The Best Bay Area Albums of the 2010s

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The Bay Area is a region oozing with creativity in every scene and genre, so summing up a decade of local music in a single short list is no easy task. Here, KQED Arts & Culture's music editor humbly offers 20 of the most memorable and impactful albums of the 2010s.

Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/The Dream
2011, In the Red Records
Thee Oh Sees channel a need for speed on Carrion Crawler/The Dream, an album that finds the garage rockers’ instrumentation lurching at high BPMs between poppy refrains and psychedelic guitar solos that stretch on for miles. Anchored by two drummers, the album’s sturdy rhythm section allows John Dwyer, a ringleader of the San Francisco garage rock scene in the early part of the decade, to get wild and weird with guitars and vocals.

The Seshen, The Seshen
2012, self-released


Seven-piece band The Seshen have proven to be one of the Bay Area’s most fun-to-watch live acts this decade, fusing neo-soul and R&B production with jazzy live instrumentation and fluttering layers of vocals by Lalin St. Juste and Akasha Orr. On their self-titled debut, their group synergy manifests as a kaleidoscopic pop sound that’s sleek and expansive in equal measure.

Shannon and the Clams, Dreams in the Rat House
2013, Hardly Art
This decade saw Oakland rockers Shannon and the Clams transform from warehouse party mainstays to a nationally acclaimed act working with the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach. Full of freewheeling mischief, Dreams in the Rat House swings between sweet doo-wop harmonies, rowdy country stomps and reverb-heavy punk riffs, and Shannon Shaw’s robust, pleading voice overflows with feeling.

Botanist, IV: Mandragora
2013, The Flenser
With the slow pace of elected officials' action on climate change, despair is understandable. Which is why, perhaps, the dark chaos of post-black metal is a fitting genre for Botanist, an artist whose apocalyptic album IV: Mandragora evokes a vengeful Mother Nature wiping out humans. Botanist’s lighting-speed hammered dulcimer infuses the album with eeriness; the artist screeches in a croak that sounds like a thousand-year-old redwood clearing its throat to speak. IV: Mandragora is the sound of nature in revolt.

Queens D.Light, California Wildflower
2014, self-released
Queens D.Light’s California Wildflower unfurls a deep personal mythology to boom-bap beats, jazz interludes and psychedelic flourishes. While discovering new dimensions of her sexuality and capacity for love, Queens looks to the Yoruba deity Oshun, the river goddess associated with luxury and pleasure. In her lyrics, sensuality is a means of connecting with the divine within oneself. This stellar hip-hop debut introduced Queens D.Light as a singular voice whose vision can’t be confined to a single medium, as her multifaceted event curation and filmmaking throughout the 2010s attests.

Kehlani, Cloud 19
2014, Wheels of Steel Ent.
With Cloud 19, Kehlani became known as a prodigious R&B singer-songwriter with angelic, acrobatic vocal runs and lyrics wise beyond her years. Kehlani penned the project shortly after graduating from Oakland School for the Arts. With her warm voice and nostalgic references (Montell Jordan and Musiq Soulchild get shout outs), Cloud 19 and its infectious lead single “FWU” established her as an artist bridging the past and future of R&B. Even after Kehlani’s multiple Grammy nominations and Billboard chart success, this early mixtape remains a cult classic.

Lil B, Hoop Life
2014, Based World Records
Before “Soundcloud rap” became a household term, Berkeley native Lil B was pumping out mixtapes that spanned dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of songs. Though his music varied in quality, Lil B embraced the immediacy of self-publishing on the internet, and used social media to craft a persona (although not without controversy) before such strategies became standard for independent artists. Hoop Life, his NBA-themed mixtape, features a diss track against then-Warriors rival Kevin Durant, and it positioned Lil B to become an unlikely basketball authority as his hometown team ascended to the NBA Championships in 2015. His “curses” on Durant and James Harden became some of the decade’s most memorable basketball lore, and Hoop Life was the soundtrack.

Black Spirituals, Black Interiors
2015, Ratskin Records / 60Hurts
Black Spirituals’ Black Interiors harnesses the improvisational qualities of free jazz, but each note emanating from Zachary James Watkins’ guitar wails with discordant tension, like Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” slowed to a crawl and wrapped in barbed wire. The album established the duo, also comprised of percussionist Marshall Trammell, as one of Oakland’s most innovative experimental acts, bridging the DIY scene, academia and contemporary classical.

P-Lo and Kool John, Moovie!
2015, self-released
As children of the hyphy movement, the East Bay collective HBK Gang evolved the uptempo, homegrown 2000s rap sound into party music for the new generation. A prime example of this is P-Lo and Kool John’s Moovie!, an album best played in the club, or somewhere between 2am and 4am on the way to the afterparty. With “3 White Hoes,” “Blue Hunnids” and “Bitch I Look Good,” the duo gave us minimalist twerk anthems with ample bass to rattle your speakers.

Kamaiyah, A Good Night in the Ghetto
With her viral single “How Does It Feel,” Kamaiyah made a rap anthem for everyday working people trying to make their way in an increasingly unaffordable Bay Area. In contrast to the one-percenter ethos that dominated the radio this decade, her debut mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto speaks to those who don’t necessarily seek excessively flashy things—just comfort and stability. With the feel-good energy of an intimate house party, A Good Night in the Ghetto propelled Kamaiyah as one of the Bay Area’s most well-known voices.

