So barefoot-boogie hippies rub you the wrong way. Or maybe you're more open-minded than the typical cranky-pants, scene-sucking elitist. Either way, hopefully you're savvy enough to realize that shortcut labels like “jam band” and ” indie rock” better describe a group's business approach and fan base than its sound. This year, major festivals like Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, and the revived Lollapalooza mashed up altrock mainstays with a colorful new breed of improv road warriors. These acts are young, diverse, and wildly creative, but they all share a noncommercial, tour-intensive work ethic that assures grass-roots devotion across the country. And while they might be best known for their live shows, each released a kick-ass studio album in 2005, listed here in no particular order.
Sound Tribe Sector 9, Artifact (System): STS9's third studio album is a colorful collision of immense talent, technological innovation, and creative vision of an epic scope. Artifact condenses the bicoastal five-piece's beat-drunk, jazztronic improvisations into a potent, cohesive dose, progressive and slick but never affected or shallow. Song by song, there's rising and falling action here, a story told through compositions that unfold like shifting silicon sand dunes. There's perhaps no band that better balances heart, soul, and intellect on music's cutting edge.
Hackensaw Boys, Love What You Do (Nettwerk): Thankfully, the Hackensaws never forgot that bluegrass is supposed to be ornery. Even as Love settles into lazy afternoon versions of fan favorites, these six Virginians let the rough edges of banjo, dobro, and accordion snag at the hem of their front porch serenade. There's a studied hindsight here that's absent from previous albums, as if the Boys are intent on fully dissecting what makes that old-time mountain stomp so universally appealing. Whatever it is, they've tapped it, bottled it, and shaken it up for a new generation.
Hyim, Hyim and the Fat Foakland Orchestra (self-released): Like the most capable fusionistas, San Francisco singer/ songwriter/piano man Hyim Ross juggles the sounds on the world's streets — Cuban tres guitar, New Orleans second-line brass, hip hop bounce — to achieve a style as unique as it is invigorating. Hyim's Orchestra includes a shamelessly tight rhythm section and an expanded palette of strings, horns, and massive percussion, but what really shines on his second self-released album is the songwriting. Lyrically and compositionally, Hyim's deft blend of humor and pathos, experience and optimism, reveals an emerging talent worthy of the designation of world musician.
Benevento-Russo Duo, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope): Thank you, Jack and Meg — now that two-man groups can navigate the mainstream, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo might have a chance of getting the superstar recognition they deserve. The keys (Benevento) and drums (Russo) Duo is spastically delicious live, and BRTBTS captures that schizoid ecstasy in a punky, jazz-rock joy ride that miraculously never crashes through the guardrail and into the ravine. Despite their twisted complexity and lack of lyrics, the Duo's tunes play out like lusty rock 'n' roll yawps, swerving from dirty fonk to thinking dude's power balladry, all throttled into overdrive with ingenuity and raw joy.
Awesome New Republic, ANR So Far (Sutro): The second duo in this list also mans the drums and keys, but ANR has a voice that takes off into white-boy indie-soul glory. Hear Michael- John Hancock croon about falling off his bike, and you'll know why Miami's best band is about to bring a new regime to the masses. While Hancock sings and drums, keys genius Brian Robertson weaves strands of lead, rhythm, and electronic ambience into a Day-Glo funk-rock freak flag. So Far waves it wide with noisy, diffuse abstraction and semistructured trickery that coalesces every few tracks into an impossibly infectious number — funny, poignant, and totally absorbing. If there's one new band to leave room for on the iPod this year, make it ANR.
Lake Trout, Not Them, You (Palm): Despite the fishy, bucolic moniker, there's something seriously sinister about Lake Trout. The Baltimore quintet has been crafting shadowy electro-rock for years, but still inexplicably swims under the radar of even the most well-attuned cognoscenti. Brooding, narcotized, and occasionally manic, Lake Trout falls victim to its impossible categorization, but that's no reason to pass up the band's fourth record. Not Them, You is a heavy, paranoid skulk through delicate melodies and dense arrangements, stirring echoes of '80s psych-synth-pop on a digitally enhanced post-rock bender. Throw in sax, flute, and Woody Ranere's haunting vocals, and you've got a sound that's both unclassifiable and totally intriguing.
Brothers Past, This Feeling's Called Goodbye (SCI Fidelity): Blasting out of Philadelphia, Brothers Past snuck up on unsuspecting audiences this year with heavy touring and a second full-length that borders on stunning. The Brothers' drum 'n' bass-ish prog-rock follows similar signposts as Lake Trout but veers into more uplifting sonic terrain. Full of dense, rhythmic layering and sweeping, major-chord crescendos, Goodbye manages a rare luminosity, like a watercolor sunset, hinting at darkness but still bathed in warm light.
Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, The Sameness of Difference (Hyena): This Tulsa trio is the sonic equivalent of Silly Putty, able to stretch into weird, warped experimentations or snap back into delicately pointed hooks. Difference finds acrobatic keysman Brian Haas sticking to his piano's pristine, acoustic tone, while Reed Mathis orbits on bass, tweaking the instrument until it sounds like a sitar pining for an oasis. On upright he nuzzles against Jason Smart's dynamic drumming, making Mingus' “Fables of Faubus” new again and turning the Flaming Lips' “The Spark That Bled” into a new jazz standard.
Secret Machines, The Road Leads Where It's Led (Warner Bros.): While the fist-pumping bombast of Secret Machines is best served in a long-play format, the foursome of tunes that ends this EP is one of the headiest of the year. Covers of “Astral Weeks,” “Money” (the Berry Gordy version), and “Girl From the North Country” descend slowly with stunning, iceberg-heavy drama and enchanted psychedelia. Back to back to back, they take on a revisionist interpretation: lost love and the cost of getting it back. Finishing with a krautrock cover, “De Lux (Immer Wieder),” this Dallas-by-way-of-NYC trio pulls back the curtain on its influences and gives its fans a glimpse at some of the cogs spinning within the machine.
Dr. Dog, Easy Beat (National Parking): It's a loaded term, but let's spit it out and get it over with — Beatles-esque is the easiest way to describe this Philly five-piece's rosy harmonies, Baroque-pop arrangements, and clever, wink-and-nudge songplay. But even the B-word doesn't get at the scruffy, affable grandeur of the band's smartly titled third album, Easy Beat. After a pair of self-released, home-recorded CDs, Easy Beat was picked up by a minor indie label, the band got a nod from the New York Times, and it's been catching buzz like a college kid at Bonnaroo ever since. Get on board now, and you'll catch up in time for next year's breakout.