Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins have performed together as Nickel Creek for more than 30 years. The trio first met in 1989 in Southern California and released six albums between 1993 and 2014, though the first two are out of print and not available on streaming services. They took an extended hiatus in 2007 before returning with a new album and tour in 2014. The trio also regularly performed on NPR's Live From Here, which Thile hosted until the radio series ended in 2020. Most recently, they reunited for Nickel Stream: A Livecreek Experience, a series of live performances available to stream online in early 2021.
While each Nickel Creek member remain occupied with other projects, the original band is always a place they'll return. In addition to Live From Here, Thile is a founding member of Punch Brothers, with whom he still performs alongside Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowart. Their band has released six full length albums and two EPs, including their most recent record Hell on Church Street, which dropped on Jan. 14, 2022. Sara Watkins and her brother Sean regularly perform solo and as The Watkins Family, and they're regularly joined by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Sara also formed I'm With Her in 2018, where she played alongside Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O'Donovan. As a solo artist, Sean Watkins has release six full length albums.
The trio stays pretty busy, even when they're apart. Their careers really took off when Alison Krauss produced their eponymous 2000 album that earned multiple Grammy nominations. Their catalog is an eclectic mix of traditional bluegrass instrumentals, genre-bending originals that can fit on country or pop radio and bluegrass cover versions of other artists. Notably, the band covered Pavement's "Spit on a Stranger" on 2002's This Side and Mother Mother's "Hayloft" on 2014's A Dotted Line. For this list, we'll focus on the first two and exclude the covers.
Here are The Boot's picks for Nickel Creek's top 10 best songs, so far:
"Helena"From: 'Why Should the Fire Die?' (2005)
Most of Thile's songs are filled with self-loathing, heartbreak and tragedy. This one is a lot of the first. In "Helena," the narrator womanizes while simultaneously wanting to be alone.
"You are good Helena / Guys like me never sleep alone at night / I don't need your sympathy / Cause I'll always be / Just fine / Yeah I'll always be / Just fine"
"When in Rome"From: 'Why Should the Fire Dire?' (2005)
Penned by Thile, "When in Rome" is about "burning it all down," and instrumentally matches its lyrical themes more than most of the trio's other tracks.
"Destination"From: 'A Dotted Line' (2014)
A breakup song featuring Sara on lead vocals, "Destination" is centered on the type of relationship that people often hurry back to as soon as another one fails. But this time, the narrator is determined to move on for good.
"I've got to make a destination / Find a place I'll be loved / This time I've got no hesitation / And I'll be moving on"
"21st of May"From: 'A Dotted Line' (2014)
Sean Watkins wrote this one from the perspective of Harold Camping, a California preacher that forecast the world's end for May 21, 2011. In "21st of May," he approaches the narrator's cries with a heavy dose of cynicism.
"They laughed when Noah built his boat / Then cried when came the rain / They mock me now but I will float / On the 21st of May"
"The Lighthouse's Tale"From: 'Nickel Creek' (2000)
This is arguably Thile's darkest song, with an accompaniment and tone that makes it seem like a much happier love story than what it is in reality. The story is told from the perspective of a lighthouse that watched its keeper find and eventually lose his soon-to-be wife to the sea.
"I saw him crying / Watched as he buried her in the sand / And then he climbed my tower / And off the edge of me he ran"
"You Don't Know What's Going On"From: 'A Dotted Line' (2014)
"You Don't Know What's Going On" is centered around a codependent relationship in which the narrator believes that he has been wronged, even though he should have seen it coming. But when he finally finds a new relationship, he immediately demands that his partner carry the weight of relationship, repeating a toxic cycle.
"I just know that I tried and I tried and I'll try for you / If you want me to/If you can be the girl who / Believes in me / Who believes I can turn it around / Who keeps bailing out the water while the ship goes down / Who keeps calling my name when we're starting to drown"
"Ode to a Butterfly"From: 'Nickel Creek' (2000)
"Ode to a Butterfly" is the instrumental track that introduced Nickel Creek to a mainstream audience. It's an up-tempo, traditional bluegrass jam session that allows each member to shine -- Thile on mandolin, Sara Watkins on fiddle and Sean Watkins on guitar. When the track and album debuted, Thile and Sara Watkins were still just teenagers.
"Beauty and the Mess"From: 'This Side' (2002)
"Beauty and the Mess" is a metaphor built on the music business and likely inspired by events from Nickel Creek's own career. Sara handles lead vocals here, but she bounces the refrain off of Thile.
"Behind the melody, the words don't mean a thing / But every tone I play will give whatever I've not said away"
"This Side"From: 'This Side' (2002)
In this Sean Watkins-fronted song, the narrator explains how they are afraid of change. Slowly, a new way of life begins to feel more familiar and becomes easier to embrace as time moves on.
"It's foreign on this side / But it feels like I'm home again / There's no place to hide / But I don't think I'm scared"
"Smoothie Song"From: 'This Side' (2002)
"Smoothie Song" served as the lead track from the 2002 album This Side. During a concert recorded for their album Live at the Fox Theater, Thile joked on stage about how difficult it is to name instrumental tracks, since there are no lyrical phrases to reference, a conundrum that led to this track's unique title.