Cherushii, Manic
Cherushii presents her sparkling vision of the dance floor as a place for connection and liberation on Manic, an ebullient collection of house tracks. With its funky pulse and playful synths that shimmy and bounce, the EP recalls '90s house acts like Crystal Waters and Inner City. The instrumental version of the title track features a saxophone solo by Marcia Miget—it’s the project’s most ecstatic highpoint, and a convincing argument for why brass belongs in club music. Cherushii passed away in the Ghost Ship fire the same year Manic was released, and the project lives on as a record of her infectiously joyful vision.

Rayana Jay, Sorry About Last Night
2016, self-released
Drunken regrets, problematic lovers, undefined “situationships”—it’s all part of dating in your 20s, and Rayana Jay’s standout R&B debut Sorry About Last Night captures all of its uncertainties and painful growing pains. Set to smooth, sparse production, her velvety voice takes center stage as she expertly builds earworm melodies. Lead single “Sleepy Brown,” which propelled Jay to the national stage, has a vintage, funky feel you can’t help but sway and step to.

Club Chai, Club Chai Vol. 1
2017, Club Chai
It’s hard to name a collective that’s shaped the Bay Area’s club music scene more this decade than Club Chai. With the compilation Club Chai Vol. 1, 8ULENTINA and FOOZOOL lay out their thesis for the genre-amorphous label and party. The suspenseful original tracks produced by the founders for the compilation give Middle Eastern percussion a ghostly sheen. The album also features work by some of electronic music’s most exciting new voices, including darkwave experimentalist Spellling, techno producer Russell E.L. Butler and haunted cumbia remixer Turbo Sonidero. Each artist pulls from different cultural backgrounds and subgenres, and all push the envelope of what electronic music can be.

King Woman, Created in the Image of Suffering
2017, Relapse Records
King Woman’s slow-burning, sludgy album Created in the Image of Suffering swallows listeners in swathes of heavy distortion. The doom metal project, one of Kristina Esfandiari’s many musical alter-egos, served as an outlet for the artist to process the experience of leaving a religious community. Her droning voice is weighed down by an audible anguish as she parses through her disillusionment with Christianity. Layers of gauzy guitar riffs build up with the ornate intricacy of gothic architecture, and crashing cymbals offer opportunities for deeply satisfying catharsis.

Fantastic Negrito, The Last Days of Oakland
2017, Blackball Universe
Living among Oakland’s extreme wealth inequality can feel maddening, and with The Last Days of Oakland, Fantastic Negrito offers an impressionistic portrait of the opposing forces that define life in the town—the result being a 2017 Grammy award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. With its gritty guitar solos, driving rhythms and Fantastic Negrito’s howling vocals, it captures the cognitive dissonance of witnessing thousands of people who’ve lost their homes living in abject poverty on the streets. The Last Days of Oakland is an urgent dispatch that appeals to listeners’ moral consciousness.

2017, EMPIRE
With their debut mixtape, SOB x RBE jolted the Bay Area awake with their unbridled energy and explosive chemistry of flows. “Anti” and “Lane Switching” quickly rose from viral hits to radio mainstays, showcasing how DaBoii, Slimmy B and Lul G’s gruff barks alongside crooner Yhung T.O.’s soulful-gangster hooks (think the Gen Z version of Nate Dogg). Now a trio without Lul G, SOB x RBE brought on the latest evolution of West Coast street rap—one that’s fiery and aggressive, with whiplash-inducing speed.

Kronos Quartet and Trio Da Kali, Ladilikan
2017, World Circuit Limited
One of the most adventurous ensembles in the contemporary classical world, Kronos Quartet engaged in many unorthodox collaborations this decade. One of the highlights was their work with virtuosic Malian ensemble Trio Da Kali. With singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté’s rich, booming voice, Lassana Mamadou Kouyaté’s dexterous balafon percussion and Mamadou Diabaté’s string work on the ngoni, the album interlaces the liveliness of traditional Malian griot music with elegant string playing. The collaboration proved to be a fruitful one, as Diabaté took part in Kronos’ 50 for the Future Project, which commissions new works from diverse composers each year.

Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift in Decorum
2017, Blue Note
Critics have called Ambrose Akinmusire a trumpet wunderkind since his Berkeley High days, and his live album A Rift in Decorum, recorded at New York’s historic Village Vanguard, shows him pushing his instrument to the limits of its expressive possibilities. Accompanied by bass, piano and drums, Akinmusire’s trumpet oscillates from emanating long, pained wails and running through rapid-fire riffs. The spacious, pensive compositions allow him plenty of room to explore.

Toro y Moi, Outer Peace
2019, Carpark Records
Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace came during a period of the artist stepping into his full powers as a songwriter, performer and visual artist, and the album’s funky celebrations of the creative grind speak to his role as a catalyst in the local scene. For the album, Toro enlisted conga player Brijean Murphy (a formidable solo artist in her own right), whose expert percussion adds richness to Toro’s propulsive grooves. Outer Peace’s upbeat sounds represented a departure from his more wistful, airy chillwave of years past, and its bold, confident energy looks good on him.


Spellling, Mazy Fly
2019, Sacred Bones Records
Bridging darkwave, synth-pop and even disco, Spellling’s Mazy Fly sees the artist adding a full-bodied intricacy to her loop-pedal sorcery. Guest appearances from collaborators on percussion, guitar, violin and sax flesh out Spellling’s layers of looped keys and delicate, lace-like vocals. Within this architecture, the singer explores subtle, spiritual themes—including on the chilling track “Haunted Water,” which delves into the karmic baggage of the transatlantic slave trade.