Our three critics reveal their picks for the best local artists, albums, and concerts of 2011:
1. Digital Lows/"Coastin'" — Cities Aviv: Watching iconoclastic young local rapper Gavin "Cities Aviv" Mays get national recognition amid an increasingly crowded field of internet/indie rap upstarts was one of the most satisfying things to happen in Memphis music this year. And Mays' unusually focused debut album, Digital Lows — 12 tracks, 35 minutes, no waste, no indulgence — is one of my five favorite albums of 2011, period. "I'm 21. This is the realest shit I ever wrote," Mays exclaims on the opening "Black Box," a conflicted missive aimed at his hometown, before the following, boombastic "Die Young" emerges as a deceptively righteous generational anthem. Released separately on a 7" single, the smooth "Coastin'" is a statement of principles. I'm guessing this guy's just getting started.
2. Stranger Me — Amy LaVere: If LaVere keeps making album-to-album leaps like this, where is she heading next? LaVere's Anchors & Anvils was my favorite local album of 2007, but Stranger Me is better. Working with producer Craig Silvey and versatile session aces like her ex, Paul Taylor, and Lucero's Rick Steff, LaVere crafts a swaggeringly musical suite of break-ups songs.
3. Step Brothers/Terminator 2/"Letter to My Son" — Don Trip: Rising rapper Trip is my local music artist of the year. Nobody in Memphis released more compelling, crucial music over the past year. But he hasn't — yet — released a full album quite as realized as Digital Lows or Stranger Me. Pending next year's Interscope debut, Help Is on the Way, Trip's finest full-length so far is Step Brothers, a playful series of bangers recorded with Nashville partner Starlito. The duo swaps lines like they stayed up all night in the studio together cutting up and bouncing ideas off each other, which they probably did. And they display this unusual camaraderie in the hysterical body-switch video for the Step Brothers single "4th Song." A low-key, Southern-fried Watch the Throne.
The best of Trip's 57 solo mixtapes — okay, more like 10 — is Terminator 2, an inconsistent affair featuring some of his best individual songs: the passionate "Vent," the conceptually brilliant "Feelin' Like Mike," and the mic-skills tour de force "I'm On 1." And topping it all, so far, is his career-starting single "Letter to My Son," a slice of raw autobiography that invades radio airwaves coast-to-coast this year.
4. The Man That Time Forgot — John Paul Keith: Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly-style rock-and-roll? Tex-Mex and honky-tonk country? Garage rock and early-'60s soul? Folk rock, smoky jazz-blues, and Marshall Crenshaw-style power pop? Not just anyone can do it, but transplanted Memphian John Paul Keith confirms on his ace second album that he's an unusually adept roots-rocker, with a lighter touch than most, flawless taste, and sure songwriting chops.
5. Keys to the Kingdom — North Mississippi Allstars: Ten years after their debut, "Shake Hands With Shorty," Luther and Cody Dickinson — along with constant companion Chris Chew — honor their late father, producer Jim Dickinson, by making, for perhaps the first time, music as loose and free and un-self-consciously spirited as he was. Appropriately, Keys to the Kingdom is a jaunty, defiant album about mortality and loss, featuring such highlights as the ragged, almost punkish kissoff "Jumpercable Blues" and the rambunctuous jazz-funeral showcase "New Orleans Walking Dead."
Next Five: Cicada Sounds —Mouserocket; More or Less — Skewby; Got To Get Back! — The Bo-Keys; 4 All Seasonz — Royal'T; Rat City — Jack Oblivian
1. Rat City — Jack Oblivian: Of the three ex-Oblivians, Greg Cartwright is generally accepted as the "songwriter" of the bunch — and for good reason. But with Rat City, Jack Yarber proves once again to be a force to be reckoned with in his own right. This record is a start-to-finish garage-pop gem that only gets better with repeated listening.
2. Movie Night — The Warble and 3. 12 Magnificent Songs — Clay Otis & the Showbiz Lights: If this list was of the "most excellently weird local albums of 2011," then the Warble and Clay Otis & the Showbiz Lights would absolutely be the top two (probably in reverse order). As it stands, both make the top three with what are still tremendous efforts. The Warble's weirdness on Movie Night is reminiscent of early They Might Be Giants and Ween but with a darker and more psychedelic edge. Frontman Alex Warble definitely has infectious pop hooks in his bag of tricks — songs like "Just Busted" and the title track will get stuck in your head. The Clay Otis & the Showbiz Lights album is, unbelievably, even more adventurous (and, yes, weird). This is a band that answers the previously un-asked musical question, What if Prince and Duran Duran were forced to make an album in the mid-'80s with an eccentric unknown frontman?
4. Cicada Sounds — Mouserocket: This eight-song EP would be good enough on the strength of co-bandleader Alicja Trout's songwriting contributions — particularly "I Can't Keep My Hands Off U" and "Hello, Talk to Me," which are among of her finest compositions to date. But when you throw in a couple of equally memorable tunes by her partner Robby Grant (not to mention his ferocious lead/noise guitar playing), the fine string arrangements of Jonathan Kirkscey, and the very solid rhythm section of Robert Barnett (drums) and Hemant Gupta (bass), you have a great record.
5. Got To Get Back! — The Bo-Keys: Local R&B outfit the Bo-Keys are a throwback act in the sense that the group's music instantly recalls the classic 1960s Memphis soul sound of Stax and Hi. What sets the group apart is that most of the members (including guitarist Skip Pitts, drummer Howard Grimes, and trumpet player Ben Cauley) actually participated in that scene in its heyday. And it shows on Got To Get Back!. Kudos to bandleader/bassist/producer Scott Bomar for bringing and keeping this all-star soul group together.
Next Five: Self-Titled Record — William Stull; Movements — The Dirty Streets; "Evening News" — Sharp Balloons; Tarantula/Blue Blood — Limes; Homemade With Love — Davy Ray Bennett
1. The Pixies at the Orpheum: They played both the album track and the slower, more beautifully arranged (UK Surf) version of "Wave of Mutilation," Doolittle in its entirety, and prime cuts from Surfer Rosa. What more could anybody want from a Pixies concert? Well, "Letter from Memphis" would have been nice. It's not like they didn't play it in Nashville.
2. Al Kapone and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra: What could have been a stunt team-up turned out to be an exciting collaboration. "The Music," Kapone's valentine to Memphis' best-known export, stood out in an evening full of outstanding performances.
3. Carla Thomas singing "B-A-B-Y" at the Center for Southern Folklore's tribute to Rufus Thomas: Backed by FreeWorld, Thomas was in good voice and high spirits, and, to borrow a phrase from Kapone, she made this signature tune shine like brand-new jewelry.
4. Folk Alliance Conference: What made this year's Folk Alliance special? Sitting in a hotel room about two feet away from Ron Sexsmith covering Elvis Costello's "Every Day I Write the Book," hearing the Atomic Duo perform a bluegrass-inspired cover of Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon," catching Blind Boy Paxton's X-rated version of "Stacka Lee," and the Carolina Chocolate Drops mixing Irish reels with beat-boxing.
5. Amy LaVere's Stranger Me and Jack Oblivian's Rat City: I can't make up my mind about this year's best new song. LaVere's "Stranger Me" is haunting and impossibly catchy, while Jack Yarber's Star & Micey collaboration "Girl on the Beach" is unexpectedly bright and joyous. And both of these barely edge out the nifty, noisy mess of Sharp Balloons' "Evening News."