DATE December 20, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Analysis: Top 10 films of the year
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's time for our annual 10 best show, in which our film critic, David
Edelstein, and our rock critic, Ken Tucker, present their lists and review the
year. We'll start with David Edelstein. We asked him to also give us a
roundup of the movies in theaters for the holidays.
Welcome, David. Well, in a moment--in a few moments, actually, we're going to
get to your 10 best list, but first you're going to talk with us about holiday
movies. So I thought we could start with a film that appears on both lists.
It's a film opening for the holidays that's actually at the top of your 10
best list. And the film is "Munich," directed by Steven Spielberg and written
by Tony Kushner, who also wrote the play "Angels in America." So what makes
this film your favorite of the year?
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Well, my passion, since becoming a film critic, and also my bugaboo, has been
the vigilante, vengeance, revenge, retaliation genre; call it what you will.
I find it incredibly seductive, you know, to see movies in which there is an
injury against somebody, and then the hero goes out and busts some heads and
gets a piece of his own back. Now I believe that this is a sort of horrible
thing for us to cheer on. At the same time, I understand that we're all very
vulnerable to it, which brings us to "Munich," which is very specifically
It's the story of a secret force, organized by the Mossad, that retaliates for
the massacre of 11 athletes at the '72 Olympics. And it constantly
wrestles--the script by Tony Kushner constantly wrestles with the issue of
what retaliation accomplishes. Is it vital to attack one's foes? Does it
create peace in the long run, or does it breed more violence and destroy the
people and the countries that practice it?
I think it's a remarkable film. It has you sort of whipped up by the
assassinations that these people carry out, and at the same time, kind of
conscience-stricken at the fact that these are human beings with their own
GROSS: I know there's some controversy surrounding the film. I believe the
members--members of the Israeli government haven't been very pleased with it.
What's the controversy about?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I mean, if I were the Israeli government, I wouldn't be too
pleased with it either insofar as it does not portray the Palestinians as
evil. And so this is the kind of revenge movie with a conscience. It--people
may feel--who believe in retaliation, who believe that it is vital for a
nation state to strike back when it is injured--may feel that the movie is
sort of skewed to the kind of peacenik side.
I'm used to a cinema in which a revenge is so much a part, you know, of the
vocabulary of movies that I think this kind of movie is a tonic and is a vital
corrective. And it's also--you know, Spielberg's often concerned with absent
fathers and, you know, the lack of the moral reassurance that they can
provide. And here, the protagonist father is a distant presence. He's never
shown. The surrogate father is an Israeli Mossad agent played by Geoffrey
Rush, who is, you know, unreliable in the extreme. So the entire world is
presented as without a sane moral center. And, I don't know, as far as I'm
concerned, it's an extraordinarily realistic and balanced portrait.
GROSS: Two new musicals have opened for the holidays. "Rent" opened for
Thanksgiving and is still in many theaters, and "The Producers" is opening
for the holidays. Both of these were very successful on Broadway. "The
Producers" was a phenomenon, and "Rent" was heralded as, like, reviving the
musical for a new generation. So what are the movie versions like?
EDELSTEIN: Well, it's not a great season for musicals. "Rent"--look, I know
"Rent" has, you know, many, many passionate admirers on Broadway, and I know
that, you know, it is a very moving story of how the composer, Jonathan
Larson, wrote it shortly before he died, before he could see the great
commercial success that it was going to achieve. I think, as directed by
Chris Columbus, it's sort of like a new ride at Disney World, you know, the
Urban AIDS Victim Jamboree, which I found, I don't know, kind of icky, I
guess. Every time somebody opens their mouth with one of the show-stopping
songs, everybody else joins in. And so on one level, you're inspired by the
communal spirit, by the way people pull together in the face of tragedy. On
the other hand, there's very little drama and it even borders on the
saccharine, even with all these people dying of AIDS.
As for "The Producers," that's just excruciating. That's--the movie, directed
by Susan Stroman, is pitched to the second balcony, and she just transplanted
it from Broadway with all that retro queenie, you know, camp stuff intact and
I found the performances just, for the most part, really horrible.
GROSS: Well, you know, "The Producers" was a movie that got made into a
Broadway musical, that got transferred back to the world of movies again. So
you don't think this movie measures up to the original movie?
EDELSTEIN: Well, the original was certainly in-your-face but you had this
extraordinary force of nature, Zero Mostel, and you had this extraordinary
performance by Gene Wilder. You know, this was our sort of introduction to
his peculiar, kind of hysterical etherized delivery. It was, you know--and
they were an absolutely beautiful match. Here you have Nathan Lane and
Matthew Broderick, who are both basically on the same plane of reality.
Matthew Broderick is--hasn't scaled down his performance one bit for the
stage. He's popping his eyes. He's doing--he's very much a cartoon, and
Nathan Lane just doesn't have the--you know, he's fun to watch on stage but he
doesn't have the subtext, the layers, the--when you look at his face on screen
there's really not much to see.
