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Best of Memphis Music

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The story of Memphis music in 2013 cannot be told in a standard top 10 list. Throughout the year, local musicians pursued their own muses, defined success on their own terms, and produced a great, richly varied body of work.

Looking back, we've compiled our favorite artists, albums, songs, live shows, and defining moments to share with you in a list that is no way definitive but still tells the story of a music scene that is most assuredly trending upward. There were many shows (Justin Timberlake's triumphant homecoming at the Forum, for example), records, and moments that we didn't have room for but are no less deserving than those that made the cut. That said, here it is: our list of shout-outs to the top 20 Memphis music touchstones that made this such an incredible year.

1) Mark Edgar Stuart
If there was a breakout individual of 2013, it was Mark Edgar Stuart. A longtime sideman with local heavy hitters like John Paul Keith, Jack Oblivian, and the Pawtuckets, Stuart seemingly came out of nowhere as a singer-songwriter/frontman this year on the strength of the beautiful and gut-wrenching debut album Blues for Lou. Standout songs like "Things Ain't Fine" and "Remote Control" reveal Stuart's remarkable ability to cut to the heart with personal detail but also keep the proceedings just light enough to be accessible. — J.D. Reager

2) The Oblivians
When a band, even a band with talents like Jack Yarber, Greg Cartwright, and Eric Friedl, gets back together to record an album, chances are it's going to be a train wreck. Desperation, fortunately, is the same full-speed-ahead-'til-the-wheels-come-off punk rock that built the Oblivians legend. "Call the Police" was the jam of the Midtown summer, and the reunited band was joined by the also-reunited pop provocateurs the Barbaras to close down the old Hi-Tone with a show for the ages. — Chris McCoy

3) John Paul Keith
"The Man That Time Forgot" had a hell of a good year in 2013. He recorded the fantastic album Memphis 3AM with the late, great Roland Janes. Keith's peerless songwriting chops and Janes' sonic genius elevated songs such as "Everything's Different Now," "We Got All Night," and "Ninety Proof Kiss" beyond classicism into instant classics worthy of Memphis' rockabilly heritage. Then Keith topped himself by teaming up with Memphis country-rock chanteuse Amy LaVere in Motel Mirrors to create songs like "Meet Me on the Corner" (from the duo's self-titled debut EP) that would have made '70s Porter and Dolly green with envy. — CM

4) The Grifters
After more than a decade on hiatus and much speculation, indie-rock icons the Grifters finally reunited this year. The group also spearheaded (with Sherman Willmott) a project to make new music videos for the songs from the classic 1993 album One Sock Missing, with the help of local filmmakers. — JDR

5) Gonerfest 10
Local record store/label Goner Records' annual festival Gonerfest has grown steadily over the years in terms of attendance and the quality of the acts on the bill. This year was no exception. Several locals made strong impressions, including Harlan T. Bobo's The Fuzz, True Sons of Thunder, and Ex-Cult. But the highlight was the Saturday night performance at the newly reopened Hi-Tone by headliners and Seattle alt-rock legends Mudhoney, who delivered a ferocious set replete with all the hits and, yes, a mosh pit. — JDR

6) Rocket Science Audio
Midtown recording studio Rocket Science Audio was already well-respected for producing albums by regional acts, including Limes, Reigning Sound, and the Overnight Lows. This year, Rocket Science launched a web-based live variety show series (available for free at rocketscienceaudio.com) that showcases some of Memphis' best underground music and comedy. — JDR

7) The Sheiks
The Midtown band made a name for themselves by playing Memphis garage rock with a soulful Stax-y side. Their self-titled debut album is a must, but it can't quite capture the sweaty, dance-contest intensity of their live shows. They delivered the coup de grace by rolling up to this year's Murphy's show at Gonerfest in the back of a pickup truck to play a killer guerrilla parking-lot set, stopping the crowd in its tracks. — CM

8) The Levitt Shell
So many incredible shows happened at the Overton Park landmark that it's difficult to know where to start. Should it be the Memphis Dawls' Independence Day show? Or how about Mavis Staples' triumphant night? Then there was the North Mississippi Allstars setting new attendance records with their world boogie blowout. Or the community's unforgettable sendoff of Sid Selvidge, whose memorial show stretched on through the night, capped off by his son Steve leading an all-star band through some of Sid's signature songs. — CM

9) The Switchblade Kid
Longtime Angel Sluts/Twin Pilot frontman Harry Koniditsiotis finally distilled his dual nature into one project in 2012 with the launch of the garage-punk/shoegaze project the Switchblade Kid, yielding one of the year's finest releases in the form of a critically acclaimed eponymous debut LP. This year, he rolled out the band's follow-up, For All the Sad Bastards, which might be even better. — JDR

