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The Best Films of 1998

Fresh Air's film critic John Powers talks about the year in movies. Powers discusses his favorite films and the best performances of this year.



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Other segments from the episode on December 24, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 24, 1998: Interview with John Powers; Interview with Ken Tucker.


Date: DECEMBER 24, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122401np.217
Head: John Powers
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

And it's time for our annual review of the best movies and pop records of the year. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, will be here to play tracks from his ten best list later in the show. First, our film critic John Powers has his roundup of the best movies of the year.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: For a variety of reasons, I saw hundreds and hundreds of movies this year. And that -- the best film I saw this year, basically, won't play anywhere. I can see our audience beginning to roll its eyes and telling one another it's time to go to the refrigerator -- get a glass of water while the critic talks about this movie that nobody can ever see.

It's so typical of critics, that they always like the movie -- this obscure little movie. But as it happens, you know, I probably saw four or five hundred movies this year. And what I clearly think is the best film is a film from Tawain called, "Flowers of Shanghai" by a man by the name of Hou Hsiao Hsien. Who, for the last 20 years, probably has been the best filmmaker in the world.

He's little known here. His films are slightly difficult. Foreign films tend not to play very well in the United States anyway. He makes, essentially, difficult films. And difficulty being something that is not very easy to market at this point. This is a film about a group of cortisans in Shanghai in the late 19th-century.

And it's basically about their interactions; how they manipulate their men. It is as refined and beautiful as a Henry James novel or Proust. And that makes it difficult, because it actually tells a very complicated and deadly story about how basically women creating their destinies -- but in such a subtle way that most people, you know, can't follow it or don't have the attention to follow it.

It's a particular sore point of mine, because I do think it's the best film I saw out of hundreds of films this year. And it had very few commercial prospects. And in the way the world now works, a film like that will have no commercial prospects unless it gets a good review from "The New York Times" which dismissed it as contemptuously as you could dismiss a film.

And it was basically as if one had been reading a review of Henry James or Proust by the person who normally reviews Tom Clancy. And so, I think it's actually valuable for our listeners to know that if you're not in New York a lot of what you get to see will be basically decided on the basis of one review in one newspaper which is considered the bellwether for the whole country.

GROSS: It sounds like you just reviewed a critic.

POWERS: I just reviewed a critic. But what's more terrifying, really, is that in the structure of foreign film distribution now, everything hinges upon one review. And the thing is I would never want the release of any film contingent upon what I would say about it.

But what happens is -- the thought is, if this film can't even make me popular with "The New York Times" how can we possibly show it in Detroit or Des Moines or someplace. If even New Yorkers don't like it, how can we possibly do this? Which I'm not sure is really good thinking, but that's actually the structure of the way things work.

I only bring it up in this particular case because I think this is, clearly, the best film I saw this year. A film that I think, you know, in 30 years time will be a sort of legendary, great film. And most people in this country will never ever have a chance to see it.

GROSS: So, John, have you seen any movies that you consider the best of the year that the rest of us might have seen too?

POWERS: Oh, yes. Well, actually -- really, I'm not so refined as to only like films that nobody else can see. I actually -- I think that I've seen a lot of very very good films this year. Some of them are foreign. I've reviewed them on the show, and I'll just mention them quickly here.

There is the Japanese film "Fireworks" by Takeshi Katano (ph), and "The Eel" by Shohei Imamura. There was the Iranian film, "Taste of Cherry," and then there's a film by Thomas Vinterberg called "Celebration" which I think is a very good film. That's a Danish film. Those would be on my top ten list -- those four films.

Of American films, because I think our audience will be more likely to have seen them, I think that I've seen several good films this year. I mean, I've reviewed, once again, some of these on the show. I think "Happiness" deserves to be on the ten best list. I don't love it because I think it's vision is so bleak and nasty and dark. But I think it's an extraordinarily good piece of filmmaking.

And I guess, sort of, my favorite American film this year is -- it's strange to have it be on my ten best list because it's one of these films that was released in New York and Los Angeles on December 11th for one week, and won't really open until the 5th of February around the country. And at that time I'll review it in more detail, but it's my favorite American movie this year.