GROSS: Woody Allen has a new film, "Match Point," that's opening in New York
and LA for the holidays and then will open in the rest of the country later.
Everyone who I hear mention this film starts it by saying the same thing.
They express their surprise that it's a good Woody Allen movie. So do you
think it's good, too, and are you surprised?
EDELSTEIN: Well, you know, it's--the depressing thing about the last few
years--maybe the last 20 years--is kind of watching Woody Allen sort of sink
deeper into his own kind of insular misanthropy and, you know, basically not
the kind of--the sense that he was writing and directing a movie a year at
least but nothing was coming in anymore. He was just reshuffling the same
old themes. "Match Point" is basically the same old things. It's "Crimes
and Misdemeanors" transported to England. I mean, I'm talking pretty
But the great thing is that it doesn't look or sound or feel like any other
Woody Allen movie, which makes it pretty inspiring. It's very smoothly made.
There's a ton of suspense, which is really unusual. It's got, you know,
wonderful performances by an actor who's never impressed me, Jonathan
Rhys-Meyers, and Scarlett Johansson. It's got this air of very ambiguous
sexuality to it. In some ways, it's a more successful movie than "The
Talented Mr. Ripley" sort of working on--with many of the same themes. I
mean, what the problem is that you get Woody Allen's kind of sophomore
existentialism and atheism thrown in. You know, if you commit a crime and God
doesn't punish you, then there's no God. OK, you know, whatever. OK.
EDELSTEIN: You know, whatever. I mean, I don't know. I don't know if
there's a God or not, but, you know, I'm not going to take Woody Allen's word
for it because, you know, the police don't pick up somebody who's committed a
GROSS: What are some of the other movies that you'd recommend for the
EDELSTEIN: Well, there's a wonderful movie called "Transamerica" with
Felicity Huffman, a stage actress who also has scored a hit recently on
"Desperate Housewives." It's about a man on the brink of a final sex change
operation who learns he has a son. It's sitcom stuff but it's not played like
a sitcom, and at the same time, it's hugely entertaining. And Felicity
Huffman is so great. I mean, she's playing a man becoming a woman, and it's
kind of like she de-constructs and reconstructs a woman before your eyes. Her
movements and her gestures as a woman are almost convincing but they're always
kind of like a beat off. I hesitate to use the word 'cause it sounds
pretentious but it's a true Brechtian performance and it's absolutely
GROSS: And is there a movie or two that you'd recommend we avoid for the
EDELSTEIN: Well, apart from "The Producers," "The New World" is a great
disappointment. I know everybody loves the cult director Terrence Malick.
This is the fictionalized story of John Smith and Pocahontas. It's sort of
like "Brokeback Wigwam." The lovers can't build on their elemental passion.
It's also the same theme that Malick used in "The Thin Red Line." We begin in
Eden. We go to hell. We return to Eden. It's very self-consciously lyrical,
very meditative, and, you know, at two and a half hours, absolutely
GROSS: My guest is David Edelstein, FRESH AIR's film critic, and we've been
talking about movies that are around in theaters for the holidays.
Let's take a break here, and when we come back, we'll do your 10 best list.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's film critic David Edelstein.
OK. David, it's that special time of the year, time for me to ask you to
present your 10 best list.
EDELSTEIN: Terry, this 10 best list, you ain't going to see this anywhere
else. You know, first of all, I cheated like mad since I have two double
features here. I always have a terrible time 'cause I love movies and I love
even crap movies and this year there were just a million movies that I really
adored. But here it is.
Number one is, of course, "Munich," which I've already talked about.
Number two is "Junebug," an extraordinarily ambiguous film about the
north-south divide. I don't think it jells, but I haven't seen a film that
tantalizing in a long time.
My number three is "Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit." That's
just one that everybody I know agrees on. It's pure bliss. It's part healing
comedy, part hammer horror movie. It's witty. It's loving. It's an absolute
must-see with or without the kids.
My fourth favorite movie of the year is Miranda July's debut feature, "Me and
You and Everyone We Know." Some people regard this as very performance arty
and self-indulgent, but I actually think it's an amazing distillation of a
culture in which young people today are floating in their own bubbles and
struggling to connect in all kinds of weird and perverse ways.
Number five is going to be slightly controversial and that's another Spielberg
movie, "War of the Worlds." A lot of critics were appalled that Spielberg
would use imagery that invokes 9/11 in what they thought of as a popcorn
entertainment, but I think it's a really serious movie and very disturbing,
and I also believe that even big-budget summer sci-fi movies are supposed to
confront national traumas, and I don't find even a whiff of exploitation in
what Spielberg does in this film.
My first double bill, number six, is what I call my shock-a-rooney double
bill, and that's "The Aristocrats" and "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic."
