DATE December 20, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Analysis: Top 10-best films of the year
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's a FRESH AIR tradition this time of year to invite our film critic and
rock critic to talk about their 10-best lists. Let's start with our film
critic, David Edelstein, who also has some thoughts about the new movies
opening for the holidays. David is the film critic for the online magazine
David, happy holidays. Good to talk with you again.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
Thank you very much.
GROSS: Let's start with holiday movies. What type of movies tend to get
released around the holidays?
EDELSTEIN: Well, normally they're the movies that, in contrast to, say, the
summer movies, are the ones that the studios think have a chance to win big
awards for the directors and the actors. This year, it's funny, just one
after another, even the ones you think are going to be fun, are grim, grim,
grim, grim. You've got, you know, all sorts of scenes of--themes of madness
and obsession and genocide and euthanasia. And, you know, even the ones that,
you know, start out as comedies or as sports movies have kind of tragic deaths
in the middle of it. I don't know what it is.
GROSS: Well, why don't we start with Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," which
is about Howard Hughes.
EDELSTEIN: Good choice.
GROSS: What'd you think?
EDELSTEIN: Well, you know, I have a problem in general with bio pics. I tend
to think those movies are very spread out, and they're full of cliches. But
the amazing thing about "The Aviator" is it's three hours. It covers a guy
who was a lot of things: He was a daring pilot; he was a kind of
hard-charging capitalist; he was an innovator; he was a romancer of gorgeous
Hollywood stars; he was, you know, a target of congressional investigations;
he was an obsessive-compulsive germophobe, who, as we all know, went mad. And
this movie is absolutely seamless; it all fits together. The guy fits
together. The movie fits together.
Scorsese and his genius editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, and, for that matter, John
Logan, who wrote the script--they are just absolute wizards of transitions.
And it's just pure pleasure. It's three hours of pure pleasure. It's very
buoyant, and at the same time, you know, it gives you a lot to chew over when
it's over. And Leo DiCaprio is--well, I think he's a really wonderful actor.
He's maybe a little lightweight for Howard Hughes, but he gets the drive, he
gets the momentum of the part. And I just want to mention a performance by
Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn that is so delightful. She made me see
Hepburn with new eyes. She's like--she's very jaunty, and she's incredibly
high-strung at the same time, and I never realized that that really defines
Katharine Hepburn. It's one of those caricatures that makes you appreciate
the real thing.
GROSS: I've been looking forward to seeing Wes Anderson's movie, "The Life
Aquatic." I loved his previous film. What did you think of the new one?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I should--this is a disclaimer. I'm not someone who gets
down on his knees to young Wes. But this is an attempt to get at--to use his
sort of precious style to get at some really big themes about the dream life
of the artist and his relationship with the real world and that I really
admire the ambition, the reach, of this movie, not to mention that it's just a
gorgeous, kind of unabashedly silly toy box of a movie with beautiful colors
and with frames that make you laugh out loud. It is a mess. I still think
Anderson often upstages his actors with his amazing designs. And I think it's
a mistake to go tragic and bring in real violence and death, although I admit
that that's one of the themes of the movie.
GROSS: Now the new film "Spanglish" was directed by James Brooks, who's given
us a lot of good things. Why don't you run through some of, I think, the
James Brooks things?
EDELSTEIN: A lot of good things. Well, I don't know. "Terms of Endearment"
kind of made my head hurt, and...
GROSS: Oh, that wasn't on my list of the good things.
EDELSTEIN: Oh, OK. And "As Good As It Gets," I felt, was emotional
pornography, you know, with the sick kid and the gay guy getting beat up. And
I don't know. I actually am not a--I'm a huge fan of his TV work, but I loved
"Spanglish." In contrast to the--Scorsese, which I said was sort of
miraculously fluid, this movie is very shapeless. It's longish. "Spanglish"
is longish. But it's really about something. It takes off from the language
and the class divide between this Mexican maid, who doesn't speak any English,
at least at the beginning, and a very wealthy Beverly Hills family, in which
the mother, who's played by Tea Leoni in just a terrifically funny
performance--the mother is a proud liberal, but she's also a kind of neurotic
basketcase, who patronizes this maid and who, in a very intriguing twist,
virtually adopts the maid's daughter and buys her clothes and sets her on her
way as a successful American to the point where it really becomes a threat to
There's a lot wrong with this film. There's a lot of little things that kind
of niggle at you. And it's a little disconcerting that the actress who plays
the maid, whose name--she's a Spanish actress named Paz Vega--she's just so
jaw-droppingly beautiful that even the characters in the movie commented. And
I saw this movie at a sneak preview, you know, with real people, and in some
shots, members of the audience literally gasped at her beauty. And I suppose
that that sort of lifts it into the realm of fairy tale when a lot of it feels
very real. But I loved the feel of the movie. And there are so many moments
of discovery in it. I really hope it doesn't bomb.