It's a movie called "Rushmore" by a young guy named Wes Anderson, whose first film was called "Bottle Rocket," and was sort of a cult film. And "Rushmore," I think, is the most original American movie I've seen this year. In the sense that I didn't know where it was coming from, I didn't know where it was going, and I just couldn't quite figure it out all the way through. And it's a comedy, and it's optimistic, and it has that great American virtue of dealing with serious things in a kind of thing light way.

I can quickly tell you the story so people will know. It's about a overachieving scholarship kid named Max at a school called the Rushmore Academy -- this kind of a posh prep school. And he loves this school, it's kind of like his womb, and he's always at risk at being thrown out because he's a terrible student, although a brilliant guy.

And he befriends a alienated millionaire played by Bill Murray -- the great Bill Murray performance -- probably since "Ground Hog Day," Bill Murray hasn't been so great. As an alienated Viet-vet millionaire, and what happens is they become sort of soul mates but then they both fall in love with the same woman who is a first-grade teacher at the school.

And what's wonderful about this movie is that it actually sort of carries you through a kind of Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch vision of the world where everybody is creating themselves, everybody has these pains and deep longings. Yet it's done at a level of lightness and sophistication and intelligence that I think nothing else this year can touch.

GROSS: Other top movies of the year.

POWERS: Yes, I think one of the films that's now out that I think is one of the top films of the year is the film, "A Simple Plan." Which is a kind of noirish thriller basically about two brothers played by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton who inherit -- not inherit -- who steal some money from a crashed plane, and then gradually greed sort of over takes their life.

It was made by Sam Raimi who is famous for making kind of wild things like "Evil Dead." And here he does a very restrained version of a kind of classic "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" kind of story about people whose lives are overtaken by greed. What I like about this film is that it takes the crime movie, as we normally see it, and gives it it's human dimension.

It's sort of the antithesis of movies that have recently come out like "Very Bad Things." Where the whole point of the film is to sort of slaughter people and joke about it. "A Simple Plan" suggests that crime actually has deep human consequences. I like that film very much.

I also like the film "Affliction." The adaptation of the Russell Banks novel with a great performance by Nick Nolte. And just to mention the other films on the list -- I think there are only two left. I think the Neil Jordan film, "The Butcher Boy" is a genuinely brilliant film. I think it's one of the two or three best English language films this year. And it didn't do anything at the box office.

What's interesting, as I look down the list of my films a lot of them didn't do very much at the box office. The last one is "Out Of Sight" which is the Stephen Soderbergh adaptation of "Elmore Leonard" which is just a really joyfully good studio movie. And it was a flop at the box office, but was a actually a really good film.

GROSS: So, do you want to read them in the order that they come on your top ten?

POWERS: Well, I can't quite -- I can never quite do it in order. What I would say is that if I had to choose -- I'll do it, like, by foreign and American. I would say that, if I were ranking them, the best foreign film I saw this year was -- aside from "Flowers of Shanghai" was a film called "Fireworks," then "The Eel," "A Taste of Cherry," and "Celebration."

Then to get to American films, I'd say "Rushmore" is first. "The Butcher Boy," which is actually Irish, is second. "A Simple Plan" is third. "Affliction" is fourth. "Out of Sight" is fifth. And "Happiness" is sixth. And I think those would be the ten films that I've liked the most this year.

GROSS: Now, let's compare that to what you think will be the most officially acclaimed of movies of the year.

POWERS: Well, I think the most officially acclaimed movie of the year is clearly "Saving Private Ryan." I think, you know, there will probably be some acclaim for "A Bug's Life" as well, because I think it's commercially very successful and people like the animation -- and they seem to like it a lot.

And probably there will be films like "Step Mom" which do extremely well. I think what's interesting is that I think it's been a very very good year for American movies. But I think a lot of the films that are very very good weren't huge big box office things, and they weren't the kind of things that necessarily will win awards.

I was talking to a critic friend about what was going to be winning awards, and this may be the most wide-open year in recent memory. Nobody is quite sure what is going to win. "Saving Private Ryan" is clearly the front runner in all sorts of categories, but it's not clear what's second, third, fourth or fifth.

The film, "Shakespeare in Love" could easily become an Oscar nominee. It's a sort of very enjoyable Tom Stoppard script about Shakespeare falling in love in the midst of a writer's block, and then turning out "Romeo and Juliet." It's a very skillful and accomplished film. So, films like that could sneak in, but nobody is really sure, except for "Saving Private Ryan," what the big films are.

