Music editor Chris Herrington lists the best local albums of 2008, and our other music writers pay tribute to a few of their favorite things. (Our national music "best of" lists will follow in the January 8th issue.)
Top 10 Local Albums:
1. Matador Singles '08 — Jay Reatard (Matador): The onetime enfant terrible who named his first two albums (with the Reatards) Teenage Hate and Grown Up, Fucked Up gave growing up a good name in 2008. A decade into one of modern Memphis music's most prolific and most relentlessly creative careers, Reatard decided that energy and passion don't have to be sacrificed by more space and less volume, resulting in the so-far best music of his life — one melodic, personal pop gem after another, first released as limited-edition singles but collected on disc here. Highlights abound: The soaring romantic chorus of "See Saw" that goes "She creeps me out/She crept me in again"; the merciless but unexpectedly generous childhood reminiscence of "Screaming Hand"; the eloquently strangled guitar line that drives "Always Wanting More"; the way the restless, regretful "No Time" is effectively roughed up with some intentional distortion.
2. Lay It Down — Al Green (Blue Note): This is the third in a series of quality "comeback" albums Al Green has made this decade, and, as a Memphis music writer, I'm probably supposed to say that this one, recorded in New York with Roots drummer ?uestlove producing, isn't as good as the ones recorded down home with legendary local collaborator Willie Mitchell. But that's just not true: It's better. Both too tasteful and too contrary to let the album get bogged down by its cameos (John Legend, Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae), ?uestlove merely replicates the form and spirit of the classic Hi sound as best he can and lets Green go to work. The opening title track, in which Green worries — with slowly increasing intensity — over a simple, familiar instrumental bed, might be his finest recorded moment since the Carter administration. It sets a tone that the rest of the album improbably lives up to.
3. Pretty Loud — Mouse Rocket (self-released): Alone or together, Robby Grant and Alicja Trout are two of Memphis' finest music makers. In their "other bands" (Vending Machine and River City Tanlines, respectively), Grant specializes in gentle, melodic homemade pop, and Trout plays guitar-god bandleader. Joining forces in Mouse Rocket, they meet halfway (the album title is truth in advertising), and it suits them both. The best local album of 2008 without a strong national profile.
4. Spills & Thrills — John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives (self-released): Nashville's loss is Memphis' gain — big time. Onetime NashVegas hopeful Keith relocated to the other end of the Music Highway, assembled a crackerjack band (producer/guitarist Kevin Cubbins and rhythm-section-to-the-stars John Argroves and Mark Stuart at the core), and, on this debut album, puts a vibrant, nimble country twist on the city's latent roots-rock/bar-rock style.
5. 2 Man Wrecking Crew — Cedric Burnside & Lightnin' Malcolm (Delta Groove): In a genre — the blues — aching for interesting young talent, the late R.L. Burnside's grandson Cedric delivers with this Blues Music Award "best debut" nominee. Switching off drums and guitar and taking songwriting turns with gruff-voiced sidekick Malcolm, this heir to the north Mississippi blues throne tells his personal family story ("R.L. Burnside"), makes an unforced connection to the hip-hop generation he's a part of (his baby "backs that ass up on me" in "My Sweetheart"), and reveals a sweet, soul-infused singing voice ("That's My Girl"). Keeping the blues alive, indeed.
6. Spacetime Breakfast — The Warble (self-released): The playful, personal, mischievous folk-rock on this painstakingly homemade document makes for the most idiosyncratic local debut in recent memory.
7. The 2nd Edition: Memphop — Iron Mic Coalition (self-released): Estranged from both the baser concerns and sounds of most local rap and the mainstream's indie-equivalent minority, this sprawling local crew of rappers and producers has been an island unto itself. On the most interesting local album of 2008 that almost no one heard, disparate voices (stand-outs: Jason the Hater, gruff and comical; Mighty Quinn, smooth and fierce; Derelick, nasally and sly) weave in and out of dense, soulful tracks.
8. Brooklyn Hustle/Memphis Muscle — Jump Back Jake (Ardent): The "Brooklyn hustle" is Jake Rabinbach, a recent arrival with big ideas. The "Memphis muscle" is primarily a trio of musicians from notable local indie-rock bands (Snowglobe, the Third Man, Antique Curtains) who heroically and effectively push themselves into new territory as an ace R&B/roots band while Rabinbach "sings like a man" in a milieu that demands it.