GROSS: Clint Eastwood has a new movie, "Million Dollar Baby," that he
directed and stars in. And it's only opening in a couple of cities, like New
York and LA. I guess that's for Academy Award consideration, and apparently
it will be considered 'cause some critics are already talking about it as the
best film of the year.
EDELSTEIN: He is beloved among certain critics, you know, who have compared
him to Hemingway and, God help us, Shakespeare and think he's, you know, the
sort of major living American director. I feel a little naughty saying that
this is an extremely crude and obvious melodrama dressed up in kind of
moody--well, moody is his signature--moody art house clothes. It starts out
as a cliched but soft-pedaled, go-for-it boxing movie with this gruff coach
played by Eastwood and the plucky, young upstart played by Hilary Swank. And
then it sucker punches you with pure tragedy. But as usual with Eastwood, I
think the fatalism is laid on with a trowel, and the handling of some of the
supporting characters is just unbelievably crude. Its a great mystery to me
why critics are labeling this movie the best of the year.
GROSS: My guest is David Edelstein. We're talking about some of the films
opening for the holidays. And in just a few minutes we'll also hear his
10-best list and review the year in film.
Well, one of the movies opening for the holidays is "Phantom of the Opera."
You've seen it. How is it?
EDELSTEIN: Maybe the single most excruciating two and a half hours I have
ever spent in a theater. I would have left after 20 minutes if FRESH AIR
weren't paying me the big bucks.
(Soundbite of laughter)
EDELSTEIN: Look, I know some people adore Andrew Lloyd Webber. It's one of
the great mysteries of existence. I think the melodies are awful when they're
not just downright derivative, and even the good ones are never developed.
And the movie itself is just--you know, puts those melodies kind of on a
pedestal. And, I'm sorry, it's just schlok. I mean, it's oppressively static
because the tunes are so repetitive and the lyrics are so simpleminded, when I
was watching it, it really made me appreciate how the great operas work as
drama. They're actually very sophisticated dramas. This one's not. As a
movie, it's upsetting.
You know, when I was a kid, I bought this Super-8 Blackhawk film, this copy
of the entire Lon Chaney "Phantom of the Opera." And it's great. You know,
in the end the heroes go through this passageway, and they meet one obstacle
after another. And they end up in torture chambers and drowning and up on
hooks, and it's--you'd think that a movie of this could be so cinematic, but
Andrew Lloyd Webber is so damned wedded to every syllable of his musical. You
know, none of this is in the movie. As I said, it's just very static.
GROSS: Well, when we started, you said that this holiday season of movies is
largely about subjects very grim, including genocide, which leads us to the
final movie on the holiday movie list, which is "Hotel Rwanda."
EDELSTEIN: "Hotel Rwanda."
GROSS: Yeah. So does...
GROSS: ...the movie work in trying to describe--well, I don't know how
descriptive it is of the genocide. I know it's about a hotel owner who gives
shelter to a lot of people in his hotel.
EDELSTEIN: Well, it can't show you the entire scope of the Rwandan genocide,
which, as we know, killed close to a million people. It's not a great movie,
but I think it is an important one. It has a great performance by Don Cheadle
as this obsequious, almost Westernized Hutu hotel manager, who shelters the
Tutsis, including his wife, in this kind of Western luxury hotel. And for the
entire movie, he has to negotiate constantly to keep them from being taken out
and shot. And along the way he has to run and get food, and he has to run and
try to enlist the help of various corrupt generals and kind of helpless
diplomats. And, you know, he passes the piles of bodies, the women and the
children, just sort of hacked down with machetes. And, you know, we all heard
about the Rwandan genocide, but it's kind of important to have a movie that
actually puts those images on the screen. I hate to say it.
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR film critic David Edelstein. We'll talk about
his list of the best movies of the year after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Edelstein, FRESH AIR's
One of my favorite parts of the end of the year is seeing everybody's 10-best
lists. David, you've brought your 10-best films of the year list. So this is
the dramatic part.
(Soundbite of laughter)
EDELSTEIN: Well, can I preface it?
EDELSTEIN: Can I preface it?
EDELSTEIN: Can I add yet another disclaimer? In making my 10-best list this
year, I really only came up with seven movies that I absolutely could say
these were the best of the year and then sort of a long list of movies that I
also want you to see. You know, a good 10-best list has one blockbuster,
you know, to prove that you're not out of sync with the mass audience.