GROSS: My guest is our film critic John Powers. We'll talk more about the best movies of the year after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic John Powers. We're talking about the best films of the year.

Any performances of the year that you'd like to single out for praise?

POWERS: Oh, there are so many performances. I think one of the wonderful things about being a film critic is that even when you're seeing wretched movies or movies that disappoint you in one way or another -- there's always a performance that you can like and enjoy. Because, really, our experience of movies is more an experience of moments than a series of completely achieved brilliant works of art.

Just the people I would like to mention along the way, and I could mention lots of them, I think that in actress terms there's a very good performance in "Elizabeth" by Cate Blanchett. I think, at a sort of lower level, Ally Sheedy is extremely good in "High Art." As a person who took a beating for years and years as a Brat Pack person, to suddenly appear in this kind of -- as a kind of strung out photographer and do it so brilliantly is really worth notice.

And Hope Davis in "Next Stop Wonderland," I think, you know, gives a really really wonderful performance. The person I want to single out above all of them, I think, is Christina Ricci. Who, though just a teenager, may be the most exciting and interesting actress around. She's got a great -- she starred in "The Opposite of Sex" she was in "Buffalo 66" and basically she always makes interesting choices. And is a kind of dangerous and scary young actress.

I would compare her to Tuesday Weld in a certain way, in the sense that she somehow suggests these kind of edges and kind of razor sharp bits of danger that most actresses aren't allowed to suggest. And she brings that to all for performances. So, I think in some ways this might be the great year of Christina Ricci. So, among women, I think those would be who I would emphasize.

GROSS: And men?

POWERS: And men, well, I've mentioned before that I think Nick Nolte gives the best performance of the year in "Affliction." I would add that his performance in "Thin Red Line" is also stupendously good. I think he hit a period where he was sort of in the wilderness and was maybe making movies he didn't quite believe in. And over the last couple of years he's begun going back to kind of great roles.

And he's a genuinely great actor. I mean, he has a kind of primal force that virtually no other actor in Hollywood has. There are other actors who are as good as he is, but he has that incredible force.

At the opposite of refinement is Ian McKellen who gives two very good performances this year. One in "Apt Pupil," and particularly in the film "Gods and Monsters." Where he plays the British film director James Whale. It's a performance of incredible complexity and depth. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him win the Oscar. Somehow it's the kind of film, and he's the kind of actor who tends to win the Oscar.

If I could just mention a couple of other people along the way, I think both Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton in "A Simple Plan" are extremely good. The young kid from "Rushmore" Jason Schwartzman makes his screen debut and he carries the film with tremendous panache.

And there's an Irish actor name Brendan Gleeson who is the star of the John Boorman film, "The General," which is going to be opening around the country soon -- and it's a really great performance. One other person I have to mention, just because -- perhaps no one has given me more pleasure over the years than him -- is that Bill Murray in the film "Rushmore" gives a kind of rueful, beautiful, touching performance that I'm hoping will win him an Oscar.

I think, like lots of people, I've enjoyed Murray for so long and I'm kind of disappointed sometimes that he's in stuff that doesn't interest me. But when you put him in something good, he rises to the occasion incredibly well and this is just a really wonderful performance. It's the best male supporting performance. It's really tremendous. And, you know, I would love to be watching television on Oscar night and actually see Bill Murray say what he's going to say when he wins the Oscar.

GROSS: I share your enthusiasm for him, although I haven't seen "Rushmore" yet. What were the most hyped movies of the year? What did the industry put its money and hype behind?

POWERS: Well, basically there are two kinds of film the industry put its money and hype behind. The first kind will be just the big block -- official blockbusters like "Godzilla," and "Armageddon" and "A Bug's life," and actually "Prince of Egypt."

Then there are the slightly higher class one's like "Saving Private Running" and "Beloved." I think we're at an interesting point now where the kind of blockbuster mentality has so overtaken both the studios and the media that there are all sorts of films that you feel are sort of like being force fed to you.

You can imagine this huge feed tube being put in your mouth, and whether you want it or not, you're simply going to hear endless stuff about "Saving Private Ryan" or "Beloved" or "Prince of Egypt." That there's somehow you can't avoid it, because when the industry gets behind something and really wants to push it, they then are linked up with the news magazines and "Entertainment Tonight" so that no matter where you turn you're part of this huge complex of people telling you that you ought to see something -- that something's important.

