1. “Carolina” - Girls. Your average really amazing pop song has about 2 or 3 moments of absolute musical genius--a chord progression, a lyric, a use of an odd instrument--that just hit you and blow your mind wide open. “Carolina,” on the other hand, has about twenty. Among them: the creeping, two-minute intro, the gradual entrance of the vocals, the yelping breakdown, the devastating train-whistle transition into the outro, the staccato ending, those cartoonish doo-wop vocals that only heighten the intensity of the song in context. In addition, this song simply burns with white-hot emotion--Christopher Owens’ vocals, resigned and hopeful at the same time, carry along his tale of the perfect escape. Maybe there is no Carolina, and if there is one, who knows if it’s all Owens makes it out to be. All he knows is he’s going to take his girl in his arms, never let her go, and forget about everyone and everything. Godspeed.
2. “Young Lust” - Adolescent Friction. Now presumed defunct, Adolescent Friction only released a handful of singles during their lifetime, the best of which is the scorching “Young Lust.” This brief, what-the-hell-just-hit me tune packs the primal impulse of early garage-rock with the angst and energy of vintage pre-Blink pop punks like the Undertones and the Vibrators into two minutes of music with barely any lyrics. It’s a shame we never knew Adolescent Friction better--given some exposure, this song could be the one of the great Bay Area teen anthems, a "Louie Louie" for the Glow crowd.
3. “Cadalac Shack” - The Piers. This demo single by San Francisco lo-fi quartet the Piers is a blast of pure bliss. OK, maybe Tobi Hirano isn’t a shredding god, and the amp noise could piss off hardcore audiophiles. But there’s no denying the raw emotion in singer Jack Frank’s choked voice, or the quiet storm generated by that fuzz-drenched bassline. Everything in the song seems to convey the message “stay awake, don’t close your eyes,” like Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. It’s everything we love about the night wrapped up in a Hissho Sushi Rock n’ Roll and taken to go from a 24-hour market.
4. “We’ll Be OK” - Finish Ticket. “Life is so much more than our hearts becoming sore,” sings Brendan Hoye in a voice that has matured finely from the fairly restrained croon he displayed on their debut EP Life Underwater to a soaring soulman holler. The band follows their frontman's new voice: the keyboards have never sounded more beautiful and dramatic, and Brendan’s brother Michael shows off some jaw-dropping bass heroics that somehow manage to sound melancholic and super-funky at the same time. Emo kids, put down your razors and listen to Uncle Brendan 'cuz he knows what he's talking about!
5. “Night Of Electric Orchids” - Handshake. This is the sound of a bunch of crazy hipster vandals having an insane party in an organic grocery store at two in the morning. Bodies intertwine, artichokes fly. Unearthly music emanates from some shadowed corner that could be the spice aisle. I don’t know how many of you have ever had an experience like that, but if you do, bring along a little Handshake.
6. “Indoor Winter” - Local Hero. Fleet Foxes harmonies, skanking reggae rhythms, steely quiet-storm soundscapes, and skittering drums merge together to create something innocent and lighthearted yet strangely seductive and sensual. The soundscaping, production, and arrangements range from striking to impeccable, especially considering how bizarre the musical mix on this song is. And it's a pleasure to listen to, even if it leaves you with the weird sensation of not knowing whether to relax or shake your booty.
7. “Shine On” - DEA. One of two singles released by the extremely short-lived duo DEA, this acoustic ballad sounds like it was cut late at night and quietly enough to avoid waking up the dragon. But the most striking thing about the song is the sense of apocalyptic urgency. Singer Shane Bannon sings of looking up at the sky and points out how it will be the only thing remaining when the world ends (and who knows if it'll stay blue). With all the panic concerning global warming and the Gulf oil spill, it's a song for our times--yet it still seems timeless.
8. “(510)” - The SHE’s. For all their lo-fi cool and indie cred (opening for Girls and Candy Claws, getting Harlem to perform at a birthday celebration for two band members), the SHE’s have always been a pop band at heart. Nobody ever argued, and on this new slice of cowbell-flavored Rousseau-rock, they set out to make sure nobody does. This song isn’t chocolate, but it isn’t candy either. It’s a bit like one of those little sticky sesame squares--maybe a bit sweet for a lot of people, but still honest, earthy, and natural.
9. “I Am Not The King Of Anything” - Picture Atlantic. Aren’t you sick of jerks like Elvis and Michael Jackson and Nathan Williams who always have to be the “king” of something? Nik Bartunek wants you to feel confident in knowing he is no ruler--on this raging new single, the Picture Atlantic frontman alternately lows and squeals his everyman blues. The haunted keyboards and dark guitars suggest the group may be studying the black-clad bummerscapes of Interpol and the National--and although listeners may not be used to this side of the band, it suits them surprisingly well.
10. “You Won’t See Me Tonight” - Fever Charm. While Fever Charm are a live act above all else, they released a solid EP over the summer of 2010, and this funk-rock stomper is a highlight. Ari Berl’s furious yelp and Theo Quayle’s punk guitars drive the song along, but it’s the production--hardly polished, but not really lo-fi either--that give the song its edge.
11. “Colours” - Westwood & Willow. Westwood & Willow’s music has always been a curious mix of folky sadness and oddball humor--listening to the group’s music is an experience not unlike drinking lemonade on a sunny day while looking at rather strange contemporary paintings at an outdoor fair. There’s not too much happy-go-lucky charm on “Colours,” a melancholy ode to childhood innocence. And if it’s unnerving to hear these happy-go-lucky guys sing about the unstoppable passage of merciless time, it’s great to hear Kevin Sullivan set the unpredictability knob to 11 with his hilariously sprawling lyrics.
12. “Carbon Copy” - Hundred Grand Brand. These suburban pale kids know it’s wrong to make rap music, but they do it anyway. How? By pouring bucket after bucket of venomous irony on the whole thing. “Carbon Copy” stings like a hornet’s nest over the head, but it’s nice to laugh as you drown in a pool of corrosive acid.
13. “Tear It Down” - Zachary Shpizner. What would happen if Jason Mraz was sleepwalking, randomly picked up a guitar, and began singing BJ Snowden? As opposed to the catchy space-pop of his Captain Navy project, Zach Shpizner's first single under his own name sounds like he cut it at four in the morning in a linen closet after a few dozen shots of god knows what. Yet this is what makes it strangely beautiful--the rudimentary recording quality and off-key yelping give it a vibe not unlike that of an ancient outsider record unearthed by a musical historian in the basement of some country house.
14. “Fill The Lens” - Maniac. Let’s put hella shrimp on that barbie! The world’s best Australian-Bay Arean rock group are also arguably the world’s only “New Bromantic” band--these boys like their dresses long, their coifs high, and their music drunk and party-friendly. This mind-numbingly repetitive but body-numbingly fun tune epitomizes their philosophy, especially when you’re at one of their concerts and are struggling to escape from a one-size-fits-all “invisibility cloak.”