These are two movies that center on how far you can go in the bad taste
scatological department and I don't know what they amount to but I laughed my
head off. "The Aristocrats" de-constructs a disgusting joke and tells you a
lot about our taboos and about the kinds of people who are in business to
flout them. The "Sarah Silverman" movie--Silverman, her persona on stage,
it's like a pipeline to the id of the sort of overentitled, solipsistic,
materialistic, prejudice, insensitive and oversexed American upper
middle-class female and I thought it was absolutely revelatory.
My number seven movie is "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," which is
Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut. It's a very leisurely wide-screen
Western. It's a little sentimental in its construction but that sentiment is
really cut by the ghoulish humor involving the dead man's corpse which sort of
decays progressively in front of your eyes and kind of throws the nobility of
the whole thing into question.
My eighth favorite movie is "Grizzly Man," Werner Herzog's documentary about
a man eaten by bears and that's a case where the subject's personality and the
director's personality just dovetail insanely well. Both figures are kind of
self-dramatizing, a little scary and yet the movie is kind of a profound
lesson in the limits of loving nature.
Number nine is my second double bill and it's what I think of as underpraised
genre films. These are movies that, you know, I think got really short shrift
from critics because they just came from disreputable or B genres--"Skeleton
Key" and "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." "Skeleton Key" is a horror movie, very
unsung, maybe the last feature we'll see from New Orleans before the flood.
Really captures the place and the surrounding countryside. It turns on a
history of racial injustice, on gris-gris, you know, the local voodoo, on
revenge. It's an almost bottomless pit of horror, and there are great
performances by Gena Rowlands and Kate Hudson. "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" is Shane
Black's very jokey film noir with kind of a surprising kick and a great
leading man turn by Robert Downey Jr.
My last film is one that was very hard to put on my list because I found it
absolutely unbearable and I don't ever want to see it again. It's called
"Nobody Knows." It's directed by the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda.
It's the true story of a single mother who abandoned her children for large
stretches and about how they manage to pull together and somehow cope even
though there's a very tragic turn near the end. I don't think I'll shake this
movie off for the rest of my life. And, you know, I recommend it very
guardedly but it's haunting and it's profound and it's a great humanistic work
GROSS: In this end-of-the-year wrap-up, can we put in a good word for George
Clooney and his film "Good Night, and Good Luck" and his performance in
EDELSTEIN: We certainly can. You know, I find it really exciting that
Clooney is a guy who not only wants to be a big star, a sort of Cary
Grant-like star, but he also wants to be a very conscientious force for change
in this country. He's throwing his weight behind some very exciting projects.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" was somewhat fictionalized but nevertheless rather
pertinent parable about threats to free expression. You know, not one of my
favorite movies of the year but extraordinarily powerful and well-made.
"Syriana" I found, you know, borderline incoherent, but, you know, I admire
the hell out of the attempt to sort of connect all these different threads to
account for where we are in the Persian Gulf and kind of the origins of
terrorism. And, yes, you're right. I mean, I think there was--I know he went
through hell, you know, with his weight gain, but I think he gives a kind of
naked performance in that film that we haven't seen from him since the very
underrated Steven Soderbergh film "Solaris." He really is an extraordinary
actor, as well as being, you know, a kind of true American successor to Cary
GROSS: David, what were some of your favorite performances of the year?
EDELSTEIN: Ah, there were so many I wish I were one of those, you know, radio
guys who gives the little disclaimers at the end of commercials so I could
just go "Upside of Anger," Joan Allen; "Walk the Line," Joaquin Phoenix and
Reese Witherspoon; "Capote," Philip Seymour Hoffman; "Squid and the Whale,"
Jeff Daniels and Jesse Eisenberg; "Dark Water," another underrated genre film,
Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly; Heath Ledger. Ralph Fiennes as
Voldemort--oh, what a scary performance even when his features were only
half-formed in the primordial slime. Diane Keaton; Viggo Mortensen and Maria
Bello and William Hurt and Ed Harris in "History of Violence"; Amy Adams in
"Junebug"; ...(unintelligible) in "Mysterious Skin," Joseph Gordon-Levitt;
Donald Sutherland, Keira Knightley, everyone in "Pride and Prejudice"; Mickey
Rourke in "Sin City"; and Bill Murray.
GROSS: Let me express my pleasure that you're not that kind of guy.
EDELSTEIN: But I want to get everyone in 'cause I love them all and I wish
they all could get awards. They all get Davids if not Oscars.
GROSS: What messages do you think that the film industry's going to take away
from this year, from its successes and failures?
