YEAR IN REVIEW: The Best local albums of 2017

It may seem like handing out a participation trophy to list every album released by local artists in 2017 — at least, all that we knew about — as essential for your collection, but we stand by it.

We can’t repeat this enough: You can pay $30 or $60 or $100 to see marquee names from seats closer to the rafters than the stage at places like Thompson-Boling Arena, and you will likely be entertained. But you can also pay $5, or nothing, to see any of these acts at intimate venues and have your life changed. Not every record on this list is life-changing, but the earnestness and heart and enthusiasm and love these artists put into their records, and by extension their live shows, is at the heart of a vibrant and dynamic entertainment scene.

We’ll point out that this list is not the be-all, end-all of local releases — we probably missed a few, or forgot a few, or simply weren’t made aware of their existence. We can’t write about them if we don’t know about them. If you made a piece of music in 2017 and it’s not on this list, we apologize; please, get in touch with us and let us know, and we’ll add you to the queue of records soon to be released this year, like the new one from Hudson K (technically previewed by local audiences last fall), or the forthcoming EP from Blount County residents Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle (which we’ve heard snippets of and can attest that it might be the best music they’ve ever made).

That said, we encourage — nay, we implore — you to check out these albums, and to support these artists whenever they perform live.

Kevin Abernathy, “Family Hour”: In these post-Tom Petty days, it’s easy to slap such a comparison on any dude who picks up a guitar and pens a few blue collar songs, but dammit, Kevin Abernathy has earned it. His latest finds himself casting his gaze closer to home, where he and his wife are raising three teenage girls who rock plenty all on their own, and whether he’s shooing them out of the house on the J. Geils Band-inspired rocker “You Kids” (but not really, because it’s kind of a lament of childhood gone — “I can’t protect you from this world now, I wish I’d taught you how to kick ‘em in the mouth”) or reliving his rock ’n’ roll youth as a snarling “Stage Dad” to his girls, Abernathy manages to take something as seemingly mundane as family and turn it into rock ’n’ roll fodder. For those of us raising kids and making marriages work in 2017, it’s a glorious thing to hear a man turn a domestic image of his wife — bouncing a child on her hip, two more tugging at her leg, all while talking on the phone and “flipping eggs” — into a raggedly splendid bluesy shuffle. It’s not a maudlin record — he channels the Bo Diddley/George Thorogood school of stomp-rock to send off his deceased heroes, and his guitar-playing is second-to-none on the freight-train boogie of “Bullet Holes,” a rare instrumental. It’s a thoroughly fulfilling record all the way around, and Abernathy capably demonstrates why he’s one of East Tennessee’s best.

Adeem the Artist, “The Owl”/“The Flamingo”: As an artist and composer, Adeem Bingham — who performs as Adeem the Artist — is best compared to fellow singer-songwriters like David Bazan or Stephin Merritt, men who traffic in cryptic imagery and heart-on-sleeve tenderness in equal measure. He was a prolific artist in 2017, releasing a handful of singles (“Scruffy Little Christmas,” “5th Avenue Homicide,” which is as good as anything he’s done), and he continued work on a series of EPs centered around birds. The first entry in that series, “The Owl,” is a glimpse at damaged individuals in moments of beauty and pain, facing down “the terrors of the apocalypse” — the dark nights of the soul made bearable by the coupling of lovers and the balm of chemicals, while “The Flamingo” stems from a couple navigating the rocky shoals of divorce while “I Only Have Eyes for You” — by The Flamingos — serves as the soundtrack. On both of them, Adeem does what he does oh-so-well — get down into the mud, where hurt people find themselves after being trampled physically and emotionally, to lift them up with songs that ache so good but offer the hope that together, we’ll stand on our own two feet again. He’s playing this weekend (Friday night, actually) at Barley’s Maryville, and you’d be well advised to check out this worthy artist who’s part of the tapestry of an eclectic and beautiful scene.

