1. tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L. Merrill Garbus’s second album as tUnE-yArDs is exciting, vibrant, multicultural, and dangerous as the streets of her hometown of Oakland. Though her debut, 2009’s bIrD-bRaInS, was limited by her low recording and instrumental budget, higher-fi production and more musicians at her disposal allow Garbus to realize her wildest musical fantasies--which are very wild. Afropop horns squawk like tropical birds, Merrill Garbus howls like classic Janis, and booming scrapyard drums drive the whole thing along. W H O K I L L is a fun yet avant-garde record that seems ahead of its time both musically and politically--songs like “My Country” and “Doorstep” practically predict the riotous Occupy Oakland that would come later in the year, as do the chaotic arrangements that accompany them.
2. Jack Frank - A Lesson Learned. As frontman of the Piers, Jack Frank rejected San Francisco musical traditions to immerse himself in New York’s underground rock heritage, from the Velvet Underground to the Strokes. On his new, half-hour A Lesson Learned EP, Frank (now a full-time New Yorker) mixes edgy, punky street-rock with complex lyrics and plenty of memorable hooks. This the sort of rock album that stands up to repeated plays in part because of its complexity and in part because of the sheer catchiness of its hooks and melodies--it is the rare album that manages to be emotionally and lyrically complex without sacrificing any memorability or anything that makes it essentially pop music.
3. Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Girls love classic rock and all its implications--massive arrangements, epic guitar solos, lighters-in-the-air power ballads, polished three-minute singles, and above all, great, timeless songs. On their third album, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, every song, from the surf-rock rave-up “Honey Bunny” to the soulful “Love Like A River,” could be a listener’s favorite with equal probability (my personal pick is “Alex,” which contains the only drum fill that has ever made me burst into tears). While there are better beginning-to-end listens than this album, perhaps no album this year has as many individual great songs.
4. DaVinci - Feast or Famine EP. Feast Or Famine, the latest EP from San Francisco rapper John “DaVinci” DeVore, is a sentimental album. Not sentimental in the mushy, namby-pamby way, but sentimental in that it is driven by nothing if not feeling, and almost fearlessly emotional without losing any of its edge for a millisecond. DaVinci’s raps are permeated with his sheer love of the art form, and even on tracks with names like “Where My Dough At” and “Beer, Bitches, & Bullshit,” he sounds like he’s rapping primarily out of love for doing so. DaVinci’s style is as gritty as the Fillmore District he represents, but just as the Fillmore claims to be the “Heart and Soul of San Francisco,” DaVinci has more heart and soul than just about any other rapper out there.
5. Local Hero - The Aldgate EP. Despite Local Hero’s globetrotting image, this teenage East Bay group’s influences come directly from the Anglophone indieverse--Fleet Foxes’ reverb-drenched harmony folk, Destroyer’s obtuse, psychedelic lyrics, Girls’ repurposing of classic pop motifs, and the Afro-pop glory of Local Natives and Vampire Weekend. Yet on their Aldgate EP, all these different styles meet in the middle, firmly in pop territory with no pretentious avant-gardism or Pitchfork aspirations. Mackay’s raspy, slurred voice sounds intoxicated from life rather than weed or alcohol, and his idiosyncratic, evocative lyrics glisten atop the major-key background like a sauce drizzled artfully on some fancy dish at a Parisian restaurant. Everything boils down to a summertime pop mélange that is sometimes sexy, often quirky, and always fun.
6. Hunx & His Punx - Too Young To Be In Love. Of course Hunx and his Punx are going to be pegged as a novelty act--a skinny young leatherino who stuffs beer cans in his crotch, backed up by a probably-lesbian all-girl backing band and playing trashy, semi-parody, ‘60s-style bubblegum ditties. The thing is, they’re only part novelty, and the rest of them is pure bad-ass rock n’ roll garage band. This is a fantastic pop album from beginning to end, with agreeable melodies, great two-minute songs, and lyrics anyone can associate with whether gay, straight, or bi. And if the whole queercore thing turns you off, remember Bogart’s only flaunting his gayness as much as Elvis used to flaunt his straightness.
7. The SHE’s - Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer. Unlike the vast majority of promising teenage bands I covered during SF Rebirth’s early years, the SHE’s remained together long enough for their sound to grow. Their debut full-length, Then It Starts To Feel Like Summer, has all the attributes of their early recordings--unabashed poppiness, garagey but fuzz-free guitars, simple lyrics that are at least a third nonsense vowel sounds, and, of course, those harmonies. With their combination of influences from girl-group music, beach pop (both classic and contemporary), and garage punk, Summer should be so trendy as to be irritating. But the SHE’s are not an “indie rock” band but a pop band, and the best kind of pop band as well--one that writes timeless songs to go with timeless hooks.
8. Rin Tin Tiger - Rin Tin Tiger EP. The highly anticipated debut EP from Rin Tin Tiger, the new incarnation of the Sullivan Brothers’ Westwood & Willow project, consists of six reworked versions of Westwood & Willow tunes, mostly from last year’s excellent Doorways, Vehicles, & Markets album. While some of the songs merely sound like re-arrangements of Westwood songs with drums (“Ghost Door”), others are drastically improved, with the thickened guitar textures and high-energy drumbeats increasing the emotional power of Kevin Sullivan’s vocals. “Red Pony” is particularly impressive, taking one of the band’s lesser-known songs and fleshing out its full power. Also notable is the addition of ghostly backing vocals and subtly dissonant harmonies on “Sweetest Fruit,” adding tension to the song and making you feel as if Kevin’s pulse truly is beating out of rhythm.
9. Lil B - I’m Gay. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth once said people go to concerts to watch other people believe in themselves, and nobody has created a greater cult of personality based on unstoppable confidence, or swag, than Lil B. No, the Based God still can’t rap very well, but he’s full of stamina, and he sounds more genuinely happy, or gay, than any musician I’ve heard on record in the past year. This is a man with the freedom not only to say he’s gay but to genuinely be gay and make others feel that way as well (including myself). In addition to how flat-out fierce Lil B sounds, the production is of superior quality, using their esoteric sample sources to create a strange and unique environment. So fierce. So swaggin’.
10. Sonny & the Sunsets - Hit After Hit. Of the countless Bay Area garage-pop bands that have emerged in the last few years, Sonny & the Sunsets are probably the most fun. 38-year-old frontman Sonny Smith (also known for his 100 Records project, in which he created a hundred aliases and made mini-albums for each of them) is not a bitter, cynical philosopher but rather a grown-up stoner with a great sense of humor. If they’re preoccupied with creating high art and pleasing the critics, it doesn’t show--Hit After Hit is nothing but a good time. This a band that delivers lines like “I’m in love with you baby, I’m dumb and so are you” with a chuckle and a grin.