I think "Saving Private Ryan" is probably the best example of that just because we're now expected to believe that this is the official history of what happened at Normandy. And you have all the weird things where, you know, Tom Hanks is actually being quoted for his opinions on what happened at the Normandy Invasion.

Steven Spielberg's films have this way of having these huge cultural artifacts, and what everybody wants to do is the same kind of thing, so that there was that same effort with "Beloved" which was to make us think that this is an important film. That we have to see it. This is a real event. There's no escaping it.

And the difference was that "Saving Private Ryan" is a very entertaining film, and "Beloved" is not an entertaining film. And you see that -- you can try to force feed films to people, but they don't always accept them. The other thing that's interesting is that I think there's a kind of resentment that builds up.

I think that people were sick of "Beloved" before they ever saw it. That somehow, when you do feel that you're being told you ought to see something that you kind of don't want to -- which I think may be one reason why that these low-level slob comedies like "There's Something about Mary" or "The Waterboy" are so popular. Is they seem to rise from nowhere, nobody's really telling you that you ought to see them. Nobody's really saying that they're important. So, people have that sense of discovering the film for themselves.

GROSS: The other reason why is lots and lots of teenagers go to the movies.

POWERS: Oh, yeah. Lots and lots of teenagers go to the movies, but if you went to see "There's Something about Mary" that was filled with adults laughing just as much as teenagers.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely.

POWERS: Another film that I would mention in this connection is the very enjoyable film about Queen Elizabeth. Which, I think, wasn't on everybody's radar for long time. So, you didn't have to see countless things about Cate Blanchett when you turned on "Entertainment Tonight."

And so, people have the sense that they are discovering the film so it's now one of the big surprise hits at the end of the year. I think it probably will get Oscar nominations galore, because it's a film that people felt that they came to rather than having it imposed upon them.

To my mind, it all goes back to the hype for the Malcolm X film that Spike Lee made. Which I think was the first film I remember where everybody felt they'd seen it six months before it was done. You'd already seen the ball cap, you'd seen the T-shirt, you'd read the articles. And by the time the film came out it seemed like it was an afterthought. And I think that's where we are now where people are just forcing things upon you.

GROSS: Are there any actors who you either noticed for the first time or who kind of reached their critical mast for the first time in your viewing of them -- that they -- with this new role you recognized this person is really talented and you wanted to see more of them?

POWERS: Well, I think what happens is that often you have people who are talented who don't quite get the role that will show you their gifts. A good example of that would be Lisa Kudrow in "The Opposite of Sex." I think, that like a lot of people, I, you know, had seen her on "Friends" and thought, oh, that's who she is.

And then she'd been a couple of films that I hadn't particularly liked. And then suddenly in "The Opposite of Sex," where she plays a woman whose gay brother has died, who feels a kind of weird attachment to his ex-lover. She's kind of bitter and yet funny, and she reveals both a comic timing and a depth she never had before.

I left the theater thinking, good heavens, she's actually really good. It's actually an exciting feeling to have when you're seeing someone who you always thought wasn't particularly all that good. And they're doing really well.

The same would be true of Ally Sheedy in the film "High Art." I think no one had spent much time thinking that Ally Sheedy could act, and suddenly when you put the person in a role where they can act and they're actually allowed to do what they can do -- they're often extremely good.

You can even say that about someone like George Clooney in "Out Of Sight." I was amazed at the number of people who said to me, I never knew he was any good. Because they'd seen him on "ER" where they kind of liked him, but his film roles had been widely considered to be disappointing.

But somehow this was the film that captured the particular kind of virile charm that George Clooney has. And suddenly he became a good actor after having been this guy who looked to be just another guy who couldn't make the leap from television to the big screen.

GROSS: Well, John, I wish you a happy holidays.

POWERS: Well, thank you very much. You too, Terry.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's film critic and film critic for "Vogue" magazine.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: John Powers
High: Fresh Air's film critic John Powers talks about the year in movies. Powers discusses his favorite films and the best performances of 1998. John Powers is also film critic for "Vogue."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; John Powers

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: John Powers

Date: DECEMBER 24, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 122402NP.217
Head: Ken Tucker
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's our annual ten best show, and our rock critic Ken Tucker is here with his picks for the best pop records of the year. Ken is also critic-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly."