Bark, “Year of the Dog”: Whenever a new record is announced by Tim and Susan Lee, I feel the same sense of giddy anticipation I do whenever I see a trailer for a new “Star Wars” film that prominently features the Millennium Falcon, that junky freighter that may not be much to look at, but she’s fast enough for you, old man. Any music by the Lees, but particularly “Year of the Dog,” the latest by their duo Bark, is as badass as that iconic ship — screaming full-bore as it muscles its way through a densely packed star field, everything shuddering on the verge of falling apart, but deadly when it drops into the pocket and locks down on a kill zone. It’s an apropos analogy, given that few partnerships work as well as Tim’s and Susan’s does, but hey, don’t think for a second we’re comparing either one of them to Chewbacca, because we value our hides. Suffice it to say that “Year of the Dog” is a swampy, bluesy, rocking collection of songs that hit with a trimmed-to-the-bone punch. It don’t get much leaner, and given that the Lees have embraced Bark as a full-time project these days, exciting times await us all.

Pat Beasley Band, “Soul Happy”: There’s a languid, upbeat vibe to “Soul Happy” by the Pat Beasley Band, released late last year without a lot of fanfare but deserving of recognition nonetheless. Like we told you at the time, it’s got a nice studio polish to it, but it’s also a diverse piece of work that runs the gamut, from the sun-drenched vibes of the title track to the reggae bounce of “Talk Real Smooth” to the country shuffle of “Long Road” to existential dread of “Bag,” a fiery cross-pollination of psychedelic, Southern and blues rock. “Musically, it’s a little eclectic,” Beasley told us. “What I tried to do differently was, one, make sure all the songs were complete, radio-quality recordings. I didn’t try to pick one style; there’s a little bit of pop, country, bluegrass, folk, jam band and more, because I like to explore. I had so many influences on my music that I wanted to explore them all and see if one worked better than another one. I like to tell people it’s WDVX music, because if you say ‘Americana,’ everybody gets a different idea, but this is really like what you’ll hear on WDVX. It’s all over the place.” If you’re familiar with what a gem WDVX is, then you’ll agree that “Soul Happy” is a great record to have in your collection.

Belfast 6 Pack, “One Short of Halfway”: The dudes in Belfast 6 Pack have been making a racket locally for almost a decade now, and “One Short of Halfway” demonstrates just how far they’ve come in that time. From the plodding doom of “Tales From Beyond” to the thrash flourishes in the title track to the melodic thunder of “Black Limo,” the guys — who named their band after a brutal Irish Republican Army tactic that involves shooting someone in both knees, elbows and ankles — take no prisoners. They even take a sacred cow like “Copperhead Road,” by country-rock maverick Steve Earle, and turn it into a dirty Southern metal throat-punch. They’re one of those bands on a lot of hard rock and metal bills around town, but they don’t get the respect they deserve — not because of any intentional snubbing, but because this scene is so crowded with equally talented acts of all genres. That’s a good thing for music fans, but getting out of your comfort zone and digging into a band of steel drivers like Belfast 6 Pack is something all who consider themselves supporters of this scene should do.

Electric Darling, self-titled: An Electric Darling shows thrive on that synergy between the crowd and the band, and nowhere is that more palpable than when Kevin Hyfantis and Cozmo Holloway are peeling off one power chord after another while vocalist Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin grasps an outstretched hand of a fan or bounces from one foot to the other, a living embodiment of the dynamic energy the band generates. For a band with such a dynamic live show, bottling that lightning on an album can be damn near impossible, but on its seven-song self-titled EP released earlier this year, the members of Electric Darling manage to do just that. There’s an urgency to the instrumentation that speaks to the live show’s frenetic energy, and whether Hoffman-Shahin is crooning about the “Hard Times” or turning her voice into another instrument alongside the boys’ guitar licks on a song like “The Chains,” there’s something tribal about this collection of songs. It speaks to a shared communal experience, and it’s the best reason any band can give to get off your couch and see them live.

Emisunshine, “Ragged Dreams: Emilie “Emisunshine” Hamilton was already something of a singing, songwriting wunderkind with her debut album, “Black Sunday ’35.” Then The Today Show discovered her, and she started playing shows with luminaries like Marty Stuart and Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn, and it would have been all too easy for her and her family band to rest on their laurels and coast along on fame. “Ragged Dreams,” however, is a refusal to do just that. On her latest, she dives deeper — lyrically and instrumentally on songs that are rooted in the alt-country she favors but centered around that exquisite voice that’s a wonder to behold. There are familiar tunes — “Porter Wagoner Blue” has been part of the band’s set for a couple of years now — and a couple of those “killin’ songs” that she loves so well — “Strong Armed Robbery,” for example, which tells the story from a dead man’s perspective with all the snarl and spit of Steve Earle’s “Tom Ames’ Prayer.” (And really, “Tennessee Killin’ Song” may be a novelty, but it’s deliciously self-deprecating and stinging at the same time.) The Hamiltons have found their niche as artists straddling that line between Madisonville small-town living and big-time stardom, and “Ragged Dreams” is the next step on a journey toward what may very well be superstardom — and we’re all for it.

