Some things have changed for PDX Pop Now! this year: The festival tries out a new venue, Southeast Portland warehouse/club Refuge, and debuts an extremely solid lineup that lacks some of the star power of previous years. 

The first change promises to be a good one: Refuge's indoor stage can hold a crowd of 700 to 800, a marked improvement over last year's pre-makeover Branx venue, while remaining centrally located. 

The second change is a bit trickier—and certainly not intentional. Honestly, though? We kind of like the fact that this year's PDX Pop lineup functions as a pretty direct representation of what's bubbling up from beneath this city's musical surface. From Jared Mees and the Grown Children's opening set to the Sunday night Guidance Counselor dance party closer, this year's class is packed to the gills with talent. The following eight acts are ones to watch, to be sure, but the best PDX Pop Now! moments usually happen when you least expect them.

Most Likely to Succeed: Radiation City
 
(4:10 pm Sunday)

With apologies to up-and-coming acts like Archers, Blouse and Onuinu, this one is sort of an easy call. Sure, Radiation City is talented and good-looking, but there's a lot of substance here, too. Debut record The Hands That Take You is a superb effort that channels early Band of Horses sparkle and that coolly futuristic Blonde Redhead vibe. RC's new fleshed-out live band makes things extra slick in concert—it has already recorded an album's worth of new material, we hear—and a record deal with local hotshit boutique label Tender Loving Empire can only spell good things.

Most Popular: Nurses
(11:50 pm Saturday)

While PDX Pop Now!'s 2011 lineup is incredibly strong, this isn't one of those years where everyone is standing around waiting for the nationally renowned headliner to take the stage. But the lovely, danceable and atmospheric Nurses—who tied with Blind Pilot for second in WW's 2009 Best New Band Poll—are as well-loved as any act playing the fest. Nurses' next record, Dracula, drops in September, so expect new tracks tonight. This will be special.

Best Dressed: The Chicharones
(11:30 pm Friday)

The Chicharones were a late addition to PDX Pop Now!, replacing the nixed set from Tre Slim of the Pharcyde. Lucky for us, the PDX trio (Sleep, Josh Martinez and DJ Zone) is also quite fashionable. Whether the occasion calls for James Bond-style suits, matching wife-beaters or Mario and Luigi outfits, Portland's best live hip-hop act always brings the right tools for the job. You can also expect stupid human tricks and Martinez's excellent New Jack Swing-era dance moves to complete the look.

Valedictorian: Classical Revolution PDX
 
(6:15 pm Sunday)

Classical Revolution PDX is not only trying to change the perception of its musical namesake, but it's perhaps the only act on the PPN! lineup with its own manifesto: "We love classical music. We love playing classical music. We love listening to classical music. We are tired of the elitist and inaccessible nature of the classical world." There are similar outfits in San Francisco, Berlin and Amsterdam, but a PDX Pop Now! performance is exactly the kind of set this group needs to prove its point. 


Best Pep Squad: STLS
(6:40 pm Friday)

STLS, which features Kickball/Explode Into Colors drummer Lisa Schonberg and STS (Cadallaca, the Haggard), is all about the drums. I mean, it is literally just a bunch of drums, those two players and their occasional hoot or holler. Of course, these are two of Portland's most talented musicians—somehow they weave melody beneath the surface of their drum-'n'-drums arrangements, and they prefer to leave the drum stools at home to make for a more compelling visual performance than one would imagine. Really, though, what do you need to make you dance your ass off? Drums. You just need drums.


Friendliest Fellows: The Minders 
(10:15 pm Friday)

Martyn Leaper has an adorable smile. And when the Minders' frontman talks—with the ghost of his childhood in England following him around as an accent—it's usually to say something nice. His recently re-formed pop group isn't just endlessly catchy and crafty, it's full of nice guys: Ex-Shins drummer Jesse Sandoval is always smiling, even when he's serving you hot sopapillas at his food cart, Nuevo Mexico; ex-Shaky Hands bassist Mayhaw Hoons gets nervous and has to take walks before shows; and guitarist Andy Naify bears striking resemblance to Elliott Smith, so you know he's nice.

Super Seniors: Witch Mountain
 
(11:10 pm Saturday)

While experimental act Rollerball is technically the longest-running band in the PDX Pop lineup, metal outfit Witch Mountain celebrates its 14th anniversary this week. But don't think the Maiden- and Sabbath-loving quartet is slowing with age: Witch Mountain plays a total of three shows this weekend, including two on Saturday night. Current vocalist Uta Plotkin is a relatively new addition to the group, but she has some old-school chops that meld nicely with guitarist Rob Wrong's chugging and shredding and (WW contributor) Nate Carson's furious drumming.


Most Studious: Archers
(1:25 pm Saturday)

It's not just that Archers' brief 2011 discography is only available on 7-inch and cassette, or that the local rock quintet resembles the Jam or Attractions-era Elvis Costello more than it does anything going on in the Northwest these days; Archers has a spirit that's rare in the contemporary indie-rock world, too. In the best possible way, these guys don't give a shit. The vocals are often a little flat, and the live shows can get sloppy, but Archers knows rock 'n' roll isn't about getting it right, it's about keeping it raw. Like Huey Lewis always says: The fucking heart of fucking rock and roll is still fucking beating.


SEE IT: PDX Pop Now! runs from 6 pm Friday to 11 pm Sunday, July 22-24, at Refuge, 116 SE Yamhill St. Free. Amazing. All ages.