- Aquarian Blood
Granted, such lists will always be subjective, and this one's no exception. But I can personally attest to the fact that these albums, once played through my stereo, were then played again and again. And they continue to be played, as we look to an uncertain future, doing double takes at the recent past and muttering, "What just happened?"
But I'm not alone in my feeling that each of these is a masterpiece of innovation and expression. This is the cream of a very impressive crop, each album like the tip of an iceberg suggesting greater depths below. Look under the hood of Aquarian Blood's 2019 release, and you'll find an entire gritty noise-rock backstory; follow the sounds of The Barbaras and you'll find yourself picnicking with the Magic Kids; and prepare to be astounded once you hear the individual releases by the artists of the Unapologetic collective who delivered the one-two punch of Stuntarious IV.
Part of this depth can be excavated by following each title's link, which will take you to the original articles by me, Jesse Davis, J.D. Reager, Andria Lisle, Chris McCoy, Chris Herrington, and Chris Shaw, quoted sporadically below. And of course, part of the depth comes from the list's breadth. For Memphis not only produced some of the past decade's finest music, it spanned nearly every genre and generation while doing so, from acoustic punk to surreal hip hop to seasoned works by sorely-missed lifers like Sid Selvidge and John Kilzer. For your listening pleasure, we present music of the ages, in alphabetical order.
The Top 20 Albums of the Decade, 2010-2019
Aquarian Blood - A Love That Leads to War (Goner, 2019)
"Dark observations and wry commentary are surrounded with unassuming acoustic ostinatos, (mostly) subtle keyboard textures, and inventive bass counterpoints."
Julien Baker - Turn Out the Lights (Matador, 2017)
"Meditations on love, rejection, God, rage, and redemption ... piano- and cello-tinged ensemble pieces captured on tape at Ardent."
- The Barbaras
"Able to turn on a dime, unafraid to be goofy, and gifted with a breezy sense of irony that simultaneously celebrates and mocks the Nuggets psychedelia that infuses their sound."
The Sensational Barnes Brothers - Nobody's Fault But My Own (Bible & Tire, 2019)
"All the songs on the new Barnes Brothers record were songs that artists on the Designer Records catalog had done. Basically, they came in, I used my studio musicians, and we made that record." And Lord, do those studio musicians rock.
Harlan T. Bobo - A History of Violence (Goner, 2018)
"The band [is] now rocking harder, with a more sinister edge ... his singing now addressing a world swirling around him more than the romantic entanglements of his earlier work."
- Don Bryant
A return to form by one of the city's great songwriters from the golden age of soul, backed unerringly by those specialists in vintage vibes, the Bo-Keys.
The City Champs - The Set-Up (Electraphonic, 2010)
"The instrumental soul-jazz trio absolutely floored me ... The Set-Up is one of those records that just keeps getting better with repeated listening, so now I can't put it down."
"Interspersed with spoken segments in which the artist recalls pivotal moments in his Memphis youth, the tracks make use of a wide-ranging musicality and inventive, turn-on-a-dime production to create what may be Paul's best work yet."
Hash Redactor - Drecksound (Goner, 2019)
"The songs come in fast and hard, propelled by booming bass and tight drums. Watson and Lones share an easy comfort playing together ... McIntyre sneers the vocals, an antihero decrying humanity's self-destructive tendencies ... The guitars alone are worth the price of admission."
John Kilzer - Scars (Archer, 2019)
"I wrote on different instruments. I wrote a couple on a mandolin, a couple on ukulele, and several on the piano. I would have never, ever considered doing that earlier in my career. So that kind of creative tension manifests in the songs."
Lucero - Women & Work (ATO, 2012)
"I think Women & Work is the band's best album yet ... it captures the live sound of a band that has always excelled on stage and how fully they commit to a soulful, opulent Southern rock style."
Magic Kids - Memphis (True Panther Sounds, 2010)
"[A] genial, ramshackle deployment of myriad traditional, pre-punk influences. The album's earnest romances play out against a Memphis presented as a relaxed, sunny playpen."
Mellotron Variations - Mellotron Variations (Spaceflight, 2019)
"Local players Robby Grant and Jonathan Kirkscey were joined by Pat Sansone (Wilco) and John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood), presenting semi-improvised original pieces that showed off the evocative range of multiple Mellotrons being played at once."
New Memphis Colorways - Old Forest Loop (Owl Jackson Jr., 2018)
"'This is music I deliberately made for people to take summertime drives to — they can grill to it or swim to it.' ... Old Forest Loop has the citrus punch of an orange sherbet popsicle."
Jack Oblivian & the Sheiks - Lone Ranger of Love (Mony, 2016)
"Well done, boys. I find it very hard to believe a local artist tops this record in 2016. Might as well flip this sucker over and start again."
The Oblivians - Desperation (In the Red, 2013)
"The band doesn't pretend that the past 15 years never happened, and most tracks are sonically closer to the musicians' individual recording projects but goosed-up Oblivians-style."
"Pavé is a charismatic frontman, equally at home flowing about the school-to-prison pipeline or barking his shins while getting out of bed...Overall, this is one of the most meticulously constructed, finely paced albums to come out of Memphis in recent memory."
Sid Selvidge - I Should Be Blue (Archer, 2010)
"I Should Be Blue retains Selvidge's usual folk setting but with a new musical texture that can stand up to his strikingly beautiful vocals."
Soul and blues legends pair off with current rappers at Royal Studios. "It's fun to be a fly on the wall in these recording sessions held in historic spaces, and the camaraderie and respect between the players is evident. The talent, discipline, and instincts on display are amazing."
Various Artists - Stuntarious IV (Unapologetic, 2019)
"The Stuntarious series explode[s] with sonic and verbal ideas, and Stuntarious IV is no exception. This time around, the album has a cinematic feel ... It sets the stage for the wide-ranging palette of sound design elements that percolate throughout the tracks that follow."
They Also Served: A Baker's Dozen More From a Decade Packed with Dynamite
Once you get started, it will be hard to stop listening to releases from one of the city's most extraordinary musical decades. That's saying a lot, of course, but the depth and breadth of these albums attest to what a simmering hotbed of creativity we have in Memphis. That's not even mentioning some striking singles from the period ("Uptown Funk," anyone?).
So for those with ravenous ears, here are 12 more to groove to, from the underappreciated Stereolab-meets-dank-Southern-humidity of Cloudland Canyon to a Memphis-centric offering from the young Young Dolph, before he grew to dominate the airwaves so thoroughly.
Cloudland Canyon - An Arabesque (Medical, 2016)
Dead Soldiers - The Great Emptiness (American Grapefruit Tapes, 2017)
Detective - No. 1 (2019)
Don Lifted - Contour (2018)
John Paul Keith - Memphis Circa 3 AM (Big Legal Mess, 2013)
Jonathan Kirkscey - Won't You Be My Neighbor? (Mondo, 2018)
Amy LaVere - Painting Blue (Nine Mile, 2019)
Memphis Dawls - Rooted in the Bone (Madjack, 2014)
Motel Mirrors - In the Meantime (Last Chance, 2018)
Joe Restivo - Where's Joe? (Blue Barrel, 2019)
Spaceface - Sun Kids (Jet Pilot, 2017)
Mark Edgar Stuart - Blues for Lou (Madjack, 2013)
Young Dolph - King of Memphis (Paper Route Empire, 2016)