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Durimel Photography
Kamasi Washington

Besides shoveling snow and planning Christmas vacation, my Decembers have largely become dedicated to music. Not Christmas music — that doesn’t scratch my musical itches — but the music that occupied my entire year. The new stuff that grabbed my attention and kept it. These five releases from 2018 will stay with me long after the New Year.

The Fearless Flyers, ‘The Fearless Flyers’

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"The Fearless Flyers," The Fearless Flyers

Lords of the groove, these Fearless Flyers are. The self-titled debut, which features Nate Smith (drums), Snarky Puppy’s Mark Lettieri (guitar), and Vulfpeck’s Cory Wong (guitar) and Joe Dart (bass), is 15 minutes of pure guitar-driven, instrumental funk bliss. The quartet plays a mix of covers — Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” “Under The Sea” from “The Little Mermaid” — and originals with surgical precision, but they aren’t robotic. There’s real heart here — a palpable love and exuberance for a tightly wound groove. The result is a lean, bouncy group of songs that are destined to make you dance.

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Hot Snakes, ‘Jericho Sirens’

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"Jericho Sirens," Hot Snakes

Major players in the post-hardcore scene of the early 2000s, Hot Snakes stopped recording music after 2006. “Jericho Sirens,” Hot Snakes’ triumphant return, absolutely rips. The album boasts the band’s usual post-hardcore spirit and fuses it with arena rock-sized riffs, vocals and production, leaving a trail of scorched earth in its wake. The anger of youth is traded for the anger of middle age here — songs about needing a doctor (and a nearby toilet), or about knocking on the door of a “death doula.” Yes, this is thoroughly loud and angry stuff, but it isn’t brutish. The melodic sophistication, the inventiveness, the churning perpetual motion, shows a group of seasoned craftsman at the top of their game. It’s thrilling stuff.

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Kacey Musgraves, ‘Golden Hour’

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"Golden Hour," Kacey Musgraves

“I’m the kind of person who starts getting kind of nervous when I’m having the time of my life,” Kacey Musgraves sings on “Happy & Sad.” She’s long tended to keep at least one foot out of the emotional deep end. That vacillation, between vulnerability and sardonic coyness, is the stuff of country music’s best songs. On “Golden Hour,” Musgraves’ fourth studio album, she finally errs on the side of joy while remaining razor sharp. Draped in warm, lush textures, “Golden Hour” expands Musgraves’ stylistic borders and feels deeply romantic — a biting and fierce musician loosening her grip on her own hurt, giving way for a little more wonder, hope and grace. (P.S.: The album’s opener, “Slow Burn,” is a perfect song.)

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Kamasi Washington, ‘Heaven and Earth’

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"Heaven and Earth," Kamasi Washington

Washington’s saxophone has the power to both soothe and rebuke, to caress and strike. “Heaven and Earth,” a thoroughly eclectic and aptly titled album, wields that broad scope, and further ensures Washington’s place in the jazz firmament. For all his gifts as a player, Washington is quite deferential. It’s a good instinct — his band mates shine brightly and often on “Heaven and Earth.” And seeing them live recently, it became obvious why Washington defers: they're all virtuosic. At nearly two and a half hours, “Heaven and Earth” runs long, and it basks in the musical expanse. It’s the kind of album I'll be digesting for years to come.

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Young Gun Silver Fox, ‘AM Waves’

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"AM Waves," Young Gun Silver Fox
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“AM Waves” sounds exactly like a “Midnight Special” infomercial. That isn’t a bad thing. The duo of Andy Platts and Shawn Lee has crafted something truly magical on its second album: an unabashed throwback to yacht rock that doesn’t feel gimmicky or reductive. That they could sound so fresh, yet so much like peak Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates and Steely Dan, is kind of baffling. At its core are great songs — the album’s ’70s AM radio production is blissful, no doubt, but without such strong songwriting it’d just feel like empty calories. “AM Waves” begs you to surrender. Don’t fight it.

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Honorable mention:

  • Courtney Marie Andrews, “May Your Kindness Remain”
  • Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay, “LUMP”
  • Ezra Furman, “Transangelic Exodus”
  • Jorja Smith, “Lost & Found”
  • City and Colour, “Guide Me Back Home”