The Hold Steady

Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant Records)

Throughout three albums, the Hold Steady, a powerful bar band built without irony but with purpose, has celebrated subjects sacred to American youth -- chemicals, their pushers, and their users -- to a party soundtrack. These are empathetic portraits of such hard-time characters as kids making out in emergency rooms and a damaged hoodrat named Holly. Boys and Girls in America softens frontman Craig Finn's focus and ups the production, casting very specific dramas in more general parameters and putting his voice inside the band. Sometimes connections get lost, but Finn's power to philosophize -- "I see Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers" -- harnesses new power. This isn't the best Hold Steady album, but it's one of the best rock albums this year.