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.

As Loudon Wainwright III says in his song "In C," he likes to sing about "my favorite protagonist — me."

The warmth and vigor of Bonnie Raitt's voice throughout her new album Slipstream, even when she's covering an oldie such as Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down the Line," is vital and fresh — urgent, even. Raitt has always possessed a gift for taking a familiar phrase and rendering it in a manner that compels a listener to think anew about what the words really mean.

The callow croon over a pulsating beat, the massed harmonies in the chorus, the lyrics about partying that name-check Katy Perry and include a wistful wish for a nameless girl to kiss the singer — this is boy-band music at its newest and its most timeless. The five young guys who comprise One Direction are single-minded.

Dierks Bentley has a nice, deep voice; an open, friendly demeanor; and a knack for working in a variety of country-music genres, from bluegrass to power ballads. For all that, it's always been difficult to pin down what Bentley aims to do. Although he's only in his 30s, Bentley sounds as though he's working through a bit of a midlife crisis on his new album Home. Take, for example, the single "Am I the Only One," a novelty tune about going out to party with a twist — not many of Bentley's pals want to join him, because they've settled into adulthood, and he hasn't.

The song "I Got You Babe," on Bahamas' new album, Barchords, is obviously not Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe." This version is an original song the Canadian singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen, who records under the stage name Bahamas, has written about holding and losing someone.

Chuck Prophet's new album, Temple Beautiful, takes its name from a former synagogue that hosted punk-rock shows in the late '70s and early '80s; it was next door to the temple overseen by cult leader Jim Jones. That may sound like a grim or black-humored reference point around which to erect an album, but with Prophet, grimness, humor, fact and fiction mingle freely. Before anything else, he's a guitar player with a melodically nasal voice whose phrasing favors the whimsical and the querulous.

Lana Del Rey appeared on Saturday Night Live recently, giving two rather tentative performances that, depending on your point of view, were awkward and amateurish or shrewdly restrained and vulnerable. Del Rey, in her mid-20s, attracts polarizing opinions.

Janie Fricke has had a long, winding career. She started out as a singer of TV commercial jingles, warbling for Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Red Lobster, among other clients. She then moved on to singing back-up vocals for stars such as Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton.

On Back to Love, Anthony Hamilton makes music from declarations. He tells a woman "I'm missing you crazy" in "Who's Loving You," and it's typical of his strategy. He states his thesis, his opinion, his desire in a voice that speaks as much as it sings for the sake of emphasis. After he's sure he's gotten his lover's attention, he begins doing his rhythm-and-blues work, mixing soul and blues and hip-hop phrasing to heighten the emotion in a song.

Careening into your ears like the theme to a bank-heist flick is "Lonely Boy," the first single from El Camino. Except the lyric tucked inside the roaring, curve-hugging melody isn't about anything so action-packed as robbing a bank or making a getaway. Instead, Dan Auerbach sings about stasis: "I got a love that keeps me waiting." And, being the sensible raucous rocker that he is, Auerbach is willing to wait out his love, because he knows in his heart that she's worth it.

I'm not much for collections of alternate takes and the early music of people who went on to have hits. There's usually a reason a song doesn't become a hit, just as there's usually a reason to record another take — it's because the music is usually lousy. But I'm a little bit obsessed with a new collection of Buck Owens performances from the years before he became a star.

David Lynch commences Crazy Clown Time with "Pinky's Dream," featuring a vocal by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O and summoning up, as the song title suggests, a dreamy atmosphere. With Karen O's pretty voice and the galloping rock beat, it's as though Lynch is trying to ease us into his album, ushering us into a welcoming waiting room before the real operation, when the scalpel comes out.

Four the Record is a transitional collection for Miranda Lambert. Her preceding three albums played up the idea of Miranda as a good ol' gal with an explosive emotional streak. You saw it in titles like "Kerosene," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" and "Gunpowder and Lead." Four The Record is an album whose subtext is all about coming to terms with the expectations of her audience, and with her expectations for herself as a performer wanting to broaden her subject matter, to work in more varied styles.

Like a lot of successful American Idol contestants, Kelly Clarkson made her reputation as a belter — as someone who could project to the rafters and rouse a crowd — which doesn't necessarily translate into good pop singing. Ever since Bing Crosby started using the microphone as an instrument for achieving intimacy and nuance, the idea of delivering popular song as operatic aria is a flawed strategy. But everybody loves an anthem, right?

The title of Deer Tick's new album, Divine Providence, is a pun: The band hails from the capital of Rhode Island. But the other side of the pun is sarcastic. There's little on the album concerning divine providence or care. Nor is the band provident — frugal or prudent — about its talent and music. Group frontman John McCauley continues to sing as though the primary idea is to shred his vocal cords.

If the title of her new album is a tad portentous, Shelby Lynne is determined to make precisely detailed mood music, not a succession of revelatory moments, throughout Revelation Road. That's ultimately what gives the album its strength. It's underpinned with sturdy melodies, the occasional bright image and, above all else, Lynne's exceptional voice, which cuts across every song with a sharp, slicing motion.

It's hard not to feel ambivalent about The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Yes, it does give us an opportunity to hear previously unreleased lyrics by one of the greatest songwriters country music has produced. But Williams didn't write the music that accompanies his words, and as sincere as these performers are, none of the words are framed the way Williams would have, had he completed the songwriting process.

When they started out at the beginning of the 1980s, The Bangles' members were never part of the Los Angeles punk scene that slightly predated them, with bands such as X, the Germs and the other significant all-girl bands of that era, The Runaways and The Go-Gos. The Bangles were always more interested in jangling guitar sounds, plaintive harmonies, catchy choruses and wistful melancholy.

It becomes clear early on that Low Cut Connie are a bunch of talented musicians who pride themselves on their low-down, low-rent, low-minded methods and instincts. They like to sing about intercourse, inebriation, and an inability to have a good time. Recorded for what sounds like a suitably low budget, Low Cut Connie benefits mightily from the buzzsaw yowl of Adam Weiner.

In the liner notes to his new album, Ghost on the Canvas, Glen Campbell writes that this is "the last studio record of new songs I ever plan to make." Campbell has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, and intends to perform a farewell tour before retiring from the music industry.

For a guy who started his career yelling over loud guitars in the great Los Angeles punk band X, John Doe has steadily become one of the warmest, most welcome voices in pop music. There's a beseeching quality to his singing that draws you in with curiosity: What's this guy's story? What's he thinking about? On Keeper, he is, generally speaking, in a contemplative mood, and his crooning is frequently lovely.

In the movie Crazy Heart, Bad Blake was an alcoholic former star who'd slid to the bottom of the country-music industry. For his musical performances, Jeff Bridges affected a shrewd mixture of Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and a breezy boozer. This approach was good enough to win an Oscar, but upon receiving a collection of songs called Jeff Bridges, I thought, would it be good enough to result in a decent album? The good news is that Jeff Bridges is not Bad Blake, in more ways than one.

Sam Phillips possesses a distinctive voice, with a chalky plaintiveness and a slight nasality that only increases her intimate, confiding tone. The thing is, she's not much of a confessional songwriter. I was reminded of this as I listened to Solid State and heard her direct her thoughts outward, crafting music that advises people to be honest with each other, to locate the magic in everyday life, to generally look around you instead of navel-gazing.

There's a dreamy summer breeze wafting through much of Sky Full of Holes, as though Fountains of Wayne wanted to make its new album synch up with the season. And, just as this summer has been hotter than many recent ones, there's also a warm intensity to many of the songs, such as the album's first single, "Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart."

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