Top Ten Songs of 2015: #5-1

Welcome back. Below you’ll find my top 5 picks for this year. No one has ever asked me how I evaluate these things, but I’ll tell you anyway. For the top 5, a song has to impress me both lyrically and musically–although the proportions are not always 50/50. I’m looking for durable songs that I can take with me into the new year and beyond.

This year, though, I’m also including a Guilty Pleasure of the Year, which is a song that I enjoyed very much every time I heard it this year, but will happily leave behind me. Will this be a permanent category in Vintage Voltage Year End lists from now on? Great question. I’ll let you know.

Building on last week’s entry, these songs are available as a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page. This playlist now includes all of the songs on both this week’s post and last week’s (again, with the exception of Adele), for uninterrupted listening pleasure. Yee-haw!

 

  1. Whiskey and You, Chris Stapleton

Tim McGraw, the human personification of Miller Lite, recorded agruably the best-known version of this song, but Chris Stapleton, a professional Nashville songwriter, penned it—and dozens of other modern country hits. Stapleton’s album garnered a lot of praise this year, maybe because the idea of a Nashville insider finally recording his own material is a perennially popular story. The album didn’t do much for me, as much as I tried to like it, but Stapleton’s reading of this song is untouchable.
He handles the material as only the songwriter can, starting with a big, seemingly obvious choice: it’s a song about being lonely, so Stapleton recorded it with his voice and his guitar. That’s the entire arrangement. Gone are the background vocals, steel guitar, and all the other noise on McGraw’s version. Streamlining the song makes it far more impactful. Lines like “And I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor/But I’ll be over it by noon/That’s the difference between whiskey and you” should evoke a rueful nod from almost anyone with emotions. Because it has been distilled to its essence, Stapleton’s recording is universal and powerful. I guess that’s the difference between whiskey and Miller Lite.

 

  1. Doin it Right, STS x RJD2

A few months ago I was raving about STS’s lyrical creativity, humor, and narrative skill, and he refined all these qualities on this year’s collaborative album with producer RJD2. “Doin’ It Right” is the most accessible track on the record, and hit everything I like in a hip-hop song. It’s bouncy, hook-filled, and boasts not only a whistle hook but also a brass section. STS pulls off some excellent lyrical contortions: “It’s in the can/sugar man/Leonard, Shane or Ray Robinson/well Goddamn/like Cassius Clay/what’d he say?/shook up the world I’m a bad bad man.” The profane and awkward into, in which the narrator tries unsuccessfully to pick up a girl at his own concert, is quintessential STS. In my (very limited) experience, he’s one of the warmest, most human MCs out there right now—keep an eye on him. Actually, don’t just watch him—go out and buy his record.

 

  1. Crosseyed Heart, Keith Richards

This is probably the least surprising pick on here for anyone who reads the blog, but I couldn’t let Keith’s latest solo album go by without saying something about it. At 1:53, “Crosseyed Heart,” the shortest song on this list, but it feels to me like a complete portrait of the man at this time in his life. There’s a wonderful intimacy to the performance—it’s as if he made this song up for you while you were sitting in his library. For a man whom millions of people have experienced at a remove, this sonic distance is intoxicating. The track also signals, in a way, the final stage of the Apotheosis of Keith. Both he and the Stones have always drawn from American delta and country blues, but rarely have they created something so true. At this point in his career, Keith no longer has to sound authentic. He is the blues god that he looked up to 50 years ago.

 

  1. Sugar, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

I don’t have any Doppler radar to back up this forecast, but I think we should expect a big soul revival moving through in 2016. Between Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (remember last week?), St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and several other bands that follow the “Singer Name and the Noun” formula, a soul storm seems all but imminent. The problem with these revivals, of course, is that so many of the bands sound the same or are too consciously retro-cute. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds—though adhering to naming conventions—put out one of the freshest soul songs this year with “Sugar.” Lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe has great presence and magnetism and reminds me of Nocturnals-era Grace Potter with her delivery. The song’s chorus is easy enough that you can sing it the second time you hear it, and everything is so infectious you can’t help but join. These guys are worthy of a much larger audience than some of their more-popular contemporaries.