(Soundbite of laughter)
EDELSTEIN: And it really should have one film that nobody's ever heard of to
prove you're superior to the mass audience.
(Soundbite of laughter)
EDELSTEIN: So it's an art form in and of itself. So here goes. Are you
GROSS: I'm ready.
EDELSTEIN: OK, number one by a wide margin is Charlie Kaufman and Michel
Gondry's masterpiece "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
Number two, Alexander Payne's comedy "Sideways."
Number three is kind of a tie between "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."
They're two Zhang Yimou martial arts masterpieces. A reader of mine calls
this the `martial artsy genre.'
Number four: Pedro Almodovar's "Bad Education," which is his third, I think,
great film in a row.
Number five: Brad Bird's "The Incredibles," which lives up to its name.
And number six: Jonathan Caouette's home movie essay on his family's and his
own madness, "Tarnation."
My other favorites this year in no order are...
GROSS: Wait. You said there were seven.
EDELSTEIN: Oh, I'm sorry. "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers"
GROSS: Oh, that's two. Yes, that's right.
EDELSTEIN: Yeah, I cheat. You know, I cheat. So now I can put in four more.
And among them would be "Spanglish," as I mentioned, "The Aviator," which I
talked about, the two wonderful rock documentaries "Metallica: Some Kind of
Monster" and "End of the Century" about The Ramones; a Hong Kong thriller,
"Infernal Affairs" and a Taiwanese tone poem. This is the obscure one set in
a dying movie house called "Good Bye, Dragon Inn." There are also two movies
about women compelled to commit acts of heroism: "Moolaade" which is--was
Ousmane Sembene's anti-female circumcision drama, and "Vera Drake," which is
Mike Leigh's drama of an English cleaning woman who moonlights as an
abortionist. And I wanted to add that I initially was somewhat skeptical
about that film, but the longer it sits with me, the more I respect Leigh's
work and the work of Imelda Staunton, who plays Vera.
GROSS: Do you feel like the vote for best documentary is--that any of the
votes for the Academy Awards are going to be very politically divisive? You
know, will "The Passion of the Christ" win awards? Will Michael Moore's movie
win awards? You know, 'cause some of the films have become so politically
EDELSTEIN: Boy, I find it even hard to open my mouth on "The Passion of the
Christ." I got so much hate mail for calling it `The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre'
on this very program. "Fahrenheit" and "Passion" really highlight our
cultural schism, and I just don't know. I mean, they might do so out of fear
of the reaction from the country if they don't. I know that already certain
talk show hosts have begun to fan this flame to say, `If "The Passion of the
Christ" is not nominated for best picture, it will be proof that Hollywood is
out of touch with America.'
In terms of "Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," I suppose there
might be someone somewhere who loves them both. But, in general, I don't
think either side will ever see the other's point of view. Each film is, in
its single-mindedness, extremely punishing, and yet for its intended audience,
it's sort of a turn-on. I mean, every bloody lash and gauge in Mel Gibson's
Jesus movie is transfiguring for its audience. For them, it can't be too
bloody, it can't be too horrific. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11"--you
know, it gives no inkling of Saddam Hussein's brutality or the real peril of
what some call--What do they call it?--Islamofascism.
But Moore has a real and very well-developed view of the United States as run
by kind of corporatist greed heads, who hide their motives behind bogus piety.
And he lays it out for us, and it's in the service of attacking a war he
really believes is waged by arrogant fools. And, you know, this was extremely
gratifying to many people who have been hungering for something this strong
against this particular administration.
GROSS: You know, a lot of conservative people have criticized Hollywood for
being left-leaning. For the people who you know in the film industry or in
the movie criticism business, for those who are, in fact, leaning more to the
left than to the right, do you think that they're upset at being--at Hollywood
being criticized for being liberal?
EDELSTEIN: Sure, they do because most of the time they don't perceive
themselves as peddling anything other than secular, humanist values. Really,
it's only been, I think, in the last 20 years that secular, humanist values
have been portrayed as, you know, ultra-liberal. It's--I think Hollywood's
politics mostly revolve around what's going to manipulate an audience.
I had an epiphany about 15 years ago when, within a couple of weeks, the
movies "Field of Dreams" and "Dead Poets Society" were released. They're
movies really coming from kind of opposite ends of the political and cultural
spectrum. One of them is about a guy who rejected his dad during the
counterculture because his dad was a reactionary conservative, and as a
result, there's this great void in his life. And it's about the importance of
kind of reconciling yourself to your dad and kind of embracing his values.
