Ann Powers

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.

One of the nation's most notable music critics, Powers has been writing for The Record, NPR's blog about finding, making, buying, sharing and talking about music, since April 2011.

Powers served as chief pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times from 2006 until she joined NPR. Prior to the Los Angeles Times, she was senior critic at Blender and senior curator at Experience Music Project. From 1997 to 2001 Powers was a pop critic at The New York Times and before that worked as a senior editor at the Village Voice. Powers began her career working as an editor and columnist at San Francisco Weekly.

Her writing extends beyond blogs, magazines and newspapers. Powers co-wrote Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, with Amos, which was published in 2005. In 1999, Power's book Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America was published. She was the editor, with Evelyn McDonnell, of the 1995 book Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Rap, and Pop and the editor of Best Music Writing 2010.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University, Powers went on to receive a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of California.

In many classic stories, there comes a point where someone speaks from the corner and changes everything. A stranger reveals the secret that solves a mystery; a minor character finally unburdens herself, and her words reconfigure the plot. Marianne Faithfull's music comes from that place of shadow and revelation.

Right now, I'm sitting in a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio, eating a cheeseburger and listening to Texas country troubadour Wade Bowen's melancholy ballad about learning to make wherever you hang your hat your home. Like so many people trying to get and stay ahead, I travel for my work — not as much as the weathered but optimistic journeyman of "Long Enough To Be A Memory," but enough to relate to his sense of dislocation and his hope that maybe he'll finally stick in one place.

Making music in a band is always and experiment. The players throw different elements into the enzymatic mix, let it all bubble together, and come up with a new compound every time. Recording these interactions for something as self-promotional as a music video can feel intrusive, like freezing something volatile. But a creative team can have fun with this awkward encounter.

In April 2015, Duncan Sheik, a songwriter who has had hits on both pop radio and the Broadway stage, will release Legerdemain, his first album of original material since 2009's Whisper House and the first not connected to a theater piece since 2006's White Limousine. Sheik crafted the album in his Garrison, N.Y. studio, and he's sharing two songs from that album via NPR Music; you can listen and download both of them below.

The Nashville instrumental group Steelism stands out for its ability to blend vintage styles — steel-guitar jazz, surf rock, the cool vibe of 1960s movie soundtracks — in ways that don't feel dated. Steelism's playfulness, embodied in the easy dialogues between guitarists Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum, Jr., freshens up everything its touches.

In 1989, the producer Don Was approached Neil Diamond about making a record. "'I called [him] and said, 'Neil, I think you're a rock 'n' roll artist, but you lost your way, and I know how to make it right,' " Was told a reporter in 2013. The two went into the studio but only ended up with one song that has been released. Was had discovered that Diamond was anything but lost.

The last short story Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote is about being seriously ridiculous. In "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man," an intellectual prone to existentialist despair is saved from suicide when, in a vision, he discovers a parallel planet where humanity has never sinned. "It was like being in love with each other, but an all-embracing, universal feeling," he tells the reader. This contact with Eden reinvigorates him, but then, during a playful moment, he teaches the planet's innocents how to deceive each other — and this leads to a catastrophic, Biblical fall.

The temptation when confronting a serious problem is to either cry it out or laugh it off. This is true in country music, as in life. Even the greatest songs about heavy subjects either diffuse the tension with jokes or go entirely maudlin, providing catharsis without true clarity. Angaleena Presley, though, tackles the hard stuff head on.

Roots, Plugged In

Sep 24, 2014

When I put Jonah Tolchin's performance at Third Man Records on my schedule for Americana Fest, the annual gathering of roots-minded musicians that took over Nashville last week, I thought I was going to see a young artist playing old-timey music. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old New Jerseyite released an album, Clover Lane, that gently ranges from countryish ballads to uptempo numbers with a country blues feel.

