It was a banner year for San Francisco and Bay Area indie rock -- at least for those who didn't start ignoring it to go dancing instead. No, really: This year, the local scene grabbed feature-length attention from the New York Times and Pitchfork, and also put out some excellent records. Here are our 10 favorite local indie rock albums of the year, in no particular order:
[Trouble in Mind]
Known until recently as a collaborator and sometime band member of Ty Segall's, Mikal Cronin launched to the forefront of the S.F. rock scene with this year's self-titled debut. Contributions from Segall (on drums) and Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer (on the opening track's flute solo) helped familiarize him to new listeners, but Cronin's work really stands on its own: Lead single "Apathy" is one the catchiest guitar songs we heard all year, but there truly isn't a bad song on this album, from the breezy groove of "Get Along" to the sweet, Beatles-y chorus melody of "Situation." Cronin seems to naturally focus the grungey heft of his local peers into the kind of tuneful cuts that Segall (see below) has only recently begun to explore. So even if it wasn't the debut from an S.F. newcomer, this would be a hugely impressive record.
In a city filled with rock bands, the Dodos manage to sound all their own, and No Color is the Dodos at their best. Its strongest songs, like "Black Night" and "Don't Try and Hide It," perfectly marry Meric Long's uplifting voice and delicate guitarring with the speedy insistence of Logan Kroeber's drum work. (The latter even features background vocals from Neko Case.) It's doubtful that the Dodos' agitated folk will remain captivating indefinitely without further innovation, but No Color is certainly a bracing listen. Nothing else coming out of S.F. this year sounded like it.
For all the hand-wringing about hipsters and their ironic tendencies, there's a lot of utterly sincere pop-rock being made in indie circles these days. This debut from Dominant Legs -- the project of onetime Girls guitarist Ryan Lynch and Hannah Hunt -- wears its feelings on its sleeve, but with more braced optimism than resigned gloom. A palette of New Wave sounds give refreshing sprightliness to songs like "Where We Trip the Light" and "2 New Thoughts About U." And "Already Know That It's Nice" is one of the prettiest come-ons we heard all year, led by Hunt and Lynch's sweetly yearning voices. If you thought the world didn't need another '80s-borrowing pop-rock band, you haven't heard Dominant Legs use its synth pads earnestly.
Thee Oh Sees
Carrion Crawler/The Dream
[In the Red]
San Francisco's weirdest and best psych-rock band, Thee Oh Sees, released two full-length albums in 2011. The second, entitled, Carrion Crawler/The Dream, takes their brittle, singed assault in the most interesting direction, adding a second drummer and continuing the jammy tendencies they explored on last year's 13-minute "Warm Slime." There's still plenty of brutality on new songs like "Contraption/Soul Desert," but this set sees the band exploring the distended rhythms and negative space of Krautrock. (And with two drummers, there are plenty of explorers on hand.) Yet while their songs get longer, Thee Oh Sees sound tighter and more focused than they have in recent years. Crisp performances and drawn-out jams aren't necessarily what comes to mind when we think of Thee Oh Sees, but Carrion Crawler/The Dream proves those are just more things this band can do well.