It's hard to believe that it's almost over -- 2002, that is. The months blew past in an endless blur. And the older I get, the worse my memory gets. On the phone, I forget why I'm calling. At the grocery store, I forget what I'm buying. That's why I take my cues from music. I may not recall where I left my car keys, but I can tell you where I was when I first heard Jim Dickinson's new album, or, given the proper drum beat, easily recite the lyrics of the Reigning Sound's "You're So Strange." With audio cues, I can pinpoint the last time I ventured out to hear Alvin Youngblood Hart or even recall the subtle nuances of Lily Afshar's guitar work. Music, you see, makes my world go 'round -- and Memphis music helps it spin a little slower. So, without further ado, my list of the best local music 2002 had to offer, listed alphabetically by artist or band:
Possession -- Lily Afshar (Archer Records): Afshar crosses the boundaries of classical guitar music on her latest album, encompassing traditional folk and jazz elements into her astounding repertoire. Every piece on Possession -- from Leo Brouwer's "Afro-Cuban Lullaby" to Barbara Kolb's trio of lilting lullabies -- shines and sparkles in Afshar's talented hands.
Free Beer Tomorrow -- James Luther Dickinson (Artemis): I had the pleasure of hearing these 10 tracks more than a year ago; it's taken the always-dubious Dickinson that long to find a label he was willing to work with. Artemis snatched the project up with good reason: This album is a modern-day classic, a sweeping, all-encompassing only-in-America record along the lines of Willie Nelson's Stardust.
Hernando Street Blues -- Herman Green (Supreme): "Memphis After Midnight" swings like an after-hours gig in the Bluff City: Close your eyes and imagine the music reverberating in the early-morning hours of the dimly lit Flamingo Room or the jumpin' Plantation Inn just across the river.
Down in the Alley -- Alvin Youngblood Hart (Memphis International): Rounding out the first batch of releases for the Memphis International label, Hart's Down in the Alley is an exquisite collection of traditional acoustic blues. His voice is timeless and all-knowing, a portal to the past and the future of American music.
Big Lonesome Radio -- Mark Lemhouse (Yellow Dog): While he easily shifts genres, Lemhouse seems most comfortable playing hill-country blues, gliding effortlessly up and down the frets as he emulates the style of his mentor, Memphis guitarist Robert Belfour. Party! At Home -- Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends (Arcola): This rediscovered recording -- cut at Lewis' apartment on Fourth at Beale in July 1968 -- presents a weekend of house parties fueled by cold Stag beer and good-timin' women. The real prize is the conversation caught between numbers, a priceless document of days long gone.
Rat's Brains & Microchips -- The Lost Sounds (Empty Records): That dynamic duo Jay-Jay and Alicja Trout do it again, scoring a baker's dozen of gloom-and-doom tunes guaranteed to clear your sinuses. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Lost Sounds are forging a synth-rock tradition all their own. That said, crank up "Blackcoats/Whitefear" and drive your neighbors wild.
Mama Says I'm Crazy -- Mississippi Fred McDowell & Johnny Woods (Fat Possum): These George Mitchell sessions are special not only because they feature the late Johnny Woods, harp player and whiskey drinker extraordinaire, but because they capture McDowell at his frenetic best, playing the "straight and natchel blues" that he loved. McDowell is rough, gritty, and loud enough to transcend the sound of the craps game going on underfoot.
Time Bomb High School -- The Reigning Sound (In the Red): Former Oblivian Greg Cartwright delivers in spades on this high-energy masterpiece, evoking '60s rockers from the Byrds and the Stones to local frat-rockers the Gentrys and Alex Chilton's Box Tops. Bristling with nerves on tunes like "Reptile Style" and the sing-along "She's Bored With You," Time Bomb High School proves that the Reigning Sound can certainly hold their own on the national garage-rock scene.
You Can Name It Yo' Mammy If You Wanna -- South Filthy (Sympathy for the Record Industry): "T" for Texas and "T" for Tennessee Recorded and mixed in Austin, Texas, this album is nevertheless one that Memphis should be glad to claim. A supergroup of sorts, South Filthy stars the indomitable Monsieur Jeffrey Evans and Jack Yarber alongside a who's who of the Austin scene, including harmonica maven Walter Daniels and drummer Mike Buck. Thanks to tunes like Evans' "Spyder Blues" and Yarber's "First Train Away From You" (and his take on the soul gem "Bad Girl"), this down-and-dirty band lives up to its tacky, trashy name.
Honorable Mentions: Bad Times (Goner Records); Bluff City Backsliders (Yellow Dog); Cleaned a Lot of Plates in Memphis -- Davey & the Cool Jerks (Sympathy For the Record Industry); Keep On Burning -- Bob Frank (Bowstring Records); You Better Run -- Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum); Tennessee -- Lucero (MADJACK); Spirit -- Native Son (Zarr Records); Live in Memphis -- Carla Thomas & Friends (Memphis International); A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis, Vol. 2 -- Various Artists (Shangri-La Projects); Chains & Black Exhaust -- Various Artists (Memphix).