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With her huge voice and an assist from talented trombonist Daniel Walter Eaton, Zola Jesus presented a curious combination at the Tiny Desk — a combination I hardly ever encounter. Having seen her mostly with a big and powerful band, I wondered if this configuration would work. But it was magic, with the trombone poignantly complementing her mellifluous voice and stark personal words.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Love Songs

Feb 18, 2015

We've heard a lot about traditional romantic love in the past few weeks. Now, hear of a bond with landscape, language and the natural world, all in the finest Celtic-rooted music.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Hear how two musicians, raised more than 4,000 miles apart, share a deep musical connection. Flutist and singer Nuala Kennedy is from the east coast of Ireland. Her husband, singer-songwriter A.J. Roach, was raised in southwestern Virginia. Kennedy grew up with Ulster ballads and tunes that were carried across the ocean to take root in the mountains and hollows of Roach's homeland. On this episode of The Thistle & Shamrock, the two chat with host Fiona Ritchie and share some music.

The beauty of the Tiny Desk lies, at least partially, in the limitations of size and technology. We rarely amplify voices, for example, so for a band like Until The Ribbon Breaks, the challenge becomes how to take a loud electronic sound down to a volume where singer Pete Lawrie-Winfield can be heard. In this case, the solution involved a spaghetti strainer, a paint bucket and an acoustic guitar.

We were all here before. Rising up out of the subway onto 125th Street, it strikes me that I should come uptown to Harlem more often. The Popeye's on 125th and St. Nicholas Avenue is still there, offering the same crispy bird parts and sodium-heavy buttermilk biscuits; it's still the same bustling, up-til-3-a.m. refuge it always was. Vendors still hawk street literature, pamphlets and incense sticks on fold-up tables that line the sidewalks. It could just as easily be 1995. That's when I was restless and unsettled.

When I first imagined Mucca Pazza at the Tiny Desk, I honestly had no idea how the Chicago band's 23 members would fit in — in the literal sense of the term. To load-test this performance, we actually gathered a gaggle of interns behind my desk and began to stack people on cabinets, step-stools and, of course, desks.

Sam Smith, the British singer whose debut album, In the Lonely Hour, was one of only two albums released in 2014 to go platinum, won four Grammys, including Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best New Artist.

The Thistle & Shamrock: Songs Of The Bard

Feb 7, 2015

Hear a variety of artists in the intoxicating thrall of the songs — timeless and thriving — of Robert Burns, Scotland's National Bard.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Music critics these days love to argue about "rockism," the unexamined prejudices we bring to our musical judgements, and "poptimism," an effort to celebrate commercial stuff that some think goes way too far. My book, Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music, aims to get us out of that endless back and forth by focusing on the key place songs become pop: radio, which, beginning on AM with Top 40 in the 1950s and then moving to FM in the 1970s, gave music its deepest connection to Americans. Radio made new tunes and styles familiar, perennial, memories.

The Grammy Awards, that moment when the music industry turns its collective eyes toward a single stage and pats itself on the back, will be presented on Sunday night. Musicians up for Album of the Year include Beck, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams and Beyoncé.

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