TERRY GROSS, host:
Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, says, this was a year when lots of artists made lots of good music. Here's Ken's roundup of some of his favorites from 2008.
(Soundbite of song "Sure Hope You Mean It")
Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Sure hope you mean it. Sure hope you mean it. Sure hope you love me girl. Sure hope you love me like you say you do. Sure hope you mean it. Sure hope you love me girl.
KEN TUCKER: Looking at the sales charts and noticing what the media was talking about and listening to, I come away knowing there wasn't any consensus about what kind of pop music year this has been. Certain generalities prevail. Sincerely-phrased pop and hip-hop sold the most, whether we're talking about the felicitous jangle of the Jonas Brothers or the realistic romanticism of the rapper singer, T.I.
In country music, which always pays lip service to its past as a way of staying connected to earnestness, I ended up believing that the year's most old-fashioned act is one of that industry's youngest, 18-year-old Taylor Swift, who put out a sophomore album filled with singular, first-person singular compositions. She may quote from Eminem on stage and market herself like a Disney factory pop star, but what's more down home than believing you could convince a guy you're his true love, if only you could just phrase it persuasively enough?
(Soundbite of song "You Belong to Me")
Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) You're on the phone with your girlfriend, she's upset. She's going off about something that you said because she doesn't get your humor like I do. I'm in my room, it's a typical Tuesday night. I'm listening to the kind of music she doesn't like. And she'll never know your story like I do. But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts. She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers. Dreaming about the day when you wake up and find that what you're looking for has been here the whole time. If you could see...
TUCKER: Every year now for the past decade since the neo-soul movement became a marketing term, a few musicians put out albums that attempt to salute, evoke, imitate or reinvent the soul music era of the late '60s and early '70s. Too often, they're nearly well-intentioned items of nostalgia.
Finally, this year, Raphael Saadiq figured out how to do it right. His album uses soul music as a genre, as a technique, the way a visual artist might use collage or a poet might use the sonnet - not as an end in itself but as a framework, a set of tools to built a strong, new structure. That's what Saadiq did so vibrantly here on a song such as, "Let's Take a Walk."
(Soundbite of song "Let's Take a Walk")
Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) I'm ready to go, go grab your coat. It's hard to hold. I'm ready to let go. Yeah, the mood is right. The city's bright. Hey, don't you fight. I know the time is right. Girl my lips is what I need you to have. Girl,let's take a walk outside. Let's take a walk.
TUCKER: One of my favorite albums of the year was one I didn't review on Fresh Air at all because it was so gleefully profane and so resistant to brief synopsis. The DJ, Greg Gillis, who uses the stage name Girl Talk, put out the album "Feed the Animals." It consists of literally hundreds of snippets of songs from those of Metallica to the Carpenters to create a densely layered slab of pleasure. Anywhere you cut into this rich cake, you come up with delicious morsels. Listen to the way Girl Talk moves from Roy Orbison to Nirvana in about a minute of one cut called "In Step."
(Soundbite of song "In Step")
GIRL TALK: (Singing) Anything you want, you got it. Anything you need, you got it. Anything at all, you got it. Baby! Cooling, cooling, cooling, cooling by day then at night, working up a sweat. One, two, three!
TUCKER: The year's finest rediscovered music came from two of the most reliable sources conceivable, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. "Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings" collected three discs of Williams' live radio performances in 1951 when he was 27 years old, most of it religious music with a honky-tonk rhythm section.
Bob Dylan's sanctioned "Bootleg Series" had a Volume 8 called "Tell Tale Signs" that consisted of outtakes or alternate versions of his more recent material. A lot of it was great, ornery, doomstruck music.
(Soundbite of song "Everything is Broken")
Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Broken lines, broken strings. Broken leaf on broken tree. Broken treaties, broken vows. Broken hands on broken plows. And he is running, honey. And he is joking. Nothing's working. Everything broken.
TUCKER: One singer-songwriter who comes out of both the Dylan and punk rock traditions without sounding like either is Alejandro Escovedo. His album, "Real Animal," was musical autobiography of the most self-effacing sort, and as such, one of the year's most modest yet passionate collections.
(Soundbite of song "Always a Friend")
Mr. ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: (Singing) Wasn't I always a friend to you? Wasn't I always a friend to you? Do you wanna be my friend? Do you wanna be my friend? Every once in a while, honey, let your love show. Every once in a while, honey, let yourself go. Nobody gets hurt, no. Nobody gets hurt. We came here as two, we laid down as one. I don't care if I'm not your only one. What I see in you, you see in me. But if I be wrong, smoke my smoke, drink my wine. bury my snake-skin boots somewhere I'll never find. Still be your lover, baby.
TUCKER: In general, I favored new music over comebacks, a big yea for the band TV On The Radio's album, "Dear Science." A big shrug for the band still known as Guns 'N' Roses, which finally released the album, "Chinese Democracy," after tinkering on it for about 15 years. Between you and me, I'd rather listen to Britney Spears' newly energetic squeals than Axel Rose's labored squeals.
The year's most neglected, underrated recording? The two-disc live album by America's finest art rockers, The Fiery Furnaces. The brother-sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger called their collection "Remember." And this is what Frank Zappa would have sounded like had he had any poetry in his soul and the trilling, thrilling voice of Eleanor Friedberger. And for me, poetry and thrills are what rock n' roll is all about.
(Soundbite of song "Japanese Slippers")
THE FIERY FURNACES: (Singing) Down at the shell shed the boys are picking at their pearls. The hole in my mitten lets the rain get in. I bought 22 ounces from the petrol park, waiting at the light; I'm never gonna make it back in time. So Geraldine and me can begin before Mister Raymond and his Japanese slippers comes creeping in...
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. Ken's list of his favorite music of the year can be found on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. I'm Terry Gross.