I’ve only had a year and some change to really immerse myself in the Bay Area music scene, and I’m still feeling my way around and discovering new things daily. So I would never dare to say the following tracks are the best songs San Francisco and Oakland had to offer in 2011. All I know for sure is that these 10 tunes caught my ear enough to make me return to them again and again.
Keep in mind that two tracks by Bay Area acts—”Stone Rollin'” by Raphael Saadiq and “Country Kids” by The Downer Party—were so dang good that they made my overall Top 30 tracks of 2011, regardless of geography. So in a just world, the would be at No. 1 and 2. Alas, the world is not just, and I needed those slots so I could write about Foreign Legion and Fake Your Own Death.
10. “The Ultimate,” Foreign Legion
How dare emcees Prozack Turner and Marc Stretch and producer Grandpa J make a track with this much effortless cool? With enough soul to pass for the soundtrack to a gritty ’70s urban crime drama, the beat is a big part of the attraction, but the Oakland-based rappers do their part by supplying plenty of good-natured humor.
[free mp3 available via Bandcamp]
9. “Bombs Don’t Show Up,” Fake Your Own Death
The San Francisco indie rock band went through some lineup changes since I first heard it in March, but it still sounds like every great ’80s post-punk band at once set to a dance beat. Led by former Elephone guitarist Terry Ashkinos, the group is preparing to release a new EP in February.
Catch Fake Your Own Death live on Dec. 31 at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco (with The Velvet Teen and Happy Body Slow Brain) and on Jan. 20 at Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco (with Kill Moi). Click for New Year’s Eve tickets.
8. “The Hours,” Foxtails Brigade
Laura Weinbach’s neo-folk, chamber-pop project seems to belong to another era, when evenings were spent writing poetry and making music in the parlor. Utilizing little more than plucked classical guitar, mournful violin and a beguiling melody, this intimate song transports listeners there in less than two and a half minutes.
7. “I Did Crimes for You,” Deerhoof
I’d of course heard of Deerhoof before making my way across the country to the Bay Area, but I had to actually live here before I started paying proper attention to the venerable art-rock outfit. This year’s Deerhoof vs. Evil offered several strong tracks, but this one proved my favorite, probably because its shape-shifting eclecticism stays within a decidedly poppy—though still oddball—range.
6. “Living Without You,” Blame Sally
This song would fit in on adult-contemporary radio were it not for one tiny little detail: It doesn’t suck. A collaboration of four female songwriters, the youngest of whom is in her mid-40s, the San Francisco band makes quality power pop and roots rock for adults—something that’s unfortunately all too rare.
[free mp3 in exchange for an email address via blamesally.com]
5. “Earth Abides,” Art Elliot
You see that thingy in the right-hand column at the top of the page that displays whatever albums I’ve been listening to lately? On the day that Art ran across this very blog, it was displaying Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut and Sail Away by Randy Newman, which was very exciting for Art because the Oakland songwriter said those are two of his favorite albums. I can hear the influences of both on this piano-driven track, which employs a rather breezy melody to address a grim subject: the end of human civilization.
[free mp3 in exchange for an email address via Bandcamp]
Catch Art Elliot live on Jan. 22 at Viracocha in San Francisco.
4. “Sea Salt,” John Vanderslice
The songwriter and San Francisco indie fixture tried something different for his latest album, leaving the comfort of his Mission District studio to record in Berkeley, employing the Magik*Magik Orchestra to provide some string and horn flourishes, and doing it all in just three days. The result is some vibrant chamber pop.
3. “All Too Human,” Wax Idols
There’s really no shortage of local bands making this kind of music: psychedelic garage-rock recorded with a lo-fi aesthetic and bubblegum aspirations. It’s just that this female-fronted group from Oakland does it best.
2. “Picture of Health,” Kapowski
Oakland indie rock that acknowledges pop songwriting didn’t start with Lennon and McCartney (though they are influences, too). This track in particular has a jazzy, Tin Pan Alley vibe. The lyrics consist of singer Jesse Rimler recounting good times, but through a haze that makes it clear he’s haunted by the memories. (See also: Why’d You Name Your Band That: Kapowski)
1. “The Cult Song,” Shannon and the Clams
Who could possibly resist a freewheeling garage-rock jam with a chorus that consists almost entirely of, “OOGA BOOGA, OOGA BOOGA, OOGA BOOGA BABY!”? Not I.