SF Weekly’s Top 15 Songs of 2016

With picks from Kehlani, Nef the Pharaoh, Day Wave, Fantastic Negrito, and more!

A lot of great music came out of the Bay Area in 2016. It was tough whittling our list down, but here are our favorite 15 ditties from the past year!

1. “Scheherazade” (City Mix) by Nackt
The combination of synths and bass never sounded as good as it does in “Scheherazade,” which is a shame because Nackt, the artist who produced and composed the track, is one of the 36 people we lost to the Oakland Ghost Ship fire. Though it’s an entirely instrumental ditty, words would be entirely unecesicary to convey the range of emotions and moods embedded in the song’s melodies. And the best part? Nackt created three different versions of the same song, so you’ve got three different ways to listen to it. Jessie Schiewe


2. “Nobody Dies” by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
“Who could bother with a father?” singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen asks on “Nobody Dies,” the lead single from her phenomenal 2016 album, A Man Alive. On a record that explores Nguyen’s fraught relationship with her absent father, “Nobody Dies” is a bass- and percussion-driven statement of resilience in the face of emotional wounds. Thumping drums and squealing guitar riffs provide the backing to Nguyen’s raw, visceral vocals as she sings from the perspective of a wounded child. The production work of Merrill Gabrus (tUnE-yArDs) is readily apparent, as sonic textures blur Nguyen’s sound into something that lives in the ether between folk and a funk-infused dissonance. Of course the melody is still there, swirling and forceful as Nguyen laments, “We act like nobody dies / You act like nobody dies.” It’s a somber truth, but from sadness comes art, and in the case of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, a song that is sure to outlive its ghosts. Zack Ruskin



3, “Big Chang Chang” by Nef the Pharaoh
Even though this song came out in early 2016, I haven’t forgotten about it because it’s that good. In fact, it’s probably Vallejo rapper Nef the Pharaoh’s second-best song after his breakout hit, “Big Tymin.” Catchy, bouncy, and slightly intergalactic sounding (no doubt to go along with the EP’s space theme; after all, it is called Fresh Outta Space 3), this is nouveau hyphy at its best, a fresh take on a slightly old sound that’s guaranteed to get you twitching in your chair.  JS


4. “Waste Away” by Motel Pools
Backed by angsty, frayed guitars, Motel Pools singer Chiara Angelicola’s voice comes across as wan and completely disinterested in the most perfect way possible. (After all, this song is called “Waste Away.”) With its grunge and punk edginess, this indie-rock banger is soft on the ears and delectable despite the vocalist’s obvious antipathy for her surroundings. “There is no unicorn,” Angelicola murmurs in the hook, but we’ve got to respectfully disagree, because this song is definitely a unicorn. JS


5. “You” by Day Wave
The music of Oakland’s Jackson Phillips, the mastermind behind Day Wave, is becoming more recognizable by the day as the rest of the country is quickly catching onto his brand of accessible, DIIV-esque, ethereal dream-pop. But the highlight of his 2016 EP, Hard to Read, is its closer, “You.” The track marks the first time Phillips slows things down and the results are astounding. With hushed vocals and a background earworm melody built on Phillips’ falsetto, “You” represents a different side of Day Wave, one that is more vulnerable than anything we’ve seen prior. Steven Edelstone


6. “Precious Thread” by Introflirt
Oakland duo Introflirt, who both perished in the Ghost Ship fire, described their music as “croonwave,” but somehow that description doesn’t quite do the whole package justice. A standout from the band’s sophomore album, Temporary Heaven, “Precious Thread” is a deliciously dark electronica cut in the tradition of New Order and Kraftwerk. Its main synth riff lays the doom-laden vibes on thick, though never enough to keep the track from being anything less than irrepressibly sexy. There’s ample room for every overlapping synth line to breathe, resulting in a spacious and encompassing trip that never loses its danceable groove. Elle Carroll



7. “Distraction” by Kehlani
Oakland singer Kehlani has a knack for coining catchy pop songs based on real life events and life lessons she’s learned from her relationships. “Distraction” is her strongest hit to date, a smoldering, slightly R&B-tinged jam about a girl trying to convince someone to “be a distraction, baby.” The track plays with different tempos, and there’s a squelchy synth in the background that keeps things lively and interesting during the slower cuts. I’m not even a fan of pop music and I like this song. So there you go. JS


