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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. And now for our final 10 best list of 2010. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has his list of the best recorded music he's heard this year.

Ken, I'm looking forward to hearing your top 10 list. But before we hear it, was this an easy year or a difficult year to find 10 albums you loved that were worthy of a 10 best list?

KEN TUCKER: It was a really vigorous, energetic year for lots of glossy pop music and lots of very sort of personal autobiographical sort of almost a throwback to '70s singer-songwriter kind of music.

GROSS: So let's hear your list.

TUCKER: Yeah, my list is - number one is Tracey Thorn. The album is called "Love and Its Opposite"; Arcade Fire and their album "The Suburbs"; Hot Chip, a British band, and their album is "One Life Stand"; Peter Wolf's "Midnight Serenades"; Joanna Newsom's "Have One on Me"; Elizabeth Cook with a terrific country album called "Welder"; the Drive-By Truckers with an album called "The Big To-Do"; Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy"; Marty Stuart's "Ghost Train"; and Robyn's "Body Talk."

GROSS: So, Ken, is there a song from one of the albums in your top 10 that illustrates what you were saying before about some of these albums having very autobiographical songs that reminded you of '70s singer-songwriters?

TUCKER: Yes, the - my number, the Tracey Thorn album, "Love and Its Opposite," there are a lot of songs about, not necessarily strictly autobiographical - she's happily married - but kind of character sketches of people that she knows or imagines who live in very unhappy marriages. And one of the best songs on the album I think to play is "Oh, The Divorces."

GROSS: Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh, The Divorces")

Ms. TRACEY THORN (Musician): (Singing) Who's next? Who's next? Always the ones that you least expect. They seem so strong. It turned out she wanted more all along. And each time I hear who's to part, I examine my heart, see how it stands. Wonder if it's still in safe hands.

Who's fled? Who's fled?

GROSS: That's Tracey Thorn with a song that's on the number one album on Ken Tucker's 10 best of the year list.

So Ken, there was one album on the top 10 that you did not review for FRESH AIR, and that's the album by Robyn, who I'll confess I was not familiar with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So tell us about her and the album and why you chose it for the 10 best, even though you didn't review it?

TUCKER: Yes. Robyn is a Swedish singer. She's a huge hit over in Europe and a kind of dance club favorite over here. And it's kind of funny because she actually released three albums called "Body Talk." And early in the year she put out the first one and I thought, boy, that's terrific, I want to review that. And then I heard that she was going to put out a second album and I thought, well, I'll wait till the middle of the year. And then she, middle of the summer she put up the second "Body Talk and she announced that she was going to complete the trilogy by the end of the year. And so this final disc of "Body Talk" collects five songs from the first album, five songs from the second album and five new songs. And I just think it's really a terrific example of up-to-the-minute dance music.

GROSS: So what would you - would you like to play something from it?

TUCKER: Yes. There's a really good song called "Indestructible."

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it. This is Robyn.

(Soundbite of song, "Indestructible")

ROBYN (Swedish vocalist): (Singing) I'm going backwards through time at the speed of light. I'm yours, you're mine, two satellites. Not alone. No, we're not alone. A freeze-frame of your eye in the strobe light. Sweat dripping down from your brow. Hold tight. Don't let go. Don't you let me go. And I never was smart with love. I let the bad ones in and the good ones go. But I'm going to love you like I've never been hurt before. I'm going to love you like I'm indestructible. Your love is ultra-magnetic and it's taking over. This is hardcore and I'm indestructible.

GROSS: That's Robyn from an album that's on our rock critic Ken Tucker's 10 best list.

Ken, what music really mattered this year? Mattered because it was musically innovative or mattered because it made a mark on culture.

