30 Must-Read (Or Must-Revisit) NPR Music Articles From 2017
What we try to do here at NPR Music isn't that complicated. First and foremost, of course, we like to introduce readers and listeners to artists they may never have heard that will challenge, excite and soothe them. We also enjoy celebrating, reframing, revisiting and enlivening the music everyone already knows and loves, to give it a new life in a changed world.
But another significant part of this project is to use music as a medium in order to decode our present moment — and maybe divine a little of the future from it. As you'll see below, we've done this across a range of mediums — video, illustration, photography, podcasts (of course), writing and mishmashes between all of them.
We published over 3,100 articles on the site this year — below, you will find 30 of our favorite slices from all that work. The criteria was only that the piece say something important, hopefully in a striking and beautiful way, about the present moment and the lives being lived within it.
There are reorientations of the popular music canon with women at its center (a project has continued long after that initial list was published), the mystery of a "missing" classic rocker, an illustrated tour of a teen-oriented music festival, a record collector who desires just one album, lullabies, re-examinations of masculinity in hip-hop, a group Austrians who bumbled their way to fame, a fake genre nobody asked for (but everyone needs) ... the list is long. And time well-spent.
New Orleans is inseparable from the music that animates it. In this short video documentary, Nick Michael examines the toll of rising property costs on the city's living soul, and what that means for its own wellbeing.
Nick Michael, February 2
Jazz vocalist John Boutté feels he can no longer afford to live in his hometown of New Orleans. He's not alone. Rising housing costs are pushing many musicians and service workers — the backbone of New Orleans' tourism economy — further and further outside the city limits.
Immediately following the inauguration, many began wondering if it would lead to a resurgence in politicized music. Using Lady Gaga's halftime show as a lens, Ann Powers warned us about where to look for it.
Ann Powers, February 6
To cite one overly invoked example, Bob Dylan singing "Only a Pawn in their Game" with Joan Baez at the 1963 March on Washington was era-defining for many who witnessed it; but the Freedom Singers standing next to him, activists who had often been arrested after singing their songs during Southern protests, provided the example he followed. Dylan simply made it accessible, through his charisma, his whiteness, his channeling voice. Pop stars do this: Almost always, they're not cultural leaders but distillers, making the mood of a historical moment legible to a larger audience.
Even after President Trump's early and protest-initiating executive order on travel was paused, the confusion it sowed within and throughout the world's immigration and customs apparatus lingered on.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, February 6
President Trump's executive order on immigration restricting travel to the U.S. for travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries led to a firestorm of criticism, lawsuits and injunctions by five federal judges staying the order. But questions remain about who can and can't come to this country. Among those caught in the confusion are a number of prominent musicians, whose personal lives — and livelihoods — have been put on hold.
You don't often see the practicalities of an artist's life in typical magazine-style writing — things like how they afford to eat. Laura Snapes' intimate portrait of the romantic Swede Jens Lekman brings you there.
Laura Snapes, March 1
"You can't really be indie any more. Everyone knows they will have to sell at least a small part of their ass at some point."
Lekman's price, for now, is kitchen duty. He keeps a small basement room in a co-operative hippie workspace in Kviberg, an industrial area to the north east of Gothenburg, in exchange for low rent and cleaning the communal area.
If the best-of lists have been any indication, Stephin Merrit's typically ambitious (tracing 50 years of living, a song per year) but particularly honed album was seemingly forgotten by the year's end. At the time of its release it seemed a critical shoo-in, and Barry Walters captured its idiosyncrasies and many triumphs with a winking eye.
Barry Walters, March 6
Like many of the cleverest lyricists, Merritt's a songwriter first and singer second, but on "'98 Lovers' Lies," he excels at being both. One of his most laconic lullabies, it sits right in the grave spot of his register that effortlessly sighs. His beloved alliteration creeps along as though moving in slow motion, as if his compulsive falsifier has him hypnotized.
Men say stupid things. Quite often. (Bono, most recently.) Sometimes these jaw-dropping idiocies can lead to productive analysis, as was the case with Michelle Mercer's humorous, amazingly not-exasperated piece addressing two jazz giants having put feet to mouths.
Michelle Mercer, March 9
For better or worse, the Saga of the Musical Clitoris has been unleashed on the jazz world. I'm glad it has. Much feminist work in jazz has focused on the noble goals of celebrating the genre's marginalized women musicians and advocating towards equal representation for them on today's bandstands. As necessary as representation may be, this scandal reveals that the issue of women in jazz goes deeper, into a gendered construction of the music itself. We need an intelligent public discussion about gendered notions of jazz, and this hot mess might as well be the impetus for that discussion. As one female industry veteran said online, "it can take a bomb like this to reset course."
