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The Felice Brothers, The Felice Brothers: If your New Year's resolution is to never use the phrase "freak folk" again, then the Felice Brothers have your back. The Catskill Mountain country boys crack some beers, spark up a jay and roll tape on Dylanesque dream songs, untutored bluegrass and impromptu toasts to rural self-reliance and deliverance. They're freaks all right, but never pretentious in their wild unwinding of a torn and frayed Americana.      

Raphael Saadiq, The Way I See It: At the dawn of the '90s, Tony! Toni! Toné owned a good portion of the urban-contemporary club scene, but founder Raphael Saadiq disbanded the group for a solo career bent on a more faithful approximation of '60s soul. Such good intentions should decimate originality, but on this stroll through Hitsville USA, Saadiq draws on the inevitable economy of Holland-Dozier-Holland's melodies for his own imaginative agenda. He turns up the bass and with a relaxed, swinging and sexy voice, captures a subtle and necessary spirit of love and resilience.   

The Hold Steady, Stay Positive: Does Craig Finn repeat himself? Very well, he repeats himself, but his band's smoking classic-rock aesthetic can still thrill, and the rotating cast of burnouts, born-again sluts, club kids and punks without a cause still ring true-to-life — even when they're repeating Led Zeppelin song titles like desperate mantras. Seek out the limited-edition version for three more songs of dexterous verbal wit.  

Matthew Ryan, Matthew Ryan Vs. the Silver State: Opening with a seven-minute single that nicks a poem by Wilfred Owen, Nashville ne'er-do-well songwriter Matthew Ryan seems up to his old self-destructive tricks. But this is a grand rock-band album, with musical and emotional force that comes from sudden and surprising lyrical insights, whether he's digging through American dirt or begging for a brother to pull him back from the edge.   

Drive-By Truckers, Brighter Than Creation's Dark: At nineteen songs, the Truckers' first album since the departure of Jason Isbell tries too hard, and the vocal and lyrical license given to bassist (and Isbell ex-wife) Shonna Tucker is ill-conceived. And yet it's another monster of what makes modern Southern rock matter: the defiance and honesty, in all its shades, from motel ballads to righteous rages, with fuzzed guitar clashes and one of the year's best rock singles, "Self Destructive Zones."    

Marching Band, Spark Large: In 2008, the indie assembly line worked overtime stamping out "collectives" who should just sign up for the Fans of Arcade Fire Facebook group and be done with it. So it's good to hear upstarts like Marching Band, a Linköping, Sweden, ensemble get the anything-is-possible-in-pop approach right: the "Good Vibration" harmonies, the quick sparkle of guitar lines swirled up with marimba and chipper horns and the hopeful disposition. The band manages this whether rhyming sweet nonsense or finding idiosyncratic ways to say the old pop truths: Live like the sunshine won't end.
  — Roy Kasten


Locals Only
As was the case the world over, 2008 was a tricky year for working bands in St. Louis. The continuing dissolution of the major-label system has reconfigured the definition of "making it," and the unstoppable force of the MP3 has made manufacturing compact discs seem as relevant as churning butter by hand. But St. Louis bands soldiered on through an abysmal economy and made great albums despite the uncertainty. In alphabetical order, here are ten of the best records released by local artists — proof that musical ingenuity, genre-defying practices and solid songcraft are alive and well.

Gentleman Auction House, Alphabet Graveyard: No band in town reaches for that brass ring of indie-rock success quite like the septet Gentleman Auction House. 2008 was the year that the group came tantalizingly close to grasping it: Alphabet Graveyard declared the band's new beat-heavy intentions while showcasing singer Eric Enger's penchant for sideways storytelling, clever wordplay and (best of all) cathartic, sing-along choruses.

The Helium Tapes, The Helium Tapes: The twin powers of Sunyatta Marshall's beguiling voice and Tim Lohmann's serpentine guitar-playing collide in a psychedelic daydream on the Helium Tapes' self-titled debut. The seeds of power-pop are sown deep within these songs, but the group pulls riffs like taffy — and then melts, separates and realigns them within the confines of these pop songs.

Jumbling Towers, Classy Entertainment: Jumbling Towers' self-titled debut was one of 2007's best local releases, and this six-song EP (which is available as a free download on the band's website) picks the best stylistic bits of that first record. Singer Joe DeBoer's predilection toward vocal theatrics is still very much alive, and his commitment to these songs, along with the dark tint of the instrumentation, helps entertainment get under your skin.

Kentucky Knife Fight, The Wolf Crept, The Children Slept: On its first full-length, the Edwardsville quintet Kentucky Knife Fight serves up a platter of greasy, blues-derived rock and booze-drenched alt-country. The music is perfectly tailored for a night at the tavern, and singer Jason Holler turns the songs into sermons of the damned, where the only salvation comes from the vices that bring us low.

Magnolia Summer, Lines from the Frame: Chris Grabau is often quick to point to the contributions of his collaborators when discussing his group Magnolia Summer. And while his third album features ace playing from members of Grace Basement, Tenement Ruth and the Bottle Rockets, his loaded lyrics and increasingly confident vocals can't help but burn brightly. Lines from the Frame finds the band playing at louder volume and with more aggression, which contrasts nicely with the quiet intensity of Grabau's songwriting.

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