Stephen Thompson

Luluc writes songs for late-night drives and uneventful mornings — stuff to slow the blood and the world outside. Bred in Australia but partly based in Brooklyn, Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett traffic in gentle, disarming simplicity, rarely allowing their music to speed up past a gentle lope. But for all their consistency of tone — and quality — Passerby's 10 songs never congeal into a blur or feel like a slog. Like the duo's labelmates in Low, Luluc uses calm as a medium unto itself.

The bluegrass-based Minnesota folk-rock band Trampled By Turtles knows how to play at extreme speeds, to the point where its careening compositions can seem downright unhinged. But its last two records, 2012's Stars and Satellites and the new Wild Animals, mostly move at a deliberate, even graceful pace.

Old Crow Medicine Show knows how to attract attention: The Virginia band's big, brash shows are carried off with rollicking energy and a carnival barker's showmanship.

Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg first made their names with feather-light chamber-folk confections that echoed the soaring sweetness of Fleet Foxes. A cover of that band's "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" even helped launch the then-teenagers to YouTube fame back in 2008. But in 2014, styles have changed and so have the Söderbergs: First Aid Kit's major-label debut, Stay Gold, moves well beyond the portentous prettiness of the pair's 2012 breakthrough, The Lion's Roar.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the flyer for a maid service that disappeared into a massive pile of papers is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when to deviate from traditional wedding-reception music.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At NPR Music, they're wrapping up the year the best way they know how, with their hotly contested list of their 50 favorite albums of 2013. Now, all this week, we'll get a peak of that list from our in-house experts, including NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson, whose beat is the ever amorphous indie pop, which - Stephen, what exactly is that these days?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I have absolutely no idea. It used to mean accessible but unpopular.

CORNISH: OK. So...

(LAUGHTER)

Bluegrass' most beloved pros often play well into their 80s and 90s, so it would surprise no one if our children's children's children turn up at a Sarah Jarosz concert 70 years from now. The singer and multi-instrumentalist first surfaced as an 18-year-old wunderkind with the release of 2009's Song Up In Her Head, which generated the first of what will likely be many Grammy nominations; now a grizzled 22, she's out performing songs from her fine new third album, Build Me Up From Bones.

Daughter first popped up on our radar when we heard the London band's song "Landfill" while preparing for SXSW early last year: Achingly pretty and melancholy, the track builds to an absolute gut-punch of a line — "I want you so much, but I hate your guts" — that conjures a pitch-perfect mix of gloom, desire and hostility.

Shovels & Rope's presence in the NPR Music offices attracted plenty of interest; many in attendance had long since fallen in love with the husband-and-wife duo's mix of rowdy folk-rock and rootsy balladeering.

Sarah Jarosz was still in high school when she signed her record deal, and she released her debut album (2009's Song Up In Her Head) shortly thereafter, but the versatile bluegrass star seemed to emerge fully formed. For one thing, the 22-year-old keeps her music sounding warmly pretty — and rooted in accessibly poppy folk — rather than focusing solely on her Grammy-nominated instrumental chops.

It hasn't even been 11 full months since The Avett Brothers released The Carpenter, the North Carolina band's most recent collection of poignant and infectious, bluegrass-inflected folk-rock.

The Newport Folk Festival understands the value of a good palate-cleanser — not to mention the way folk and gospel's roots intertwine — so this year's lineup taps the rich vein of talent at Boston's Berklee College of Music to bring fans the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir.

Hear the group perform as part of the 2013 Newport Folk Festival, recorded live on Sunday, July 28 in Newport, R.I.

Set List

  • "Strange Fruit"
  • "Work Song / It Is Well With My Soul"
  • "I'll Never Turn Back To More"

Iris DeMent is as credible as folksingers come: The 52-year-old singer-songwriter grew up singing traditional gospel and country music alongside 14 siblings in rural Arkansas. Once endorsed as "the best singer I ever heard" by no greater an authority than Merle Haggard, DeMent seems to emerge from another era entirely.

