By: Kayne Lanahan (with additional reporting by Peter Robaudo, Anna Chandler, Selah Delacos and Jaime Hernandez in Savannah, GA, Hogan Bryan in Austin, TX and Tandy Fleming in Kingsport, TN)
Caught a ’66 Dodge in Caroline
Got her education on her mama’s dime
She was singing in a bar called Comatose
Halfway rusted on the salty coast
So goes the second verse of “Birmingham”, one of many standout tracks on O’ Be Joyful , the Sophomore album from Charleston’s Shovels and Rope. It’s a song about life on the road; in this case, an autobiographical one that chronicles the five-year journey of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent from singers, to lovers, to band members, to husband and wife. And it’s a song you’ll want to sing at the top of your lungs driving down a two-lane road.
The South has a long musical tradition of life on the road, as well as pride of place, so it’s no surprise that many of the songs on our Best of 2012 list face those subjects head on. When Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards wails “And the sun went down in this little ghost town / Near the valley of the Rio Grande / I need a little bit of whiskey and a little bit of time / To ease my troubled mind”, we can’t help but feel the essence of “Parted Ways” in a uniquely Texas way. Or, when Ben Sollee opens up “Pursuit Of Happiness” with “Riding out past all the places I have a reason to go/ Kentucky hills and fences, fields cleared of their stones”, we are immediately on one of those picture perfect KY roads, surrounded by white picket fences. And then there’s Lee Bains who lets us know without a doubt that “Opelika” is home when he drawls “Baby, 2000 miles east of LA and a thousand south of NYC, that’s where I was born , God willin’ that’s where I’ll die, that’s fine with me”. We love our southern-ness, don’t we? The best of these songs manage to implant these lyrical southern fragments into our brain; they come to define the track for us, make us turn up that dial a little louder and hit “replay” as we round the next bend.
But lest we go too far down the whiskey, dirt roads and long-lost-loves path, rest assured there’s a wide range of music making it’s home in the modern south, from the violin and looping mastery of Norfolk’s Kishi Bashi to the Chamber-Pop wizardry of Gainesville’s Levek. Some of it you’ll know but hopefully, much of it will be new to you. Our list meanders in an out of the blues, southern garage rock, folk, punk, pop, R&B and everything in between. We close it out with “March To The Sea”, a blazing metal anthem from Baroness, whose Sherman-esque title seems particularly appropriate for the Savannah-based band, who released one of the most critically acclaimed metal albums of the year.
What holds all these songs together, despite the geographic boundaries that these bands call home, is a sense of something REAL and SOULFUL, regardless the genre of music. It’s something there’s far too little of in today’s often mediocre mainstream music.
1.“Birmingham” by Shovels and Rope from O’ Be Joyful. (Charleston, SC) This was Shovels and Ropes year. After landing a track in the 2010 season of HBO’s True Blood, the Charleston duo toured relentlessly for two years, won the hearts of all who saw them and released one of the best albums of 2012. This song chronicles the life on the road that got them to today.
2. “I Found You” by Alabama Shakes from Boys & Girls. (Athens, AL) It’s hard to comprehend the amount of fame heaped on this band in the last year. It proves the pent up demand for real, soulful music that manages to hit you in both your heart and your gut at the same time. The band is nominated for three 2013 Grammy awards.
3. “Numb” by Gary Clark, Jr. from Blak And Blu. (Austin, TX) Fans of The Black Keys and the bluesier side of Jimi Hendrix will fall hard for Gary Clark, Jr. who had a break out year in 2012. Blistering. This song will leave you feeling anything but numb!
4. “Am I That Lonely Tonight” by Justin Townes Earle from Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now. JTE can break your heart in one sentence and on his fourth studio album he does just that, on the very first track, in the very first sentence: “Hear my father on the radio singing “Take Me Home Again”/ 300 miles from the Carolina coast and I’m, I’m skin and bones again/Sometimes I wish that I could get away/ Sometimes I wish that he’d just call…“ For the son of Steve Earle, that’s about as personal as it gets. And as good as he’s ever been.
5. “Gospel” by The Whigs. From Enjoy The Company. (Athens, GA). This hook-laden, radio- worthy, joyous track is both the best and most commercial song The Whigs have produced across four albums. Just try playing it only once.
6. “Big Love” by Matthew E. White from Big Inner. (Richmond, VA) One of the most original new sounds we’ve heard in years. Combining gospel, R&B and an infectious, funky 70’s vibe, there’s a level of craft and restraint here that raised this debut effort to the top of many critics lists, our included.
7. “Parted Ways” by Heartless Bastards from Arrow. (Austin, TX) Heartless Bastards originally hail from Cincinnati but relocated to Austin, TX for their fourth album, produced by Brian Eno of Spoon. Erica Wennerstrom is one of the best female guitarists on the planet and her band remains criminally under-recognized. This song is so bruised, you can feel it. Recovering from a break up never sounded so good.
