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Al Green, Memphix, and Yo Gotti helped lead the way in Memphis music for 2003.

January 01, 2004

It was a year of loss and celebration for Memphis music in 2003. Memphis lost one of its true musical titans in Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and later lost one of his most important charges, Johnny Cash. Meanwhile, the "Year of the Blues" brought newfound attention to the city's formative musical genre, most notably with Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary series.

In terms of new music, the year's biggest local stories were the comeback and emergence of two very different locally connected soul men. One was Al Green, who hooked up with old cohort Willie Mitchell for his finest secular album in decades. The other is Millington scion and Rolling Stone cover boy Justin Timberlake, whose increasingly ubiquitous celebrity doesn't detract a bit from the career transformation he accomplished on Justified --a pop-and-soul coup of a solo debut that, if it really counted as a "local" release, would be a guilt-free chart-topper on the list below.

But as the 14 records (yep, I cheated) in the following local Top 10 attest, there was plenty of action across the genre board in local music this year. --Chris Herrington

1. I Can't Stop --Al Green (Blue Note): When word came out that Al Green was reuniting with producer Willie Mitchell for the pair's first secular soul record since 1976, it was hard to know what to expect --these kinds of "comeback" records have a mixed history, to be charitable. What we got was a record that could well have been recorded in 1977, which, given that Green's uniquely personal style never sounds like rote nostalgia, is a triumph. Returning to Royal Studio with many of the same musicians he worked with in the '70s, the still-golden-voiced Green recaptures as much of the old magic as anyone could have reasonably expected.

2. Express Rising --Express Rising (Memphix); Chains + Black Exhaust --Various Artists (Jones Records): The debut full-length from Memphix, Express Rising is the local label's Chicago-based member Dante Carfagna's answer to the sample-based beauty of friend and colleague DJ Shadow. The album is a beat symphony composed from record-shop refuse -- anonymous found sounds sampled, sequenced, and plumbed for hidden grace to create wholly original music, resulting in a wistful, moody sound-cycle made up largely of hip-hop-heartbeat drum breaks and understated organ loops.

Chains + Black Exhaust, a bootleg sampler of obscure black rock and funk singles compiled by Carfagna and Memphix Memphian Chad Weekley, is as in-your-face as Express Rising is restrained. Slipped into the musical ether in late 2002, the subterranean comp continued to make waves and blow minds in 2003, conjuring a sort of musical bizarro world where scuzzy guitars get busy over hard funk beats and every singer has chitlin-circuit credentials.

3. That Much Further West --Lucero (Tiger Style): Lucero's debut for New York's Tiger Style records is in some ways less dynamic and less distinct than the two locally released records it follows, but it is no less bruising, consistent, or soulful. That Much Further West sets a tough, deliberate mood before breaking loose with standouts like the hard-rocking "Hate and Jealousy," the rollicking "Tonight Ain't Gonna Be Good," and local rock's Song of the Year, the open-hearted anthem "Tears Don't Matter Much."

4. Makeshift #3 --Various Artists (Makeshift): The third sampler from local record label/artists' collective Makeshift is a sprawling testament to the creativity, diversity, and generous vibe of the city's rock underground, uniting recognizable scene stars such as the Reigning Sound, Cory Branan, and Snowglobe with newer or lesser-known notables such as the Audacity, the Final Solutions, and Blair Combest.

5. A History of Memphis Garage Rock: The '90s -- Various Artists (Shangri-La Projects); Jetty Webb -- Jetty Webb (Lamar): A couple of blasts from the city's recent rock past. Shangri-La's garage-rock comp is an ace document of what may be the most artistically fertile Memphis music scene of the past decade, a soulful blast of raw guitar music centered around the work of Jeffrey Evans and the Oblivians that will give latecomers a taste of where bands like the Hives and White Stripes came from. Jetty Webb's late-breaking debut captures the low-key, high-minded indie-rock of a real good band that got away.

6. 5 Piece Kit -- Vending Machine (self-released): Ex-Big Ass Trucker Robby Grant comes into his own with this collection of head-spinningly off-kilter anti-folk and left-of-center pop. From the full-band (Big Ass Truck, that is) finale "Shoulder Tap" to the aggressive "Sorry I Bit U" to the understated anthem "Road Out West," it's all good, but Grant outdoes himself with "I Know, We'll Last," perhaps the loveliest little love song heard this year in Memphis or anywhere else.

