Over the past few years Memphis music has been in a kind of cultural ascendency.
From mainstream crossover (Three 6 Mafia) to pop celebrity (Justin Timberlake) to industry honors (lifetime Grammys for Booker T. & The MGs and Willie Mitchell), to widely celebrated events (the 50th anniversary of Stax and soul) there's been a lot of fanfare nationally and internationally for the city's music, past and present. But a little closer to home -- and to the street level -- Memphis has enjoyed a quieter kind of resurgence as new artists and scenes have sprouted up or strengthened across a variety of genres.
While the year in local music didn't boast quite as many instant classics or career breakthroughs as 2007 (see Jay Reatard) there were some positive signs. Significantly, almost half the titles among my year's top 10 releases are from new acts, a figure that augurs well for the continued health of Memphis music.
As we enter 2009 -- a year that will bring much-anticipated studio LPs from local perennials like Harlan T. Bobo and Jack Oblivian -- here's a look back at the sounds that found a place on my stereo and in my heart over the past 12 months.
1. Al Green, Lay It Down (Blue Note): It's hard to deny the good reverend the top spot this year as his new school effort -- co-produced by The Roots' Amir "?uestlove" Thompson and featuring a pack of young lions (Anthony Hamilton and John Legend are among the guests) -- both nodded to his classic Hi Records sound but updated the feel for the I-Tunes generation. And that voice -- which Green utilizes masterfully here, almost as another instrument -- continues to age like fine wine.
2. John Paul Keith & The One Four Fives, Spills and Thrills (Neveready): Although they revel in their reputation as a bar band par excellence, John Paul Keith and company deliver an absolute studio gem with their debut LP. A sweet soulful mix of surging country and tuneful pop song craft, Knoxville transplant Keith has been slowly building toward an album of this quality during an up and down 10-year career. The wait was worth it, however, as he delivers a minor masterpiece of roots rock that would make Nick Lowe grin in admiration.
3. Jay Reatard, Matador Singles '08 (Matador): White hot garage-punk polymath Reatard continued to raise his profile this year with a cleverly marketed monthly series of 7-inch singles for Matador (later collected and released on CD) designed to serve as a stopgap until his full-length label debut, and setup what seems his unlikely, if inevitable, transition into the mainstream. Like his recent work for In the Red and Goner labels, the tracks here showcase his sharp hooks and production skills, with an increasingly heavy Kiwi-pop influence coming to the fore.
4. Dan Penn, Junkyard Junky (Dandy): Although he was born in Alabama and resides in Nashville, singer-songwriter Dan Penn makes pure Memphis music. One of the Bluff City's most important and influential behind-the-scenes figures, Penn has an appallingly small solo catalog, but adds to it with this collection of glorified and glorious sounding demos, mixing new compositions like the years-in-the-making title track and old chestnuts, like his first hit single, "Is A Bluebird Blue?"
5. Mouserocket, Pretty Loud (Tic Tac Totally!): More an idea than a working band for much of their seven-year run, this local supergroup -- featuring members of Vending Machine, River City Tanlines, and Harlan T. Bobo's backing outfit -- finally put the finishing touches to their second full-length. Led by singer-songwriters Alicja Trout and Robby Grant, the band creates a twisting, dissonant merger of art rock and chamber pop, that's often willfully weird, but always engaging.
6. The Perfect Fits, Various Singles (Contaminated and Douchemaster): The fledgling four-piece -- led by loveable garage rock curmudgeon Scott Rodgers -- came roaring out of the box with a pair of irresistibly catchy singles, one for the local Contaminated label and another for Atlanta's Douchemaster. Stuffed with fuzzed up bubblegum hooks and drawing heavily on the cars and girls lineage of the mighty Dictators, their two 7-inchers provided a tantalizing preview of a full length due next year.
7. MJG, This Might Be The Day (404 Music/MJG Muzik): This year local vet MJG put out a greatest hits collection with his longtime partner 8Ball, but it was this solo album -- his first in over a decade -- that pointed to the rapper's continuing career renaissance. Despite being savaged by some of the hip-hop press, the disc actually played to his considerable strengths as an MC, while guest spots from 8Ball, Gucci Mane, and Pleasure P added an element of Dirty South camaraderie and variety to the tracks.
8. The Warble, Spacetime Breakfast (Self-released): The debut from this eclectic and eccentric Memphis College of Art-rooted outfit might be one of the year's big surprises. Perhaps known more for the arresting visual dynamism of their live show, the sonic tableau they created with this disc did not disappoint, as the group manages to marshal a wide range of influences -- from the cracked blues of Captain Beefheart to the moody acoustics of the Incredible String Band -- under one roof.
9. J.D. Reager, The Repechage (Makeshift/Migrant): After literally a lifetime in music playing with various bands beginning as adolescent, Makeshift Music mover and shaker Reager finally ventured out on his own with this solo effort (though he was aided by a large cast of local notables). A mix of a moody roots rock, blithe power pop and the occasional punk-ish touch, the album triumphs, buoyed by batch of memorable tunes and meticulous production.
10. Staags! Adult Brigade EP (Self-released): Part of a mini Memphis hardcore revival, the Staags! offered a much needed shot in the arm to the sagging subgenre. With a multi-generational lineup made up of musical up-and-comers and scene stalwarts, the group balances the right mix of energy and savvy, and this batch of songs proves that Memphis punk can still be entertaining and relevant in 2008.
Bob Mehr is the music writer for The Commercial Appeal. You can reach him at 529-2517.