NPR Music

Music features, reviews and "first listens" from NPR.  For WUNC's music programs,  Back Porch Music.

Recently, I found myself flirting with the clerk at a clothing store. Discovering his interest in the outdoors, I remarked that I'd been reading about a great hike outside L.A., one that promised some spectacular vistas, including a waterfall. Without missing a beat, he responded "Oh, I don't go chasing waterfalls."

In the 1980s, as hip-hop was budding in the streets of New York City, a teenage girl from the Queens projects emerged as one of the genre's first female stars. At 14, Lolita Shanté Gooden, better known as Roxanne Shante, was a fierce, freestyling rap prodigy.

There's an abundance of jubilation and glee in the strums, trills, double stops and drones from the Swedish instrumental band Väsen. The trio came to the Tiny Desk with just three instruments, but all together it was a 30-string sonic blast of 12-string guitar, viola and nyckelharpa (a fiddle with keys — think 15th century keytar).

The Thistle & Shamrock: Singing The Land

Mar 21, 2018

In this program, Fiona Ritchie guides you to some very special landscapes. We feature music from Karine Polwart's award-winning theatrical event "Wind Resistance," originally presented in association with the Edinburgh International Festival. We'll also hear excerpts from fiddler Duncan Chisholm's "Sandwood," named for the finest and least accessible beach in Scotland.

Growing up in the late 1950s and early '60s, Betty Cantor developed an early talent for tinkering. "I used to take things like radios, other little electronic devices if they didn't work, open them up, mess with them, put them back together and they worked," she remembers during a recent phone call. "I could fix watches that wouldn't work for anybody else." Her fascination with how things worked helped her breeze through the available math and science classes at her Martinez, Calif.

As Cornelius, Keigo Oyamada has stretched his vision across frenzied indie rock, lush '60s-style pop, psychedelic funk and glitched electronics, all deconstructed and reassembled like a neon cubist-pop sculpture. After a little more than two decades, no one can really imitate his complex cool.

There is a wonderful irony in a career retrospective of a living artist that becomes so popular it outlives its subject. In 2010 — long before David Bowie Is travelled to ten other locations around the world, before it landed in Brooklyn earlier this month — London's Victoria & Albert Museum was approached by the rock icon's management to create an exhibit out of the singer's archives. At the time, the idea that such a show would be taken seriously, much less prove to be a success, were hardly foregone conclusions.

Raul Midón lives in a world of sound — blind since birth, Midón's interpretation of his surroundings is borderless. He sings with the passion of the best classic soul singers, and his instrumental chops stand along side the most accomplished jazz musicians.

Normally backed by a band that straddles styles just as well as he does, for his turn behind Bob Boilen's desk Midón stripped it down to just voice and guitar, the musical equivalent of tightrope walking without a net.

We mark the 10th anniversary of the Swannanoa Gathering's Traditional Song Week with more music and interview highlights from Julee Glaub Weems, David Holt, and Jean Ritchie.

On Sept. 28, 1963, The Ronettes performed on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. In the video, the curtain parts to reveal the three singers dressed in identical long-sleeved pencil dresses, their hair partially swept up in the same half-bouffant that would become part of their signature style. They sway their hips and arms awkwardly to the opening bars of "Be My Baby," and then Ronnie Spector, standing on the left, opens her mouth.

An American treasure came to the Tiny Desk and even premiered a new song. John Prine is a truly legendary songwriter. For more than 45 years the 71-year-old artist has written some of the most powerful lyrics in the American music canon, including "Sam Stone," "Angel From Montgomery," "Hello In There" and countless others.

Every year for the past four years we've had a Tiny Desk Contest (there's one going on right now), and though only one band can officially win the competition, thousands enter. I inevitably end up discovering so much wonderful music while going through the submissions.

We mark the 10th anniversary of the Swannanoa Gathering's Traditional Song
Week with music and interview highlights from Cathie Ryan, Sheila Kay Adams
and Brian McNeill.

Long before he was the leader of rock octet Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff was a kid in rural Missouri sneaking around listening to rock and roll. Rateliff remembers finding a Led Zeppelin tape out in a country barn and secretly listening to it over and over in his headphones.

