I've listened to tons of music this year. For weeks, I've pained over my top choices. Now, I give you the six—actually, seven—best local albums of 2012:
6. It's a tie! 1977, The Black Sands (self-released); Awake Now, The Midnight Pine (self-released): With his clanking homemade percussion and endless pages of lyrics, songwriter Alfred Howard is one of the finest musicians in San Diego. But things wouldn't be the same if he didn't have so many other fine musicians to work with. Thus, we get these two lovely Howard efforts— both feature wonderful singers (The Black Sands' Heather Marie Janiga and The Midnight Pine's Shelbi Bennett) and a host of skilled players who play reflective, brooding country-folk.
5. Brushbloom, The Tree Ring (self-released): When it comes to making beautiful folk music, The Tree Ring know how it's done. With help from the Camarada chamber group, the band gets extra-gor geous on Brushbloom, delivering thick, harmonious layers of strings, woodwinds and piano. Want some advice? Put on "Hummingbird Pause" when you're about to propose to your lady or man, and bust out the ring as the ensemble goes aflutter like a flock of doves. I'm sure you'll get a "Yes."
4. With Us, The Burning of Rome (Surfdog): For a band as crazy as The Burning of Rome, With Us might initially come across as surprisingly normal: Their songs are tight and polished, boasting honed melodies, big riffs and sing-along choruses. Listen closer, though, and you'll notice an obsession with madness and murder (see: "Norman Bates," "Why Can't I Stop Killing My Friends?"). Taking a cue from Mr. Bungle, the quartet has conformed to pop convention just enough that their shocking weirdness can attract a wider audience. The unsuspecting listener might have no idea what he's being injected with until it's too late.
3. Kill Your Present Future, Left Handed Scientists (2012 Dynasty): Orko Eloheim can't be stopped: A father of the city's underground hip-hop scene, he's dropped three albums in the last year or so alone, including the ambitious Kill Your Present Future. The album finds Orko and fellow rapper Bazerkowitz performing as a duo (and joined by a number of other locals), conjuring futuristic, intergalactic, politically charged visions over dense beats that shift between mid-tempo string samples and breakneck drum 'n' bass. While it may take multiple listens to unpack lines like, "I'm laughing at the Mayan calendar on acid in a spaceship," the album's visceral energy hits you right away.
2. Strange Heaven, Mrs. Magician (Swami): These guys may be a Godless bunch of hipsters—their song "There is No God" once made a little girl cry—but they sure as shit care about pop songwriting. Every song on this debut full-length is a potential hit, with the band's brisk beats and muscular surf-punk licks offering more indelible hooks than you'll find in a fisherman's tackle box. Of course, Mrs. Magician doesn't reach Beach Boys levels of genius, so don't even go there. But in a crowded field of youthful garage-pop efforts—many of them forgettable, some downright insufferable—Strange Heaven is bound to remain a tart, unsparing delight through many listens to come.
1. Breakthrough, The Gaslamp Killer (Brainfeeder): This wild-haired DJ and producer probably wouldn't have gotten to where he is today without leaving his hometown of San Diego eight years ago. His personality is too big, his skills too insane, to be contained in this laid-back city—he needs a global stage, and L.A.'s famed beat scene has been the perfect launching point. Still, this Killer, William Ben sussen, keeps San Diego close. Breakthrough, his debut full-length, features contributions from several current and former locals (most notably the wizardly singer Gonjasufi and the mysterious drum genius MRR), who bring soul to a dark-yet-playful sound. Of course, most Gaslamp club-goers would probably cover their ears if they heard these beats—just as they did with the Killer's DJ sets a decade ago. But you know what? Fuck them. In many ways, Breakthrough clarifies and advances the dirty aesthetic that San Diego's underground has long nurtured, and it's about time we recognize what we have.