On the totally subjective front, Alvin Youngblood Hart's self-titled 7" on Big Legal Mess is the record that I most enjoyed this year. Side-A's "Helluva Way" has a speeding-ticket-inducing tempo, a properly placed cowbell, and thrilling bass lines from "Mr. Everywhere," Mark Stuart. Hart leads the band on a pirate raid through ZZ Top's abandoned compound. B-side, "Watching Brian Jones" — is an existential YouTube-junky blues — Tesla coils burst out of his amp into the night. If you follow Hart on Facebook, you know that he's is a serious luthier. You can hear it in his tone. Is it punk, rock, or blues? Exactly.
A pretty girl playing bass okay and singing okay is, well ... okay. But Amy LaVere focused her laser this year with Runaway's Diary. The timid experimentation is gone. She found a strong footing with her songwriting. There's a new confidence in her voice. The theme is compelling, and the lyrics are moving. Now, the players follow her, and the result is an artist in full. This is a great Southern story record for any year. "I'll Be Home Soon" has been stuck in my head since the day I heard it.
Graham Winchester jumped onto this list at the last minute. His dues were paid at Newby's and the Buccaneer. He distinguished himself as a sideman for the old timers. It makes sense that he could pull together a crack band and a set of masterful instrumentalists. But this is Memphis, and people pull together hot-personnel bands all the time, and they don't always work. Winchester raised the bar on songwriting in this town.
Madjack Records has a long history in Memphis' sonic soup kitchen. This year, the burners are hot. The Memphis Dawls are an inspiring, evolving trio of musicians. Rooted In The Bone covers a lot of ground without the strain of an act covering bases. Holly Cole, Krista Wroten-Combest, and Jana Misener are naturally comfortable working in several American grains. Engineer Jeff Powell also worked on American Fiction's debut with engineering titan Larry Kramer. Powell and Madjack have loaded barrels for 2015. Can't wait.
The rerelease of Sid Selvidge's In the Cold of the Morning on Omnivore Recordings is the most important release of the year. The songs and the sound of Selvidge's voice are mesmerizing. The instrumentation may be the best example of Memphis' madcap 1960s generation at work. They are their nutty selves, but they don't get too carried away. Perfect record.
As for live music, Big Ass Truck's reunion was the highlight of the year. Just kidding; we stunk. The best live band in town is Marcella & Her Lovers. It takes courage to sing like Marcella René Simien. The emotional flood gates open up with every note. Her rhythm section can split hairs and topple buildings with equal panache. And guitarist Dave Cousar is sublime. His atmospheric, harmonic style lends an otherworldliness to her earthy vocal. This is one magically idiosyncratic band.
Conflict of interest? Sure. It's gotten to the point that it's almost as crazy as Graceland tour guides having to ignore Aunt Delta's escaped little dog that we haven't addressed Flyer intern Chris Shaw, who fronts the ascendant punk band Ex-Cult. All of the digital titles (Pitchfork, Stereogum, and the ones geezers don't know) are on board. Guitarist JB Horrell is something of a punk Cousar: There is a kooky wizard dust in his playing. Horrell's guitar sets Ex-Cult apart from countless young punks who simply opened the manual to page one. Shaw is also writing for Noisey, Vice Media's music thing. After a truly epic editorial internship, we are pleased to announce that he will become a staff music writer starting ... now.
On December 26th, Marcella & Her Lovers will open for the City Champs at the Hi-Tone. The City Champs are a perfectly distilled essence of Memphis music. Their sound is a combination of power and restraint that really has no competition. They tastefully nod to the past without bowing in servitude. They are good enough to inhabit the space on their own. Go see them. Support the Hi-Tone. Tell important geniuses that you love them. Send me your records: firstname.lastname@example.org.