Free and legal MP3: Family of the Year (burst of lemony sunshine, w/ a wink)

Everything about this song seeks first to evoke a blurrily-recalled pop era—it’s kind of ’60s, kind of ’70s, without pinning itself down—and second, well, to razz it ever so humanely.

Family of the Year

“St. Croix” – Family of the Year

Spacious and glistening, “St. Croix” appears as a burst of lemony sunshine on what may be a rather cold and/or dreary day where you are, depending on your hemisphere and latitude. Not to mention attitude. In any case, “St. Croix,” mood-wise, is all swift, swaying sweetness, nailed together with one memorable, signature guitar riff. To the extent that the central lyrics might stand out as rather gooey—“You bring the ocean/I bring the motion/Together we make a love potion”; yes, really!—I can assure you they come to us purposefully, and playfully.

Because as it turns out, everything about this song seeks first to evoke a blurrily-recalled pop era—it’s kind of ’60s, kind of ’70s, without pinning itself down—and second, well, to razz it, ever so humanely. It’s all very post-postmodern; the approach is no longer ironic, but embracing: they’re laughing with the music, not at it. And gently! The band sprinkles the humor around the edges, where it barely intrudes, so as not to disturb those who want or need to hear “St. Croix” as a straightforward romp in the sun. But from the opening bongos to the very suspicious single-syllable “oh!” that peppers each verse but once (in addition to one “cell phone!”) to the aforementioned signature riff, which is both super-delightful and rather silly (running up and down an octave as if bounding a flight of rubbery, jangly steps) to the “uh-oh, the batteries are dying” ending, “St. Croix” cruises along with a smile both of joy and comedy. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Family of the Year is a quartet based in Los Angeles. “St. Croix” is the title track to the band’s second EP. A second full-length album, Diversity, is scheduled for early 2012. Both releases are via tinyOGRE Entertainment. The MP3 comes to us from Magnet Magazine.

Free and legal MP3: Darren Hanlon (fun stuff from speak-singing Australian)

So here’s Darren Hanlon, about as far from our Auto-Tuned radio music as he can be, and yet, lo and behold, look how fun, look how easy to listen to, look how human.

Darren Hanlon

“Buy Me Presents” – Darren Hanlon

If you must know why I am terminally suspicious of technological frills (I’m looking at you, Auto-Tune), it’s because of this: the simple, deeply effective pleasure of hearing a musician perform his or her songs without them. And yes, I know it’s a fine line, I know that many seemingly simple songs are built using technology “they” never used to have (whoever “they” were), but I’m talking more about visible versus invisible frills. I’m all for anything that helps us better hear the instruments and voices involved in the song-making, and I’m also, absolutely, all for anything that can be used, effectively, as music, however electronic or “artificially” generated—those are organic in their own way. Faddish processing that pointlessly roboticizes the sound is less good. Way less good.

So here’s Darren Hanlon, about as far from our Auto-Tuned radio music as he can be, and yet, lo and behold, look how fun, look how easy to listen to, look how delightful. I love the homely, chuggy guitar sound, I love Hanlon’s bemused, Billy Bragg-ish speak-singing, I love the unassuming ease of this great chord progression, I love the funny but not jokey lyrics, and I love love love that valorous, unexpected saxophone.

Hanlon is an Australian singer/songwriter who began a solo career in 1999 after previously playing in a number of Aussie bands, including the Lucksmiths and the Simpletons. “Buy Me Presents” is a song from his fourth album, I Will Love You At All, released last month on Yep Roc Records. Note his breakthrough album in Australia, in 2006, had the intriguing title Fingertips and Mountaintops.

Free and legal MP3: Tallest Trees (gleeful, skewed, clattery pop)

Tallest Trees

“Alouette!” – Tallest Trees

With a skewed pop sensibility, pastichey zing, and a toy piano, “Alouette!” wrings more good humor out of its electronics-oriented language than one might have thought possible, given the general humorlessness of most electronics-based music. Glad that Thomas Samuel and Dabney Morris ignored the memo on that one. “Alouette!” skips with glitch and glee.

Good humor is an underrated quality in music. And I don’t mean songs that are funny per se; I mean songs in which the music itself makes you smile. “Alouette!” does this repeatedly, in an ongoing variety of ways. There’s the toy piano, sure, but there are also the sounds coaxed from synthesizers—rubbery, reverberant, yippy, squeaky—that make me wonder, as I have in the past, why electronic music isn’t in fact more smile-inducing more often. Beyond that, the arrangement itself is great fun, adhering sounds in a clattery, rhythmic gallop from start to finish. Even the vocals are part of the merry-making, from the twinkly spirit of Morris’s high-pitched tenor to the purposeful use of offbeat harmonies— check out the way the phrase “I am no hero” is sung, at: 1:18, or how the harmony vocal lags behind the melody, starting at the beginning of the second verse (0:58).

“Alouette!” was first heard late last year one the Nashville duo’s self-released EP , Hey There Little Nebula. It will get a wider release next month when the Portland, Ore.-based label Other Electricities presents the band’s full-length debut, The Ostrich or the Lark (title phrase found within this song; and “alouette,” so you know, means lark in French). MP3 via the band’s site.

Free and legal MP3: ShellShag (squonky guitars, spirited hook)

I’ve never been personally into the anarchic posturing of old-school punks, nor the fetishistic preference for noise over musicality. But every now and then I stumble upon something from that world that reminds me that a certain number of punksters are popsters at heart, and that, when used in symbiotic tandem, punk and pop can offer a uniquely satisfying experience.

“Resilient Bastard” – ShellShag

Come to think of it, not a lot of rough-hewn DIY stuff ends up here either. I’ve never been personally into the anarchic posturing of old-school punks, nor the fetishistic preference for noise over musicality. But every now and then I stumble upon something from that world that reminds me that a certain number of punksters are popsters at heart, and that, when used in symbiotic tandem, punk and pop can offer a uniquely satisfying experience. And I’m not talking about what has been labeled “punk pop” on the commercial side of things. I’m talking about something like “Resilient Bastard,” with its squonky guitar work, unschooled but determined vocals, sly sense of humor both lyrically and musically (sleigh bells? really?), and, best of all, its spirited hook, which depends equally on the words and music. No way that chorus kills the way it does if the singer leads with a line other than “I don’t care/I’m a resilient bastard.”

Johnny “Shellhead” and Jen Shag (Shell, Shag, you see), although from different places–he, Missouri; she, New Jersey–are both rooted musically in the ’90s DIY scene in San Francisco, and began playing together in 1999, first in the trio Kung Fu USA. ShellShag emerged from that experience. “Resilient Bastard” will be found on the album Rumors In Disguise, ShellShag’s second full-length, scheduled for release in February on Don Giovanni Records.