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The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the 1972 soul album Donny Hathaway Live. Best known for songs like "This Christmas" and classic duets with Roberta Flack, Hathaway was a strikingly virtuosic artist committed to exploring "music in its totality." In the decade between his 1970 breakout hit "The Ghetto" and his death at age 33 — an alleged suicide linked to paranoid schizophrenia — he recorded some of the most beautiful, heartfelt and funky music of the late twentieth century.

Earlier this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry set off on a journey. They boarded a train in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. Each time the train stopped for more than 20 minutes in cities like St. Louis and San Antonio, they'd grab their guitars, hop off, find the waiting room and record an old railroad song. The result of this journey is an album called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.

"Bombs On The Beach" begins in a dystopic place — the song from Philadelphia's pre-eminent post-punkers Dark Blue kicks off with a descending bass melody. Someone snaps, slow and pointed, giving the track a distinctly depressive doo-wop quality. When singer John Sharkey III enters the mix, it gets under the skin, cold and heavy — a song that is so intimately and crucially joyless, it should come with a warning.

In a season of relentless shouting, the best antidote might be singing. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato's new album with conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and the ensemble Il Pomo d'Oro, In War & Peace: Harmony Through Music, uses Baroque arias to explore the pain and possibilities of these troubled times. A companion website invites anyone and everyone to answer the simple but loaded question, "In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?"

This spring, The New York Times prefaced the onslaught of festival season by publishing an unusually transparent editorial memo. As music festivals are so plentiful and so often indistinguishable, they would no longer be covering the likes of Coachella and Lollapalooza by default. Instead, their attentions would turn to the smaller, stranger events, the ones that told a unique story.

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Devendra Banhart can remember the exact moment he decided to become a songwriter. He was around 9 years old, and he performed an original song for his whole family. The tune, he says, was called "We're All Gonna Die."

"Their reaction was, 'Never do that again,' " Banhart says. "They were horrified."

The Beach Boys sounded like California in musical form: beach, waves and a perpetually sunny blue sky.

But Brian Wilson, who co-founded the band with his brothers Carl and Dennis and their cousin Mike Love — and who wrote many of The Beach Boys' signature hits — struggled for years with mental illness. He's heard voices in his head and wrestled with the ghosts of the ways of his father, who encouraged his musical career but beat and abused him.

After forays into pop and folk, Norah Jones has returned to jazz and the piano for her latest album, Day Breaks. Jones has a long history with the genre –- she says she became "mildly obsessed with it" as a teenager in Dallas, and she signed with the legendary Blue Note Records at just 21. For her latest project, Jones also connected with some true jazz giants, including saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

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The hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys has only been together a few years, but its members have been individually well known for quite some time. Riz Ahmed, also known as Riz MC, is an actor with high profile appearances in HBO's mini-series The Night Of and big Hollywood productions like Nightcrawler and Jason Bourne. Himanshu Suri, who goes by Heems, made his name as one-third of the New York rap crew Das Racist.

Talia here with a "longtime listener, first-time caller" moment. I've admired David Dye from afar for years, so I was thrilled when he welcomed me to make my first on-air appearance as the new Contributing Host on World Cafe. We talked about my past work as a host at the CBC, my history as a professional head-banger and our shared love of small venues. David was even gracious enough to let me spin a couple tunes.

RDGLDGRN: Tiny Desk Concert

Oct 14, 2016

How do you pronounce RDGLDGRN? Easy, it's just Red Gold Green. Clean and simple, no vowels, no fluff — just like the band's music. Listen and you'll hear a striking mix of rock, hip-hop, funk, go-go and international sounds, fused with energy and humor.

The first sound Leonard Cohen makes on his new album is a nanosecond's rush of labored air. It's not a wheeze, exactly, or a hiccup. But it's not a singer's note, either. The singing (such as it is) soon follows, and the 82-year-old's somber tone signals that matters of grave import are about to be discussed. He's making an inquiry into the peculiar strain of creeping soul distress, both personal and universal, that he's been diagnosing since at least 1992's The Future.

