Listing Toward San Francisco Having done some hard time in the world of music journalism, Riff Raff has devoted a fair amount of effort to reading -- and sometimes compiling -- best-of lists. So we took a special interest in the Chronicle's enumeration of the "Bay Area's All-Time Best Bands," which appeared with much fanfare in the Dec. 19 pink section. Pondering the list for a while, we came to two conclusions: 1) A top 50 list would've been more honest and less embarrassing, and 2) Even Chron columnist Ken Garcia realized this.
Really, thinking of Van Morrison (ranked 19th) as a Bay Area artist is a bit like thinking of Reggie Jackson as a California Angel. Giving Eddie Money (85), Pablo Cruise (91), and Mr. Big (100) any credit -- any -- for doing something musically useful, let alone great, is being too kind. And if the list's assemblers (Joel Selvin, James Sullivan, and Neva Chonin) confess that Jefferson Starship (99) was a purveyor of "hollow, empty pop," what's so "best" about that group of hacks?
However, what's most striking about the list is that, as a catalog of what people talk about when they talk about Bay Area pop music, the Selvin-Sullivan-Chonin brain trust got it exactly right. Few local bands or musicians who have made a dent on the national scene got omitted -- though the unlisted Operation Ivy was a much better and more influential band than its listed spinoff Rancid, and alas, Night Ranger couldn't crack the top 100.
To be fair, the list does do justice to locals' contributions to punk (Dead Kennedys, Flipper, Avengers), hip hop (DJ Shadow, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Spearhead, Too Short, and Tupac, that last being questionable as a "local"), altrock (Imperial Teen, Red House Painters, American Music Club), and wonderful weirdness (Negativland, the Residents). The question has to be asked, though: Why do the list at all? Right -- to sell newspapers, but let's think a little harder on this one. In many things, not just pop music, the Bay Area is rigorously assertive (and defensive) about its place on the worldwide scene, often to the point of absurdity. There's a tone of "Hey, we're important too!" to the list, both in its prose and in its concept. The defensive stance stems mainly from the way the Bay Area gets treated by the cultural power centers in New York and Los Angeles, which is to say, receiving condescending little pats on the head, as eager schoolchildren do when they've aced their spelling tests. Your little band charted on Gavin? Good for you! When are you going to move to L.A. and get serious? As one music industry insider infamously put it, the local rock scene suffers from an "enthusiastic mediocrity."
We trust that in saying all this, nobody will interpret us as having some sort of bad attitude toward local music -- although we confess that we've sat and stood through a whole lot of enthusiastic mediocrity from locals this year. But when it came time to sort through stacks of records and recall the good ones, we had little problem coming up with a sizable pile of local CDs we got a genuine kick out of. So, then, here are 25 we remember quite fondly, listed in no particular order:
El Stew (Om)Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.
Mushroom, Analog Hi-Fi Surprise
Joe Goldmark, All Hat --
No Cattle (HMG)
Quannum Spectrum (Quannum Projects)
Halou, We Only Love You (Bedazzled)
Matmos, The West (Deluxe)
Oranger, Doorway to Norway
(Pray for Mojo)
Blackalicious, A2G EP
Paula West, Restless (Noir)
For Stars, Windows for Stars
Tin Hat Trio, Memory Is an
Johnny Dilks & His Visitacion Valley
Boys, Acres of Heartache (HMG)
Mumble and Peg, This Ungodly Hour
Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break
The Old Joe Clarks, Metal Shed Blues
Grandaddy, Signal to Snow Ratio EP
Joaquina, The Foam and the Mesh
Tilt, Viewers Like You (Fat
Bitesize, The Best of Bitesize
Tom Armstrong Sings Heart Songs
I Am Spoonbender, Teletwin (GSL)
Beth Custer, In the Broken Fields Where
I Lie (self-released)
Rodriguez, Swing Like a Metronome
(Devil in the Woods)
Brian and Chris (This Record Label)
Various Artists, Bay Area Rockers:
San Francisco Rockabilly and
Rock 'n' Roll, 1957-1960 (Ace)