Ken Tucker

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.

Tucker is the author of Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and Kissing Bill O'Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love and Hate About Television.

The first thing you notice about Lucy Schwartz's Timekeeper is the singer's voice — both her physical voice, which is at once ringing and adroit, and her writer's voice, which is precise yet elusive. When Schwartz sings "Ghost in My House," the production renders her tone in an echoing manner that signifies spookiness. It also suggests a metaphor — memory as a ghost, the haunting of someone who's no longer in her life. In general, Lucy Schwartz is in love with the sound of her own voice, and for once that phrase is not meant as a criticism; I think she has good reason to be.

Robbie Fulks has been recording since the mid-'90s, making music that's difficult to categorize. He's written country songs about how compromised most country music is, and while he's fond of folk and bluegrass, he pleases concert audiences with covers of hits by Michael Jackson and Cher. Fulks' new album, Gone Away Backward, is one of his most sustained and subtle efforts.

In the late 1960s, it wasn't just that Bob Dylan's music was eagerly anticipated — it was music that millions of people pored over: for pleasure, for confirmation of their own ideas, and for clues as to the state of mind of its creator. In this context, the double-album Self-Portrait arrived in 1970 with a resounding, moist flop. I don't mean it was a commercial flop; it sold well.

"I hate music, what is it worth? / Can't bring anyone back to this earth," the band Superchunk sings. It's the kind of sentiment you'd imagine someone blurting out with bitter spontaneity, but it's not really music the band hates; it's the despair and grief to which their music bears witness. Superchunk's new downbeat-but-upbeat album, I Hate Music, is dedicated to a close friend who died last year.

Robin Thicke exudes a kind of oily charm that is, with the right material, by no means off-putting. A prime example is the single "Blurred Lines," which gives you the complete Robin Thicke Experience. The song is a come-on, because basically all Thicke does in his music is try to put the make on women. What prevents him from being too creepy is that he's also genial, even gentlemanly and debonair, when the object of his lust shoots him down.

Valerie June wants to be on your mind; to get inside your head. She writes or co-writes songs that mix blues, gospel, folk and soul, and which describe emotional isolation, financial deprivation and insecurity about her place in the world. She's unafraid to proclaim her neediness — perhaps because, possessed of a powerful voice, she knows that her vulnerability isn't likely to come off as passive or self-pitying on Pushin' Against a Stone.

Country-music star Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin have teamed up to record a new concept album called Bakersfield. Their idea is to cover hits from the 1960s and '70s by two artists who helped define the Bakersfield, Calif., country sound: Merle Haggard and the Strangers and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. But this is no nostalgia-fest — it's a vital testament to music that retains energy and innovation.

Now 43 years old, Jay-Z has become the Jay Gatsby of hip-hop: a man with a checkered background playing host to endless parties, celebrating excellence, the good life and himself. It's no wonder that he was asked to oversee the music for director Baz Luhrmann's amusement park ride version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's romantic fantasy.

One major source of pleasure in the music Eleanor Friedberger makes as half of The Fiery Furnaces is a matter of sheer density — the density of The Fiery Furnaces' musical ideas, the thick layers of words, lyrics that operate as dense sounds with meaning to be extracted from them.

Kanye West is having some serious fun with us on his new album, Yeezus, starting with the title; it's a play on his nickname, Yeezy, and his penchant for placing himself just this side of the Son of God in terms of cultural importance. That's just the first clue as to how assiduously aggressive and transgressive West wants to be on this album.

Raised in South Berwick, Maine, and residing in Austin, Texas, Slaid Cleaves is no one's idea of a music-industry insider. He writes and sings songs primarily about working-class people and romantics both hopeful and hopeless. That said, it's also not difficult to hear another element of the fortysomething Cleaves' past: He was an English and philosophy major at Tufts, and his lyrics are underpinned by both a fine sense of meter and moral perspicacity.

When Jason Isbell was part of Drive-By Truckers, his guitar contributed to the band's sometimes magnificent squall of noise, while his songwriting contributed to the eloquence that raised the band high in the Southern rock pantheon. But the group was led by two other first-rate songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.

The New York City band Vampire Weekend has carved out a sense of immaculate melancholy for our era as surely as Steely Dan once did for Upstate New York in the '70s. Characterized most immediately by the earnest, concise, sometimes surprisingly expansive vocals of Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend makes atmospheric music.