TUCKER: I think a couple of albums that are in my top 10 fit that bill. Certainly the Kanye West album is really interesting in the sense that it's beautifully produced. It's very, very knotty and complex, both in the rhymes that Kanye West raps, and the production is just gorgeous. It's a very, very ambitious album. It's almost, you know, we might have called it a pop opera. It's a kind of a long sinuous journey through the subconscious of Kanye West made very self-conscious. I think he's a really fascinating artist for a guy who gets involved in a lot of controversy. I think he's a very sensitive soul and I think both sides of that egotism versus the sensitive artist plays out in that album.

And at the other extreme, the Canadian band Arcade Fire. And their album, "The Suburbs," that is a big booming rock album. It's just an old-fashioned album that's meant to be listened to as an album. The people who in the band say they thought of it as not a collection of singles or individual songs, but "The Suburbs," which is the name of the album, is meant to be a kind of tour through the suburbs, what it's like to live in the suburbs, what it's like to be an adolescent, to be a parent. It's a kind of panoramic view in music.

GROSS: Is there a track from either of those two albums you'd like to play?

TUCKER: Yes. I think an excellent song by Arcade Fire to play would be "Month of May."

GROSS: Okay. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Month of May")

ARCADE FIRE (Rock Band): One, two, three four. (Singing) Going to make a record in the month of May, in the month of May, in the month of May. Going to make a record in the month of May when the violent wind blows the wires away.

Month of May, it's a violent thing. In the city their hearts start to sing. Well, some people singing sounds like screaming. Used to doubt it but now I believe it.

Month of May, everybody sing love. In the city, watch it from above. And just when I knew what I wanted to say, the violent wind blew the wires away. We were shocked in the suburbs. Now the kids are all standing with their arms folded tight.

GROSS: That's Arcade Fire, one of the recordings on our rock critic Ken Tucker's top 10 list.

We'll talk more about the year in music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker. We're looking back on the year in music.

Three of the artists that were dominant this year commercially - Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift - you gave good reviews to their recordings, although they are not on your 10 best list. But those reviews got some complaints from our listeners. What were they complaining about?

TUCKER: There still seems to be this very strong feeling that glossy commercial pop music isn't quite authentic enough, that the bright pop sound of someone like Katy Perry or the sort of set-to-music diary entries of Taylor Swift, or Lady Gaga, who delights in presenting herself as a kind of human art project, is somehow not worthy of consideration because it's not considered serious enough.

I think this whole idea of authenticity is still very much at play in the minds of pop music listeners, and people get offended if they don't think you're addressing the most serious music of the day. I think a lot of people sort of listen to FRESH AIR and expect to hear music that's not in the top 10, that they can't hear anywhere else. But I think it's important to talk about music that's very, very popular.

And quite aside from that, I just think that Katy Perry is a tremendously interesting, funny, witty artist who's very knowing. She kind of plays with the pinup girl image and makes very bright nice pop music.

Taylor Swift, similarly, a very, very commercial country artist, not at all a hardcore country artist, but a really interesting songwriter, especially for one who is so young. And Lady Gaga kind of occupies that position that a few years ago someone like Tori Amos used to be. It might seem like an odd comparison, but Lady Gaga sits at that piano and pours out her angst in a meat dress - perhaps she's - or some iridescent, light bulb popping headdress that she has on. And it's the visual spectacle, as in the case of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, that matters as much as the music. It's all part of the artistic statement.

GROSS: Is there a track from Katy Perry or Lady Gaga that you'd like to play that you think really shows them off musically? I'd suggest Taylor Swift, except she's played all over the place.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Like you can't not hear Taylor Swift. So, yeah...

TUCKER: Well, I think that Katy Perry's single "California Gurls" is a really terrific piece of pop music.

GROSS: Okay. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of song, "California Gurls")

Ms. KATY PERRY (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) I know a place where the grass is really greener. Warm, wet and wild. There must be something in the water. Sippin' gin and juice, laying underneath the palm trees. The boys break their necks tryin' to creep a little sneak peek.

You could travel the world but nothing comes close to the Golden Coast. Once you party with us you'll be falling in love. Oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh.

