The Hit List
As a vibrant decade in Memphis music comes to an end, a look back via one critic's choices for the 10 best Memphis music albums of the past 10 years.
1. Too Much Love — Harlan T. Bobo (Goner, 2005): At the time a sideman in the Midtown band Viva L'American Death Ray Music, Bobo shocked the Memphis scene with this solo debut, first self-released in rare copies in personally handcrafted packages before local label Goner gave it a proper release. Too Much Love is an accessible but unnervingly intimate collection of songs tracking one delicate but troubled romance. And its highlights soar: the odd, unnerving "Left Your Door Unlocked," where the lovestruck protagonist takes a nap on his muse's bed while she's out with another guy; the early rock-and-roll-via-Lou Reed spoken-word vocals on "Stop"; the whistling wistfulness of "When You Comin' Home?"; and the honky-tonk-meets-Dylan heartstopper "Bottle and Hotel."
2. Time Bomb High School — The Reigning Sound (In the Red, 2002): This onetime Memphis band, led by Greg Cartwright, was a consistent force throughout the decade and found themselves at the forefront of a garage-rock "revival" with this second album. Time Bomb High School is concocted out of record-shop dust, built on a love of an era's worth of musical culture, one in which echoes of great records past rattle in the crevices. For those who worship at the altar of the rotating, three-minute epiphany, Time Bomb High School is a Sunday kind of love indeed.
3. Matador Singles '08 — Jay Reatard (Matador, 2008): The one-time enfant terrible of local rock emerged as one of the most prolific musicmakers anywhere at the end of the decade and this collection of singles — one melodic, personal punk/pop gem after another — for venerable New York indie label Matador probably captures his sound and energy best.
4. The Hell You Say — Cory Branan (MADJACK, 2001): No one over the past decade wrote sharper songs about Memphis life. In fact, over the past decade, no one in Memphis has written sharper songs — period. Branan became an instant sensation on the Memphis scene with this precocious, perceptive, word-drunk debut.
5. Start With the Soul — Alvin Youngblood Hart (Hannibal, 2000): Memphis' finest modern "blues" artist is so much more. Hart had previously asserted that with country blues as a foundation, the whole of American music could be his territory. And Start With the Soul — "classic" rock in every sense of the term — is where he took that premise to the bank.
6. Cloud-Wow Music — Shelby Bryant (Smells Like Records, 2001): Shelby Bryant's exquisitely personal, gently psychedelic, and utterly transfixing Casio pop was unlike anything in Memphis music before or since. Any listener not immediately turned off will be grinning madly by the middle of track two. And when Bryant croons, "The sky above is speaking some inane thing to me," girls-who-wear-glasses everywhere swoon in unison.
7. Anchors & Anvils — Amy LaVere (Archer Records, 2007): This second album from the versatile LaVere draws great songs from sources generally close to LaVere (including three from the artist herself) and puts them across with a gritty but elegant musicality. LaVere doesn't have a showy American Idol voice, but arrived here as a sharp, rich interpretive singer.
8. Jungle Jim and the Voodoo Tiger — James Luther Dickinson (Memphis International, 2006): The formal audacity of the late Dickinson's vision of "roots music" and his penchant for unearthing obscure songwriting gems is no great surprise. What makes Jungle Jim special is the easy intimacy Dickinson coaxes out of a "family band" that includes his sons, Paul Taylor, LaVere, Jim Spake, and others. The result is a record bursting with music and humor and humanity.
9. Tennessee — Lucero (MADJACK, 2002): Arguably the Memphis band of the decade, Lucero's strength is partly in the consistent quality of their seven (!) albums in the decade. That consistency also makes it more difficult to single out one. But I'll go with this third album, in which lead singer Ben Nichols' charismatic vocals are showcased by a group of songs that perhaps best captures the band's musical reach and grasp — the interlocking guitars of "Sweet Little Thing," the rising instrumental climax of "Nights Like These," the muted-piano-and-acoustic-bass mood music of "Fistful of Tears," the stark, soulful simplicity of "When You're Gone," the cathartic rise-and-fall explosiveness of the epic "Here at the Starlite."
10. Shake Hands with Shorty — North Mississippi Allstars (Tone Cool, 2000): The elder Dickinson's sons — Luther and Cody — stepped out on their own (along with bassist Chris Chew) for this debut album, which united the city's bohemian rock of the '70s with the droning hill-country blues of the '90s to form one of the quintessential Memphis sounds of the past decade.