A young, Niger-born Tuareg guitarist inspired by the wizardry of Saharan rock bands like Tinariwen, Omar Moctar (a.k.a. Bombino) has helped make African music more relatable to U.S. fans, thanks to both his own instrumental gifts and to collaborators like The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced Bombino's new album, Nomad.

Tift Merritt was first known as a decorated country singer — her 2004 album Tambourine was even nominated for a Best Country Album Grammy — but the North Carolina native has spent the years since wandering down far-flung side roads. Merritt keeps finding ways to place literal and figurative distance between herself and Nashville: She's lived in New York City and France, while exploring the sounds of folk, cosmopolitan pop and even classical music.

When Colin Meloy put The Decemberists on long-term hiatus to focus on other projects — including his own set at this year's Newport Folk Festival — the remaining members needed their own fresh musical outlet.

Dana Falconberry's songs are gentle, almost invariably delicate, sometimes mysterious and frequently feather-light. But her music's sweet, intricate softness never stands in for strength: This is a confident songwriter, whether she's ambling through six- and seven-minute epics ("Leelanau," "Dolomite") or chirping sweetly in the bouncy "Crooked River."

Rising Brooklyn folk-pop band The Lone Bellow infuses its songs with charm, radiant hooks and intense emotions. Formed as a creative outlet for singer Zach Williams as his wife recovered from an accident that nearly paralyzed her, The Lone Bellow performs with a sense of necessity; given the circumstances, it's no surprise that the group so often reflects on redemption in memorable ways.

Justin Townes Earle has marinated in outlaw country music his whole life: The son of Steve Earle, named for the legendary Townes Van Zandt, was born to be an iconoclast.

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent have spent the last decade or so singing sweetly, rowdily anthemic folk-country music together, most recently under the name Shovels & Rope. But the South Carolina husband-and-wife duo has only recently begun to take off on a national scale, thanks to a string of fantastically stirring live performances and a fi

The New Orleans band Hurray for the Riff Raff exists as a vehicle for the powerhouse songs of singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra, whose gigantic voice conveys the grit of bluesy soul while still fitting within the realms of rootsy folk and country. The group just followed its dynamite 2012 album Look Out Mama with a Kickstarter-funded collection of covers (and two originals) called My Dearest Darkest Neighbor.

The Newport Folk Festival's history is dotted with historic moments involving musical icons — Bob Dylan plugging in jumps immediately to mind. But, while organizers still take care to stack each festival with huge names and star veterans, the margins are smartly and lovingly curated, too. The 2013 Newport Folk Festival is no different, with an impressive slate of boundary-pushers and genre-eschewers. Here are five of the newest and most promising faces, with a downloadable song from each.

In the years since she first surfaced as a suitably rustic duet partner for Will Oldham — the two Kentuckians released an EP together back in 2010 — Cheyenne Mize has broadened and deepened her sound, injecting it with slinkiness and sparkle. Her new album Among the Grey continues that evolution, bringing out the lushness in songs that can shimmer prettily or punch with the force of a PJ Harvey.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the flyers from reputable debt-consolidation companies is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a vexing piece of concert-going etiquette.

A playful, electronics-infused Mexican rock band, Café Tacvba found itself in an unusual spot on the Stubb's stage at SXSW on March 13: namely, bookended by Nick Cave and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, both of whom roll around seductively in far seedier corners of rock 'n' roll. Singing in Spanish to a largely English-language crowd, singer Rubén Albarrán had to get his points across through giddiness-induced goodwill, not to mention the live-wire showmanship of a rock star with a 20-year pedigree.

Blues music is supposed to be cathartic — a way to process and package pain in ways that make it palatable; to take our hurt and ache, set it outside ourselves, give it a tune and rhythm that makes it tangible and real yet somehow less terrifying.

Listen to Stephen Thompson's conversation with Audie Cornish on All Things Considered by clicking the audio link.


The South by Southwest music festival kicked off Tuesday with the first of five straight nights of music overload: The clubs, makeshift music venues and front porches of Austin, Texas, were overrun with little-known discoveries-in-waiting and big names alike, as well as tens of thousands of fans who have flocked to the city in search of epiphanies.

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