Leonard Cohen is not a man for manifestos. Peripatetic bohemian, Montreal native, Zen meditator, diaspora Jew: Rock's almost-octogenarian philosopher emeritus inhabits identities that are multiple, contested, and resistant to orthodoxy. He is, however, willing to lay some things on the line. "I'm slowing down the tune, I never liked it fast," he intones over a burlesque blues line in the first track on his 13th studio album, Popular Problems. "You want to get there soon; I want to get there last."

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once famously evoked the drift of time through the image of old men gazing at their own watery reflections. "Everything alters, and one by one we drop away," Yeats' elders say as they themselves sit solidly at the shore.

To hear Ann Powers talk with NPR's Audie Cornish about some of the songs that might define the troubling summer of 2014, click the audio link on this page.

It's easy to feel the romance in the musical relationship between Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst.

"What does the story hold?" Imogen Heap sings tenderly and slightly quizzically in "Propeller Seeds," the closing track on her fourth solo album, Sparks. The English singer, songwriter and tech pioneer has taken three years to shape 14 songs that answer her question in utterly distinctive ways.

As a songwriter, Sinead O'Connor connects her own life story to forces both historical and cosmic. Her 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, included songs that challenged Ireland's favorite folk tales and tackled the legacy of Irish poet William Butler Yeats next to songs expressing post-adolescent lust and hesitancy about the singer's impending fame.

East Nashville Rocks

Jul 29, 2014

How do you know you are in East Nashville? Follow the beards, a current joker might say. If you do, you'll find yourself in an area tucked in between Nashville's neat downtown and the city's eastern edge, separated from each by the twisting Cumberland River. To the west, tourists flock to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Ryman Auditorium — the "Mother Church of Country Music." The Opryland complex — the venerable stage and radio show's comfortably suburban home since 1974 — is to the east, where the city sprawls into malls, hotels and tourists attractions.

It's starting to seem like even the bros are tired of bro country. The truck-loving Florida Georgia Line has switched up its game with the chart- dominant "Dirt," a sensitive ballad about marriage and farming.

"Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone," the great travel writer Mary Morris once wrote. "Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream." She's describing a necessary ruthlessness: Women are so often defined by their attachments (family, romance, even the fetishes of style) that becoming light enough to move often requires behavior others might read as cruel or, at best, distanced.

The rhetorical essence of punk is the decision to say what others believe should not be said. It points out the "no" lurking within or near every "yes." It demands an ongoing reckoning with true outsiders, and with what remains wrong in society despite everyone's best efforts, simply because people and the structures they make are flawed.

He'll Be There For You

Jun 26, 2014

I recently ran into Jim Lauderdale at a party in Nashville, and I couldn't tell if his shirt was made of silk or cotton. Covered in fiery little dragons that seemed to flit around inside its piped seams, it was a beauty. Lauderdale told me it was made of breathable material and that it came from London. Its cheerfully theatrical boldness exemplified the style of the Grand Ole Opry, too, with a cosmopolitan and slightly ironic twist.

American music festivals used to be mostly a summer thing, but in many ways they now frame the concert experience all year round. In these temporary hot spots for pleasure and cultural conversation, new artists emerge as sensations and established ones do special things with fans. Culture watchers note fashion trends and predict whose careers will rise and fall by observing what emerges from festivals' impromptu communities.

When Willie Nelson was a young hustler selling songs to Patsy Cline's people, he probably never thought he'd become the crowd-anointed sage of country music. But that's what happened as the Redheaded Stranger went gray, turned smoking weed into a brand and a virtue, and produced a discography that added up to its own American Songbook.

Pop stars are the ideal companions of their fans' daydreams, speaking their most romantic hopes and defiant declarations through the songs on the Top 40. Miranda Lambert, however, is the kind of friend who's not going to take anybody's bull. As country's most lauded million-selling artist, beloved by everyday listeners and critics alike, Lambert has crafted a body of work grounded in the realism of muscle, flesh and heart.

When the spirit of Nirvana surfaces in a song, the artist paying tribute almost always shares style points with that treasured band. The hair is shaggy, the clothes a little ragged; the lineage unfolds, relatively neatly, from punk to the present.

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