Ken, did you have a favorite record of the year?

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: I did. It was this collaboration between Billy Bragg and the rock band Wilco who took a series of songs from Woody Guthrie -- Woody Guthrie's daughter brought Billy Bragg, the English folk singer, a collection of lyrics that had never been set to music by her father, and they came up with this album called, "Mermaid Avenue," which is named after the street that he lived on in Coney Island.

I think we all think of Woody Guthrie as, you know, the Dust Bowl poet out there in the middle of the country, but he actually led the latter half of his life in New York City. And I thought the collection was just really terrific.

GROSS: Did you feel like you learned something new about Woody Guthrie or Billy Bragg listening to it?

TUCKER: I did. I, you know, I'm not a huge Billy Bragg fan and I thought it brought out the best in him. And I felt that Woody Guthrie -- I felt this new kind of cosmopolitan air to his work. A kind of worldliness that I hadn't really absorbed before.

He has a song about his crush on Ingrid Bergman. The kind of stuff -- that you don't think about with Woody Guthrie. You think of "This Land is Your Land" and stuff like that, and it peeled off the layers of cliche that have been created around Woody Guthrie, I thought.

GROSS: Do you want to play a track from it?

TUCKER: Yes. A really nice little number called "Walt Whitman's Niece."

GROSS: Let's hear it.


Last night I went back
See good friends of mine

Walk up to a big old building
I won't say which building
Try to walk up the stairs

I remember deep blue rugs

GROSS: That's Billy Bragg's recording of Woody Guthrie songs. Ken Tucker's favorite record of the year.

TUCKER: Yeah, I mean, that song is rowdier than I've heard Billy Bragg, Wilco or Woody Guthrie ever be. I think that it brought up the best in all three of those performers.

GROSS: Well, the album that you chose as record of the year, the Billy Bragg record, is not one of those big industry gazillion-selling type records.


GROSS: What was happening in that stratosphere of the music industry this year?

TUCKER: Well, it was a whole -- the industry had no center this year. I kept -- I've been reading, very carefully, my colleagues in lists of year-end summations wondering if I was missing that there was some secret center of the recording industry around which everything gathered. And there isn't.

I mean, to me, the moment that crystallized the year was in late November, the so-called super Tuesday phenomenon. In which a bunch of record labels released major releases by Garth Brooks, Whitney Houston, Jewel, Mariah Carey, Seal -- all on the same day.

And it was -- the idea was just to see how many records everybody could sell at the start of this holiday season, and Garth Brooks won. But it was one of those things that was completely intramural. It was totally within the music industry. I didn't hear my friends -- no one talking about, ooh, who's going to sell more, Jewel or Garth Brooks?

The Jewel record, by the way, "Spirit" -- I would like to go out of my way to say I think it's one of the worst records of the year. I think it's just a completely empty follow-up to a perfectly nice debut album. I don't think Garth Brooks double live album is any great shakes either. I think a lot of those big releases were very empty and bloated and padded out.

GROSS: I had the pleasure of seeing some of that Garth Brooks special promoting the new record. It was an infomercial. I was just really shocked.

TUCKER: Yeah, I mean, this guy does everything. It's as if he's totally turned away from the idea of making music to selling music. The NBC special, the arrangement he made with Wal-Marts throughout the country to release so many -- he had a million copies just in Wal-Marts, and his goal was to sell that many in one day -- the opening day of his release of that record.

He's a guy who's kind of turned his back on his own talent to become this megalomaniacal, "I'm going to sell more records than the Beatles, and Elvis," kind of quest.

GROSS: Anything that sold really well this year that you also really liked?

TUCKER: Certainly Lauryn Hill's album called "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill," I think, was a really terrific record in the sense that it combined hip-hop and old-fashioned R&B and old-fashioned soul music in a way that hasn't been done before. And I think it's a really striking record. I think it's going to appear on the top of most critics lists, in fact.

GROSS: Well, since it's on your list of the ten best, why don't you play something from it for us.

TUCKER: Yeah, the cut I really like is a kind of hearkening back to the Stevie Wonder period of "Innervisions" called "Everything is Everything."


