Best Music of the East Bay 

Our critics select the best local albums of 2005.

The Skygreen Leopards
Life and Love in Sparrow's Meadow

Not since Sir Douglas Quintet's Mendocino or David Crosby's If Only I Could Remember My Name has a Bay Area group released a perfect soundtrack for getting high and getting lost in nature. Life and Love in Sparrow's Meadow is folksy, drunk-on-nature psych-pop sending me into the same woozy haze as a Sunday spent traversing Mount Diablo, which is why my mind was totally blown when I first heard Leopards vocalist Glenn Donaldson croon, in a choked, time-halting falsetto, Sunday on Mount Diablo ...
(Jagjaguwar)
-- J.F.

Mike Marshall
Love, Lies, and Life

This comeback album from the almost-forgotten Timex Social Club frontman balances honest, highly personal songwriting with catchy hooks, exquisite vocal harmonies, and thrilling cameo appearances by a host of local rappers. From club bangers to poignant ballads, Love, Lies, and Life blends classic and neo-soul ("Sunshine," "Sweet") with the up-to-date urban attitude of the New Bay movement ("Tryin Na Leave wit Somethin"). At the root of it all is Marshall's soulful crooning, smooth enough to turn a cloudy day into sunshine.
(Million Dollar Dream) -- E.K.A.

Charming Hostess
Punch

With three amazing female vocalists and three multi-instrumental whiz kids in their crew, Charming Hostess sounds like a cross between Jethro Tull, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and a Bulgarian wedding band fronted by the punk-rock auxiliary of the Bulgarian Women's Choir. Hearty, soulful, righteously infuriated, daffy, vibrant, and incredibly alive.
(ReR) -- M.K.

Meat Beat Manifesto
At the Center

A drunk hobo reads Craigslist postings at an open mic in the middle of this record. Turns out it's a super-rare sample of Beat poet deity Lawrence Ferlinghetti doing a reading during a long, lost night in San Francisco. Meat Beat Manifesto's Jack Dangers found the magnetic tapes in a Marin County basement, and it's just one of the peculiar samples he throws at you in this jazzy, one-of-a-kind record.
(Thirsty Ear) -- D.D.

Inca Ore
Inca Ore

For most of '05, Eva Saelens (aka Inca Ore) resided at Grandma's House, an Oakland warehouse and performance space full of underground freaks, wherein she recorded two vocal-based "noise" discs that collected multilayered, indie/New-Age vocal meditations. Now the first disc, Brute Nature vs. Wild Magic, was cool, but the second self-titled offering is truly epic: a droning exploration of how the human voice can be crafted to sound like all kinds of purring machinery.
(Collective JYRK) -- J.F.

The Wooden Cupboard

Boiling the Animal in the Sky

To choose a single disc from the handful released this year by the Skaters (as well as the SF duo's interrelated side projects) is nigh impossible. But if you insist, the Wooden Cupboard is the solo tag for Skater-man James Ferraro, and Boiling the Animal in the Sky is his Eastern-flavored, static-soaked dream wherein the trembling white noise of the Velvet Underground melts into the sacred soul of Curtis Mayfield.
(Pseudo Arcana) -- J.F.

Casual
Smash Rockwell

This one sets Casual apart from his Hiero brethren: Characterized by street slang and gritty basslines, Smash Rockwell is an excellent album for hip-hop fans whose taste veers more toward turf bangers than backpacker fare, but who still seek variation and musicianship in an artist's beats, and favor lyrics that transcend the average dope-game ditty or booty ballad. The Too $hort, Richie Rich, and E-40 cameos are excellent to boot.
(Hiero Imperium) -- R.S.

Will Bernard Trio
Directions to My House

Versatile guitarist Will Bernard has earned the respect of peers in many different spheres, from the realm of funk to the land of free improv. At the helm of a perfectly attuned guitar trio that is occasionally augmented by special guests, he answers the musical question, "What do you get from the man who has everything?" with a blend of jazz, fusion, and whatever else suits the need of the moment.
(Dreck to Disc) -- D.B.