7. Life -- Yo Gotti (TVT); Empty Shelves -- Kavious (Nuclear): North Memphis rapper Yo Gotti retains the metronomic flow and limited subject matter that typify Memphis rap, while Westwood's Kavious' attempt at aping the organic, thoughtful style of Atlanta acts such as Outkast and Goodie Mob is still more concept than artistic fact. Nonetheless, these two promising MCs pushed the boundaries of local rap in welcome new directions on their 2003 releases.

Gotti lives up to his moniker with Life's tales of drug sells and gang-banging, but with its vintage Def Jam-style production, facility with R&B hooks, and the should-be novelty hit "Look at Old Girl" (Memphis' answer to "Right Thurr"), Life reveals a wider range of musical and emotional options than is usually heard on Memphis rap records.

Kavious' quick-spitting flow and down-home vibe are perhaps more distinct, and if he doesn't quite manage to make the most of a sound that's more compelling and a worldview that's more grounded than that of his local hip-hop peers, it doesn't mean he won't get there one day or that the effort itself isn't heroic.

8. Prettier Than Ugly --Blair Combest (Makeshift): This underdog of a local release just gets better with every listen. Combest's precocious, gravelly voice is the kind of sound that might be an arty affectation but instead emits a warm glow. As his backing band, labelmates Snowglobe lend the proceedings a communal musical quality that gives the record a liveliness it might not have as a solo-acoustic exercise. And Combest's songwriting establishes him as a major emerging talent on the local scene.

9. Back to the Bottom --Gamble Brothers Band (Archer); Polaris --North Mississippi Allstars (Tone-Cool/ATO): Here are two examples of bands putting their considerable chops to the service of celebrating the city's wide-ranging musical roots. For the Gambles, this means soul and jazz, uniting the feel of the former and the virtuosity of the latter with a flair for pop songwriting that makes Back to the Bottom sometimes sound like a forgotten platinum seller from the '70s.

For the Allstars, it means a hill-country-blues base that makes room for Big Star-style pop-rock on Polaris, the band's self-produced bid for independence, which shows these local faves growing from bluesy jam band to ambitious blues-based rock band.

10. Another Vivid Scene --Crash Into June (Craven Hill): With help from producer Neilson Hubbard, veteran local rockers Crash Into June may have hit a new peak with the hook-laden, crystalline power-pop of Another Vivid Scene, a record that has the band pushing their core sound (think Teenage Fanclub) in different directions --from the hard-charging "Breakthrough" to the downbeat romantic lament "Read Me Wrong" to the straight-up romantic pop of "Smitten" to the vaguely alt-countryish "Looking for an Out" --and flashing a sharp lyrical wit (especially on "Adorable" and "Fairmountebank").

Honorable Mention: Pushin' My Luck --Robert Belfour (Fat Possum); The Royal Sessions --The Bo-Keys (Yellow Dog); Bluff City Ruckus --Porch Ghouls (Roman/Columbia); Welcome to the Occupation --Brad Postlethwaite (Makeshift); Wild Emotions -- Preacher's Kids (Get Hip); Demos II --Lost Sounds (On/On Switch); Eclipse --Los Cantadores (self-released); Raindance --Kelley Hurt (Archer); A Little Bit of Rain --Sid Selvidge (Archer); Stingray -- Kenny Brown (Fat Possum).

Everything came in pairs in 2003: Two great releases from "Poppa" Willie Mitchell's Royal Recording Studio, two Memphix full-lengths guaranteed to knock the international DJ world on its collective ass, two folk/country blues albums that represent the yin and yang of the genre, and two offerings from local bands that seem determined to bring Memphis blues to an arena-sized stage. But, most importantly, 2003 was the year that Memphis got crunk, for real, as the Dirty South sound took the rest of the country by storm. This Top 10 list covers it all, from first albums to career-making releases, major-label CDs and 180-gram vinyl records. So, without further ado, here's a list of must-haves for any self-respecting Memphis music fan. --Andria Lisle

1. I Can't Stop -- Al Green (Blue Note): When I first found out that Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell were working together again, I was as excited as a rabbit in a lettuce patch. Other pop fans have Lennon & McCartney or King & Goffin, but I'll take Green & Mitchell any day. I Can't Stop, their first collaboration in two-odd decades, knocks me out every time I play it. Don't believe me? Cue up track 3, "Rainin' In My Heart," and let Green's mellifluous voice pour over you, as Mitchell's orchestrations ebb and flow behind him.

2. The Royal Sessions -- The Bo-Keys (Yellow Dog): More sublime Southern soul from Mitchell's Royal Studio. This is largely an instrumental album -- à la Booker T. & the MGs or Packy Axton's party band -- but guitarist Skip Pitts manages to steal the show when he steps up to the microphone for the froggy-throated "Deuce and a Quarter." If I blast this one when I'm stuck in downtown traffic, cruisers are apt to get friendly and wave me right on by.

