10 from ’20: Great Memphis Sounds From the Year From Hell 

Here's a roundup of my favorite Memphis music from 2020, the year that roared.

You Make Me Feel (Fat Possum)
Don Bryant. Classic soul, delivered with a heartfelt panache that few singers can pull off these days. "Your Love is Too Late" or "Cracked Up Over You" evoke a '60s and '70s Hi Records sound, with horn riffs and the driving beat of Howard "Bulldog" Grimes. Bryant howls on the uptempo tracks, but the standout may be "Don't Turn Your Back on Me," which begins with only solo guitar and Bryant's voice, so like a fine liqueur.

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Crew Vibez
Chinese Connection Dub Embassy. The standouts are the politically charged songs like "Dem A Callin' (Flodgin')" and "Warzone," but the group aims to open both minds and hearts here. Many of the tracks, from lead single "Honey" to "Melanin Queen" or "So Grateful," explore a sound that combines classic "lover's rock" with drum-machine-heavy dance hall beats.

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Nothing But Love: The Music of Frank Lowe (Mahakala)
Kelley Hurt, Chad Fowler, Chris Parker, Bernard Santacruz, Anders Griffen, Bobby Lavell. Who knew that Memphis produced one of the leaders of free jazz, Frank Lowe, who played with both Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane? This group of players did. Some were in the local jazz scene of the '90s, meeting and playing with Lowe at the time. Now they carry those lessons forward with a perfect balance of cacophony and a soulful, Southern lyricism. 

Chris Milam. Bringing a new subtlety to his writing and arranging, Milam inadvertently made the perfect album for quarantine. "I wanted it to sound as human and vulnerable as possible," he says. "So a lot of warm sounds, a lot of acoustic instruments. Somehow we settled on that combination of trumpet and cello." It's a sonic expression of heartache unlike any other.

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The Music Stands
New Memphis Colorways. An eclectic tour de force by Memphis' favorite multi-instrumentalist, Paul Taylor. From pitch-perfect Memphis power pop, to singer/songwriter acoustic forays, to art-rock instrumentals, Taylor evokes all with a startling musical imagination, his craft taking him to a land of heartfelt song.

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Optic Sink
Optic Sink. With stark electronic minimalism, this mixes synthesizer lines with clean, cold drum machine beats and a touch of percussion. It's the touches of freestyle synth playing that really bring the soulfulness, even as Natalie Hoffmann's singing blurs the lines between human and machine.

Rawer Than Raw
Bobby Rush. In a tribute to the great Mississippi blues artists who inspired him, with a few originals thrown in as well, Rush accompanies himself on guitar and harmonica, his foot stomping the beat. It's stark, but both his playing and his singing dig deep. And the native wit of originals like "Garbage Man" makes them timeless.

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Don't Walk the Darkness
(Big Legal Mess)
Will Sexton. Backed by the Iguanas, this reveals Sexton's deep knowledge of New Orleans music, with a side of Tex Mex, country, and rock. Having written "Don't Take It From Me" with Waylon Jennings almost 20 years ago, the singer/guitarist finally gets it down on tape, with results equally dark, soulful, and fun.

Folk Beef
Mark Edgar Stuart. This EP perfectly captured the way many coped with a year from hell, tackling new lyrical territory like white privilege ("Color Wheel") or income disparity ("99 Percentile Blues") with Stuart's clever good humor, lightened further with moments of bliss at home and in the hood ("Happy at Home," "Faxon Wizard").

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Rev. John Wilkins. The son of blues and gospel legend Robert Wilkins, this giant mixed the sacred and profane with grace, and this swan song was his greatest achievement. The title track captures these dark times with fire-and-brimstone passion and a churning groove like a freight train, and, with his daughters lending their voices, this album is a fitting tribute to a life well-lived.

Singles Julien Baker - "A Dreamer's Holiday"; Bailey Bigger - "Weight of Independence"; Stephen Chopek - "Unspoken Hopes"; PreauXX & AWFM - "10K"; Talibah Safiya - "A Wild One," "The Great Disguise," "Ten Toes Down"; Webbstar - "South Memphis Woman."

Reissues and Archival Releases Van Duren - Are You Serious? and Idiot Optimism (Omnivore); Andy Grooms - Grateful to Burn (Small Batch); Impala - Teenage Tupelo (Chaputa); The Last Shall Be First: The JCR Records Story, Volume One (Bible & Tire); Jack Oblivian - The Lone Ranger of Love (Black & Wyatt); The Scruffs - Teenage Tragedies 1974-1979 (Mono-Tone/Pop Supérette).

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