Maybe it didn't feel like it, but 2013 was a landmark year for electronic dance music in the Bay Area. For the first time in what seems like forever, there was once again a thriving underground scene, and that's largely due to the efforts of a small network of new record stores, carefully planned parties, and producers who've chosen to stay despite the rent increases. Here, then, are our picks for the best Bay Area dance music releases of 2013.
1. Patrick Cowley, School Daze LP Re-issue (Dark Entries/Honey Soundsystem)
HI-NRG dance icon Patrick Cowley died of AIDS in 1982, but his presence still looms large in San Francisco. Yet while most everyone is familiar with his hits — Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" being an easy touchstone — the earlier, more abstract side of his work has been largely unknown. School Daze rectifies this by compiling 16 lost compositions, recorded between '73 and '81, that were later used to score gay porn films. Its tracks play out like a vision of the future sent from the past, with hypnotic and tripped-out sonic experiments that, on closer inspection, reveal themselves as a part of the blueprint for dance music as we know it today. It might seem strange to choose a compilation of this vintage as our No. 1, but that decision is as much for Cowley's genius as it is to honor Honey Soundsystem and Dark Entries, the two excellent local labels that sought out this material and worked tirelessly to ensure it got its due.
2. Afrikan Sciences, Theta Wave Brain Sync LP (Deepblak)
While many producers have contented themselves with exploring dance music's past, Oakland's Afrikan Sciences (aka Erik Porter Douglass) is concerned with its future. Theta Wave Brain Sync is Douglass at his most out-there, with slippery live jazz bass riffs and lush chords providing the only point of reference in a record dominated by polyrhythms so convoluted and complex that they'd be confusing if they didn't have a constant pulse. Hearing him invent this order from chaos is astonishing. It's alien music that's genuinely forward-thinking.
3. Vereker, Rosite EP (L.I.E.S.)
Darkness and abrasion combine in Recondite, the second EP from Oakland producer Vereker on New York's highly respected L.I.E.S. imprint. Its three cuts descend into a bleak rhythmic zone that's submerged beneath a layer of fizzing tape hiss. The highlight is "Disconnect," which is hypnotic and minimal in its approach, with a sound that evokes the industrial-strength warehouse techno of the early '90s. Punk rock is an association that's often floated when discussing artists affiliated with L.I.E.S., and here that's particularly apt here: This is brutally uncompromising dance music from one of the Bay Area's most gifted underground talents.
4. Bobby Browser, Still Browsing EP (100% Silk)
Despite being a fringe genre for many years, deep house is currently on the rise in the Bay Area. One of the bigger figures in this scene is Bobby Browser. His Still Browsing EP expands upon his vision, moving away from the atmospheric dance music of his early work and into more dancefloor-oriented territory, with wailing divas, jazzy melodic samples, and a '90s New York-inspired percussive shuffle.
5. Ghosts on Tape, "No Guestlist" / "Sill Got The Feeling" Single (Icee Hot)
If you spent any time in San Francisco's more forward-leaning clubs this year, chances are high that you're well acquainted with Ghosts on Tape's "No Guestlist"/"Still Got The Feeling." The A-side in particular has been an anthem, with its Lil' Louis "Club Lonely" dialogue sample ("Miss thing, there is no guest list tonight!") carried by aggressive drums, sharp stabs, and an uptempo energy that's evocative of the producer's breakneck DJ sets.
6. Matrixxman, The XX Files EP (Fifth Wall)
It's been a breakout year for Matrixxman, and a lot of that is due to the techno-tinged grooves on The XX Files EP, from New York it-label Fifth Wall. It leads with "Case Closed," a dubbed-out bass line frenzy that bounces improvised synthesizer riffs off a surface of claps and kicks. That track earned him favor with an international audience, but it was the snake rattle drums of "Protocol" that made this EP such a hit in the S.F. underground.
7. Tone of Arc, The Time Was Right LP (No.19 Music)
One of the biggest surprises of 2013 came from local tech-house duo Tone of Arc. The duo's debut LP neatly defines a sound that's as much club-ready bass line dance music as it is an oddball mish-mash of psychedelic, no-wave freak-outs. Throw in a cover of Q Lazarus' '80s Italian disco anthem "Goodbye Horses," and you have one of the best pop-oriented dance music LPs to come from the Bay Area in years.
8. Vin Sol, It's House EP (Soo Wavey)
The pairing of local producer Vin Sol and Chicago house heavyweight Tyree Cooper is one that clearly should have happened years ago. On It's House, Sol dives into a murky, atmospheric mood, with droning synthesizers and crisp hi-hat patterns, all of which is made fresh by spoken-word vocals from Cooper.
9. Max + Mara, Less Ness LP (Dark Entries)
The past year has seen the rise of a bleaker current in Bay Area dance music. A lot of it revolves around the burgeoning dark wave club scene, where DJs play freshly uncovered '80s goth obscurities. One consequence of this is that there are now new groups putting a modern spin on this sound, such as Max + Mara, whose debut LP, Less Ness, successfully marries techno club appeal with the gloomy atmospherics of yesteryear.
10. Blue Soul, Summer Trip EP (Roam Recordings)
We're not sure what it is, but there's something so San Francisco about the funky, electronic sound of '80s disco. Case in point is Blue Soul's Summer Trip, a laid-back EP whose titular single combines soulful vocals (courtesy of local singer Marissa Guzman), chunky analog synth hits, and dreamy electric piano chords for one serious late-night dancefloor anthem.