EDELSTEIN: You're going to see more and more so-called niche marketing, thank
God, you know, people no longer I hope. It's also a matter of actors lowering
their salaries. You know, people, you know, putting smaller amounts of money
and, you know, not as dependent on the sort of blockbuster receipts. The
other thing that Hollywood is obsessed with right now is, you know, issues of
sort of privacy in the new media. For advanced critic screenings in New York,
they practically do a cavity search when you go in, you know, and sometimes
you can't even concentrate on the movie because there are these huge guys in
the front staring at you with these night-vision goggles. You know, you're
afraid to pick your nose. And...
GROSS: What? They're making sure you don't have recording equipment...
EDELSTEIN: They're making sure that you haven't brought in cameras.
GROSS: ...so that you can't pirate the movie?
EDELSTEIN: Oh, you have to turn in, you know, any cell phone that has a
camera. You have to turn in your laptops. You know, they go through your
pockets. I'm not joking. And, you know, they're just afraid that people are
going to get these and they're going to put them on the Internet. And, you
know, more and more, we're going to actually be watching movies on the
Internet. So I don't think the fear is unfounded, you know, and more and more
we're going to find ourselves living in a very private culture, you know,
movies delivered to homes via DVD, cable, the Internet.
One very well-known exhibitor is trying to close the three-month window
between theatrical and video releases so that you can go to the theater or buy
a movie simultaneously. I really, really hate that idea, but then I know I'm
in a pretty rarified position getting to see every movie that comes out and
not everybody is quite so lucky. But, you know, I think the loss of, you
know, public exhibition and of the thrill of, you know, sitting with other
people and responding as one to a great movie, it's something I grew up with.
It's something I want my kids and my kids' kids to grow up with. It's
something that I think makes this such a thrilling medium and so different
GROSS: Well, David, I want to wish you happy holidays and thanks for talking
with us about the movies of the year.
EDELSTEIN: Terry, it's always a joy.
GROSS: David Edelstein is FRESH AIR's film critic and he's film critic for
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
Here's Dianne Reeves from the soundtrack of "Good Night, and Good Luck."
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. DIANNE REEVES: (Singing) I've got my eyes on you, so best beware where
you roam. I've got my eyes on you, so don't stray too far from home. I'm
set. I spy...
(Soundbite of music)
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: This year for Christmas there's something I'd really
like. So if you're up there somewhere, Santa, please don't bring me another
GROSS: We're listening to the new Christmas single by Fountains of Wayne.
Coming up, FRESH AIR's rock critic Ken Tucker joins us to play and talk about
the music on his 10 best list.
(Soundbite of music)
FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: ...kind of special that I want most of all. I want an
alien for Christmas. Bring me an alien this year. I want a little green guy
about three feet high with 17 eyes, knows how to fly. I want an alien for
Christmas this year. I'm living ...(unintelligible) so don't worry about a
thing. And I'll take him out for walks when it gets nicer in the spring.
I'll just keep him company. He'll never be alone. He can ...(unintelligible)
around the house all day and watch "The Twilight Zone." I want an alien for
Christmas. Bring me an alien this year. I want a little green guy about
three feet high with 17 eyes and knows how to fly. I want an alien...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Top 10 best music list
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been at work compiling his 10 best list, and
he's here to present it and play some music from it. Let's start with the
title song from the CD that tops his list, Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary
(Soundbite of "Extraordinary Machine")
Ms. FIONA APPLE: (Singing) I certainly haven't been shopping for any new
shoes, and I certainly haven't been spreading myself around. I still only
travel by foot, and by foot it's a slow climb. But I'm good at being
uncomfortable, so I can't stop changing all the time.
I notice that my opponent is always on the go, and won't go slow so as not to
focus and I notice. He'll hitch a ride with any guide as long as they go fast
from whence he came. But he's no good at being uncomfortable, so he can't
stop staying exactly the same.
If there was a better way to go then it would find me. I can't help it. The
road just rose out behind me. Be kind to me or treat me mean. I'll make the
most of it; I'm an extraordinary machine.
I seem to you...
GROSS: That's the title track from Fiona Apple's latest CD, "Extraordinary
Machine," and it's the CD at the top of Ken Tucker's 10 best list.
Ken, welcome to FRESH AIR.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Thanks very much.
GROSS: Why does this CD get the top place on your list?
TUCKER: I just think the extraordinary craftsmanship of it. I think Fiona
Apple really made a remarkable album. And the saga behind it was so
interesting. She made this album years ago with producer Jon Brion, and her
record company said, `It's too arty. It sounds too much like an art-rock
record from the '60s. Go back and try and put some different beats behind
it,' and she worked with a hip-hop producer named Mike Elizondo.
And I think the album still works as very much a contemporary pop album. I
love the way--you know, she's very much in that kind of singer-songwriter
confessional mode, but at the same time, she plays off of it. She appears and
tries to sound vulnerable and waiflike, when actually there's a tremendous
amount of fury and wit. There's songs like "Red Red Red" and "Get Him
Back," which--"Get Him Back" is like a pun. `When I get him back. When I get
him back into my arms, or I'm going to get him back. I'm going to have my
revenge upon him.' The album's just filled with that kind of wordplay. It's
surrounded by all this ornate instrumentation and very modern beats. I just
think it's a wonderful synthesis of things, and every song on the album I just
GROSS: Is this a good year for women in music?
