The best dance music from the Bay Area in 2021
Acid house and breaks from RITCHRD and Bored Lord, hypnotic techno pop on a DJ-Kicks mix by Jessy Lanza, soulful uplifting house from Space Ghost, and more
My personal two-year timeline at clubs in San Francisco and the East Bay:
February 2020: Moodymann and Soul Clap make all my dreams come true. The remodel at 1015 Folsom has utterly transformed the space for the better.
March 2020: Seeing Galcher Lustwerk at F8 feels uneasy. The next night, Inner City at 1015 Folsom is a ghost town. A week later, everything shuts down.
August 2021: Two weeks after recovering from COVID-19, I join my friend at 7th West and dance and dance. Delta certainly sucked, but the vaccines help.
August - December 2021: I see Abayomi at F8, Jessy Lanza and Taraval at Public Works, Black Coffee and Moodymann at the Bridge Yard, and Eris Drew b2b Octo Octa with Bored Lord at Monument. Things start to seem optimistic.
December 2021: Omicron arrives sooner than Santa. Avalon Emerson drops out of her show at 1015 Folsom, but we go see Ben UFO anyway.
In other words, it’s been a tough time to be a fan of dance music. I love dancing by myself at home as much as anyone, but most of us don’t have Funktion-One systems lying around. And, even if we did, you can’t replace the energy of real people.
Thankfully, none of this seems to have stopped or even slowed local artists. Many went online to stream their DJ sets, many used the time to focus on producing, and many simply took this as a moment to reset—to reimagine what this music could be and who or what we celebrate when we close our eyes and light up a dance floor. House, techno, breaks—whatever your preference, it’s all here for the spinning.
Read on for the best dance music from the Bay in 2021, or shuffle the playlist.
ACID DYNAMICS - RITCHRD
This was one of a few local releases from the past year that made me fall back in love with cassette tapes. Though you can bump these impeccable acid house tracks on your streaming platform of choice, what you’ll miss are the hilarious and enlightening 10-second interludes between them, painting a complete picture of the rave scene in everyone’s imagination: druggy and pure, dumb and revolutionary. Like Bored Lord below, RITCHRD hosts a monthly show on Lower Grand Radio. Essential.
The Last Illusion - Bored Lord
Dubbed “queen of the edit” and one of the 21 Top Breakthrough DJs of 2021 by Mixmag, Oakland’s super prolific rave master Bored Lord released tons of great music this year, starting with an Archival Transmission that featured the all-too-timely banger “Dancing by Myself.” All her work this year, however, culminated in the outstanding four-track EP The Last Illusion, releasing on on T4T LUV NRG, a New Hampshire label co-created by Eris Drew and Octo Octa. Come for the 90s nostalgia (the opening track samples Gwen Stefani) and stay for the acidic, magical breaks.
Diapason Rex - Brogan Bentley
One of my favorite record labels of the past year has been LA’s Leaving Records, which has dropped fire release after fire release by the likes of Arushi Jain, Xyla, and many others. Another gem in their discography: Diapason Rex. It’s an epic electronic journey by Brogan Bentley, who studied electronic music and recording media at Oakland’s Mills College, which is intricately tied to the long legacy of experimental music. Opening with straight up massive jungle before transitioning into pop-tinged breakbeat followed by dark and dirty house, Bentley’s second full-length album is cohesive yet diverse, easy to understand yet deeply complex. It sounds good from the first moment, but definitely deserves repeat listens.
“Wheaties [Experimental Housewife Remix]” - Jerod S. Rivera
I know I’d heard the name Experimental Housewife before—a DJ, drummer, and producer for more than 20 years, the Bay Area artist has toured internationally—but I hadn’t really listened until the first track on Virgo Remixes by Jerod S. Rivera gripped me. While her earlier works tend to dub techno in the vein of Wolfgang Voigt and Basic Channel, the remix of “Wheaties” evolves from being strictly a headphone trip into something that could cast a spell of hypnotic light on the late night dance floor.
“Keep It Movin’” - Izzy Wise
Keep It Movin’ is a delectable four-track EP of afrobeat-inspired house music by SF multi-instrumentalist and DJ Izzy Wise, featuring Smashish and CobraWolfShark. Each of the songs is a fraction of the length of your typical Fela Kuti cut, but they feature that same joyful saxophone and contagious percussion bound to get the dance floor moving. Every song works well but the title track wins.
DJ-Kicks - Jessy Lanza
Jessy Lanza is weird. Her album art is weird. Her music videos are weird. And even though she has played sets around the globe, filling up dance floors with house jams, she always manages to sneak in a little experimental weirdness. She’s also the only person that moved to the Bay Area during the pandemic. That’s pretty weird, but it also means she has automatically become one of my favorite Bay Area DJs. Following a year of fantastic mixes by Special Request, Jayda G, and Disclosure, Lanza was the last artist of 2021 to contribute to the esteemed DJ-Kicks series. “In pursuit of the bleary 4 AM feeling,” Lanza’s mix deeply reflects the artist’s unique style, centered around house but tapping into warped R&B and pop to transform the sound into something seemingly foreign. Immediately danceable, endlessly intriguing.
“One Day at a Time” - Nu:Tone, Lalin St. Juste
Typically, my taste in jungle leans weird, dark, and twisted like Squarepusher, Tim Reaper, and everything put out by Lobster Theremin. But this poppy single by UK producer Nu:Tone featuring Lalin St. Juste, a Haitian-American singer-songwriter based in Oakland, transports me to a beautiful, happy place. Taking it one day at a time—the ideal mantra for life in these “uncertain times.”
“San Francisco [Moto Tembo Edit]” - Emile Mosseri, Daniel Herskedal, Joe Talbot, Michael Marshall
After offering it as the perfect end-of-party drop at their DJ sets over the past year, Oakland producer (and, full disclosure, my buddy) Moto Tembo finally released this labor of love, a 10-minute edit of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” originally featured in the 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. What might have been cheesy transforms into holy and heartfelt deep house.
Dance Planet - Space Ghost
“I really just want to play house music.” It’s not just bucket hats that are back in. It’s late 80s, early 90s house and techno too. Destined to be one of your favorite Oakland producers (if they’re not already), Space Ghosts channels groundbreaking Detroit techno legends Inner City plus early ambient techno innovations by Aphex Twin into a profoundly uplifting and calmly energizing suite of chill dance music. Is this the quintessential pandemic dance album? Possibly. (Don’t be afraid to be yourself.)
“You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) [Soulwax for Despacio Remix]” - Sylvester
I don’t know if there’s another wave of renewed interest in classic 1980s San Francisco Hi-NRG—or if I’m just paying better attention—but the fact remains that I can’t help but list three of my favorite remixes this year. The gold medal goes to Soulwax, who took tapes of golden SF vocalist Sylvester and transformed their biggest hit into an even bigger one, if that’s possible, complete with passion, laughter, and 11 minutes of ecstatic dance. But if you want more, also check out two remixes of Patrick Cowley: “Menergy” by Purple Disco Machine and “Get a Little” by Alan Dixon.
300% N.R.G - Dj Canada
Here’s a bonus entry because I can’t deny having danced to this in my living room. More than once. Brought by the same relentless Oakland junglists who release music under In-N-Out Jungle, Major League, Ruff Tapes, and various other affiliate labels, 300% N.R.G by Dj Canada is exactly that. Recorded in 1996, it's a love-filled, high-tempo affair. In other words, there’s nothing “cool” or “chill” about it. It’s all jumping up and down, fist pumping, and smiling like an idiot. Which I think is pretty chill.