Obsession is interesting, but self-aware obsession is of a different cut altogether. Mark Satlof, a music publicist, inveterately vacuums up various versions of one of the century's most interesting albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico -- to the point where he's amassed a statistically significant percentage of all its known copies.
Jem Aswad, March 11
Satlof's journey began when he was a student at Columbia University in the 1980s. "A friend of mine had the album and we listened to it late at night in the common room, he recalls. "I listened to it over and over again, watching the record spin but also looking out the window at this panoramic view of New York City — Harlem from Morningside Heights, and east of us was Lexington and 125th Street" — the location of the drug deal in the lyrics of "Waiting for My Man."
A Crow Looked At Me is a singularly devastating record — the thing most often said about it is that no one can believe it exists. It's spoken with wonder that Phil Elverum had the focus and fortitude to begin, much less finish, this document of the heartbreak he held following his wife's passing. Our own Lars Gotrich, who was acquainted with the late Geneviève Castrée, pivoted his review into a tender eulogy.
Lars Gotrich, March 16
"Death is real / Someone's there and then they're not / And it's not for singing about / It's not for making into art," begins the result, A Crow Looked At Me. So much of Elverum's mythos — a series of natural-themed metaphors mingling with self-revelations both minor and colossal — has been not just about death, but the beyond. Now Elverum reminds us, reminds himself, in plain language that warps back to reality with somber precision: Death is real.
South By Southwest can be a torturous garbage fire of corporate synergy, tepid music and drunken shrieks if you don't plan your experience carefully. Our South X Lullaby series was intended to counterbalance this energy with quiet sessions in hidden places from emerging, talented people. It also has the effect of casting this unique city in a rarely seen light.
NPR Music, March 24
The SXSW music festival certainly is restless and, for three years now, we've filmed some of our favorite artists performing quieter songs — you could call them lullabies — on hotel beds, off balconies, in art installations and wherever else we could rest and take a minute, to breathe and to listen. Below are nine South X Lullaby performances featuring Phoebe Bridgers, L.A. Salami, Lydia Ainsworth, Valerie June, Let's Eat Grandma, Jealous Of The Birds, Nick Hakim, DakhaBrakha and a duet between Nina Diaz & Y La Bamba's Luz Elena Mendoza.
Bob Seger left all that business stuff to his manager, Eddie "Punch" Andrews, who did not seem to care one lick about the vibrancy of his client's living legacy. His albums weren't on streaming services, sure, but physical versions were no where to be found either. (Small wonder, then, that not long after this deep investigation, the Motor City legend's music became available to stream.)
Tim Quirk, March 29
I hear someone singing "If I Were a Carpenter," which reminds me Seger did a surprisingly heavy version of that song on Smokin' O.P.'s, which I haven't heard for a while. I reach for my copy, only to find that it's gone. This is bothersome, but correctable, I imagine. I am a gainfully employed adult, living in a city with multiple wonderful used record stores, plus there's an entire Internet at my fingertips. I decide to go on a spree, replacing not just the missing album, but finally adding the several I never purchased to my collection.
But I discover something odd: Bob Seger's old albums are not only missing from my shelves. They seem to be missing from the world.
Prince was famously wary of the music business — but after he died, that wariness no longer cocooned his work. In this piece marking a year since Prince's death, Hasit Shah tries to reconcile the coming availability of the artist's unreleased music with the fact that it's likely not what he would have wanted.
Hasit Shah, April 21
A few weeks before he died, Prince and I talked on the phone for an hour, because he unexpectedly wanted to discuss a piece I'd just written for NPR Music. He was funny, feisty, charming and kind. He was also eloquent, articulate and highly intelligent. It was a real conversation about music, the industry, social issues and life in general. He even gave me romantic advice. He should not have died alone.
What does it take to get your compositions played by major American symphony orchestras? A Pulitzer Prize would no doubt help... right? Deceptive Cadence and NPR Music classical editor Tom Huizenga spoke to composer Du Yun, the winner of 2017's Pulitzer for music, about some troubling statistics.
Tom Huizenga, May 5
The fact remains that music by female composers is out there. It's just not being programmed – or programmed very much.
I will gently point out that sometimes when people think they have programmed women composers, they are looking at an Excel spreadsheet. And then they're looking at who are the living women composers – like Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin, for instance. And then you say, "If I've programmed Saariaho for one season, then I've done my job." But you're not solving the root of the problem.
Mike Hadreas writes and composes, as Perfume Genius, from a place of deep, softly defiant honesty. With No Shape, he was fully in command of his power and laser-attuned to his own way of seeing the universe. To read him explain how he came to his inspirations is sometimes as empowering as the result of them.
