Nothing in local music in 2002 quite matched the emergence of the North Mississippi Allstars, Saliva, and Three 6 Mafia in years past, but a vast collection of divergent artists followed those previously worn paths by making more modest inroads into national consciousness while also making fine music -- among them, singer-songwriter extraordinaire Cory Branan (whose fabulous debut, The Hell You Say, was released locally in 2001 but nationally this year with a few alterations and whose full-page beefcake spread in Rolling Stone's "hot" issue was perhaps the year's most gratifyingly amusing local-music moment), MADJACK labelmates Lucero, the Reigning Sound, the Porch Ghouls, Richard Johnston, Memphix, Viva L'American Death Ray Music, and a still-crazy-after-all-these-years Jim Dickinson, who released his first solo album in decades with the feisty Free Beer Tomorrow. What follows is one reporter's opinion on the year's best local records.
1. Time Bomb High School --The Reigning Sound (In the Red): It seems odd to champion this intensely musical garage-rock masterwork as the year's best local record, when, in fact, it's one of the best records of the year, period, probably the second-best album to emerge from the newly revived garage-rock scene after the White Stripes' White Blood Cells. That it hasn't gotten as much attention nationally as recent records from the more mundane Greenhornes and showy poseurs the Mooney Suzuki, much less the admittedly fabulous Hives, is a travesty that isn't at all surprising. What separates the Reigning Sound from almost every other band in their little corner of the world isn't just that frontman Greg Cartwright has been doing this for a decade (and Time Bomb High School is a more impressive achievement than anything he did in much-loved previous bands the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers). It's that the band's musical command seems to be on a higher plane: Time Bomb High School is an album 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. And unlike so much of the backward-gazing in local music culture, it's a testament to pop music, not folk music. For those who worship at the altar of the rotating, three-minute epiphany, Time Bomb High School is a Sunday kind of love indeed.
2. Our Land Brains -- Snowglobe (Bardot): For starters, this debut album evokes the best of "classic rock" -- late-era Beatles, Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, Van Morrison -- with a musical sophistication and lack of affectation that belies the band's early-20s youthfulness. That's impressive, but that's not why the record was such a revelation upon release (improving significantly on their already-excellent live sound) and not why it sounds even better today. What makes Our Land Brains so good is its striking mood: This is homemade music in the best, most deeply humane sense --spontaneous, lived-in, lovingly crafted, and palpably communal, with a wide-eyed vibe that never once descends into mush-headed hippieisms. Not quite the best local record of the year, but nothing else offered a glimpse of a world so attractive and comforting.
3. Tennessee -- Lucero (MADJACK): Despite being more worked-over in the studio, this sophomore album captures the power of Lucero's live show more than their fine debut did. This remains a band that transcends their genre limitations not just because of frontman Ben Nichols' charismatic vocals but because of a musical reach and grasp that rockets them past most rootsy bar bands --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."
4. The Bloodthirsty Lovers (no label): After his great work with the Grifters and under the moniker Those Bastard Souls, David Shouse follows his experimental impulses even further on The Bloodthirsty Lovers, an atmospheric and arty mix of punk, prog-rock, and glam-rock that at times sounds like a Memphis answer to Kid A and Amnesiac and at other times takes unexpected and fruitful detours into various dance musics --like Radiohead if they were Spinners fans. A record so bracing that when Shouse sings on the art-rock anthem "2,000 Light Years From Home" about "waves of radiation tearing at my soul," he might well be commenting on his own music.
5. You Better Run: The Essential Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum)/The Missing Link --Harmonica Frank Floyd (Memphis International): As a music city, Memphis probably dotes on the past too much, but here are two slices of regional music history that probably haven't been celebrated enough. You Better Run offers a concise testament to the life and work of the hill-country blues scene's greatest artist, with classic cuts such as "All Night Long," "Sad Days, Lonely Nights," and "Meet Me in the City" providing ample argument that the late Kimbrough belongs in the blues pantheon. The Missing Link brings to first light a series of intimate and earthy live recordings made by Floyd around Memphis in May 1979 and captured on tape by Jim Dickinson and Memphis International co-founder David Less. As much as anyone, Floyd, who died in 1984, was a connector for several strands of pre-rock-and-roll roots music, a living embodiment of what writer Greil Marcus famously called "the old, weird America."