I wrote these words
For everyone
Who struggles in their youth
Who won't accept

The sectioning (ph)
Instead of what is true
It seems we lose again
Before we even start to pay

Who made these rules
We're so confused
Easily led astray
Let me tell you that

Everything is everything
is everything
is everything

TUCKER: There was so much good work, I thought, by women in general this year, I could easily have come up with a top ten that consisted entirely of female artists. I really liked Joni Mitchell album, Sheryl Crow's album which I did put on my ten best list.

There were strong releases from PJ Harvey and Lucinda Williams. Even, I thought, Alanis Morrisette's sophomore record was, you know, kind of overloaded and overly ambitious, but I admired the fact that she was taking a lot of chances musically and rhythmically in that collection.

In some ways, though, I thought the most underrated female singer-songwriter CD of the year who was from Liz Phair, who put out this album called "whitechocolatespaceegg." It was toward the beginning of the year and it got a certain amount of press, but it was the wrong kind of press for this release because it was touted as her mature release.

She'd grown-up. She was married now. She had a kid, and she was writing about more mature things. And if there's anything that was going to turn off the young female audience who had liked before, it was exactly that kind of positioning. But, still, I thought it was very strong.

GROSS: What would you like to play from it?

TUCKER: It's a cut called "Uncle Alvarez."


There's a portrait of Uncle Alvarez
Hanging in the hall
Nobody wants to look at it
But Uncle Alvarez sees us all

Imaginary accomplishments
Hey hey hey you visionary guy
You might even shake the hands of presidents
Better send a postcard and keep the family quite

GROSS: That's Liz Phair, one of the CDs on Ken Tucker's top 10 list of the year. Now, that women are selling really well in the record industry, and I think there's always been this preconception that males buy records and females don't. I think that's being disproved. Is it changing the way recordings are -- like who is getting contracts and how they're getting marketed now?

TUCKER: I think so. I mean, I think that women -- and those women artists largely did it by themselves. I think you can't underestimate the importance of something like the Lilith Fair with Sarah Mclachlan organizing that tour that really proved -- it used to be a commonplace that you had to have a male headliner -- and women going out and performing a whole tour themselves really showed the industry that this could sell, and could sell records. Certainly, Jewel herself sold millions and millions of records this year and proved that she was just as much of a contender as any of other male artist.

GROSS: Why don't we take a break here, and then we'll talk more. My guest is FRESH AIR's rock critic Ken Tucker, and he's put together his ten best list of the year. We'll hear more recordings from that list after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Back with FRESH AIR's pop critic Ken Tucker. We're talking about music of 1998 and listening to recordings from his 10 best list of the year. What do you have on your list that's particularly idiosyncratic?

TUCKER: Well, I never would have expected to put Pulp, this English band led by the singer and songwriter Jarvis Cocker, on my list. Pulp put out an album called "This Is Hard Core" which was not particularly hard core. It's a real throwback to a kind of glam rock of the '70s.

And Jarvis Carter is one of these kinds of fey English guys who normally I can't stand, very much in the tradition of The Smith's and Morrissey and -- but I found this record very moving. I found this record to be -- one English act that I Like a great deal in this genre is Roxy Music and particularly Bryan Ferry.

And to me, the kind of crooning that Jarvis Cocker is trying to do with his croaky little voice I felt was very poignant. And in particular a song that I'd like to play called "Help the Aged," is really a very touching song about a very rarely touched upon subject which is old people in rock and roll.

GROSS: You mean old rock and rollers or elderly people sung about in rock and roll?

TUCKER: Elderly people being sung about with a certain amount of sympathy and respect.

GROSS: Good, let's hear it.


Help the aged
I want to be just like you
Drink and smoke and sex and sniffing glue
Help the aged

Don't just put them in a home
Can't have much fun when
They're all on their own
Give a hand if you

Try to help them to unwind
Give them help
And give them comfort
Cause they're running out of time

GROSS: That's Pulp. Their CD is on Ken Tucker's ten best list of the year. Ken, you mentioned that they reminded you of some of the glam rock of the '70s. Did you see the glam rock movie this year "Velvet Goldmine?"

