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.

Song of the Week: “Desiree,” Sean Rowe

Click Here to Listen to “Desiree,” by Sean Rowe

You can’t argue that Sean Rowe has one of the most distinctive voices in music today. It is simultaneously mournful, reassuring, and smooth. Also it’s deep. Really deep. His timbre and register make his voice very well suited to the kind of darkly contemplative tunes he normally churns out.

“Desiree,” on his new album Madman, is a little different. Instead of a quiet lament, it’s an up-tempo number with soul leanings. There’s a warm, slightly fuzzy bass part, clean guitar, and the obligatory handclaps. And though it might veer a little close to pastiche, none of this feels put on.

This is, of course, because Rowe’s voice and the mournful lyric keep the song focused. The narrator has reached a complicated point at the end of a relationship—“in my head I say I wish you well/but from my tongue I say/Desiree”—and Rowe delivers it with the melancholy that it deserves.

And it’s this melancholy, juxtaposed with the upbeat instrumentals, that makes the song so clever. Because of his pitch and because of the backing on this track, Rowe echoes generations of smooth soul and R&B singers. Barry White jumps most readily to mind, and I don’t mean that as just a punch line. In this setting, Rowe’s big, deep voice echoes White’s, but Rowe’s depressive lyrics turn White’s formula for saccharine love songs firmly on their head. If White sang songs about the blossoming of a relationship, Rowe is singing about one gone rotten, with a sneering tip of the hat.