The Fairview Union, “The Right Road”: At the heart of The Fairview Union, the magic has always been the chemistry between husband-and-wife bandleaders Chad and (Blount County girl!) Kelli Kerr Wilson, and on “The Right Road,” they demonstrate just how much closer they’ve grown, musically and otherwise, in the years they’ve been doing this. Wilson, who’s spent his fair share of time writing in and around the Nashville machine, knows how to turn a phrase, and when he and Kelli team up on a song like “I Need Me Some You,” it’s hard not to hear the ghosts of Dolly and Porter or George and Tammy singing background vocals. There’s the standard barn-burner — this time around, it’s “Down Down South,” which celebrates all things Dixie — and there’s the title track, a sobering rumination on the nature of life and how best to navigate it. It’s mainstream country, something that purists might consider a turn-off, but unless you’ve seen this band do what it does live, you’d best leave judgment at the ticket counter and just enjoy the show.

Mic Harrison and The High Score, “Vanishing South: In every scene, there’s always that one band — a stalwart group of grizzled dudes who have played together since time out of mind, who turn and burn like a couple of ace fighter pilots in “Top Gun” who know one another’s licks and tricks like telepathic musical mutants. In East Tennessee, that band is Mic Harrison and The High Score, and “Vanishing South,” we told you back in March, is a record “in the old-school way of album expectations, when fanboys and girls knew that their favorite artist was putting out something special, and they’d get to the record store on a Tuesday morning as the proprietor unchained the door. From the wistful harmonies of ‘Home’ to the bad-to-the-bone instrumental ‘Murder Surf’ to the joyous pop bounce of ‘Indiana Drag Race,’ the new record is solid through and through. It can’t be classified as a high-water mark, because as good as it is, previous releases by the boys have been just as good. It’s simply the next step on a journey defined by a bunch of scruffy-looking good ol’ boys who enjoy the three-hour drive to an Atlanta show as much as they love playing the show itself, because it’s all about the music they listen to along the way — their own and everybody else’s.” They’re not reinventing the wheel, but that’s not the purpose if what they do; they’re simply adding great songs to an already well-stocked larder, and whether they’re playing them for the first or the 100th time, there’s always a joyous enthusiasm to the way they lock in on one another and turn them into something new all over again.

Heiskell, “Emotional Terrorism”: The older he gets, the more Jeff Heiskell is interested in pushing boundaries. He doesn’t care so much about making a new album for performance purposes; “Emotional Terrorism,” released in the fall, has yet to see any sort of CD release show, and Heiskell, whose last name graces the album’s spine, isn’t interested in performing one. These days, the studio is his laboratory, and with peers like John Baker behind the mixing board and Douglas Stuart McDaniel pulling images from his head to make accompanying videos, he’s far more keen to interpret love the way he filters it through his everyday life — with dry humor, sardonic observations and a psychological self-examination to detach the moment from the past chains of pain. “Emotional Terrorism,” he told us, amounts to “waging psychological warfare on oneself or others,” and a deeper dive into the lyrics reveals just how much Heiskell has embraced the role of terrorist and victim over the years. That’s the duality of this modern gay man in the contemporary South who once fronted the alternative ensemble The Judybats; this record, he added, is his version of the blues, and whether he’s going for straightforward on a song like “Still Life” to the twisted cabaret pop of “I Want More Life” — the video for which premiered at the Knoxville Horror Film Festival, if that tells you anything — he’s at his creative peak, and the local scene is richer with him a part of it.

Jimmy and the Jawbones, self-titled: Jimmy Morris doesn’t get the recognition he deserves in local circles, but there’s not a band around that’s picked up the fire-and-fury laid down by the now-defunct Cutthroat Shamrock — except for Morris’ band, Jimmy and the Jawbones. “Charge,” the second song on the band’s self-titled EP released earlier this year, is a Civil War song of the finest caliber, complete with an intro the guys did themselves, Morris told us earlier this year: “It’s a lot of running and breathing and screaming and yelling, all done by myself, my brother and another member of the band. The night before we called the producer to do that, I was watching ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ and at the beginning of that movie, you’ve got that first-person perspective, with what it’s like to go into battle. You’re kind of nervous, excited and scared, and then all hell breaks loose, and we wanted to give that vibe and suck people into what it might have been like to be in a Civil War battle years ago. “Jimmy and the Jawbones” isn’t all fire and fury, however — the beauty of songs like “Come Find Me” and “Montana” speak of the band’s more-than-capable tender side as well, and the EP as a whole represents a band that can whip up a frenzy or soothe the savage beast, all within the span of a single set.

