Brothers Lazaroff - "Hope, Fear, Youth" (Self-released)
The brothers and company veer towards Wilco-style complexities and classic soul without neglecting their folk lyric roots and jammy sensibility. They continue to evolve in unexpected directions while remaining true to their base. Standout track: "Dance While You Can"
Cave States - "The Great Divide" (Undertow)
St. Louis Americana all-stars Chris Grabau (Magnolia Summer) and Danny Kathriner (Half Knots) stepped away from their usual projects for this collection of lush steel guitar-warmed songs that showcase their collective songwriting strengths and well-honed musicianship. Standout track: "Instrumental (Over the Threshold)"
Cree Rider essaywriter Family Band - "One Night Stand" (Self-released)
With solid roots in classic country themes and lyrics buffered by rock arrangements, forty years ago Rider would have been an outlaw or a highwayman. Cheryl Wilson's harmonies sweeten and sometimes take the forefront with matter-of-fact humanity. It's shades of Graham and Emmylou without the tragedy. Standout track: "When I Get There"
The Defeated County - "Performs Songs by Langen Neubacher" (Extension Chord)
Neubacher's songs are qual parts haunted and romantic with tongue-in-cheek humor sprinkled in. Add country steel guitar and her beguilingly awkward phrasing that's integral to the stories the band's telling. Like Cheryl Wilson, Neubacher illustrates that not all women in front of a country band need to have attitudes as big as their hair. This is country for the thoughtful, the frustrated and the hopeful. Standout track: "St. Louis Love Song"
Ellen the Felon - "Bang Bang Bang" (Self-released)
Ellen Cook is the best kind of psycho crazy - punk attitude and style married to classical musicianship that makes perfect sense. Cook kills the 1990s Piano Lady stereotypes by letting other instruments into the mix, giving layers to her lyrics, from heartbreaking to humorous. Standout track: "Psycho Crazy"
Jesse Gannon and the Truth - "Future Vintage" (Loud Label)
St. Louis summertime soul, the aural equivalent of taking a hit from a jimmied fire hydrant when it's 114 degrees in July. Pianist and vocalist Gannon assembled a diverse, talent-rich collection of musicians for his smooth and thick keyboard-fueled heat wave. Standout track: "Disillusion Girl"
Last to Show First to Go - "Everything's Fine, America" (Loud Label)
Under Bredon Jones' smooth vocals and Miriam Keller's sparkling trumpet lies a hard lyrical bite on this too-short EP. Intelligent, opinionated songwriting is wrapped a most beautiful package of earworm arrangements. Standout Track: "Delivery Day"
Middle Class Fashion - "Jungle" (Blip Blap!)
Hazy and stacked high with layers of vocals that veer from dark gray to snappy pop, Middle Class Fashion updates keyboard-driven pop. Under the dense arrangements the vocal harmonies shimmer, throwing shards of light beside the high synth chirps and drones. Standout track: "Golden Rose"
Pretty Little Empire - "Pretty Little Empire" (Extension Chord)
A distant effect adds even more plaintiveness to Justin Johnson's always emotional vocals - among the sweetest in St. Louis - that carries through the album. It's the echoing hollowness of longing, carried through strong songwriting and a seamless production, making this the local indie pop standout of the year. Standout track: "Talking Loud"
The Union Electric - "From Bad to Worstward" and "Cover Charge" (Extension Chord)
With two EPs The Union Electric looked outside their band for inspiration. "From Bad to Worstward" is a well-composed, straight-up rock effort that slips a literary vitamin into the tastiness - the four songs were inspired by the writings of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. "Cover Charge" features cover songs chosen by each band member. Standout tracks: "Every Word a Stain," "Lungs"
Honorable mention: Jeremy Joyce - "Sleeping With the Devil" (By and By Music)
Singer-songwriter Joyce gets honorable mention only because he left St. Louis for New Orleans last month. In the Philadelphia native's brief time in town, he left us with this collection of country and blues-inflected folk storytelling with hints of his past as a rock guitarist, a melding of St. Louis' historical music influences flitting through town. Standout track: "Arkansas Bill"