TUCKER: It's a really good year. I mean, it's--I had more fun this year
listening to women making all kinds of music. I don't know why. There
doesn't seem to be any kind of, you know...
GROSS: No sociological analysis for us?
TUCKER: No. No, I tried to think, `Is it the war? People want to be
comforted by hearing'--and, no, that wasn't it.
GROSS: That might be sexist.
TUCKER: That's right. So, you know, it's just--and country music--women I
thought were very, very strong. People like Gretchen Wilson followed up her
album "Redneck Woman" with another good album called "All Jacked Up." The
very popular Carrie Underwood, who won the "American Idol," has the number-one
But the best country music was made by women who also sort of looked back on
their past, and foremost among them I thought was Martina McBride, who made
this album called "Timeless," which was just a collection of her favorite old
country songs. And the song I'd like to play is called "Pick Me Up On Your
Way Down," which is just a great, old Harlan Howarad song. It was written--it
was a hit for Charlie Walker, who was a disc jockey in Texas in 1958. It's
just a great old song, and she does a really good job on it.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down")
Ms. MARTINA McBRIDE: (Singing) You were mine for just a while, now you're
putting on the style. Can you never once look back at your home across the
tracks? You're the gossip of the town, but my heart can still be found where
you tossed it on the ground. Pick me up on your way down. Pick me up on your
GROSS: Martina McBride from her CD "Timeless," which is on Ken Tucker's top
10 of the year. And we're reviewing the year in pop music with Ken Tucker,
FRESH AIR's rock critic.
So, you know, country music--of all the genres of music in America, it's
country music that seems most like it's, like, a battleground for the culture
wars. There's a lot of political divisions that get reflected in the songs;
not in the song that we just heard, though.
TUCKER: Yes. In fact, one of the things on my list I wanted to do this year
was to put a book on it. The best music book I read this year was by writer
Chris Willman. It's called "Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country
Music." And it takes as its jumping-off point the remark that Natalie Maines
of The Dixie Chicks made in 2003, where she said from the stage, `Just so you
know, we're ashamed of the president of the United States that he's from
Texas,' and she got booed on stage. And it set up this incredible,
electrifying tension within Nashville and across country radio; Dixie Chicks
songs were banned. And the polar opposite of that was Toby Keith, who became
this very big champion of the war in Iraq and the soldiers, and had this big
hit called "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue."
What Chris Willman did was he went down to Nashville and spent a lot of time
with artists and record executives, and it's really fascinating where he finds
people are very much open about where they stand. You know, Brooks & Dunn,
the very popular country duo, are very stanch Republicans, did fund-raisers
for George W. Bush, and they love just debating points about the war and
talking about things. And Willman delves into this.
And one of the interesting things I thought--a point he makes is when--you
often hear people say, `Oh, that Alec Baldwin, I wish he'd keep quiet. I hate
it when celebrities talk about politics,' things like that, and actors or rock
stars. And Willman says country music stars aren't often called celebrities
because so much of their public persona, no matter who they are and no matter
what side they're on, is about being part of the common man, that common
touch. He makes the point that a teen-age girl may dream of someday meeting
Britney Spears, but never really expects to. He said but you'd be hard
pressed not to find a country music fan who has not met one or two of his or
her favorite country artists, because part of the idea is when a star gives a
country music concert, you stick around, you give autographs. They have Fan
Fair down in Nashville every year, where anybody can go down and meet the very
biggest stars in country music. So there's a kind of connection there.
And so consequently, country music stars feel much more free, I think, to
express themselves in interviews when they want to, on stage, in their music,
certainly, going, you know, way back to Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson made
their political beliefs very widely known. Johnny Cash certainly did. And
Willman's book is--Willman, I should say, in full disclosure, a once and
future colleague of mine at Entertainment Weekly, does a terrific job of
pulling together strands. It's in no way any--it's a very kind of balanced
book in the sense that he talks to very conservative Nashville row record
executives, publishers, songwriters and people who feel marginalized, like
Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, who feel like they really love country music
and wish they could get played on country radio, but just aren't.
GROSS: I--before we get back to your top 10, just a really quick question
here. Thumbs up or thumbs down on the Johnny Cash movie "Walk the Line"?
TUCKER: Oh, I thought--I love Reese Witherspoon. I think she's terrific as
June Carter Cash. But there's something about--the opening Folsom Prison
concert scene I think is fantastic. I think that James Mangold, the
writer-director, gives a very superficial kind of biopic treatment to what was
an absolutely fascinating life, and there are many, many missed opportunities
for me. I felt the acting was very good, though.
