Best of 2009: Top 10 Memphis records are melody of old and new

Thirty-seven years after their debut album, Big Star is still one of the most relevant bands to come out of Memphis.

John Fry

Thirty-seven years after their debut album, Big Star is still one of the most relevant bands to come out of Memphis.

As 2009 gives way to 2010, it's time to look back on another bountiful 12 months of Memphis music releases.

Record stores and online retailers were loaded with new titles and reissues encompassing every conceivable sound and style, made by artists barely out of high school as well as those long gone.

Thirty-seven years after their debut album, Big Star is still one of the most relevant bands to come out of Memphis.

John Fry

Thirty-seven years after their debut album, Big Star is still one of the most relevant bands to come out of Memphis.

'Watch Me Fall,'  musician Jay Reatard's first record for  Matador, leaned heavily on pop influences from Down Under.

Photo by Mike Brown, Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal

"Watch Me Fall," musician Jay Reatard's first record for Matador, leaned heavily on pop influences from Down Under.

 The City Champs record 'Safecracker' is full of organ-fueled instrumental soul-jazz.

The City Champs record "Safecracker" is full of organ-fueled instrumental soul-jazz.

The passing of so many local talents in 2009 -- from Sun Records star Billy Lee Riley to jazz great Hank Crawford -- provided insight into how many great artists have been lost, and how many are still being discovered.

So, here is my personal Top 10 list of Memphis music, both old and new, for the past year.

1. Big Star, Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino)

Chris Bell, I Am The Cosmos Deluxe Edition (Rhino Handmade)

Though it came 37 years after the release of the band's debut album, 2009 proved to be The Year of Big Star. Boosted by Warner Music's meticulous assembly efforts, the four-disc 98-song box set, Keep An Eye on the Sky, and an expanded version of ex-Big Star member Chris Bell's solo collection I Am the Cosmos, offered a cause for rejoicing and a widespread critical reappraisal of the once-forgotten Memphis band.

Despite my own small contributions to these sets (I penned a portion of the liner notes for both) there's simply no way to deny the endless stream of gushing five star, A+ and 10/10 reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and Spin, among others. Such effusive praise merely cemented what diehards have known all along: that Big Star belongs high in the pop pantheon, right there among the roll call of other classic "B" bands like the Beatles, Byrds and Beach Boys.

2. Jim Dickinson, Dinosaurs Run in Circles (Memphis International)

Sons of Mudboy, Onward and Upward (Memphis International)

The late Jim Dickinson's final album, Dinosaurs Run Circles, was musical homecoming and, as it turned out, a fitting valediction. Dickinson, who died in August, did live to see the release of this gorgeous collection of jazz and pop songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s, many of which he'd first heard sitting in front of the radio as a child. The impromptu version of "When You Wish Upon a Star" that closes the album is a sad, beautiful and poignant finale for one of the giants of Memphis music.

Fittingly, Dickinson's death spurred the creation of another of the year's best albums, Onward and Upward. Recorded in the immediate aftermath of Dickinson passing, the mostly gospel disc is a split affair, with half the songs being solo acoustic numbers by his son, Luther Dickinson and the rest being credited to The Sons of Mudboy, a collective that includes close friends like Sid and Steve Selvidge, Jimmy Crosthwait, Jimbo Mathus, Shannon McNally and Paul Taylor. A mix of classic hymnals and religious numbers that Jim Dickinson's mother had performed for years as a church pianist, it is a perfect, loving memorial to a figure whose presence continues to be felt.

3. Jack O. & The Tennessee Tearjerkers

The Disco Outlaw (Goner)

Saturday Night Pt. 2 (Big Legal Mess)

With his fifth solo album Jack Oblivian (aka Jack Yarber) completes his metamorphosis from trash rock titan to roots rock maven with the long gestating follow up to 2006's The Flipside Kid. Despite the cheeky title, there's little in the way of disco here, just a scintillating selection of originals running the gamut from mournful country to slow-simmering blues to smoking-in-the-boys room rock (plus a brilliant cover of Travis Wammack's classic Memphis instrumental "Scratchy").

A follow up EP, Saturday Night Pt. 2, offered a batch of raw, lo-fi nuggets, proving that Yarber can still get down and dirty when he chooses. Taken together, it's easily year's best musical 1-2 punch.

4. Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall, (Matador)

Although local pop-punk polymath Reatard had a hard act to follow, trying to equal the quality of his stunning '06-'08 run of releases, his first proper album for NYC indie Matador delivered on that promise and more. Leaning heavily on a slew of Aussie and Kiwi pop influences, Reatard crafted another platter of tight, razor-sharp tunes, while continuing to grow more famous (or infamous) for his always dynamic and occasionally dangerous roadshow.

5. Dirty Streets, Portrait of a Man, (Soul Patch)

The first truly great "new" band to emerge from the Memphis scene in recent memory, this trio of teen and twenty-somethings conjure a mass of thick riffs and a hearty retro rumble that nods to the blues-rock and proto-punk of Humble Pie, the MC5, and Cactus, without being overly reverent. With the emergence of the Dirty Streets, the city's musical future appears to be in good hands.

6. Teflon Don, God, The Government, The Game (Makeshift Music)

Former Army corporal turned Memphis hip-hop hustler Donald Askew turned out a conceptual LP that goes against the prevailing gothic, gangsta style dominating the city's rap scene. His songs -- including mini-epics about the trials of urban life, military life and the collateral damage resulting from each -- flow with a power and grace that balances the grime of the street and a subtle spirituality.

7. Various Artists, Designer Records Reissues (Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum)

From the mid-'60s to the late-'70s, local record moguls Style Wooten and Charles Bowen tirelessly cut gospel acts throughout Memphis. Their efforts yielded between 600 and 800 singles (some commercial projects, others done as vanity recordings) and numerous full-length albums.

Over the past 30 years, Designer records have become sought-after collector's items. This year, the Mississippi-based Big Legal Mess label (aided by local DJ and crate-digger Andrew McCalla) began an ambitious campaign to reissue the entire Designer catalog, beginning with titles from the Singing Southern Echoes and Reverend Douglas Bell & the Stage Cruisers. 2010 will see the company continue what is a truly remarkable archeological project that excavates a thrilling, if largely unknown, chapter in Memphis' musical history.

8. Susan Marshall, Little Red, (Madjack Records)

Given the natural ease with which she sings, it's easy to take local diva Marshall for granted. Despite her sterling backing work -- in service of Cat Power, the Afghan Whigs, and Lucinda Williams -- Marshall has built a equally impressive solo catalog, with the long-in-the-making Little Red showcasing her versatility and vocal gifts as a blues mama, soul soother and tear-inducing balladeer.

9. George Jackson, In Memphis 1972-1977 (Ace Records)

This stellar U.K. compilation gathers together the classic early work of Southern soul songwriter George Jackson. Long before he penned hits for the likes of Candi Staton, Clarence Carter and even the Osmonds, Jackson made a series of brilliant solo recordings. His best work for the Sounds of Memphis and XL labels, as well as Hi, Chess and MGM, are all lovingly compiled and annotated on this 18 song collection.

10. The City Champs, Safecracker, (Electraphonic)

Reviving the tradition of organ-fueled instrumental soul-jazz for contemporary audiences, this local outfit's debut album -- recorded by Bo-Keys main man Scott Bomar -- captures all the groove-filled glory of the band's live sets.

© 2009 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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