It was a busy year on the Memphis music scene; by my count, more than 100 local artists released an album, EP or single.
That list includes:
Long lost treasures like Alex Chilton's The "1970" Sessions, the Elvis Presley live CD/DVD set Prince From Another Planet, and a compilation from forgotten Stax artist Wendy Rene.
The return of old favorites like cult metal band Gringos on Pearly Gates, Yo Gotti's Live From the Kitchen, ex-Survivor front man Jimi Jamison on Never Too Late, and punk rock trio The River City Tanlines on Coast to Coast.
And such welcomed debuts as reggae band Chinese Connection Dub Embassy's Farmers Market, Kait Lawson's Until We Drown, and the self-titled debut from Ex-Cult.
But the very best of them were put out by scene stalwarts working at the top of their game, a testament to the hard work the city's top acts put in on the road and in the studio:
Lucero, Women & Work (ATO Records): Memphis rockers Lucero are known to imbibe whisky, but musically they are aging like a fine wine, getting better with each subsequent release. This year's Women & Work, incredibly the band's ninth full-length release, is their best yet. Ben Nichols' songwriting grows more supple and nuanced and the quartet continues to find new wrinkles in, and add new layers upon, the expansive classic rock sound they've been building on recent efforts.
Tiger High, Catacombs After Party (Trashy Creatures Records): Chiefly a vehicle for the myriad projects of Tiger High drummer Greg Roberson and guitarist Jake Vest, Memphis' Trashy Creatures label has quietly been issuing best-of-the-year candidate records all year, including the Replacements-y Lifetime To Lifetime by Hot Freak Nation and The Trashed Romeo's Where Dreamers Never Go, a tribute to Memphis garage rock in general and the late producer Jim Dickinson in particular. The arty-but-raw sophomore disc from label flagship Tiger High remains the height of their remarkable output for the year.
The Wandering, Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here (Songs of the South): As The Trashed Romeo effort shows, Jim Dickinson continues to loom large over the Memphis music scene almost four years since his death, especially for those artists who worked with him. Dickinson's presence could be felt in several superior releases by close collaborators this year, including those by the South Memphis String Band, Jimbo Mathus, Valerie June, Shannon McNally and Amy LaVere, and Dickinson's son Luther Dickinson, whose 2012 solo release Hambone Meditations has been nominated for a Grammy. But no project captured the late guru's spirit quite like the super group The Wandering, which teamed Luther, LaVere, McNally, June, and Sharde Thomas.
Cory Branan, Mutt (Bloodshot Records): Years in the making, self-financed with no assurance anyone would even put it out, Cory Branan's third album, Mutt, is vindication of the Southaven-bred singer-songwriter's erratic, slow-burning genius. For the first time, his pastiche of ideas and influences — musical and otherwise — makes complete sense as the album bounces seamlessly from rock ("Survivor Blues") to Tom Waits-inspired junkyard klezmer ("The Snowman") to lilting country folk ("Freefall"). The effort got Branan, who lives in Nashville but will be home Monday for a New Year's show at the New Daisy, a deal with major indie Bloodshot Records and a place on the American Songwriter's list of the year's best.
Star & Micey, I Can't Wait (Ardent Music): Coming after three years of solid touring and recording, the new EP from Star & Micey, Memphis' entry in the folk-pop field dominated by The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, finds the trio reaching a new level of their creative and performing powers. Recorded live-in-the-studio with Oxford, Miss., producer Dennis Herring, I Can't Wait is a tease at just four songs, but it portends great things to come, something recognized by Paste magazine, which recently listed the band at the top of their list of "12 Tennessee Bands You Should Listen to Now."
Nationally in music, 2012 seemed to be about new discovery.
Despite the return of big names like Fiona Apple and Taylor Swift, there was no single performer — like Adele the year before — who loomed over the artistic landscape. Indeed, it seemed like most of the established big names of recent memory sat the year out.
That left listeners free to graze with the help of their Spotify, Rdio, or MOG accounts. What they found was a shockingly diverse array of new and emerging acts, who, despite the music industry's woes, are thriving artistically:
Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (Def Jam): A number of hip-hop and R&B artists brilliantly debuted or came into their own this year. Notable are Kendrick Lamar's good kid m.A.A.d city, Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, and Emeli Sandé's Our Version of Events, and most especially records by the Grammy-nominated Miguel and Elle Varner, both of whom are in town this week for a show with Trey Songz. But nothing quite reached the level of Ocean's brave and adventurous sophomore disc.
The Lumineers (Dualtone): Thanks to the success of The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, groups that both put out career-best efforts this year, acoustic instruments and folk rhythms are suddenly cool again. To experience the new folkies' artistic potential, check out the Punch Brothers 2012 release Who's Feeling Young Now? and their Hunger Games soundtrack contribution "Dark Days." The self-titled debut from the Colorado trio The Lumineers, however, was the most emotionally satisfying and musically rousing of the lot.
The Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio (Blue Note): As with Ocean in hip hop and The Lumineers, et al, in folk, there seem to be a number of jazz artists on the scene today intent on disrupting the status quo. The striking bassist Esperanza Spalding, winner of the best new artist Grammy last year, continued to lead the pack with her fourth album, Radio Music Society. There were also groundbreaking releases from second-generation star Ravi Coltrane, singer Gregory Porter and Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria. But for sheer grandness of vision and skill in execution, the genre-blending Glasper was tops.
Alabama Shakes, Boys & Girls (ATO Records): It was a great year for rock of all kinds, from the pop perfection of The Shins' Port of Morrow to the ethereal beauty of Grizzly Bears' Shields to the baroque strangeness of Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel... Coming from nowhere — specifically, Alabama — the soulful rock four-piece Alabama Shakes bested them all with a wonderful rags-to-riches origin story and a classic, impassioned sound.
Taylor Swift, Red (Big Machine): She can't sing live. She dates guys the women from "Bad Girls Club" wouldn't go near, and then she trashes them in song. Her princess aesthetic is creepy for a woman of 23. And she isn't even country. (The best country record of the year is Jamey Johnson "Living For a Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran.") But as much as I want to hate her, at the end of the day I can't deny her uncanny smart, creative and charming tunesmithery.