And the dad comes back as a baseball player, and they have this wonderful
reunion, ghostly reunion, on a baseball field. And then a week later "Dead
Poets Society" came out, and it was a classic counterculture movie about
daddies who kill, you know, kind of setting the stage for the counterculture
for defeating the daddies who drive sensitive young men to commit suicide.
Now the same critics who loved one movie loved them both, and I realized they
didn't really have much different politics. Their politics were all about
jerking an audience around. The people who make vigilante movies--probably a
lot of them are against capital punishment, even vote Democrat, but they know
vigilante movies really turn on an audience. They get you sort of hungering
for the bad guy's blood, and they give you a kind of orgasmic payoff at the
end. So I think a lot of Hollywood's politics are completely opportunistic.
GROSS: David, for anyone who's going to have time to get to just one movie
over the holidays, is there any particular movie you'd recommend?
EDELSTEIN: Can I give you two?
EDELSTEIN: OK. I would say Alexander Payne's "Sideways," which is about two
men on a wine-tasting trip. It's a marvelous portrait of both addiction and
pinot noir. And also, of course, "House of Flying Daggers," which is just the
damnedest thing. It's the most gorgeous martial arts film you'll ever see,
worthy of being ranked with the great dance musicals.
GROSS: Well, David, happy holidays. Thank you so much for talking about
movies with us.
EDELSTEIN: Thank you very much. And remember if the gloom and doom of the
holiday season gets to you, rent "The Lady Eve" or "The Shop Around the
GROSS: David Edelstein is the film critic for FRESH AIR and the online
magazine Slate. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Hanging down from my window, those are my wind
GROSS: Coming up: crunk, punk, pop and the increasing influence of the iPod.
Rock critic Ken Tucker looks back at 2004, plays some of his favorite tracks
and runs through his 10-best list. And critic John Powers recommends watching
the entire first season of the HBO series "The Wire." It's now out on DVD.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...look at my wind chimes. Now and then the tear
rolls off my cheek. Close your eyes and lean back now, listen to the wind
chimes. In the late afternoon, you're hung up on wind chimes. Though it's
`ard, I try not to look at my wind chimes.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Year in pop music
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our rock critic Ken Tucker is here to play some of his favorite recordings of
the year and run through his 10-best list. Ken is also a TV critic for New
Ken, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Let's start with hip-hop. What's new in hip-hop this year?
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Hip-hop this year--I think it's the year of the producer. Producers really
came to the forefront, both as behind the scenes and as performers. You had
this very interesting phenomenon in Georgia. This group Lil' Jon & The
Eastside Boyz make this music that's called crunk, which is a kind of a
combination of words `crazy' and `drunk' with `funk' kind of thrown into it.
But Lil' Jon himself has become a very popular, in-demand producer to the
extent where his music is being produced for mainstream pop acts like Usher.
You know, a year or two ago, Usher was just a very mainstream R&B singer, and
but he got hooked up with Lil' Jon and wanted to kind of ride this wave of
crunk music and ended up recording the song called "Yeah!" which is one of
Lil' Jon's catchphrases. Every song Lil' Jon does, he yells `Yeah!' And it
became a number-one hit for Usher, so it's a very interesting--and I'd like to
play that song.
GROSS: Yeah, great. Well, let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Yeah!")
LIL' JON: Peace up. A Town down. (Singing) Yeah! Yeah! OK!
USHER: (Singing) Usher. Usher. Usher.
LIL' JON: Lil' Jon!
USHER: (Singing) Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
Backup Singers: Yeah!
USHER: (Singing) Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
Backup Singers: Yeah!
LIL' JON: Let's go!
USHER: (Singing) I'm in the club with my homies, tryin' to get a little V-I,
keep it down on the low key, 'cause you know how it feels.
LIL' JON: Hey! Hey!
USHER: (Singing) I saw a shorty. She was checkin' up on me. From the game
she was spittin' in my ear you would think that she know me, so we decided to
LIL' JON: OK!
USHER: (Singing) Conversation got heavy. She had me feelin' like she's ready
LIL' JON: Watch out!
USHER: (Singing) Oh!
LIL' JON: Watch out!
USHER: (Singing) She's saying, `Come get me--come get me,' so I got up and
followed her to the floor. She said, `Baby, let's go.'
LIL' JON: Let's go!
USHER: (Singing) When I told her, I said...
LIL' JON: Yeah!
USHER: (Singing) Yeah!
GROSS: Well, that's Usher.
Ken, you were saying it's the year of the producer, and the producer of the
Usher track that we just heard has his own band.
