New Sounds, New Heights 

Decade-long stalwarts Jay Reatard and Lucero continued their ascent while new bands bloomed in 2009.

Al Kapone

Al Kapone

The decade concluded with another rich, active year in local music, filled with established artists reaching new peaks, promising new bands making recorded debuts, back catalogs being refurbished, and one particularly wide-reaching loss. Flyer staff writers and contributors came up with this list of the dozen most notable Memphis music releases of the year. — Chris Herrington


Keep an Eye on the Sky — Big Star (Rhino): About as thorough as a career overview can be without reissuing proper titles in their original form, Keep an Eye on the Sky mixes Big Star's album material with rare/unreleased demo and solo content that digs back to 1967 and concludes with the sessions in 1975, including a Memphis concert from 1973. Although the band's often transcendent, usually prescient pop-rock was way ahead of its time and is no longer some underground secret handshake, it's nice to see the work getting the ultimate treatment. — Andrew Earles

Attack! — Bulletproof Vests (no label): Rising from the ashes of their now defunct post-punk powerhouse the Third Man, brothers Jake and Toby Vest forge a different musical path here. Forgoing the earlier reliance on complex arrangements, spaced-out atmospherics, and a Radiohead-ish sense of grandeur, the Bulletproof Vests deliver a straight, visceral gut-punch. The band's debut is brimming with simple, satisfying pop hooks and tons of guns-blazing guitar ferocity. — J.D. Reager

Dinosaurs Run in Circles — James Luther Dickinson (Memphis International): Did the late Jim Dickinson, so prolific in his final years, know this would be his last album? I don't know, but its lovely, touching autumnal quality was there upon release, months before the great man passed. Recorded essentially as a jazz/blues trio album with Dickinson on piano and Sam Shoup and Tom Lonardo providing support on stand-up bass and low-key drums, Dickinson rummages through pre-rock genres such as jump blues, shuffles, and crooner pop, bringing equal grace and mastery to everything he touches. As the final notes pass on an album-closing reading of "When You Wish Upon a Star," Dickinson himself passes judgment: "That's pretty nice." Indeed.— Chris Herrington

Onward and Upward — Luther Dickinson & Sons of Mud Boy (Memphis International): Three days after James Luther Dickinson left this realm, his family and friends — including his North Mississippi Allstar sons and his bloodbrothers from Mudboy & the Neutrons — recorded Onward and Upward at Jim's home studio, Zebra Ranch. With acoustic instruments and voices, transcendent spirituals and woeful expressions of faith and perseverance, the thievery of death cries from every note — its permanence and its pain. The plight of the living thrums in every beat — the sorrow, the massive absence. And also a human resolution, a celebration of a life lived artfully and to great effect. With the weight of his hand still on their shoulders, these loved ones stopped the sun, drew the image on the back of the cave, burned magic hour eternal. Jim's done died, but this masterpiece vindicates his epitaph: "I'm just dead, I'm not gone." — Robert Gordon

Gonerfest IV DVD/CD (Goner): The production work on this newly released set — video from Live From Memphis, sound from Rocket Science Audio — defies the flippant attitude toward production quality that's often (correctly or incorrectly) associated with the bands included. Capturing great performances by the Ooga-Boogas, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Jay Reatard, Evil Army, and the Carbonas, Gonerfest IV is a recommended document of the first truly huge and transitional Gonerfest extravaganza. — Andrew Earles

The Disco Outlaw — Jack O & The Tennessee Tearjerkers (Goner): Over the past decade, Jack "Oblivian" Yarber has parlayed his garage-rock cred into a shape-shifting musical persona that taps equal parts Nick Cave, Marc Bolan, the New York Dolls, and the MGs. With Disco Outlaw, his fourth full-length under the Tearjerkers moniker (and his first for Goner Records), Yarber mixes bluster and bravado with top-notch songwriting and scorching musicianship from guitarist John Paul Keith, keyboard player Adam Woodard, and a revolving rhythm section. — Andria Lisle

1372 Overton Park — Lucero (Universal): Restless and prolific, Lucero have never stopped touring or growing, and 1372 Overton Park builds on the piano-based expansions of the previous Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers by tastefully incorporating a soulcentric horn section devised by Memphis stalwart Jim Spake. On disc and on the road, Lucero worked their growing sonic palette with aplomb, hooking longtime fans on what they didn't even know they wanted. — Chris Herrington

"Hey Boy" 7-inch — Magic Kids (Goner): Members of young bands the Barbaras and Scandaliz Vandalistz come together in an indie-rock pajama party of a band, debuting with a charming seven-inch mash-up of surf rock and girl group. Is there life beyond this? We'll soon find out. — Chris Herrington

