!!! -- !!! (GSL) Sacramento punk kids raid their older siblings' Afropop and funk records and come up with a strange name (say, "Chik chik chik") and a stranger sound (jittery guitars and rump-shaking rhythms). Dance music for shy boys and girls who hide in their cardigans.
14 Iced Bears -- In the Beginning (Slumberland) A collection of singles and unreleased tracks that shows why local indie act the Aislers Set has been covering this mid-'80s British band for ages. Fuzzy guitars speed like runaway go-carts while the singer floats above them like the ghost of a horrible spill.
Hydroplane -- The Sound of Changing Places (Drive-In) Australian indie pop duo overcomes national iconography of strange sandwich spread, crocodile wrestlers, and foofy-haired rockers with expansive, droning organ and intensely pretty female vocals.
Don Lennon -- Don Lennon (Martin Philip) As the Jerry Seinfeld of songwriters, Lennon makes singing about nothing sound downright philosophical: His first album was about going to parties and grad school, while his self-titled second effort concerns, well, playing that first record in clubs. If he didn't sing in such a deadpan way, you probably wouldn't get the joke; if he didn't play such catchy melodies, you wouldn't want to get it.
Matt Marque -- Get There (Truckstop) The seduction record of the year -- more for Marque than for you or me, since the Chicago singer/songwriter is the sensitive one, mumbling beautiful observations into his macramé hat and acting surprised when hipster girls end up in his bed.
Mutants -- Fun Terminal (White Noise) A reissue of tracks from 1978 to '82 by a local punk octet that dressed in nutty costumes, sounded like the B-52's on Red Bull, and sang about how we need a new drug way before Huey Lewis did.
The Outsiders -- CQ (Pseudonym) In 1968, this chart-topping British band dumped its kiddy bop sound, opting instead for acid-washed weirdness from a place ironically named "Happyville." An unusual record that ended the group's career just as it should've been starting.
The Shebrews -- Off With Their Hearts (Grimsey) A Minneapolis duo saunters through the history of the girl group, covering '60s British Invasion act the Liverbirds and '80s British retro-gals the Would-Be-Goods while writing its own French chanson and twee indie-pop.
Thai Elephant Orchestra -- Thai Elephant Orchestra (Mulatta) Pachyderms from Thailand learn to play specially enlarged traditional instruments, improvising and composing around the cues of an American expatriate. More than just bashing about, the elephants embrace melody and structure and get pissed when their trainers try to take their toys away. Surprisingly elegant and sorrowful, and goes well with peanuts.
Loudon Wainwright III -- Last Man on Earth (Red House) Longtime funnyman confronts the death of his parents and his own irrelevance, finding plenty to laugh at and cry about. He may not have e-mail or a retirement plan, but he's still got his funny bone.
Check, please! The public-access program Reality Check shows plenty of raw footage of the Bay Area's underground, from live performances of heavy metal icons like Testament to uncensored visits to the Century Theater. The show, broadcast in S.F. on Channel 29 every Saturday at 11:30 p.m., is not the kind you'd expect to see on network TV. So you can imagine my surprise when I tuned in to a recent KGO evening news program and saw Reality Check featured in an exposé with the lurid title "Public Access to Porn?" Apparently, several horrified viewers in the Walnut Creek area caught an episode of the show and complained to Contra Costa Channel 6, which pulled Reality Check off the air for the foreseeable future. In the KGO interview, RC host Diamond Dave said the producers didn't see what the big deal was, since they've been on the air for 10 years and each show features a content warning. Though he said they'd try to edit their show somewhat for the boonie broadcasts, Dave was adamant that Reality Check's format should remain intact. It's about time someone started looking out for the heshers in Concord.