 

  1. Young Moses, Josh Ritter

I’ve known about Josh Ritter for some time, but his hushed, contemplative songs never really spoke to me. This year’s album Sermon on The Rocks, however, has turned up the volume loud enough for me to hear him. It sounds like a John Cougar Mellencamp album written by a man with an MFA, and I mean both of those descriptors in their most positive sense. “Young Moses” tells a metaphorical story of a man breaking free of his bonds. In the lyrics, Ritter blends Christian scripture, peyote, and Johnny Appleseed, a mix of religion and folklore that renders the song uniquely American, and I think, timeless. With a different arrangement, I think this song would be equally at home in a New Mexico border town or an Appalachian roots jam.

 

 

GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR: twenty one pilots, Tear in My Heart

Everything about twenty one pilots is ten years too late: their stylized nomenclature, their dyed hair/all black look, and their incredibly infectious punky dance pop. “Tear in My Heart” has a simple hook that velcros itself to your cerebellum and stays there, the way Fall Out Boy’s hits used to. Little wonder that twenty one pilots is currently signed to Fueled By Ramen, the label that at one point housed Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World and still is home to Fun. and Panic! At the Disco. (see what I mean about the stylized names?)

I am also a sucker for audacious songs, and Tyler Joseph is unafraid to write some of the goofiest lyrics I heard all year. He rhymes “armor” with “carver” and “farther,” rages against the DOT, and reveals what perhaps may be the line of the year: “My taste in music is YOUR FACE.”

And none of it matters. It’s still catchy. Just goes to prove, as Joseph accurately observes, “the songs on the radio are OK.”

 

Alright kids, that’s it. Playlist is below (the first four songs are from last week’s post). Thanks for reading this year, and best wishes for a kickin’ 2016. And may I suggest a New Year’s Resolution? Buy more music.

Song of the Week: Jerry Girl, Deaf Pedestrians

Click here to listen to “Jerry Girl,” by Deaf Pedestrians

You know what cakes, onions, and great songs have in common? They all have layers. The best songs allow you to listen to them repeatedly and find something new every time, which I think is part of the appeal of a lot of Phil Spector’s work or the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album. Deaf Pedestrians may not be in quite that league, but they have something that those other groups didn’t: a wickedly dark sense of humor (as if the name wasn’t a tip-off).

“Jerry Girl” is first and foremost a great early 2000’s rock song. Listen to the bass tone on that intro, those perfect harmonics—sounds almost like a doorbell. The band particularly succeeds after the 2:53 mark, when the guitar tone dirties up and the background vocals kick in, pretty much guarenteeing that you’ll be singing along in the car.

Where we get into talk of layers, though, is on the lyrical side of things. Singer Charlton Parker’s 90’s-alternative delivery makes it tricky to understand the lyrics, but this actually works in his favor, as the listener will only decipher bits and pieces each time. There’s obviously some weird stuff going on, as that 30 second long intro makes clear (complete with what sounds like a drunk, pervy Boomhauer).

But it’s only after repeated listens that the song’s narrative emerges. Basically, the main character stalks a coworker—not, I think we can agree, an inherently funny premise—but he’s both thick-headed and so oblivious that it never quite works out: “When you say that you think that I’m a psychopath/do you mean it in the literal sense?/When you say that you wish that you had never met me/Does this mean we can’t be friends?”

That kind of subtle character work is what makes the song a keeper in my book. This was off of the group’s first EP, which is apparently so rare not even the internet has a picture of it. As far as I know, Deaf Pedestrians are still out there, and although subsequent releases still had some wit running through the lyrics, the humor mostly veered towards gross-out misogynist territory—witness their biggest hit “15 Beers Ago.”

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 10-6

There’s nothing I love more than year-end Top 10 lists. Someone at Pitchfork is probably declaring the Top 10 list dead even as I write this, but for the rest of us they’re a great way to catch up on all the music you might have missed this year while you were brushing your teeth or whatever. And because every person will build a different list, they’re also a great opportunity for polite, thought-provoking discussion, or more accurately, a good excuse to defriend someone because FKA twigs’ album didn’t even crack their top 5.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll see some familiar names on here, but there’s also plenty of new faces (spoiler alert: no FKA twigs. Sorry.) We’ll do numbers 10 through 6 tonight, and then return with the final five next week.

