It’s not customary for me to do two posts in one week — the pay is hardly enough to do one — but I should wrap up what I thought were the best bands of 2012 and start looking ahead to 2013. We are in a new year after all, and as arbitrary as it is, we’ll let that be our bookmark until another one appears.
On to the top 9!
9. Banditos: Each time that I see Banditos, it is has been a raucous, almost salacious, affair. It seems as though everyone loves Banditos, and it’s for good reason: they take a simple song, and without overdoing it, they make it into a party. That’s not to mention the outstanding vocals from Mary Beth Richardson, who helps front the band as well as sing on many of their songs. Listen to “Cry Baby Cry” and it’s all evident: a banjo plays in the background of a soul song or “Long Gone Anyway” where a kazoo replaces a harmonica solo; in most songs, the harmonica would be the case. Not with Banditos, though.
8. Callooh! Callay!: One of the quietest releases, yet one of the strongest, from Alabama came from Tuscaloosa’s Callooh! Callay! Their album Talk alone would get them on the list, but if you take into account the fact that Callooh! Callay! sound almost nothing like any other band in Alabama, you have this realization that what they are doing is completely original for this region. Listen to Talk with headphones: it’s layered like few Alabama releases are, intensely so. Callooh! Callay! do this without being noisy or jammy all the while maintaining a distinct Southern identity. The only band that truly compares to them would be Belle Adair, so I’m ready for that tour to roll through town.
7. Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil: Instantly putting Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil in the top ten was their new release Catch the Presidents. Following up their last album, Victims, Enemies, & Old Friends, was going to be hard as great and beloved as it was. What Dailey and his band did was more of the same, which absolutely worked wonders. Catch the Presidents was as good an album as anyone made with wonderful production, arrangement, and instrumentation. Doc’s songwriting and singing are always what first captures audiences, and oft overlooked are Magnolia Devil: a backing band as good as any group of Alabama musicians on their own.
6. Model Citizen: Model Citizen barely make the list due to a lack of shows, but they played just enough to be considered active. Not only that, they somehow managed to find time to release a single, and it sounds like it could’ve been released in the 50′s, for a soundtrack to a horror movie, or from any methed-out hillbilly before or since. Model Citizen are a throwback to old, Tuscaloosa punk n’ roll from the Nineties with the right amounts of Who and Unknown Hinson as influence. If anyone leaves a Model Citizen show and can still hear you talking, they either weren’t there or they hid in the bathroom all night. You wouldn’t blame them, either. Model Citizen rock to the point of scaring everyone. Luckily, they’re still around and playing shows. Keep it up!
5. The Bear: Perhaps the most versatile band in the top ten, what gets them in the upper echelon is the combination of the band’s tools, which are manifold. It makes them have the complete package: the songwriting, the variety, the vocal delivery, and the talent. They can go from swing to pop to folk to jazz in the matter of a few songs (or sometimes within the same one). They combine all these elements without making it sound like a clusterfuck and without overriding any of the senses. It’s amazing, really, how captivating that they are as a band. Watch as they change instruments amongst one another or pick up some things you’ve never seen played during a local, live show. All that would be meaningless without a good song, though. The Bear has those in spades. Take a listen to “I’ve Got a Man,” “Jack and Joan,” or “Dead of Night,” and you’ll see. Not a one is a throwaway.
4. The Pollies: “Song for Carter” could have been Alabama’s song of the year, and Where the Lies Begin would’ve had a definite shot for album of the year had I done either. Both touching and rocking, “Song for Carter” is an exemplar of what the band brings to all their songs and shows: hints of harmonies that are perfectly discernible, the scruffy beauty of lead singer Jay Burges’ voice, the rhythm that swings without overwhelming, the meaningful, melancholy of the lyrics. It’s a flawless tune. Even better, The Pollies, what I would consider to be 20012′s breakout band, have an seemingly endless amount of songs just as good throughout their repertoire. They are a must-see live band, too. Reed Watson plays like a nice cross between Al Jackson, Jr. and Glenn Kotche. While Watson and Chris James hold down the rhythm, it allows Burges’ voice to shine through as well as the melodic additions brought by Matt Green. This is a great band.
3. Alabama Shakes: Breaking one of my few rules, I’m adding the Alabama Shakes to the mix while I still (sort of) can. Assuming they’ll continue to be on their amazing rise, and there’s no reason to think otherwise, they’ll be disqualified from 2013′s best-of list for being too big. Still, the band managed to squeeze in a show at Egan’s at the end of the year while crossing the country for appearances from anywhere from Letterman to Leno, so maybe they’re not too big for the list after all. The fact that they are one of the most sudden explosions to come from Alabama shouldn’t take away from what got them there: such an impressive fluidity for rock n’ soul that it almost seems casual. Most articles on the band focus on singer Brittany Howard, a true powerhouse; however, the real measure of a band of this genre is in its rhythm section. Steve Johnson and Zac Cockrell actually play like Memphis studio musicians from the early Seventies, which is how Howard is able to belt out songs that feel like the same era but with the modern touch. Glad to see their rise, and I can’t wait to see them again.
2. The Dexateens: The Tuscaloosa Get Up!, a show hailed by Ben Flanagan as the best of 2012, was in large part stolen by the Dexateens. If you were there, you know it. That’s not to take anything away from the other two bands who played–if anything, it shows how mind blowing the Dexateens’ set was. Having to be sandwiched between Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires and the Alabama Shakes would push other bands into being the sad background noise for people in line for the bathroom or beer stand. Not the Dexateens. It could’ve been one of their more defining sets in a career full of them. The cards were stacked against them: the Dexateens had to start with Glory Fires’ bassist Justin Colburn due to Matt Patton’s delayed flight (Patton had been touring with the Drive-by Truckers). When Patton took the bass mid-song and flawlessly fell right into the Dexateens’ “Pine Belt Blues,” one of the Dexateens most popular, the crowd erupted. Everyone remembered the only thing missing: Patton, playing an understated but definite grove on the rest of the Dexateens tracks, brought the house down with his emergence. With this show alone, the Dexateens almost look the number one spot of the best band in 2012. A lack of shows, save a fine one in the sweltering Birmingham summer heat and another in Auburn, and a lack of new material kept them locking the top slot. I hope 2013 finds them releasing new stuff.
1. Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires: Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires played explosive set after explosive set, leaving a wake of sweat and ringing ears everywhere they went (and it did seem like they played everywhere). Bains, no lazy bone in his body, played every show with such intensity, it would tire an onlooker just by watching. But no one simply watches a Bains’ set: a person moves, tries to dance, stands as close to the music as possible, and doesn’t mind the crowd that’s gathering. Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires play every show as if it’s their last; they play as if they mean it, and I’m sure that they do: one cannot fake that kind of show night after night. If it was for their live music alone, they could’ve been one of the best bands in Alabama. They didn’t stop there, though. The guys went on to release the best album by an Alabama band this year with There is a Bomb in Gilead, which took the loud, fast songs from their live sets to a sometimes hushed melody, showing their audiences that not only can they play both ways, but the songs can live in two different worlds. That goes to show that Bains is not just a rocker who jumps from drum kit to stage floor, but he is one of the best songwriters of the state. Screaming along at his show doesn’t quite do it justice; one would need to hear the words to realize their perfection. Bains did all this and yet still managed to create both a band and an album that doesn’t quite sound anything like other music he has made with Arkadelphia and the Dexateens. 2012 was the year of Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, and if you saw them live, you knew it.