TUCKER: Yes, Lil' Jon & The Eastside Boyz. They just put out an album called
"Crunk Juice," which--most of which cannot ever be played anywhere near a
radio station. Lots of four-letter words, but it's all--it's very much
against the tide of recent gangsta rap music in the sense that it's not about
violence; it's all about partying. It's all about--it's a much more
hedonistic, have-a-good-time kind of music.
I find it very repetitive, frankly, but the basic beats to it I find connect
up with that George Clinton, James Brown--very elemental drumbeats,
synthesizers used as percussion. You know, it's a very interesting style that
is basically run into the ground. I'll be very surprised if at the end of
2005, Lil' Jon has not faded from the sound. But right now "Crunk Juice" is
the sound of the moment.
(Soundbite of "Da Blow")
LIL' JON AND THE EASTSIDE BOYZ: (Rapping) Da blow, da pills, da yack, da
herbs. Da--da--da--da--da--da blow, da pills, da yack, yeah, da herb. Da
blow, da blow, da blow, da blow, da blow. Da blow, da pills, da yack, da
herb. Da blow, da pills, da yack, da herb. Da blow, da pills, da yack, da
herb. Da blow, da blow, da blow, da blow. Da blow, da pills, the yack, da
GROSS: That's Lil' Jon & The Eastside Boyz.
My guest is Ken Tucker, FRESH AIR's rock critic. We're reviewing the year in
Ken, you've been referring to this as the year of the producer in hip-hop. Is
there any other producer you want to single out?
TUCKER: Yes. A very prominent one was Kanye West, who had produced a lot of
hits for acts like Jay-Z and Ludacris. He put out his own album called
"College Dropout," and it got more Grammy nominations than any other album
this year. So he's another person who's very--coming to the forefront as a
performer as well as a behind-the-scenes producer.
GROSS: I know one of the albums you really liked this year was Green Day's
latest, which you've described as a punk opera. Has this been a year where
punk has had a lot of influence on current bands?
TUCKER: I think that the resurgence of Green Day, who hadn't put out an album
in a few years, and the release of "American Idiot" really kind of
coalescenced this idea that there's a lot of punk-influenced music that was
around this year. Bands that I really liked, like The Black Keys from
Cincinnati, The Hives from Sweden--a lot of them are going back to that
very--you know, two or three chords, three-minute songs, very much in the mode
of The Ramones. It was a real harking back to the '70s, and I think with a
kind of fresh energy.
GROSS: You want to play something?
TUCKER: Yeah. I'd like to play the title song from "American Idiot," Green
(Soundbite of "American Idiot")
Mr. BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG (Green Day): (Singing) Don't want to be an American
idiot. One nation controlled by the media. Information nation of hysteria.
It's going out to idiot America. Welcome to a new kind of tension. All
across the alien nation. Everything isn't meant to be OK. Television dreams
of tomorrow. We're not the ones who're meant to follow. For that's enough to
GROSS: That was Green Day.
And, Ken, you know, we were talking about the influence of punk music on
current bands. And this was a sad year for The Ramones, one of the seminal
punk bands, but in a way, it was an interesting year for their legacy. What
happened this year?
TUCKER: Yeah. This was the year that Johnny Ramone died of cancer. He was
55. That follows the death of Joey, who also died of cancer in 2001, and Dee
Dee Ramone, who OD'd in 2002. Tommy is the only surviving Ramone. There's a
really remarkable, I thought very moving documentary that was released this
year called "End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones," in which Johnny
especially was, I thought, particularly eloquent and poignant about what the
band was about. It was really--the band was their life, and it was a very
ultimately sad story of the way they really thought that they would be the
number one band in the country throughout, you know, a 25-year existence. And
instead, they became kind of the consummate road band that always had a very
firm cult following, but never quite broke through.
GROSS: With me is Ken Tucker, FRESH AIR's rock critic, and we're reviewing
the year in pop music. We talked a little bit about the influence of punk.
What about rock 'n' roll?
TUCKER: I think what we think of as good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll played
on, you know, guitars and drums without a lot of other ornamentation--there
are a number of very strong albums, foremost of which I thought was this band
Eagles of Death Metal that I liked a lot. The Black Keys out of
Cincinnati--and scattered all over the world. I mean, The Hives from Sweden,
who sing songs in English, put out their second album. It wasn't quite as
strong as the first one last year, but I remember seeing them on "David
Letterman" and the energy was just absolutely explosive.