Robin Hilton, May 5
"Hymns have always sounded like sung spells to me. I never felt included in the magic of the God songs I heard growing up — I knew I was going to hell before anyone ever told me that I was. People found comfort in this all-knowing source, but I felt frightened and found out. I developed some weird and very dramatic complexes. It took me a long time to not think of the universe as a judgmental debit-credit system."
There is little doubt that Toby Keith, the unapologetically patriotic country singer, performing to a male-only crowd in Saudi Arabia's capital city, was one of the strangest concert bookings to have been made last year. Anastasia explains exactly how it came to happen.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, May 22
Keith's performance came shortly after the relaxation of a longstanding law in the Kingdom of Saudia Arabia (KSA). For over a quarter century, and up until just a few months ago, the government banned public music performances in Riyadh, the culturally hyper-conservative capital of the country.
Roséwave was the tongue-in-cheek, all-inclusive, basic-as-needed genre a dedicated crew of NPR Music staffers semi-accidentally created in order to overlap their need for blush wine with their need to blast Haim. Long may the tide be in.
Lars Gotrich, June 21
Rosé is the cheapest route to faux-luxury, the costume jewelry, the clip-on earrings of wine that nevertheless looks pretty, sips sweetly and engineers a soft buzz which spurs absentminded reaching towards Spanish cocktail nuts (as long they're free). If shandies are too tart and negronis too bitter, rosé is your best friend in the summer heat. A bottle should cost no more than a cocktail with a silly name.
Margaret Moser decided to treat a terminal diagnosis as she had the rest of her life: with aplomb. The writer, groupie and essential piece of Austin's music spine welcomed her friends and colleagues to join her in remembering the times they had shared. Here, Patoski plumbs those times to portrait a true original.
Joe Nick Patoski, June 22
"I wanted to be part of that group. I wanted to be in this life. I wanted to see what they were seeing, in the way they were seeing it. It didn't necessarily mean I wanted to be the singer, the guitarist, or the center of attention. I just wanted to know where that came from, where that power came from, where that passion came from.
We've read it a million times now — this was a year of shock, scandal, drama, upheaval and nausea. This was a comparatively low-stakes example of this trend, but it provided us the space to examine what the near-future of music may look like, for better and worse.
Andrew Flanagan, July 12
Spotify's denial, stating that it never created "fake" artists, leaves open a neat, semantic loophole — what is the definition of a "fake artist"? If there is a name and a song a person can play, is it fake? If that song is wholly generated by artificial intelligence, is it real?
This article was one of the funniest we published all year, done so to note the return of the quasi-merry British tricksters The KLF after more than two decades. Near the height of their fame — and they were impossibly famous — the pair wrote a facetious manual for those looking to top the charts as they had. They couldn't have predicted that an earnest Austrian band would follow it to the letter... and do the same.
Jason Roth, July 20
With step-by-step instructions and wry observations like, "If you are already a musician, stop playing your instrument. Even better, sell the junk," and "No records are bought in vast quantities because the lyrics are intellectually clever," The Manual was an ironic sendup of the previous decade's vacuous pop-industrial-complex, a fact that would have been obvious to anyone — unless you happened to live somewhere not exactly famous for either irony or humor. Like Austria, for example.
This piece will no doubt be remembered as the most powerful, impactful thing that NPR Music published this year — perhaps ever. The essay is the kick-off to Turning The Tables, a project meant to reorient the popular music canon with female artists at its center. If you have a problem with the exercise, Ann no doubt pre-empted it here.
Ann Powers, July 24
Because the notion that women "be" still influences the way we think about female artists, they've mostly been canonized as personalities or essences, not makers of things. The concept of "women in music" operates in the mainstream as a celebration of the ineffable feminine, endlessly redefined yet somehow still clichéd. It's an endless replay of that trick David Crosby devised for Joni Mitchell, of her just appearing, like magic. The problem is, magical beings can't achieve a solid footing in the real world.
Mainstream hip-hop has long placed a high value on reductive representations of aggressive masculinity. This year, as hip-hop was in the economic spotlight for many labels, a more nuanced expression approached center stage, too, from the emo-dirges of SoundCloud rap to the joyful homilies of Chance The Rapper.
Rodney Carmichael, September 1
Hip-hop has always contained multitudes but, suddenly, mainstream rap's acceptable range of emotions is broadening. From the inherent paradox of black boy joy to Lil Uzi Vert's melancholy rage, it may be the most rebellious uprising since gangsta rap pillaged the pop charts.
One of the many things Alt.Latino excels at is sharing the joy of music — its host, Felix, possesses big ears and a powerful microscope, which he uses to sustain fascinating conversations like this one, about the celebrated activist Dolores Huerta's love of and history with jazz.
