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.

Album of the Week: A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek

It’s no secret that I like mandolinist extraordinaire Chris Thile. Until recently, though, I had only experienced him in a few limited contexts—like the excellent trad bluegrass album Sleep With One Eye Open. Some of his more experimental stuff, though, like Goat Rodeo Sessions or even the Punch Brothers, is a little too avant-garde for me.

I knew that Thile first got his start in a band called Nickel Creek, but it wasn’t until their new album A Dotted Line came out a few days ago that I really bothered to dig in.

The first thing you’ll learn about this album if you read anything about it is that it’s the band’s first record in nine years. This isn’t surprising given that as far as I can tell, Nickel Creek was (pardon this pun) disbanded in 2007 while the three members—Thile, along with fiddle player Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins—played in other projects and groups.

Critics generally lump Nickel Creek into the bluegrass genre, but in comparison to Sleep With One Eye Open, there’s very few of the genre’s touchstones present here. The songs are harmonically complex, played at moderate tempos, and lack the piercing vocalizations that spring to mind when the word “bluegrass” gets bandied about. Yet there’s something in the album’s acoustic instrumentation, the rich multi-part harmonies, and Eric Valentine’s clean and unobtrusive production that makes the album’s heritage apparent. You can tell what type of music they were raised on.

This tension between old and new is apparent in the first half minute of “Rest of My Life.” The opening guitar riff owes as much to American roots music reinterpreted through the Rolling Stones (cf. “Sweet Virginia” or “Sweet Black Angel”) as it does to Scruggs and Flatt. The harmonies appreciably flesh out the sound, but the cello chops during the bridge at 1:58 are more Goat Rodeo Sessions/Punch Brothers than trad bluegrass—although they evokes the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” as well.

Sean Watkins sings the two strongest songs on the album: the exquisite “Christmas Eve” and the joyful “21st of May.” “Christmas Eve”’s interval jumps in the melody probably make it a demanding song to sing, but Watkins handles them effortlessly enough that the listener can focus on his mournful longing rather than his technique. The chord progression is also consistently surprising, and moves in directions far beyond typically simple bluegrass patterns. It’s a well-crafted song that feels much longer—in a good way—than its 4:23 run time.

“21st of May” is just about as traditional as it gets on this album, with a undulating mandolin/guitar riff, and quaintly Evangelical lyrics. “They laughed when Noah built his boat/then cried when came the rain/and they mock me now but I will float/on the 21st of May” is hands-down my favorite chorus, again because of Watkin’s sincere delivery. He’s an empathetic vocalist and a clean guitar picker too—just listen to that riff.

Thile rivals Watkin’s for heartbreaking vocals on “Love of Mine,” but his most important contributions seem to be compositional rather than performed. He’s not slacking, but neither is he stealing the spotlight, as he tends to—consciously or not—with his other projects. This is actually really refreshing, particularly in light of Thile’s significantly higher profile than the Watkins siblings. Here, he’s the mandolin player in Nickel Creek, and not Chris Thile, MacArthur award winner and savior of mankind. His musical fingerprints are all over the songs, though, and I can’t help but think the tense reading of Mother Mother’s “Hayloft” was Thile’s idea.

Sara Watkins’ fiddle provides a strong voice on the album’s two instrumentals, “Elsie” and “Elephant in the Corn.” She has a warm, rounded tone, and favors gilding lines over choppy ones. She’s equally adept at playing counterpoint when the other instruments have the melody, an essential skill for any violinist to learn, as the instrument doesn’t lend itself particularly well to rhythm playing. Her singing sounds like an extension of her violin playing, though on this album her brother is the stronger vocalist.

I think A Dotted Line’s strength lies in its accessibility. A listener can jump into the album at any point and immediately have a sense of what’s going on, while more experienced ears will marvel at the songs’ complexity and depth. I have to confess that I bought this album on a bit of a whim, and was pleasantly surprised by it. Although really, I shouldn’t have been. After more than 20 years working together, one Grammy and multiple nominations, I should have know (to paraphrase the oddly prescient Smucker’s corporation), “with a name like Nickel Creek, it has to be good.”