Aaron Kirby and Southern Revelation, “My Hometown”: “My Hometown” is country music built on a bedrock of tradition — the 1980s and 1990s, when country started to shake off the rhinestone studs and embrace its rural roots, marrying it all to a contemporary edge. The title track by Aaron Kirby and Southern Revelation is anthem country, and one listen makes it easy to hear why plans are to market it to listeners in both Texas and Europe. It’s got a distinctly regional feel — Blount County fans will no doubt claim it as a local anthem — but it’s also an ode to halcyon days in small town America; whether they ever truly existed or not matters little, because in Kirby’s idealized world, it’s a celebration of life and love and music. And that song is just a tip of the iceberg. “Outlaw’s Paradise” features a nine-person choir, and the record includes a pair of songs that pay homage to titans of the genre: “Hankerin’ and Jonesin’” and “What Would Waylon Say.” They purr and growl like a muscle car on the line waiting for the flag to wave, and when the boys hit the groove, it’s a full-throttle thrill ride into some savagely beautiful tradition.

Llama Train, “Castles”: At drummer Matt Honkonen’s home studio, “Castles” came together as a patchwork of sounds, all anchored in the warmth and chemistry of long-time friendship, we told you back in April. From the call-and-response guitars on the driving “Loud Claps” to the brooding “Hard Words” to the funky strut of “Laurel Terrace” to the lovely elegy of “Haunt You Cold,” the album’s closer, the guys in Llama Train let the songs determine the direction they wanted to go, and they went to some surprising places — back to the band’s roots in 2004, when four-hour shows on the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” gave Llama Train a reputation as Knoxville’s answer to My Morning Jacket, wrapping songs up in warmth and reverb and hooks that rise and fall with the intensity of a Southern Appalachian summer thunderstorm. “Castles” may or may not be the band’s coda — after all, the members are scattered around the country — and if so, it’s a fitting one. Given the ease with which it came together when the four-piece reunited, however, here’s hoping they’ll reconvene from time to time and grace us with more music, because the local scene is better for it when there are new Llama Train tunes to groove to.

The Lonetones, “Dumbing It All Down”: There’s a delicacy to what The Lonetones do that speaks to a more eclectic and intricate side of music in this area. Ask Sean McCollough and Steph Gunnoe to describe their music, and they frequently fall back on the descriptor “Appalachian rock ’n’ roll,” which works, but it’s also a serious understatement to the delicate arrangements on “Dumbing It All Down,” the band’s most recent effort. Mandolin, banjo, cello, percussion and more combine with the lyrics for a swirling kaleidoscope of rootsy sounds. Like we told you back in February: “It’s not a dark record. Yes, it touches on some metaphysical themes, but the intricate instrumentation, combined with McCollough’s soothing baritone and Gunnoe’s lilting alto, manage to package up melancholy and depression and turn them into a rumination on the yin and yang of life on Planet Earth. Yes, bad things happen; yes, there is pain. But misery is optional, and the sun will indeed rise every morning. A Lonetones record, in other words, sums up the bottom line: No matter what happens, it’s going to be OK, one way or another. Life may not work out to the expectations of those who experience it, but solace and comfort can be found when the shadows descend, if one knows where to look.” And any scene with The Lonetones in it is bound to be a little sunnier, indeed.

Maggie Longmire, “Baby It’s Time”: There’s a reason Maggie Longmire is considered the grand dame of East Tennessee singer-songwriters, and she gives us 12 of them on “Baby It’s Time,” a musical journey through familiar territories and a few new ones as well from the “Lily of LaFollette.” With studio and production work by Daniel Kimbro, any record is apt to sound sweet, but the raw material Kimbro and his assembled team of musical gunslingers get to work with is divine, from the R&B slink of “Don’t You Leave Me Now” to the Spanish flourishes of “Highway Angel” and “New Mexico 1912” to the church-somber shuffle of “Old Knoxville Blues,” a grand elegy to the chains of this town as there’s ever been. It’s impossible to pick a standout track on “Baby It’s Time,” but if pressed, it’d have to be “Keep On Rollin’,” which starts out on a mandolin run and Longmire’s sweet, aching vocals before rolling into a jubilant folk-gospel jewel in this record’s gorgeous crown.

