The local music scene took a holiday hit with the recent announcement that the city's most prolific club for touring bands and original local music, the Hi-Tone Café, would be closing in February. While it's impossible to say how much this news will impact the immediate future of Memphis music, there are no such complications looking back. Here, three of our writers put the spotlight on their favorite local albums and artists of 2012.
1. Women & Work — Lucero (ATO): After more than a decade on the road and with a discography eight full-length albums strong, Lucero hit a new stride this year, embracing and mastering their Southern-rock big-band sound like never before. Onstage and on record, I don't think frontman Ben Nichols has ever led his band with this much assurance, and Women & Work hits all its diverse marks, from hip-shaking opening anthem ("On My Way Downtown") to boogie-rock party-starter (the title song) to country-soul torch ballad ("It May Be Too Late") to blues stomper ("Juniper"). And those are just the first four songs.
2. Ex-Cult — Ex-Cult (Goner): As with a couple of other recent faves — Ex-Cult labelmates Eddy Current Suppression Ring and California's No Age — this is rhythmic art-punk that doesn't let the former curdle into pretension or the latter curdle into regiment. Honestly, I would prefer the recording quality to be a little less lo-fi, but the band's power and insistence still break through.
3. The Wandering Diaspora: At the dawn of the year, Luther Dickinson had the eureka-quality idea of bringing four talented regional roots musicians, all women, none who had collaborated in any serious way, into the studio together: guitarist Shannon McNally, bassist Amy LaVere, drummer Sharde Thomas, and guitarist/banjo player Valerie June. With Dickinson producing and filling in where needed, the Wandering was born. On their debut album, Go On Now, You Can't Stay Here, this Mid-South Monsters of Folk cover everything from the Byrds ("Mr. Spaceman") to Robert Johnson ("If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day") to "You Are My Sunshine" with a spirited interplay and a beautiful blend of voices.
As good as they are together, they've been perhaps even busier apart. Dickinson was nominated for a Grammy for his instrumental album Hambone's Meditations and reteamed with ornery partners Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus for "Old Time's There ...," a nervy second album from their South Memphis Jug Band. LaVere and McNally took their newfound chemistry on the road and into the studio with their recent EP Chasing the Ghost — Rehearsal Sessions. And June, whose wayward career earns the band's moniker more than most, struck a deal with a French label and released the terrific single "Workin' Woman Blues" with a Hungarian gypsy-folk backing band. Her looming debut album is likely the most promising Memphis-connected album on tap for next year.
4. Guerilla/Help Is on the Way — Don Trip: Trip has the surest flow, most grounded perspective, and most soulful sound of any hardcore Memphis rapper since 8Ball, and if an actual major-label-released debut album is proving predictably elusive, that hasn't stopped him from dropping mixtapes well above the form's norm. Released early this year, around the time Trip landed on the cover of national rap magazine XXL as part of its latest "Freshman Class" of up-and-comers, Guerilla is probably his most cohesive collection, with the more recent Help Is on the Way not far behind.
5. Mutt — Cory Branan (Bloodshot): The Memphis ex-pat, now Nashville-based singer-songwriter's third album richly earned the over-deployed "long-awaited" descriptive. It has been six years since Branan's 12 Songs, and Mutt shows his songwriting chops undiminished. The opening "The Corner" is a sardonic deconstruction of Branan's own good press and gallows-humor appraisal of his stop-and-start career. "Survivor Blues" is an escape scenario in the Springsteenian tradition, but the romance is laced with a darker, more dangerous undercurrent.
Honorable Mention: Barbaras 2006-2008 — The Barbaras (Goner), Hi-Electric — Hi Electric (Evangeline), I Can't Wait — Star & Micey (Ardent Music), Coast to Coast — River City Tanlines (Big Legal Mess), The Switchblade Kid — The Switchblade Kid (Miss Molly Music), Hex & Hell — Jason Freeman (BR2), Life's Quest — 8Ball (eOne).
1. Hex & Hell — Jason Freeman (BR2): This long-overdue debut from one of Memphis' most distinctive voices contains just the right amount of Beale Street swagger without foraying into that cheeseball "Blues Hammer" territory that so many white blues bands can't seem to avoid. This record is rough, raw, and fun and features cameos from several noteworthy local musicians, including Amy LaVere, Krista Wroten Combest and Jana Misener (both of the Memphis Dawls), Adam Woodard, and the vastly underappreciated Daniel Farris (Coach and Four), whose thunderous drumming helps keep things interesting in the jammier bits.
2. The Switchblade Kid — The Switchblade Kid (Miss Molly Music): Local musician/producer Harry Koniditsiotis distills his various projects — the Angel Sluts, Twin Pilot, the Turn-it-Offs, etc. — into one megaband. And it totally works.
3. Coast to Coast — River City Tanlines (Big Legal Mess): The venerable Memphis power trio stretches out a bit on this latest release, incorporating elements of indie-pop, metal, and noise-rock into the mix alongside pop-punk gems like "Pretty Please."
4. Loud Cloud — Tanks: A ferocious 26-minute slab (all contained in one track) of heavy metal.
5. I Can't Wait — Star & Micey: This EP sneaks in to the top five on the strength of the hauntingly gorgeous opening track, "No Pets Allowed." At other times, it seems a tad overproduced but still showcases the band's impeccable songwriting and vocal arrangements.
Honorable Mention: New Black Sea — Good Luck Dark Star; Hello Monday — Chad Nixon, Snorlokk — Hosoi Bros; Ex-Cult — Ex-Cult (Goner); I'm Just Dead I'm Not Gone — Jim Dickinson (Memphis International).
1. Barbaras 2006-2008 — The Barbaras (Goner): The recordings for the debut album of this young Memphis band that splintered into the Magic Kids and the late Jay Reatard's backing band were thought lost, but last year they turned up on a hard drive of Reatard's and got a Goner release this year. The album is nonstop brilliant and four years after the last note was recorded still sounds ahead of its time.
2. The Memphis Dawls live: High school friends Holly Cole, Krista Wroten Combest, and Jana Misener took off in a big way this year, building on the success of an excellent 2011 EP by releasing a music video for their song "Hickory" and scoring an opening slot for Jack White. Their live shows got better and better as the year went on, culminating in a perfect afternoon set at the Cooper-Young Festival. If you get a chance to see these women do their folky thing live, go. It will be well worth your time.
3. Ex-Cult — Ex-Cult (Goner): The Midtown punk group's debut record is an atomic blast of straight-ahead power. The album's "Shade of Red" is my favorite song produced by a Memphis band in 2012, and their debut Gonerfest performance in September made fans out of the entire packed room.
4. The Modifiers return: This year saw the rebirth of a Memphis legend. For more than 20 years, Bob Holmes and Milford Thompson's pioneering punkers the Modifiers have been spoken of in hushed, reverent tones by those who saw them destroy the Antenna club in the '80s. Thompson passed away several years ago, and Holmes had retired, but Flyer contributor J.D. Reager, whose father had been in the original band, convinced Holmes to play his classic tunes with Reager and the crack River City Tanlines rhythm section of Terrence Bishop and John "Bubba" Bonds. Catch one of their rare appearances, and hear some lost Memphis gems.
5. Hex & Hell — Jason Freeman (BR2): Jason Freeman has played guitar for the Bluff City Backsliders and Amy LaVere, so we knew he was good. But his debut album is still a revelation, taking blues-based rock into the 21st century with explosive slide guitar and blistering vocals. Hex & Hell makes Stonesy rock loose and fun again.