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 5: Hip-Hop Songs…So Far

In the part of New York State I grew up in, you spent your study halls either googling Eminem lyrics or doodling the American Idiot heart grenade in your notebooks. Or maybe you didn’t care about music at all, but I tried not to talk to those people.

If you read this blog, you could probably guess how I spent my study halls. For better or worse, those musical choices you make in Middle School and High School stick with you, so I wasn’t into hip-hop for a long time.

Besides that fairly arbitrary Midde School choice, I think at the time, the lyrics and music I was hearing in hip-hop just didn’t appeal to me. The oldies station that I listened to in the car with my folks helped me understand songs about girls and driving fast, but it took me about eight years to figure out what Kanye was rhyming “Gold Digger” with. (Honestly.)

Since then, I’ve had a slow but steady rapprochement with hip-hop. I’ve come to this music late, and I’m still doing my homework. I know what I like—soul samples, literate lyrics, a certain degree of difficulty in delivery—but it has taken a long time to narrow it down. So here’s a few cuts from the last 10 years of study. Call it the Miseducation of John Boudreau.

 

1. “Blackalicious,” Reanimation
I heard this song, no joke, on a Sunkist orange soda commercial in like maybe 2007. I was curious enough that I looked it up on the internet, and it since then, this song has been my hip-hop North Star. Like a great chef, Chief Xcel simultaneously served me both new ingredients that I hadn’t tried (breakbeats and scratching) as well as familiar ingredients (horns) in such a way that I able to appreciate the whole dish rather than picking it apart. The lyrics, too, were no less masterful. Gift of Gab’s polysyllabic delivery and awesome rhythmic sense meshed with the jazz songs I was starting to listen to around the same time. And he was funny, too! The lines “Rappers want flames, man I injure these shrimps/skew ‘em on the barb’ with some hickory chips/I’m a level higher than the intermediates” pretty much sealed it for me.

Insofar as I can say anything about the genre being only a casual listener, it’s that if you are into hip-hop and haven’t heard Blackalicious (or have only heard “Alphabet Aerobics”), you might want to remedy that.

 

2. “Crabbuckit,” K-Os

Again, another score for our consumer society: I discovered this song in an American Eagle not too long after that soda commercial (’08 or ’09?). K-Os hooked me with their musicality; I thought it was against the rules for a hip-hop group to play chords or use real instruments. Maybe it was, and K-Os just broke the rules. This time it was the bassline that grabbed me first. Not only was it huge and inescapable, but I loved that it was absolutely played on an upright bass rather than electric or a sample. The sax solo further cemented, it of course—exciting and raunchy, almost as good as Bobby Keys. The beginning to the second verse contained the lyrical syncopation I was looking for as well: “It’s a conniption fit and the microphone’s lit/I take it higher like a bird on a wire retire the fire I never/cause I’m just movin’ on up/choosin to touch the unseen craving the clutch.” Another instant classic.

 

3. “Cut Me Off,” STS

There was a dry spell for a while in the late high school/early college years where I was busy getting into other stuff and scaring myself in the process (experimenting with country, etc.), but the next rapper who really caught me was STS. He’s got plenty of good compositions of his own (“Cliché” is one of the finest satirical hip-hop songs I’ve heard), but this is the one that first impressed me. STS is probably the first rapper who I was able to appreciate just on his lyrical merits alone. His ability to tell a story with humor and insight proved to me that narrative rapping was just as viable as the more stream-of-consciousness lyrics I was familiar with before that. A sample: “My sign’s a Sag/She a Capricorn/We incompatible, and I shoulda known/She put my number in her Blackberry/I use Iphone.” This music video edit is actually the best version of the song—the recorded version has one more verse that totally ruins it. STS just put out a new album with RJD2, which is definitely worth your time.

 

4. “What?,” A Tribe Called Quest

Like I said, I’m still doing my homework, and I slept through most of Hip-Hop History, so my chronology has been completely backwards. That’s why I hadn’t heard A Tribe Called Quest until last year, when my suitemate got out of the shower and blasted “Check the Rhime” as loud as possible from his speakers while dressing. That’s an introduction you can’t ignore. As it has for most people, the second half of The Low-End Theory blew my mind. My favorite track on the album is undoubtedly the koan-like “What?” From the excellent clavinet intro to Q-Tip’s mispronunciation of “gefilte” as “kapelka,” it’s just a fun song. There have been a few times where I’ve been playing it too loud at work, and I have to jump for the volume knob right before “What is a poet all balls and no cock?” and the bit about ménage-a-trois. Freak freak y’all indeed.

 

5. “Feel Right,” Mark Ronson feat. Mystikal

If I was going about this logically, my hip-hop education probably should have begun with a trawl through Mark Ronson’s back catalogue. He is a man who has absolutely done his homework. Before he became the poster child for the mid-2000s retro revival, he was a hot-ticket DJ in both London and New York, which means he knows what sounds best behind an emcee, and what album the groove came from. This is an original beat, but still sounds like he pulled it from dirty ‘60s funk album. Though Mystikal falls into the “crummy human being” category, he’s still a charismatic performer, with a magnetic, brassy timbre and great speed. He also plays with dynamics, which isn’t something I’ve really heard other emcess do. I think the song is so appealing because it’s essentially a funk song—something James Brown would have worked out in an alternate universe. Bruno Mars and the backup singers play Bobby Byrd and the J.B.s to Mystikal’s James Brown. Doing your homework pays off, I guess.