Ken Tucker's Top 9 Albums Of 2014, Plus A Book

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Elizabeth Grant is better known by her stage name, Lana Del Rey. (Courtesy of the artist)
Elizabeth Grant is better known by her stage name, Lana Del Rey. (Courtesy of the artist)

Spoon makes the kind of indie-pop music that pleases folks like me, and maybe you, who love its simultaneous sense of history and forward momentum. They Want My Soul was all sustained pleasure.

Pop music on a bigger scale is the triumph of 2014. Grand, glossy music-making overtook hip-hop, country and rock — or, more accurately, found new ways to absorb them; to dominate the airwaves, the charts and our consciousness. This was, after all, the year of Pharrell's "Happy," an immediately ubiquitous tune that became an anthem for thoughtful optimism as well as the go-to music for what seemed like every light interlude in a TV sitcom. And what was even poppier than Pharrell's pop? Taylor Swift's pop, of course.

This was the year Taylor Swift severed her remaining ties to country music to make her gleefully bold album 1989, which did what few albums do anymore: present itself as a carefully sequenced collection of songs designed to be listened to from first cut to last. You know, the way Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was.

The opposite of bright, catchy pop is represented on a couple of other albums on my list. The assiduously ornery band Pere Ubu makes music that is at once harsh and noisy, morosely serious and playfully nimble, and I loved Carnival Of Souls.

Even moodier is the music of Lana Del Rey, whom you might call the anti-Taylor Swift. On Ultraviolence, Del Rey stretches out syllables and song lengths so that every tune becomes a siren call, beckoning you toward her.

No album seemed as rich and deep with complexities about family, time and geography as Rosanne Cash's The River And The Thread. It's a tour through an area of the South that has meant a lot to Cash and previous generations of her extended clan. This album operates as a prodigious feat of travel reporting, historical investigation and ways to make rock, folk, country and blues work when you're a Manhattan woman maintaining connections to your roots.

It's increasingly rare that a new musician comes along who can embody an older tradition yet render a familiar form fresh, but twentysomething Benjamin Booker did it with his debut blues-rock-funk album. He was at his best when he and his guitar sounded as though he was running down a dark street, chasing after something desirable or running from something frightening.

It was the kind of year in which I was as happy to hear a bright bit of boy-band punk rock like 5 Seconds Of Summer's song "She Looks So Perfect" as I was Miranda Lambert's twangy realism in a song like "Bathroom Sink." If the year's best collection of old music was the long-awaited release of Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes Complete, Dylan's current tour suggested that he continues to make the old stuff new. And, as I consider my favorite music — and book — of the past year, making it new while being mindful of the past is the common theme, no matter how different the sounds are.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has his year-end top 10 list, as well as some thoughts on music trends that emerged this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RENT I PAY")

SPOON: (Singing) I've been losing sleep, just nodding sleep that I wish that I'd known. And I lost all my tapes, back masking peace just for asking. Peace that I ought to be owed. That's the rent I pay. Just like my brother would say it. Out amongst...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Spoon and its lead vocalist Britt Daniel, making indie-pop music that pleases folks like me and maybe you who love its simultaneous sense of history, as well as its forward momentum. Spoon's album "They Want My Soul" was all-sustained pleasure.

And pop music on a bigger scale is the triumph of 2014. Grand, glossy music-making overtook hip-hop, country and rock - or more accurately, found new ways to absorb them to dominate the airwaves, the charts and our consciousness. This was, after all, the year of Pharrell's "Happy," an immediately ubiquitous tune that became an anthem for thoughtful optimism, as well as the go-to music for what seemed like every light interlude in a TV sitcom. And what was even poppier than Pharrell's pop? Taylor Swift's pop, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLANK SPACE")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Nice to meet you. Where you been? I could show you incredible things. Magic, madness, heaven, sin, saw you there and I thought, oh, my God, look at that face. You look like my next mistake. Love's a game. Want to play? New money, suit and tie. I can read you like a magazine. Ain't it funny, rumors fly, and I know you heard about me. So, hey, let's be friends. I'm dying to see how this one ends. Grab your passport and my hand. I can make the bad guys good for a weekend. So it's going to be forever, or it's going to go down in flames. You can tell me when it's over if the high was worth the pain. Got a long list of ex-lovers. They'll tell you I'm insane 'cause you know I love the players and you love the game. 'Cause we're young and we're reckless.

