10 Essential San Francisco Albums

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Welcome back to the Treble World Tour, a series of Top 10s covering albums that best represent certain locations—cities, states, territories, even entire nations. We consider representative releases on three levels: they were made by artists from a place, they contain music about or inspired by the place, and/or they were made in that place. As this week brings us the first new album by Bay Area alt-metal innovators Faith No More in 18 years, Sol Invictus, and next month brings new music from Sun Kil Moon, we took a drive up the coast to the City by the Bay. San Francisco has been the backdrop for decades of evolution and revolution in popular music, from the psychedelic rock of the 1960s, to the thrash metal scene of the 1980s, on up to the vibrant garage rock revival in recent years. When considering this list, we had to decide whether to expand this to Oakland and Berkeley as well; we opted against that for the time being. Oakland could just as easily warrant its own separate list, thanks to its robust hip-hop heritage. And San Francisco proved fairly overwhelming on its own; even with this list of albums recorded in, and inspired by San Francisco, we left out records by Journey, Chris Isaak, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and other pleasures, guilty or not. So here’s our list of essential San Francisco albums, riding in on a cable car with flowers in its hair.

San Francisco albums Surrealistic pillowJefferson Airplane Surrealistic Pillow
(1967; RCA)

One of San Francisco’s most recognizable bands at the time, and artistic forebearers for the folky psychedelia that would define ‘67’s Summer of Love, Jefferson Airplane had set all the right traps to capture a perfect record on Surrealistic Pillow. Its misty folk brings the ‘painted ladies’ of Haight-Ashbury to mind, and there’s something about the texture of every song here that feels like a perfect Northern California summer. And, as if the record couldn’t get any more San Francisco-y than that, the presence of the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on many of the record’s standout tracks has been long rumored. But, Jerry or no Jerry, Surrealistic Pillow finds the band’s line up at its strongest, offering smooth pop (“She Has Funny Cars,” “How Do You Feel”), powerhouse rock (“Somebody to Love,” “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds:), blissful acoustic pieces (“Today,” “Embryonic Journey”), and the shaking, genre-defining “White Rabbit.” It’s not an easy record to put a finger on, but sure is a hard one to put down. Indeed, Surrealistic Pillow is still inspiring many an imitator well into the 21st century. – ATB

Blue Cheer - Vincebus EruptumBlue CheerVincebus Eruptum
(1968; Philips)

Being the epicenter of American counterculture means that, when one movement reaches a saturation point, there’s another one to counter that movement just around the corner. A year after the Summer of Love, when the hippies had taken over (not really, it took a while for Vietnam to wind down, of course), bluesy psychedelic rock trio Blue Cheer took the acid-rock sound that had emerged in the years prior and beefed it up, made it louder, and took it to a new extreme. In hindsight, Blue Cheer was just a few steps away from playing heavy metal, of which they were one of the greatest influences. Their debut album, Vincebus Eruptum, pulses and throbs with heavy riffs and fuzz-laden licks. In fact, their cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” which opens the album, is often cited as the first-ever heavy metal song (runner up goes to The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”). In 1968, there wasn’t much heavier, and given how much innovation there has been in metal in the Bay Area, it’s only fitting that its origins trace back to a trio just around the corner from Haight-Ashbury. – JT

San Francisco albums Grateful DeadGrateful DeadAmerican Beauty
(1970; Warner Bros.)

There might be no psychedelic rock movement and no jam-band phenomenon—and “classic rock” might look far different than it does today—without the presence of The Grateful Dead. And we certainly wouldn’t know the most famous residents of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood the way we do without this fourth album in their catalog. The Dead’s importance to the drug-music subculture threatens to undermine just how pleasant, accessible, and almost simple American Beauty is, and that its reach for sonic joy was attempted in the shadow of the death of bassist/vocalist Phil Lesh’s father. Recorded in the infancy of local Wally Heider Studios, the band’s humble melodies recall their friends in Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and their plangent instrumentals suggest The Byrds and other early jangle-pop. Put together, there’s a raggedly reverent quality to this music hinting at the dusty bluegrass and spirituals popularized by O Brother Where Art Thou?. And with at least five of their best-known songs on it—from the outlaw blues of “Friend of the Devil” to their de facto anthem “Truckin'”—it’s about as good a gateway drug to the Grateful Dead as you’re going to find.- AB

Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit For Rotting vegetablesDead KennedysFresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables
(1980; Alternative Tentacles)

At my first or second college house party, I took part in my (now extremely familiar) party routine of finding a quiet spot where the weird kids were hiding, usually with some cats or other cast-off and frightened pet, and some headphones of their own to drown out whatever top 40 hits everyone else was pretending to want to dance to. At this particular party, there were some punks from around the way who didn’t even go to my college, but came to the parties for the free booze. By that time, I had been into punk for a while, but had never heard of the Dead Kennedys. In Ohio, the punks I hung with didn’t care for the west coast punk scene, so I went my teenage years never getting a dose of the Kennedys, X, etc. When I got handed the headphones, I heard the first lines of “Kill The Poor”: “Efficiency and progress is ours once more / Now that we have the Neutron bomb.”

