The most notable thing that happened in Memphis music this year was also the worst thing that happened in Memphis music: The unexpected passing of Jay Lindsay, aka Jay Reatard, who, after a decade of evolution, had finally emerged as a national figure while making, arguably, the best music of his life. The deaths of legends Willie Mitchell and Alex Chilton were sad, but losing Lindsay just as he was coming into his own was a body blow. He has been — and will continue to be — missed.
But even with that string of losses, the local scene continued to evolve with established artists — Harlan T. Bobo and Rob Jungklas, in particular — hitting new peaks and new musicians emerging to shake things up. Meanwhile, great live music — from both locals and visitors — was happing across the calendar and across the city. On the following pages, four writers highlight the best albums, artists, concerts, and moments from the year in Memphis music.
Best Local Albums
1. Sucker — Harlan T. Bobo (Goner): At a precise moment stuck between what he himself calls a "slippery past" and an "uncertain future," Harlan T. Bobo crafted this beautiful, shivering hymn to hard-won contentment. From joyfully tongue-in-cheek title to righteous opening ("Sweet Life") to swooning climax ("Drank") and every bull's-eye musical choice in between (classic-sounding soul- and folk-rock, locomotive country, carnivalesque pop, Paris café music), Sucker never missteps and says what it needs to say in less than half an hour. I suspect Bobo's debut, Too Much Love, will always be his testament for most fans. But for me, this one is it — at least until he tops it.
2. Proving You Wrong Since 1988 and assorted Internet singles — Skewby (self-released): This bright, charismatic young local rapper released his debut mixtape late last year, and then the would-be hits just kept on coming: the playfully audacious "No Handlebars" (with its astounding second verse), the swaggeringly pointed "I'm Ill" ("Average is a chick I heard about/I don't know her"), the truth-in-advertising collaboration with fellow Memphis rapper Gyft, "So Dope," the mischievously tricky "Angels (Remix)."
But I think my favorite — okay, aside from that second verse on "No Handlebars" — is on a YouTube clip, where Skewby casually strolls up to an outdoor microphone and rips off a few head-spinning bars, culminating in what is at once a statement of principles and a promise: "Well, I got a couple opinions/Radio is trash and television's oblivion/I'll be on both/Representing the Memphians."
It's tempting to think of this ferociously talented young MC as Memphis' answer to similarly smooth and high-minded breakout stars like Chicago's Lupe Fiasco, Atlanta's B.O.B., or the Internet's Drake. In truth, the unpredictability of the music business makes his bid for that level of success a total crapshoot. But, also, he's probably a better pure rapper — in terms of brains, wordplay, and verbal flow — than any of them.
Skewby's second mixtape, More or Less, dropped as we went to press on this issue. We'll deal with that after the calendar flips. He'd already more than earned his spot here.
3. Mapping the Wreckage — Rob Jungklas (MADJACK): With daring production from Jeff Powell and inspired contributions from a host of ace local session players (perhaps most notably cellist Jonathan Kirkscey and guitarist Steve Selvidge), songwriter Rob Jungklas lays his soul bare on this powerful yet intimate album that tracks the deterioration and aftermath of a relationship. Rooted in Jungklas' dissonant art-blues sound and piercing, poetic lyrics, Mapping the Wreckage is a work of brash musicality and unnerving emotional depth. A journey that knocks you down then picks you back up en route to a closing mood of peacefulness and acceptance, it's probably the most under-recognized Memphis album in quite some time.
4. Memphis — Magic Kids (True Panther): The breakout Memphis act of 2010 nationally, the Magic Kids did Memphis proud on a debut album named after their hometown, which showcases their genial, ramshackle deployment of myriad traditional, pre-punk influences. The album's earnest romances play out against a Memphis presented as a relaxed, sunny playpen, with locations such as the Summer Drive-in and Skateland name-checked.
5. I Should Be Blue — Sid Selvidge (Archer Records): Gifted with an extraordinary voice and a facility with all forms of traditional folk/pop songcraft, Sid Selvidge also has been a rewarding if haphazard recording artist for decades, and though I haven't heard all of his apparent eight albums, I'm guessing this is the best. I Should Be Blue retains Selvidge's usual folk setting but with a new musical texture that can stand up to his strikingly beautiful vocals.
Honorable Mentions: Holly & the Heathens — Holly & the Heathens (Makeshift), Let the People Sing — Vending Machine (Should Tap), Home Sweet Home — South Memphis String Band (Memphis International), Little More Lived In — Snowglobe (Makeshift), The Set-Up — The City Champs (Electraphonic)
1. City of Rotten Eyes —The Overnight Lows (Goner): Far and away my favorite local/regional record of the year was the debut offering from this Jackson, Mississippi punk trio. City of Rotten Eyes is a 12-songs-in-roughly-20-minutes rock tour de force that showcases everything I love about punk rock — manic energy, biting sarcasm, memorable hooks, brevity — and virtually none of the clichés that I hate about the genre. This might be my favorite Goner release of all time.