TUCKER: This was the year Taylor Swift severed her remaining ties to country music to make her gleefully bold album "1989," which did what few albums do anymore - present itself as a carefully sequenced collection of songs designed to be listened to from first cut to last. You know, the way "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was.

The opposite of bright, catchy pop is represented on a couple of other albums on my best-list. The assiduously ornery band Pere Ubu makes music that is that once harsh and noisy, morosely serious and playfully nimble. I love the band's album "Carnivals Of Souls." Even moodier is the music of Lana Del Rey, whom you might call the anti-Taylor Swift. On her album "Ultraviolence," Del Rey stretches out syllables and song lengths so that every tune becomes a siren call, beckoning you toward her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ULTRAVIOLENCE")

LANA DEL REY: (Singing) He used to call me DN. That stood for deadly nightshade 'cause I was filled with poison, but blessed with beauty and rage. Jim told me that. He hit me, and it felt like a kiss. Jim brought me back, reminded me of when we were kids. This is ultraviolence. Ultraviolence, ultraviolence, ultraviolence. I can hear sirens...

TUCKER: No album seemed as rich and deep with complexities about family, time and geography as Rosanne Cash's "The River & The Thread." It's a tour through an area of the South that has meant a lot to Cash and previous generations of her extended clan. This album operates as a prodigious feat of travel reporting, historical investigation and ways to make rock, folk, country and blues work when you're a Manhattan woman maintaining connections to your roots.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FEATHER'S NOT A BIRD")

ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) I'm going down to Florence, going to wear a pretty dress. I'll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head. Then we'll drive on through to Memphis, passed the strongest shores. Then on to Arkansas just to touch the crumbled soul. A feather's not a bird. The rain is not the sea. The storm is not a mountain, but a river runs through me.

TUCKER: It's increasingly rare that a new musician comes along who can embody an older tradition, yet render a familiar form fresh. But 20-something Benjamin Booker did it, with his debut blues-rock-funk album. He was at his best when he and his guitar sounded as though he was running down a dark street, chasing after something desirable or running from some frightening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOU SEEN MY SON")

BENJAMIN BOOKER: (Singing) You told me that the world is full of sinners and placed their Bible at my feet. I could hardly understand you. I had just learned to chew my meat. I heard that you were calling on the Lord, asking for answers, for some relief. I heard that you were calling out my name - my name - and you cried for a whole week, saying, have you seen my son? He's lost in the world somewhere. I pray for him every day, but I know he ain't seeing your ways. Is he all right now? Is he all right?

TUCKER: It was the kind of year in which I was as happy to hear a bright bit of boy-band punk rock like 5 Seconds Of Summer's song "She Looks So Perfect," as I was Miranda Lambert's twang realism on a song like "Bathroom Sink."

If the year's best collection of old music was the long-awaited release of Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes Complete," Dylan's current tour suggested that he continues to make the old stuff new. And as I consider my favorite music of the past year, making it new while being mindful of the past is the common theme no matter how different the sounds are.

Here's what I mean - nine albums and a book that defined my year - Rosanne Cash's "The River & The Thread," Pere Ubu's "Carnival Of Souls," Taylor Swift's "1989," Lana Del Rey's "Ultraviolence," Miranda Lambert's "Platinum," Spoon's "They Want My Soul," Ex Hex's "Rips," Benjamin Booker's self-titled album, Jenny Lewis's "The Voyager" and Viv Albertine's memoir "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys." Happy New Year to you.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. You can find his top 10 list on our website - freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.