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.

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Music Reviews
2:01 pm
Thu June 6, 2013

Jason Isbell: Literary, But Keeping An Edge On 'Southeastern'

Jason Isbell's latest album, Southeastern, is personal and intimate.
Michael Wilson Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu June 6, 2013 3:18 pm

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.

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Movie Reviews
12:02 pm
Tue May 28, 2013

Vampire Weekend Comes Of Age In 'The City'

Vampire Weekend (left to right: Chris Tomson, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij, Ezra Koenig) met while they were all students at Columbia University.
Alex John Beck XL Recordings

Originally published on Thu May 30, 2013 11:02 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
11:14 am
Wed May 22, 2013

Daft Punk: Accessing Electronic Music's Humanity

Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter are the two men behind Daft Punk.
David Black Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed May 22, 2013 1:08 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
12:07 pm
Tue May 14, 2013

Dawes Knows Where It's Been And Where It's Headed

Noah Abrams Big Hassle

Originally published on Sun May 19, 2013 9:27 am

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.

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Movie Reviews
11:30 am
Wed May 8, 2013

Natalie Maines: A Country-Music Rebel Rocks On Her Own

Natalie Maines, former singer for the Dixie Chicks, placed the group at the center of controversy in 2003, when she publicly criticized George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
Danny Clinch Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 3:06 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
11:39 am
Mon May 6, 2013

Caitlin Rose: A Singer Grounded In The Details Of Yearning

Caitlin Rose's newest album is titled The Stand-In.

Originally published on Mon May 6, 2013 3:20 pm

"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.

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Music Reviews
11:52 am
Wed April 17, 2013

Brad Paisley's 'Wheelhouse' Of Good Songs — And Intentions

Brad Paisley's new album is titled Wheelhouse.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed April 17, 2013 2:15 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
2:46 pm
Tue April 2, 2013

Kacey Musgraves: Country's Blunt And Poetic New Voice

Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round" was one of NPR Music's favorite songs of 2012.
Kelly Christine Musgraves Courtesy of the artist

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.

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Music Reviews
1:17 pm
Tue March 19, 2013

Justin Timberlake Returns To Music With Enthusiasm And 'Experience'

The 20/20 Experience is Justin Timberlake's first album since 2006.
Tom Monro RCA

Originally published on Tue April 2, 2013 10:03 am

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.

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Music Reviews
12:52 pm
Mon March 11, 2013

Tegan And Sara Reach Out To New Audiences With 'Heartthrob'

Twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin have been writing songs since they were 15 and independently released their first full-length album in 1999. Since then, they've produced seven studio albums.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon March 11, 2013 6:06 pm

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Music Reviews
12:33 pm
Thu March 7, 2013

David Bowie Awakens To 'The Next Day' Of His Career

After a 10-year hiatus, David Bowie has just returned with The Next Day.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu March 7, 2013 3:30 pm

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Music Reviews
12:37 pm
Tue March 5, 2013

Ashley Monroe Is 'Like A Rose,' Briars And All

Jim Wright Warner Nashville

Originally published on Tue March 5, 2013 2:14 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
12:24 pm
Mon February 25, 2013

Guards: Anthems With Gravitas

Guards just released its debut album, In Guards We Trust.
Olivia Malone Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 1:38 pm

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Music Reviews
12:39 pm
Thu February 14, 2013

Richard Thompson's New Album Examines 'Electric' Love

Richard Thompson's new album is titled Electric.
Pamela Littky Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 1:23 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
12:51 pm
Wed January 30, 2013

Paloma Faith's 'Fall To Grace' Is A Keeper

Singer-songwriter and actress Paloma Faith's new album is titled Fall to Grace.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed January 30, 2013 4:22 pm

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?

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Music Reviews
10:54 am
Wed January 9, 2013

'Nashville' Soundtrack Stands On Its Own

Connie Britton (pictured) and Hayden Panetierre star as country singers of different generations on the ABC series Nashville.
Courtesy of ABC

Originally published on Wed January 9, 2013 2:08 pm

"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.

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Best Music Of 2012
12:03 pm
Tue December 18, 2012

Ken Tucker's Top 10 Albums Of 2012

Dan Monick

Originally published on Wed December 19, 2012 9:25 pm

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Music Reviews
1:40 pm
Wed December 12, 2012

Ke$ha: A 'Warrior' In Search Of Legitimacy

Ke$ha's new album is titled Warrior.
Yu Tsai Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed December 12, 2012 4:53 pm

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.

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Music Reviews
1:17 pm
Fri November 30, 2012

Tracey Thorn: 'Secular Carols' For The Holidays

Tracey Thorn, famous for her work in Everything but the Girl, has a new solo album of seasonal tunes called Tinsel and Lights.
Edward Bishop Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri November 30, 2012 2:24 pm

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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Music Reviews
2:34 pm
Wed November 28, 2012

'Buddy And Jim': Friends In Life And Songwriting

Musicians and friends Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale team up on a new album of country duets called Buddy and Jim.
Michael Wilson photo/Paul Moore design Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed November 28, 2012 6:04 pm

Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale are singer-songwriters who've each written hits for country and rock acts, and have enjoyed extensive solo careers as performers and producers. Buddy and Jim is their first collaboration, a mixture of original songs and covers from earlier decades of country, rock, folk and soul music.