GROSS: But not the singing from Joaquin Phoenix.
TUCKER: No. I just didn't think--I think he slipped in and out of it too
much. I didn't really get that soulfulness that Johnny Cash had for me.
Reese Witherspoon did it for me, but not Joaquin, I'm afraid.
GROSS: My guest is Ken Tucker, FRESH AIR's rock critic, and we're reviewing
the year in music.
You know, when we started, you talked about what a strong year this is for
women, and we heard Fiona Apple and Martina McBride. Are there other examples
of what a strong year this has been for women?
TUCKER: Yes, all across the map of pop music, everything from very big names
like Mariah Carey, who made this very unexpected comeback--her album, "The
Emancipation of Mimi," which got more Grammy nominations than any other
album--Shakira, who had the first top five single sung in Spanish this year,
and then on to smaller acts that I thought put out terrific records that I've
reviewed over the course of the year here, like The Detroit Cobras--their
album called "Baby"--Rachel Nagy has such a terrific voice--Dressy Bessy, a
terrific pop-rock band. You know, I even liked Ashlee Simpson, her single "I
Didn't Steal Your Boyfriend." I think it's a terrific pop song.
But among those other smaller acts, Fiery Furnaces, which is a brother and
sister duo, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger--they made an extraordinary album, a
kind of concept album, called "Rehearsing My Choir." And what they did was
they asked their 83-year-old grandmother, Olga Sarnatos, to come in and talk
about her life growing up in Chicago, and just set those reminiscences to
music. And it's a beautiful, kind of surreal, swirling music around her
voice. The cut we're going to play is called "The Garfield El," which is the
elevated train in Chicago, and it's a reminiscence of that time. And the
first voice you're going to hear is Olga Sarnatos. And I mention that because
her voice is kind of gruff and deep and you might think it's a man at first,
but it's this old woman. And it's followed by Eleanor Friedberger, also
singing alongside of her.
(Soundbite of "The Garfield El")
Ms. OLGA SARNATOS: I found a skeleton tooth in the junk drawer, and I mean to
open the golden, green and white door and take a late train to my lost love.
Faster hammers, faster hammers chatter down the tracks through thumbtacked
smiley skull teeth, kicking $5 throwaway pianos past a late train to my lost
Ms. ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) Listen to ...(unintelligible) being stuck
in my heart.
Ms. SARNATOS: Late by act of Congress and blue law the way to one's heart.
Ms. FRIEDBERGER: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) steel. Rapid and shattered
Ms. SARNATOS: Endless ribbons spinning in computer colors...
GROSS: That's The Fiery Furnaces from their album "Rehearsing My Choir," one
of the albums on our rock critic Ken Tucker's 10 best list for the year.
Ken, hearing that, I'm really reminded of--it sounds to me like a very pop
reworking of Steve Reich's "Different Trains."
TUCKER: And that's true. I hadn't thought about that. It is that kind of
rhythm, that kind of pulsating rhythm to it. A lot of the tracks have that.
It's, you know, very much an art record, but I think with this very original
use of this woman's talking rather than conventional rock vocals.
GROSS: Our rock critic Ken Tucker will play more music from his 10 best list
after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer")
GROSS: My guest is Ken Tucker, FRESH AIR's rock critic, and we're talking
about the year in music. And soon, he will read us his entire 10 best list.
As we've discussed on the show, Ken, you've been a rock critic, a film critic,
a television critic. During your rock critic years for newspapers...
GROSS: ...you had to go to concerts nearly every night.
GROSS: Now that you're not writing as the rock critic for a newspaper and
you're not obliged to go to concerts every night, have you been still going to
concerts, and are there any concerts this year that you saw that were
TUCKER: I saw a Bob Dylan show, and I went to this Bob Dylan show purely by
accident. A friend had an extra ticket. I went thinking, `Oh, Bob Dylan.
I've seen him a hundred times.' And it was one of the most extraordinary
shows, literally, that I've ever seen. He's 63 years old. I mean, as we
know, Bob Dylan's had a great year. I mean, he's put out this terrific book,
"Chronicles," he's just announced that he's going to do a satellite radio
show. You know, he's just--he's done a lot of things this year, and--but he's
just maintained a steady touring schedule.
And I saw him at the Beacon Theatre in New York and he came out and he had
this--he's very, very thin, very gaunt, and the ticket stub says `The Bob
Dylan Show,' and that's what it is. It's like a show. He had Merle Haggard
as his opening act, and Merle Haggard comes on, he's very jovial, and plays
his, you know, big hits. And that kinds of sets up something for Dylan,
because everything's implied with Dylan, and what Merle Haggard implies for
Dylan is, `You're not going to get that from me.' He comes out and he never
looks at the audience; he just looks at the band. He goes over--he never
picked up a guitar the whole time. He would go over to the keyboards and kind
of stab at them really fast. And the blast-back power of that band was as
loud as any rock band I've ever heard. It was just absolutely thrilling. I
could feel the hair on the back of my neck just rise up.