10) Grunt's Gelatinous Cube
The electronic music veteran's Lord of the Smoking Mirror was Memphis music's most artistically ambitious project: 12 hours of improvised electronic dance music noise whose creation was broadcast live on the internet. The result is a tour of the inside of the mind of an artist with an intimate knowledge of the entire history of electronic music. There are long stretches of Eno ambience that skitter into trip hop; house beats that dissolve into looping oscillators left to fight it out Thunderdome style; and a 20-minute psychedelic meltdown based on the Grifters' "Black Fuel Incinerator." You could probably hone it down to a brilliant, regulation-sized album, but that would be kind of missing the point of a work where excess is its own reward. — CM

11) Respect Yourself and the Stax Music Academy Band
Robert Gordon is not a musician, but Respect Yourself, his history of Stax, has been getting the rave reviews it deserves. His reading at the Stax Museum was also the occasion for an inspiring show by the Stax Music Academy band. The group of Memphis high-schoolers did a long set of Stax classics from "Green Onions" to "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic." The past and the future are in good hands. — CM

12) Cool Memphis Music Cover Bands
Memphis musicians are mostly heralded for originality, but this year two excellent tribute bands also emerged. The Maitre D's are a Booker T and the MG's cover band comprised of members of the City Champs, the Sheiks, and the Tearjerkers. Big E and the Mississippi Boys are a Vegas-era tribute to Elvis Presley that features members of the Preacher's Kids, River City Tanlines, and Deering & Down. Both are more than worth the price of admission. — JDR

13) Beale Street Music Festival
This year's BSMF lineup was one of the best in recent memory, with Public Enemy, Patti Smith, the Flaming Lips, and Hall & Oates. But two local acts stole the show. Al Kapone was asked to serve as a last-minute replacement and played back-to-back sets on different stages and killed both times. Then, Lucero got a hero's welcome from tens of thousands of Memphians as they played a transcendent last set of their spring tour. — CM

14) Ex-Cult
The breakout band of the year was Ex-Cult, whose self-titled LP, released in late 2012, got wide attention. A spring tour with West Coast garage-rock star Ty Segall exposed them to a huge number of potential new fans all over the country. Then, in the fall, they played a career-defining set that stood out even in the stacked Gonerfest lineup, and a new single, "Mr. Fantasy," hinted a broader sound for the band's next LP. [Singer Chris Shaw is a Flyer editorial intern.] — CM

15) Clay Otis
In 2011, Clay Otis busted onto the scene with one hell of a party record (think Prince meets Beck) called 12 Magnificent Songs. This year, he followed it up with a surprising psych-folk EP called The Overachiever, which managed to be both more tuneful and (seemingly) self-reflective. It should also be noted that Otis' live shows are an absolute workout and not be missed. — JDR

16) Valerie June
Valerie June doesn't live in Memphis any more, but she worked so hard for so long here that her breakout success, both artistically and commercially with Pushing Against a Stone was surprising only in its international scope. It's rare to see potential realized so dramatically, especially by someone who deserved it so much. — CM

17) Knowledge Nick
The most-shared Memphis music video of the year wasn't an expensive production. One South Main Trolley Night in October, Knowledge Nick was leading a hip-hop cypher, one of several musical performances on the street. But Nick kept the crowd rocking too long, and the police intervened heavyhandedly, confiscating smartphones from those recording the crackdown. The video of the bust leaked out on YouTube and caused outrage. Nick spent the rest of the year keeping up the pressure on the city with protests, shows, and a social-media campaign aimed at preserving citizens' right to record their police force's actions. Hip-hop is not a crime, y'all. — CM

18) James and the Ultrasounds
If James Godwin's excellent debut EP Lovers and Ghosts has a familiar sound, it's for good reason. Like Mark Edgar Stuart, this bassist-turned-frontman is well-steeped in Memphis music, having served time with John Paul Keith, Jack Oblivian, Streetside Symphony, and the New Mary Jane. With a new backing band in place, the future is bright for this emerging outfit. — JDR

19) Rock for Love Compilation
This year, the Church Health Center's annual benefit concert spawned a companion album that spanned the breadth of Memphis rock, from the Bulletproof Vests' flawless power pop to Clay Otis' heady electro soul. All the songs are available exclusively on the record, and they give the listener a rough idea of what a versatile, eclectic, and talented group of musicians our city has to offer. — CM

20) >mancontrol<
As much a performance-art project as it is an electronic "band," the duo known as >mancontrol< (local music scene vets Dave Shouse and Robby Grant) never fail to deliver a unique, interactive show that defies convention and description. As a rule, no two >mancontrol< gigs are the same, musically speaking, and the group refuses to play in traditional rock-club venues. Catch it if you can. — JDR

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