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From Hip-Hop To Country, Critic Ken Tucker Assesses The Best Of 2015


This is FRESH AIR. This year, rock critic Ken Tucker's 10 best list includes nine albums and a book. Though, the musical genres on his list range from hip-hop to country, all the artists have earned Ken's admiration for their songcraft and shrewdly phrased ideas. Here's Alabama Shakes with a song from "Sound & Color," one of Ken's favorite albums.


ALABAMA SHAKES: (Singing) Can't wait for night to come, that's when the fun really begins. My band cools off when that day is done and then I tuck myself in. It ain't no fun to be lonely, but I was not truly lonely. And I'm beginning to realize it. I can't have everything, everything.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Year In Music 2015 organized itself around people talking - to you and me, to their lovers and to enemies, to themselves. It's the sound of Alabama Shakes's Brittany Howard belting out new R&B on "Sound & Color." It's the sound of someone declaring her loneliness and deciding that loneliness isn't such a bad thing, as can be heard in the voice of the 28-year-old Australian Courtney Barnett. Her song, "An Illustration Of Loneliness," is from my favorite album of the year, "Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit."


COURTNEY BARNETT: (Singing) I'll lay awake at four, staring at the wall, counting all the cracks backwards in my best French. Reminds me of a book I skim-read in a surgery all about palmistry. I wonder what's in store for me. I pretend the plaster is the skin on my palms and the cracks are representative of what is going on. I lose a breath. My love-line seems intertwined with death. I'm thinking of you too.

TUCKER: Another kind of talking is what's done by Kendrick Lamar on his hugely ambitious album "To Pimp A Butterfly." Lamar wants to share his enthusiasm and serious considerations about what different forms of music mean to him - hip-hop, soul, pop, rock and the blues. On a great song such as "King Kunta," Lamar contrasts the catchiest sort of rhythm with his voice, a pleasing rasp in love with its own throaty vehemence.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got a bone to pick. I don't want you monkey mouth sitting in my throne again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Aye, aye, what's happening? K Dot back in the hood.

LAMAR: (Rapping) I'm mad.


LAMAR: (Rapping) But I ain't stressing. True friends, one question. Where - where you when I was walkin'? Now I run the game, got the whole world talking, King Kunta. Everybody want to cut the legs off him, Kunta. Black man taking no losses. Where – where you when I was walkin'? Now I run the game, got the whole world talking, King Kunta. Everybody want to cut the legs off him. When you got the yams.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: What's the yams?

TUCKER: Other albums I admired and played a lot this year - Wreckless Eric's "America," a 60-something Brit's love letter to his new home country. The Mountain Goats' "Beat The Champ," a witty concept album built around the unlikely theme of pro wrestling. Los Lobos's fourth decade of music-making to be heard on "Gates Of Gold." Chris Stapleton's "Traveler," the rare, hard-core country album that won major music awards. My favorite country album, however, was one that wasn't nearly as high-profile. Ashley Monroe's beautiful series of sad songs called "The Blade."


ASHLEY MONROE: (Singing) I let your love in. I have the scar. I felt the razor against my heart. I thought we were both in all the way, but you caught it by the handle. And I caught up by the blade.

TUCKER: I spent a lot more time listening to commercial pop radio this year and was totally hooked on hit singles by The Weekend, Miguel, Taylor Swift and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' ubiquitous "Uptown Funk." And I love the underrated album called "Emotion" by a pure pop singer, Carly Rae Jepsen.


CARLY RAE JEPSEN: (Singing) Be tormented by me, babe, wonder, wonder how I do. How's the weather? Am I better, better now that there's no you? Drink tequila for me, babe. Let it hit you cool and hot. Let your feelings be revealing that you can't forget me. Not a flower on the wall. I am growing 10 feet, 10 feet tall. In your head and I won't stop until you forget me, get me not. In your fantasy, dream about me and all that we could with this emotion. Fantasy, dream about me and all that we could do with this emotion. This emotion…

TUCKER: Finally, a nice thick book. "Real Life Rock" collects 29 years of Greil Marcus' unique real life rock columns, each of which stuffs opinions about books, movies and politics into entries about music and vice versa. If you doubt that monthly columns assembled in bits and pieces can hold up over time, I direct you to page 141 and his remarks on a 1995 FRONTLINE documentary about Hillary Clinton. Marcus' words read like tomorrow's news and they definitely rock. Happy holidays to you.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. On Monday's FRESH AIR - Jennifer Lawrence. She's starring in the new film "Joy," her third time working with David O. Russell, who also directed her in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle." Lawrence also starred in "The Hunger Games" films. Hope you can join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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