And like that, I walked around campus all autumn, listening to Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. Everything about it calls to the tearing apart of comfort. The dark cover with the burning police car, the lyrics packed with tongue-in-cheek parody, but also brutal and stinging honestly. It was unlike any punk album I’d ever heard before, telling a story so rich and unfamiliar to my Midwestern upbringing, and in a way that didn’t take itself seriously. The album is, perhaps, the ultimate slap in the face. The ultimate thing to wake you from whatever daze you find yourself currently walking in. An essential set of anthems for a jaded coast. A reminder: The world will not wait for you. It will just keep decaying. – HA

San Francisco albums EverclearAmerican Music ClubEverclear
(Alias, 1991)

The hungover dolor of San Francisco in the early ‘90s was no illusion: low cloud cover at night, Castro Valley flats emitting faint lamplight over streets dispirited by past earthquakes and a syndrome that stayed too long. Everclear was a loner album, the ideal soundtrack to a place beset, at least temporarily, with loners. Mark Eitzel wrote songs from a standpoint of assumed dismissal with one of the saddest voices wrought from the post-punk era, and Everclear covered all that anguish with a manic range of approach. “Why Won’t You Stay” and “Jesus’ Hands” were small prayers that opened and closed the album respectively; in between Eitzel walked a tightrope between dishing out and being unable to follow his own advice. “Rise” sought one fragment of joy for its subject in spiraling, U2-like ascent, and “Ex-Girlfriend” both rationalizes away and realizes the folly of rationalizing away. Eitzel conveyed resignation in all characters, from the unraveling AIDS patient in “Sick of Food” to the crazily embittered challenger of “The Dead Part Of You.” Undercut with Vudi’s cumulus-cloud guitar and a policy of echo, Everclear is an aching, beautiful wormhole with despair and survival at either end. – PP

San Francisco albums Faith No MoreFaith No MoreAngel Dust
(1992; Slash)

San Francisco is a city that is hard to pin down, and Bay Area band Faith No More embodies that ethos. Their rise to fame began in the late ’80s, when their breakthrough album The Real Thing fused hip-hop, metal, and funk to create a unique, edgy sound. The Real Thing was mostly written by the band, and Mike Patton mostly came in and sang what had been penned already for former vocalist Chuck Mosely. However,  Patton’s presence and influence would be felt in a big way on their follow-up album. Patton, who was also simultaneously in the bizarro circus/art rock band Mr. Bungle, led the band with the same caffeine-fueled recklessness and weirdness that are now his trademark. The result? Angel Dust, a brilliant, manic, confusing mess of a masterpiece. The album begins with the highly sarcastic funk-metal piece “Land Of Sunshine”, with lyrics that were lifted from fortune cookies and questions from a Scientology assessment. “Midlife Crisis” is an aggressive bruiser of a song, one that many fans hail as their most defining track. The album has driving funk metal, as seen in tracks like “Everything’s Ruined” and “Crack Hitler,” along with apocalyptic anthems like “Smaller and Smaller” and “Caffeine,” and even funk rock laced with thoughtful reflections, as heard in “A Small Victory.” However, the band never even attempts to take itself seriously. Songs like “RV” and “Midnight Cowboy” completely take you by surprise, as “RV” is a sinister Country tune about, well, an unlovable loser who lives in an RV, and “Midnight Cowboy” is an accordion driven instrumental cover of the main theme iconic ’70s movie which shares the name. The album is dark and brilliant, childish and wise, rabid and subdued—the perfect collection of musical paradoxes. – TH

essential 4ad tracks red house paintersRed House PaintersRed House Painters [Rollercoaster]
(1993; 4AD)

Mark Kozelek, San Francisco’s sulkiest, sassiest singer-songwriter, wasn’t always so rash in his songwriting. In his earliest days with slow-core quartet Red House Painters, his wit was already sharp, but more frequently turned toward his own doubts and regrets. The band’s first self-titled record, frequently called “Rollercoaster” in tribute to its melancholy cover art, wasn’t just recorded in San Francisco by a local band; its songs and stories frequently reference the city’s characters and geography. Amidst references to the Bay Area’s rolling fog, and its many hills (which must have been a sight for the Ohio-via-Atlanta transplant), there are more specific references to Nob Hill’s Grace Cathedral Park, a dark apartment in Chinatown and Kozelek’s favorite rollercoaster (It’s “the one only sissies ride,” in case you were wondering.) Throughout the record Kozelek, drummer Anthony Koutsos, bassist Jerry Vessel, and guitarist Gorden Mack capture the phenomena of feeling lonely and desperate in a beautiful place, surrounded by people. It’s a dark album, and Kozelek himself has said it’s the hardest for him to play back for personal reasons, but those same unfortunate complications only serve to enhance the raw, confessional meditations found throughout Red House Painters. Whenever you need a bit of escape, it’s the perfect album. – ATB

