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.

This week, Bob Dylan's first album of new music in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. But Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his "retirement" years.

In the liner notes to John Coltrane's 1964 album Live At Birdland, Amiri Baraka (then writing as Le Roi Jones) contemplated the gift the saxophonist and his band offered with this music inspired by the horrific deaths of four Black girls in a Birmingham church bombing inspired by white supremacist hatred. "Listen," Baraka wrote. "What we're given is a slow delicate introspective sadness, almost hopelessness, except for Elvin [Jones], rising in the background like something out of nature... a fattening thunder, storm clouds or jungle war clouds.

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When I think about the screen images that startled me into a new way of thinking, one always surfaces first.

"Say their names," the signs read in the streets of America. In 2020, one reckoning shares an unstable boundary with another as protesters masked against the coronavirus expose a different kind of deep debilitation: the racism that permeates American history and the present day, resulting in sudden deaths now recorded and shared on social media, but always present within history, from the arrival of enslaved Africans on the Virginia Coast in 1619 onward.

As technology evolves, so does protest. Awareness of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers could only inspire an international grassroots movement because a teenager, Darnella Frazier, decided to record his arrest using her phone and post it to social media. Activists are organizing marches and rallies on Twitter and Instagram, even as they warn participants to be careful of surveillance on those platforms.

Even in the best of times, many look to live music as a crucial resource — a place to turn for comfort, community and relief from anxiety — and can scarcely imagine their lives without it. For the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down venues around the country, and it's hard to picture when gathering in nightclubs or amphitheaters will be deemed safe again.

Little Richard died on Saturday, May 9, 2020 in Tullahoma, Tenn. at the age of 87. This essay was originally published as part of the book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, written by NPR Music's critic and correspondent Ann Powers and published by Dey Street Books in 2017.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nothing in the world is more serious right now than social distancing.

The Virtuoso

Feb 10, 2020

Turning the Tables is NPR's ongoing multi-platform series dedicated to recentering the popular music canon on voices that have been marginalized, underappreciated, or hidden in plain sight. In 2020, we will publish an occasional series looking closely at the careers of significant women in music, treasured albums or significant scenes. This is the first in the series; find all Turning the Tables content here.

Ann Powers: Here we are, Rodney, to talk about one of the weirdest, most emotionally fraught and repressed, most resistance-fueled yet frequently deluded awards shows I can recall seeing in recent years: the 2020 Grammy Awards. Let's start with Lizzo, not quite the spirit of the night that I expected her to be. "This is the beginning of making music that moves people again," the flute-wielding dynamo exclaimed when picking up an early statue, the only one she took during the televised performance. (She claimed three in total).

The latest round of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductions were announced today, and Whitney Houston is the only woman honored.

The last decade of music saw major artists break many of the rules about how to release an album. Beyoncé and Drake popularized the "surprise release" — putting out albums with little to no roll-out at all. So in the era of surprise digital drops, and at the beginning of a new year of music, how do you make predictions about what's coming?

The Grammy Awards' category for new artists has always been the Hufflepuff house of the event, a mishmash of eccentrics, high achievers and hard-working young music industry favorites. (Notorious category winners Milli Vanilli did work hard, just not at singing.) Rarely has the field clearly pointed toward an exciting new musical era. But this year, that's exactly what it suggests.

When Brandi Carlile decided to perform Joni Mitchell's 1971 album Blue in its entirety at Disney Hall – the primary home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the site of many classical music premieres — one reason was to remind the audience of the 75-year-old's near-singular status among popular musicians of the past half-century. "We didn't live in the time of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or Beethoven," she said before she began her October 14 performance. "But we live in the time of Joni Mitchell."

Sleater-Kinney took a lot of chances on its latest album, The Center Won't Hold, upending its much beloved sound to experiment with strange sonics, dark textures and surprising forms. The result is one of the most adventurous, exciting – and best – albums the band has ever made. We open this week's New Music Friday with a look at how and why The Center Won't Hold works and what the recent departure of drummer Janet Weiss means for the band at this point in its quarter-century long career.

This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.