And the fascinating thing about the TV appearance with David Letterman was
Letterman introduced them and you could tell it was one of those things where
Dave kind of maybe knew and maybe his staff told him he should have this band
on. They played this song called "Walk Idiot Walk," which to me is a
wonderful song that has a kind of elemental--like, The Kingsmen's "Louie,
Louie" kind of riff to it. And they just exploded through this song, and in
two minutes it was over. And David Letterman got up from his desk, walked
over and he said, `Now that's how you do it. That's the way it's played.' And
he, like, shook the guy's hand with two hands, which you never see Dave have
any physical contact if he possibly can avoid it with any guest, and warmly
shook this guy's hand and he said, `Really, thanks a lot, fellas.' He said,
`You just blew the roof off this dump.' And I felt like, `Yeah, that's exactly
how I feel when I listen to The Hives.'
GROSS: Well, play something for us.
TUCKER: I'd like to play that song, "Walk Idiot Walk."
(Soundbite of "Walk Idiot Walk")
THE HIVES: (Singing) Well, is it true what they say about it? They say it's
new, but I had to doubt it. And then they tell you everything about it, had
enough? I got some people sayin' this way. I got some people sayin' that
way. I got some people sayin' there's no way. Ain't it though?
You see the idiot walk. See the idiot talk. See the idiot chalk up his name
on the blackboard. See the robot walk. See the robot talk. See that robot
write up his name on the ballot. They say, this is what I need to get by.
The truth is, baby, it's a lie. Ooh!
GROSS: That's The Hives.
FRESH AIR's rock critic Ken Tucker will run through his 10-best list after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Here Comes Santa Claus")
GROSS: My guest is Ken Tucker. He's FRESH AIR's rock critic, and he's here
to review the year in pop music and play us some of the highlights.
What are some of the things that happened this year on the fringes?
TUCKER: It was a good year for fringe music in the sense that you had the
greatest fringe artist of all time perhaps, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys,
finally, after 30-some odd years, released "Smile," this almost legendary
album that he did in 1965, laid down the basic tracks for it, but then
withheld from the public because he basically had had a nervous breakdown at
that point. But with his longtime collaborator Van Dyke Parks, he very
painstakingly reassembled, re-recorded "Smile" from scratch. And it's very
interesting to hear now because this is not--it's not, I should make clear,
retrieved, old, 35-year-old tracks. This is a newly recorded version of
"Smile." So Brian Wilson's voice is scratchier, deeper, more kind of damaged
in a way, but it's very interesting to hear him sing songs that we're very
familiar with, like the song I'd like to play, "Surf's Up."
(Soundbite of "Surf's Up")
Mr. BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) A diamond necklace plays the pawn. Hand in hand
some drummed along, oh. To a handsome man and baton. A blind class
aristocracy. Back through the opera glass you see. The pit and the pendulum
drawn. Columnated ruins domino. Canvas the town and brush the backdrop. Are
you sleeping? Hung velvet overtaken me.
GROSS: That's Brian Wilson from "Smile."
Ken, what about younger, newcomer kind of people on the fringe?
TUCKER: Yeah. There was a very wide range of people who didn't kind of fit
into any categories. There was this young woman named Nellie McKay who put
out a double album, which is kind of unusual for a new young artist these
days. And she says she's influenced by, you know, everything from The Beatles
to Doris Day songs. And at first, I found her terribly precious. She has
this--she wears her hair in a bob and affects these kind of '50s clothes, and
I thought she was terribly mannered. But then the more and more I listened to
these songs, I thought she was a very strong singer/songwriter, and it's
unusual for a major label like Columbia to get behind an act like that.
There's a sister duo called Tegan and Sara who put a really good album called
"So Jealous." Sort of the annoying commercial hook that they're sold by is
that they are identical twin sisters who also happen to be lesbians. A
dubious commercial hook to be sure, but the album "So Jealous" is really
terrific. And previously, they'd done primarily folk music, and they added a
lot more rock 'n' roll elements to this music, which made it a lot more
Another band that I really liked is a group called Fiery Furnances, which is
composed of a brother and sister, Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger, and they
put out this very difficult album in a certain sense called "Blueberry Boat."
A lot of the tracks were eight or 10 minutes long. Rolling Stone described
them as trying to rewrite "Finnegans Wake" for rock 'n' roll, which I thought
was rather stupid of Rolling Stone because the songs are very long and
leisurely. To me, they reminded me of the poetry of John Ashbury, a very kind
of imagery that's kind of fragmented, just making--on the verge of making
sense a lot of the time. But to me, it was the most poetic album of the year.
GROSS: Is there anybody you'd like to play for us from the new fringe?
TUCKER: Yeah. There's a Scottish band called Aberfeldy. There's a big hype
for anther Scottish band called Franz Ferdinand. And everybody who liked
Franz Ferdinand, I would say to them, `No, no, no. That's not the Scottish
band you should like; it's this other band called Aberfeldy.' So in the
interest of promoting their career more, I'd really like to play a song of
theirs called "Slow Me Down."
