Stephen Thompson

Far removed from his days as a white-knuckled teenage prodigy in Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has settled into his 30s as a wise and wizened elder statesman. He's come to channel his youthful intensity into real showmanship, especially onstage, while continuing to mine powerful emotions and a sort of fearless poignancy in his songwriting.

The Newport Folk Festival sells out months before its lineup is announced, but fans aren't entirely in the dark: Most know there's at least a 50 percent chance that the lineup will include the countrified California roots-rock band Dawes. Led by brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, Dawes is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser, both on stage and on albums like last year's Stories Don't End.

The Sunday lineup of 2014's Newport Folk Festival will take thousands of fans to church, as it opens with the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir and closes with the gospel and R&B titan Mavis Staples.

In the past, the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir has been employed as a sort of Newport Folk Festival palate-cleanser: a way to kick off the day with something kind, approachable, reverent and rooted in many folk traditions. This year, with Mavis Staples on top of the bill, the group, which opens the proceedings on Sunday, functioned as both and a theme-setter.

John McCauley's ragged roots-rock band Deer Tick has become a Newport Folk Festival staple, along with McCauley's frequent collaborators in Dawes and Delta Spirit.

Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins and Chris Thile started out as child prodigies, then built their band into a Grammy-winning commercial force. At the height of their success, though, the three decided to break up and pursue other projects — albeit temporarily, as the title of 2007's "Farewell (For Now) Tour" suggested.

Equal parts rowdy and loving, the husband-and-wife South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope radiates knockabout charm. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are equally adept at crooning moonily while locking eyes and tearing through blistering folk-rock anthems without seeming to take a breath. Hearst and Trent often swap instruments, giving their sets a freewheeling, unpredictable quality.

You can bundle it up in MP3s and send it zinging through the ether, but Pokey LaFarge's music still seems as though it has emerged from the dustiest 78 at the thrift shop. LaFarge is a man out of time and a true wanderer, with the vintage clothing to match, but he never seems like a mere novelty act: His songs are too sturdy, with too much infectiously zippy energy, to feel anything but authentic.

Aoife O'Donovan got her start in a pair of folk-leaning groups, Sometymes Why and Crooked Still, the latter of which became one of the country's top modern string bands.

Cinematic sweep is hardwired into Band of Horses' sound: Ben Bridwell's voice always seems to be echoing through some canyon or other, whether the guitars are chiming to the rafters or drifting along drowsily. The group's most recent records, Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock, have tended toward the latter half of that equation, but Band of Horses remains versatile in tone, especially onstage.

Jenny Lewis' voice has helped provide a soundtrack to the last 15 years, but it's not part of one specific sound: She's sung heartsick ballads and spiky rock (in Rilo Kiley), summery surf-pop (in Jenny and Johnny), winsome electro-pop (in

A thumbnail description of The Devil Makes Three — "acoustic string-band music with no drummer" — makes its music seem old-fashioned, even quaint. But the California trio plays with boozy aggression and unhinged intensity. If there were a Newport Punk Festival (and, really, why shouldn't there be?), The Devil Makes Three wouldn't be out of place in its lineup, amplification be damned.

There's ambition rooted in the pursuit of personal glory, and then there's creative ambition, rooted in a desire to do what hasn't already been done. Anais Mitchell is a folksinger with a kind, approachable voice.

From its legendary beachfront locale to its celebrations of folk music's past, the Newport Folk Festival draws on more than half a century of celebrated traditions. But it's also an event in which folk's boundaries are tested: This is, after all, where Bob Dylan famously plugged in an electric guitar 49 years ago, in the process enraging the purists in the crowd.

The Newport Folk Festival has been around for more than half a century now — this is its 55th year, to be exact — and the event now routinely sells out months before its lineup is even announced. And why shouldn't it?

For 23-year-old singer-guitarist Lydia Loveless, gritty, countrified blues-rock is a palette broad enough to include literary drama — complete with fatalistic references to the doomed French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud — and a plainspoken plea for oral sex.

Once you're able to see this three-song set by the band Johnnyswim, NPR Music will have published exactly 350 Tiny Desk Concerts — so we've developed a pretty good sense of when a set will stick in our memories for a while. We intuited, for example, that Adele was about to become a dominant force shortly after she breezed into our offices.

In pop-music circles, Suzanne Vega is known almost entirely for two songs from the late 1980s: the child-abuse ballad "Luka" and a song that launched literally dozens of dance remixes, "Tom's Diner." But Vega has been making vital, inventive music the entire time — much of it folk-based, though her sound has taken many smart detours along the way — and is about to put out her first album of original material in seven years, Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.

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)

Part of the Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree, rapper, singer, poet and songwriter Dessa divides her time between singing and rapping, often landing on a spoken-word splitting of the difference.

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.

When NPR Music started inviting musicians to perform at Bob Boilen's desk back in 2008, we never could have expected that we'd one day host The Dismemberment Plan. For one, the D.C.-area group had long since disbanded; for another, its fleshed-out and periodically funky sound wouldn't seem to lend itself to vastly stripped-down arrangements.

At 34, John Legend has sold millions of records, won nine Grammys, collaborated with many of the biggest stars in music (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, The Roots, et al), and achieved the kind of statesmanlike musical-ambassador status usually afforded to artists twice his age.

In the last few years, Ashley Monroe has cobbled together an impressive country-music pedigree by working alongside both upstarts (Pistol Annies with Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley) and longtime Nashville veterans (Vince Gill produced Monroe's solo album Like a Rose), and even collaborating with Jack White every now

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.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the new Pokemon 3DS games that have zombified our once-expressive children is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, tips on how to name one's band.

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.

As lead singer of the youthful Manchester band The 1975, Matthew Healy has cranked out a batch of enjoyably wiry songs, most notably the singles "Chocolate" and "Sex" — each of which has attracted more than a million YouTube plays. The group has been bubbling up, here and in the U.K., for the last year or two, as it's toured with Muse and released an album and four EPs full of brash-but-winsome, electronics-tinged pop-rock.

When it comes to Tiny Desk Concerts, we're suckers for milestones at NPR Music: We're gearing up to acknowledge No. 300, for example, and are constantly taking note of the first time a musician trots out a particular rare instrument or does something else no one has done in front of us before.

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