Peter McElhinney, jazz critic
There were a number of banner moments for improvised music in 2015: the Dave Douglas Quintet’s brilliant set at the Broadberry; Kamasai Washington at the Richmond Jazz Festival; Sun Ra Arkestra’s loose, heartfelt Saturday night performance at the Folk Festival; the Sunday night afterparty with Bio Ritmo and Zedashe at Capital Ale House (or any of the Richmond Jazz Society events at that venue). Debo Dabney cast a joyous light on the local tradition. Ashby Anderson’s “Undertones” at the Slave Burial Grounds illuminated the city’s shadowed past.
On the local scene it was a year of maturity and emergence. While No BS Brass broke through to a new, socially conscious level with their album “Brass Knuckles,” bass trombonist Reginald Chapman curated one of the most interesting new music series in years on Wednesday nights at Triple Crossing Brewery. Matthew E. White returned from his world tour with increased polish and presence. His guitarist Alan Parker energized the band with sonically sophisticated rock and roll abandon. The latest record from his band Poser, “Volume Too,” is excellent.
Other supporting players Jeremy Simmons, Kelly Strawbridge and Sam Reed stepped to the front of the stage with their own strong recordings. Nashville transplant Natalie Prass’s spectacular Spacebomb debut went over the top with the lush, concluding “It Is You,” arranged by her invaluable guitarist, Trey Pollard. Her touring drummer Scott Clark’s “Bury My Heart” is one of the finest and most focused albums out of the Richmond scene. Devonne Harris, Butcher Brown and Jellowstone Records were everywhere, either headlining or in support, a funky inclusive, labor of love.
There is doubtless much left out here. So much music, so little time.
Hilary Langford, pop critic
Avers rules SXSW. Richmond music represented hard at Texas' South by Southwest with the likes of Natalie Prass, Matthew E. White and Butcher Brown. But it was Avers high-octane performance at 720 Club Patio that blew my mind --- even veteran senior editor David Fricke of Rolling Stone was losing his shit and picked up a vinyl copy of “Empty Light.” The band also dropped an awesome EP, “Wasted Tracks,” in early December. Give these good people your dollars.
Positive No “Pedal Through” music video gets national love. A spoof on the 1986 cult classic “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” this video nailed life in the ‘90s for the music loving set and got props from NPR and Stereogum among others [disclosure: I'm in it]. Lars Gotrich of NPR even gave the track a nod on "Songs We Love 2015."
Natalie Prass charms the pants off Broadberry, releases album that would make Dionne Warwick weep tears of joy. The buzz surrounding Natalie Prass’ self-titled debut album long preceded its official release in January at the Broadberry, but nothing can prepare you for that voice live. We all fell a little more in love with the singer that night and couldn’t be more thrilled to see her slowly taking over the world one show at a time (and releasing swoony covers like Slayer’s “Raining Blood” alongside Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”).
Crowefest prevails! Despite a torrential downpour, the annual gathering of music-loving friends came through in a big way with intimate backyard performances by Jon Russell of the Head and the Heart, Lucy Dacus and Sleepwalkers among others. Beer, cute babies and dogs were a bonus.
Releases Kept Coming. Sam Reed, Pete Curry, the Trillions, Horsehead, Anousheh, Matthew E. White, No BS Brass, Manatree, Hoax Hunters and countless others dropped some impeccable tunes this year. Consider yourselves lucky to be a music fan in Richmond during a particularly fertile period.
Chris Bopst, calendar editor/curmudgeon/novelty tune aficionado
Kenneka Cook: The bravest performances I saw all year were by this 2009 Monacan High School graduate. With just her voice and a loop machine, she transfixed me every time. It’s like seeing Ann Peebles fronting the Tune Yards, only better.
Red Light Rodeo: A stripped down, country-tinged bluegrass trio that sweats when it plays. That is important. I don’t trust a band that does not sweat.