TUCKER: Yes I did. I was awfully disappointed. I really like director Todd Haynes movies a lot, and this disappointed me a great deal. I found it kind of incoherent and depressing and sludgy in a way that was completely anemic to the spirit of glam rock.

I thought, you know, when you think back on Bowie and the Ziggy Stardust period, and Lou Reed and "Rock and Roll Animal period, and Iggy Pop -- there's a kind of surrogate Iggy Pop character in the movie -- that music was much more -- it was fun, but it was also very thoughtful.

This, to me -- this movie just kind of slowed things down. My colleague at "Entertainment Weekly" Owen Glaberman (ph), when he reviewed the movie, praised it for what he called its "narcotic poetry." And I just found it narcotic. It just put me to sleep practically which is exactly the opposite of what good glam rock did.

GROSS: Ken, what happened in hip-hop this year?

TUCKER: To me, hip-hop, as I listened to it I realized that the kind of axis of the music flipped 180 degrees. Whereas a year ago, all the talk was of East Coast versus West Coast. Suddenly everything turned to North versus South -- not necessarily even versus, but two different schools emerged over the course of the year.

In the North, you had a group like the Wu Tang Clan releasing these very harsh, quickly phrased, staccato records. And in the South you had someone like Master P and the group that I put on my ten best list, Outkast, who are really much more willing to dig deeper into Southern soul music and use it for their own purposes in rap music.

To a certain extent slowing down the tempo, adding a lot more soul rhythm to the music without detracting from the kind of basic, authentic hardness of the music. And I thought Outkast's album, which was called "Aquemini," is really a terrific record.

GROSS: What do you want to play from it?

TUCKER: It's a cut called "Rosa Parks." Named, indeed, after the '60s Civil Rights figure.


(Lyrics unintelligible)

GROSS: That's Outkast. And their CD is on Ken Tucker's ten best. That's pretty catchy. They kind of lost me when they started rapping. I think I'm just, like, so bored with rap at this point.

TUCKER: Really? Well, I think that there's all different kinds. I mean, its expanded dramatically over the course of the past couple of years. I find that kind of conversational rapping that's done by Outkast and Master P and a lot of the people who work with him to be much more conversational -- it's not so much about the rhyme as about the ideas behind it. Which I find good, I mean, I think a lot of rap had descended into facile rhyming that now has been replaced by stream of consciousness talking that I find much more amenable to conversation and thought.

GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's rock critic Ken Tucker. He'll play more music from his 1998 ten best list after our break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's rock critic Ken Tucker. We're talking about his picks for the best records of 1998.

Country music, you've been listening to a lot of country music for years now.


GROSS: Was it a good year?

TUCKER: It was a terrible year. I mean, you know, spearheaded by Garth Brooks doing...

GROSS: ...he's just like us, Ken.

TUCKER: Yeah, I guess.

GROSS: A man of the people.

TUCKER: I don't fly around in my house the way he flies over the stage every night. The big breakthrough act this year was this group called the Dixie Chicks which is this terribly coy trio of young blonde women, you know, just positioned as these sex symbols.

I actually went to a big country music concert this year by Shania Twain because I was very curious to see -- she had put out a couple of albums and had never toured. And it was kind of fun, but, you know, it was like my nine-year-old was much more involved in it than I was. It was kind of a fun pop music concert, but that was the problem it felt so much like pop music as opposed to country music.

There just wasn't much good country music on the radio. In fact, it was only by systematically going through almost every country album that I was sent that I managed to find the one that I felt was the best release of the year. It's a record by a woman called Danni Leigh.

She's never played on radio, the record was a complete flop as far as I can tell. It's her debut album. It's called "29 Nights," and yet I think it's the strongest release of the year.

GROSS: What track are we going to hear?

TUCKER: It's a song written by the veteran country songwriter Harland Howard, and it's a song called "I Feel a Heartache Coming On."


I feel a heartache coming on
I feel a change in the wind
Your restless heart is almost gone
And I'll never see the likes of you again

GROSS: That's Danni Leigh and her CD is on Ken Tucker's ten best list of the year. In fact, he called that the best country record of the year. Ken, are there other newcomers this year who you're particularly interested in?

TUCKER: Well, I really thought Rufus Wainwright's debut album was very strong. It wasn't a commercial success, but I think he's got a real future. I mean, I think that he combines aspects of his parents Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright with his own style. I mean, he's said that he's in love with opera, and there is this kind of theatrical operatic quality to his work.