10. Back to the Shack, Weezer

I can’t pretend to be more than a casual Weezer fan, and I was introduced to the band at kind of a weird time—right in the “Beverly Hills” era. So “Back to the Shack” doesn’t really succeed in making me nostalgic for 1994, especially because as far as I can tell, it doesn’t sound a hell of a lot like Golden Era Weezer (“Buddy Holly,” “Undone,” etc.). The lyrics are a little cringe-worthy; I think if you have to write a song about how you’re rocking again, you’re likely not.

But damn it if this isn’t a catchy, bouncy tune from the Weez. It’s actually probably most like “Beverly Hills” in that it’s big on pop fun and relatively low on angst. For me, it’s always good to hear a new Weezer song on the radio, because it proves that the power-chord punk-pop that I grew up with is still alive out there somewhere, and Rivers Cuomo et al. are the guardians of the flame.

9. I’m Not the Only One, Sam Smith

Is it too easy to call Sam Smith the male Adele and be done with it? Both Brits sing modern pop that is a distant descendent of Dusty Springfield, and both have heart-stopping, jaw-dropping voices. “I’m Not the Only One” is Smith’s “Rumour Has It,” slightly more up-tempo than the first big single, and similarly about cheating on someone. As Smith hits the chorus, the effortless transition to falsetto along with the word “crazy” calls to mind Cee Lo Green circa Gnarls Barkley. If you don’t like this song, you must be some kind of monster. Which is ok, I guess.

8. Sins of My Youth, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, of all people, deserved a number one album this year. Not necessarily because Hypnotic Eye was the best album of 2014, but because they are an American institution, and in my opinion, kept rock & roll alive when everyone else had left it to rot. “Sins of My Youth” is the quietest moment on the record, a meditation on mistakes made and left forgotten. Texturally, it’s a sonic treat, with beautifully rich tremolo guitars and Steve Ferrone’s dry, close-mic’d drums. It’s a little reminiscent of “Riders on the Storm” in some stray moments but it’s much more accessible, and nowhere near as bloated.

7. My Wrecking Ball, Ryan Adams

I spent a lot of this summer and fall trying to explain to people that I wasn’t talking about 80’s hitmaker Bryan Adams. This is the solid-gold truth, and not a lame attempt at the least creative joke in history.

Ryan Adams has been around for a good long while and is wildly prolific (equal emphasis on “wild” and “prolific”), but there was a three-year gap between his last album and his release this year. “My Wrecking Ball” is one of the songs I liked best off of it, and it’s served as my entry point to the rest of Adams’ catalogue. It’s an alt-country ballad in the best tradition about the death of his grandmother. The first verse, with its implicit comparison between a beat-up car and the narrator is beautifully and starkly heartbreaking.

Also, Adams’ set at Newport Folk this year convinced me that it would be a blast to see him live—it not only rocks super hard, but is also funny and genuine. Listen to it here.

6. Drive-In Movies, Ray LaMontagne

This song finally sold me on Ray LaMontange. His typically powerful voice is turned down here, creating a dusty, breathy sound rather than the full bellow he summons most of the time. Musically, the track is a slick slice of Americana, with steel guitar, acoustic guitars, and an easy-rocking tempo. There’s some definite Byrds-like sparkle to the production as well. Lyrically, it’s a nice vignette of a slightly wayward youth spent sneaking cigarettes and blowing pocket money at the drive-ins. I’m not sure how many drive-ins there are left in the country now, but there was at least two within an hour of where I grew up, and LaMontagne captures them perfectly. I miss those drive-in movies too, Ray.

Album of the Week: Fields, Junip

There are some albums that succeed on the strength of their individual songs, and some that work because they cover you with sound, cocooning you from whatever’s going on outside of your headphones or your stereo. Fields is the latter type of album. Put out in 2011 by Junip, a side project of singer-guitarist Jose Gonzalez, it’s still like nothing else I’ve ever heard. This is a weird album, man.

In a good way. There’s swirling organs, stripped down hip-hop drums, and some surprising harmonic stuff going on, all filtered through sort of a low-fi electronica filter. It sounds almost like something a heavily spaced-out Black Keys would have made circa Brothers if somebody thrust synthesizers into their hands, but that’s not really fair to either party, though it does give an idea of the grimy analog production.