9. Generous Gambler — Antenna Shoes (Shangri-La Projects): Snowglobe's Tim Regan goes "solo" with help from a gaggle of talented friends. With Regan's warm, supple voice putting across a collection of melodic songs whose nooks and crannies are filled with classic-rock grace notes, it sounds just like a Snowglobe record with Regan singing all the songs. And that's a good thing.
10. Alliance — Afrissippi (Hill Country Records): Oxford-based Senegalese native Guelel Kumba fuses blues with West African music, and it's a winning recipe on this second album, with hypnotic Junior Kimbrough-style guitar riffs layered over polyrhythmic African percussion. But Alliance may be even better when the electric blues guitar drops back and the African rhythmic and vocal traditions take the fore, as on the gorgeous call-and-response "Leeliyo Leele" or when Kumba's African guitar launches a song, as on "Maasina Tooro."
Honorable Mentions: Chairmen of the Bored — Lord T & Eloise (self-released); Wild One — Those Darlins (Oh Wow Dang); Gully — Rob Jungklas (MADJACK); Hernando — North Mississippi Allstars (Songs of the South); Egypt Central — Egypt Central (Fat Lady).
Ex-Pats: Oracular Spectacular — MGMT (Columbia); One Kind Favor — B.B. King (Geffen); Eddie Loves You So — Eddie Floyd (Stax); Red Neck, Blue Collar — Bob Frank (Memphis International).
Reissues: Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul — Otis Redding (Rhino); Singles '06/'07 — Jay Reatard (In the Red); Soulsville Sings Hitsville — Various Artists (Stax); Johnny Cash's America (Columbia/Legacy).
1. The Warble: I was drinking beer and having a depressing conversation about the 20th anniversary of the cool new record store I stumbled into 20 years ago when I was 20 when Shangri-La Records owner Jared McStay started bragging about the Warble, a band I'd checked out online but nowhere else in spite of the fact that one of the members, Alex Harrison, was (and still is) working in the Flyer's art department.
McStay said the group reminded him of the artier Midtown sound in the late '80s and early '90s. That recommendation, and Spacetime Breakfast, the absolutely unique CD that showed up at my desk shortly thereafter, finally got me out to see this singular band I'd vastly underrated.
The Warble's approach to what is essentially folk music has both the arty punk edges and the stumbling psychedelic wooziness of older, long-gone local bands like the Odd Jobs and Shangri-La's first recording artists, 611. Their tunes are every bit as quirky and personal as anything recorded by Shelby Bryant before he skipped town. But that's where any comparison to Midtown's Babylon Café scene ends. Harrison and partner Judith Stevens' lyrical images are as graphic and playful as the murals he painted on the walls of the Hi-Tone Café.
2. The Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp: So there I was in a theater full of twisting femininity, watching the rockabilly filly, Rosie Flores, play her heart out for all the girls at Rock Camp. It was an inspired set but not the most inspired set of the week. That didn't happen until the last night of camp when bands of tween girls who'd only been playing together for a week showed their stuff.
By the time the Arcadian Sugarplumz played their original composition, "Testing Testing 1, 2, 3, Let's Go Out There and Rock the Show," it was pretty clear that Memphis' traditionally strong music scene isn't going to dry up anytime soon.
3. Roy Head vs. Terry Manning: In 2006, I included on this very list a performance by Roy Head at the Ponderosa Stomp. The elderly-ish "Treat Her Right" singer moved like a dervish as he laid down the blue-eyed Texas soul that made him world famous for a minute or two in the mid-'60s, and it blew me away. I wish I could say the same thing about his performance at this year's Memphis Pops Festival. But by the time Head went on it was late, he was half lit on fresh-squeezed screwdrivers, and he was grumpy because his shoes wouldn't scoot around the Hi-Tone's carpeted stage. That's not to say that the whole Pops Festival was a disappointment: I got to hear the Hombres play "Let It All Hang Out" twice and saw storied Led Zeppelin engineer Terry Manning play an absolutely stunning, show-stopping cover of Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos." That's special.
4. John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives' "Rock and Roll Will Break Your Heart": It can, you know.
5. The return of the downtown alley parties: It's about time. There are lots of folks who'll fall in love with the Barbaras' 21st-century answer to Phil Spector and Brian Wilson who just aren't going to go to the Buccaneer at midnight. Hope these continue.