You know, I think the guy is making his biggest breakthrough right now -- he's got a Gap commercial which is exposing him to more millions of people every time they see that commercial than have purchased his album, which probably selling in the low five figures.

GROSS: Speaking of commercials, the big Gap commercial this year was that swing dance commercial, and now every commercial has to have swing dancers in it no matter what they're advertising.

TUCKER: And, to me, it was a better use of swing music than the acts that are actually selling records on this. I mean, I really detest The Squirrel Nut Zippers who are kind of the best selling proponents of modern swing.

Any of that kind of hearkening back, I mean, I never liked Manhattan Transfer or groups like that that tried to revive old styles in this kind of coy, winking, campy way. But those Gap commercials are just terrific because they play the music straight, they show people dancing to it in this incredibly enthusiastic, passionate, straightforward way. Very unironically, unlike an act like The Squirrel Nut Zippers.

GROSS: One of the things I noticed this year, actually this started late last year, was that disco is sounding better to me now than it ever did in the '70s. And I think that's in part because of movies like "Boogie Nights" and "Last Days of Disco."

And also because of the Teddy Pendergrass interview, I listened back to that Philadelphia International box set. And I'm wondering if that ever happens to you, that something sends better 20 years after it was recorded than it did in its own time.

TUCKER: Sometimes it does. There's a kind of -- for me, it's post punk. Things like Nick Cave and the Seeds and Depeche Mode and bands like that that initially I didn't like -- I found to cold. Bauhaus, things like that -- that sound much better.

I was always, I must give myself credit, really liked disco. But, yes, I mean when -- I mean, to me, the heart stopping moment in "Boogie Nights" is when you hear KC and the Sunshine Band. It's just a wonderful moment. And you realize how good some of those records were.

You know, Gloria Gaynor's records sound really good. There was very good solid music there that was caught up at the time in this contempt for the relentless beat that the mediocre records had.

GROSS: I think this would be a good time to read your hold top-10 list. Is this in any order?

TUCKER: Yes. It's in order of preference. Billy Bragg and Wilco, "Mermaid Avenue." Lauryn Hill, "The Miseducation Lauryn Hill." Lucinda Williams' record, her first in six years, called "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road." George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, "Dope Dogs." It's hard to find, but seek it out. My sources tell me that this brand new release is actually four years old and sounds absolutely up-to-the-minute. It's a terrific piece of work.

Outkast, "Aquemini." On that album George Clinton also makes a cameo appearance. It just goes to show that these whipper snappers respect their elders and pick right. Sheryl Crow's album, "The Globe Sessions." Danni Leigh's "29 Nights," that country album I just played. Peter Wolf, making to me the surprise comeback of the year as far as my ears were concerned, with an album called "Fools Parade." Pulp, "This Is Hard Core." And Liz Phair's "whitechocolatespaceegg."

GROSS: Some wonderful performers died in 1998. And it would be nice to go out with a remembrance of them. Who would you like to make note of?

TUCKER: Certainly Tammy Wynette, you know, a real pioneer of strong country music made by women. Sonny Bono, you know, I don't think he got his full due in a lot of his obituaries. I really liked the fact that Sonny Bono was a very talented music hustler working for Phil Spector in the early days. Did a lot of good production work by himself, and didn't get his props as a musician, I thought.

But, to me, the most poignant death of the year was Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. He died on February 6th. He was 51. You know, Carl was like this -- often had a beard and was a big burly guy, and seemed very gentle. And he was always kind of the peacemaker of the Beach Boys.

And with all the talk of -- well-deserved -- of Brian Wilson's genius behind that group. I think his brother Carl was kind of the soul of the group in a lot of ways. A lot of people don't even realize that he sang the lead vocals on "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows," one of the most beautiful Beach Boys songs of all.

GROSS: Well, before we hear "God Only Knows," Ken, I want to thank you for bringing your top ten with us, and I wish you a good Christmas and a very happy New Year. And thanks for being with us.

TUCKER: Same to you, Terry. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Thank you. Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic and critic-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Fresh Air's rock critic Ken Tucker gives his picks for the best albums of the year. Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Media; Ken Tucker

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ken Tucker
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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