2. tUnE-yArDs - “Bizness.” Merrill Garbus means bizness. Less experimental than the songs on bIrD-bRaInS, but miles ahead of anything she’s done before, “Bizness” is an exhilarating blast of rave-up Afro-soul--over African drums, oily bass, and a digitally manipulated scat vocal arpeggio, Garbus roars in a voice that’s half Odetta, half Hugh Masekela, and all wild beast. The background is extremely well-crafted, but it seems to devolve into manic wildness as soon as Garbus lets her voice loose. Organized chaos has never felt this good.
3. Girls - “Vomit.” “Vomit” sounds unmistakably like a Girls song, but at the same time, it sounds like nothing we’ve heard from them. This six-and-a-half-minute, classic-rock-inspired epic starts out as a tender acoustic ballad before exploding into a harmony-driven chorus and climaxing with an organ solo and a full gospel choir--all to satisfyingly un-ironic effect. Though there’s plenty of grandeur to get lost in on this song, the central focus is Chris Owens’ wounded croon, which traverses the wash of sound like a lonely loser wandering the streets of Shibuya at night.
4. Tycho - “Hours.” A thrilling intro segues into a rainstorm of droplet synths that drop out, come back in, and are a bit different each time. The power of “Hours” and its aquatic atmosphere lies in the way it crashes against you rather than enveloping you, carrying you, or setting you afloat. The song never does regain the power of its intro, but that only enhances the song--its atmosphere is about making the listener comfortable, even as it rushes by, and all one needs to do to feel that surge of power again is hit the replay button.
5. DaVinci - “D.R.E.A.M.” 2011 has seen the growth of a new, left-field form of hip-hop, and some of the best new rappers hail from the Bay Area. Though less well-known than Lil B or Main Attrakionz, DaVinci carries in his music a sensitivity that is not uncommon in contemporary hip-hop but is rarely so upfront. On “D.R.E.A.M.,” a reworking of Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” DaVinci tells a tragic tale of life in the ghetto that manages to be touching without losing any of its grit or razor-sharp edge.
6. tUnE-yArDs - “My Country.” I don’t know if Merrill Garbus actually participated in the mayhem that was Occupy Oakland, but there’s enough riot and political chaos in her music to smash the windows of every building in the country. “My Country,” a highlight of her excellent W H O K I L L album, is a furious protest song that almost predicts Occupy, especially with lines like “We cannot have it/Well then why is there juice dripping under your chin/When they have nothing, why do you have something?”
7. Handshake - “Other Eye (Right).” I admit this one, a radical reworking of an earlier tune, took some time to grow on me, but I can’t deny it’s one of the best songs of the year. The original’s slow build and fancy-restaurant vibe have been replaced with idiosyncratic funk rhythms, swelling guitars, and a riff that stretches out across the surface of the song rather than driving it along. Yet the song’s greatest moment is a truly epic guitar solo which almost seems like a collection of hooks strung together--at least one lick from the solo will stick in your head after the tune is finished.
8. Hunx & His Punx - “If You’re Not Here.” It’s upbeat, it’s silly, it’s goofy, it’s danceable, it’s romantic--it’s a Hunx & his Punx song. “If You’re Not Here” is a swinging highlight of the East Bay bubblegum-punks’ latest album, Too Young To Be In Love, that has everything the best rock songs have--sexual energy, lyrics you can sing along to, a catchy call-and-response chorus, and above all, great guitars.
9. Andrew Campbell - “You Can Count On It.” While Handshake were busy primping their long-awaited debut, former member Andrew Campbell was cranking out solo work at a prodigious rate. He’s slowed down since, but of his singles, “You Can Count On It” is a standout--a slow, jazzy tune as crisp and nostalgic as a walk down an old pier.
10. Sonny & the Sunsets - “Reflections on Youth.” Though Sonny Smith is a veteran of the San Francisco music scene, his music manages to sound more youthful than that of the garage-rocking contemporaries (The Fresh & Onlys, Thee Oh Sees) with whom he is often associated. “Reflections on Youth,” with its upbeat chord progression and affable-stoner vibe, could have easily been written by a teenage garage band. This is the closest the new wave of San Francisco garage rock has gone to capturing being a teen in the grooviest city on Earth.
11. The SHE’s - “Fabian.” With its surf-pop rhythm, flawless vocal harmonies, and lovesick lyrics, “Fabian” is, to date, the ultimate distillation of what the SHE’s do best. Though they certainly sound better than they did when they released their first EP, primarily due to the upgrade in production values and the band members’ technical skills, they still sound as youthful as ever on “Fabian,” and despite having chops that rival those of bands twice their age, they still sound 16 and happy to be so.
12. Eyes Like Oceans - “For What It’s Worth.” Miles Atkins spent the better part of 2011 releasing copious amounts of lo-fi emo that ranged from regrettable to sublime. “For What It’s Worth,” a highlight from his full-length June, is an example of the latter. Atkins pours out his soul to a girl with the same mix of confidence and hesitance as one who has resolved to take a leap of faith. After the second chorus, we hear that gorgeous riff ride onwards into the sunset and wonder how Atkins will resolve the situation. Finally, he drops the question: “Your place or mine?”
13. Sam C. Rocker - “Untitled (Inspired By True Events).” This modest solo demo from former Madders singer Sam Crocker demonstrates the power of simplicity. The lyrics are minimal to the point of being blunt, as is the playing, but Crocker’s voice, a tough yet tender croon with more than a trace of punk awkwardness, gives the lyrics a striking depth. A minute-and-a-half in, an unexpected spasm of echo interrupts Crocker’s voice, like a sob being held back, before the release comes in the form of a painfully beautiful electric-guitar solo.
14. Romance of Thieves - “Closer.” Though his recent work has taken a considerably more pop angle, Nick Martin released quite a bit of quality left-field R&B early in his Romance of Thieves career. “Closer,” his best song, is raw and sensual quiet-storm soul powered by dream-pop organs, creeping drum machines, and a three-pronged vocal attack; a disembodied robot mantra, Martin’s own vocals, and rapper Ea$way. Like the best R&B, it’s steamy, sexy, moody, a bit dark, and infinitely listenable.
15. The Heretics - “Perfect In The End.” “Perfect In The End,” a tune by relatively unknown teenage band The Heretics, is a refreshing throwback to the short-lived wave of laid-back, melancholy garage rock that every teen band in the Bay Area seemed to be making in late 2009 and early 2010. With its major-seven chords, (mostly) steady backbeat, and lo-fi production, “Perfect In The End” is like a romantic stroll through a scrapyard.
16. Comodo Complex - “Night Light/Rain Dance.” One of the stranger recent additions to George Rosenthal’s Complex camp, Comodo Complex can boast to be San Francisco’s only psybient rock band. “Night Light/Rain Dance” could be their definitive track, an ambient, blissed-out tune that makes great background listening but is also hooky enough to stay with you.
17. Tumbleweed Wanderers - “Take It Back.” An update of a solo track by Tumbleweed Wanderer Jeremy Lyon, “Take It Back” finds the Oakland duo drawing on Motown soul and early-‘70s Dead for inspiration, mixing the former’s drive and abundance of hooks and the latter’s laid-back folkiness--while still manage to sound as fresh and modern as anything out there.
18. Rin Tin Tiger - “Ghost Door.” While all the tunes on Rin Tin Tiger’s self-titled debut EP are excellent, “Ghost Door” stands out the most. All the tracks on the EP are reworks of tunes the band’s Sullivan brothers recorded as Westwood & Willow, and “Ghost Door” is the best rework, keeping the original’s folky charm while adding just enough extra spice to make the song sound fresh and exciting.
19. Handshake - “Lemon.” How do these well-dressed Marin kids, who play quietish art rock and never take their shirts off onstage, win battles of the bands? Because while they play emotional music, their songs also satisfying for the listener--not necessarily in a cathartic way so much as on the basis of Handshake and their songs just being really awesome. (Oh yeah, and their voices can probably cure sterility.)
20. Kreayshawn - “Gucci Gucci.” How could we forget “Gucci Gucci?” We heard it everywhere this year--school dances, shops, bar mitzvahs, our own headphones. If you’re from the Bay Area, you felt a sense of pride every time you heard the song, no matter how much you hated it, for the first few months it came out. All that fog in San Francisco? It’s all from Kreayshawn’s swisher blunts.