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.

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.

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