The Top 12 Bay Area Rock Albums of 2013

Deciding where "rock" begins and ends in 2013 — and in a music scene as adventurous as the Bay Area's — is not an easy task. Some of these albums feature banjos, while others have guitars that would sound at home on a metal album. At least one has both. But however you define it, 2013 was another good year for guitar music in this region, whether you like yours poppy, folky, psychedelic, or somewhere in between. After some agony, we've narrowed a long list to our 12 favorite rock full-lengths of the year. Here they are. (And for more on what was a terribly thrilling year in Bay Area metal, see our roundup of the year's best heavy albums on our music blog, All Shook Down.)

1. Mikal Cronin, MCII (Merge)

In a May cover story, we declared Mikal Cronin the best rock songwriter in San Francisco, based on the strength of his first album for the titan indie label Merge. Now that it's December, we have no regrets. Cronin's second LP hasn't quite made him an international star — yet — but it sure stands out among the year's crop of local rock records. MCII is tuneful; it's sincere; it perfectly balances glassy, tender moments along with serrated, angry ones; and it's just really fun to listen to over and over again. The album plays more like a hits collection than it has any right to, considering how early we are into the career of a Laguna Beach native who celebrates his 28th birthday this week — a guy who, until recently, was only known as the bass player for his high school pal Ty Segall. But Cronin is both a road-schooled rock sideman and the holder of a B.A. in music, and all of his skills come out on MCII. His straightforward guitar pop harkens back to the catchy grunge anthems of the early '90s, but comes inflected with violin, saxophone, and piano – often in places you wouldn't expect. Cronin paid principal attention to honest, catchy songwriting here, and it shows: of the 10 cuts on MCII, every one lands somewhere in your head, and stays there. Ian S. Port

2. Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin (Castle Face)

The deans of San Francisco's underground rock scene have never been more popular, and they've arguably never been better, either. Naysayers may moan that the spaced-out, sweat-flinging assault of John Dwyer and Co. only really translates live, but that criticism is outdated. For Floating Coffin, Dwyer involved the other band members in the songwriting like he hadn't in a long time, and the result is a vicious, grin-inducing document of fuzz-guitar brutality and seductive, boundless grooves. It sounds evil as hell, but if you've seen any of the band's impossibly sold-out hometown shows this year, you'll know all those dark vibes stir up a surprisingly joyful, kinetic chaos inside the club. (Or even on Muni, if you have the volume high enough.) Thee Oh Sees we all know and love are loud, fast, and punishing. But on Floating Coffin, they're also kind of dancey. We'll take it. ISP

3. Cass McCombs, Big Wheel and Others (Domino)

Behold, a double album that's actually good all the way through. Folk-rock enigma Cass McCombs' latest is unhurried and indulgent, but it's full of memorable songs, from the haunting "Joe Murder" to the yawning country ballad "Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love." That sense of calm confidence might even be the album's best feature, the way it shuffles nonchalantly from a bristling rock tune to a spare lament, and pulls you right along with it. McCombs, a Bay Area native, is known for constantly traveling, for not having a home, and here, perhaps for the first time, he's fully captured the energy of that restlessness in his songs. ISP

4. Sonny and the Sunsets, Antenna to the Afterworld (Polyvinyl)

The standard metaphor for the Sunsets' fourth — and best — album is something like '60s rock (the Velvets, of course) beamed out into space and back into the 21st century. There's certainly charm in the new Vangelis synths, or the mentions of cyborgs and aliens, but what makes Antenna great is Sonny's perpetual ability to tell a goofy story that lets you feel the depth of his emotions, and to understand why he smiles at the simple joys of life, like the love of a green-blooded android. Cody Nabours

5. Michael Beach, Golden Theft (Twin Lakes)

Golden Theft is full of poetic narratives, and Michael Beach's arrangements mirror the thematic arcs of his words. This detailed sophomore solo album of understated guitar rock defies comparisons; likening Beach to other artists just seems reductive. "The Exhilarating Rise" heaves, swells and ascends to an ecstatic plateau. He's a windswept balladeer at the bottom of "Mountains + Valleys" who "dissolves into the air" at its brilliant peak. Golden Theft sets listeners on an immersive and profound journey, and it sounds lovely, too. Sam Lefebvre

6. Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, We the Common (Ribbon Music)

Our long-beloved local folkstress finally broke through to national notoriety this year, and the album that took her there deserved all the praise it got. We the Common is socially conscious and brave, but it's also a delight to listen to. Thao Nguyen's voice is smoky and seductive, her lyrics often painfully real, her band funky and innovative. Producer John Congleton layers a broad palette of sounds in places you'd never think to find them, making We the Common as rewarding in headphones as it is in a big-room sing-along. ISP

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