1. Jay Reatard singles: Out of his Matador singles series, which had people acting like impoverished participants in a wartime bread/toilet paper line, I'd say that "See Saw," "Always Wanting More," "Hiding Hole," and "You Were Sleeping" were the faves.
2. Black Cobra at the Hi-Tone: The latest two-piece noise band that "sounds like a lot more than just two guys" (always overheard at such performances). Not metal, not punk. Just really loud. Positioned in the middle of a three-band set headlined by instrumental "metal" band Pelican, Black Cobra momentarily made me forget about all other heavy bands.
3. Gonerfest highlights: Sic Alps live: I get it. Sic Alps on record: I don't get it. The Ooga Boogas brought a serious punch — a visceral endurance test that (wonderfully) contrasted the power-pop and pub-rock that dominated their particular evening. No Comply was great during an afternoon set at Murphy's, and whether or not you dig the band's '80s/'90s hardcore history lesson, it was more than worth it to see the head-scratching and, uh, "dancing" within the assembled crowd. I don't even know how to describe the Intelligence — really, really unsophisticated Joy Division? — but they scratched the right spots. And AV Murder sounded amazing in the middle of the afternoon for some reason.
4. The Brothers Unconnected (2/3 of the Sun City Girls) at Odessa: A wonderful treat for a longtime Sun City Girls fan, accented by the fact that more than 10 people showed up to witness the two-and-a-half-hour set of purely bent entertainment and every possible genre of music that can be accomplished with two acoustic guitars and two mics (plus lots of comedic banter!).
5. Torche at the Hi-Tone: This band released what is likely to be my album of the year (Meanderthal). They're also the closest I've ever come to enjoying the Foo Fighters, an influence that is lost to the blunt-force trauma of their live set. So loud that they caused the Hi-Tone's support beams to vibrate, Torche's Melvins-meets-Guided By Voices-meets-Motörhead recipe for greatness was so forceful live that I almost had a panic attack at the thought of possible heart palpitations. Not kidding around here.
Honorable Mentions: Box Elders at Murphy's, Memphis Pops Fest at the Hi-Tone, Skeletonwitch at the Rally Point, Blood on the Wall at Odessa.
1. The Bulletproof Vests: The Bulletproof Vests is a local super-group of sorts. Composed of members of several notable local bands, including the Third Man, Jump Back Jake, and Antique Curtains, the Bulletproof Vests might be the best of that talented lot on the strength of their spot-on Stones/Faces-influenced songwriting and the sheer guitar wizardry of frontman Jake Vest. Vest is everything an aspiring lead guitarist would hope to be — his licks are tasteful, effortless, and incendiary. The Bulletproof Vests is the best new band to emerge from Memphis in 2008.
2. Pretty Loud — Mouse Rocket: A local musician acquaintance recommended this album to me with the following caveat: "I don't normally like indie-rock-type stuff, but this album rocks." Well, I'm here to tell you that I do generally like indie-rock-type stuff and that this album is pretty spectacular. Pretty Loud is the finest collection of straight-ahead rock songs by co-bandleaders Alicja Trout and Robby Grant to date.
3. Billie Worley & the Candy Company and the Warble live at the Cooper-Young Festival: I'm not sure which was more fun for me to watch or more confounding for the average midday passerby — Billie Worley's over-the-top (in a good way) rock anthems and fake-mustache hawking or the Warble literally scaring off families with a manic set of their indescribable, genre-bending pop gems, sprinkled with obscenity.
4. Memphis music at the Indie Memphis Film Festival: Probably the most exciting moments of the Indie Memphis Film Festival came when the spotlight shone on Memphis music. Filmmaker Craig Brewer used the occasion to preview scenes from $5 Cover, his upcoming MTV web-series about Memphis music, and Live From Memphis once again put together a fine collection of locally produced videos for the Music Video Showcase. The MVS was particularly a revelation, mainly for exposing the world to Choir Boi's instant classic "Texting You," which remains firmly implanted in my brain to this day, despite existing on an alternate plane where there might only be one T in the word "texting."
5. Oracle and the Mountain: Local scene vet Dale Naron's new band Oracle and the Mountain expertly bridges the gap between hard rock and indie pop on their eponymous debut offering. What's more, Naron seems to have found a swagger as a frontman/vocalist that was missing from his previous project, the Great Depression.
Honorable mentions: Lord T & Eloise's Chairmen of the Bored, the Perfect Fits' "Radio Transmitter," Against Me! at FedExForum, the Subteens reunion.