Boys & Girls, the debut album by Flavorpill faves Alabama Shakes, is out today. The band’s rise to prominence has been one of the more heartening stories of 2012, and not only because their music is great and entirely deserving of all the acclaim that’s been showered upon it. No, we’re also delighted to see Alabama Shakes somehow achieving full music industry buzzband status, with their decidedly un-hip rock ‘n’ soul sounds turning up in the most unlikely places (like MTV’s Buzzworthy blog). They join the ranks of similarly incongruous buzzbands from over the years, musicians who’ve ridden a wave of hype despite being unfashionable, unmarketable or just plain unlikely candidates for success. We’ve selected some other such bands after the jump — who did we miss?
So, does anyone remember Lana Del Rey? Her 2012 buzzband thunder has been stolen by the unlikeliest of competitors — four unassuming musicians from Athens, Alabama, who are basically the antithesis of She Who Shall Not Be Named. There’s been plenty written about Alabama Shakes already over the last couple of months, both here and elsewhere — so we’ll just settle for saying that their success delights us, both because we love their music, and because we love the fact that such an unlikely buzzband can thrive in 2012.
In a similar vein, Fleet Foxes stand out like the proverbial sore thumb in the roll call of 2008 buzzbands (which also included the likes of Chairlift, Passion Pit, and Memory Tapes). The contrast couldn’t have been more stark — on the one hand, a slew of laptop-wielding pop types, and on the other, five crusty alt-folk types inspired by the Beach Boys and Neil Young, who sang five-part harmonies and played, like, real instruments. Fleet Foxes themselves seemed just as bewildered by the whole thing as everyone else — as J. Tillman told Pitchfork in 2008, “It’s strange to play a show where before you even play a note, people are like, ‘You’re awesome!'”
The old joke about overnight success taking years could have been written for Ariel Pink and his Haunted Graffiti. They went relatively mainstream with 2010’s Before Today, but their buzzband status was predated by a decade of genuine weirdness — by the time he hit it big, Pink was largely resigned to the fact that everyone hated him. And then, suddenly, everyone loved him. It’s a strange and fickle place, the music industry.
Yes, this seems counter-intuitive in 2012, given that LCD Soundsystem have pretty much defined the term “buzzband” over the last few years, but let’s set aside the degree of success James Murphy et al ended up attaining and just consider the facts. A middle-aged punk rock survivor and former sound engineer has an ecstasy-catalyzed musical epiphany, founds a record label, and records a single that laments his own lack of relevance. Ten years later, he’s selling out Madison Square Garden for his farewell show. Not a bad decade’s work, eh?
There’s a great essay in the liner notes of best-of compilation Death to the Pixies that discusses the impact that the Pixies had when they first emerged into half-empty Boston clubs that had never seen anything like them. As with LCD, it’s difficult to separate the band from the history that came afterwards, but if you consider the musical landscape of 1987 (the tail end of synthpop, The Joshua Tree, Terence Trent D’Arby, Gloria fucking Estefan) it becomes clear just how strange it is that a dysfunctional college band fronted by a rotund and decidedly unphotogenic man screaming in Spanish about the Bible and aliens somehow ended up as the hottest indie property of the year.
As far as we’re concerned, Jamie Stewart’s short-lived early-2000s buzzband status goes to show that the sort of people who are given to feverishly hyping bands are also the sort of people who don’t actually listen to such bands. Don’t get us wrong here — we love Xiu Xiu — but honestly, did anyone think yelping high-pitched angst anthems about AIDS, self-hatred, and having your head cut open with a roofing shingle were going to conquer the world?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have 2011’s indie-acceptable hip-hop bro. Drake’s buzzband status is just as weird as his career arc in general — he’s from Canada, he’s about as gangsta as a lemon cupcake (he was on Degrassi, for Chrissakes), and his music only seems to grow more despondent as the years pass and his success snowballs. Why so sad, Drake?
For a brief period in the late ’00s, Hertfordshire punk band Gallows were the hottest property in music. Their debut album Orchestra of Wolves was lauded by journalists who’d never normally listen to such a band — Gallows made the sort of nasty, uncompromising hardcore that was never, ever gonna get played on the radio — and were the subject of a bidding war by major labels who’d never countenance releasing such music. Eventually, Warner Bros won the war and signed the band to a £1m contract. Gallows duly delivered Grey Britain, an album of nasty, uncompromising hardcore that was never, ever gonna get played on the radio. They were dropped from Warner shortly afterward. And the record industry wonders why it’s going under.
As with LCD Soundsystem, it seems strange to reflect on Animal Collective’s buzzband status, considering that they’ll most likely be remembered as the quintessential 2000s buzzband — after all, they’re basically the reason that Hipster Runoff even exists. But again, if you strip away what’s come afterward, you’re left with four gawky, wide-eyed college kids taking a bunch of acid and releasing albums of strange improvised synth music into a music industry dominated by The Strokes and innumerable other bands full of dudes with guitars. It wasn’t exactly a sure-fire road to success, is all we’re saying.
And finally, the most unlikely success story of them all. When Nirvana made Bleach in December 1988, they were like any number of other regional punk rock bands in the US, based in a town far from the bright lights of LA and NYC, making music for themselves and a small circle of local sympathizers. The possibility of actually making money out of selling records in a world ruled by Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe wasn’t so much remote as non-existent. Three years later, they were the biggest band in the cosmos, Kurt Cobain was getting called “the voice of a generation,” and the musical world would never be the same again. It’s no wonder Cobain found it all overwhelming — even now, the grunge explosion remains the unlikeliest of “success” stories.