You can almost hear the comparison, though, on songs like “Howl,” which harnesses a simple driving drumbeat and percussive guitar elements to drive it through its 3:36 length. There’s definitely a rock & roll rhythmic sensibility to a lot of the songs here—keep it simple, keep it repetitive, keep it driving forward.

Jose Gonzalez, though, doesn’t really have a rock & roll voice. He’s a naturally sweet singer who manages to imbue any lyric he delivers with an undercurrent of hope. Most of the lyrics on this album, though, don’t really work in a narrative mode and aren’t very structured. They’re more like mantras or chants, repeated over and over again and placed pretty low in the mix. I don’t think you’re supposed to catch every word, and anyway Gonzalez’s lackadaisical approach to diction makes that a challenge. For example, I thought they lyric in the latter half of “To The Grain” was “when I saw blood” for a really long time—it’s actually “when eyes are shut.” The overall effect, though, is that you stop listening for the lyrics and start listening to them—that is, you stop trying to follow what the singer is saying and listen to the notes he’s singing. The lyrics become just another melodic element in the song.

The songs on the album seem to be constructed in such a way that they resist traditional dissection. They’re densely layered with such a variety of keyboards, acoustic guitar, synth bass, and various electronic elements that it can be difficult to tease out particular parts. When you do follow, say, an acoustic guitar part all the way through a song, it turns out to be relatively simple and unchanging. Like a great dish, the finished product is something much greater than the individual ingredients. In music as in cooking, balance is key, and the songs maintain a nice ratio of electronic to acoustic sounds—the dry drums and acoustic guitar balance out the wetter, softer sounds of the keyboards and various synthesized flourishes.

When all this comes together on a cut like “Rope & Summit,” the end product is just so cool. It’s lean and menacing, like gathering storm clouds. The propulsive rhythm and looped vocals also make it a great driving song, something you can drum along to on the steering wheel as you hum down the interstate.

I almost never listen to individual songs from this album, though. Like most of the records I put on here, in order for the magic to work, you have to experience it in one sitting, like a movie. Unlike a movie, you don’t have to remain stationary while you absorb it—I put this album on when I need to be productive or when I want to add a little extra oomph to whatever mundane task I’m completing. For those willing to make the 45-minute commitment, Fields offers a potent dose of atmosphere, image, and feeling—musical escapism at its finest.

Album of the Week: Nimrod, Green Day

As a millennial, I have to confess to a love for pop-punk, and for Green Day in particular. Like many people my age, I came to them because American Idiot was released right at that crucial middle school stage in my musical development, and it blew my mind—never had I heard the f-word so many times on an album, and never had I heard music played with such intensity and attitude.

American Idiot is still a good and important album, and I’ll defend it to the death despite the hipster backlash (yes, even in my middle school), But it’s not my favorite by Green Day. Enter Nimrod.

Recorded in 1997, Nimrod has the seeds of the band that would mature into American Idiot-era Green Day. Here, the band largely shed the more repetitive three-chord Hüsker Dü-influenced grind of their previous albums for a sound that’s more diverse, more literate, and more exciting.

I suppose the inevitable illustration here is the mega-hit “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” which is now ubiquitous enough to have both a Muzak and a Glee version. But it’s a nice case in point—a stripped-back acoustic ballad with a string section isn’t the type of thing that most people think Green Day is capable of. It’s a far cry from “Basket Case.”

Despite the overwhelming presence of “Good Riddance,” there’s stylistic diversity all over this album. Take the song directly preceding it, “King For A Day,” which is a ska song about experimenting with drag and includes a middle eight dominated by muted trumpets (at 1:41).

But a lot of the innovation on the album is a little muted. New textures crop up even in classic power-chord slammers, like the gypsy-tinged violin on “Hitchin’ A Ride,” or the surprisingly deft harmonica playing on “Walking Alone.” These experiments with instrumentation rather than genre pastiche strengthen the songs in a way that no amount of guitar solos or shout-along choruses could.