Josh Lovelace and Friends, “Young Folk: He may not play very often around these parts, but that’s mostly because Josh Lovelace is so busy on the road with his band, NEEDTOBREATHE. But if that gig ever dries up, he may well have as successful a career as a children’s musician as “Farmer” Jason Ringenberg. From the opening track, “Good Morning,” Lovelace wears his heart on his sleeve, sounding like a sleep-foggy father rolling over to kiss his kid on the top of the head. He’s vulnerable and tender on a track like “You’re My Very Best Friend,” sly and playful on a swinging jazzy song like “Daddy’s Beard” (“Daddy’s beard itches my face when he gives me kisses in the morning ...”), quirky and goofy on “A Bear In the Woods,” a beautifully silly song featuring fellow musician Ben Rector that details the loss of the singer’s underwear to a hungry bear. Hearing a ramshackle children’s choir sing “a bear in the woods ate my underwear” beneath Lovelace’s and Rector’s earnest vocals might just be the cutest thing you’ll hear all year. It may be technically classified as a children’s album, but “Young Folk” — credited to Josh Lovelace and Friends — doesn’t condescend to adults and in fact offers plenty for all ages to enjoy.

Shayla McDaniel, “26 Letters”: Shayla McDaniel — another Knoxville singer-songwriter who makes a Maryville stop this weekend, on Saturday at Barley’s Maryville — released the EP “26 Letters” earlier this year, in January. It’s a collection of intricate, jazz-inflected folk pop that’s reminiscent of the music of singer-songwriter Brett Dennen. Her voice ranges from languid and tranquil to pleading and urgent, sometimes within the span of a single song as she navigates the myriad of emotions found in the hungry heart of a woman on a spiritual and emotional journey through life. McDaniel is unafraid to dive deep into the waters of self-reflection, and “26 Letters” is the sound of a woman who’s making peace with what she sees — with age, with experience and with music.

MEOB, self-titled: Back in March, we detailed the self-titled full-length by the local collective whose acronym stands for Man-Eating Ogre Boy,” a nickname frontman Andrew Sayne has carried around with him for a few years now. At the time, we said, “There’s a sardonic sense of humor to the guys in MEOB, a sense of self-deprecation that stops just short of slapstick and instead takes a hard left turn into territory that’s weird and trippy and cool. There are elements of everything from ’80s jangle-pop to Fugazi-esque freneticism to Modest Mouse-style quirkiness. It’s a style built on friendship and a respect for the talent all three men have as players in a number of different East Tennessee-based projects.” The guys know how to marry the delicate with the frantic in a song like “New Nouns,” segue from elegiac chords to garbled spoken-word lyrics on “Magnolia” and put together a country-tinged (complete with banjo!) ode to “Ruby” on the album’s closing track. It’s occasionally jarring, which is what keeps the listener on his/her toes and makes for a sonic adventure that’s hard to find on pablum that passes for straightforward releases. MEOB is a breath of fresh air, and this record is a welcome local respite.

Scott Miller, “Ladies Auxiliary”: He may be a Knoxville expatriate these days, but no year in which Scott Miller releases a new album can be considered whole without its inclusion in a list of local greatness. And great it is — more mature, more thoughtful, more soulful than anything he’s done in the past. There’s still plenty of that trademark Miller playfulness — he’s clearly smitten with “Jacki With an Eye,” talking about that date to the county fair that’s “over my head and out of my league, all I could do was stare at my feet and pretend I was somebody else who wore my clothes.” A couple of songs later, a finger-popping, kazoo-accented send-up of the woes of a “Mother-in-Law” (not based on a true story) pits our intrepid hero against a lady who “smells like a biker and … cackles like a jackal.” As witty as his humor is, however, Miller shines on the more serious numbers. “Epic Love” is exactly that, a slow-building dirge based on Greek myths and addiction that’s downright lovely, and his reworking of “Los Siento, Spanishburg, WVa,” is a thoughtful and heart-tugging look at gentrification in the contemporary South. It’s a worthy record to the Miller catalog, and one you should own if you don’t.

