In a year that saw Bay Area bands breathlessly releasing album after album, song after song (and we're not talking "quantity over quality" here) and backing it all up with show after show, we almost had a brain hemmorhage attempting to narrow it down to a paltry eight (in no particular order) that shredded our headphones and tattooed themselves onto our noggins. But these are the spine-bending decisions we must make here at 7x7. What excellence will arrive in 2012? It's almost too scary to think about.
1. tUnE-yArDs, w h o k i l l
It was difficult to go one day in the music blogodrome without reading or hearing something about Merrill Garbus, the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon-performing, Yoko Ono-approved brains and braun behind Oakland's tUnE-yArDs. This was her bona-fide breakout year thanks to w h o k i l l, a slab of songs bursting at the seams with idionsyncratic ideas of what pop music could and should be by masterfully compacting Afro-pop, funk, R&B and folk into something that fits inside a set of headphones. Garbus' voice can turn on a dime: one minute she sounds like an androgynus, neo-soul diva singing about complex racial issues and the next, she's artfully chopping and screwing her hoots and hollers into loops and beats made on the spot. Her audible fearlessness is so remarkable, it has us sweating to hear what she's got up her sleeve next.
2. Tycho, Dive
This ethereal, ever-cresting LP from Tycho, a local producer and visual artist whose street name is Scott Hansen, reminds me that electronic music, in its most organic sense, can often sound and feel like it's the musical equivalent of my mind's endless inner monologue. Dive blends wistful melodies and beats that pulsate and flutter like memories fading in and out of clarity with slickly produced arrangements that never seem overthought–and it's all anchored firmly on Earth thanks to the addition of live acoustic guitar and drums. There's no element of danger here, but that's okay; we all look to music to make us feel safe once in a while.
3. Moon Duo, Mazes
When Moon Duo, comprised of real-life couple Ripley Johnson and Sanae Yamada, first arrived, their sound was more of the unhinged psych bangover-variety much like Wooden Shjips (Johnson's other band). On Mazes, the pair's overflowing chemistry has been deliciously tamed and untangled. While still sporting the thick droning synths, freak-flag-flying-high guitar solos and lysergic vocals that occasionally bubble up to the surface, the songs within have a newly found pop sensibility–"Run Around" and "When You Cut" are even, dare we say, danceable–that always manages to bring everything back into focus, no matter how far into the stratosphere Moon Duo's musical ideas soar.
4. Dominant Legs, Invitation
Filthy, catatonic garage rock–something this town excels in–is all well and good, but there's nothing like pulling the rug out from under yourself with a crisp, clean dose of euphoric pop. Dominant Legs' gorgeous onslaught of 80s-tinged tunes found on Invitation are rife with sinewy Nile Rogers guitar and glittering synths, but underneath the gleam lies a tumbling rollercoaster of emotions captured by singer Ryan Lynch's ace songwriting and one-of-a-kind voice. Extra points for laying it all on the line and raising the stakes by adding a saxophone solo on this excellent debut.
5. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost
Without being annoying, emo or annoyingly emo, the music of Girls manages to wear its aching, damaged heart on its sleeve, so boldly and truly that it approaches timelessness. Singer and lyricist Christopher Owens courageously wields his wimpy voice (Contradictory? Yes. Inaccurate? No.) by diving straight into themes like broken family relationships, eroding faith and love without any gimmicks. The music itself feels worlds away from their 2009 debut, thanks to unexpected flashes of Pink Floyd, the grandiosity of the Beatles' twilight years, even gospel and Black Sabbath. The result is an album that maintains a powerful grip on the listener the entire way.
6. Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/The Dream
While the band's earlier-in-2011 release Castlemania remains a haunting, beautifully lethargic and welcome departure from its usual psych-garage freakouts, Carrion Crawler/The Dream finds the band speeding ahead on all four of its cylinders again. The rhythm section is ironclad as ever thanks to the addition of the Intelligence's Lars Finberg as a second drummer, which gives the feral John Dwyer and his rock-solid co-vocalist Brigid Dawson the opportunity to get as wild as they wanna. Together, they achieve one of the rarest things in music: their chemistry on record–seemingly effortless at this point–matches the absolute exhiliaration of their unparalled live performances.
7. Mikal Cronin, Mikal Cronin
Ty Segall bandmate Mikal Cronin's self-titled debut makes you wonder why he waited this long to snatch the spotlight for himself. His influences are clearly of the same ilk as Segall's–thrashing punk, ramshackle beach pop, even singer-songwriter introversion–but he's better at doing them all at once. Songs that start out ringing with Beach Boys-esque harmonics expertly devolve into a flute solo catfighting with a chugging hardcore riff that could turn even the most stoic, hipster showgoers into pinwheeling maniacs. Yet somehow, none of it sounds scatterbrained in the slightest.
8. Sonny & The Sunsets, Hit After Hit
In a town of prolific musicians, Sonny Smith ranks with the best of them. This Renaissance man's always got his hand in multiple projects at once, yet manages to maintain an easy-breezy, campfire sing-along intimacy to his recordings, even with a full band behind him. Although this batch of songs had been road-tested for quite some time before reaching the studio, they still sound as goofy, lovelorn and whipsmart as ever. Think of Smith as the kind of grown-up/parent who never forgot what it was like to deal with the mixed-up confusion that comes with being a kid.
Very, very honorable mention:
Wax Idols–No Future, Lil B–I'm Gay, Ty Segall–Goodbye Bread, Mi Ami–Dolphins, Wooden Shjips–West, Hunx & His Punx–Too Young To Be In Love, Thee Oh Sees–Castlemania