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Ken Tucker Looks Back On 2017 In Music

No collection of songs this year cohered to form a better picture of our collective mood than Kendrick Lamar's album DAMN. The rapper talks about feeling put-upon and abandoned, besieged and misunderstood, loved and hated. He samples voices from the Fox News channel; on the cut called "LUST.," he has a line about waking up "hoping the election wasn't true." His distinctive delivery is characterized by a flurry of syllables enunciated with hammering force. No matter how many times I hear it, it's thrilling.

The song of the year? I think it has to be something overwhelmingly popular and clever and catchy — all of which describes Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," with its truculent vocal and its ticking time-bomb rhythm.

The rest of my top 10 music list is a mixture of albums and a book. I enjoyed the sonic experiments of rapper Vince Staples' album Big Fish Theory. I reveled in the grand pop statements of Lana Del Rey's Lust For Life and Kesha's Rainbow. I loved the country-music revisionism of Angaleena Presley's Wrangled and Margo Price's All American Made. I laughed at the rowdy rock 'n' roll of Low Cut Connie's Dirty Pictures (Part 1) and The Menzingers' After the Party. And I was mightily impressed by the honesty and wit of Loudon Wainwright III's autobiography Liner Notes.

This was a year that saw the deaths of some of music's most admired stars, including rock 'n' roll pioneers Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, country artists Mel Tillis and Don Williams, pop stars Glen Campbell and David Cassidy. Two of the most distinctive silenced voices belonged to Walter Becker from Steely Dan and Tom Petty.

The force of Tom Petty's death took a lot of people by surprise, including me. He was no revolutionary trail-blazer; his themes were reliable ones about heartache and despair; his Gainesville twang owed a lot to Bob Dylan and Roger McGuinn. But holy cow, did Petty ever rack up a thick pile of great hits. Listen to an album like 1979's Damn The Torpedoes, and even the songs that weren't released as singles sound like hits.

Torpedoes contains my favorite Tom Petty performance, on "Here Comes My Girl." I love the way it starts off with him talking, then yowling with strangled yearning, and then there's just full-throated crooning. For me, this 38-year-old song holds out a promise of desire and comfort that I needed to hear this year.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.
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