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.

Top Ten Songs of 2015: #10-6

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the deluge of year-end “Best Of” lists is upon us, and Vintage Voltage is no different. What follows is the first batch of new music that I loved this year. All of these songs are 100% grass-fed, organic, Grade A rock & roll. We’ll be back next week with the final five, so don’t touch that dial.

This year, rather than the typical YouTube links, I’ve made a Spotify Playlist of these songs. You can find that at the bottom of the page.

  1. Don’t Wanna Fight No More, Alabama Shakes

Four out of five dentists agree: the second album is tough to crush. But according to almost everyone, Alabama Shakes did it. They tastefully updated their neo-soul sound without straying too far from the power of Brittany Howard’s voice or the solid grounding of the band’s rhythm section. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a great example—the whole track is drenched in spectral, haunting echo, but Howard’s painful squeal at the beginning of the song reminds you that however ethereal the band may get, they’ll remain grounded in the world of flesh and blood. And thank God, because we need them here.

 

  1. I’ve Been Failing, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Although it can’t touch “S.O.B” for sheer popularity, this is probably the second strongest cut on the album. It’s a mid-tempo track, but it swings hard on the back of an uncluttered piano figure and some great handclaps. It reminds me of “Soothe Me,” by Sam and Dave, and as a result I dance like a bad Motown* backup singer whenever this song comes on. Rateliff’s vocal is less frantic than in “S.O.B.,” but that actually allows his voice’s character to shine through better. Lyrically, Rateliff is really cornering the market on catchy tunes with emotionally ambiguous lyrics, and it’s difficult to say if this song’s protagonist is happy with where he is. Again, this hints at Rateliff’s depth as a songwriter, and I think will mean that the band weathers the incoming Soul Storm 2016 (of which more next week).

*For the three or four people who just sniffed at my “error,” rest assured I realize Sam and Dave recorded most of their big hits for Stax, not Motown. Now step away from the comment box.

 

  1. Send My Love (To Your New Lover), Adele*

Is anyone immune to Adele? She’s for sure your mom’s favorite, and you can’t blame her. She’s (Adele, not your mom) not the most musically inventive in the world, but Adele enjoys a sort of fan consensus not available to many musical acts these days. As many other critics have pointed out, another act that commands the same mass appeal is Taylor Swift, so it’s no surprise that Adele’s co-writers and producers on this track (Max Martin and Shellback), have penned a bunch of hits for Swift, including “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

I, however, prefer to think of this song as Adele’s own take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Like that song, “Send My Love” starts with a syncopated, funky hook, and builds to a great anthemic chorus with excellent sing-along potential. This should probably be the next single from 25, so liking this song may partly be a self-defense mechanism—because soon no one will be able to escape it.

*You’ll have to imagine this one, because it’s not on Spotify. Sorry about that.

  1. Blacka, Blackalicious

Although Blackalicious’ first album in ten years wasn’t meant to be a sweeping look at the state of American Blackness in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or D’Angelo’s Messiah was, Gift of Gab still makes his own statement of solidarity on this track. It’s a theme he’s addressed before (“Shallow Days,” off Nia leaps to mind), but he shows on “Blacka” that he’s lost none of his creativity. On this track, he compares the positive and negative connotations of blackness, broadly writ, insisting that he is both “darker than the random check of passengers” and “blacker than the President/well, half of him.” Chief Xcel’s production provides a nicely insistent syncopated underpinning, and his work really shines elsewhere on the album (“The Blowup” and others). Gab remains my favorite MC, and it was a treat to hear from him again this year. Fittingly, the track begins and ends with a Lee “Scratch” Perry sample that states, “I am the only man that can cure the world by speaking words.”

 

  1. Strangers, Langhorne Slim

On their new album, Langhorne Slim and the Law manage to capture some of the raucousness of their live show in a more polished, thoughtful package than their previous album, The Way We Move. “Strangers” in particular finds them with a slick, almost over-produced sound that should expose the band to a wider audience. Slim’s voice is still a treat to listen to, crackly and yelpy, while the band has managed to find a place for their banjo rock that doesn’t sound like they’re trying to fit in with a now-expired trend. This single represents a big step forward for the group, not least because at 3:36 it’s one of their longer songs. Even if the vocal hook sounds to me like it’s going to appear on an anti-depressant commercial any day now, it’s still a great tune. Go see these guys live if you can—they’re the real deal.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably saw a lot of these coming, but there’s a couple surprises on tap next week–including a new category: Guilty Pleasure of the Year. See you in a week!

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 5-1

And we’re back! After a week of intensely scientific tabulation involving a horde of lab rats and a rather nifty slide rule, the editorial team here at Vintage Voltage has arrived at the top 5 songs of 2014. These are scientifically proven to be the best songs of the year, guaranteed to induce eargasm by the second chorus.

Ok, not quite.

The fact is, I’m just one guy. I can’t pretend that I listened to everything that came out in the last 365 days (apologies again to FKA twigs), and I don’t really have much of a finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not. But these songs meant a lot to me in the past year. They made me stop and listen really hard, and then hit the replay button. That may not be a very scientific criterion for inclusion, but these songs are my songs, and I hope that maybe they’ll become yours too.

