2016 was a shitty year on all fronts, and we’ve got to admit, it was equally bad in terms of Bay Area music. Though many big-name artists like Green Day, Metallica, Third Eye Blind, and E-40 dropped albums, sequels, and anniversary records, most fell short of expectations, lacking a “wow” factor and plain ol’ creativity.
But not all of them were bad. In fact, a handful were really, really good. What’s surprising is that the ones that were the most impressive were independent releases from up-and-coming artists, found through endless hours scouring Bandcamp and SoundCloud.
So, yes, we could have stuck to the status quo and chosen all the obvious choices as our best albums of the year, but we didn’t. We gave you what we felt was the best of the best, regardless of how many Facebook followers or Spotify listeners each artist has. So check them out and give these records a listen, because who knows? You might just discover your new favorite album.
Going to the beach isn’t only about tall cans of Tecate and sun-drenched selfies on the shore. The ocean can also be a vast, vicious monster, a place where we go to be alone and take in the things that linger and consume us. With Turn Into, Melina Duterte, the singer and multi-instrumentalist behind Jay Som, has created a fitting soundtrack for the catharsis we sometimes seek from natural splendor, a serene but somber collection of songs that asks questions of the past but expects no answers.
The project combines swelling guitar riffs and sleepy melodies, but tempers its own sweetness with shoegaze fuzz and austere observations. It’s also chock-full of water metaphors. “Slow” features the bleak but beautiful lyric, “Sinking ’til I cannot swim / Hold me because I feel so thin,” while in “Drown” Duterte warns, “When you drown / You try your best to float.” Sung in a low register that belies her young age, Duterte’s voice is a siren’s song, alluring but imbued with warning. Like any great record, Turn Into refuses to be background music, continually drawing the listener in and demanding the attention it deserves.
On the more upbeat “Next to Me,” crisp percussion and joyful guitars set the scene for Duterte to juxtapose her romantic hopes for a companion against the disappointing truth of reality. Empowered, she chooses herself, proclaiming, “I’m waiting too long I’ve had it I want to scream / And fuck being patient I’m fragile I’m not weak.”
It’s the type of epiphany we seek from solo sojourns to the waves. Luckily, now we have the lasting beauty of Turn Into to sit with us in the sand. Zack Ruskin
Danny Paul Grody
Music can inspire, uplift, exalt, elate, and groove. It can also heal. As 2016 winds to a close, I take solace in Danny Paul Grody’s Other States, the sixth installment in record label Geographic North’s “Sketch For Winter” series.
Grody is a guitarist who, for more than a decade, played guitar in the San Francisco post-rock outfit Tarentel. In 2010, he struck out on his own, producing several solo guitar records. Other States is his most accomplished, sublime work yet.
The record takes inspiration from winter (see the series it’s part of), but moreso the West — California’s beauty, grandeur, and splendor is written into every song on this album. Using just a guitar — plus the occasional synthesizer and field recording — Grody paints a vivid portrait of the mythical, archetypal West, a place both real and imagined in equal measure.
Other States‘ appeal lies in its simple, immediate beauty. Grody wields the guitar like a conduit, running from his heart directly into the listener’s. It’s the finest musical balm on offer this year and deserves to be listened to time and time again. Chris Zaldua
The Hollows Hold the Healing
Listen to Lila Blue, and you’ll have a hard time believing that this San Francisco singer-songwriter is indeed only 16 years old. Not only does she have a mature, muscular voice redolent of someone twice her age, but the messages and stories she encodes in her songs — which deal with the oppression of organized religion, sexual assault, absent parents, and the pain of breaking up — make her sound wise beyond her years.
There’s also something about her that is acutely Margot Tenenbaum-esque. Aside from the obvious similarities — they’re both from New York City and have been involved in theater, be it through music composition or playwriting — Blue and Tennenbaum are also driven and absurdly talented young women.
Blue was around the age of 14 when she recorded her debut album Lucille at Tiny Telephone, which she followed this year with The Hollows Hold the Healing. On the album, which Blue co-produced, the teenager plays acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and ukulele, lending a folksy feel to the record — that is, if you ignore the vocals. Blue possesses an athletic voice that is capable of shifting between a fluttering, breathy drawl (as in the album opener, “To Dust”) and a more plaintive, curved wail (“Kill All the Witnesses.”) The strength and subject matter of her songs offset the folksiness with a bit of soul and blues, similar something you’d expect from, say, Fiona Apple or Tegan and Sara in 2007’s “Call It Off.” It’s the kind of stuff that is just as likely to tug on your heart strings as it to make your jaw drop. Jessie Schiewe
Confront the Truth
They say the best things come in small packages, though that may just be a way for my parents to say that it’s OK for me to be really short. Regardless, Bay Area hardcore veteran Tony Molina proves the cliché correct in his 10-minute-and-1-second-long album Confront the Truth.
While his 2014 album Dissed and Dismissed is full of lo-fi, fuzzed-out Weezer-esque guitar bangers, Molina goes largely acoustic with this one as he explores alt-country and singer-songwriter genres, representing a clean break from his past releases. Percussion is sparse — drums are only present on three of eight tracks — and the focus is more on the serene and relaxing sonic landscapes that he produced largely with his acoustic guitar.
With lyrics the length of a Twitter post, Confront the Truth manages to pack in a lot, and the bulk of the tracks revolve around Molina’s struggles to get over a breakup. Album highlight, “No One Told He,” recalls George Harrison’s lead guitar on “My Sweet Lord” before it gives way to an outro reminiscent of Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco. Songs like the fingerpicked “Over Now” and “Old Enough to Know” bring to mind Alex Turner’s gorgeous soundtrack for Richard Ayoade’s 2010 film Submarine.
Confront the Truth is perfect for daydreaming, if only to be awoken in just 10 minutes. Just like the relationship he writes about, if you blink, it’ll all be over. Steven Edelstone
Released in July on her 26th birthday, Xiomara’s Seven Nineteen is an R&B, soul, gospel, and jazz fusion album that has been in the works since as far back as 2007. At just nine tracks, the album, which is the Berkeley native’s first, encompasses a range of musical styles, tempos, and flows, overlaid with live instrumentation that includes everything from growling upright bass and boisterous trombone to joyful, Sunday-morning-at-church clapping.
Xiomara got her start as a jazz singer at the Gold Room located in the infamous Stanley Hotel in Colorado, where The Shining was filmed. Though there’s nothing spooky about Seven Nineteen, the singer’s voice does sound rather haunting in some tracks, like “Siren,” and there’s a fuzzy, analog texture to the recordings that give the album a retro, frozen-in-time feel, almost as if it were a black-and-white film. Smoldering would perhaps be the best word to describe it, though there are some outlier tracks, like “The Glue,” which pairs spoken word verses with a horn-filled hip-hop beat, and the reggae-imbued, island-style track, “Sarah’s Cell.” Somehow, Xiomara has managed to give us a lot of variation, while still maintaining a cohesive, uniform sound. JS