Albert Murrian, “ARTROCK: The idea behind “ARTROCK” is a complex one for Albert Murrian, who performs around town with his band, Common Creatures: putting poetry to music, all of it inspired by painters, paintings and artists. Visual art has been a passion of Murrian’s almost as long as music has, and in writing about it and studying it, he came upon the concept for his EP. “Why not make it about art?” he told us earlier this year. “I gave myself a framework to work with: Instead of writing about anything, I would write seriously about art. I checked out books from the library, I was watching movies.” Murrian got his start in the Knoxville outfit 1220, which garnered local respect as a group of teens and young 20-somethings tackling garage rock, power pop and blues-rock; he later moved to Athens, Ga., before returning to East Tennessee and lending his talents to other local releases. “ARTROCK” kicks off with the jangling “O Pablo,” based on the real-life theft of more than $100 million worth of Picasso paintings. The music, he pointed out, is taken directly from the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, all set to rock ‘n’ roll; those little flourishes, pulled together with the help of his old friend and bandmate Alex Trammell and studio engineer Matt Honkonen of Llama Train and Peak Physique. It’s a record in the vein of Lou Reed, and another reason this local scene is so beautifully eclectic.

Peak Physique, “A Couple”: It might be tempting to dismiss the darkly sexy synth-pop of “A Couple,” the debut full-length by Peak Physique, as nothing more than club bangers designed for garments to come off and babies to be made. That may be true, but the genius is what lies beneath: “Within the scope of popular love songs, you’ve got frustration and anger and worry; it’s the closest thing a lot of people ever feel to psychotic behavior, because when you’re in the middle of it, it’s the only thing you can think about on an obsessive level,” co-conspirator Wil Wright told us earlier this year. “It’s not really a healthy experience, even though it’s something everybody wants.” That’s where Peak Physique operates best — diving headfirst into that psychosis, embracing it and lifting it up and diving into its dark waters regardless of the consequences. “A Couple” is a far cry from Wright’s LiL iFFy persona or even his Senryu alt-pop project, and it’s nothing like partner Matt Honkonen’s Llama Train, either. Vocal effects, computer-generated music and guitars that function as both melody and time — it’s a swirling, hypnotic sound that turns every show into a tunnel straight to the heart of desire. It’s sexy, but it’s wistful; it’s sensual, but it’s dangerous. It’s the sound of new love and primal desire, and it’s one of the more unique records to come out of East Tennessee this year.

The Pinklets, self-titled: Back in May, we told you about “The Pinklets,” an album that’s solid, respectable and infectious, an eight-song disc of power-pop that holds its own beside records made by musicians twice the age of the three teenage girls who made it. Given their pedigree — their father, Kevin Abernathy, is a respected East Tennessee songwriter and rock bandleader — it’s no surprise, but what’s very much a surprise is just how much The Pinklets have established themselves as independent musicians outside their father’s shadow. There’s something both nostalgic and contemporary about the music The Pinklets make; one song might conjure up images of The Go-Go’s, hammering out the infectious melodies of “We Got the Beat,” the time signature of which is a distant cousin to “Careless,” the lead-off track to “The Pinklets.” The next song, however — “Now That I’m Here” — builds swell after swell from a shimmering guitar/drum/keyboard ocean, channeling the emotional heft of Tori Amos. The lilting sweetness of “Brick Wall” sounds like it’d fit right at home on the Blake Babies classic “Sunburn,” and “Recording 34” is a resoundingly successful ballad that shows that these ladies have a command of styles far beyond their years. That they’re already working on their next record is welcome news, because this scene needs more Pinklets.

Quartjar: “Squatch: An Odyssey in Space and Time”: From the radio fade into the blooze-rock shuffle of “Squatch Overture,” there’s an undeniable confidence to the latest full-length by Knoxville-based power trio Quartjar, and with good reason — bandmates Randall Brown, Malcolm Norman and Tory Flenniken have been making racket around these parts for decades. It’s not that previous Quartjar releases have been lacking, but there’s a certain “oomph” to “Squatch” that comes from hitting a point in life where making rock ’n’ roll is a return to the reason you started doing it in the first place — to entertain yourself and the buddies you’re playing with. The fact that each man is a seasoned musician with the chops to make a more-than-palatable racket is ideal for this quasi-concept record, which Brown described thusly earlier this year: “We had about three or four songs that seemed to speak to this tale of a space traveler’s adventures leaving the planet and finding another planet, and so, during one brainstorm in one of our rehearsals one day, we decided that the songs we have that don’t relate to this space travel, we’ll just say that they do.” It’s loud, it’s quirky and it defies any sort of notion that swaggering rock ’n’ roll is the domain of young dudes. It’s a fun romp through a mythos that makes sense if you let go and enjoy the ride, which is easy to do with this batch of brawlers.