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We don't know who will win the presidency this year. We do know this big news. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in literature. This week's announcement brought to mind Dylan's talk on this program back in 2004.


It's tough to think of a major honor that hasn't been bestowed on Bob Dylan in his long career, but Thursday brought a new addition to his crowded awards shelf: the Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only is Dylan the first American to win the literary prize in a generation — the last being Toni Morrison in 1993 — he is the first modern songwriter to be so honored.

The Nobel committee made a bit of a surprising announcement Thursday morning: Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for, according to the Swedish Academy, "having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition."

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How To Dress Well, a.k.a. Tom Krell, is now based in Los Angeles — but for his new album, Care, he traveled around the world and worked with a bunch of collaborators to craft his best set of songs yet. Krell performed the sexy track "Can't You Tell" live in KCRW's studios for Morning Becomes Eclectic.


  • "Can't You Tell"

Photo: Carl Pocket/KCRW.

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.

Holly Macve's voice stood out among the thousands of songs we heard before heading to SXSW earlier this year. Now 21, the singer — born in County Galway, now living in Brighton — had a sweet, lilting yodel reminiscent of Patsy Cline or Gillian Welch, more Appalachian than British. She hasn't finished her debut album yet; we have 2017 to look forward to for that.

It's not easy to make sense of the latest song from Foxygen. One minute, "America" is lurching orchestral pop, complete with dramatic strings and woodwinds. The next, it's a melancholy piano piece, followed by a sudden shift to oddball jazz punctuated by bursts of noise and orchestrated chaos. It's an epic, head-spinning collision of sounds worthy of multiple listens. "If you're already there, then you're already dead," the Los Angeles duo sings. "If you're living in America."

Days after playing the Desert Trip festival in Indio, Calif., Roger Waters is announcing a new, multi-state tour. It's his first since the 2010-2013 tour of The Wall and starts in May of next year, with stops in more than 30 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Waters has named it the "Us And Them" tour after the song he wrote for Pink Floyd's 1973 album The Dark Side Of The Moon. He told NPR Music its themes about the haves and have-nots are more relevant and topical than ever.

I recommend two ways of listening to Tanya Tagaq's latest record, Retribution. One is with eyes closed, given over wholly to the experience of a dense, immersive collection of sounds unlike any sounds on any other albums in your collection. The other is with eyes open, standing in front of a mirror, with one hand on your throat. The former is to better appreciate this record as a shockingly inventive achievement in music production. The latter is to better appreciate the marvel of the human body.

The U.S. isn't the only country making stark political choices in 2016. In Scandinavia, ostensibly one of the most progressive regions on the planet (then again, maybe not), a conservative movement is picking up speed in the form of the counterintuitively named Sweden Democrats.

The guitars fade in, as if to pick up where they left off, or to suggest that they'd never stopped twinkling. "Where are we now?" Mike Kinsella sings, his voice a little worn, but softened like suede. "We're both home alone in the same house / Would you even know me if I wasn't old me? / If I wasn't afraid to say what I mean?" Just like that, 17 years after its eponymous debut, American Football returns from whence it came, with even the same house featured on the album cover.

Five years ago, Drake captured the millennial mood with a track abounding in bulletproof swagger and boasts of unconstrained indulgence. "You only live once," he luxuriated. "That's the motto."

It's common practice for musicians to sing the struggles of everyday people: underdogs and strivers who work for the weekend, love and protect their families, and struggle to stay one step ahead of the boss and the bill collector. But everyday people aren't monolithic, and some stories are told far more often than others.

Eyes On The Lines is a striking title for Steve Gunn's latest record. A trucker phrase, it captures the chooglin', highway hypnosis of the songwriter's sound. But to the untrained ear, it might suggest purposefulness or direction. This is not Gunn's artistic project. As he sings in "Night Wander," "He likes to wander / Lose direction and go back home." Even if you know where home is, there's no clean route you follow to get there. The well-defined path is a myth.