Watch Me Fall — Jay Reatard (Matador): In Spin's list of 2009's best albums, it's no accident that Watch Me Fall lands at #13. Nor is it a surprise that 65 of the 75 assigned words are reserved to attack Reatard's character. The favored alternate-reality of the press is that Watch Me Fall magically appeared while Reatard spent the entire year inserting the F-word into his Twitter. The product of extreme expectation, stress, inspiration, and care, the album nonetheless needed to grow on me. It did, and I'm proud that Watch Me Fall is associated with Memphis, because long after all of the lazy writers and fickle fans have found something new to misunderstand, this album will be remembered and revisited. — Andrew Earles

Star & Micey — Star & Micey (Ardent Music): Ardent Music's second local release in so many years, the debut CD from the folky, lightly psychedelic pop trio Star & Micey succeeds on the strength of two key components: the deft pop craftmanship of emerging songwriter Josh Cosby and a crew of highly skilled backing musicians, including Luther Dickinson, Paul Taylor, and Dave Cousar. What's scary is that the band's newer batch of songs, which bear a heavier influence from the band's most recent addition, songwriter/producer Nick Redmond, might even be better. — J.D. Reager

Share It! — Paul "Snowflake" Taylor (Makeshift): Paul Taylor's irrepressible musicality is kept somewhat in check when asked to just keep the beat (for Amy LaVere, Antenna Shoes, etc.). So, on his own, it all tumbles out, and this one-man-band solo album leaps from quirky indie-pop confessionals ("Just Can't Wait That Long Anymore") to Brazilian rhythms ("Share It") to Prince-like homemade soul/funk ("Relentless") to downbeat, country-inflected anti-anthems ("Not Still Lost in Tennessee"). — Chris Herrington

God, The Government, The Game — Teflon Don (Soul Star Entertainment): At 18, Donald Askew took a path different from most Memphians: He enlisted in the U.S. Army and left for Fort Hood, then Iraq, where, as a corporal in the 110th Cavalry, he patrolled the streets of Baghdad, Tikrit, and Mosul. Now back home, as rapper Teflon Don, he travels the road less taken once more, providing an inspirational social commentary that's far from the gangsta rap currently dominating local airwaves. — Andria Lisle

Personal Bests
Flyer music writers look beyond the top dozen albums for some of their favorite Memphis music moments of 2009:

Chris Herrington

1. Alloy Orchestra at Indie Memphis: Okay, so maybe this is a little more film-related. But Boston's three-man Alloy Orchestra performing their original scores to silent cinema classics The General and Man With a Movie Camera at Studio on the Square during the Indie Memphis Film Festival was easily my cultural highlight of the year. When Alloy's percussive score matched Movie Camera's quick-editing climax, I felt pinned to my seat, afraid to blink.

2. Los Campesinos! at the Hi-Tone Café: My fave new band of 2008 made their Memphis debut in January 2009 with a charming set of their hyperactive, snarky, but essentially joyous indie rock. And I'm not sure who was more pleasantly surprised by the decent-sized and extremely enthusiastic crowd, me or the band.

3. Davila 666 at Gonerfest: My fave new (to me) band of 2009, this San Juan-based garage-rock-for-starters group was deliriously good at Gonerfest, ripping through one hooky, imaginative rock gem after another with charisma and enthusiasm while a giddy crowd waved several Puerto Rican flags in appreciation.

4. Al Kapone and Brad Postlethwaite in $5 Cover: Craig Brewer's MTV series showcased all kinds of good Memphis music, but its two best "webisodes" were relatively self-contained films built around the real-life stories of Snowglobe's med-student co-frontman Postlethwaite and dutiful-dad-as-rap-hustler Kapone, as well as around the terrific original songs Postlethwaite ("Nothing I Can Do") and Kapone ("Gettin' Mine") contributed to the project.

5. The City Champs: Live or on record (debut: The Safecracker), this instrumental trio is the most musically bracing new addition to the local landscape, taking their jazz base and smartly incorporating influences ranging from Booker T. & the MGs to Afropop.

Chris Davis

1. I died a little and went to record-geek heaven when Jack Yarber and his Tennessee Tearjerkers covered Travis Wammack's "Scratchy" at the Center for Southern Folklore's Memphis Music and Heritage Festival. My undead body shook as Yarber and sideman John Paul Keith worked their way through one of the quirkiest, funkiest, most fun songs ever recorded by a Memphis teenager.

2. Greg Hisky and Neon Wheels ended an okay but uninspired version of "Secret Agent Man" at the Antenna club reunion and launched into "She's Something," written by Tommy Hull of the Randy Band. It wasn't just one set of original Memphis punks paying tribute to another set of original Memphis punk. It was a sonic shout-out to Jim Dickinson who produced Neon Wheels' recording of "She's Something."