6. Down in the Alley --Alvin Youngblood Hart (Memphis International): The man who may well be the most accomplished individual talent on the local music scene takes a bevy of vintage string instruments and a catalog of traditional blues gems on a deceptively simple trip back in time. Hart's underrated singing often merits as much notice as his nimble and nuanced picking.
7. Rat's Brains & Microchips --The Lost Sounds (Empty Records)/Water Recordings --Mouse Rocket (no label): The city's most prolific rock band released an odds-and-ends collection earlier in the year, but Rat's Brains, the Lost Sounds' second full-length for Seattle's Empty Records, is the real deal --a brutal, take-no-prisoners collection of whiplash riffs, hyperspeed tempos, and snarling vocals. "Total Destruction" is a promise kept; "Dreaming or Bleeding," a question where the only legitimate answer is "both." Mouse Rocket is Lost Sounds' Alicja Trout's "other" band --far friendlier, with poppier songs and ace garage-rock/'60s psychedelic covers but every bit as strong.
8. Reekin' With Love --Di Anne Price & Her Boyfriends (Jazzoid): Nothing special here, just the chance to replicate a set by the most consistently outstanding live musical act in town whenever and wherever you want. A set of blues and jazz standards with a few fine originals thrown in, Price shows off her genius chops as interpretive singer while her trio of Boyfriends provide enough give and take to make this the most romantic local music around.
9. Foot Hill Stomp -- Richard Johnston (FTRC)/Big Lonesome Radio --Mark Lemhouse (Yellow Dog): Who says white guys can't play the blues? Those seeking ax-wielding showoffs à la Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd should look elsewhere, but those looking for sharp contemporary blues records that are reverent of tradition but never stuffy aren't likely to do better than this. Local cause célèbre Johnston's Foot Hill Stomp is more of a groove record, tapping into the hypnotic drone of hill-country blues with durably pleasurable results and, perhaps best of all, coaxing North Mississippi musical matriarch Jessie Mae Hemphill out of retirement for the charming duet "Chicken and Gravy." In some ways, the fine, mostly acoustic blues record from native Oregonian and onetime Bluff City Backslider Lemhouse is a more traditional affair. It takes in a wider swath of blues history --covering classics from Fred McDowell, Johnny Shines, Yank Rachell, and Charley Patton. But its impressive range also extends to less predictable territory --rockabilly, tango, waltz, and a hill-country take on Tom Waits.
10. The Collected Singles/Feather Bed and Other Mixes --The Ron Franklin Entertainers (Miz Kafrin Projects): These concurrent releases from a musical collective that revolves around the multitalented Franklin mixed and matched genres with more wit, savvy, and flat-out fun than anything else in local music this year, combining soul, garage rock, blues, hip hop, and funk into an eclectic stew that ends up as sugar-rush indie-rock. From fuzztone blues stomps to confectionery Bo Diddley covers, Collected Singles is a party starter. The companion remix 12-inch kicks the experimentation into overdrive.
Honorable Mentions: Free Beer Tomorrow --James Luther Dickinson (Artemis); Smash Radio Hits --Viva L'American Death Ray Music (Sympathy for the Record Industry); Bluff City Backsliders (Yellow Dog); 10 Lbs of Hum -- The Gamble Brothers Band (no label); Dead Horse Lounge -- Dora (Madeline); Demi-Urban Pitch -- The Glass (no label); Arkadelphia --Rob Jungklas (MADJACK); Susan Marshall is Honey Mouth (no label); Match Box Blues -- David Evans (Inside Sounds); More a Lie Than a Band -- The Dillingers (no label).