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Ken Tucker's Top 10: The Year In Music

If any one musician held center stage in pop music this year, it was probably Adele, the English singer whose 21 was one of the bestselling albums of the year, as well as one of the most highly praised by critics. I would daresay it reached the widest range of listeners, too.

That last element has become increasingly unimportant in compiling a year-end best list. Sales figures and broad demographics don't mean much, quality-wise, in a music industry that's become so splintered into genres and cults. You may say you love popular music, but someone who likes, say, Beyonce may never listen to Deer Tick, and Deer Tick fans would likely think that Paul Simon is way uncool. Yet Simon's So Beautiful or So What is an album that I underrated when I first reviewed it here. The more I listened to it, the richer its rewards became.

This was a very strong year in country music, with fine albums from veteran performers (like Dolly Parton) and new acts (like Pistol Annies) alike. Pistol Annies is a trio whose guardian angel is Miranda Lambert — she's one of the three singers in this side project. I reviewed Miranda Lambert's album, Four the Record, for Fresh Air, but only recently got into the Pistol Annies album, Hell on Heels, and I think it's as good as any country record out there. There's also another, definitely non-country group I didn't get around to reviewing, tUnE-yArDs, and the intricate pop-rock clatter tUnE-yArDs founder Merrill Garbus makes on the band's album w h o k i l l. It kept coming back around on my playlist so often that it worked its way into my Top 10.

I wouldn't say there were any big, obvious trends in 2011 pop — it was a Lady Gaga-slash-Adele kind of year. But working within an R&B tradition proved fruitful — not only for Adele, but also for a singer such as Anthony Hamilton on his rich new album Back to Love, and on Raphael Saadiq's continually amazing revitalization of soul music on Stone Rollin'.

If one voice defined the year for me, it was that of John McCauley, singer for the band Deer Tick and part of a small-time supergroup called Middle Brother. Both the Middle Brother album and Deer Tick's Divine Providence were examples of rock 'n' roll powered by McCauley's raw, jagged, sensitive and soulful vocals.

My Top 10 list also includes a book: Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, New York Dolls and Warren Zevon. The book is both an anthology of his best writing and a tragic recounting of a life that shut down too soon.

Like you, I find my music in various ways: on albums, on the Internet, through books. It was a challenge and a pleasure to pick through a year as ripe as this one proved to be.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has been listening and re-listening to a lot of the music he's reviewed for FRESH AIR over the past year and he's come up with a best-of list that mixes both albums, individual songs, as well as a book. He's included some music he thinks he underrated the first time around, as well is a music he never reviewed for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")

ADELE: (Singing) There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch, it's bringing me out the dark. Finally I can see you crystal clear. Go ahead and sell me out and I'll lay your shit bare. See how I leave with every piece of you. Don't underestimate the things that I will do. There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch and it's bringing me out the dark.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: If any one musician held center stage in pop music this year, it was probably Adele, the English singer whose album "21" was one of the bestselling collections of the year, one of the most highly praised by critics, and I would daresay reached the widest range of listeners.

That last element has increasingly become less unimportant in compiling a year-end best list. Sales figures and broad demographics don't mean much quality-wise in a music industry that's become so splintered into genres and cults. You may say you love popular music, but someone who likes, say, Beyonce may never listen to Deer Tick, and Deer Tick fans would likely think that Paul Simon is way uncool. Yet Simon's album "So Beautiful or So What" is an album that I underrated when I first reviewed it here. The more I listened to it, the richer its rewards became.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REWRITE")

PAUL SIMON: (Singing) I've been working on my rewrite, that's right. I'm gonna change the ending. Gonna throw away my title and toss it in the trash. Every minute after midnight, all the time I'm spending, it's just for working on my rewrite, that's right and I'm gonna turn it into cash. I've been working at the carwash...

TUCKER: This was a very strong year in country music, with fine albums from a veteran performer such as Dolly Parton to a new act like the Pistol Annies. The Annies are a trio whose guardian angel is Miranda Lambert - she's one of its three singers in this side project. I reviewed Miranda Lambert's album, "Four the Record", for FRESH AIR, but only recently got into the Pistol Annies album "Hell on Heels," and I think it's as good as any country album out there.

There's also another, definitely non-country act that I didn't get around to reviewing, tUnE-yArDs and the intricate pop-rock clatter tUnE-yArDs founder Merrill Garbus makes on the band's album "whokill." It kept coming back around on my playlist so often that it worked its way into my Top 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU YES YOU")

MERRILL GARBUS: (Singing) Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound. What if, baby, I cannot hear the light? Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound. What if, baby, I cannot hear the light?

(Singing) What's that about? What's that about? What's that about? What's that about? Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound. What if, baby, I cannot hear the light? Now that everything is going to be OK, now that everything is going to be all right, what if, baby, I cannot see the sound? What if, baby, I cannot the light?

(Singing) I was born to do it. My daddy had enough so I put my back into it. That man was born to do it too. We didn't have enough so we cannot sing for you. Ha!

TUCKER: I wouldn't say there were any big, obvious trends in 2011 pop. It was a Lady Gaga/Adele kind of year. But working within an R&B tradition proved very fruitful, not only for Adele, but also for a singer such as Anthony Hamilton on his rich new album "Back to Love," and on Raphael Saadiq's continually amazing revitalizations of soul music on "Stone Rollin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STONE ROLLING")

RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Listen, fat lady, shaking, backbone breaking. Come on, this girl of mine. Everything she's got is moving hot. Come on, this girl of mine. I was just some friend but she took me in. Just come on, this girl of mine.

TUCKER: If one voice defined the year for me, it was that of John McCauley, singer for the band Deer Tick and part of a small-time supergroup called Middle Brother. Both the Middle Brother album and Deer Tick's "Divine Providence" were examples of rock 'n' roll powered by McCauley's raw, jagged, yet sensitive and soulful vocals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "MAIN STREET")

JOHN MCCAULEY: (Singing) I can't sleep, I can't close my eyes. Blink for one second and the whole world pass you by. Yeah, I guess I'm in. All the days you spent. I cannot eat...

TUCKER: My Top 10 list also includes a book: "Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson," by Kevin Avery. Nelson, who died in 2006 at age 69, was part of the first generation of rock critics, instrumental in bringing attention to musicians including Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, the New York Dolls, and Warren Zevon. The book is both an anthology of his best writing and a tragic recounting of a life that shut down too soon.

Like you, I find my music in various ways: on albums, on the Internet, through books. It was a challenge and a pleasure to pick through such a ripe year as this one proved to be.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. You can listen to a song from each of the albums he reviewed on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also links to all of Ken's reviews from the year. Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward talks about the Chitlin' Circuit. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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