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A music critic revisits 2 artists he overlooked in 2023: King Tuff and Danny Brown

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has been listening to some of the music he most enjoyed reviewing this past year, as well as catching up on some music that inevitably fell through the cracks. He's narrowed down his best overlooked music to the work of two artists - rocker King Tuff and hip-hop's Danny Brown. Let's start with King Tuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEBBLES IN A STREAM")

KING TUFF: (Singing) Pebbles in a stream, diamonds in the fog. I drank you up like water, crystal clear. And pebbles in a stream, you held me in your arms. You made all of demons disappear.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: As we close out the year, I did what I always do. I relistened to some of my favorites from the past 12 months and poked around to see whether there was something I'd overlooked. Given the ceaseless torrent of music that's released these days, overlooking worthy artists is inevitable. And so while this very pleasant labor confirmed that albums I've reviewed here over the past 12 months do indeed hold up as among the year's best - I'm thinking of you, Lana Del Rey, Allison Russell and Caroline Polachek - I uncovered at least two significant misses I made. The first would be Kyle Thomas, the artist who goes by the name King Tuff, and his album "Smalltown Stardust."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BANDITS OF BLUE SKY")

KING TUFF: (Singing) Have you heard the news? There's bandits on the loose. They sneak into your psyche and drink up all your juice. And no one knows the whereabouts of Red Juice and his gang. It was Wednesday when they busted out, and Thursday came the rain. Is there anybody there? Is anybody listening? Does anybody care that the atmosphere appears to be missing? It must be the bandits of the blue sky, the bandits of the blue sky.

TUCKER: Kyle Thomas is, as he sings on one of the songs on this album, from Brattleboro, Vt., and now based in Los Angeles. He's been a member of Ty Segall's loud, obstreperous band, and indeed, Thomas' previous King Tuff albums have been heavy with headbanging guitars. For "Smalltown Stardust," however, he tried something different - filling out a collection of pretty, sometimes gorgeous melodies with the sounds of violins, cellos, keyboards and multitracked harmonies. Listen to this lovely tune called "Tell Me," which sounds like the best Fleetwood Mac song Lindsey Buckingham never wrote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME")

KING TUFF: (Singing) Tell me what you want to do. We'll be talking all night through. I don't want to spend another night alone. Only you and me can make it right 'cause I can't keep my love from you. No, I can't keep my love from you.

TUCKER: "Smalltown Stardust" is a vibrant example of one of my favorite kinds of pop music - the sound of someone who seems to be sitting alone in a room late at night, mulling over how it all went wrong, indulging in the kind of honest self-pity that, at its best, becomes a universal comfort. I love that sound when it came from Harry Nilsson or the Raspberries or Matthew Sweet, and I love it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS FIND ME")

KING TUFF: (Singing) When I close my eyes, I'm going home, lonely sidewalks where I used to roam. I'm a loser, lost in my headphones, back when all my dreams were silver and gold. Sitting under the falling years, wondering where I'll go. I'll be where the where where the rivers meet, looking for answers that I'll never know. That's where you'll always find me.

TUCKER: There's one other song I want to play for you, and it's from Danny Brown. This hip-hop writer and performer released two excellent albums this year - a solo project called "Quaranta" and a team-up with the rapper producer JPEGMafia. Danny Brown writes tightly rhymed, rigorous verses that he recites most often in a high-pitched, yammering voice. His subjects range from being raised poor in Detroit to articulating special disapproval of fentanyl and Elon Musk. The song I've chosen is called "Jenn's Terrific Vacation." Say that title fast and it comes close to the word gentrification, which is the subject of Danny Brown's witty, withering scorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JENN'S TERRIFIC VACATION")

DANNY BROWN: (Rapping) Who's that peeping in my window? I don't really know what they here for. On the corner just with the Starbucks, I was just looking for a come up. Right there used to be a crack house. Now it's an organic garden. Tell me what to do when the block gets slow and the money get low, but the rent rise up. White folks popping out the blue. They done torn that down and made that to a Whole Foods. Landlords looking for a payday. Now it's rental scooters where we used to sling yay. What you gon' do? When they move in, move in, move in, you move on out. Where you gon' go? When they move in, move in, move in, you move on out. What you gon' do? When they move in, move in, move in, you move on out. Where you gon' go?

TUCKER: Both King Tuff's "Smalltown Stardust" and the Danny Brown-JPEGMAFIA collaboration would be on my year-end top 10, and I'm glad I was able to slide these artists into one of my reviews before the conclusion of 2023.

(SOUNDBITE OF KING TUFF SONG, "ROCK RIVER")

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. His end-of-the-year piece can be found at our website, freshair.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK RIVER")

KING TUFF: (Singing) Do you remember the places we used to go when life was easy and the days were slow? Through the woods and take off our clothes. Jump in the water and never grow old. And I left my heart on the rock river. I left my...

MOSLEY: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we listen to another of our favorite interviews of the year - Black Thought, aka Tariq Trotter, the lead MC for The Roots and member of the house band for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." In his new memoir, Trotter shares how a series of tragedies, including accidentally burning down his family's home at 6, have served as a catalyst for creating the sound of the pioneering rap group. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA'S "HABANA SIN SABANAS")

MOSLEY: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA'S "HABANA SIN SABANAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.