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.

Where do music historians go to find the sounds that shape the stories they tell? There are some obvious places, like the Library of Congress, whose National Jukebox offers more than ten thousand songs from the dawn of the modern age, or the Internet Archive, which overwhelms with its vast array of material and is especially rich for live recordings.

Digital Underground

Jun 3, 2015

The music sharing platform imeem thrived from 2004 until its shuttering in 2009 as a safe haven in the wilds of the semi-legal Internet. It was Napster without the piracy, a legal space for music makers and fans to share bedroom composition, videos of their latest dance moves, and the latest streamed — not downloaded — hits.

Love your old uncles while you have them. Mine used to hang around near the drinks table at family gatherings, comparing the weird bumps growing on their ears, sharing jokes they'd learned in the Army, and blowing the kids away with stories culled from decades' worth of interesting exploits. Most have gone to the next beyond by now, but I hold my uncles' devil-may-care spirit close to my heart. People have a lot to learn from those among them who've lived long enough to not worry about any particular outcome.

Rickie Lee Jones needs no introduction. Seriously. The singer-songwriter is so elementally articulate, so gifted at grasping both the rawest and the most complicatedly cooked emotions in her compositions, that critical framing best comes after the experience of listening to her.

The nominees for the 2015 Americana Honors and Awards were announced today at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. This year's slate shows how the definition of Americana is gently expanding to include more generationally, racially and stylistically diverse stars, while remaining grounded in its country-leaning, singer-songwriter-dominated definition of roots music.

In a sly way, Prince has always been a political artist. Like Marcel Duchamp upending the art world with his readymades, he stormed the pop scene courting controversy, but always with a wink.

It's tempting to mythologize Buffy Sainte-Marie — to call her a folk-music mother of dragons, or at least a shaman calling up lost spirits in her music. It's easy, after all, to exoticize individualistic women, especially women of color; doing so can even feel like offering a compliment. But on Power In The Blood, her first studio album since 2008, the 74-year-old firebrand defies categorization, as she has throughout a half-century of recording.

Even the most seemingly organic contemporary country albums — the ones by often-awarded "authentic" artists like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church — can sometimes show evidence of a checklist.

"Confessional" is a term often tossed around in discussions of singer-songwriters, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. In a recent interview, Mackenzie Scott, who makes music under the name Torres, called it "a four-letter word," common and pejorative, and overapplied to women in particular.

In the six years I've lived in the region, I've developed a mantra: Southern freaks are the best freaks. For me, the word "freak" can be both positive and downright spiritual. It describes serious individualists who are tolerant of others whose own paths may diverge from their own; people whose ways of thinking connect to form an antidote to the deep conventionality that often surrounds them.

When Dwight Yoakam was making his first demos in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, a producer told him that his sound was "so hillbilly, they're going to call it rock 'n' roll." He was pointing to both the rawness in the Kentucky native's sound and its wicked precision, grounded in the great virtuoso art of bluegrass; and the depth of lyrics balancing the plainspokenness of Ohio Valley people who raised him and their eloquence, born of Bible reading and family-transmitted ballads and tales. "I've done a lot of miles on hillbilly highways.

Walk America's motor-mown playing fields on a Sunday afternoon, past baseball diamonds that look like half-hewn crop circles and running tracks cut in dirt or clay. See the swarms of children neatening themselves into game formations, each one trying to tamp down nervous energy and make her talent behave. Skinny legs protrude from nylon shorts quickly pulled on after the church clothes come off. Mothers sit and knit on the sidelines in collapsible chairs. Fathers stand, ready to go to the snack bar or sneak a cooler beer; ready to yell. This is fun?

Sometimes the simplest declarations echo most forcefully through time. Repeated, growing and shifting to fit different contexts, phrases like I am somebody or give peace a chance or fight the power define and support the core experience of being human. So much can be communicated in just three or four words: self-respect; the connection between individual freedom and communal well-being; the determination to survive even in hard times; undying hope.

On the cover of its soon-to-be released Bloodshot Records debut album, the rock and roll marauders in Banditos are relaxing on an American flag. The huge banner makes up the floor and walls of a makeshift living room, where the group lounges in voluminous hair, hats and, on drummer Randy Wade, a motorcycle helmet. It looks like Banditos is waiting backstage at the club in at the end of the roots-rock universe.

Sympathy For The Devils

Feb 28, 2015

It's been five years since Kanye West raised his glass to "the a--holes" in the song "Runaway," a poetic taxonomy of bad behavior that formed the emotional center of his masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It's a sad song about romantic failure, but also a strong statement connecting West to popular music's longstanding practice of being dangerously outrageous.

It ain't easy being genteel. Refinement goes against the grain of both rock 'n' roll and Top 40 pop: The former's deliberately confrontational history and the latter's need to hook the masses make it hard to cultivate a sense of balance. Indie-rock fans tend to prefer a rough edge or a weird weft in their songs, in part to prove that the makers aren't capitulating to someone else's standards. Even singer-songwriters, the designated introverts of the music world, spin dramatic, even gothic tales when they want to hush a room.

In his rockabilly history Go Cat Go!, ethnomusicologist Craig Morrison describes the typical cradle of rock 'n' roll: a community hall reconfigured to serve as a nightclub for a night. "There might be Christmas lights strung across the back of the stage, tables and chairs around the perimeter of the room, food available for purchase, and maybe booze," Morrison writes. A jittery, ambitious band plays as loudly as possible, in order to be heard over the din of all the flirting, fighting and dancing.

"There was just nobody doing it," 25-year-old Fort Worth wonder Leon Bridges recently told a hometown reporter of his decision to pursue the sound of 1960 in his rhythm and blues. It seems like a strange comment, especially when you hear "Coming Home," one of two songs that have propelled the former college dance major from coffeehouses to a major-label record deal in less than six months.

What does it take for a work of art to become an intervention? In music, any reinterpretation alters the original, if only because different fingerprints touch it. But certain lineages — folk music, for example — are built on the bones of those retellings. Whoever owns a song for a period of time connects it to her lived experience and the world in which she lives, and it changes. It might also change the world, or a small part of it.