(Soundbite of "Slow Me Down")
ABERFELDY: (Singing) I'm an open book; you can take a look. It's not that I
haven't found slow my ...(unintelligible) down. Don't you slow me down. I
could be seeing stars. I could be behind bars. I could be in the ground. So
don't you slow me down. Don't ever slow me down.
I know the sky is blue, and I'll fall for you. I know the world is round;
don't ever slow me down. Don't slow me down, slow me down. Don't slow me
down, slow me down.
The way you smile at me...
GROSS: That's Aberfeldy, and with me is FRESH AIR rock critic Ken Tucker, and
we're reviewing the year in pop music.
And, Ken, I think this is the moment we've all been waiting for, the dramatic
and stirring reading of your 10 best CDs of the year.
TUCKER: Well, thank you. Let me preface it by saying this is probably the
last year I would ever compile a list of albums. I think that the music scene
has become so fragmented, that it's so much of an iPod culture, downloading of
specific songs, that I think in the future, I'll be thinking much more in
terms of the way a lot of people listen to their music, which is kind of
individual songs, moments, perhaps a song performed on television. So
let's--this adds a misty layer of nostalgia, I think, to the reading of the
list this year.
GROSS: When you just said songs performed on television, I think what you're
saying here, too, is that people are finding music differently than they used
TUCKER: They are. I mean, you know, it's like I'm not ashamed to say that I
watch "The O.C." every week and that people watch "The O.C.," listen to the
music that's played on that and then stay through the closing credits because
they tell you what songs, what albums were played in that episode of "The
O.C." So it's another form of marketing. And, you know, 10 years ago that
would have been seen as a complete sellout, and now bands--completely
respectable, credible indie bands like The Shins get a lot more air play, a
lot more notice than they ever would by, you know, agreeing to appear or be
played on a television show.
GROSS: Does that say something about the state of radio?
TUCKER: It does say a lot about how limiting radio is and how these bands
have to find any way possible to get their music out there, and listeners
GROSS: OK. So here's the moment...
GROSS: ...we've been waiting for.
TUCKER: It's almost going to be anti-climactic, isn't it?
My favorite album of the year was Eagles of Death Metals, "Peace, Love, Death
Number two was "Brian Wilson Presents Smile."
Number three was that band from Cincinnati I talked about called The Black
Keys and their album, "Rubber Factory."
Number four is Green Day's "American Idiot."
Number five is Nellie McKay's double album called "Get Away From Me."
Number six is a fairly recent release by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, a really
terrific, old-fashioned rock 'n' roll album called "Shake The Sheets."
They're from North Jersey.
Number seven is Ludacris, Bill O'Reilly's Bet Noir, and his album "Red Light
District." It's a really, really funny, bragging album, talks about, you know,
how many albums he's sold right in the first track. He's really funny.
Number eight is Tegan and Sara's album "So Jealous."
Number nine is that Scottish band I mentioned, Aberfeldy's album called "Young
And number 10 is this very eccentric, young artist named Jolie Holland, who
plays a piano and ukulele on a wonderful album called "Escondida." So that's
GROSS: OK. Well, thank you, Ken. And you should choose something for us to
go out with.
TUCKER: Yeah. I think I'd really like to go out on Jolie Holland and her
GROSS: All right. Well, happy holidays.
TUCKER: Same to you. Thank you.
GROSS: And thanks for being with us.
TUCKER: Thank you.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic.
(Soundbite of "Sascha")
Ms. JOLIE HOLLAND: (Singing) Tonight my heart is full of a sad song. My
lonesome lover has taken off. I'm wandering around on a cloud. Something
harder than ...(unintelligible). It's been a week, I think, since he rolled
in town, and it's been years that I've heard these stories about this fellah.
He's so brave and so alive. Down on this world of ours from the out to the
GROSS: Coming up, the first season of the HBO series "The Wire" is out on
DVD, and critic John Powers has a review. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: HBO's "The Wire"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The much-acclaimed TV show "The Wire just ended its third season. A new
five-DVD set of the first season is now out from HBO. Critic says John Powers
says the series reminds him of an older kind of story-telling.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Back in the 19th century, novels were published in serial form. It's said
that the books of Charles Dickens were so popular that throngs would wait at
the New York docks for the latest installment of "Bleak House" or some other
sprawling saga about the vast panorama of Victorian society. It's hard to
imagine any novel producing that kind of excitement in 21st century America,
but for the last three years friends of mine have been reacting like Dickens'
readers to HBO's Baltimore-based crime series "The Wire." They'd race home to
see it on Sunday nights, then spend Mondays telling me it's the best show on
TV. `You can't just watch one episode,' they always say. `You have to see a
I never got around to doing that until a couple of weeks ago when I finally
caught up with "The Wire's" first year on DVD. And you know what? I went
through all 13 hours as fast as I could pop the disks into my player. Thank
heavens I didn't have to wait at the docks.