He sang "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight," and he just bit off the words. He'd say,
you know, (Imitating Dylan) `Shut the blinds, shut them tight,' and it was
though he was about to direct a porn film the way he said those words. It was
just--I mean, it was just so wonderful. And the frailness was deceptive, and
he used it because he was like a marionette. His hands kind of moved
around--the way he stabbed at the keyboards, and I just thought there's such
energy and such drive. He was kind of bent over like Jim Carrey in "Lemony
Snicket," but there was, like, just this tremendous reworking constantly of
familiar songs. He would puff on a harmonica and then go into "Desolation
Row" and make it sound like Marty Robbins' "El Paso," a mariachi ballad. It
was just amazing.
And at the end, they finished--the band and then Dylan finished "Desolation
Row," they put down their instruments, they come to the edge of the stage and
they stand in a line. And Dylan looks to his left at his colleagues and he
looks to his right, and then he looks out at the crowd and he nods once. And
to me, that said, `We may as well had had tommy guns in our hands. We blew
you away and we know it,' and he just walked off, no encores.
GROSS: Did it make you think about Dylan any differently than you did before?
TUCKER: It certainly made me admire his longevity. And when I thought about
what I had seen in the Martin Scorsese DVD, "No Direction Home," all those
reminiscences, that sense that he has of himself as a self-created person and
that he thinks of himself as an entertainer as much as an artist, that he's a
constantly working--he wants to be on the road. He wants to be out there and
get that feedback, that kind of concert...
GROSS: And put on a show.
TUCKER: And put on a show, like a real old-fashioned--you know, he compares
himself to, like, Al Jolson rather than other rock figures. Whenever he talks
about his influences, they're not really rock 'n' roll musicians; they're
people from other eras. You know, I just think he's just an amazing--he's the
most amazing singer-songwriter rock performer of our era.
GROSS: Ken, how was this year in hip-hop?
TUCKER: Hip-hop I felt was in kind of a holding pattern, in the sense that
the same people who had big hits last year had big hits this year. Kanye
West--his album, "Late Registration." He had this big hit "Gold Digger,"
which I thought was a really fun single with Jamie Foxx doing this kind of Ray
Charles impersonation. 50 Cent put out that movie, "Get Rich or Die Tryin',"
which was pretty bad; it didn't do very well. 50 Cent, increasingly to me, is
kind of like the Mike Tyson of hip-hop. He's just sort of big and there and
lumbering and not particularly interesting; powerful, but not effective.
So to me the work that's being done is still the more interesting stuff that's
being done on the fringes. Like this guy who calls himself Lyrics Born. I
reviewed his album earlier this year. There's a four-letter word in the title
of the album, so the name of the album is called "Same Blank, Different Day."
The cut I'd like to play from Lyrics Born is called "I'm Just Raw."
(Soundbite of "I'm Just Raw")
Unidentified Man: His name is Lyrics Born and he is, as they say, loud and
crazy. As a composer, arranger and a producer, he's exploring it all from the
furthest reaches of musical outer space to the most down to Earth funk. And
he sounds--well, he sounds exactly like this.
Mr. LYRICS BORN: Nobody remembers those ...(unintelligible) from 20 years
ago when you were the guest host, past history. Let it go. Get off on the
medical. Pack a duffel bag with all your wrinkled clothes and
(unintelligible) home. Get a little Dictaphone and settle down in the middle
of the room and let it flow. Wouldn't it be better if you went and chose a
new career path, like a shepherd or a flight attendant on an aircraft. You're
pitiful, the polliwog, tiny fishy in the smaller pond, holding Barbie dolls
and leftover beads from the Mardi Gras, acting ...(unintelligible). But
that's just poppycock. Because inside your head is soft like a Jolly Rancher
lollipop. I'll give you cauliflower ears, stupid. You're weird. Feelin'
blue on a stoop somewhere, two-fisting beers. ...(Unintelligible) like a
(unintelligible) riding on the shoulder of some old man you met just now. I'm
smarter than you. I'm harder than you. I'm better than you. I'm just raw.
I'm hotter than you. More popular than you. More clever than you. And,
gosh darn it, people like it. Like I'm smarter than you. I'm harder than
GROSS: That's Lyrics Born. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, will play more music
from his 10 best list after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's rock critic, Ken Tucker. He's reviewing the
year in rock music. Ken, what did the year look like in indie rock?