8. “Love Interruption” by Jack White from Blunderbuss. (Nashville, TN) On his debut solo effort, the White Stripes front man proves he’s as comfortable with acoustic and piano driven ballads as with blistering guitar. With his record label, Third Man, and his recording studio both based in the Country capital of the world, White continues to redefine the southern music scene. The album is nominated for Record Of The Year.
9. “ The Pursuit Of Happiness” by Ben Sollee from Half Made Man. (Lexington, KY) Forget everything you know about Ben Sollee. The classically trained Cellist proves that all bets are off as he teams up with Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket for one of best guitar driven songs of the year. If you’ve ever doubted what you do for a living, Sollee reminds us that the pursuit of happiness comes in many forms.
10. “Pool Party” by Ponderosa. From Pool Party. (Atlanta, GA) On their second album, Ponderosa proves they are a force to be reckoned with. You know an album is good when we spend hours debating its’ best song. In the end, it’s the title track that wins. By a hair. Sonic, sweeping and drenched in reverb.
11. “If Not I’ll Just Die”(explicit) by Lambchop from Mr. M. (Nashville, TN) Merge Records’ off kilter Lambchop remain one of those cult bands that you forget how much you love. They are the crazy uncle that you invite to every party. If you could bottle Burt Bacharach, Tom Waits and an orchestra, you might get something that sounds like this song. His most engaging effort since 2008′s “Having a Gibson With Martin Luther King, Jr”.
12. “Bright Whites” by Kishi Bashi from 151A. (Norfolk, VA) If you’ve had your TV on in the last few months, you’ve probably heard this infectious song on the Windows 8 commercial. It’s a completely joyous track filled with a Beatles-esque pop vibe rendered through a thoroughly modern, global lens. K Ishibashi spent years as part of Athens’ collective of Montreal before breaking out on his own this year.
13. “Opelika” by Lee Bains & The Glory Fires from There Is a Bomb In Gilead. (Birmingham, AL) Lee Bains (of the legendary Dexateens) hit it out of the park on a debut album that drips southern-ness from every note. Don’t let the lazy, swampy feel of this standout track fool you. These boys can ROCK.
14. “Time” by Merchandise from Children of Desire. (Tampa, FL). On their sophomore effort, hard-core punk trio Merchandise prove that you can tone things down a notch and still raise the bar. This track is a buoyant pop gem with enough shoe gaze distortion to keep all those Jesus and Mary Chains fans elated.
15. “Desert” by this mountain from Future Ghost. (Johnson City, TN) Bands always hate it when you compare them to other bands but in this case, you need to know this: this mountain sounds like Fleet Foxes, My Morning Jacket and Band of Horses got together and formed a super group in a cabin deep in the Tennessee hills. Our top ‘band to watch’ of 2012 and this track proves why.
16. “Black Mold Grow” by Levek from Look A Little Closer. (Gainesville, FL) David Levesque’s debut album as Levek quietly spits in the face of much of today’s indie rock. It’s so off trend it’s cool. Think 70′s era America reincarnated as a trippy, electronic geek. But don’t let that throw you; this is intricately crafted bedroom folk that reveals itself slowly with each listen.
17. “Look Out Mama” by Hooray For The Riff Raff from Look Out Mama. (New Orleans, LA). Fans of HBO’s Treme may not realize that those people playing music outside of the coffee shop where Sofia Burnette works are a REAL band, but alas, they are~~ and a good one. One that harkens back to purity of sound and simpler times. If you love soulful vocals, fiddle and a slightly off kilter vibe, you’re gonna love this band.
18. “Boreal” by Hundred Waters from Hundred Waters LP. (Gainesville, FL). Hundred Waters is sort of like Bjork meets Sigor Ros on Valium; a band that instantly says come closer, lean in, we have something quietly important to discuss with you. You find yourself holding your breath more than you’d like. With flutes and keys and overlapping female vocals, and a clear foundation in classically training, your admiration begins almost immediately. You can’t imagine this song EVER being played on the radio and you love it all the more because of it.
19. “Sixpack” by Jeff The Brotherhood from Hypnotic Nights. (Nashville, TN). It’s hard to believe that this much music can come out of two people but Jeff The Brotherhood are to southern garage rock what the Black Keys are to the modern blues- a force of nature, and one of the best live acts we’ve seen all year. If this track doesn’t make you want to grab a six-pack and hit the road, nothing will.
20. “March To The Sea” by Baroness from Yellow and Green. (Savannah, GA) For a metal band with legions of die-hard fans, it could be perceived as a risky move, to go, well, a little ‘soft’ on your third album, but it only goes to prove how enormously talented this band is. Don’t let the shimmery intro fool you, this song makes you want to put on your headphones and growl at the top of your lungs. But listen hard, for this a march to the sea of a different sort; one involving a heroin induced suicide that will haunt you long after the fist pumps have subsided.
SPOTLIGHT ON SAVANNAH: TOP 5 NEW SAVANNAH BANDS
We love shining a light on the increasingly robust music scene in our hometown. Here are our top picks for Savannah’s new rising stars. Check back soon for profile articles on each of them.
3. Casket Girls