California gurls, we're unforgettable. Daisy dukes, bikinis on top. Sun-kissed skin, so hot, we'll melt your popsicle. Oh-oh, oh-oh, oh. Oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh. California gurls, we're undeniable...

GROSS: That's Katy Perry. Her hit song from this year, "California Gurls." And my guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker, who's talking about the year in pop music.

Last year, and actually over several years, we've talked about the impact television is having on pop music, both through the use of already existing recordings within TV shows, and also through TV shows that are all about music, like "American Idol" and "Glee." And I'm wondering how much you think television has had an impact this year on pop music, and in particular "Glee" and "American Idol."

TUCKER: I think television is hugely important. It's one of the primary ways in which people experience music for the first time in a lot of cases, and it's also the way images get presented of new pop artists. That's certainly the case of Lady Gaga that we just mentioned. Her appearing on awards shows helped cement her kind of phenomena.

And then for a specific show such as "Glee" - on the surface "Glee" seemed to me like the next logical step after "American Idol." It was young people covering pop songs. But the creator, Ryan Murphy, kind of added layers of jokes and irony and reintroduced to a new generation Broadway musical conventions - cardboard one-note characters, but they are characters that are easy to identify with and are nonetheless, you know, very funny and they burst into song at any given moment. And I think the show makes the case for bombastic rock and pop from the '80s and the 90s as a kind of new American songbook. Now, I think that's wrong. I dont think that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why do you think that's wrong?

TUCKER: Because I think stuff like music by Journey and Rush will never stand the test of time as great American songbook classics. But I like the idea that Ryan Murphy has that thesis - that he wants to promote that idea, and he does it in the context of this very well-made show. All that said, I found this season of "Glee" to be almost unwatchable at times because it had become so self-conscious and so self-aware of the first season's success that it became almost kind of frozen in a self-conscious amber of irony. And so I wasn't crazy about "Glee" but I could step back and really admire the phenomenon that essentially was the vision of one creator, Ryan Murphy, and the way he put together that cast and the extraordinary success. There were more singles on the Billboard charts from "Glee" cast members than any other pop or rock band in the country this year. So, I mean that's a remarkable commercial achievement and shows again the power of television.

GROSS: Yet "American Idol," I don't even remember the name of the person who won.

TUCKER: Exactly. The past couple of times, the winner especially is, you know, forgotten after he or she makes the first record. I mean it's only Adam Lambert who stands out in my mind as a kind of interesting pop figure, and even he's had a very rocky road of it. I mean it remains to be seen now with the departure of Simon Cowell how the future of "American Idol" will unfold. This could very well be the season coming up where "American Idol" kind of collapses under the weight of its own cultural import, if I may refer to it in such heavy terms.

GROSS: Well, talking about the impact of television on pop music, I think we have to talk about commercials because a lot of songs are kind of broken or popularized through commercials now and the love of old songs make their comeback through commercials. So, what commercials caught your ear this year?

TUCKER: Well, one that really popped out at me was that I was watching a Volkswagen Jetta commercial and it was a commercial that's set in a very urban setting, about a guy who is trying to make some money to earn, buy a car and he's taking these menial jobs in the big city. And the - but the music behind it was Wynn Stewart's honky-tonk hit "Another Day, Another Dollar."

This was a song that went to only number 27 on the country charts in 1962, and here it was being played underneath a - to try and sell you a new car, which I thought was completely fascinating. I loved the sheer chance of that - that some music director said, hey, here's a song that's kind of interesting. Let's play this beneath this song. It makes for a nice contrast. And the song is terrific in itself. Wynn Stewart in himself is a fascinating story. He's a guy who was one of the architects of the Bakersfield sound, along with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, yet he's the forgotten man of the Bakersfield sound. He only had one number hit, a song called "It's Such A Pretty World Today," which I could sing to you right now, but...

GROSS: Go ahead. I'm going to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

TUCKER: (Singing) It's such a pretty world today. Look at the sunshine.

