You've been a trashy nurse, French maid, er, golfer? for Halloween the last four years. This year, it's all about Amy Winehouse, didn't ya know? It's not hard to get this look down pat. All you need is a ratty, leftover Elvira beehive, a Sharpie (sailor tattoos, egregious eyeliner, missing teeth), tanktop, cut-off miniskirt, and a bottle of booze. Top it off with a little white powder under your nose and a beat up, drunk boyfriend. Now that's sexy!
Minipop A New Hope (Take Root Records). Don't let the name fool you: Minipop's music can be vast. The quartet is at its best on songs like "Ask Me a Question," where conventional pop spills over its walls like a river cresting a levee.
Elliot Randall Take the Fall (self released). Close your eyes and forget you're near the coast - Randall's roots, rock, and country numbers come straight from the heartland. Keep 'em shut and never realize he's only 25 years old.
Emily Jane White Dark Undercoat (Double Negative Records). Folk music can be haunting in the hands of White, whose sparse songs - featuring only her balanced voice over guitar or piano - are as beautiful as they are troubled, especially the reverb-drenched "Dagger."
Pinched Nerve Mission and Highland (self released). Pinched Nerve, under house arrest for crimes related to his painkiller addiction, sing-raps over demented lo-fi beats about the ills of apartment life in the ghetto: pigeons, trash, and "Scabs and Mice."
Project Greenfield The Spiral Path (Greenfield Records). On this sophomore disc, five guys who've known each other since the '70s careen between prog-rock, world, funk, and jazz like they can't pick a favorite. And against all odds, they totally nail it.
Mahealani Uchiyama A Walk by the Sea (Dancetera). Inspired by her African and Native American ancestry, Uchiyama sings in Hawaiian, Tahitian, and other languages over beautifully percussive music about a search for home and identity.
Dubious Ranger Even These Things Tell Stories (Nothing Room Records). Try as they might to downplay the They Might Be Giants silliness in their music for hip post-punk influences like Television and Pavement, the members of Dubious Ranger aren't fooling anyone. Still, they could've done worse.
Mia Zuniga Stories Such as These (Love Music Records). Slick, but above all, soulful R&B: polish without pretense, barefoot and pretty, like the girl in the cover photo. Love Music, the name of the Pittsburg native's record label, is a perfect fit, for Stories Such as These is a total pleasure.
Sergeant Midnight to Midnight (self-released). There's not a lot going on here beyond Keli Reule's intense vocals - sweeping from a dark pop-star croon to the searing growl of the Distillers' Brody Dalle - which save this brooding, artsy indie-rock record from the cut-out bin.
Whitey on the Moon One Less Car EP (Vela Para Todo). The name is bad, but the scrappy, well-aged indie rock - recorded by Tim Mooney (American Music Club) at John Vanderslice's venerable Tiny Telephone studio - is good. Real good.
Ellul Ellul (Sounds Are Active). Just another Radiohead rip-off? Only until you grasp Ellul's reasons for calling its style "contemporary vocal music" by digging into upfront lyrics about "the painful history of a transplanted Haitian son." Intriguing music and vocals give this debut two legs to stand on.
Shaken Prose & Cons (D&M Records). Adult pop-rock out of San Rafael featuring earnest vocals, light ska rhythms, and a dash of metal from "Mega" Dave Henderson's Flying-V guitar. Sounds a little flaccid on record, but could make for a fun live show.
Cast of Thousands This Is Where I Confess (self-released). Over and over again, right as it starts getting good, Cast of Thousands reverts to predictable post-hardcore mode. The sublime moments of clarity will remain outnumbered until this band develops a sharper sense of identity.
French Disco Mirror Stage EP (self-released). The name's not as misleading is it may seem. French Disco plays stylish, subtly droning rock with lyrics in French and English. Mirror Stage succeeds as a teaser, and a full album of the stuff would likely go down just as well.
The Hot Toddies Smell the Mitten (Asian Man Records). The Hot Toddies tread close to novelty terrain on this quirky debut. Chipmunk voices singing simple pop songs beholden to doo-wop, surf, and folk memes and loaded with sexual innuendo is cute for only so long. So it goes for the line You are so swell, just like DSL/You touched my modem, you touched my modem.
Mushroom with Eddie Gale Joint Happening (Hyena). Mushroom is an experimental, heavily psychedelic, anything-goes outfit pushing ten years in the Bay Area. Eddie Gale is an avant-garde and free-jazz trumpeter who made his mark blowing minds in Brooklyn during the late '60s. Together, they're downright dirty.
Mist and Mast Mist and Mast (self-released). Anyone familiar with Oakland indie-Americana group the Red Thread probably wishes it hadn't disbanded this summer. Frontman Jason Lakis' ensuing solo effort roams the same clouded realm, though less effectively.
Straggler Bow Down Lions (Happy Retard Records). "Real rock 'n' roll" is always a mixed blessing. On one hand, you've got loud, straightforward, no-frills hard rock; on the other, obnoxious, derivative, dumbed-down bar fodder. Straggler straddles the line as well as any local group, with an extra dash of soul.
Astral Transmitter (Vibraphone). Dim production muffles Astral's passionate, yet clichéd take on UK post-punk and shoegaze. Sure, Joy Division, the Cure, and My Bloody Valentine were great. What else is new?
Rachel Efron Say Goodbye (self-released). Utterly laid-back piano-pop that sucks the tension right out of the room. Efron makes it sound easy, but there's a reason so few artists get it right.
Unified School District, Brokedown Palace (self-released). Emcee Super Ugly's deep, sharp voice may hit some folks too hard, but at least they can't say he's biting someone else's style. Ecto One's proficient beats are unusual, too - part retro, part progressive, all choppy - making USD an alluring anomaly on the Oakland scene.
Nyles Lannon, Pressure (Badman Recording Co.). The former Film School guitarist sticks to striking out on his own: With few exceptions, Lannon wrote, performed, and recorded all of his sophomore effort, which nonetheless maintains a full, if overstuffed, plate of experimental folk-rock.
Paper Tiger, Bright Dreams of Cold Revenge EP (self-released). This four-song debut from the fledgling SF group offers a nostalgic take on lightweight alt-rock, with straightforward melodies that linger.
Willow Willow, Willow Willow (Mod Lang). Few will deny the merits of sunny, sweet British folk - but it's a far cry from being in vogue. As Willow Willow, childhood friends Miranda Zeiger and Jessica Vohs don't much care, and even wrote what's likely the world's first weed ode containing prominent use of the harpsichord.
Desoto Reds, Bernadette and the Hundred Devils (self-released). In a region so blessed with gifted groups maintaining absurdly low profiles, it can be risky to sort the winners from the losers. Still, we'll place our bets on Oakland's little-known Desoto Reds, who show heaps of promise through a rare blend of cerebral pop and garage rock.
We've been praising Birds & Batteries' lo-fi-country-meets-synth aesthetic for months; now NPR's caught on with this recent feature on the band. The San Francisco group has a lot to be excited about: a new album, I'll Never Sleep Again (out Oct. 9), a nationwide tour (they embark this week), and a revamped co-ed lineup (Mike Sempert on guitar, Brian Michelsonon drums and laptop, Jill Heinke on bass, and Julie Thomasson on keys and synths). They'll be all nice and worn-in when they return to the Bay Area, Oct. 29 at the Knockout.