Is there any other rock & roll fad that has lasted as long as surf music? Where are all the modern skiffle groups? There's something uniquely timeless about the sound of surf, and this category is a tribute to the groups that are determined to show just how everlasting and powerful that sound is. This isn't about taking the sound to new dimensions, but about keeping it simple and working with a tried-and-true toolkit to make amazing music.
Santa Anna Bay Coconuts - Harbor City Surfing
I keep coming back to "The Transporter" on this one. The guitar sounds so great and really tumbles and flows with a considerable weight, but then flits about lightly and breezily. It's a great example for this record, which wields considerable power (thanks in part to some excellent engineering) while moving at its own pace. Their cover of Margaya actually gets me fired up without just wanting to hear the original.
Surfer Joe - World Traveler
Lorenzo, like the rest of us, has been grounded and neither able to flit about the globe nor bring the globe to Livorno as he has been. Predictably and thankfully, the best he can do is make a record about it. As somebody known for a specific interest in The Astronauts, there's a piece to that sound in this record that I haven't heard as much in his previous ones: the humming, nearly drone-like hypnotic bassline. It's such a welcome addition, and makes me feel so much more focused and driven, giving something for my gut to feel while my brain focuses on his lead guitar. Can't wait for another chance to see this live.
JJ and the Trash Dogs - Donde Estas
Avocados - ¡Ensalada!
Los Blue Marinos - Big Mamma
There's not a whole lot of Blue Marinos material out there -- since 2014 they've released 14 songs by my count -- but everything they've done has been Grade A. They've got a buttoned-down-and-proper modern-traditional surf tone with few surprises but great energy and strong melodies. They try on a little bit of a western sound on "Nuevo Oeste" that I think works well, but my favorite is the more restrained "Punto Limite". If this is the first you've heard of them, buy everything and listen to it all as if if it's one LP.
Surf Zombies - In Color
And the Gremmy Goes to...
Blackball Bandits - The Cursed Island
The concept of traditional surf is a tricky thing. Blackball Bandits employ a pretty traditional set of gear and techniques for surf music, but their songwriting just feels more expansive than what I would expect to hear from a 60's musician. It's less riff-based, less full of teenage spit and more thoughtfully arranged than period music. There are reasons to love both approaches. But here's what's important: after listening to everything mentioned above, I think The Cursed Island was (narrowly) the best album made this year with a classic surf sound.
This record starts out with might, the title track loudly introducing you to adventure -- sort of feeling like an opening title sequence, then launching right into a gigantic march with "Bullshark". There's something about Blackball Bandits that makes them feel more narrative than most surf groups, creating settings as well as feelings, each song a short vignette. Take "Chutes and Ladders" which starts with bright tones, but slips into a quick-picked moment that cuts to tension, then returns to beautiful release. And then there's one of my favorite tracks this year, 'The Wolves and the Fireflies", a song that feels like it has several distinct scenes but switches between each seamlessly and, most importantly, thrillingly.
This is a grand release from this group, but not a giant leap. There's no new special sauce added to the mix since their previous debut LP. These guys have been doing imaginative things with a familiar surf sound since day one -- and that's a great thing. Some bands will give you one truly inspired album, but the time-honored surf groups are the ones that give you something outstanding each time for decades, and I think that's the sort of group we have here.