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Ken Tucker Picks His Favorite Albums Of 2018

Dec 19, 2018
Originally published on December 24, 2018 7:44 am

From Courtney Barnett's brooding on Tell Me How You Really Feel to Cardi B's hip-hop styling on Invasion of Privacy, the range of female artists was remarkable in 2018.

Tracey Thorn's Record, in which she sings about the various roles women assume, tops my list of the year's best albums. Here's a list, in order, of all my favorites:

1. Tracey Thorn, Record

2. Kacey Musgraves, Golden Hour

3. Kendrick Lamar, Black Panther: The Album

4. Amy Rigby, The Old Guys

5. Cardi B, Invasion of Privacy

6. Pistol Annies, Interstate Gospel

7. Janelle MonĂ¡e, Dirty Computer

8. John Prine, The Tree of Forgiveness

9. Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

10. Robert Christgau, Is It Still Good to Ya? (book)

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has spent the year reviewing pop, hip-hop, rock and country music for FRESH AIR. He says this year has been a fruitful one, particularly for female artists, with more good music than he could hope to narrow down to a top 10 list - but he's managed to do it. Here's his review of the year in music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SISTER")

TRACEY THORN: (Singing) Don't mess with me. Don't hurt my babies. I'll come for you. You'll find you've bitten off more than you can chew. You are the...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Tracey Thorn singing about various roles women assume - daughter, sister, mother - and how they establish their own identities, frequently at some emotional cost. It's from my favorite album of the year, "Record," nine strong songs or what Thorn calls them - nine feminist bangers. Over the past year, women overwhelmingly dominated the music I was most struck by and took the greatest pleasure in listening to repeatedly. The range of female artists was remarkable, extending from the singer-songwriter brooding of Courtney Barnett's album "Tell Me How You Really Feel" to hip-hop vocalist Cardi B's debut collection, "Invasion Of Privacy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE IT")

CARDI B: (Rapping) Now, I like dollars. I like diamonds. I like studded. I like shining. I like million-dollar deals. Where's my pen? [Expletive], I'm signing. I like those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks. I like going to the jeweler. I put rocks all in my watch. I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance. I like proving [expletive] wrong. I do what they say I can't. They call me Cardi Bardi, banging body, spicy mami, hot tamale, hotter than a Somali, fur coat, Ferrari.

TUCKER: Sometimes it took me a while for an album to grab me. I'll give you a good example. When Kacey Musgrave's album "Golden Hour" was first released in March, I listened to it all the way through and thought solid effort there, quite nice. But as the weeks and months went on, I found myself coming back to it more and more as the layers of sound and meaning revealed themselves to me. Now, it strikes me as containing some of the best music in any genre this year. Musgrave's work is rooted in country music, but her expansive album explores all sorts of sounds, including the soaring pop of "Oh, What A World."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH, WHAT A WORLD")

KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Northern lights in our skies, plants that grow and open your mind, things that swim with a neon glow. How we all got here, nobody knows. These are real things. These are real things. Oh, what a world, don't want to leave. All kinds of magic all around us, it's hard to believe. Thank God it's not too good to be true. Oh, what a world, and then there is you.

TUCKER: My top 10 albums are, in order, Tracey Thorn's "Record," Kacey Musgrave's "Golden Hour," Kendrick Lamar's soundtrack album to the movie "Black Panther," Amy Rigby's "The Old Guys," Cardi B's "Invasion Of Privacy," Pistol Annies' "Interstate Gospel," Janelle Monae's "Dirty Computer," John Prine's "The Tree Of Forgiveness," Courtney Barnett's "Tell Me How You Really Feel." And, at No. 10, not a piece of music but a book, Robert Christgau's "Is It Still Good To Ya?" - the best of 50 years of some of the most incisive, witty pop music reviews ever committed to print.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROM PHILIP ROTH TO R ZIMMERMAN")

AMY RIGBY: (Singing) As you step out onto that Nobel stage, spare a thought for the man who labors on the page. When you're standing in the spotlight where you've always been, I'll be alone with a pen, alone with a pen.

TUCKER: That's Amy Rigby.

Now, I could also have made a list of my top 10 singles, individual songs that would have barely overlapped with my album list. I'm talking about great songs like Pusha T's "If You Know You Know," Drake's "Nice For What" And City Girls' "I'll Take Your Man," all of them terrific tunes. In fact, it's in the singles format that most of my favorite hip-hop and R&B music of the year is located. Let's listen to one of them, Ella Mai's gorgeous call back to '90s rhythm and blues on "Boo'd Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOO'D UP")

ELLA MAI: (Singing) How many ways can I say that I need you? Baby, it's true. I think I might die without you feeling all over my body. You know I like it. Ain't got to tell you what to do, yeah. Oh, now I'll never get over you until I find something new that get me high like you do, yeah. Now I'll never get over you until I find something new that'll get me high like you do. Listen to my heart go ba-dum (ph), boo'd up, biddy-da-dum (ph), boo'd up. Hear my heart go ba-dum, boo'd up.

TUCKER: Even as I was compiling this list, more music was being released that I fretted over. Would I have included Earl Sweatshirt's new album "Some Rap Songs" if I'd had another couple of weeks to live with it or the just released Van Morrison album "The Prophet Speaks"? These are the kinds of dilemmas I'm grateful to have. There's more good music out there than anyone can possibly listen to. Happy holidays to you.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. His top 10 list, along with our other critics' movie, TV and book top 10 lists are all collected on one page, which you'll find at npr.org/freshaircritics. If you're still searching for holiday gift ideas or looking for things to read, watch or listen to over the holidays, check out these lists at npr.org/freshaircritics. And speaking of top 10 lists, our TV critic David Bianculli and our film critic Justin Chang will be my guests tomorrow to talk about what they've chosen as the best of the year. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.