The local music scene's year ended on a sad note with the loss of icon Rufus Thomas, but the rest of the year brought plenty of good news. National inroads made in 2000 expanded for the most prominent local artists. The North Mississippi Allstars avoided the sophomore slump with 51 Phantom, proving they're a band built to last. The Three 6 Mafia empire continued to grow, with Project Pat becoming a star, La Chat added to the fold, and a commercially successful foray into straight-to-video filmmaking under their belt. In the midst of all this, they also actually managed to make some pretty decent records. On the hard-rock front, Saliva parlayed an accomplished record (Every Six Seconds), a national trend, and big-label support into a massive success, topping it all off with a coronation-like performance at the Beale Street Music Fest. I say get it while you can, because major-label metal is not a scene focused on building lasting careers. Other local hard-rock signees, Dust for Life and Breaking Point, failed to make similar impacts, dispelling, at least for the time being, Saliva lead singer Josey Scott's wishful insistence on Memphis as a "next Seattle."
On the local club scene, the embarrassment of riches continued. Cory Branan and Eighty Katie had breakout years, the Subteens and the Lost Sounds just got better, the Reigning Sound became the band of choice for serious rock-and-roll connoisseurs, young bands like Snowglobe, the Great Depression, and the John Murry Band portend a bright future, Richard Johnston continued to establish himself as a major talent, and Lucero remained the biggest local act not already a national name. Here's hoping 2002 corrects that last point.
The concert scene was pretty bad, as usual, with a few significant venue changes. Downtown's metal/punk/indie-rock fixture Last Place on Earth closed its doors, though owner Chris Walker continues booking shows at the Map Room, and a couple of swank additions to the downtown music scene sprang up in its place in the form of Gibson's Lounge and Isaac Hayes --Music·Food·Passion.
In the midst of all this, local artists produced more good records than a city the size of Memphis, regardless of its music heritage, has any right to expect. Here are 20 you should check out, at least a quarter of them debuts. Look for the national year-end roundup after the holidays.
1. The Hell You Say -- Cory Branan (MADJACK): An easy choice at the top. Dozens of singer-songwriter records have crossed my desk this year, and other than one from some craggy old geezer named Dylan, none were as good as this local debut. Not Ron Sexsmith. Not Freedy Johnston. Not Rodney Crowell or Ani DiFranco or Loudon Wainwright or Jay Farrar. Not even Lucinda Williams. The lyrical precocity of this record is startling enough, but the sonic smarts are every bit as revelatory. And it only hints at the comic gifts Branan so readily displays live. Surely the music industry isn't so screwed up that this record won't find the national audience it deserves -- and that is there waiting to be found -- in the coming year.
2. Cloud-Wow Music -- Shelby Bryant (Smells Like Records): Totally unique and utterly transfixing, ex-Clear Shelby Bryant's exquisitely personal Casio-pop would be a sure number one most other years. Any listener not immediately turned off will be grinning madly by the middle of track two. And when Bryant croons, "The sky above is speaking some inane thing to me," girls-who-wear-glasses everywhere swoon in unison.
3. Hypnotize Minds singles ("Chickenhead" -- Project Pat; "Can I Get Paid" -- Gangsta Boo; "2-Way Freak" -- Three 6 Mafia): I can't honestly recommend any of the albums the Three 6 Mafia collective released this year, but for one song at a time they reached previously unimaginable heights. The early-year smash "Chickenhead" is one of the year's best singles, period, with Project Pat and newcomer La Chat offering a gangsta-rap dozens game that evokes Otis Redding and Carla Thomas' epic battle of the sexes on "Tramp" while the dueling "squawk squawk" sound effects and dismissive female vocal interjection ("Boy, please, whatever") shadow-boxes Pat and Chat's give-and-take. Will this outfit ever sound this fun again? Then came the generally overrated (at least locally) Gangsta Boo, who found enough time before finding religion to issue a definitive, tough-minded sex-club anthem with "Can I Get Paid," followed in short order by Three 6 Mafia's slinky local radio staple "2-Way Freak."
4. Break Up, Break Down -- The Reigning Sound (Sympathy for the Record Industry): This is precisely the way all of us Replacements fans wanted Paul Westerberg to mature. With a crack new band, local treasure Greg Cartwright steps beyond the glorious garage-punk he forged with the Oblivians and Compulsive Gamblers, turning the amps down a couple of notches but the melodies all the way to 11. Folk-rock that beats with an R&B heart.
5. Launch-Pad Rock -- Eighty Katie (self-released): No other local band gets more from such simple rock-and-roll verities as Eighty Katie does on this short, hook-filled debut. The bass lines never stop popping, the backbeat never stops snapping, and those ear-candy riffs come in bunches. The vocals certainly aren't perfect, but the songcraft almost is.
6. Black-Wave -- The Lost Sounds (Empty): Here's the local record when you feel like Enid in Ghost World and want to dance-this-mess-around in your bedroom to release the feelings of cultural exile you get driving past all the franchised corporate detritus littering the roadside and negotiating the walking zombies in your way. Those who never feel like this might wanna take a pass.
7. Makeshift #2 -- Various Artists (Makeshift): A second compilation CD from an upstart local indie and a quantum leap past their first. The "biggest" local bands here don't disappoint --brilliant Lost Sounds track, charming early Lucero cut -- but the riches run deep: turntable pastiche from Memphix, dreamy pop from Snowglobe and Liftoff, subtle rock from Johnny Romania, a rave-up from American Deathray, and much, much more.
8. The Rug -- Big Ass Truck (Terminus): An aurally playful experimental detour for these area stalwarts, The Rug has echoes of tropicalia and Afro-beat bubbling up from the usual art-funk gumbo. It only has two traditional, vocal-based "songs," but in a way this may be their most accomplished record yet.
9. 51 Phantom -- The North Mississippi Allstars (Tone-Cool): With more of a rock bent and mostly original songwriting, Memphis' favorite band shows tremendous growth on their sophomore disc, with some newfound gospel flavor snaking through.
10. Down South Flava -- Gangsta Blac (Koch): Exhibit A in the argument that local hip hop doesn't begin and end with Three 6 Mafia, and Blac's major-label debut is a better album than anything to ever come out of the Three 6 camp. In fact, it strongly rivals 51 Phantom as the best big-label release to come out of Memphis this year, thanks, in large part, to its strong, varied production.
Honorable Mentions (in order of preference): It Came From Memphis, Volume 2 -- Various Artists (Birdman); Bad Mood Rising -- The Tearjerkers (Sympathy for the Record Industry); Sell My Jewelry -- Barbara Blue (Big Blue); Outside the Lines -- Nancy Apple (Ringo); "Homegrown" -- Redeye Jedi (Memphix); Every Six Seconds -- Saliva (Island); Edgar's Blues -- Eric Lewis and Andy Ratliff; Don't Count Us Out -- Keith Sykes (Syren); I'Nats for Short -- The Internationals (Redd Records); The Best Woman -- Barbara Carr (Ecko).
You can e-mail Chris Herrington at firstname.lastname@example.org.