Nick DeRiso’s Mid-Year Best of 2015 (Pop, Rock + Roots): Toto, Bob Dylan, Neal Schon + others

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It was a time of comebacks, and a time of left turns. It was a time for consolidation, and for experiments. It was a time of welcome retrenchments, and out-of-nowhere surprises. And there’s a long, long way to go.

Thus far, this Mid-Year Best of 2015 list — focusing on pop, rock and roots music — serves to confirm the genius of graying legends like Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Steve Hackett even as it makes room for next-gen figures like James McMurtry and Death Cab for Cutie. The truth is, there’s not much of a thread to hold it all together, save for their winning ability to take the every-day medium of mainstream music and say something resonant.

For Toto, there was a comeback — but one made all the more intriguing by what it didn’t do: Play down to expectations. For Bob Dylan, an artist who has yanked the wheel more often than your average stock-car champion, there was still another.

For Steve Hackett, there was a welcome return to the long-form music making of his best-known work with Genesis, but with enough new wrinkles to make a striking new statement of purpose. For Randy Bachman, a bold move into a muscular power-trio format.

For Ringo Starr, a return to the kind of group camaraderie that always brought out his best self. For Brian Wilson and Death Cab, albums that cried out for that same sense of familial place. For Richard Thompson and James McMurtry, albums that spoke to every strength. For Neal Schon, an instrumental project that succeeded in reframing his legacy.

And yeah, as this Mid-Year Best of 2015 list make clear, somehow it’s only half over.

No. 10: RINGO STARR – POSTCARDS FROM PARADISE (POP/ROCK): After years of touring in various configurations, Ringo Starr has put together more than just the longest-tenured edition of his All-Starr Band. He’s finally rediscovered the kind of camaraderie — personal and musical — that propelled him to stardom in the first place. All of his current group made contributions to Postcards from Paradise, a Mid-Year Best of 2015 album that boasts this fun looseness often missing from Starr’s post-Ringo solo albums. In fact, their songs buoy everything that surrounds them – including, it’s clear, Ringo Starr himself. The ultimate band mate, Starr sounds whole again.

No. 9: BRIAN WILSON – NO PIER PRESSURE (POP): There are too many of-the-moment guest singers, and a whole army of sidemen. But during those times when Brian Wilson steps to the fore, No Pier Pressure shows he’s still got a way with a pop confection. It helps, too, that some of those guests close a circle. “Sail Away,” featuring fellow former Beach Boys members Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, is a lovely new song that reaches for, and almost collects within its grasp, Brian Wilson’s earlier hopes and dreams. “The Right Time,” again with Jardine, does too. Just wish there was more of those guys and less Zooey Deschanel and Kacey Musgraves.

No. 8: RANDY BACHMAN – HEAVY BLUES (ROCK): Heavy blues, indeed. Randy Bachman didn’t soft sell his first album with a group simply called Bachman. The title track, a raucous side featuring Peter Frampton, was powered by an aggressively crunchy, “American Woman”-esque declamation. “Little Girl Lost” was a scroungy groover in the tradition not of Neil Young’s country-swaying Harvest album but of his garage-rattling Crazy Horse projects. Elsewhere, Randy Bachman channels not the Guess Who — with whom he made an early mark before co-founding BTO — but instead the actual Who. It’s that kind of record.

No. 7: RICHARD THOMPSON – STILL (ROOTS): Richard Thompson’s enduring ability to frame heartbreak, to conjure the hurtful silence at the end of a relationship and the angry passions that inevitably follow, gives substance to “Broken Doll.” At the same time, there’s a bit of the reeling drone of Scotland in “Beatnik Walking,” the folky stoicism of Fairport Convention, the lithe jazz of Barney Kessell, and the twinges of sadness from his time with Linda. In other words, every part of Richard Thompson — save for a James Burton-inspired outburst on electric. Don’t worry, the comprehensive, and comprehensively enjoyable Still gets to that, too.

No. 6: STEVE HACKETT – WOLFLIGHT (PROG/ROCK): The sweeping success of Steve Hackett’s Genesis Revisited II project clearly had a direct impact on his first solo album in four years. Constructed between shows, Wolflight had to be tightly focused, and it represents some of his best developed, most intricately conveyed solo work. At the same time, re-engaging with songs from his old band seemed to convince Steve Hackett once more than he has a license to similar kinds of long-form thoughts. All of it makes for his most fully realized album yet, and certainly one of his bravest.

No. 5: NEAL SCHON – VORTEX (ROCK): This Mid-Year Best of 2015 entry promises a torrent of guitar – and certainly delivers – even as it shows another side of Neal Schon. Actually, several. Schon and former Journey bandmate Steve Smith brilliantly tangle throughout Vortex, with Schon boiling while Smith bashes. But “Matador,” for instance, stops its breathless assault for a splash of Spanish guitar, while “Lady M” explores what can only be called a thunderous romanticism. The results are an album that, while it once again underscores his musical brilliance, also feels like one of Neal Schon’s most personal ever.

No. 4: BOB DYLAN – SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (POP): This is — at its foundation — what every great Bob Dylan album has always aspired to, and many of his worst have been sunk by: The opposite of what you thought it would be. Dylan’s willingness to frustrate our desires, to know exactly what is anticipated and to do something else entirely, has made him the most interesting rock star there ever was. With Shadows in the Night, he gives us an album of songbook-era songs, but no big band. A Frank Sinatra tribute, with none of his most familiar songs. A promise of jazz, with Americana instead. In other words, Bob Dylan succeeds here by being Bob Dylan.

No. 3: JAMES McMURTY – COMPLICATED GAME (ROOTS): Somehow, James McMurtry got pegged as a protest singer, the fault of his barking indictment “We Can’t Make It Here” from 2005’s Childish Things and the cuttingly acerbic “Cheney’s Toy” from three years later. Only he was always much more apt to delve into the personal, rather than the political — a narrative balance put back into place on Complicated Game, McMurtry’s first studio effort since 2008’s Just Us Kids. Together with Louisiana swamp-popper C.C. Adcock, they constructed James McMurtry’s most radio-ready sounding album ever, without surrendering his typically incisive tales.

No. 2: DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE – KINTSUGI (POP/ROCK): Death Cab for Cutie returned to the familiar atmospherics of the 2003 breakthrough Transatlanticism. That is to say, there’s a considered, singer-songwriterly attention to detail — and a darker conflict at play. Back then, Death Cab for Cutie dealt with a lost love over an album-length theme, whereas Kintsugi is haunted by the departure of guitarist and producer Chris Walla. Even if he, in fact, participated in these sessions, the knowledge that Walla is gone now make lines like “you cannot outrun a ghost” resonate with painful precision.

No. 1: TOTO – TOTO XIV (POP/ROCK): Every long-hoped-for return from a legacy band brings with it the thorny issue of expectations. They must, alternatively, sound like themselves — and like something brand new. It’s an almost impossible proposition, but one that Toto deftly pulls off on this Mid-Year Best of 2015 charttopper. By so consistently tested themselves, Toto escaped the sense of embalmed valedictory that often surrounds comebacks like this one. Instead, they produced a visceral, entirely present return, one that acknowledges their best moments even as it builds upon them.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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