Year in Music: Tinny bubbles

Viva el lo-fi revolution
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The first time I heard it was in Peru. The pea-colored haze of la garúa — the fog of polluted drizzle that swallows Lima — fell about the airport as I waited in line for my preflight pat-down last spring. Suddenly, a fake-Baped tweener cut to the front, blaring a bootleg Kanye MP3 on his dinky Motorola cell. Poor Ms. West sounded like she'd been graduated into a bigger, stronger, faster chipmunk. Kaaan-yeee!

Yeah, we've all been privy to the public toucan trills of ringtones, those arpeggiated chest thumps that whistle, "Listen to my life choice, bitches. Doodle-oodle-doo!" But this was different. This was a whole freakin' song. And it worked. Whether from sheer awe or pity — Kanye? Come on! — we all made way for the speaker creeper to skate right through. If he'd dialed up some leaked Keak Da Sneak back then, who knows? He probably could've flown us home.

In canny San Franny, ringtunes raged and enraged on Muni all summer, boosting the type of hip-hop hits formerly known as "regional" — see DJ UNK's "Walk It Out" and Huey's "Pop Drop and Lock It" — into the top 20 stratosphere (billboards on our foreheads, Billboard on our phones). Hip-hop — why not? Status ain't hood, but it sure is glue, and the buses' backseats bumped the bleats. Hyphy on the lo-fi tore it up, and public-listening history jumped: from boom box hiss to boomin' system to bleeding earbuds to cellular blips.

I'm lovin' the latest apex of the lo-fi revolution, despite the fact that ringtunes are the new rude. I'd been primed for it for years by the skips and squawks of samples, the wear and tear of classic vinyl dance floor tracks, and practically every experimental rock band of the past decade with an animal in its name. Besides defutf8g our culture's mad lust for higher def, static always spirals me back. I hear it in my fondest past — bopping with my dad before grade school to a shitty TDK cassette of Erasure's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man after Midnight)," recorded off a late-night AM broadcast; raising my hands at a rave as DJ Derrick May pushed all the levels into the tweeters, blowing out the system; shimmying next to my neighbors' kidney-shaped pool while Don Ho (RIP) crooned from their oak-encased Thorens turntable, a grass skirt made of trash bags wrapped round my pin-thin kiddie hips.

Some folks argue that cell phones, iPods, the Internet, and what have you drown people in personal bubbles, smothering the social instinct to interact. Others moan that compressed files, cheap headphones, and puny bandwidth have made listeners trade quality for quantity. Maybe — although maybe not. When Mary or Alicia screeches on the 33, the music pierces through me. But where's the indie ironist fronting Verizonized Vampire Weekend, the emo kid blasting ancient Pinback on his Blast, the Rihanna-loaded Nokia wantonly flaunted by a twirling drag queen, also named Nokia? Better keep my fuzzy ears open — I hear technology's the great equalizer.

TOP 10 GUILTLESS PLEASURES

Jill Scott, "Hate on Me," The Real Thing: Words and Sounds, Vol. 3 (Hidden Beach)

Cool Kids, "Black Mags," Black Mags (Chocolate Industries)

Honey Soundsystem DJs

Foals, "Hummer," Hummer EP (Transgressive)

Santogold, "You'll Find a Way (Switch and Graeme Sinden Remix)" (Lizard King)

Jose Gonzalez, "Teardrop" (Imperial Recordings)

DJ David Harness's Super Soul Sundayz

Richard Strauss, "An Alpine Symphony," performed by San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Oct. 26

Leslie and the Lys, "How We Go Out Version 2" video (self-released)

Cannibal Corpse, Vile (Enhanced) (Metal Blade)

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