Ann Powers

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

"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.

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

CeCe Winans is an American superstar, but many avid music lovers don't know much about her beyond her name. They might catch a glimpse of her with her brother and frequent collaborator BeBe on television, or on a billboard advertising a concert extravaganza coming to their local arena; they hear her name read out at the Grammys (she's won 10) or notice it on the best-seller lists (she's published three books).

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.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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.

Artists are supposed to be unafraid. We want them to take those risks, symbolically and sometimes personally, that reasonable people would caution against: Defy physical limits. Risk offending others. Expose unmanageable emotions to the open air. Do these things, we say to our painters and writers and singers, so that we can imagine, through you, what it feels like.

Early in his career, on some forgotten talk show (perhaps it was David Letterman in 1990), Dwight Yoakam chatted with the host about his birthplace of Eastern Kentucky. Describing the earthen mounds that protected roadways from the elements, he used the word "berm." His interviewer was taken aback. Berm? That's a fancy word for a honky-tonk country singer, he said. Yoakam just laughed. He knew that only the precisely right word, not just "heap" or "ridge" or "barrier," would make his story sing.

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.

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.

Pages