The radio version of this story includes conversations with campers and counselors at girls' rock camps, where "Rebel Girl" has become essential listening. Hear the piece at the audio link .

Nearly 40 years into their career, The Flaming Lips remain remarkably ageless and endlessly creative. They return this week with another heady, psychedelic pop record inspired by a surreal art installation by frontman Wayne Coyne. On this week's New Music Friday, we climb inside the band's kaleidoscopic new record, The King's Mouth.

It's been eight years since Ed Sheeran released his 2011, career-launching EP, No. 5 Collaborations Project. Now his No. 6 Collaborations Project has arrived and it's a features-heavy flex that shows the singer can pretty much work with anyone, from the country rock of Chris Stapleton to Eminem, 50 Cent and Skrillex. We give a listen on this week's New Music Friday along with K.R.I.T. IZ HERE, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T.'s followup to his 2010 mixtape K.R.I.T.

After giving us a series of baffling ads in the London Tube and the back pages of the Dallas Observer, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke finally released his third solo album, ANIMA, on Thursday — meaning you won't have to listen to "Not The News" on speakerphone anymore. On this week's New Music Friday, we dive into Yorke's vivid dreamscape and its accompanying film, as well as The Black Keys' electrifying Let's Rock (their first record in five years), Freddie Gibbs and Madlib's fresh collab Bandana and more.

Here's a thing you should know before watching Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Martin Scorsese's new Netflix documentary about one of the most notorious rock tours in the genre's history: Bob Dylan is messing with you. Dylan has been messing with people since his first braggadocio days in Greenwich Village, when his made-up tales of wandering the Southwest with a circus helped convince his friends in the folk scene that he was the real proletarian deal.

Our shortlist of the best albums out this week includes a stirring call for social justice from soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples, rapper YG's powerful remembrance of Nipsey Hussle and the first new release in six years from lo-fi rock veterans Sebadoh. Host Robin Hilton is joined by NPR Music's Ann Powers, Sidney Madden and Stephen Thompson as they share their picks for the most essential albums dropping on May 24.

Featured Albums:

  1. Mavis Staples: We Get By
    Featured Song: "Sometime"

Our shortlist of the best new albums out this week includes a deeply moving celebration of African American culture and history from the singer Jamila Woods, the sparkling, soul-searching guitar rock of Charly Bliss, composer Holly Herndon's brilliant collaboration with the AI known as "Spawn" and more. Host Robin Hilton is joined by NPR Music's Ann Powers and Stephen Thompson as they share their picks for the best new albums out on May 10.

Featured Albums:

  1. Charly Bliss: Young Enough
    Featured Song: "Hard to Believe"

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

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The first single from Madonna's upcoming Madame X suggests that the doyenne of dance pop is making canny decisions in her 60th year.

We open this week's New Music Friday with a quick spin of Love Keeps Kicking from the self-described queer, straight edge, vegan, anarchist punk band Martha. One of the week's best guitar rock albums, it's bursting with hooky melodies and memorable meditations on (among other things) the end of times.

Billie Eilish is already a veteran pop artist at the age of 17, with a clear vision for her sound and image, even if that sound is sinister and the image a bit demented. (Have you seen her videos?) Her brilliant debut full-length, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?

What is the blues? To some, it's a feeling; to others, a beer-selling brand. Adia Victoria captures the spirits of the blues in a simple phrase: black genius.

Well, kids, it's been another year of holograms, headlines and big human messes here in Orbit City. At least music brought us together again and again in 2018, whether in the crowd to see Mitski, Janelle Monáe or Brandi Carlile, or surrounded by strangers in bed at Max Richter's SLEEP concert. This Year in Review edition of All Songs Considered is built like a little time machine to move us chronologically through 2018.

"I wouldn't have pursued music but for trouble," Joni Mitchell once said. Mitchell was referring to real problems — her childhood time spent bedridden with polio and the life-shaping loss she experienced after giving her daughter up for adoption in 1965. Those events solidified the drive that pushed Mitchell forward from small-potatoes rural Canada toward the American meccas where she would prove to be the magnet shifting the needle of pop. But trouble, in all its manifestations, is also Mitchell's muse.

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