5. Madman, Sean Rowe

There seems to be a few unifying factors going on in this list so far—rootsy guys with beards (cf. Ray LaMontagne), and singers with voices that will give your subwoofer a workout (see the next song by George Ezra). Sean Rowe has a voice I would know anywhere, dark and sweet as red wine. “Madman,” off of his album of the same name, contains a lot of elements that made me like “Desirée” so much: a soul/R&B groove removed from his solo acoustic work, bright, trebley guitars. But mostly for me it’s about that voice. If I could wrap myself in it like a buffalo robe, I would.

4. Budapest, George Ezra

I first heard this song sitting in my friend’s kitchen during the infamous 2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Riots–a story for another time. The song didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but after rediscovering it on the radio a couple months ago, I couldn’t get enough of it. When I first heard it, I thought the song’s vocal hook, the way Ezra stretches out “you” in the chorus, was kind of gimmicky. It is, but now I think it’s ok—especially because Ezra has such a nice voice, sounding like a slightly higher-pitched Sean Rowe (a rosé to Rowe’s claret). But beyond that, the song reminds me of Buddy Holly’s work—simple, not afraid to be a little silly (“be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby”), and relentlessly, criminally catchy. This song dominated my life for about a month after rediscovering it. His album will be released in the US on January 27th. It’s going to be big.

3. Christmas Eve, Nickel Creek

As a set of songs, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line is really satisfying. There’s not a weak moment on the album, and the band sounds wonderful together despite coming back after a long hiatus. I knew all this when I wrote about the album back in April, but now after months of living with this music, there’s a few tracks that float to the top.

“Christmas Eve” is all about expansions and contractions, with the sonic spectrum unfolding into a broad, full sound, and then condensing into simpler elements at the beginning and end of the track. It’s like a series of deep breaths, in and out. And deep breaths are necessary given the sensitive nature of Sean Watkins’ lyric, which resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back in April. The falling-out he describes so frankly has elements that are expressed in the music and vice versa. The confusion and mourning finds expression in small motifs, and Sara Watkin’s violin solo injects a shot of tea & sympathy into the whole arrangement. Nickel Creek isn’t the first band to create such a deft symbiosis between words and music, of course, but I think they were one of the bands that did it best this year. “Christmas Eve” is a song that has followed me and grown with me, and one I’ll always associate with 2014.

Note: Oddly enough, the entire Internet seems not to have the album version of this song available for me to link to. I’ve included a link to an inferior live version. You should try and find the album version on Spotify or something–it’s really worth it. Sorry, gang.

2. Seventeen, Lake Street Dive

I’m in love with this entire band and would take them all out for a nice steak dinner. Lake Street Dive sounds like nothing else out right now that I’m aware of, and not just because of Rachel Price’s sublime voice. They are an unabashedly brainy band, conservatory-educated, and they let it show in songs like “Seventeen.”

Of course, there has always been brainy music out there, as any Rush fan would loudly and insistently tell you. The Lake Street Dive difference, however, is that their musical complexity is accessible and unexpected. “Seventeen” changes tempo three times (!), seamlessly, the bass part mocks the pop/rock standard of only playing roots and fifths, and the drumming is tight tight tight. They also experiment with vocal texture by playing Mike Calabrese’s fuzzy high tenor off of Price’s liquid alto, a contrast which helps spotlight each voice.

They’ve done their homework, too. Sounds are cribbed from Motown, jazz, and the lighter side of rock, lyrics from Tom Petty (the hotel, you’ll note, is in Reseda). In many ways, Lake Street Dive is the ideal Vintage Voltage band, taking old sounds and making them new with great musicianship and a certain reverence.

1. Little Maggie, Robert Plant

So why isn’t Lake Street Dive number one? Well, they almost were. But in the end, although they made old sounds feel new, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space-Shifters managed to make new sounds feel old and comfortable while still being innovative–a far more difficult task.

Anyone could rightly expect Plant to just retire at this point. He’s got plenty of cash and respect, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him–he’s restless in the best sense of the word. For this album, he’s gone for an English folk/West African/blues sound with touches of electronic music. Just let that sink that in. There is no way that should work, but Plant and his band manage to find the commonalities between the styles and fuse them into this captivating blend that doesn’t seem to fully belong to either past or present, to one side of the Atlantic or the other.

“Little Maggie,” though not one of the singles, is the clearest expression of this sound, I think. It’s a traditional folk tune, but there’s pentatonic riffs played by banjo and doubled on a West African instrument called a khalam. The things that sound like fiddle breaks are played on a riti, another African instrument. And then there’s the pulsing synth bass. It’s almost too complicated for me to explain, so just hit the link. It’s like nothing else you’ll hear this year.

I can understand why Plant ripped up the Led Zeppelin reunion contract a month or two ago—while Jimmy Page acts as custodian, Plant is not done growing.

That’s it for another year, y’all. Thanks for reading–hope you found something to make it worthwhile. Best wishes for a safe and happy 2015.

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.