Mistah FAB
Son of a Pimp

In a good year for homegrown hip-hop (and Oakland in particular), Mistah FAB emerged from the same inner-city corners that produced Too $hort and Keak da Sneak to deliver an instant Yay Area classic. Don't be confused by the album's title: Although Son of a Pimp delivers the hyphy-ass sideshow soundtracks it promises, FAB is far from a one-note rapper. His versatility is evident in the album's range, which veers from scraper-approved turf anthems ("Super Sick wid It") to surprisingly poignant and poetic social commentary ("If 'If'Was a Fifth"), which suggests this is only the tip of FAB's iceberg.
(Thizz Entertainment) -- E.K.A.

13 & God
13 & God

I dare you to take a stab at describing this band without sounding pretentious. "So these German electronica dudes collaborated with these Oakland experimental rappers and ..." (eyes glaze over). Your friends start thinking you went to art school. It's best to just throw on "Perfect Speed" at a party and ignore any questions. If you must, answer in choreographed mime.
(Anticon) -- D.D.

Turf Talk
Brings the Hood

It's appalling that hip-hop fans pretty much slept on Brings the Hood while busy nutting over the Ying Yang Twins or whatever, because this album is a banger. The production is exciting -- purposefully tinny, with rooster voice samples and the constant sound of things being slapped, clunked, and scraped clean. Turf Talk, for all his thizzing and dope-game checking, seems like a cute, ungovernable child; the only difference is a set of gold teeth and his stash of purple and yak.
(Sick wid It) -- R.S.

Zion-I
True & Livin'

This East Bay duo matured into one of the most dependable groups in hip-hop on its third album -- Amp Live may be the most underrated producer west of the Rockies, while Zion has evolved into a marquee MC. True & Livin' swings from heartfelt expressions of regional pride ("The Bay") to deep-rooted excursions into funky blues ("Oh Lawd") to aesthetically solid boom-bap ("Doing My Thing"). Conscious yet rugged, it's Zion-I's best all-around joint to date, one that won't soon play out, no matter how often it's played.
(Live Up) -- E.K.A.

J.C. Hopkins' Biggish Band featuring Queen Esther
Under a Brooklyn Moon

Ex-Flophouse singer and guitarist Hopkins leaves folk-rock and noise-rock to discover his inner Hoagy Carmichael (or maybe Johnny Mercer?), forms a big band in the spirit of Basie and Kenton without being an imitation, gets a Southern singer whose voice is rich with the blues, and they all go swingin' on a star, carrying moonbeams home in a jar ... Brooklyn is his oyster.
(Tigerlily) -- M.K.

Why?
Elephant Eyelash

This Berkeley act starring a 26-year-old former messianic Jew gets a lot of mileage out of one failed relationship, but his quartet is always doing a lot with a little. Elephant Eyelash's songs were recorded on four-tracks in hillside living rooms -- "If I wanted to get really reverby, I recorded in the shower," Wolf says. But instead of sounding cheap and crappy like our home recordings would, these tunes sound huge and confident for such sensitive material.
(Anticon) -- D.D.

Thee More Shallows
More Deep Cuts

Like early Low, these Shallows are unassumingly subdued so as to make you listen more closely. More Deep Cuts combines minimalism, psychedelia, folk-rock-ish melody, and distortion like virtually no one else since the Young Marble Giants and the Feelies.
(Turn) -- M.K.

Golda Supernova
Lava

With girlish looks, a Hot Topic-y style, and a voice that recalls (and sometimes transcends) early Gwen Stefani, Golda Supernova is undoubtedly one of the best undiscovered rock stars in the East Bay. On Lava, she switches from bubbly to bitchy on a dime, flaunting all the kinks and quirks in her personality. Her emotional heft, unpredictability, and sweeping vocal range make this album worth the ducats, even if you're not a fan of punk or indie-pop.
(Self-released) -- R.S.

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