After a year like this, there's more reason than ever to go around quoting the Hold Steady: You gotta stay positive.

Here's another Craig Finn mantra put to work: Every year-end nod in this column is positive, or at least they all started out on the bright side. There's no "worst" anything. Between all the George Bush bumper stickers, economic death-tolling and over-aired VH1 specials, we see that word enough these days.

Best overall trend: Babes in Boyland. When Lori Barbero headed out of Dodge this month, she left us in good hands. The Twin Cities is enjoying its greatest wave of female-led rock bands since the late-'80s/early-'90s alt-rock/riot-grrrl era -- and a lot of the current participants really were just babes back then.

The best newbie is Gospel Gossip, a fuzzed-out Jesus & Mary Chain-style group led by baby-faced frontwoman Sarah Nienaber, 22. Then there are Gospel Gossip's label-mates on the reborn Guilt Ridden Pop label, Maps of Norway and Baby Guts, each mighty and mayhemic.

Others that have popped up and rocked out: Sick of Sarah, Strut & Shock, the Haves Have It, Bella Koshka, Kitten Forever and -- ones with women co-leaders -- Now Now Every Children, the Millionth Word, To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie and First Communion Afterparty.

Probably the best thing about this trend is no one has actually written it up as a trend yet and spoiled it. Oh damn, never mind.

Best new addition to the West Bank: The Acadia Café, with its vast beer selection and intimate music schedule, followed by new director Rob Simonds and all the tasteful updating at the Cedar Cultural Center. And that's followed by the 400 Bar's new non-crumbling wall and all the late-night African food joints between the Nomad and Triple Rock (thanks to them, you can get a good meal and/or find a cab-ride home at all hours of the night).

Best reason to pay taxes in St. Paul instead of Minneapolis: Two of the best music fests of the year, Concrete & Grass and the McNally Smith River Rocks, were co-produced by the city and warmly endorsed by city leaders. The real home run for Team St. Paul, though, came when the relocated Eclipse Records opened its all-ages music venue in May, put there in large part by a city grant.

Best substitute for a big local music festival: The Republican National Convention. Some nights of the RNC strangely reminded me of being amid the mayhem at Texas' South by Southwest Music Conference -- running my butt off to get from one gig to the next, flashing my laminate pass at the door, mingling in a crowd of overdressed poseurs (suits and ties instead of indie-rock attire).

Meanwhile, a whole bevy of "unofficial" gigs happened concurrently with the sanctioned shows (just like at SXSW). These were the shows where the locals really shined, from the passionate and often harrowing Eight Is Enough gig at the Turf Club to the Mad Ripple Hootenannys at the Parkway Theater to the surprisingly festive Ripple Effect show and Take Back Labor Day, where Atmosphere almost got political and Muja Messiah learned that the bearded good ol' boy from HBO's "The Wire" has a day gig (Steve Earle).

Best two-fer musician: Darren Jackson's excellent album with Kid Dakota and the Hopefuls was an impressive feat, and Alexei Casselle continues to split his time as a rapper (Crescent Moon) and co-leader of neo-Americana band Roma di Luna.

But the honor in this case should go to Muja Messiah. The rapper told me in March, after years of talking big but lying low: "By the end of this year, people will see what I've been doing all along -- that I've been working hard, and I'm ready to sit in the same room as Kanye and Jay-Z." Since then he's issued two wildly different and well-received CDs, "Mpls. Massacre, Vol. 1" and "Thee Adventures of a B-Boy D-Boy." Both are better than Kanye's latest.

Best proof that local music isn't just for a small in-crowd: Soundset '08, which was also the best real festival. Thrown by Rhymesayers Entertainment and led by Atmosphere in the Metrodome parking lot over Memorial Day weekend, it drew 12,000 people with a lineup that was about 95 percent local. Neither the "American Idol" tour nor the Timberwolves drew that many fans this year. Not that I'm suggesting the Wolves are that bad.

Best Ant quote of the year: Talking about Atmosphere's 2008 disc, "When Life Gives You Lemons," he said, "I knew what the songs were all about from the get-go. I still don't even know what 'God Loves Ugly' is about."

Best I Self Devine moment: Leading the crowd at Ripple Effect to chant "[Expletive] the police," with a riot squad lined up behind the stage.

Best who'd-a-thunk-it'd-come-from-Minnesota CD: "Lightning & Thunder, Vol. 1," the first compilation of local reggaeton acts, including Maria Isa, Chino Fino, Pee Wee Dread, Prince Jabba and Truthmaze.

Best Minnesota album, period: Ben Weaver's "The Ax in the Oak." The St. Paul folk/alt-country troubadour's first disc for Bloodshot Records and second with producer Brian Deck (Low, Modest Mouse) perfectly balanced his bleak, bleary-eyed lyricism with more uplifting poetry, and his rustic backwoods-folk sound with modern urban ambience. Deep, beautiful stuff.

Best forward-thinking band: Cloud Cult. While most bands sat around scratching their heads over gas prices and/or the woes of record labels, these once-out-there, now-let's-call-them-visionary hippie-rockers benefited from ideas they put in motion years ago. They hit the road in the biodiesel-burning van, which they've been tooling around in since well before the price of regular unleaded shot up. They also sold many of their CDs via digital downloads off their own site, leaving more trees in the forests -- and more room for their paintings at the merch table.

Best reason to hate Tapes 'N Tapes' bursting, choppy, high-velocity second album, "Walk It Off," earned a meager 5.9 rating (out of 10) from the mega-blog it rode in on, even though it was more refined than and nearly as stellar as their fawned-about debut. Trying to generate backlash against hype that you created is about as juvenile and slimy as the McCain teamsters who dissed Sarah Palin on Nov. 5.

Best reason to either love or hate the resurgence of vinyl: The Rank Strangers' "Tucke des Objekts, Die," issued only on vinyl. It was great -- if you have a turntable (I'm finding that lots of people under 20 and over 35 do, but not many in between).

Second-best AC/DC concert I saw this year: TNT at Mayslack's in April. Jon Magnuson does Bon Scott better than Brian Johnson.

Best chance for local bands to hobnob with celebs: South by Southwest, where members of White Light Riot "performed" for Moby at a party (they were actually just playing "Guitar Hero") and "Superbad" star Jonah Hill snapped photos of Kid Dakota on stage (an actual performance). Knife World, on the other hand, only got to play to drunks and crackheads busking on the streets -- but still somehow sold a decent amount of CDs.

Best use of a Clorox bleach bottle: Skoal Kodiak, of course, whose frontman Markus Lunkenheimer somehow plays one for an instrument. I did come up with another contender, though: Baby Guts' frontwoman Laura Larson, who emerged with a new bleached-blonde do at the Entry two weeks ago that screamed as much as she does. Just like old times.


The best concerts of 2008, and our Artists of the Year.


Our sixth annual Twin Cities Critics Tally, a poll of the best local albums, songs and live acts of 2008. • 612-673-4658