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.

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.

Two stretched concepts made the rock 'n' roll coming out of Sun Studios in the 1950s unlike other music of its kind: time and space. In a shabby little room near downtown Memphis, Sam Phillips gave the men and kids he recorded all the room in the world. "Spontaneity" was Phillips' mantra, which was particularly potent for the youngest Sun cats.

For any young artist, an important leap happens when influences are absorbed and the act of mining the past transforms into something personal. That's what happens on All These Dreams, the second album from the singer-songwriter Andrew Combs, to be released in the U.S. in early March.

In the 1970s, when Diana Krall was growing up, children and young adolescents regularly encountered very adult music on Top 40 radio. These songs were different from the sexually explicit playground rhymes so common in mainstream music today.

What the Icelandic art star Bjork has accomplished at the intersection of pop and the avant-garde cannot be summed up in one detail, but one thing to focus on is the way she sings the word "emotional." Climbing it like one of the cliffs she often evokes in her pastoral lyrics, she lets it open up like a vista on its central, circulatory "o." The word becomes a Valkyrie's cry, a statement of purpose both sacred and humanly thrilling.

When Daisy Durham tells the skirt-chaser in her path to "Think about where you put that hand" in this tough-spirited, joyfully punchy musical kiss-off, she has a girl gang's worth of rock 'n' roll predecessors to back her up. Daisy's on-the-corner vocals, doubled by her sister Kitty, recall outer-borough demolition dolls like the Shangri-La's, the Bobbettes and the Angels.

2014 was a divisive time in popular music, with no single album or song seeming to capture the year's mood and no trend pointing clearly toward the future. But most music lovers could agree on one thing: Beyoncé was flawless. The 33-year-old powerhouse set every standard by which pop music and celebrity are judged.

When Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff wrote the song "The Body Electric," she knew it would make its way into the world, and hoped its effects would be palpable. Horrified by the rapes that have made tragic news from India to America's college campuses, the singer-songwriter noticed that her own people — music makers and music lovers — would regularly sing along with choruses about killing women, comfortably accepting gender-based violence as part of the ballad tradition.

In the history of American popular music, gospel is the great conveyor. People could hear it everywhere as the 20th century grew from infancy to adolescence: in churches, of course, but also on street corners, sung by wanderers whose guitar work and moaning vocals arose in dialogue with the blues; in factories and mines, where harmonizing quartets provided balm to frustrated workers; on the radio, where preachers and singers performed live to thousands of listeners; and through the new medium of recordings, which turned regional styles into national trends.

In the new, comprehensive boxed set Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection, to be released in Feb. 24, 2015, the Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place reminds readers of the huge historical chunk of American music that the legendary singer and songwriter carried forward via his 12-string Stella guitar. "Lead Belly is often spoken of as the 'discovery' of folklorists, but in many ways he was a walking and singing collector of American folk songs in his own right," Place writes.

Nora Jane Struthers is guided by fire. Coming up within the tradition-minded bluegrass world, she spent her youth in a family band with her father, a good daughter learning tradition. But since she's been leading her own band, the Party Line, Struthers has poured more and more emotion into her songwriting, coming up with some of the most quietly powerful narratives within the new wave of Americana artists.

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.

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