Those Maniac Seas: Nobody works harder putting together a 40-minute set. Members don’t play gigs -- they play shows. A hardware-store Devo, their low-tech visual presentations and clear sense of melodic self continue to impress.
ScottClark4Tet: The quintet’s thematic meditation on Native American heritage, “Bury My Heart” never lets jazz get in the way of telling a good story.
The Grave Hookers: The scrap heap blues duo has a new record coming out in 2016. For that alone, I am looking forward to 2016.
Drew Cook: One of the biggest bummers of the year was the passing of former Richmond resident and guitarist for Oakland metal mathematicians, Dimesland. His brother and bandmate John Cook still is playing guitar with the Residents, but the longtime project born in our humble abode by the brothers Cook was truly special. They were the Everly Brothers of riffs.
Vince Kane and the Incurables: Richmond’s best kept secret. Retro future groove rock that proves that the kids are alright.
Tiny Bar Series at Black Iris Music: The perfect setting for intimate music. They didn’t have a show in 2015 that wasn’t worth seeing. Expect the same in 2016.
NO BS! Brass Band: I’ve seen them more than any other local band. Amazingly, they just keep getting better. As a band or as individuals, the group’s members are always excited about something. They are a constant source of inspiration.
HTH: One of my goals in 2016 is to get this regional Kiss cover band to play a club gig as the unknown, early 70s Knights in Satan’s Service before they became the Donald Trumps of rock and roll. I’m really going to try to convince them to do it.
Brent Baldwin, arts and culture editor
Biggest debut and success story: Natalie Prass.
Most “Twin Peaks” moment: Locals Big No performing at Great Southern Fest while cast members swayed nearby; plus the incredible Julee Cruise cover band, Floating/Falling.
Viral moment of the year: Michael Bishop’s TED Talk on Gwar.
Best reissue and national media story: Edge of Daybreak’s “Eyes of Love” – a lost soul classic by former Powhatan inmates.
Most likely to be singing on that other shore: Maggie Ingram and Robbin Thompson.
Live music series that should return: Fast Forward at the Virginia Myuseum of Fine Arts (once brought musicians like Sun Ra, Steve Reich and Philip Glass). Since it’s become more of a hangout spot than ever outdoors, the museum should welcome avant-garde sounds and other special events.
Most engaging book by a local musician: Randy Blythe’s memoir “Dark Days.”
Most engaging book that needs to be written: “Scumdog: the Life And Times of Dave Brockie” -- or something more creatively titled along those lines.
Most intriguing side project: Dorthia Cotrell (lead singer for metal band Windhand) and her dusty and forlorn self-titled folk debut.
Most satisfying TV appearance: a joyful Matthew E. White on “Late Night with David Letterman” in its final season.
Best Richmond reunion show: Tie: Dads vs. Dynamic Truths/Eccentrics/The Technical Jed.
Personal nostalgia highlight: Hatchet Wound (featuring Richmond’s Kimber McQueen), Corn Rocket, Sleepytime Trio, and Sexual Milkshake at the Golden Pony in Harrisonburg.
Craziest Local Music video: “Richmond River Rat” by M.C. Chikin Mane
Best new local cover band: Life After Mars (Bowie) vs. Diamond Heist (Neil Diamond)
Best locally produced film soundtrack: Bobby Donne and friends on Rick Alverson’s “Entertainment”
Best live soundtrack performance: Marc Ribot scoring “The Kid” at the Byrd
Local band most deserving of a Grammy nomination: Bio Ritmo (celebrating 25 years in 2016)
Hip-Hop Collective Due for a Breakout: Satellite Syndicate
Former Richmond folkie who needs to return to play the Folk Fest: Michael Hurley
Anticipated releases of 2016: Warren Hixson’s two albums worth of new material; plus the reissue of Virginia blues legend John Tinsley’s out-of-print "Country Blues Roots Revived" (1978) on an imprint of Captured Tracks (another project led by Marty Key of Steady Sounds).