TUCKER: Well, indie rock was the kind of year where it was most clear how
differently people consume music. People heard about bands in many different
ways. Indie bands don't get played on big commercial rock stations. And it's
like my daughter. She didn't--literally, did not buy an album all year. She
would download music from the Internet. We'd go on Web sites, like
pitchfork.com, which covers a lot of indie bands, to learn about what was, you
know, out there and available. People watch videos on MTV2, which actually
plays music videos. And you see--get exposed to bands on television shows,
like "The O.C." And there's a show called "Veronica Mars" on UPN about a
young teen-age girl who moonlights as a detective. And this band that I'm
about to play, Spoon, has just--they just announced that they're going to
play. It--no longer is it a sign of selling out to appear on a TV show. In
fact, it's a way--another way to get your music heard. So I thought among
indie bands, Death Cab for Cutie, and Wolf Parade, a band from Canada, have
particularly strong albums. But this Spoon album, called "Give Me Fiction,"
their fifth album--a band from Austin, Texas--I thought was just really,
The song I want to play is "The Beast and Dragon, Adored."
(Soundbite of "The Beast and Dragon, Adored")
SPOON: The beast and dragon, adored. You've been gone so long. Where you
been for so long? I went to places unknown. Went to the room and I forgot my
pen. Shook my twin. And I had to find the feeling again.
GROSS: That's Spoon from their CD "Give Me Fiction," one of the CDs on Ken
Tucker's 10 best list of the year. Ken, before we heard that, you were
talking about how young people now are listening to music differently.
They're not getting it from the radio so much. They're listening on iPods
and downloading and listening to singles more than CDs often. Do you find
that your way of finding about new recordings or the ways in which you listen
to new recordings have changed?
TUCKER: Yeah. I mean, I do a lot more reading, a lot more surfing the
Internet. A lot--going--as I said before, going to Web sites, just--it's
almost as if music is kind of in the air, but it's not on the radio. I mean,
it's very--I listen to a lot of different kinds of radio stations, and I find
pop radio stations annoying because they don't tell you the name of the band
half the time. So, you know, it's that kind of thing. And so, I just listen
to what friends recommend to me, what my daughters recommend to me.
Just--I--and I've enjoyed more music this year than I have in recent years.
So I think that kind of letting the music wash over you and discovering
things, I think if you take that plunge, you set yourself up for a really
GROSS: Well, this is that stirring time of the year when you present your
full 10 best list.
GROSS: So let's begin the dramatic reading.
TUCKER: Yes. Well, as I said last year, I was no longer going to do a list
of just albums because of all the things we've been talking about. Because
they're just--you get music in so many different ways. So this is a mixture
of things. Number one is the album by Fiona Apple, "Extraordinary Machine."
Number two is that cut from Spoon, "The Beast and Dragon, Adored." Number
three is Martina McBride, the song I played, "Pick Me Up On Your Way Down," I
thought was just wonderful. Number four is Fiery Furnaces, the entire album,
called "Rehearsing My Choir." Number five is Kanye West's song, "Gold
Digger." Just loved it. Number six is Chris Willman's book, "Rednecks and
Bluenecks: Politics In County Music." Number seven is the Detroit Cobra's
album, "Baby." The whole album is just terrific. Number eight is Lyrics
Born, "Same Blank, Different Day." Number nine is Bob Dylan's DVD "No
Direction Home." And number 10, as far as I was concerned, the reissue of the
year, this four-disc set on Rhino called "One Kiss Can Lead To Another: Girl
Group Sounds Lost and Found."
GROSS: And should we close with a track from the girl groups' reissue?
TUCKER: That would be great, yes, by a woman named Dawn. Beyond that, she is
unknown to pop history, as far as I can tell. And the song is called "I'm
Afraid They're All Talking About Me."
GROSS: So this boxed set has girl groups who are well-known and others who
are very obscure?
TUCKER: Most very obscure, indeed, yeah. And it's wonder--it's a wonderful
excavation of pop past. You listen to it and you think: `Why wasn't that a
number-one hit single?' Like this song.
GROSS: Well, Ken, thanks for reviewing the year in music.
TUCKER: Thank you.
GROSS: And happy holidays.
TUCKER: You, too.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic and film critic for New York
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "I'm Afraid They're All Talking About Me")
DAWN: (Singing) I never had much confidence in myself. Was it the way that I
was brought up that made me dependent on someone else? I'd always wear my
mask. The crowd would come in, but I'd be ...(unintelligible) alone. The
conversation would flow. They have to stop before I go.
I need somebody to trust me.
(Singing) Because I'm afraid they're all talking about me. I'm afraid they're
all talking about me. But, baby, you can help me, help me, me if you tell me
that you love me. Baby, you can help me, help me, if you tell me that you
love me. I never knew a guy like you who could understand my fears, no.
(Unintelligible) to me ...(unintelligible) just beyond your years. You're
trying to reach inside of my soul but I can't help feelin' that there's no
place to hide from the cruel words of those outside.
I need somebody to trust.
(Singing) Because I'm afraid they're all talking about me. I'm afraid they're
all talking about me....
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