3. The Antenna club reunion was a bittersweet event that kicked off as news of Jim Dickinson's death penetrated Memphis' music community. Few moments were more fun or more poignant than when Greg Cartwright finished his set with the Compulsive Gamblers and walked across the street to Murphy's to cover "I've Had It" with Harris Sheuner and Los Pimpin'. "I've Had It," which was originally recorded by '50s-era Bronx rockers the Bell Notes, was re-recorded by Alex Chilton and appears on Like Flies on Sherbert with Dickinson singing lead. The Sheuner/Cartwright duet was sloppy, only occasionally on key, and fantastic. It was the spirit of the Antenna club distilled. Earlier in the evening, I thought the Compulsive Gamblers' cover of "Telstar" with Mike Federline from Man With Gun Lives Here on sax was going to be the reunion highlight. I was wrong.

4. Gonerfest: I'm not going to single out a moment because none stands out. (Maybe the Magic Kids?) This event has fantastic momentum, and it was exciting to see so many people from somewhere else crowded into Memphis clubs to hear rock-and-roll.

5. Hank Williams' birthday was well celebrated in Memphis in 2009. Greg Hisky assembled an all-star band, including John McClure on bass, Jim Duckworth on guitar, and Eric Lewis on lap steel. Hisky has done this for years, but it's never been better. When Hisky closed with "I Saw the Light," it was like Williams had died all over again. People were singing, dancing, drinking, crying, and praising the Lord. Meanwhile, Memphis' Circuit Playhouse was producing a show called Hank Williams: Lost Highway. The play was bad, but the musical performances were some of the best I've ever seen in the theater.

Andria Lisle

1. Here's to the next generation: We lost Jim Dickinson this year, but we gained his granddaughter, Lucia Roza Dickinson, who was born to Luther and Necha Dickinson on October 28th. Maybe she'll grow up to play guitar like her daddy or percussion like her uncle Cody. Or maybe she'll grow up to form a band with Nino Bobo, the brand-new "release" from Harlan T. Bobo and his wife Anne Ciriani.

2. Memphis music in print — specifically, the late Robert Palmer's eloquent, genre-spanning writings about Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis, reprinted last month in Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer, and the phenomenal narratives that comprise Give My Poor Heat Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues by Center for Southern Folklore co-founder Bill Ferris.

3. Jay Reatard's antics, whether seen on YouTube, gleaned from Pitchfork and Twitter, or viewed personally at Gonerfest. I don't get to talk to Reatard as often as I'd like, but, thanks to social media outlets, I can find out whatever wacky hi-jinks ensue, including, most recently, the arrests of two fans who attacked him after a set in Austin.

4. The growing popularity of gospel music: This year, unknown Memphis groups such as the Shaw Singers and Lula Collins got their due via Fire in My Bones, a three-CD set compiled by venerable rock journalist Mike McGonigal and released on roots label Tompkins Square.

5. The tireless Live From Memphis crew, who have brokered partnerships with the likes of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau and Goner Records for projects ranging from "Flipside Memphis" to the production of the Gonerfest 4 DVD. When the rest of us sleep, they're blogging at and planning events like the quarterly L'il Film Fest, now in its third year.

J.D. Reager

1. Memphis musicians at South By Southwest: On the strength of Craig Brewer's $5 Cover project for MTV, the ever-growing national profile of Goner Records, and a concerted effort by groups like the Memphis Music Foundation and Music Memphis, the local music scene was able to send an unprecedented delegation of bands and artists to Austin's South By Southwest this March.

2. Glorie: the return of Jason Paxton: Former Satyrs and Delorean frontman Jason Paxton finally came out of a seven-year musical hibernation this year, unveiling his fantastic new instrumental group Glorie. Now, if someone could just convince Paxton to sing a little bit ...

3. Lucero big band at the Levitt Shell: Anyone in this town still needing an answer to the question of exactly how big and powerful a band local alt-country heroes Lucero have become needed only to attend their tour kickoff concert at the Levitt Shell. It's a simple equation: Lucero + a tight horn section + perfect weather + an awkward and hilarious Jerry Lawler introduction = local music magic.

4. Slobberbone at Newby's: Speaking of alt-country heroes, Denton, Texas' mighty Slobberbone reformed this year after a brief period of reinvention as the Drams. In Memphis on a last-minute reunion tour stop between Little Rock and Atlanta, the band delivered a dynamite performance of old favorites to a small but extremely enthusiastic gathering of devotees.

5. True Sons of Thunder: While not a "new" local band per se, the undeniable raw power of the True Sons of Thunder was something of an unknown quantity for me until this year. Chalk it up to pure ignorance.

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