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.

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History moves through all of our voices, in inflection, tone and vocabulary. Some people call this collective language "the spirit"; to others, it's "the voice of the people." Valerie June just calls it song: the ongoing record of human sorrow and delight that she shapes into tunes and verses that may start small, but open up to the centuries.

Amanda Shires has a way of pausing over a note and pulling it in a few directions. Some have called this a warble, others a catch. In "Harmless," a dive-bar torch song from her new fourth album, My Piece of Land, Shires employs this instrument of indeterminacy while describing the beginning of a risky relationship: "Yea-a-ah," she intones after each phrase about spilling a drink or admiring this stranger's thunder-colored eyes.

Artists are supposed to be unafraid. We want them to take those risks, symbolically and sometimes personally, that reasonable people would caution against: Defy physical limits. Risk offending others. Expose unmanageable emotions to the open air. Do these things, we say to our painters and writers and singers, so that we can imagine, through you, what it feels like.

The next time somebody asks what makes Lori McKenna's 10th album one of 2016's best releases — and people should, because it is — the answer involves a root-beer popsicle. McKenna uses that homely metaphor a few verses into "Humble & Kind," a litany in 3/4 time that Tim McGraw recently took to the top of the country charts. McKenna wrote the song for her kids; she has five, and the youngest is almost in high school, so some life advice seemed in order.

For every country star and insurgent new sensation, Nashville boasts a dozen musicians who've perfected their art over many years. Tomi Lunsford is one such exceptional, undersung talent. She hails from a prestigious family — her great-uncle was the revered folklorist and songwriter Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and her father, fiddler Jim Lunsford, played with the likes of Roy Acuff and Bob Wills. Tomi herself began singing professionally as a teen with Jim and her harmonizing sisters.

In this age of peer-policed hyperproductivity, the practice of pausing and thinking is fetishized but rarely truly supported. Reflection has become yet another goal achieved through an app: something to show off on our socials within an anxiously curated stream of fresh plans, ideas and accomplishments. This is true for musicians just as it is for mommy bloggers and tech entrepreneurs. Time spent outside the spotlight, it's assumed, isn't quiet time, but another occasion for overwork.

Breakups are heart-shattering, life-changing, momentously difficult, clinically depressing, spiritually enlightening, and many other things. They can also, at times, be tedious. Dodging vindictiveness, awkward silence and plain unavoidable pain becomes a consuming preoccupation. Good-party rage and bad-party guilt collide in breakfast nooks.

Revivalism in music often seems to be no more than a matter of style: a perfectly greased pompadour, a well-pressed rack of vintage dresses, some vintage equipment and the careful mimicry of a particular "hi-de-ho" or drawl. It's the rare living musician who does the extra work to comprehend the past she or he pursues in its entirety, from the flashiest trends of the time to the notes in the margins. Paul Burch is that extra-hard worker who also happens to be gifted with an easeful way of getting his messages across.

"I think songs can have different lives," said Rhiannon Giddens in the conversation that flowed throughout NPR Music's "Songs We Love: Americana Fest Edition" panel on September 16 at Nashville's historic RCA Victor Studio A. "Each song has its own way that it likes to be done, but it can be more than one way," the Carolina Chocolate Drops multi-instrumentalist and singer continued. "If you tap into it, you can feel it."

So much history is contained in the intertwined harmonies of The Fairfield Four and The McCrary Sisters. Together, these groups form a link to one of America's greatest singing traditions — that of the gospel quartet, which flourished at the center of sacred music in the early to mid-20th century and inspired early rock 'n' rollers from doo-wop groups to Elvis Presley.

Gala event tribute speeches are often so much fluff—in the right hands, however, they ascend to the level of the poetic. On Wednesday night in Nashville, Robyn Hitchcock's paean to his longtime friends and collaborators Gillian Welch and David Rawlings hit that high mark. Handing them a Lifetime Achievement prize at the Americana Honors and Awards, Hitchcock wove a tale that was also a dream history of American roots music itself. It was so good we decided to publish it. Do they give awards for awards show speeches? The man in the polka-dot shirt deserves one.

Like Brooklyn and Northeast Los Angeles, East Nashville is a bohemian stronghold with an army of newcomers threatening its foundation. I'm one of those newbies, and every day I marvel at the creativity and plain love shared by the musicians who live here. But I also understand that gentrification is pushing out both longtime residents and impoverished younger talents, and that a perfectly prepared smoked-beet salad served in a bistro by an indie-rock guitarist-turned-waiter with a waxed moustache is no substitute for the time and creative space that affordable living makes possible.

Nick Drake's music is catnip to a certain kind of artist. Melodically pristine and rhythmically complex in quiet ways, the small songbook of the late English singer-songwriter offers interpreters a chance to be enchanting without stretching much. Yet to make Drake's songs new is a challenge. His vocal style of lingering around a beat, while playing guitar parts that were never flashy but always dazzlingly complex, is possible to imitate but difficult to make truly personal.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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