Why should Nashville steal all of Tennessee’s musical thunder? Though the state’s capital is country-music Mecca and home to Music Row, Memphis is just as worthy of the title “Music City.” After all, Memphis claims Sun Studio, where everyone from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash to B.B. King recorded hits, and Stax Records, the label behind legends like Otis Redding and Booker T. & the M.G.s and contemporaries like Melissa Etheridge and Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats. The blues were born in Memphis. Big Star was born in Memphis. Julien Baker was born in Memphis. Al Green, Bruno Mars and U2 have all recorded in Memphis.
But much like Muscle Shoals, Ala., Memphis welcomes imports in droves, artists who visit the city to record in famous spaces and then leave. Though legends come and go, Memphis still boasts plenty of local acts. Rockers Lucero have been stalwarts of the scene for years now, but the gates are opening for new bands and hip-hop acts on labels like Goner and Madjack Records. We rounded up 10 emerging bands and artists from the “Birthplace of Rock ’n’ Roll” to prove Memphis has still got it.
Blues rockers Dirty Streets released their fourth full-length LP last month, Distractions, their first since 2015’s White Horse. At times, their sound is polished and soulful (like on the Distractions title track); other times, they embrace the grime and churn out greasy garage rock (“Loving Man” is down-and-dirty yet danceable). Dirty Streets’ Southern grit would pair just as well with a PBR and a loud Beale St. bar as it would a back porch and sweet tea—they just sound like Memphis.
Longtime Memphis musicman James Godwin is the brains behind James & the Ultrasounds, a four-piece surf-rock group who frequently plays local venues. Their sophomore record, None of the Above, dropped in August, and, clocking in at a short-but-sweet 28 minutes, it’s a great first taste of Memphis rock ’n’ roll in 2018. Though surf feels like their most applicable classification (None of the Above is chock full of wavy guitar and lots of backing oohs and ahhs), James & the Ultrasounds don’t confine themselves to one style. Listen closely and you might pick up on their garage, punk and blues influences.
Nots haven’t released a full-length LP since 2016, but they’re worth mentioning as one of Memphis’ long-time established punk outifts. The all-female four-piece makes well-crafted, aggressive punk music, and they recently played their label Goner’s rock festival in Memphis. Their 2015 single “Reactor” is a resonant, spacey trip through punk, with disjointed, agitated vocals acting as a vessel. In 2017, they released four new searing singles, and you’ll want to keep an ear out for whatever they do next.
The Pop Ritual sound nothing like their name would imply. The Memphis trio makes brooding, resonant industrial post-punk, music so dark it would put the night sky to shame. But for big fans of glitch-glaze and electro-punk, their music might feel more like a sonic blanket than a vast stormy sky—it does have a covering quality to it. Their most recent release was a 2017 LP, Perinde Ac Cadaver, which is a texturized trip through electronic beats and hooks.
AWFM is an eclectic hip-hop artist from Memphis, part of the larger hip-hop collective and label Unapologetic, who are key players in Memphis’ burgeoning indie rap scene. You won’t find his groovy rap on Spotify—AWFM is strictly an inhabitant of SoundCloud and YouTube, which seem like the most appropriate homes for his relaxed DIY rap.
Though leading woman Marcella Rene Simien originally hails from Lafayette, La., her band with the “Lovers” is Memphis-based, and Simien has lived in Memphis since moving there for art school in 2009. Simien’s powerhouse voice lends itself to the group’s swampy soul sound. The band released a groovy new single just last week, “Where You Are,” a follow-up to last month’s “En Chaleur,” both from their new EP, Got You Found, out Oct. 26. Memphis has long been home to soulful blues bands, and Marcella and Her Lovers know how to freshen those classic Memphis sounds for a 2018 audience.
John Paul Keith and Amy LaVere are both established solo musicians who’ve played the Memphis circuit many times over, and with LaVere’s husband Will Sexton, the trio make Motel Mirrors, a jazzy take on roots and Americana. They released a record, In The Meantime, earlier this year, and it’s a romp through Johnny Cash-influenced country and classic Memphis soul. Keith also has a release out this year, a solo LP called The Heart Shaped Shadow.
Indie alternative group The Band CAMINO haven’t even released a full-length album yet, but they’ve attracted quite a fan base since their 2016 EP My Thoughts on You. Their breezy, radio-ready rock songs seem to be peppered everywhere on Spotify’s mood playlists, giving them a boost with listeners beyond their hometown of Memphis. Their latest 2018 single, “Daphne Blue,” is the loudest and most arena-ready of their releases so far, but it still maintains The Band Camino’s signature pop angle.
Hash Redactor are scarcely on the internet, a rarity in 2018, so their music is difficult to track down unless you actually live in Memphis and can catch them live. But they came so highly recommended by so many Memphis locals that we at Paste had to include them. They crank out clashing, riotous punk jams, and they’re currently working on a full-length record, expected out in winter 2019 on Goner. In the meantime, you won’t have much luck finding them on Google, but we tracked down their “FISH” demo on YouTube for your listening and rioting pleasure.
Aquarian Blood’s latest release, a 2017 LP titled Late Nite in Paradise, is yet another example of Memphis’ unexpected, but flourishing, fringe-rock scene. It’s antsy, loud and everything you’d expect scrappy DIY punk to sound like, with a touch of electronica. The relatively young group is also tricky to track down on the inter-webs, but once you do, you’ll want to stick around for their angsty, delightfully dissonant musings.