I freely admit that, until the new Random Access Memories, I wasn't much of a Daft Punk fan. I could appreciate the craft and imagination that went into creating the French duo's mixture of electronic genres — techno, house, disco — but the mechanical repetitions and heavily filtered vocals didn't turn me on in any other way.

If you heard the Dawes song "Just Beneath the Surface" and said, "Somebody's been listening to their old Jackson Browne albums," you're not exactly insulting Dawes. The band has actually backed Browne on tour — and Browne has sung backup on at least one of its songs — so you could say that Dawes comes by its riffs and phrasing honestly.

Natalie Maines doesn't hesitate to make audacious moves, and wresting away "Mother" — Roger Waters' hymn to oppressive maternal authority figures from Pink Floyd — is the biggest one on her first solo album. Maines takes the "Mother" from Pink Floyd's The Wall and deconstructs it, emotional brick by emotional brick.

"Pink Champagne," a song on Caitlin Rose's second album The Stand-In, presents Rose's voice in its sparest purity and veiled shrewdness. She sends her voice skyward, the notes as buoyant and light as the bubbles of the pink champagne she's singing about. Her high trills could, with only a slight shift in tone and attitude, become self-conscious with a Betty Boop coyness, as they do once or twice on The Stand-In. But most of the time, Rose keeps her music grounded in the details of yearning, heartache and a welcome sense of gratefulness and enthused energy.

Brad Paisley's Wheelhouse is yet another very good album from a singer, songwriter and guitarist who's made a bunch of them in a row. It features a slew of shrewd songs about finding pleasure and comfort in a frequently unpleasant, uncomfortable world. The music includes a bone-cracking song about domestic violence written from a woman's point of view, one that praises Christian values from the perspective of a jealous skeptic, and one that samples the great Roger Miller as deftly as any hip-hop production.

Kacey Musgraves is something of an anomaly. A Texas native in her mid-20s, she fits most easily into the contemporary "country" category, but the work she co-writes with a variety of collaborators is really a throwback to an earlier era of singer-songwriters — as much influenced by rock and folk as by country.

The orchestral swirls, the transition to a soul-man groove, the falsetto croon — there you have some of the key elements to Justin Timberlake's album The 20/20 Experience. The title implies a certain clarity of vision, even as any given song presents the singer as a starry-eyed romantic, bedazzled by a woman upon whom he cannot heap enough compliments, come-ons and seductive playfulness.

The high lonesome sound of Ashley Monroe's Tennessee voice in "Like a Rose" serves as a clear signal that she's working within a tradition that extends back well beyond her twentysomething years on Earth. One of Monroe's collaborators in that song was Guy Clark, a seventysomething Texas country veteran who's often too tough-guy romantic for his own good.

Delicate phrasing, with both voice and guitar, has always made Richard Thompson a musician worth hearing — and sometimes even liking on a personal level. For a man who can make such pretty music, it's to his credit that he prefers to show his thorny, stubborn, cranky, even mean side in many of the songs in his solo career.

In culling through albums released late last year that I still play with pleasure, Paloma Faith's Fall to Grace was a real keeper. In contrast to my joy, Faith was singing about her agony: her broken heart, her wracked sobs about ruined affairs, her choked goodbyes to lovers who'd left her. She made all this sound tremendously intense and exciting. Not for nothing did she title her previous album Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?

"Telescope," the fictional hit single by the fictional country star Juliette Barnes on Nashville, is sung by the actress who plays Juliette, Hayden Panetierre. If it didn't become a real-life hit when the song was released a few months ago to country radio stations, it wasn't for lack of catchiness, courtesy of producers T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller.

Ke$ha uses a dollar-sign instead of an "s" in the middle of her stage name. It's one of those gestures that's meant to bait her detractors — suggesting before anyone else does that she's only in it for the money. It turns out, though, that like pop stars ranging from Madonna on back to Chuck Berry, Ke$ha wants it both ways: mass-audience success and artistic acknowledgment. For Ke$ha, that's what her album title Warrior means: She's fighting a war on multiple fronts.

Tracey Thorn's interpretation of "Maybe This Christmas," by the Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, is typical of her new holiday album, Tinsel and Lights: It's simply arranged, emphasizing Thorn's lovely, delicate voice and bolstered by a firm intelligence; it avoids the fatty treacle that weighs down lots of Christmas albums. Tinsel and Lights mixes familiar songs with new ones, such as the title song written by Thorn.

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