Chief among the potential pitfalls of turning the local music poll we introduced in these pages a year ago into an annual feature is that nothing would change. This, after all, is a city consumed with the past, where, oblivious to the cultural paradigm shift of a quarter century ago, some folks still seem to be waiting for the glory days of Sun and Stax to reemerge. A place where it seems some aging bohemians still expect the Grifters to dislodge Creed from the modern-rock charts. We were happy last year when Elvis, Otis, and B.B. (two of whom actually got votes) didn't duke it out for the title of "most vital artist in Memphis music today." So it seemed entirely possible that last year's Top 10 would be repeated verbatim.
Thankfully, that didn't happen, and the proof is on this issue's cover. Beale Street bluesboy Richard Johnston (you can see him out on the street, just like Furry Lewis in the days of yore) finished a strong second, and singer-songwriter extraordinaire Cory Branan tied for third (with the Reigning Sound) after not making the Top 10 at all last year. And while Branan was a near-miss a year ago off the buzz of his yet-to-be-released debut album, Johnston was just another name among the "others receiving votes." But, this year, the dynamic duo stormed the charts, in the process conveying the sense that they're the locus of a lot of the energy and excitement in the local music scene right now.
As we did last year, we mailed out ballots to approximately 100 Memphians with a professional interest in the local music scene -- writers, record store managers/clerks, radio programmers, club owners/bookers, and people otherwise engaged in the local music industry. As with last year, we asked them to name the five most "vital" artists in Memphis music today. We also added a couple of new categories for this year, asking for our voters' opinions on the best local album of the past year and which young or relatively new artist should be "picked to click" in the coming year.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, more than half of those sent ballots did the American thing and stayed away from the polls, though our pool of 42 respondents (the same number as last year, though not the same 42) still represents a revealing peek at what the people who (presumably) care most about the local music scene are excited about.
Branan and Johnston weren't the Top 10's only newcomers. Last year, the Grifters (with solo votes for singer/guitarist David Shouse) finished a too-high fourth off a few (admittedly fantastic) reunion gigs and wishful thinking. This year, Shouse's new band, the Bloodthirsty Lovers, finished a more appropriate seventh. And unstoppable bluesman Alvin Youngblood Hart leaps to number six, this year's voters making up for last year's shameful omission.
Dropping out to make way for Johnston, Branan, and Hart were the defunct or at least on-hiatus Big Ass Truck and Pawtuckets and out-of-sight, out-of-mind Lucero, who, with their sophomore album stuck in the on-deck circle and a dramatically stepped-up touring schedule that's kept them out of town, took a tumble from three to 14.
And how have we managed to go this far without mentioning our repeat winners, the North Mississippi Allstars? They are the perfect Memphis band -- tied to the past both personally and musically yet making things happen in the present. They remained strong in the past year, with a new album and a passel of other projects, and were justly rewarded. And with Johnston and Hart joining the Allstars, that makes half of our top six blues artists. Could any other alternative weekly in any other city of comparable size conduct a similar poll and get such a result? Probably not. But it just goes to show that the blues may be a niche genre in most markets, but in Memphis, it's still lifeblood.
Also notable is the relative lack of hard rock and hip hop beyond the Three 6 camp (only one vote for Gangsta Blac, who released the best local rap album of the past year), a clear deficiency attributable to little response from commercial-radio types on the mailing list and hip-hop's smaller live presence in relation to the city's rock and roots scenes. Another, more troubling trend (or, sadly, just a perpetual state) is the lack of women artists among the finishers. On this score, the Top 20 contain only four partial qualifiers -- Eighty Katie with drummer Amy McDonald, Automusik's female rock units, Three 6's side attractions, and the Lost Sounds' local Queen of Rock, Alicja Trout -- with a mere smattering of female artists among the also-rans.
I guess I can't get out of here without revealing my own picks. After being as dutiful in my respect for "significance" as the electorate-at-large last year, this year I went with what seemed to be the popular route and voted with my ears and eyes though still abiding by my self-imposed rule of restricting my ballot to artists who have released new music over the past year, thus excluding perennial faves such as Di Anne Price, Lucero, and Alvin Youngblood Hart (who, nonetheless, deserved every mention he got this year). My votes for most vital artist/band: 1) Cory Branan, 2) The Reigning Sound, 3) The Lost Sounds, 4) The Bloodthirsty Lovers, 5) Richard Johnston; for best album: Cory Branan's The Hell You Say; for Picked-to-Click: Snowglobe.
Over the next several pages, you can read profiles on this year's Top 10 as well as Picked-to-Click winner Snowglobe and read what our voters had to say about artists in and out of the Top 10. You can also read about one of the best things to happen to local music in quite some time, LiveFromMemphis.com.
Our 42 voters sang the praises of an astounding 95 local artists this year. As always, someone who cares a lot about music cares about each one of them, and that should be reason enough to check them out.