The Year in Memphis Music: Albums of the Year

The reunited Oblivians top our list of the 10 (or 11) best Memphis music albums of 2013

The Oblivians long-awaited new album, Desperation

The Oblivians long-awaited new album, Desperation

From veteran rappers making fresh starts to expats making national waves, from the emergence of late-blooming singer-songwriters to high-powered collaborations, Memphis music had a bit of everything in 2013.

1. Desperation — The Oblivians (In the Red): Given the 16-year gap since the Oblivians’ last studio album, this record is a triumph against all odds. Proving to be a more-than-worthy successor to the band’s first-run classics, Desperation crackles with the band’s familiar energy, but there’s a refinement to the melodies and a sharpness to the craft that adds a new dimension to their glorious racket. Killer originals by Greg Cartwright, Jack Yarber and Eric Friedl slot alongside a clutch of brilliant Oblivian-ized covers of the Butterfield Blues Band (“Lovin’ Cup”), Cajun electro-pop star Stephanie McDee (“Call the Police”), and an album-capping outtake from 1994 of the band doing “Guitar Mama” from the film “A Face in the Crowd.” Comebacks are rarely this satisfying. — Bob Mehr

2. Memphis Circa 3 AM — John Paul Keith (Big Legal Mess)/Motel Mirrors — Motel Mirrors (Archer Records): It’s been a busy year for local roots tunesmith Keith, who checks in with a twofer showing here. His solo album was cut at Memphis’ Phillips Recording studio, and empathetically produced by the late Roland Janes. The disc captures his many musical moods, from the Chicago-styled, Tyrone Davis-flavored soul of “New Year’s Eve” to the Kinks-flecked folk-pop of “Walking Along the Lane” to the burning country lament “90 Proof Kiss.” An EP by side project Motel Mirrors — Keith’s duet ensemble with fellow roots musician Amy Lavere — proved a splendid bonus, boasting the best local track of the year, the instant Everly Brothers-style classic, “Meet Me on the Corner.” — BM

Mark Edgar Stuart — Blues For Lou

Mark Edgar Stuart — Blues For Lou

3. Blues for Lou — Mark Edgar Stuart (Madjack): Not just my favorite local album of 2013, but one of my favorite albums period. This longtime sideman’s beaut of a debut is singer-songwriter country-folk somewhere between John Prine and Roger Miller. It’s animated by Stuart’s own cancer scare and, even more so, by his father’s death. But it also gets rowdy (“Third D.U.I.” — not autobiography) and lusty (“Quarterin’ Time” — presumed autobiography) and has some great marriage songs (“Wrapped Up in Nothing New”), resulting in a rich, full portrait of a complicated period in one person’s life. And with “Arkansas is Nice,” Stuart concocts a tribute to his home state (and mine) worthy of Randy Newman. — Chris Herrington

4. Pushin’ Against a Stone — Valerie June (Concord): June, a Humboldt, Tenn., native who honed her craft in Memphis coffeehouses before recently relocating to New York, admits that her debut album is not the record she would have made on her own. But by placing herself in the hands of producers Kevin Augunas and 2013 Grammy producer of the year Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, she elevated her eccentric country-soul, making “organic moonshine roots music” that honors and transcends the traditions she holds dear. — Mark Jordan

5. The Graceless Age — John Murry (Evangeline): Raised in Mississippi, Murry cut his teeth here before marrying and moving to Oakland, Calif., where he teamed with fellow Bluff City expat Bob Frank on critically acclaimed releases. His solo debut was recorded in California by American Music Club’s Tim Mooney with Memphis’ Kevin Cubbins finishing the project after Mooney’s untimely death. A gorgeous record about an ugly subject — the carnage wrought by the artist’s drug addiction. As with June’s debut, it appeared first in Great Britain, where it has been rapturously received. If the response has been more muted since the album’s spring release stateside, the record is no less adored by fans of intelligent, poetic, brutally-honest folk rock. — MJ

6. I Am — Yo Gotti (Epic): Though nothing else on the album sparkles as much I Am’s first hit single, “Act Right,” Gotti’s debut for major label Epic is without question his most complete long-player, marking an evolution after a decade of mixtapes, workmanlike albums and plenty of industry woes. Some outside-the-box beats, a heavier dose of lyrical introspection and a few surprise pop-oriented collabs (J. Cole and T.I.) help mix up the formula with engaging results. — BM

7. Ex-Cult — Ex-Cult (Goner): The debut by these punk/noiseniks mixes the band’s scruffy Bluff City roots with the influence of its recording locale, San Francisco, where the album was produced with pop smarts by Goner alum Ty Segall. Ultimately, it’s the twin-pronged guitar attack of J.B. Horrell and Alec McIntyre that carries the day, making Ex-Cult one of the more promising bands to emerge from the Goner stable in years. — BM

8. Stay Trippy — Juicy J (Taylor Gang/Columbia): When Three 6 Mafia fizzled out in 2008, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d seen the last of co-founder Juicy J. But then early this year the rapper/producer released the stripper paean “Bandz A Make Her Dance” via the Internet and watched it blow up. A reworked version with Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz became a club smash and hit a million downloads. Signing to Dr. Luke’s label, he released Stay Trippy, which includes “Bandz ” and a roster of superstar guests, including Justin Timberlake, Chris Brown and Wale. Big names aside, however, this is no crossover; through the slick club-savvy production, Juicy J’s politically incorrect pimp persona remains very much intact. — MJ

9. Step Brothers 2 — Don Trip and Starlito (self-released): Memphis’ Don Trip and Nashville’s Starlito don’t have a business partnership; they have a friendship. If they trade lines like a couple of guys who stayed up all night in the studio joking, it’s because they probably did. It also helps that they might be the two best rappers in the region, besting most of the competition in terms of vocal skill, wordplay and actually having something to say. May their chemistry and camaraderie yield more sequels. — CH

10. Blades of Grass — Dirty Streets (Alive Naturalsound): Dirty Streets guitarist/vocalist Justin Toland, bassist Thomas Storz and drummer Andrew Denham keep the power-trio format alive and vibrant on their third album. Placing a new focus on the songs and arrangements without sacrificing their patented loose, bluesy bluster, the band makes the case for the lasting future of its North Mississippi-informed Stooges-style skronk. — BM

Honorable Mention: World Boogie is Coming, North Mississippi Allstars (Songs of the South); Energy Crisis, Wind Vs. Sun (Higbee); All The Things You Lose, Dead Soldiers (self-released); Hiding Places, Myla Smith (Shake Rag); Rebellious Soul, K. Michelle (Atlantic).

Best Reissues

Elvis Presley had a rich history of working in his hometown, launching his recording career at Sun Records in the mid-’50s and then reviving it at American Studios in the late-’60s. By the early-’70s — following his triumphant return to the stage and the road — he was looking to start yet another chapter by cutting at the Bluff City’s hottest house of music, Stax Records. The three-CD package Elvis at Stax documents Presley’s July and December 1973 sessions at the South Memphis studio. While the former recordings offered only mixed results, its on the latter tracks that Elvis truly shines, making this an essential document of the King in his court.

Released by ACE records in the U.K., Sweet Sweetheart: The American Studios Session and More is a set of Carla Thomas rarities that mines the local vaults and includes an album’s worth of previously unreleased material from 1970, recorded at American Studios and produced by Chips Moman, who had worked with Thomas during the early Stax days a decade earlier. Covers of the Bee Gees, James Taylor and U.K. rockers Free find her tackling a wide, interesting array of songs. Mysteriously shelved by Stax at the time, the collection is a surprisingly strong testament to Thomas’ gifts as an interpretive singer. — BM

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