This musical maturity thankfully doesn’t dominate the whole album, and some of my favorite tracks on the record are the ones where Green Day is at its most juvenile. “The Grouch’s” profane chorus and bitter take on aging (“I was a young boy that had big plans/now I’m just another shitty old man”) always puts a smile on my face, particularly when I’m feeling contrary. “Jinx” is Green Day distilled into a 2:13 package, with big guitars and lyrics about messing up again and again, and I don’t think it’s any accident that the end of the track fades into the start of my favorite track on the album—and one of my favorite Green Day song of all time—“Haushinka.”

Perhaps it’s the contrast with the straightforward “Jinx,” that makes “Haushinka” sound rich, layered, and complex. It’s also—dare I say—anthemic, with its rubato opening before it locks down into the normal chugging guitars. Drummer Tré Cool puts in a particularly good performance here—he’s in the pocket, and his syncopated drum fills add a nice variety to the song when the guitar gets a little repetitive. It’s here that Green Day sounds at their most fully developed and most fully realized—a nuanced sound that doesn’t sacrifice their bombast or their intensity but employs something a little more than your run-of-the-mill punk-pop power trio.

For better or for worse, Nimrod was the start of something new for Green Day. It’s at times an inconsistent album, but the slightly scatter-shot quality is what makes it an interesting listen. It’s the sound of a band experimenting, trying to get the sound in their heads onto a disc, and it’s an exciting process to hear.

Album of the Week: Two Shoes, The Cat Empire

Cat-Empire_Two-ShoesThere’s two sides to this album. I know that sounds a little obvious, but that’s not really what I mean. Yes, there’s an A-side and a B-side, but there’s also two currents at work throughout the whole recording.

Two Shoes is both an accessible album of fun, upbeat songs and a display of intensely literate musicianship with a remarkable variety of influences. It’s this duality, this push and pull, that keeps me coming back to this album. The best way to understand this dynamic might be just to listen right away to track 8, “Party Started,” and then track 7, “Sol y Sombra.” I know, I know, it’s out of order, but bear with me.

“Party Started,” is a song about, well, getting a party started. It begins with a turntable solo—yes, really—about eighteen seconds of a man going “wicky-wicky” with a record. Though if that’s all you hear there, you’re already missing something. Jamshid Khadiwhala isn’t just making noise. There’s phrasing, pitch, note choices. I didn’t even know you could do that before I listened to this album.

But don’t take it too seriously right now. You can’t. This song samples Olive Oyl, for God’s sake—listen for her going “Bluto!” every now and then. There’s that great underlying electric piano line throughout the whole thing, and then in place of verse three, singer and trumpet player Harry James Angus raps. Here’s a lyrical sample: “Chillin’ at the club, pimpin’ with my money/Well, actually, my parties are more like/Chillin’ in the sun with tea and milk and honey.” The last verse is mostly spelling. For sheer musical variety, you can’t beat it—every second brings something surprising and fun, and that sheer variety keeps it playful.

Now “Sol y Sombra.” It’s a six-minute long jazz song, and a complete left turn from what you just heard. It’s got a Latin groove with polyrhythmic percussion, and the piano solo break at 2:11 veers quickly into hard jazz territory, as Ollie McGill jumps out and back into the song’s harmonic structure repeatedly around 2:40. There’s a Latin horn section with clave patterns in the rhythm section at 4:40. This isn’t easy stuff, and certainly not what I would expect from people who were just advising me on the last song that they will “extend their alliance to anyone who likes to just sit back and chitchat/maybe have a jam, spit scats and eat biscuits.”

The disc's back cover. The US version of the album subs in "The Chariot" for "Misère" (track 6)

The disc’s back cover. The US version of the album subs in “The Chariot” for “Misèrere” (track 6)

I mean, come on. Isn’t that cool?

If my music nerd argument hasn’t convinced you, let me try a purely emotional one. Next, cue up “Sly,” “Two Shoes,” and then “The Car Song.”

When the brass kicks in on “Sly” at 0:09, I can’t help but smile as it crescendos. I can’t help smile either at the nonsense lyrics that Harry Angus sings at 1:16. I can’t help but smile when vocalist Felix Reibl asks me politely to “do the monkey shuffle/rock it with a funk stride/do the late checkout with the do not disturb sign outside.” When I get done listening to this song, my face is sore—it’s joyful noise in the purest sense of the term.