3. Chains + Black Exhaust -- Various Artists (Jones Records): DJs of both persuasions -- old-fashioned radio hosts at stations like the legendary WFMU in suburban New York and hipper-than-thou turntable freaks -- scratched their heads and said, 'Huh?' when Memphix dropped this unidentified CD comp last year. A sampling of black rock bands from the '70s, Chains + Black Exhaust escorts listeners through the seamy underbelly of bikers, bitches, and burnouts. It's an impressive selection of scratchy 45s that you've never heard of: Listen, take notes, then join the online discussions about where these tracks actually came from.

4. Express Rising -- Express Rising (Memphix): The long-awaited debut album from Memphix's Chicago-based DJ Dante Carfagna was finally released in September, and it was worth the wait. Carfagna -- aka Express Rising -- creates a moody soundscape from thousands of samples, hip-hop beats, and rumbling organ riffs. The vinyl pressing is long gone, but thankfully for all you latecomers, the CD is still in print.

5. Life -- Yo Gotti (TVT): Straight from the North (North Memphis, that is) to the top of the charts, it's Yo Gotti, commander in chief of the "Dirty South Soldiers." Yep, that's Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz you hear backing him up. Gotti also gives props to local producers Drumma Boy and DJ Squeeky on this, his mind-numbingly good fourth release. It's thuggish, it's harsh, and, for a disproportionate part of the local population, it's what hangin' out in M-Town is all about.

6. Enquiring Minds Vol. 2: The Soap Opera -- Gangsta Boo (Yorktown Music): Boo's third solo album is a combination of heavy synthesized chords and catchy hip-shaking beats. Cuts like "Sippin' and Spinnin'" and "Where They Hang" bridge the gap between the hardcore style Boo popularized on When the Smoke Clears, Three 6's classic Y2K release, and the more modern approach favored by the hip-hop community in her new hometown, Atlanta, Georgia.

7. Stingray -- Kenny Brown (Fat Possum): This north Mississippi blues guitarist covers a fair amount of hill-country material on his second full-length, including R.L. Burnside's "Miss Maybelle" and "Goin' Down South" and an electrifying version of Fred McDowell's "Shake 'Em On Down." "If Down Was Up" infuses the sound of the hill country with a heavy dose of deep-grooved funk, before Brown slips back into the hypnotic, haphazardly fluid drone he's honed backing the Burnsides for the past 20 or so years.

8. A Little Bit of Rain -- Sid Selvidge (Archer): Worth its weight in gold for the title track, Selvidge's latest serves as the sophisticated counterpart to Brown's ragged-but-rough entry above. His cover of a seldom-heard Fred Neil number as the album's title track provides a stark, stunning introduction to the album, and, in the liner notes, Selvidge calls it "the ultimate goodbye song." He doesn't name his old musical partner, Lee Baker, per se, but the underlying reference is obvious.

9. Polaris -- North Mississippi Allstars (ATO): Recorded at Ardent Studios in Midtown, the Allstars' third album takes these blues boys -- popular on the jam-band circuit -- to an entirely new musical level. The addition of guitarist Duwayne Burnside rounded out the group to a quartet, his presence allowing the Allstars to solidify their easy-rockin' hill-country-blues rhythms, particularly on cuts like "Be So Glad" and "Meet Me in the City." With Burnside and bassist Chris Chew to anchor the bluesy core, drummer Cody Dickinson and his big bro, guitarist Luther, have incorporated more pop elements into the mix. Don't miss "Kids These Daze" or "Otay."

10. Bluff City Ruckus -- Porch Ghouls (Roman/Columbia): Only someone like Porch Ghouls' frontman Eldorado Del Rey could parlay a job at Sun Studios into the ultimate rock-and-roll gig of all time, opening an American tour for Kiss and Aerosmith. On this album, the Ghouls' first full-length since signing to Joe Perry's Roman Records, El-dorado and his fellow roof-raisers (Slim Elec-tro, Lord Baltimore, and Randy Valentine) shake their money makers all the way to the bank. It's money, baby! Now roll up the carpet, kick your shoes off, and throw a lil' ruckus of your own.

Honorable Mention: Empty Shelves -- Kavious (Nuclear); That Much Further West -- Lucero (Tiger Style); Another Vivid Scene -- Crash Into June (Craven Hill); Da Unbreakables -- Three 6 Mafia (Sony); Makeshift #3 -- Various Artists (Makeshift); Songs From the Floor -- Tennessee Boltsmokers (MADJACK); Water for the Withered Root -- Justice Naczycz (self-released). n

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