Ann Powers

NPR turns 50 this year, and we're marking it by looking back on some other things that happened in 1971. It was that year that songwriter John Prine released his debut album. Prine died in 2020.

Lil Nas X, 'Jolene'

Sep 21, 2021

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This had to happen.

The last weeks of this stifling August have offered a profound lesson about creativity, music history and the magic of being part of something larger than yourself. The deaths of Tom T.

NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us?

It's been a week full of heavy news from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to the COVID surges in the U.S. to the destruction in Haiti after a massive earthquake. We hope you're managing in whatever way works best for you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

I imagine Joni getting ready, again, to explain that masterpiece. She unwraps a pack of smokes.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

There are only a couple of weeks left in 2020 and a lot has happened. So, it's understandable if you maybe didn't hear all of the great music that came out – there was a lot of it. In this episode, World Cafe's Nashville correspondent and NPR pop critic Ann Powers is bringing you some of the artists from the Music City that you might have missed this year.

Diary Of A Fugue Year

Dec 16, 2020

The Highwomen's "Crowded Table," an exuberant anthem evoking both the progressive political spirit of 2020 and the longing for connection at the heart of this complicated year, won song of the year Tuesday as part of the 19th annual Americana Honors & Awards.

The prize was part of a three-category sweep by the genre-crossing supergroup, which includes Brandi Carlile (2019's artist of the year), Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. The four women also won duo/group of the year and album of the year for The Highwomen.

It's a busy time for music critics as they prepare for the annual tradition of identifying the year's best albums and songs in listicle form. World Cafe Nashville correspondent Ann Powers took a break from her NPR deliberatons to share one more roundup of new songs coming out of the Music City.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

In the first, anonymous year he lived in Nashville, Sturgill Simpson would head out from his ugly apartment to the Station Inn every Sunday night. The man who'd go on to define a new lane with his 2014 breakthrough Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and win a Grammy for his follow up, A Sailor's Guide to Earth, would sit within a circle of folding chairs – like an A.A. meeting, people might joke, but for those addicted to hot licks and tight harmonies – and play bluegrass.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

YouTube

Five minutes and 22 seconds into the striking video, above, that Tyler Childers posted to YouTube today – a spoken liner note that sets up the title track from his sur

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

YouTube

If anyone could take her career to the next level during lockdown, it's Billie Eilish.

Taylor Swift was supposed to spend this summer touring songs from Lover, the album she put out last August. Instead, like many of us, she wound up cooped up at home. The isolation seems to have sparked her creativity, leading her to write and record an entirely new record in collaboration with producers Jack Antonoff and The National's Aaron Dessner.

Here's the thing about breakups: Sometimes you have to burn down the house you thought was home, but at night you still need to find a place to sleep. This is true for those who leave a long marriage, or a toxic family, or a community that proves oppressive. Artists can experience this painful unsettling too, especially ones nurtured within scenes that present themselves as loving unbroken circles, with all the promised comforts and invisible strictures that word entails. The freedom can be exhilarating, the severing of ties necessary, even life-saving.

This week, Bob Dylan's first album of new music in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. But Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his "retirement" years.

In the liner notes to John Coltrane's 1964 album Live At Birdland, Amiri Baraka (then writing as Le Roi Jones) contemplated the gift the saxophonist and his band offered with this music inspired by the horrific deaths of four Black girls in a Birmingham church bombing inspired by white supremacist hatred. "Listen," Baraka wrote. "What we're given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin [Jones], rising in the background like something out of nature... a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds.

YouTube

When I think about the screen images that startled me into a new way of thinking, one always surfaces first.

"Say their names," the signs read in the streets of America. In 2020, one reckoning shares an unstable boundary with another as protesters masked against the coronavirus expose a different kind of deep debilitation: the racism that permeates American history and the present day, resulting in sudden deaths now recorded and shared on social media, but always present within history, from the arrival of enslaved Africans on the Virginia Coast in 1619 onward.

As technology evolves, so does protest. Awareness of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers could only inspire an international grassroots movement because a teenager, Darnella Frazier, decided to record his arrest using her phone and post it to social media. Activists are organizing marches and rallies on Twitter and Instagram, even as they warn participants to be careful of surveillance on those platforms.

Even in the best of times, many look to live music as a crucial resource — a place to turn for comfort, community and relief from anxiety — and can scarcely imagine their lives without it. For the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down venues around the country, and it's hard to picture when gathering in nightclubs or amphitheaters will be deemed safe again.

Little Richard died on Saturday, May 9, 2020 in Tullahoma, Tenn. at the age of 87. This essay was originally published as part of the book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, written by NPR Music's critic and correspondent Ann Powers and published by Dey Street Books in 2017.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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