Freestyle Fellowship

Hyim Ross's style is as unique as it is invigorating.

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 band's business approach and fan base than its sound. This year, major festivals like Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and the revived Lollapalooza mashed up alt-rock mainstays with a colorful new breed of improv road warriors. These groups are young, diverse and wildly creative, but they all share a non-commercial, tour-intensive work ethic that assures grassroots 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. So get hip, kid.

1. 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, jazz-tronic 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. (Check 'em out if you like Thievery Corporation, Prefuse 73 or Ninja Tune.)

2. Hackensaw Boys, Love What You Do (Nettwerk): Thankfully, the Hackensaws never forgot that bluegrass is supposed to be ornery. Even as Love What You Do 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 that's absent from previous albums, as if the Boys were 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. (Check 'em out if you like Del McCoury, the Pogues or O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

3. 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 this second self-released album is the songwriting. Lyrically and compositionally, Hyim's deft blend of humor, pathos, experience and optimism reveals an emerging talent worthy of the designation of world musician. (Check 'em out if you like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel or Manu Chao.)

4. Benevento-Russo Duo, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Ropeadope): Thank you, Jack and Meg. Now that two-person groups can navigate the mainstream, Marco Benevento and Joe Russo might have a chance of getting the superstar recognition they deserve. The keys-and-drums Duo (with Benevento on the former and Russo on the latter) is spastically delicious live, and Best Reason captures that schizoid ecstasy in a punky, jazz-rock joyride 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-and-roll yawps, swerving from dirty fonk to thinking dude's power balladry, all throttled into overdrive with ingenuity and raw joy. (Check 'em out if you like Medeski Martin & Wood, Jaco Pastorius or Mogwai.)

5. 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 semi-structured 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. (Check 'em out if you like Talking Heads, Prince or Beck.)

6. 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. (Check 'em out if you like Radiohead, the Pixies or TV on the Radio.)

7. 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-and-bassish 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. (Check 'em out if you like the Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd or LTJ Bukem.)

8. 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's "Fables of Faubus" new again and turning the Flaming Lips' "The Spark That Bled" into a new jazz standard. (Check 'em out if you like Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa or Sketches of Spain.)

9. Secret Machines, The Road Leads Where It's Led EP (Warner Bros.): While the fist-pumping bombast of Secret Machines is best served in a long-player format, the quartet 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 Kraut-rock cover, "De Lux (Immer Wieder)," this Dallas-by-way-of-NYC trio pulls back the curtain on its influences and gives fans a glimpse of some of the cogs spinning within the machine. (Check 'em out if you like Led Zeppelin, Neu! or Mercury Rev.)

10. 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 song play. But even the B-word doesn't get at the scruffy, affable grandeur of Dr. Dog'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 group got a nod from the New York Times, and it's been catching buzz like a college kid at Bonnaroo. Get on board now and you'll catch up in time for next year's breakout. (Check 'em out if you like the Beatles, Steely Dan or Built to Spill.)

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