I still dig it."
18. Townes Van Zandt — "Nothin'"
Since his death in 2000, Townes Van Zandt has begun to get the respect he deserves. "This is beautifully tragic stuff here," says Sean Kirkpatrick of the band Nervous Curtains. "'Nothin' is a minimalist masterpiece. A bending acoustic string drones effortlessly like wind noise on a flat West Texas highway. The voice is heavy with sorrow yet oddly comforting in its solitude and acceptance. You can never quite put your finger on exactly what this song is about, but you know you’ve felt it before and will feel it again. That was Townes’ gift. He could put the indescribable into words and song." Rowland S. Howard of the Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls did an excellent cover of this song on his final solo album, Pop Crimes.
19. Willie Nelson — "Shotgun Willie"
Willie Nelson is a Texas institution, and you just can't write a list like this without him. "Shotgun Willie" signaled the birth of outlaw country. "I love Shotgun Willie," says local country DJ Brad Sigler. "It's the song that moved Nelson in a new musical direction. I mean, the Memphis Horns are on it. Outlaw country begins here, in my opinion. It was a game-changer for sure."
20. Convextion — "Convextion"
The fierce independent spirit of Texas also spills into the deep techno genre. This self-titled track by Convextion debuted on the Detroit label Matrix Records in '95 and has gone for as much as $150 on the vinyl market. Convextion was shrouded in mystery for most of his career and never became a household name in Texas, but his music is revered and played by the biggest DJs in deep techno, including the Detroit founders.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE...
Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.