2. The Set-Up — The City Champs (Electraphonic): This second record from the instrumental soul-jazz trio absolutely floored me. But the thing is, The Set-Up is one of those records that just keeps getting better with repeated listening, so now I can't put it down. I find it quite helpful to put this record on when writing or working — though I understand one could also dance to it.
3. Losing You to Sleep — Tommy Hoehn (Milk and Soda reissue): I had been hoping someone would re-release this long-out-of-print document of classic Memphis power-pop, as an original vinyl copy of the record had proved elusive. Though that's no longer the case, I'm still glad to have the re-issued version, which includes lots of worthwhile bonus tracks and beautiful new cover art by local artist Alex Warble.
4. Love Clowns — Luv Clowns (Goner Jr.): Make no mistake about it, this children's music album from local musicians Harlan T. Bobo, Doug Easley, Tim Prudhomme, and Alex Greene is quite weird, and, truthfully, I'm not completely sure that if I had younger kids I would let them listen to it. That said, it's still a hoot to listen to as an adult. Highlights include Easley's beautifully simple "Draw" and Bobo's arresting reading of Fred Rogers' "Good People Sometimes."
5. Memphis — Magic Kids (True Panther): The highly anticipated debut album from the Magic Kids was no disappointment — big, sunny pop hooks, songs about girls and longing, and stunning vocal and musical arrangements abound. All in all, a tremendous first effort.
Honorable Mentions: Sucker — Harlan T. Bobo (Goner), "Hologram" — Good Luck Dark Star (Shangri-La Projects), Build a Raft — Gibson Bros. (Columbus Discount reissue), Rhinestone River — The Limes (Goner), Welcome Home — Judith Stevens (self-released)
Personal Top Fives
1. Youth in Revolt: The emergence of new(ish) young artists highlighted this year, led by the aforementioned Magic Kids, who went global, and the still-ascending Skewby, who became the first local rapper to be recognized in The Source magazine's venerable "Unsigned Hype" column. But add to that duo the city's best new band: Bake Sale, another group of early twentysomethings whose exuberantly minimal sound splits the difference between current indie buzz band Best Coast and rarely remembered '90s faves Scrawl.
2. Steve Selvidge joins the Hold Steady: Local guitar god Steve Selvidge signed up with maybe my favorite recent rock band, the Brooklyn-based Hold Steady, and judging from the band's local-concert-of-the-year set at the Hi-Tone Café in July, he's fitting right in.
3. The Parkington Sisters at the Folk Alliance Conference: The Folk Alliance was overflowing with great music, but my highlight was stumbling into the intimate, late-night, hotel-room set of this Cape Cod band to find youngest sister — and genius singer — Lydia sitting on the floor, absolutely killing a version of the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow."
4. Titus Andronicus at the Hi-Tone Café: The last time this great, noisy, intense New Jersey band came through town, they closed with Springsteen's "Badlands." This time — appropriately, given their wild, defiant, great 2010 album, The Monitor — they invoked a more unruly Jersey predecessor, climaxing with the Misfits' "Where Eagles Dare."
5. Harrison Kennedy at the International Blues Challenge: Blues is a refuge for many aging classic-rockers and R&B singers, and this former member of Detroit soul group Chairman of the Board put a particularly graceful and inspired spin on the transition, starting with gentle acoustic blues in the Mississippi John Hurt mold and adding playful organic percussion and vocals ranging from low end to falsetto.
1. James Hand in a hotel room: I had the opportunity to see honky-tonk traditionalist James Hand play three times in two days, beginning with a concert at Nocturnal and ending with a hotel-room performance for a dozen people at the Folk Alliance Conference. Hand is the genuine article, evoking Ernest Tubb, George Jones, and Hank Williams. After every set, he thanked his audience repeatedly as though he was shocked that anybody would care about him or his songs. I can't recall seeing a performer so vulnerable in front of an audience of any size, let alone one so tiny.
2. Batusis at the Brooks Museum of Art and at the Hi-Tone Café: What's better than a casual, chatty meet-and-greet with punk rock survivors Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls) and Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys) at the Brooks? All of that plus a concert across the street at the Hi-Tone. In addition to Batusis originals, the set included covers of '70s-era monsters such as "Sonic Reducer" and "Trash." Then the extremely accessible duo hung out into the wee hours to tell stories about fallen bandmates Johnny Thunders and Stiv Bators.
