Top Fifteen Local Releases of 2015 

Our music editor's favorite Bay Area mixtapes, albums, and EPs of the year — in no particular order.

Bells Atlas' EP Hyperlust combines a pop sensibility with deft jazz musicianship.

Bert Johnson/File photo

Bells Atlas' EP Hyperlust combines a pop sensibility with deft jazz musicianship.

Bells Atlas Hyperlust

Bells Atlas' EP Hyperlust fuses high-caliber musicianship with bright, glistening pop. Though the song structures are digestible and familiar, the EP's arrangements are multilayered and expansive, and there's an iridescent quality to the way each song effortlessly shifts melodies and tempos, like light refracted by a glass prism: Keys shimmer, percussion twinkles, bass lines bounce, and the soulful vocals glide throughout with impressive range. Three of the Oakland quartet's musicians have formal jazz backgrounds. Their skilled instrumentation is bold and apparent, though no single player gets overpowered by another. Despite its complexity, Bells Atlas' music never sounds overwrought. Hyperlust is a light, playful blend of jazz, neo-soul, and indie pop that doesn't make a show of the laborious technical training at its core.

Lil B and Chance the Rapper Free (The Based Freestyle Mixtape)

While fans have long regarded the East Bay's Lil B as a digital-age spiritual guru, Chicago's Chance the Rapper's socially conscious social-media presence and upbeat music have also garnered him an ardent following of youthful idealists. The two artists come together as a well-suited yet somewhat unexpected duo on Free (The Based Freestyle Mixtape), a whimsical, improvisational project that brings out the best in the two vocalists. Chance and Lil B's camaraderie is palpable in the humorous ways they play off of each other's lines. While Chance pushes his vocal range, Lil B delivers tighter, denser verses, resulting in a complementary juxtaposition of divergent styles. There are plenty of moments when the project sounds off-the-cuff and unpolished, but that only contributes to its unabashedly childlike sense of play.


Early Life

Oakland rock four-piece Mansion creates an inimitably severe, alchemical sound on its debut LP, Early Life. On a first listen, its guitar-driven instrumentation might come off as a barrage of shrill distortion, but in actuality, its compositions are carefully articulated and rife with unexpected twists. Cacophonous pounding often lapses into digestible pop melodies; grating, messy chords fall into recognizable rhythms that borrow from doom metal and surf rock. Each track contains an assault of jarring noise but pulls back at the right moments to give the instruments room to breath. The musicians use intentionally out-of-tune guitars and broken distortion pedals to cultivate textured sounds that scrape, scratch, and howl, creating an aesthetic that's singularly disconcerting and brutal.

Kool John and P-Lo Moovie!

Kool John and P-Lo portray themselves as partners in crime on a quest for the greatest night of their lives in Moovie!, the HBK Gang affiliates' effervescent collaborative album. Its tracks seduce listeners into the rappers' dimly lit, smoke-filled world, which seems to exist somewhere between last call and the after-party. Piggybacking off each other's lines with wordplay aplenty, the duo is cocky and exuberant and its lyrics offer no shortage of secondhand ego boosts. As the album's sole producer, P-Lo created slow, pared-down beats with ominous bass lines and laser-beam synths that lend the danceable tracks a dark edge. Some of P-Lo's strongest work yet, Moovie! is a testament to why he has become known as one of the central producers defining the current wave of Bay Area rap.

Botanist EP2: Hammer of Botany

Botanist is the solo project of San Francisco auteur Otrebor, who has developed a distinct mythology through his high-drama, melodic black metal discography. With lyrics alluding to a fictional world he calls the Verdant Realm, Botanist's releases chronicle nature's vengeance against humankind, which he presents as an invasive species ravishing the planet. The unrelenting intensity of Botanist's five-track project EP2: Hammer of Botany underscores the misanthropic themes in his work. A hammer dulcimer is his primary melodic instrument rather than a guitar, and its resounding acoustics reverberate, hum, and occasionally soar over the violent rattling of his rapid-fire drumming. Botanist's pitch-shifted vocals demonically croak and screech, embodying the earthen spirits that make his self-created lore so intriguing.

click to enlarge Nef the Pharaoh. - BERT JOHNSON/FILE PHOTO
  • Bert Johnson/File photo
  • Nef the Pharaoh.

Nef the Pharaoh
Nef the Pharaoh

Vallejo rapper and E-40 protege Nef the Pharaoh made waves locally and nationally with his single "Big Tymin," a summer anthem rife with infectious exuberance and hometown pride. The single enjoyed near-ubiquitous popularity, and Nef's self-titled EP soon followed. The project features "Big Tymin" and "Boss Me," another big, upbeat party song, but also delves into vulnerable themes that fans might not expect from the young lyricist. While "Boss Me" and "Meantime" are graphic and raunchy, the EP's other tracks eschew shock factor in favor of subtle, poetic verses. "Come Pick Me Up" is the project's unexpected stand-out song and a testament to Nef's capacity for insightful storytelling. On it, he reflects on his tumultuous upbringing, becoming a father at a young age, and the cycle of poverty and crime in his South Vallejo neighborhood. Amid personal confessions, he delivers poignant societal observations. His ability to pen thoughtful verses as well as infectious hooks positions him as one of the Bay Area's most promising rising artists.

King Woman Doubt

Bandleader Kristina Esfandiari's voice floats over crashing cymbals and clamorous guitars like a looming fog on King Woman's Doubt, the Oakland quartet's four-song doom EP. Its sinister melodies crest into torrential downpours of pounding, heavy instrumentation, and Esfandiari's resounding voice cuts through distorted guitar chords before unleashing into tempestuous, resonant howling. Massive percussion underscores the slow-building tension of her vocals. Esfandiari, who grew up in a Charismatic Christian community she described as "cult-like" in a previous interview with the Express, revealed that she uses rock 'n' roll as a way to exorcise the specters of her past. On Doubt, she converts her angst into a potent source of power, and the record culminates with a satisfying sense of catharsis.


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