(Singing) It's a really great song. And yet he's a guy who never quite got the right breaks. Just as he had that number one hit, he decided to open up a nightclub in Las Vegas. He left the recording industry. So for him to be rediscovered in 2010 for a 1962 song playing under a car commercial just seems to me one of the marvelous wonders of pop music.

GROSS: Okay. Well, you brought it with you. You want to play it for us?

TUCKER: Yes. I'd love to.

GROSS: Okay. Here's Wynn Stewart.

(Soundbite of song, "Another Day, Another Dollar")

Mr. WYNN STEWART (Country Singer): (Singing) Another day, another dollar. Daylight comes, I'm on my way. Another day, another dollar, working my whole life away. The boss told me I'd get paid weakly and that's exactly how I'm paid. Another day, another dollar, working my whole life away. Another day, another dollar...

GROSS: So that's Wynn Stewart and you will likely hear that song on a Volkswagen Jetta commercial, which is still, as far as I know, being played.

So I didn't realize what an interesting, what an interesting and uncelebrated life he had.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So thanks for telling us about him, Ken.

TUCKER: Yeah. He's really a forgotten man of country music.

GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker.

We'll talk more about the year in music after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is our rock critic Ken Tucker. We're looking back on the year in music.

Now, you asked if we could conclude your year-end wrap-up with a recording by a singer-songwriter who died this year, Kate McGarrigle. I think that's a great idea. Tell us about who she was and why you love her music.

TUCKER: Well, Kate McGarrigle was half of the sister act Kate and Anna McGarrigle. They were French Canadian, born in Montreal. She died of cancer in January of this year. And I just think that Kate McGarrigle wrote some of the most beautiful songs, some of them with her sister, some alone, and the music is just so spare and beautiful and tough-minded, yet very gentle and romantic at its heart, but having that kind of hardheaded common sense, a kind of realism, the kind of realism that you have to have if you are a woman who is married to Loudon Wainwright III and are the mother of Rufus Wainwright, among other children.

She was just a wonderful woman. I had - did have the opportunity - I don't do many interviews, but I did interview Kate and Anna McGarrigle a couple of times, and Kate always had this really wonderful kind of quiet sarcasm and a real - what I notice most about so-called sensitive singer-songwriter types is that when you actually meet them, they are very tough characters. And I think all of those winters up in Quebec helped harden those women, and Kate McGarrigle in particular. So I really mourn her death.

GROSS: What song would you like to play by her?

TUCKER: I'd like to play a song that Kate wrote herself and performs on piano, called "I Eat Dinner."

GROSS: I love this song. I'm glad you chose it. It's a beautiful melody and a really heartbreaking lyric.

TUCKER: Yeah.

GROSS: Thank you, Ken. I hope you have Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year.

TUCKER: Same to you. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic and editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. After we recorded our conversation, we thought it would be nice to hear the version of "I Eat Dinner" that Kate McGarrigle recorded with her sister Anna in our studio back in 1993.

KATE AND ANNA MCGARRIGLE (Singer-songwriters): (Singing) Never thought that I'd end up this way, I who loved the sparks. Never thought my hair'd be turning to gray. It used to be so dark. So dark. I eat dinner at the kitchen table. By the light that switches on. I eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hunger's gone. When the hunger's gone. I eat dinner at the kitchen table. And I wash it down with pop. I eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hunger stops. When the hunger stops. Never thought that I'd end up like this, I who loved the night.

Never thought I'd be without a kiss. No one to turn off the light. Turn off the light. I eat dinner at the kitchen table with my daughter, who is now 17. We eat leftovers with mashed potatoes. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the plate is clean. No more candlelight. No more romance. No more small talk. When the hunger's gone. When the hungers gone. When the hungers gone. When the hunger's gone. When the hunger's gone.

GROSS: That's the late Kate McGarrigle performing with her sister Anna in the FRESH AIR studio in 1993. Kate died in January at the age of 63.

You can find our rock critic Ken Tucker's best of the year list on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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