2015: Better Late Than Never

The Best Of 2015

by Jason Warburg

“Underwhelming” is the word I would have used to describe 2015 musically if you’d asked me in July. My potential “Best Of” list was looking thin until late in the game, when I suddenly found myself locked in a months-long highlight reel populated by Gary Clark, Jr., Perfect Beings, Butchers Blind, and an abrupt, admittedly tardy infatuation with My Morning Jacket. That’s the thing about music; if you don’t care for what you’re hearing right now, just wait. More is on the way.


Citizen Of The Year Award

Prog singer-songwriter / multi-instrumentalist / producer Billy Sherwood took on an impossible task this year, replacing a man—his mentor and friend Chris Squire of Yes—who can’t be replaced, and did it with such grace and skill and courage and humility that you just wanted to hug the guy. He also released a very good solo album called Citizen featuring his friend’s final recorded performance along with a parade of other A-list guests, and granted the DV a second frank and insightful interview.

Highlights: “Citizen” (with Chris Squire and Tony Kaye), “Just Galileo And Me” (with Colin Moulding), “No Man’s Land” (with Steve Morse), “The Great Depression” (with Rick Wakeman)


Late To The Party (Again) Award

My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall

It only took me 16 years—and a single song played on Late Night With Stephen Colbert in November, this album’s “Tropics (Erase Traces)”—to realize that I should maybe, possibly check out My Morning Jacket sometime. (I know, I know. Kinda pathetic. But I have a history of this.) In any case, The Waterfall is a wonderfully dreamy album of Wilco-meets-Prince fractured Americana, full of cotton-candy melodies wafting through elliptical, enigmatic, often surprisingly soulful songs that are sometimes about things and sometimes not, but invariably warm and clever and full of mystery. Clearly, MMJ and I will be continuing this conversation in 2016.

: “Believe (Nobody Knows),” “Thin Line,” “Tropics (Erase Traces)”


Haven’t Lost A Step Yet (And Maybe Won’t Ever) Award

Death Cab For Cutie – Kintsugi

After 16 years and seven albums, frontman Ben Gibbard’s divorce from Zooey Deschanel, and the departure during the making of this album of co-founder/guitarist/producer Chris Walla, you could be forgiven for having modest expectations for Death Cab For Cutie’s Kintsugi. Despite all of the above, however, the now-trio’s 2015 release reveals a band either impervious to, or perhaps even energized by, turmoil. From edgy yet supple break-up songs (“No Room In Frame,” “Little Wanderer”) to haunted anthems rich with longing (“The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive,” “You’ve Haunted Me All Of My Life”), Kintsugi presents a veteran band that’s clearly still in its prime.

: “No Room In Frame,” “Black Sun,” “The Ghosts Of Beverly Drive,” “Little Wanderer”


Album Of The Year

Gary Clark Jr. – The Story Of Sunny Boy Slim

In the past, it’s sometimes seemed like Gary Clark Jr. was trying to be all of his influences at once. He’d veer from track to track between soloing with Hendrix-like abandon and crooning like Smokey Robinson, spouting urban street poetry like Gil Scott-Heron or delivering stinging blues licks like Albert King. For all the musical heights he scaled on albums like Blak And Blu—one of the best albums of 2012—if you wanted to criticize anything, you might have said that, as a songwriter and arranger, he could sometimes seem a little unfocused. Not this time. The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim is a cohesive musical statement constructed around sturdy beams of classic soul and deep blues, whose rock, folk, hip-hop and gospel influences function as accents rather than competing visions. Vital and exceptional in every way, “This is what albums are for; this why they still matter.”

: “The Healing,” “Our Love,” “Hold On,” “Stay”


Indie EP Of The Year

Butchers Blind – A Place In America

The most ambitious and accomplished set of tunes yet from Butchers Blind, this EP’s only real flaw is that it’s over too soon; you’re just learning to fully appreciate what this Long Island Americana / alt-country quartet brings to the table—excellent songwriting, sharp ensemble playing, and a ton of integrity—when the last note fades. “Black And White Dreams” and especially the title track locate and tap into the same pooling reservoir of desperation Springsteen sang about on The River and Nebraska, still haunting us a generation later. It’s cinemascope songwriting backed by powerhouse performance.

: “Black And White Dreams,” “Twisting In The Wind,” “A Place In America”


Indie Album Of The Year

Perfect Beings – II

Prog is back, again, and LA quintet Perfect Beings is one of the top acts riding its next wave. Melding the traditional soft-hard dynamics of classic prog with adventurous symphonic, jazz and airy ’80s rock influences, the group achieves a sound that manages to be both familiar and imaginative, comfortable and dynamic. Combining disparate elements not just within songs, but within movements of songs, Perfect Beings delivers tracks that are a sonic jambalaya of styles, stitched together by the group’s instinctive feel for melody and tremendous instrumental chops. (They’re a great interview, too.)

: “Mar Del Fuego,” “The Love Inside,” “Rivermaker,” “Cause And Effect”

Honorable Mention

Big Big Train – Wassail EP

The newly augmented eight-person lineup of neo-prog stalwarts Big Big Train was celebrated in June with this tasty four-track EP. The expanded lineup inevitably pushes the band toward larger and more layered compositions; the resulting density of sound grows thunderous at times as the group forges genuinely orchestral prog, highlighted by the anthemic title track.

Big Lazy – Don’t Cross Myrtle

Sometimes it really is all about atmosphere. Melding rootsy twang with a spooky, off-kilter, decidedly cinematic vibe, Big Lazy delivers music that sounds like it was born to provide the backdrop for clever, pointed dialogue full of pregnant pauses, set in dark alleys and seamy rooms. A delightfully unsettling album full of the kind of moody instrumental music that inevitably sets the imagination to firing.

Bryan Gallo – The Party Guest

Singer-songwriter Gallo’s vulnerable, plaintive vocals stand at the center of these smartly-crafted songs of romantic defeat, supported by Long Island cohorts Butchers Blind. Imagine a string of early Jayhawks or quieter Lyle Lovett tunes and you’re in the neighborhood. Recommended for damaged romantics and glass-is-half-empty dreamers everywhere.

The Sideshow Tragedy – Capital

Desolate and ferocious, Capital plays out like a particularly memorable night at a poetry slam as this raw blues-rock duo paints the walls with one fierce, cathartic song after another. Ultimately, though, when you strip away its lyrical ambitions, this album is all about groove—and groove gets me every time.

P.S. I also had a lot of fun this year compiling rankings of every studio album released by a trio of personal favorites: Yes, Bruce Springsteen and Fountains Of Wayne.

P.P.S. We don't review singles... but my favorite single release of the year came from Last Charge of the Light Horse: "What If?"

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