8. “In the Pines (Oakland)” by Fantastic Negrito
Every note that Xavier Dphrepaulezz — aka Fantastic Negrito — plays on The Last Days of Oakland is dripping with soul and struggle. The album’s most affecting track, however, is “In the Pines (Oakland),” a reworking of the American folk standard popularized by Lead Belly and later covered by Nirvana on MTV Unplugged. Eschewing guitar for piano, Dphrepaulezz delivers “In the Pines (Oakland)” as a modern-day spiritual, awash in brooding blues.  By dropping the key from its standard E to F, adding a bridge, and altering some of the lyrics, the song becomes something at once familiar and new. The harmonizing section that opens the track is downright harrowing, and as the song continues, the words leap from the past into a very real and troublesome present. “Black girl, black girl / Your man is gone / Now you travel the world alone / And you raised that child all by yourself / Then the policeman shot him down,” Dphrepaulezz wails. For those who have made the grave error of trying to eulogize Oakland, especially in the wake of the Ghost Ship tragedy, they can take “In the Pines (Oakland)” as evidence of what the city and those that hold its fate really need: a wake-up call. ZR


9. “Bye Bye Baby” by Hot Flash Heat Wave
Though “Bye Bye Baby”’s intro recalls “Just What I Needed” by the Cars, Hot Flash Heat Wave’s submission to the OIM: Vol II compilation is their loudest and rawest song yet. Ted Davis is an animal behind the microphone, his vocals tortured and at the top of his register. When the song premiered on Consequence of Sound earlier this year, Davis said, “The idea for this song came to me when I was freshly dumped walking through the Mission.” “Bye Bye Baby” is anthemic to the point of post-breakup therapy; through each yelp and scream, Davis helps all of else get over own our personal heartbreaks. SE


10. “Thin Line” by Cherushii and remixed by David Last
Originally, “Thin Line” was a fun, breezy house tune from San Francisco’s shining star Cherushii, who we lost in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, but in the hands of local producer David Last, it became a funky, neon-lit vision of electronic pop, catchier and more memorable than anything else released this year. Last strips it down to its barest elements, adds bass guitar, and allows vocalist Maria Minerva’s rich contralto to steal the show. Chris Zaldua


11. “Chips” by BAUS
BAUS might just be out of its mind. The Oakland-based trio released “Chips” as a single in advance of their forthcoming album this June, and it is a delectable no-wave mess that’s over before you know it.  As in, it takes less than two minutes for “Chips” to hit its stride (and then some) with a Talking Heads-esque bassline and an anti-melodic guitar riff. The track is an exercise in idiosyncratic songwriting, perpetually torn between riding the groove of said bassline, circling back to its half-sung refrain, and just driving the train straight off the rails. To put it plainly, “Chips” is frantic and maddening – which is exactly what really great post-punk (by way of no wave, that is) should be. EC


12. “No Job” by ymtk
This capering, island-influenced jam by East Oakland’s ymtk (which stands for “Young Murph the Kid”) sounds like PARTYNEXTDOOR, but if he was on uppers. It’s a tropical, fun dance track that is sure to get you moving, and it’s like nothing else we’ve heard come out of the Bay Area this year. Now that’s saying something. JS


13. “Whitelight” by Waterstrider
This galloping, chord-filled song was my favorite track off of Oakland band Waterstrider’s debut album, Nowhere Now. With hints of the Ghanaian genre highlife and bits of grunge and rock, “White Light” is a rollicking, saturated track that is made even sweeter by lead singer Nate Salman’s saccharine falsetto. It’s the perfect combination of excotic and grimy. JS


14. “Pretty” by Steel Cranes
Has sonic dissonance ever sounded so good? I think not. “Pretty” by the duo Steel Cranes has hints of early Hole and riot grrrl sensibilities that culminate in one helluva song. Throughout the track, tempos boomerang, transitioning from deep, harmonic chords to explosions of thundering drums and chaotic bass, before easing back down with some titillating high-hats. It’s a thrilling ride and one that will stick in your head well after listening to it. JS


15. “Have It All” by Khyenci
Khyenci is an up-and-coming singer from the Bay Area who has mastered the art of crooning, while still fully enunciating each word. “Have It All” is the second track off her EP Balance, and it’s a languid, slow-burning jam that showcases Khyenci’s vocal abilities which range from rapping to cooing to belting. The instrumentation is sparse, but the simple snapping melody is enough to bolster the track. And besides, the reason you’re listening to this song is not really for the production but for Khyenci’s plaintive singing. JS

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