TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has combed through the year's music to put together his Best Of list. His choices range from Jason Isbell to Kanye West with women dominating Ken's listening year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JASON ISBELL: (singing) On a lark, on a whim I said there's two kinds of men in this world and you're neither of them. And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke. Then the car...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: No music moved me more, made me think about life a bit differently than Jason Isbell's continually revelatory album "Southeastern." It cohered as a statement about love, regret, loneliness and joy and also about what it's like to be making vernacular music concerning these themes. It was self-conscious without being self-absorbed.
GROSS: This past year was also a remarkably dominant one for women making diverse, challenging music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROYALS")
LORDE: (singing) I've never seen a diamond in the flesh. I cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies. And I'm not proud of my address in the torn up town, no post code envy. But every song's like gold teeth, Grey Goose, tripping in the bathroom, bloodstains, ball gowns, trashing the hotel room. We don't care. We're driving Cadillacs in our dreams. But everybody's like Crystal...
TUCKER: Notable female hitmakers ranged from the New Zealand teenager Lorde, whose song "Royals" I just played to Miley Cyrus. Yes, the latter's album "Bangerz" was actually good, folks. There were superb recordings from popsters Tegan and Sara and the sister group Hiam, from indie phenomenon Eleanor Friedberger, from the soul singing Valerie June, and most of all from country music making women such as Ashley Monroe, Caitlin Rose, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark.
Clarks "Twelve Stories" possesses the kind of narrative and melodic drive that characterizes the best country music of any error.
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BRANDY CLARK: (singing) I know I shouldn't be here tonight. I hardly know this man. It's been a long time since I felt less pretty as he tells me I am. I've met him at the coffee shop and I've met him in the park. But I've never been alone with him in this dress after dark. There's so many shades of gray; this is black and white. He's some stranger's husband and I'm some stranger's wife.
TUCKER: Hip hop yielded some engrossing young wordsmiths this year with the release of Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris," Danny Brown's "Old," and Chance the Rapper's often brilliant "Acid Rap." But the guy to grapple with for now remains Kanye West, who continues to be wily, controversial, ridiculous, and amazing. I'm still finding new things to listen to in his album "Yeezus" on a song such as "Black Skinhead."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK SKINHEAD")
KANYE WEST: (rapping) For my theme song, my leather black jeans on, my by-any-means on, pardon, I'm getting my scream on. Enter the kingdom but watch who you bring home. They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they going to come to kill King Kong. Middle America packed in, came to see me in my black skin. Number one question they ask me, (bleep) every question you asking.
TUCKER: Among veteran music acts there were a number of substantial new releases this year. Not resting on their laurels, but enriching their legacies, were David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Daft Punk, and Superchunk. The latter released some of the best pop inflected hard rock this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AND YOU AND JACKIE MITTOO)
SUPERCHUNK: (singing) I hate music. What is it worth? Can't bring anyone back to this Earth. Fill in the space all of the notes but I got nothing else so I guess here we go. Cranking in the back of a van, oh, yeah. All of our friends (unintelligible), oh, yeah. Someone and Jackie up in the front seat. Put in a tape and pull up your feet. Oh, yeah.
TUCKER: I'd also like to mention my favorite old music this year. Two releases stand out. "Colder Than Ice: Arctic Records and the Rise of Philly Soul" contains cool music from the 1960s featuring early work by producer Kenny Gamble and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, among many others. And "I Hear the Angels Singing: Electrifying Black Gospel from the Nashboro Label 1951-1983," a staggering anthology of R&B powered gospel music that works on you like spiritual rock n' roll.
So here are my Top Ten Albums of the Year. Jason Isbell, "Southeastern," Brandy Clark, "Twelve Stories," Superchunk, "I Hate Music," Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, "Bakersfield," Kanye West, "Yeezus," Tegan and Sara, "Heartthrob," Ashley Monroe's "Like a Rose," The Mavericks' "In Time," Robbie Fulks' "Gone Away Backward," and Kacey Musgraves' "Same Trailer, Different Park." Happy Holidays.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. You'll find his Ten Best List on our blog at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.