Open Your Ears. It Won’t Hurt.


When it was all finished in early December, this is what iTunes told me:

Candidates: BS Best Southern Albums of 2017
2,566 songs / 6.5 days

I looked it up, and when iTunes says “day,” it means a full day. Twenty-four hours. Thus, 156 hours of music. Divide that by eight-hour workdays, and you’ve got nearly a month’s worth of work.

Have we gone mad? Batshit, even?

Maybe. But The Bitter Southerner for five years has offered its own, highly opinionated ranking of the best recordings made in the South and/or by Southerners. We think it’s important, because new music tells us about the culture of our region, in the moment.

If, of course, we listen to it. Which is where the challenge comes in for me, as this publication’s editor. The Bitter Southerner’s staff, at the moment, consists of one full-timer — that’s me — and large chunks of time in the lives of about a half-dozen others. Thus, if the responsibility to listen to All These Records falls to anyone, it must fall to me.

But the challenge runs deeper than quantity alone. It runs to who I am. And who’s that? A white guy, about a month out from his 57th birthday, who rarely finds the patience and stamina to stand or even sit at a music venue past midnight on a weeknight. To paraphrase John Moreland, such nights don't suit me like before.

I can, however, spend the last three months of every year with headphones screwed on, listening. I have voraciously consumed music of all sorts since forever, because I love it and because it teaches me about the people who make it. And by focusing on the music of Southerners, it teaches me about the South’s people. And I want to learn about all y'all — not just the ones who look like me. Making music allows deep concerns to surface. Making music also lifts us up with the pure but ineffable power of sound. It makes us think. It shakes our booties. It channels our anger or our joy. 

To hear all of that, you must listen hard. Even to music made by folks you might not have much in common with. Even to music that you — an average, Southern whatever-you-are — might never play otherwise. That’s been an even tougher challenge for me in 2017, for two reasons.

The first is the age we live in, when no one seems content until they have a group they see as "the others.” The purpose of this publication from the beginning has been to challenge that idea, to point out the beauty the South can create when we knock down the walls between us. I grew up in small-town, southern Appalachia on gospel, rock and roll, and country. I naturally gravitate toward music made by folks from similar backgrounds. I am not a black kid who grew up in a drug-ravaged neighborhood, but if I want to learn about the Whole South, I need to pay close attention to music made by kids who did. If you want to cross the lines and have serious conversations, listening to the music is a good way to start. 

The second challenge comes from Dr. Joycelyn Wilson, who joined our team in March to write about hip-hop in our Southern Music column. We have joked that she grew up in Atlanta with beats and rhymes, while I grew up in the Georgia mountains on twangs and whines. After 10 months of working with each other to understand the Whole South’s music, I think it’s safe to say I listen to those beats and rhymes differently and more deeply than I did before. 

About three months after Dr. Wilson began writing for us, I had a major realization: The Southern hip-hop she studies brings millions of dollars every year into the South's economy, but that phenomenon seems completely invisible to white power brokers. Atlanta writer Rodney Carmichael, shortly after he joined NPR Music, explained it far better than I could:

"Consider this irony: Donald Glover's celebrated FX show 'Atlanta,' which earned record ratings and Golden Globe statues following its debut season, received Georgia film tax incentives legislated within the last decade to lure film and TV production to the Peach State. Yet the twice-as-old, homegrown music industry, on which the show's plot is centered, still runs off an ecosystem largely unsupported by state funding or investment from the city's civic and corporate communities. The resulting failure to leverage this global cultural cachet suggests too many people in high places don't fully understand, appreciate or respect the value of hip-hop as an economic growth engine. While local politicos and power brokers look outside the city for world-class inspiration, they often overlook the one thing the rest of the world looks to Atlanta for."

The white folks, in other words, won't open their ears, even when there's money to be made.

It's on folks who look like me — with open ears —to listen, begin to understand, and learn. At The Bitter Southerner, when we find music that touches our common desire to learn about, to understand, and to have empathy for others, well, in our book, that’s a hit. 

We’ve tried this year to listen more broadly, more deeply, and more inclusively. So, herewith, our fifth annual, highly opinionated list of the 30 Best Southern Albums of the Year. The year in Southern music was so good we couldn't stop at 25.

— Chuck Reece