The story begins with Baltimore homicide Detective Jimmy McNulty watching an
obviously guilty drug dealer named D'Angelo Barksdale be acquitted of murder.
The furious McNulty runs to a local judge, grumbling that the police are
ignoring the Barksdale clan's enormous drug operation in the housing projects.
And soon we're following an investigation by a racially mixed band of cops,
who are etched with the vividness of domia. There's the idealistic lesbian,
the tightly wound careerist lieutenant and the inept son-in-law of a
The criminals they're investigating are equally well-drawn, be it the
Barksdale gang's ruthless leaders, a righteous killer who lives by ripping off
drug dealers or D'Angelo Barksdale, who thinks the family business is hell but
just doesn't know how to escape.
For much of the series, the cops and the crooks move along parallel tracks,
but occasionally they intersect, as when McNulty and his partner, Bunk, bring
in D'Angelo to question him about a murder.
(Soundbite of "The Wire")
Unidentified Man #1: We've been in here a whole two hours telling you what's
true in the world, and you're going to sit there like nothing happened?
"Mr. D'ANGELO BARKSDALE": Where my lawyer at?
Unidentified Man #2: We called him. When we gets here, we'll let you know.
"Mr. BARKSDALE": I got nothing to say. I mean, I'm sorry for the man, but I
ain't got nothing to say.
Unidentified Man #2: You sorry? You sorry for him? You (censored) killed
"Mr. BARKSDALE": No.
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, you did. I mean, we don't think that you, you
know, shot him or anything, but if you weren't so busy lighting folks up in
high-rise lobbies, he ain't coming out of the elevator and seeing it happen.
Unidentified Man #1: He doesn't see anything, he doesn't testify. He doesn't
testify, those kids have still got a daddy to lean on.
"Mr. BARKSDALE": Well, why is he testifying?
Unidentified Man #1: How the (censored) should we know?
"Mr. BARKSDALE": Well, he ain't had to testify.
Unidentified Man #2: No, he didn't, but he did. And you still beat the
charge, didn't you?
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, but that wasn't enough, was it? It's not enough
to beat the murder. Now you gotta send a cold message to ...(unintelligible)
Unidentified Man #2: (Censored) working man. (Censored) his kids. That
(censored) don't count.
POWERS: "The Wire" was created by David Simon, a one-time crime reporter who
anchors the series in the often undramatic realities of police procedure and
routine crime. Where a normal cop show races along, it has to tie up
everything neatly in less than an hour, Simon's program has a scope that even
movie directors would envy. The series takes its sweet time, making room for
the exploration of character, be it the silliness of McNulty and Bunk's
horseplay or the superbly written scene where D'Angelo teaches two young
dealers to play chess, a bitter lesson to his troops that they're actually
pawns in the great game between the police and their own bosses.
Because it spans 13 whole episodes on a single investigation, "The Wire" does
something you almost never see. It captured the daily realities of the
workplace with its petty rivalries, bureaucratic frustrations and range of
social types. McNulty's surrounded by all kinds of officers: cops who are
drunks, cops who are clock-punchers, cops who are in-house politicians, even
cops who are crooks. And the drug trade is no different. It's a job, too.
There are dealers who are junkies, dealers who are clock-punchers, dealers who
are in-house politicians and dealers who, despite breaking the law, aren't
One reason people love those big, fat 19th century novels is that they offer a
vision of society that feels comprehensive. They bring together the high and
the low. No American program has come closer to doing this same thing than
"The Wire," which I've heard compared to Dickens and Thackeray, Balzac and
Zola. I doubt that Simon's show will be able to claim such a legacy; pop
culture isn't built to last. But it does offer an X-ray portrait of a whole
society, from powerful elected officials to scraggly drug addicts.
And as the first season progresses, we realize that both the legal society and
the illegal society, both McNulty and D'Angelo, are actually mirror images of
one another. The kingpins on both sides care about power, the pawns on both
sides are expendable and everyone is caught in a shadowland that's almost a
different universe than the reassuring one you find on "C.S.I.," where every
crime gets solved through the use of high-tech equipment. Here everyone's
working with the low-tech of human fallibility, in which good and evil look
mighty gray and a commissioner of police can have less conscience than a
GROSS: John Powers is media columnist for LA Weekly and film critic for
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) When you walk through the garden...
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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