Ann Powers

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.

One of the nation's most notable music critics, Powers has been writing for The Record, NPR's blog about finding, making, buying, sharing and talking about music, since April 2011.

Powers served as chief pop music critic at the Los Angeles Times from 2006 until she joined NPR. Prior to the Los Angeles Times, she was senior critic at Blender and senior curator at Experience Music Project. From 1997 to 2001 Powers was a pop critic at The New York Times and before that worked as a senior editor at the Village Voice. Powers began her career working as an editor and columnist at San Francisco Weekly.

Her writing extends beyond blogs, magazines and newspapers. Powers co-wrote Tori Amos: Piece By Piece, with Amos, which was published in 2005. In 1999, Power's book Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America was published. She was the editor, with Evelyn McDonnell, of the 1995 book Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Rap, and Pop and the editor of Best Music Writing 2010.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University, Powers went on to receive a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of California.

"I was young, but not for long," sings Rhiannon Giddens in the voice of one of the characters she brings to bloody life on her second solo album, Freedom Highway. Actually, she wails the line – in grief, in defiance, and with the laser-deadly accuracy of a singer whose art is steeped in the subversive theatrics of Paul Robeson, the prophetic folk of Odetta and the psychological inquiries of Stephen Sondheim.

Adele broke her Grammy award in half Sunday night. It might have seemed like the careless act of someone with plenty to spare; the 28-year-old powerhouse vocalist has 15 of the music industry's most coveted statues, including the five just presented for her latest album, 25. She did so charmingly, with a characteristic big laugh, and apparently by accident, severing the statue's gramophone horn from its base as she nervously handled it.

Wanderlust is at the heart of the music The Wu-Force makes and the lives its members lead -- but so is its opposite: homesickness. The trio's members, two American and one Chinese, are all inveterate world travelers who've forged unexpected musical connections.

Alison Krauss' voice can seem like an entity unto itself: a holy spirit wafting through the pop world, melting away musical categories. Of course, that's not what it is at all. It is the instrument of an astute musician who began pursuing her craft in bluegrass as a child and who's logged in hours of work learning that genre as well as country, folk and pop. Krauss is not some kind of angel – she's a real woman, a master of in-studio collaboration, and one of the finest players, on fiddle, in her field.

"Waiting 4 it," one Lady Gaga fan wrote on her Facebook wall before the Super Bowl halftime show last night. "Gaga, say some s***." The multiplatinum pop rabble-rouser's reputation as an advocate for LGBTQ rights, feminism and general freakery left her with a certain burden of proof as she took on America's biggest annual slice of family entertainment. Would she speak out about the need to preserve civil rights as a new administration already establishing a spotty record on that front reshapes the presidency?

At its best, country music is a preserve for the up-close and personal. From Merle Haggard to Miranda Lambert, the genre's most powerful storytellers illuminate big subjects like family, love or work by focusing on small details unfolding in kitchens, on back porches or in farm fields.

Country music luminary Jessi Colter has only released one album since the 2002 passing of her husband, Waylon Jennings, the Don Was-produced Out of the Ashes, which came out in 2006. Now a second one is due.

The fire and feel Lucinda Williams brought to the Lincoln Center stage when she headlined this August concert is informed by 25 years of making music. Deeply informed by tradition, her work remains determinedly individualistic and envelope-pushing.

"We don't expect long answers when we ask children what they want to be when they grow up," writes the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson in her landmark book about women improvising their realities, Composing a Life. Despite the infinite ways fate can turn, we look at the wide-eyed little ones in our midst and think: She will be a doctor. He will have two children. She will fall in love and stay in love with the right person, not like I did. We ask them to echo back our hopes as a way of quieting our fears.

Popular music, like every creative form, has produced iconoclasts and idols, whose charisma intersects with the historical moment to carry them into a singular space of greatness. Leonard Cohen was not that kind of star. He was the other kind, arguably more necessary: the companionable genius, compelled by the need to track the muse through the hallways of the everyday, to understand how profane existence can be shot through with profundity.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.

"I am lost, I confess, in the age of the social," Lady Gaga intones in her saddest alto in "Angel Down," the anti-violence anthem that concludes her fifth studio album, Joanne, officially released today. It's a strange disclosure from a pop star whose entire career has seemingly played upon the 21st-century practice of inhabiting constructed online identities to escape reality, earn a lover's affections or scam a path toward success. Gaga crashed the Top 40 in 2008 with The Fame, an examination of the risks and limits of democratized glamor written in cool club bangers.

History moves through all of our voices, in inflection, tone and vocabulary. Some people call this collective language "the spirit"; to others, it's "the voice of the people." Valerie June just calls it song: the ongoing record of human sorrow and delight that she shapes into tunes and verses that may start small, but open up to the centuries.

Here's a list of shiny things Aaron Lee Tasjan's Silver Tears brings to mind:

It's easy to read too much into a hit song. Popular music is made that way: Its surface meanings are broad and inclusive, while its idiosyncrasies are vehement, upheld within a startling rhythm or a novel sample or a highly relatable voice. It's this mix of the familiar and the seemingly unique that allow for pop hits to reach millions of often very different people in ways that feel direct and personal.

When Beyoncé included the country-dipped song "Daddy Issues" on Lemonade, some seemed surprised — which was weird. Queen Bey is from Houston, where (as in most of the South) the word "country" is sometimes thrown around as an insult meaning "unsophisticated." And her song, with its street-corner beat and hot guitar, reminded listeners that rootsy music has its own kind of elegance.

Fan fervor is one of the basic building blocks of rock and roll, but it's difficult to recall a rock star as tenderly beloved as is Bruce Springsteen in 2016. There are bigger legends who've evinced louder screams, like the baby boomer Boss's own early inspirations, Elvis and The Beatles.

Amanda Shires has a way of pausing over a note and pulling it in a few directions. Some have called this a warble, others a catch. In "Harmless," a dive-bar torch song from her new fourth album, My Piece of Land, Shires employs this instrument of indeterminacy while describing the beginning of a risky relationship: "Yea-a-ah," she intones after each phrase about spilling a drink or admiring this stranger's thunder-colored eyes.

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Soul music is, among many things, a form of psychological inquiry. Consider these releases from the glory days of the 1970s: James Brown's Revolution Of The Mind; Al Green Explores Your Mind; Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Music Of My Mind.

What makes a torch song a true showstopper? Great lines help, and Maren Morris' tearjerking ballad "Once" offers one right off the bat. "Darling, we were too gone to stay," she sings in an alto that's as blue as two hours after midnight. "Couldn't get through the night, so we had to call it a day." The melody descends, perfectly matching the resignation in Morris' lyric.

The wait for a new Frank Ocean album is over — sort of. Late Thursday night, the reclusive singer unveiled Endless, a starkly minimal multimedia project that does indeed feature new music, but leaves many other questions unanswered.

Natalie Maines took one look at the wildly cheering fans in Nashville's Bridgestone Arena Wednesday night and knew just what to say. "I like what you're wearing," she coyly remarked. It felt as if the singer could see every Southwestern-print skirt, pair of fringey ankle boots and vintage "Cowboy Take Me Away" t-shirt in the packed arena.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

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