Sometimes we think of synth and electronic music as coming primarily from NYC, LA, various parts of Europe. But if you’re here in San Francisco, you’ve heard lush and beautiful electronic soundscapes coming from studios big and small throughout the Bay Area. Here are my absolute favorites from 2020.
Balkan Bump: Oakland-based Will Magid’s project has blown up in recent years since signing to Gramatik’s record label. He’s a worthy successor to Gramatik’s earlier works, too. He blends modern EDM backbeats and hi-tech production with various world instrumentation, especially using (of course) the sound of traditional Balkan music. This guy’s sure to pop up in the festival circuit when there is such a thing again in California. But in the meantime, dance yourself into exhaustion with the furiously-paced 2020 album “Osmanity.”
Ponyskull: The solo side project of one of rock band Treasvre’s fantastic female singers. After a series of live performances over the years, she took advantage of this past year’s venue-less live music desert, to finish a long-awaited debut album. “Ponyfoal” is upbeat but surprisingly soulful, danceable deep electronic, sometimes funny, sometimes bitter, always surprising.
Adam Brookes: This accomplished producer, and the former lead singer of Dangermaker, has launched his solo career to some great publicity. His recent single “Piece of Mind” hits that sweet spot of guitar-driven rock blending with synth production. It feels like the glory days of elecropop, back again in full technicolor.
Beats Antique: Hailing from Berkeley and San Francisco, Beats Antique has never failed to be fully original. Their latest single, a collaboration/remix with Gurbax, is representative of their standing tradition of experimental world fusion EDM. It’s that kind of 1:00am-in-the-deep-playa energy that makes us all miss the adventures of years past.
Vice Reine: This electroclash trio gets an honorable mention on the list, as a true San Francisco institution at the heart of the Bay Area’s neo-synthwave movement. They didn’t release any new music this past year, but magical front-pixie Remi has kept the Bay Area synth scene vital and alive through a virtual booking partnership with San Francisco’s DNA Lounge. Check out her project “Star Crash” on social media to learn more about her fantastic streaming concert series.
Great Highway: I can’t make a synth top-20 without mentioning my own San Francisco livetronica band, but I promise it’s not all selfish. Our recent music has been much more group-collaborative versus the early stuff I wrote myself, especially our brand-new “Red Lights” EP. Check out the song “Images” written by our guitarist Sean, the first song anyone else (besides me) wrote about my epic struggles overcoming cancer. It’s heart-wrenching, but I promise it’s uptempo too and will get you dancing.
Audio Terrorist: A high-production industrial techno act reminiscent of 90s electronica. Their 2019 album Who Are You, a tour de force of melding experimental styles, is what I’m most familiar with. But in researching this article, I listened for the first time to their new 2020 single “It’s the End,” which is refreshingly stripped-down and bare, exposing lead singer Kalib’s trembling, uncompromisingly emotional voice. Fun fact, Kalib also has a fantastic local music podcast called Sunday Live, easily findable on YouTube.
Containher: Self-described “synth witch” Containher fires off fast-paced yet moody dance jams with emotional urgency and passion. Slightly more pop and uplifting tones characterize her more recent work as part of a duo called Cloud Like Steps. Check their September single “Chance,” available on Bandcamp, to see what I mean.
Lillian Frances: Hailing from Davis, CA, Lillian’s 2020 album “Moonrise Queendom” is refreshingly uplifting electronic music, in a landscape of otherwise understandably-depressive artists in these dark dim times. It’s a moving and upbeat journey of self-love and empowerment, reminiscent in style to the collaborative Polish Ambassador / Ayla Nereo world beat vocal tracks – our own local Wildlight.
Fungineers: There’s nothing quite like a Fungineers show. Typically staged from the open side of a large truck, their side-stage performances at various electronic music festivals in California have been the stuff of legend. It’s live-DJ’d dance music, meets comedy and sketches, meets rap, meets a cappella and mouth drumming; sometimes rehearsed, sometimes improvised, never dull. The group hasn’t historically been much for recorded music. But they surprised us all with a Spotify album “BLM” this year, blending their signature eccentric style with some fresh social commentary.
Helixxcode: Pop singer/songwriter, pianist, and violinist Suzanne Yada from East Bay recently started this duo with electronic producer Catie Gutierrezto to work out their electronic music muscles a bit. Their debut single “Pulse” is a beautiful melding of acoustic violin with dance bass and beats. In classic Bay Area fashion, it gets you dancing and thinking at the same time, with the lyrics speaking to the tragedy of bigotry and being shamed for differences.
Butaca: This DJ’s stuff is thinky-tronic, so expect to ponder your existence as you listen. His 2020 three-song EP “Feels Like Never” is startling and brave from epic track to track, moving from a drum-and-bass sound to chilltronic sunrise-set stuff, to jazzy piano-based jams. Along the way, it never loses cohesion and feels like one lovely long unified work. It doesn’t hurt that I had the pleasure of meeting this gentleman (well, virtually at least), and he’s as delightful as his music.
Host Bodies: Another of San Francisco’s electronic duos, they’re Tycho-esque ambient textures have been making the rounds of various streaming shows this past year, all played out of a flashing technicolor studio. Watch the sunset while you jam out to their “Live From the Basement” series on YouTube.
Terabyte: If you’ve listened by now to Vice Reine and Containher’s newest stuff, round out the edgy psychedelic synth experience with Terabyte’s 2020 EP “GPS.” It’s eyes-wide-open synthetic expression at its best, and it refuses to be Earthly and boring. I miss her space-y flash-y live shows but am content to feel that same dark enthusiasm pouring out of her recent high-production-value tracks.
Half Measures: Many California artists spent 2020 writing about the fires that raged all around us, as well as the intense protest series taking place all over CA. (Geezus, what a year.) You could likely make a whole playlist of tracks related to these themes. But if you’re looking for just one that captures the frenetic atmosphere of the whole mess, wrapped in a neat minimalist-electronic bow, check out Half Measures and Savegabe with their 2020 collaborative production, appropriately named “Fire.” These two have come a long way, and in surviving the year, their music feels like it’s grown-up fast and matured dramatically right along with the rest of us.
Giraffage: Charlie Yin out of San Jose created his “poppy nonsense” electronic music project to get people feeling good and on their feet. His latest weird and wacky EP “Basketball” doesn’t fail us. It’s a bit more minimalist and sparse versus his lush earlier work, but I’m still a fan.
Senzatimore: This highly collaborative project, also out of San Jose, draws on various guest appearances by other synth musicians to create a unique dark/apocalypse-y feel across the 2020 EP “Mythic.” Every beat is a lightning strike, relentless and gritty. It’s good music for the end of the world, which I guess is where we are now.
NRVS LVRS: A regular of the aforementioned Star Crash concert series, they’ve been making their brand of “cold & dark” electronic music since 2015. But their new 2020 EP “Cult Lite” feels a little lighter on its feet while still maintaining the edge.
Jonah Sun: His songs have a classic feel like the DJs of the early ‘aughts’ (think Chicane and other trance-y chill-out stuff). His latest work is an instrumental release of his emotional opus “Back Then,” worth a listen in both the vocal and non-vocal versions.
RZN8R: Recently he’s transitioned into a refreshing R&B sound, but still with the electro backbeats. Fantastic guest vocalist Kaeli Earle guest-sings (and rap-sings) through the delicious new single “When You Say My Name.”
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