Even before The Beatles recorded their own version of "Twist and Shout," British fascination with American soul music has run deep. Vocalist and songwriter Alex Clare is yet another soul disciple from the UK, and his visit to Bob Boilen's desk is the perfect setting to bask in the power of his voice.

Grandmothers never truly die. Especially not when they bear as much influence on your life as Big K.R.I.T.'s grandmother has on his. The Mississippi spitter has kept her spirit alive through his music since his breakout mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which he released in 2010, the same year she died.

So it only makes sense that he would bring her with him for his Tiny Desk concert.

Out of nearly 700 performances at the Tiny Desk, this is simply the most exhilarating one I've experienced. The instrumentation is unusual, with pulsing bass sounds produced by a wonderful combination of cello, tuba and electronics. It's all rhythmically propelled by an astonishing drummer and Meredith pounding a pair of floor toms. And much of the repetitive melody is keyboard-and-guitar-driven that morphs and erupt with earth-shaking fervor.

Roy Ayers: Tiny Desk Concert

Mar 1, 2018

Roy Ayers arrived at his Tiny Desk performance beaming with positivity. The 77-year-old jazz-funk icon and vibraphonist sauntered through the office with a Cheshire grin on his face, sharing jokes with anyone within earshot. Accompanying him was a trio of brilliantly seasoned musicians — keyboardist Mark Adams, bassist Trevor Allen and drummer Christopher De Carmine. Later during the performance, pride washed across Ayers' face as his bandmates took the spotlight. (Be sure to watch as Adams woos not just the room but brightens Ayers' face during his solo.)

The Thistle & Shamrock: Songs Of The Times

Feb 28, 2018

Join Fiona Ritchie to hear what today's songwriters with Celtic roots have to contribute to our understanding of current concerns, locally and globally. This episodes features music from Karan Casey, Solas, Dick Gaughan, and Karine Polwart.

The lack of women engineers and producers in music is not news. Historically, the recording studio has rarely seen women outside of the reception area or, in the case of a performance venue, in the box office. And as a 2012 report in The Journal on the Art of Record Production shows, these same conversations about gender imbalance in music production have been happening over and over for decades — with little progress being made.

Lee Ann Womack occupies rare terrain in country music. Though massively popular singles led to commercial success and widespread recognition, these days, she's working on the fringes of the genre. Her 2017 record, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone, evokes the country music of Womack's Texas upbringing as the daughter of a country radio DJ, name-checking Hank Williams and covering George Jones.

Vagabon: Tiny Desk

Feb 23, 2018

Laetitia Tamko, the artist known as Vagabon, is a 25-year-old, Cameroon-born musician with a big, tenor voice just bursting with new musical ideas. I've seen her as a solo artist, with a band and, here at the Tiny Desk, both solo and with a bassist.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Clear Sounds

Feb 21, 2018

This week, Fiona Ritchie presents some great solo performances from both sides of the Atlantic. This includes the pure, clear acoustic sounds of Jean Redpath, Julee Glaub, and Maura O'Connell.

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August Greene: Tiny Desk Concert

Feb 21, 2018

August Greene, the collaborative effort of Common, Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, was born at the White House in 2016 during a special Tiny Desk concert. It was during that unprecedented performance that the then-untitled ensemble premiered the powerful "Letter to the Free," an original song for Ava DuVernay's Netflix documentary 13th that eventually won an Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.

Big Daddy Kane: Tiny Desk Concert

Feb 19, 2018

One of the greatest to ever bless the mic, Big Daddy Kane treated Tiny Desk to an office block party in the true essence of hip-hop. He performed a short set of classics, including "Smooth Operator," "Ain't No Half Steppin'," "Raw" and a bonus freestyle. Through his warm, engaging and devilishly self-effacing style, the pioneer used an interlude between songs to address the intergenerational divisiveness defining rap today and the importance of fans of all ages supporting whatever they like, while "focusing on what's positive and keeping that in the spotlight."

This week, from ThistleRadio's award-winning 24-hour music channel, we span the decades with classic, bedrock tracks of our playlist along with some of the newer artists helping to redefine the sound of today's Celtic-rooted music. Artists include Kris Drever, Dervish, and the Bothy Band. Enjoy.