San Francisco albums GirlsGirlsAlbum
(2009; Matador)

Adversity is a common motif among stories of artistic success. As someone who grew up in the infamous Children of God cult, escaped to Texas with his sister at age 16, and worked a series of miscellaneous odd-jobs until 25, Girls frontman Christopher Owens has experienced his share of it. But Album, the band’s 2009 San Francisco debut, was not a record that wallowed in self-pity—it embraced sadness, but mostly documented the struggle to live unencumbered by the past. “Lauren Marie,” the poignant centerpiece of their genre-riddled pop album, decries sitting around and “thinking about the awful things that get you down,” rather than glorifying sullen dread. San Francisco was a city of redemption for Owens. The talented songwriter might have trudged into obscurity as a supermarket shelf stocker had he not been able to leave Amarillo with the help of an aging oil tycoon. In that sense, Album is less inspired by the city itself, and more by the restorative ideal it represents. But to be fair, the romanticization isn’t too far off the mark. – JM

San Francisco albums Putrifiers IIThee Oh SeesPutrifiers II
(2012; Castle Face)

John Dwyer lives it—he plays as hard as he works, and vice versa, and when he announced that his long-running garage-psych outfit Thee Oh Sees were going on hiatus, the break was short enough to nearly go undetected. And even that was likely just to give Dwyer some time to record an album under his Damaged Bug alias. For nearly a decade, The Oh Sees have cranked out at least one album a year, and even more impressive than the output is the consistency. There’s not a bum record of the bunch; still, if you want to highlight a favorite, Putrifiers II is hard to top. Echoing San Francisco’s past (“Wax Face” sounds a lot like an update of Blue Cheer’s ferociously heavy psych) while standing as an emblem of the recent wave of garage rock that put the city on the map yet again for its underground sounds, Putrifiers II is defined as much by its energy as it is songwriting. When Dwyer lays back into a sunny groove, as on “Hang A Picture,” it’s euphoria. When he guides the band through a hand-clapping psych stomp, as on “Flood’s New Light,” it’s perfection. Not that perfection is really Dwyer’s angle—Thee Oh Sees are at their best when they get a little chaotic, after all. For several years in the late ’00s and early ’10s, people and blogs buzzed about a new San Francisco scene with the same reverence and excitement as there might have been way back when the LSD tap was open and flowing. You can thank Thee Oh Sees for that. – JT

Deafheaven - SunbatherDeafheavenSunbather
(2013; Deathwish Inc.)

Sunbather is one of the greatest albums of the past five years, if not the greatest. I often wonder how many people found this album, knowing nothing of the band, and purchased it because of its warm and inviting album cover, only to push play on it and be blown entirely back by the black metal/shoegaze expertise that Deafheaven is known for. The glorious production! The unapproachable yet somehow comforting vocals! The brilliance of “Dream House” as an opener, almost a suite of songs packed into one! What I perhaps adore most about this masterpiece is the sharp and screaming vocals clashing with the beautiful writing in the lyrics. Often, we want our gilded lyrics laid bare, with nothing blocking us from drinking them in. Deafheaven makes you work for it. They make this album an album you can’t listen to only once. It defies genre. It defies the coast that the band hails from. I don’t care if people insist that it’s black metal for people who don’t like black metal. It’s a triumphant album for people who want to open all of their windows, turn the volume up, and get blown back by something majestic. – HA

View Comments (4)
  • Child Bearing Man by Little Teeth is one of the greatest albums ever made. 2/3 of the original band went on to form ZOO, which released an excellent album in 2012 called Moist Promise.

  • We’d add to this list:
    Sister Double Happiness – S/T debut
    Toiling Midgets “Sea of Unrest”
    Flipper – “Generic Flipper”
    M-1 Alternative “The Little Threshing Floor”
    Virgil Shaw “Still Falling”
    Bomb – “Hate Fed Love”
    The Tubes – S/T debut
    Michael Franti & Spearhead – “Stay Human”.

  • Superb selection. I’m going to SF for the first time soon and it’s great to listen to all this diversity beforehand and discover some new gems. I’ll also be checking out the Oakland hip hop legacy too.

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