Every artist on this list is impacted in one way or another by the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that claimed the lives of thirty-six people. And the full extent of its consequences for local music remains to be seen. The year-end list ritual feels too ordinary for a time of unprecedented loss, but it testifies to the bold, mightily expressive output of communities presently fighting mischaracterization — and worse.
Las Sucias, ¡Salte del Medio! (Ratskin)Las Sucias, the Oakland duo composed of Alexandra Buschman and Danishta Rivero, collide tabletop electronics and reggaetón rhythms to bracing effect on ¡Salte del Medio!. (The live contributions of percussionist Robert Lopez also demand recognition.) And the lyrics, delivered in incantatory volleys of vernacular Spanish, subvert the often-chauvinistic themes of Caribbean dance music with wit and venom. The four-song cassette — a public service of Ratskin Records, whose recent output represents much of Oakland's best experimental music — resembles nothing else this year.
Cube, My Cube (Left Hand Path)
The main musical outlet of Oakland multimedia artist Adam Keith, Cube boasts a slew of tapes laden with motley clamor, skittish beats, and spectral samples. Every release is peculiarly affecting; Keith coaxes ghosts out of hardware. But My Cube, his first vinyl full-length (and promising local label Left Hand Path's first release), sounds especially potent. Indebted to the budget ingenuity of noise, it nevertheless steps toward the dance-floor. But whereas plenty of techno artists showily break the rules, Cube makes an art out of never having learned them.
Jealousy, Paid for It (Moniker)
On Jealousy's second album, Paid for It (which was actually recorded before the release of 2011's excellent Viles), principal player Mark Treise cultivates a lascivious and narcotic atmosphere with little more than beguiling bass loops, pattering percussion, and cavernous delay. (Treise is also bassist in the woozy, joyously tousled rock mainstay CCR Headcleaner, whose 2016 full-length Tear Down the Wall features the finest album art of the year.) His vocals are quivering and slurred, sometimes no more forceful than exhaling. And his lyrics, a mix of confessional simplicity and cryptic suggestion, describe forbidden desires and yielding to their allure.
Violent Change, VC3 (Melters/It Takes Two)
Matt Bleyle plays most of the instruments on Violent Change's four records released since 2012, which sets a roughshod rock foundation beneath his arresting melodies. So too does the fact that he records them himself, further mucking the beaming beauty at the core of his pop compositions for guitar and voice. On VC3, like earlier titles, the struggle between grandeur and grime is more compelling than either quality can achieve alone.
Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto (Self)
The follow-up to Kamaiyah's infectiously breezy breakout single "How Does It Feel," A Good Night in the Ghetto captures the East Oakland rapper mid-stride. She recognizes, in opener "I'm On," that her trajectory so far rests on the strength of a track that earnestly asks, How does it feel to be rich? But throughout this mix-tape — issued less than a year after that indisputable anthem — Kamaiyah relishes a lifestyle of plenty alongside guest verses by key collaborator YG. And her rapping throughout — singsong and husky, with a sense for delectable boasts atop spare, aqueous low-end — warrants all the confidence.
Revisit the Express' Kamaiyah profile.
Jay Som, Turn Into (Polyvinyl)
Jay Som, the moniker of Oakland songwriter Melina Duterte, betrays great creative poise and intention on Turn Into — a set of nine home-recorded songs dumped online one evening that listeners, and then Polyvinyl Records, received and celebrated as a full-fledged album (even if the label is officially reserving that designation for her next one). The songs saunter and surge, grounded by Duterte's breathy introspection and lithe guitar melodies. As the album title suggests, they also capture Jay Som on the verge of discovery.
Nopes, Never Heard of It (Magnetic Eye)
The tangled riffs and leads on Nopes' Never Heard of It sound impish and kinetic, an aural equivalent to window scratchiti. The vocals — surly shouts, seemingly channeled from the moment daily annoyances get insufferable — sit atop a tenacious rhythm section, which jerks and swerves with impressive control. But listeners might return especially for the guitar, which sounds inventive enough to animate twelve songs in a style that often wears after three or four.
Acrylics, Acrylics (Self/Neck Chop)
Santa Rosa continued to play an outsized role in local punk this year, regularly drawing Oakland and San Francisco groups to the North Bay town for raucous gigs in improvised venues and dispatching its own upstart acts on tour throughout the country. Near the center of the scene is Acrylics, which articulates its cracked, blitzkrieg vision of hardcore to thrilling effect on this eponymous tape-turned-twelve-inch EP. (Also see titles released this year by Santa Rosa bands OVVN, Creative Adult, and Fussy.)