“The Car Song” sounds best on a sunny day, especially if you’re feeling a little crappy about the direction your life is headed in. Lyrically, it’s a reminder to live in the moment the best that you can, with an eye towards a bright future. I really didn’t like Harry’s voice the first time I heard it, so give it a couple listens to grow on you. There’s very subtle phrasing going on there, just like when he plays trumpet, and he doesn’t let the actual words get in the way of the flow of sound. The real beauty, though, is that he sounds entirely like himself. He’s not trying to change anything about his tone to fit someone else’s definition of a good voice. He just lets it go. And then there’s that breakdown at the 3:00 mark. Lethal.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t like “Two Shoes.” If you don’t, that’s just fine, but there’s something about the Pink Panther-esque intro and the singalong chorus that’s tough not to like. I can’t really explain it. Can you?

Phew, ok. I’ll try my best to stop gushing for a moment about the incredible depth, humor, and sophistication of the songs to praise the album on a slightly more cohesive level.

Two Shoes was the band’s second full-length album. For many bands, the second record is the toughest one to make. “You have your whole life to make your first album,” the saying goes, but only about two years max to repeat the phenomenon, and many band’s second albums never live up to their first. In this case, though, Two Shoes actually surpasses The Cat Empire. It is a more literate, more polished record, as well as a more focused one—the group’s slightly schizophrenic stylistic tendencies on their first album (which includes, honestly, a klezmer song) are here harnessed and streamlined to reflect the band’s surroundings in Havana, where they recorded the album.

And you can hear it—the Latin rhythmic complexity is there, as is the wonderfully warm horn section. Despite the fact that it was made in the same room where the Buena Vista Social Club recorded, it’s by no means a record of Cuban music. This is what’s supposed to happen when you make a record on location—the sounds that surround you should slip into the songs without overwhelming them, the same way you would substitute local spices into a dish you’d been making for years. It’s the same phenomenon that happens on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and it’s a really tricky thing to do well. The Rolling Stones’ Goat Head Soup, for example, was recorded in Jamaica, but sounds like it could have been cut in West Sussex.

Like the Stones, though, The Cat Empire can’t sound like anything but themselves. They have a stylistic blend and a group dynamic that can’t be replicated. Much like with Chris Thile and Michael Daves’ album, though, the true defining element isn’t in the music at all, but in the way the group plays it. They sound happy, excited and focused—the best versions of themselves. More than anything else, that’s what this album is about. It’s about celebrating the best version of yourself, whatever that may be. Nobody’s perfect, The Cat Empire says, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate it.

Song of the Week: The Crowd, The Cat Empire

This post originally appeared on Turntablr, the conceptual inspiration for Vintage Voltage

Click here to listen to “The Crowd,” by the Cat Empire

I used to not like this song at all. With a group like The Cat Empire, however, it’s only a matter of time before you like everything they do. “The  Crowd,” off of 2003’s The Cat Empire, snuck up on me until two days ago I realized I loved it.

Harry Angus’s vocal delivery is not for everyone, but he serves as a counterpoint to Felix Reibl’s (the band’s other lead singer) fluid and suave lyricism. Perhaps Harry’s lackadaisical approach to singing is why I like his voice a little more than Felix’s—he just sounds more relaxed.

Much like Van Morrison, Harry is continually tinkering with his phrasing. Accents and stresses change constantly, and the lyrics themselves are brilliant: “But life is curved not angular/so when things start to strangle ya/remember rain still falls on the halls of power/new babies being born every hour.” He also gets points for the Ezra Pound reference–not really someone you expect to find name-checked in a pop tune.

The groove is laid back and blissed-out. Ollie McGill’s electric piano intro makes the song sound almost like a musical hangover until 3:35, when the track breaks into a huge bridge. After that, it’s a feel-good explosion of noise that surges under a message of compassion (“Let me mingle with the good people we meet”).

If you like the Cat Empire, this is a great track that you may have overlooked. If you don’t like the Cat Empire, go check out the entire Two Shoes album. If you still don’t like them after that, go see a doctor.