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Music Reviews
12:35 pm
Wed November 14, 2012

An Unlikely Tribute: Jamey Johnson Covers Hank Cochran

Jamey Johnson's new album pays tribute to songwriter Hank Cochran.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 5:41 pm

Jamey Johnson, one of the most popular country singers of recent years, has just released an album titled Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.

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Music Reviews
12:22 pm
Fri November 9, 2012

Cody ChesnuTT Contains A Universe On 'Hundred'

Cody ChesnuTT is the best sort of egomaniac: On Landing on a Hundred, he's preachy but delightful.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri November 9, 2012 1:52 pm

Cody ChesnuTT is the best sort of egomaniac. He places himself at the center of his musical universe; he contains that universe within him. On his new album, Landing on a Hundred, he sings one song in the voice of the entire continent of Africa.

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Music Reviews
1:34 pm
Mon November 5, 2012

Taylor Swift Leaps Into Pop With 'Red'

Taylor Swift's Red challenges her diehard fans while inviting naysayers to give her music another try.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed November 14, 2012 5:44 pm

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Music Reviews
12:49 pm
Fri October 19, 2012

Gary Clark Jr.: A Raucous Blues Shout

Gary Clark Jr.'s Blak and Blu is an eclectic romp through the blues.
Frank Maddocks

Originally published on Fri October 19, 2012 10:49 pm

On his major-label debut Blak and Blu, you can hear the roar in Gary Clark Jr.'s blues guitar, and in his vocal throughout "Bright Lights." It's one of the few straight-up blues songs on what is essentially an introduction to one of the most highly praised young blues guitarists in recent times. While Clark comes out of a blues tradition, he's also a twentysomething who's taken in all of contemporary music.

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Music Reviews
10:14 am
Wed October 10, 2012

Iris DeMent's Emotionally Complex 'Sing The Delta'

Sing the Delta is Iris DeMent's first album of new songs in 16 years.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu October 11, 2012 3:21 pm

Iris DeMent possesses one of the great voices in contemporary popular music: powerfully, ringingly clear, capable of both heartbreaking fragility and blow-your-ears-back power. Had she been making country albums in the '70s and '80s and had more commercial ambition, she'd probably now be considered right up there with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

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Music Reviews
3:10 pm
Wed October 3, 2012

Low Cut Connie: The Self-Deprecating Bar Band

Low Cut Connie's Call Me Sylvia is as raucous as its debut, though it's a bit more self-conscious.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 9:47 am

Low Cut Connie is one of an increasingly rare breed: a party band, a bar band, a band with a sense of rock 'n' roll history that isn't weighed down by nostalgia or the foolish feeling that music was better way back when. Positive fellows, for the most part, even when they're in their cups, these guys "say yes," as the title of one song goes, to a life in music. Oh, and they're also trying to get women to say yes to their craven come-ons.

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Music Reviews
11:16 am
Mon September 24, 2012

Aimee Mann: The 'Charmer' And The Disciplined Id

Ken Tucker says Aimee Mann's latest album, Charmer, is a song cycle about getting rid of a cynical frame of mind.
Sheryl Nields

Originally published on Mon September 24, 2012 2:16 pm

If you listen to the music on Charmer, hearing Aimee Mann's vocals as just another lilting instrument, you'd probably think the album was just what the title suggests: a charmer. The melodies have an airy quality, at once floating and propulsive, and even without fixing on the words, you can hear that they're metrically precise, with carefully counted-out syllables and tight rhymes.

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Music Reviews
2:04 pm
Wed September 19, 2012

Dwight Yoakam: Weary And Wary On '3 Pears'

Dwight Yoakam recently released his new record, titled 3 Pears.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri December 14, 2012 5:06 pm

Dwight Yoakam persists in mixing genres in a way that may leave him out of the country mainstream, but puts him in a good position to make a personal album with some of his best music.

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Music Reviews
11:16 am
Tue September 11, 2012

Bob Dylan's Baffling And Sometimes Beautiful 'Tempest'

Bob Dylan's Tempest features 10 new songs with many feisty, baffling, sometimes beautiful moments.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue September 11, 2012 2:48 pm

Bob Dylan made the rare mistake of talking about his creative process shortly before the release of Tempest. He told Rolling Stone that he'd originally wanted to write a collection of what he called "religious songs," saying, "That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off — 10 times with the same thread than it does with a record like I ended up with." Which means that either his powers of concentration failed him, or he became distracted by other themes, topics and moods.

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Music Reviews
12:38 pm
Tue September 4, 2012

When Ian Hunter Is 'President'

Ian Hunter once is at once crafty and mindful of craft, striving mightily to make his music seem tossed off.
Ross Halfin

Originally published on Thu September 6, 2012 3:54 pm

Recently, I was listening to a new tribute album covering the songs of Fleetwood Mac, and thought once again how dreadful most tribute albums are: They don't add much to the legacy of the artists being saluted, while inadvertently freezing vital old music in an amber of sentimentality. Then I turned to When I'm President, an album of new songs by Ian Hunter.

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