NPR Music & Concerts

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

They came, they measured, and they returned to perform a show like no other. It was the great NPR Tiny Desk Takeover by Blue Man Group.

If you've not seen this performance ensemble and their production in New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Boston, Chicago or Berlin, then you've missed a night of magical fun. These Blue Men may never say a word, but the performances make for poignant looks at who we are as humans. They also make unusual music on instruments of their own design.

The political endorsement song is a strange beast. It's something more than just a campaign anthem — the kind of track that pumps up rally audiences before a candidate's entrance onstage. Instead, this kind of tune is an odd hybrid: part commercial jingle, part aspirational anthem and, with nearly no exceptions, a soon-forgotten novelty. (One outlier: the sturdy Whig song "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" from the 1840 presidential campaign, which was most recently resurrected by They Might Be Giants in 2004.)

In 2009, musician and historian Elijah Wald published an overview of American pop from the 1890s to the 1960s he called How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll. The title was a bomb-throwing feint — as Wald told me in an interview, he knew that title would get much more attention than a drier one such as "American Pop From Sousa to Soul" — and as if on cue, one reviewer after another lined up to wave away its thesis.

To the people that knew and played with him, the late guitarist Jack Rose was a towering example of virtuosity and dedication, interweaving ragtime, pre-war blues, raga and American primitivism. When he died of a heart attack in 2009, he left a huge gap in communities worldwide that almost seven years later no other player has been able to fill — as evidenced by a new wave of reissues that cement Rose's visionary status: On Sept.

Don Buchla believed in the humanity of wires. The modular synth pioneer created an instrument like none other, one that relied on intuition, learning and, most importantly, human touch. He died September 14 after a long battle with cancer at the age of 79.

In terms of sheer intensity, Saul Williams' Tiny Desk concert may be the most potent in our eight-year history. Only Kate Tempest comes to mind as its equal, which makes sense given that both mix music with bracing, truthful poetry. In Williams' opening song — "Burundi," from his album MartyrLoserKing — the main character is a computer hacker who lives in Burundi and fights for democracy:

"Everything's cyclical" has become a common refrain in the country music industry of late, a way of acknowledging that country radio's domination by R&B-juiced, summery jams this decade is neither the format's first swing toward popular sounds and sensibilities nor a permanent state. What would follow, some predicted, was a race to the opposite extreme: a hardcore country resurgence.

Just this afternoon, it looked like David Bowie was a shoo-in for this year's Mercury Prize. Even though the prestigious U.K. award had never before been given to an artist posthumously, Blackstar was the final and widely adored album from a British rock god. Even bookies were betting on Bowie as a 4/7 favorite.

When you think of an orchestra, you're probably picturing refined woodwoods, brass, and strings. But one ensemble I recently met is made up mostly of kids who play instruments made out of literal trash. This is the Recycled Orchestra from Cateura, Paraguay, and their group is the subject of a new documentary film.

The On-The-Road Education Of Lucy Dacus

Sep 13, 2016

Lucy Dacus needs another suitcase.

The Secret Sisters: Tiny Desk Concert

Sep 12, 2016

Lydia and Laura Rogers are recognizable as sisters the minute they open their mouths. They float, twist and trade harmonies in ways only siblings can. Hailing from small-town Alabama, the pair started practicing parts as girls in church, and two decades later, their music can be hymn-like: plain but powerful, heartsick and hopeful.

I remember the first time I heard Ramones. It was the first Saturday after its April 23, 1976 release date, back when I was 14 and working weekends at the House of Guitars, Rochester, N.Y.'s greatest and still thriving record store/musical instrument shop/freak magnet.

And so, it ended with, very appropriately, a deathly quiet. "Fabric is closed. That's it. Heartwrenching silence around the room." So read a Tweet by Jeremy Abbott, the digital editor of Mixmag, who was in the room on Tuesday night when the Islington council licensing committee's met to determine whether the London neighborhood would permanently revoke the operating license of fabric, one of the city's longest-running and most iconic clubs.

Nels Cline is unabashed about his love for sound. "I get a kind of fundamental, if not moronic, pleasure from sound as soon as it starts," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Even in sound checks, once we start playing, I'm in the zone. I'm happy, because I like playing."

The Thistle & Shamrock: Kickstarters

Sep 8, 2016

In the 1970s, a handful of globe-trotting bands kicked off the international following for music from Celtic roots. Hear vintage sounds from some of the trailblazers — including The Chieftains, Battlefield Band, Clannad, Boys of the Lough, Planxty, Silly Wizard, De Dannan, Ossian and Tannahill Weavers — and learn how they all combined to feed a growing worldwide interest.

Brian Fallon starts to answer the question.

"It's funny, because..."

He trails off, and then tries again.

"And it... uh..."

He laughs.

Fallon has a solo record out. His band, The Gaslight Anthem, went on hiatus last year, and since then he's fathered a second child.

The question was about how having children changed him and his songwriting.

To older country fans, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are the ultimate examples of superstars who stayed true to their humble roots. Tara Thompson, 28, happens to come from Parton's mountains and Lynn's bloodline. The younger singer, typical of her oversharing generation, translates their down-home pride into tell-all songs.

When I first saw Nina Diaz back in 2010, she was fronting a punk trio from San Antonio called Girl In A Coma. She and the band sounded ferocious, with an unmistakable spirit of fun — for proof, here's their Tiny Desk concert from a couple years later.

Lady Sings The Bros

Aug 24, 2016

Take a look at a picture of The Chainsmokers and you'll see everything many people hate about mainstream electronic dance music. Drew Taggart and Alex Pall, the two DJ/producers who go by that name, are two white guys with David Beckham haircuts and perfectly coiffed five o'clock shadows who stick their tongues out while posing in front of the partying throngs their big beats entertain.

Over the weekend we asked Ann Powers and Jason King to wrestle with Frank Ocean's long-awaited follow-up to 2012's Channel Orange. They did so across many time zones and man hours; what emerged is a conversation that stays fair-minded and grounded and ends in questioning both the artist and his audience.

There's brutal honesty in the songs of Margaret Glaspy that can make them feel cold, but they're also heartfelt. That's part of what makes Glaspy a top new artist of 2016 for many of the writers here at NPR Music.

When you stop to think about it, there really is no one like Barbra Streisand. There's Barbra the young Broadway legend, the movie star, the glass-ceiling-smashing movie director, the recording artist and now the venerated elder stateswoman of the showstopper.

Eddie Palmieri: Tiny Desk Concert

Aug 19, 2016

Different Tiny Desk performers pop up in NPR Music's workspace just about every week, and frequently more often than that. While every artist is special, it's rare to have a true legend come through.

Eddie Palmieri is that once-in-a-lifetime musician, bandleader, composer and arranger. An icon for both modern and Latin jazz, he continues to break tradition and innovate within many musical styles, including salsa, fusion, Latin funk and more.

Thursday night, singer Frank Ocean released a long-awaited new work: Endless, available exclusively — at least for now — as a 45-minute film on Apple Music.

This is Ocean's first studio project since his Channel Orange was released in 2012, the musician's breakout year as a solo artist after his days as a member of the Odd Future collective and, prior to that, as a songwriter for artists like Justin Bieber, John Legend and Brandy.

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