Nick DeRiso’s Best of 2015 (Rock + Pop): Billy Gibbons, Toto, Death Cab for Cutie, Joe Jackson

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The Best of 2015 in rock and pop was sometimes about recapitulation, playing to your strengths.

And so, you had Toto touching on every base in their considerable past — from prog to rock to pop. And Keith Richards finding a great, greasy groove. And Steve Hackett diving headlong into a series of expanded musical landscapes. And Ringo Starr reclaiming solo heights with a little help from his friends.

But not everybody stayed between the lines of expectation.

Billy Gibbons took the basic ZZ Top gumbo and added a splash of Cuban spice. Neal Schon left aside both the pop formulations that have hurtled Journey to the top of the charts and the scorching guitar workouts that populate some of his other solo projects for something more emotional.

Death Cab for Cutie tried to move on without a key member, while Bob Dylan glanced back to the pre-rock era. Joe Jackson and James McMurtry confirmed their disparate, yet still considerable geniuses.

With competition at that level for this Best of 2015 list, figures as legendary as David Gilmour, Iron Maiden and Mark Knopfler were unfortunately relegated to honorable-mention status …

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 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. NEAL SCHON – VORTEX (ROCK): You come in expecting a torrent of guitar – and he certainly delivers – but Vortex also 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. 8. BOB DYLAN – SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT (POP): This Best of 2015 entry 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. 7. 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. 6. KEITH RICHARDS – CROSSEYED HEART (ROOTS ROCK): Mick Jagger gets the headlines, the spotlight, the girls. But listen as his long-time Rolling Stones bandmate moves from the crowing Mick Taylor-era strut of “Trouble” to the creaky folk of “Goodnight Irene” to the shit-kicking lament of “Robbed Blind” to the hard-won revelations of “Amnesia,” and it’s impossible to overestimate what the guy with the pirate’s smile brings to the table. Keith Richards’ first solo album in nearly 25 years was worth the wait, as he rejoined familiar collaborators to fashion his most eclectic mix of songs yet. And, as with his initial solo disc, it might just be the kick in the pants the Rolling Stones need to get back into the studio as a group.

No. 5. 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. 4. JOE JACKSON – FAST FORWARD (POP/ROCK): At 61, many rockers of Joe Jackson’s vintage are settling into the nostalgia circuit, raking in the dollars while playing favorites from yesteryear. Not Joe. Instead, he recorded this reliably eclectic album in four separate cities, with four separate groups of collaborators — a process that shows he intends to live up to this project’s title. Regina Carter, Bill Frisell and Brian Blade contribute to the New York City-based, jazz-inflected tracks. Jackson decamped to Amsterdam for a run at the stand-out track “A Little Smile.” He gets funky (where else?) in New Orleans, with an assist from Galactic. Jackson’s ageless wit, and his delicately conveyed emotion, tie everything together. Only in Germany, where things take a confusing turn into cabaret, does Jackson stumble. By then, however, he’s crafted one of his best albums in ages, so we forgive.

No. 3: DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE – KINTSUGI (POP/ROCK): Death Cab for Cutie returned to the familiar atmospherics of the 2003 breakthrough Transatlanticism on this Best of 2015 entry. 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. 2: 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.

No. 1. BILLY GIBBONS – PERFECTAMUNDO (ROCK): At this late date, you’d think you knew Billy Gibbons — and, certainly, his sound — pretty well. Thus, a solo album (even one with a bulked-up backing band) might have seemed utterly superfluous. And, in truth, even in its best moments, Perfectamundo trades in the currency of a groove any ZZ Top fan knows all too well. But then Gibbons will flood a nasty little Autotuned boogie with these Cuban-inflected rhythms, and those assumptions are blown to pieces. This top Best of 2015 finisher brings in some of his main band’s influences (covering two old blues guys, for instance, including Slim Harpo), even as he brings in thunderstorms of percussion and a winking blend of multi-culti turns of phrase. By bridging these two things, Billy Gibbons made a nearly perfect side project: one that builds outward from the expected into something else entirely.

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WARREN HAYNES – ASHES AND DUST: You know Haynes as a blues-rocking shouter, and an ex-Allman Brothers Band member. Here, he does brilliant things with a bluegrass inflection. … . IRON MAIDEN – BOOK OF SOULS: Composed as a group (rather than the more typical individual) effort and expanded to dizzying song lengths, there’s lot here to thrill die-hard fans but also plenty that challenges their preconceived notions. … MARK KNOPFLER – TRACKER: Knopfler opened up his narrative focus, even as he continued to combine an idiosyncratic, eternally resonant picking style with this intriguingly dark rootsiness. … DAVID GILMOUR – RATTLE THAT LOCK: He finally seems free of the Pink Floyd mantle, and that more modest conceptual format frees Gilmour to explore elements of jazz, found-object sounds, even a waltz. … WHITESNAKE – THE PURPLE ALBUM: David Coverdale makes an argument that shouldn’t really have to be made for Deep Purple’s Mark III and IV eras, as the group began to incorporate more funk into their sound. Pity the rest of his old bandmates couldn’t be there too.

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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