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The Bay's Best: Top 5 Albums of 2015 

Wednesday, Dec 23 2015

2015 was a great year for music in the Bay Area. Debuts were dropped and longtime artists who've been in the game for a minute proved they still got it.

We scoured all sides of the Bay to find the best albums (and in some cases, EPs) from all genres and winnowed the list down to this top five. We ended up with a varied batch, spanning multiple genres — no country though, sorry — that we feel is exemplary not only of the eclectic music scene here but of the Bay Area's diversity.

It was a series of tough decisions, but in the end, these five albums stood out from the rest. We chose albums based not only on their quality and cohesiveness, but on their innovation and overall consistency of good tracks. Check out the online version of this story with our expanded list of Top Albums on our music blog, All Shook Down.

Conscious / Chill Rap
Hella Good by Caleborate
On Hella Good, Berkeley's Caleborate demonstrates that it's possible to make a Bay Area hip-hop record in 2015 on your own terms and in your own style (i.e.: a record that isn't hyphy or has an E-40 cameo). He started by collecting a handful of different producers, finding muses in 17-year-old New Jersey beatmaker Wonderlust and Belgian producer Willem Ardui. Next, he reached out to long-time collaborator Ian Mckee and HBK's Kuya Beats, Drew Banga, and 1-O.A.K. This cadre of producers (and a couple others) created the slate for Caleborate's instrumental chillwave sound and he took it all from there. His flow is conversational and casual, and he sounds alarmingly similar to Chance the Rapper, albeit a few octaves lower. Due to the melange of producers who worked on this project, no two tracks sound alike, ranging from slower raps paired with thick electric guitar riffs ("Kaytra") to thumping, deep house beats flecked with nimble bars ("SMH"). The 22-year-old's tongue-in-cheek, relatable lyrics are sprinkled throughout Hella Good, along with numerous East Bay references that make this project uniquely a Bay Area production. Adrian Spinelli

Indie Rock
Mind Out Wandering by Astronauts, etc.
If there's one thing Astronauts, etc. frontman Anthony Ferraro knows how to do well, it is balance an album. That's good, because Mind Out Wandering, Ferraro's debut album under the Astronauts, etc. moniker, is a rolicking ride of human emotions. There's sadness and yearning, excitement and regret. Rooted in soft rock, Mind Out Wandering has an undeniable '70s twinge, due in no small part to its many guitar solos and Ferraro's vocals, which are reminiscent of something you'd hear from America. Granted, the songs are a bit more serious and contemplative than America's, but that same dreamy, sun-drenched quality is there.

Ferraro, who tours with Toro y Moi as the band's keyboard player, is a classically-trained pianist now based in Oakland who had to abandon advanced musical studies due to severe arthritis. Fortunately, he found a way to continue making music and has been churning out releases under the name Astronauts, etc. since 2012. Mind Out Wandering was recorded at John Vanderslice's analog recording studio, Tiny Telephone, and, was based off of demos that Ferraro made from his basement in 2014, as well as a few from his college days. Jessie Schiewe

Alt-Rock, Neo-Psychedelia
Bodies by Annie Girl and the Flight
In a music industry that's seeing more and more rock artists integrating hip, new electronic beats and bubblegum pop vocals, this band is the life support fighting for San Francisco's shrinking underground alternative rock/folk scene. Filled with dark and dreamy tracks, every single waveform within Annie Girl & The Flight's EP Bodies is pierced with profound, delicate vocals weaved seamlessly between powerful guitar riffs and commanding percussions. Lead singer Annie Lipetz provides a hypnotic voice that adds an alluring and mysterious element to every song. Tracks like "Antidote" demonstrate the true extent of the band's deep layers, with hypnotic guitar sounds that slowly build to thunderous climaxes. The somber vocals on tracks like "Forms" and "Swans" are reminiscent of artists like Mazzy Star, and provide heightened and hypnotic undertones that put any listener into a trance. Bodies marries the disparate elements of psychedelia, anthem rock melodies, raw grungy guitar riffs, and riveting vocals into one complete package. David Sokorski

Hyphy, Gangsta Rap
Tears of Joy by J. Stalin
J. Stalin has been releasing a steady stream of albums, mixtapes, and compilations since at least 2006 — so many, in fact, that there's no consensus on the number. Tears of Joy, Stalin's latest album, was released in October, and there's something about it (The production? The samples?) that makes this release stand out from J. Stalin's other works. This is hyphy at its best, with thumping 808's and heavy bass lines, and it never gets too dark or gangsta. The 23-track (!) album starts off strong with "What's My Name," a smooth slap that seamlessly blends synthy beats with a high-pitched chipmunk voice sample. Next is "Selling Crack," a raw, candid song about J. Stalin's childhood profession that, despite the grave subject matter, manages to be both catchy and upbeat. The album is heavily sprinkled with guest appearances from local Bay Area artists, such as rappers Iamsu!, The Jacka, and Mistah F.A.B., and R&B crooners Rayven Justice and John Hart. For someone who has churned out as much music as J. Stalin has, you might expect his music to be stale and rote, and yet, Tears of Joy is anything but. JS

Indie, Surf-Rock
Headcase by Day Wave
Hot, salty, and sugar-y sweet, with a fine layer of sand between the cracks, a few blades of grass, and a ladybug or two, Headcase, Marin native Jackson Phillips' debut EP, is the sound of summer. It's that liminal state between sleeping and waking, that vantage point of looking out the car window when you're lying down on the backseat. Call it California surf-rock with a little bit of dream pop and a sliver of chillwave, but whatever it is, it's unique. The EP sounds like it was recorded in the middle of a cloud, with its muffled lyrics and overall fuzziness (spoiler: it was actually recorded in Oakland). Phillips, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, has gone through many phases in his career as a musician. He started out as a drummer, heavily influenced by jazz, then turned to singing, and later joined a synth-heavy electro pop band. How he stumbled into the sweet spot that is Day Wave is unclear, but we're grateful for it. Synths might be awesome, but amazing guitar riffs that sound like something from New Order are pretty hard to beat. JS


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Jessie Schiewe


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