Senryu, “The Jaws of Life”: Wil Wright may be focusing on Peak Physique more these days, but 2017 didn’t go without a release from his project of nearly two decades, indie-pop outfit Senryu. “The Jaws of Life” is meditative and contemplative, which is most certainly the band’s wheelhouse; with brothers Andres and Dan McCormack, percussionist Steven Rodgers and bassist Zac Fallon, Wright is given a canvas on which to explore grand ideas through intricate, delicate instrumentation, and if “lovely” is an acceptable descriptor for Senryu, then it applies to “Night of the Twisters,” the album’s lead-off track. But the band sheds whatever emo tendencies it may occasionally flirt with on songs like “Heaven Can Wait,” “Dream of Nothing” and the howling maelstrom that is “Summer Death March,” a too-painful-to-look-away tale of madness and breakdown. Wright has never flinched away from documenting his emotional turmoil through song, and while his other projects — LiL iFFy and Skeleton Coast, to name a few — have been personal ones, none have allowed him to document the journey of his own existence like Senryu. “The Jaws of Life” is the latest snapshot along that journey, which we hope continues for many years to come.

Shimmy and the Burns, “Happy to Be Here”: “Been chewed up and spit back out, more times now than I can count,” Brian “Shimmy” Paddock snarls on the opening track of his band’s latest — and perhaps final — EP, “Happy to Be Here.” Paddock and the boys have long been the East Tennessee progenitors of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and they both embrace and transcend that comparison on this latest effort. The guitars crunch louder, Paddock sounds more confident in his vocals than ever and the guys lock into a full-bore choogling groove that makes “Happy To Be Here” every bit the rocker that “Ragged Glory” was.

Stone Broke Saints, self-titled: It’s only four songs, but the self-titled EP by Stone Broke Saints packs more musical firepower than a lot of full-lengths. Siblings Jenna and Michael McClelland draw on the legacy of their father, the late Nashville studio ace Billy Earl McClelland, and conjure up something new. There’s country, but there’s also rock, R&B, blues and a funky backbeat that makes “Stone Broke Saints” sound like something the Tedeschi-Trucks Band might put out. Michael just turned 21, but he plays with the passion and intensity of guitar-slingers three times his age, and when he switches to slide, there’s an otherworldly howl to what he does that sounds conjured up from a deal with the devil at some Mississippi crossroads. And when his sister hits her stride, she’s crooning, bellowing and singing with all the finesse and fury of Sharon Jones and Mavis Staples. It’s a record that deserves to be noted among local releases, and one that’ll be on repeat should you make it part of your collection.

Tractorhead, “Mud, Blood and Beer”: Some of the best alt-country bands never took themselves too seriously. The Old 97’s, Slobberbone, Backyard Tire Fire — they all managed to work a little humor into some tasty licks that marry punk’s effervescence with country’s pedal steel and rock’s pedal-down seriousness. On “Mud, Blood and Beer,” Tractorhead, led by Doug Shanklin, pulls off the same. Most of the humor springs from Shanklin’s true stories — “Jesus Mowed My Lawn” is taken literally, from his time in California, when a guy named Jesus cut his grass. “Drinkin’ and Mowin’” is a choogling boogie celebration of two summer pastimes for a lot of dudes, and “More Efficient Elvis” is lifted from the disdain of an Asian Elvis impersonator taking stock of a sea of competitors on a Memphis street. Needless to say, it was a surreal moment for Shanklin, but his genius lies in turning those moments into the sort of bluesy, country-rock stomp that would have fit nicely alongside bands like 6 String Drag and Two Dollar Pistols, back in the glorious late-‘90s heyday of Americana. As it is, it works perfectly in a scene that needs a little more of what Tractorhead is putting out, so keep it coming, guys.

Steve Wildsmith is the Weekend editor for The Daily Times. Contact him at or at 981-1144, follow him on Twitter @TNRockWriter and “Like” Weekend on Facebook at

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