Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather made it onto many favorite lists this year, and for good reason. It's a sonic fireworks show. Small explosions of electronic glee build into giant displays of happy handclaps, ecstatic voices, and upbeat instrumental experiments. Even the modest Animal outbursts here are a dazzling headphone show.
Blues Control, Local Flavor
Two people, four songs, half an hour of thunderous stoner rumble interrupted by glacial piano- and sax-jam interludes. Local Flavor is an instrumental adventure where guitars, keys, and other sonic textures attack like winter storms with calm, sunny clearings.
It's fitting that Dam-Funk's most recent S.F. show went down at Poleng Lounge. Like that Western Addition club, the L.A. artist resides at the intersection of two worlds: old-school Fillmore funk and wacky Haight Street acid trips. But mostly this dude orbits Earth from a spaced-out station where the essence of beats beams down through thick clouds of keytar.
The Dodos, Time to Die
"The Strums" epitomizes the heights the Dodos reach on their new record as a trio. It contains intimate lyrics ("You will always think when they say that they want you, that they don't"), subtle instrumental touches (a horn section that boosts the sentimental feelings without overwhelming them), and quiet space to reflect on the sadness and beauty at play in their pop songs.
The Dutchess and the Duke, Sunset/Sunrise
There hasn't been a record this crushing since Elliott Smith passed away. But, like Smith, the Dutchess and the Duke's raw admissions offer catharsis in simplicity. Here, men become ghosts, stalking lovers they could never do right by, as the Dutchess and the Duke's rough harmonies release the spirit of regret in haunting style.
Thee Oh Sees, Help
Thee Oh Sees put out two full-lengths in 2009, but Help marks not only their best of the year, but also their best album, period. John Dwyer is a rabid dog on opener "Enemy Destruct," and the band feeds off that untamed energy for the entirety of this weird, wild, wonderfully psychedelic take on garage rock.
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
This record is pure audio crack. Try to leave the in-the-red enthusiasm of "Lisztomania" alone and it'll only pressure you to play the song just one more time. Soaring, synth-based pop pays tribute to composer Franz Liszt with nonsensical lines you'll be singing along with, long past the point of driving yourself crazy.
Real Estate, Real Estate; Woods, Songs of Shame
Gotta love the irony of Rolling Stone calling new folk/freak folk dead in the same year we saw the release of two excellent albums in that genre. These are both wistful, whimsical takes on back-porch pop, delicate in instrumentation and fierce in spirit.
The Strange Boys, The Strange Boys and Girls Club
This one is less a record and more of a party you happen to stumble into, with singer Ryan Sambol hollering all about the fights he has barely escaped and the Beatles he wishes were dead. His delivery comes in a slow, syrupy drawl like Bob Dylan on codeine, while the music is fast, unpolished garage pop sharp as a broken beer bottle.
The Units, History of the Units: The Early Years 1977-1983
The Units were an early San Francisco synthpop outfit decrying capitalist greed while making a fun, art-damaged racket in department store windows and underground punk clubs. This excellent reissue is proof that their music stands the test of time, much like that of their more popular contemporaries, Devo.
Kurt Vile, Childish Prodigy
Random feedback and dark sentiments cloud Childish Prodigy with a particularly badass quality. This record is the sound of a man who coats his catchy melodies and strange hunchback stories in flip attitude and grungy production values.
Wallpaper., Doodoo Face
Wallpaper. is San Francisco's lowbrow, no-budget Lady Gaga. The duo riffs on pop culture, sex, and celebrity behind an outrageous alter ego and a stage show that puts entertainment first. Doodoo Face is pure electrofunk fun of the sort we don't see often enough in this city.
Tim Cohen, The Two Sides of Tim Cohen
The Fresh & Onlys frontman Cohen is haunted by sonic graffiti. A vet of various S.F. psych-bent outfits, as a solo act he's playful with his demons. Even when things take a turn for the sorrowful, there's a childlike magic in his lysergic music.
Do Make Say Think, Other Truths
Stunning post-rock opuses. Four total, each titled for a word in the band's name.
"Lust for Life" and "Hellhole Ratrace" are perfect dreampop confections, the melodramatic sounds of hipster romances gone sour.
Mannequin Men, Lose Your Illusion, Too
The edge to main Mannequin man Kevin Richard's voice cuts a sneer into every song on this rocking update on the Wipers and barroom punk.
Ty Segall, Lemons
San Francisco's freshman garage-rock class is on a tear. Segall released more music this year than we could keep pace with, each record containing contagious adolescent energy and lots of whooped choruses.
Washed Out, Life of Leisure
Electronic pop that gives you a suntan, it's made from such warm, summery synth textures. The vocals sound beamed from an oceanside cabana as the beats lap like gentle waves.