3. Folk Alliance Grab Bag: The 2010 Folk Alliance Conference produced more than its share of perfect musical moments. Where else can a person sit in on a bluegrass harmony singing workshop with members of the New Lost City Ramblers then dash down the hall to see Bill Kirchen lay down a thrilling cover of Santo & Johnny's "Sleepwalk"? But those were minor pleasures compared to the mind-blowing sacred-steel showcase held on the conference's opening night. I tend to dislike musical free-for-alls, but a final improvised duet between A.J. Ghent Jr. and Roosevelt Collier took classical music and jazz down to the crossroads of virtuosity and restraint.
4. Mei-Ann Chen at the Buckman: By all accounts, Harlan T. Bobo's Opus One performance with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra was an event not to be missed. And I missed it. But I'm happy to say that I was at the Buckman Center for the MSO's first rehearsal with its new, internationally acclaimed conductor. Early rehearsals can be messy, but from the first sustained note I could feel the energy in the room and tell that the players were excited and ready to try new things. Like a concert with Harlan T. Bobo, for example.
5. The Crime at Murphy's: I thought I was just stumbling into Murphy's for a beer with friends, but I'd actually walked into a super-secret reunion show by first-generation Memphis punks the Crime, who were gearing up for a later performance at the Antenna club reunion. The reunited quartet brought the crowd to its feet with loud, ragged, three-minute pop songs played like the band had never stopped gigging.
1. Big Star tribute concert at the Levitt Shell: What could have been a downer of a night due to inclement weather turned out to be a cathartic celebration of the legacy of Memphis' favorite power-pop sons. Guest artists Brendan Benson (the Raconteurs), Jonathan Davis (Superdrag), and Mike Mills (R.E.M.) were the featured performers that garnered most of the headlines, but founding member Jody Stephens and contemporary Big Star additions Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow (both of the Seattle power-pop outfit the Posies) were the true stars of the show.
2. Gonerfest 7: I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but this year was my first at Gonerfest. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting — some kind of beer-bottle-throwing rock-and-roll nightmare, I suppose — but what I saw and experienced was a ton of great bands, including the Oblivians, So Cow, Thee Oh Sees, and Destruction Unit, and friendly, attentive (bordering on downright polite) crowds. I had a great time.
3. Jack Oblivian teams up with Star & Micey: What started as a cool, one-off pairing for a Halloween gig earlier this year has apparently blossomed into a full-blown collaboration. Rumor has it the Star & Micey gang has been backing Oblivian in the studio recently. I, for one, can't wait to hear the results.
4. The emergence of "new blood": This year has seen the emergence of several interesting new local bands/artists on the scene, including Kruxe, the Gunslingers, the Sultana, Michaela Caitlin, the Perfect Vessels, Tiger Mountain, and the Burning Sands, among others.
5. Harlan T. Bobo collaborates with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra: Full disclosure: I wasn't even there — chalk it up to short pockets and a deep hatred for asking to be on the guest list. But what I can tell you is that I've watched the clips of these shows on YouTube enough times to wish like hell I had been there.
1. 2010, good riddance: My favorite aspect of 2010 is the fact that it's about to be over. This year took Jay Lindsay and Alex Chilton from us. From this, 2011 can only go in one direction.
2. Fat Sandwich Records: Starting earlier in the year with a couple of 7-inch singles (Pezz and Panther Piss), Fat Sandwich's modest growth has seen the little label achieve a discography of four singles, three albums, and a cassette (plus T-shirts). Not afraid to look outside of the city limits and not interested in the blink-and-miss-it concerns of the blogging art-school hippies that apparently control the music industry.
3. Fin Eaves — Cloudland Canyon (Holy Mountain): Performed and recorded almost entirely by local Kip Ulhorn, the latest chapter in the Cloudland Canyon story sounds absolutely nothing like what preceded it or, for that matter, anything else released this year.
4. Bearcubes (EP & CD): I have no idea what type of music this is. It's pop, with classically inspired song arrangements, three to four different hooks per song, and a subtle melancholy or caustic feel to the lyrics and vocal delivery, wordy yet perfectly placed. The Memphis connection here is that the band was co-founded by Katherine Dohan, late of Scandalistz Vandalistz and frequent Magic Kids collaborator.
5. "Who Shot Rock 'n' Roll" and related events at the Brooks Museum: Events coordinator and music writer colleague Andria Lisle used this exhibit to tie in some excellent reasons to get out of the house this year, including an entertaining and inspiring Q&A with Minor Threat/Fugazi front man and Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye.