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.
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.
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.
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.