Revisit the Express' report on Santa Rosa punk.
Kool AD & Trackademicks, Official (Self)
Official, according to its "Funky Introduction," is Kool AD's report from his "beachfront property" in Baja California. It's also the most overt tribute to the Bay Area in his whole catalog, a seven-song Trackademicks production with slinky percussion and whirring synth in the post-hyphy mold. In place of the cryptic-yet-cutting commentary that usually defines Kool AD's lyricism, there's relatively straightforward paeans to such pastimes as Rollin' thru the town / blowin' hella clouds / woofers hella loud / with the windows rolled down. He still appropriates plenty. To wit, "Rollin' Thru the Town" references Boots Riley's reference to "Ice-T's hair" in the Coup's "Fat Cats, Bigga Fish." But even that just makes him sound homesick.
Revisit the Express' Kool AD profile.
Mozzy, Beautiful Struggle (Self)
Mozzy is from Sacramento, but my case for including Beautiful Struggle here rests on his alliance with decidedly local rappers J. Stalin and Philthy Rich and all of those billboards in Oakland. (And I'm greedy.) It's flush with Mozzy hallmarks: thick, full-bodied enunciation; non-lexicon ingenuity; and slow-rolling beats punctuated by gunfire and skits. Last year's Bladadah plays like more of a front-to-back statement, but Beautiful Struggle is still too good to neglect.
Smiles, Smiles (Melters)
"Black Hearts," opener on Smiles' eponymous four-song EP, is wistful pop at its peak, all svelte vocals and stardust guitar atop a mid-tempo backbeat. "I Don't Want to Remember You," the next song, is even better. It's got handclaps, an ascending lead, and bleary-eyed vocals with flashes of anguish that elevate Smiles from power-pop homage to power-pop homage that matters.
Caleborate, 1993 (Self)
Few upstart rappers seem so naturally suited to the album format as Caleborate, whose fourteen-track 1993 is stuffed with single-worthy highlights. It's all impeccably smooth — full of billowing keys, soul samples, and other such syrupy flourishes courtesy of producers Julia Lewis and Mikos Da Gawd. And Caleborate, a limber stylist, strikes poses tender, confessional, and casually boastful in elongated verses that course with subtle personal insights.
Revisit the Express' Caleborate profile.
Chuck Johnson, Velvet Arc (Trouble in Mind)
Chuck Johnson is a trained electronic musician best known as a self-taught solo guitar-stylist, but Velvet Arc doesn't adhere neatly to either inclination. It's an instrumental rock record — one with very light, faithless suggestions of Western and psych — with nimbly fragmented grooves beneath Johnson's lustrous low-end motifs and elliptical melodies. Johnson also plays a diffuse mélange of pedal steel and synth — his next conquests.
Revisit the Express' Chuck Johnson profile.
Young Moon, Colt (Western)
Seasoned San Francisco songwriter Trevor Montgomery has an oaken, mournful voice that finds its place within lumbering, organ-laden ballads on Young Moon's second album, Colt. His lyrics and distinctive croon convey a sense of hard-earned triumph — near enough to a proverbial bottom to still sound beaten and battered, yet palpably within reach of redemption.
Gossimer, Close the Circle, Lay the Stones (Heavy Mess)
Gossimer, the musical outlet of Oakland poet Jennifer Williams, follows last year's Across that White Plain with an equally moving six-song cassette, Close the Circle, Lay the Stones. A set of forlorn songs built with acoustic guitar and wisps of quiet noise, it feels somber and disquieted. But a close inspection of the lyrics — engrossingly delivered in Williams' soft lilt — reveals meditative depth beneath the miserablist exterior.
Revisit the Express' Gossimer profile.
Tia Nomore, Holloween (Self)
The intro to Holloween, Tia Nomore's long-awaited full-length, finds the rapper lighting up on a chartered ride to Oakland International Airport — a jet-setter with homegrown priorities. That sort of swagger was plenty evident in 2014, when Nomore turned heads with her delicious disses in "Suck It Easy." And her lyrical dexterity animated another great track that year, "My Favorite Song." Holloween recalls that earlier material, but the interim instilled focus in her and go-to producer Exclusive — a marriage of g-funk slap and pop-trap flourishes beneath Nomore's luxuriant flow.
Revisit the Express' Tia Nomore profile.