Felix Contreras, September 13
Activist, hero, rebel, icon; those are just of the few of the adjectives often used in front of Dolores Huerta's name. They are well-deserved — for her part as a co-founder of a '60s labor movement, standing up for the rights of farm workers in this country, Dolores Huerta was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in May of 2012.
Devonté Hynes is best known as the polymathic artist behind Blood Orange, a project that mines the decades past for sounds he re-washes in the present. Composer Philip Glass is, as you surely know, one of the 20th century's most celebrated artists. The pair are both inseparable from New York in the imaginations of their fans — here, separated by decades and nothing else, they talk about the common ground of creation.
Tom Huizenga, September 21
This spring, Hynes invited Glass to his apartment where they sat at a piano, compared chords and traded stories. Ninety minutes later, their wide ranging conversation had touched on the pulse of New York City, the pains of striking out on your own as a musician, what role the arts play in society today and Hamilton. Plus about a hundred other ideas.
For our "Views From" series, we asked illustrators to interpret their experiences at music festivals throughout the summer. This, one of our favorites from it, sees a former teenaged attendee of this annual paean to angst reinterpret it as an adult.
Chelsea Beck, September 22
This year, I returned to the fray as a visual reporter. It's been a year fraught with controversy; it's no secret that the music industry has been, and remains, male-dominated, leading to some devastating growing pains as the Tour tries to open its doors to a more diverse cast of fans and musicians.
This was an idea whose time had come — much like the many songs addressed on this episode of All Things Considered. (Now that '90s alternative has begun to bleed onto classic rock radio, we'll need to revisit this idea soon.)
Bob Boilen, October 10
Robin Hilton, Stephen Thompson and I picked out some classic songs, and a few more recent tunes, to debate longevity and overstayed welcomes in modern music history. Should "American Pie" be put out to pasture? Has John Lennon's "Imagine" been imagined one too many times? Does Pharrell's "Happy" still make us happy, or should we, as Stephen Thompson suggests, cryogenically freeze it so we never have to hear it again in our lifetimes?
Adrianne Lenker had a preternatural gift for music, lovingly nurtured by her family for years. However, with the release of Capacity this year, her band Big Thief seemed to have arrived fully formed, like a dandelion seed on the breeze. Here, Ben peels back the story.
Benjamin Nadaff-Hafrey, November 9
Her father encouraged her towards a music career and she took to it eagerly. He arranged sessions for her — professional sessions with professional session players. They taught her the craft. "Since I didn't go to high school I truly view that time as my education, and they were my teachers," she says. It would be a full-time job, her producer had told her. As a young teen isolated from kids her age, she agreed, not quite understanding what that meant. She recorded an album and released it, and a live album, too. They went to Nashville to track another as her family struggled financially. Her father was putting what money he could towards her musical career. She felt the pressure.
The Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas massacre, in which 58 country music fans were gunned down, immediately prompted an evaluation of country music's often arm's-length relationship to politics. At this year's CMA Awards, the fit was awkward.
Jewly Hight, November 10
Working-class political speech hasn't always been recognized as political at all; it's just as likely to be dismissed as class resentment. As Nadine Hubbs wrote in Rednecks, Queers and Country Music, it's expressed "not in the language of politics or activism, but in the stories of ordinary individual lives, and with an emphasis on feeling."
Saba's music is as honest as, but maybe less precious than, his friend Chance the Rapper's. And while his songs are generating millions of plays, financial stability remains a work in progress. But artistic integrity is the name of this game. Here, a close, deeply touching look at the ascent of an independent artist in a brand-new age.
Jenny Gathright, November 15
When we last spoke over the summer, Saba was still staying at his grandparents' house, but he told me he was looking to move into a new apartment with his girlfriend. He wanted two bedrooms – one for sleeping and one for a studio — in a decent neighborhood. "I don't want to talk too much about it and jinx it, but we're waiting to hear back from one right now," he said.
There's rarely a more fascinating where-are-they-now piece than this one. On the occasion of his new book, Drew Carolan asked his former portrait subjects to give us an update on a life lived in the shadow of New York and the community of hardcore.
Drew Carolan, November 16
Utilizing what I learned from Richard Avedon while working on his seminal book, In the American West, for two years, I stood on the eastern end of Bleecker Street, where it empties into what was the most famous street for the downtrodden, disenfranchised and destitute — the Bowery. CBGB's was the perfect place for young outcasts, free thinkers and activists to gather under one roof — it was there that I intercepted patrons on their way to congregate and participate in a weekly ritual: the venue's all-ages, hardcore punk matinee. Dozens upon dozens of people, mostly teenagers, were photographed against a white piece of seamless paper.
Put your thinking caps on. Here, an examination of the no-taste perpendicularities that music streaming algorithms constantly serve us, contrasted with the economic realities of celebrated reissue labels like Numero Group and the newfound power of music supervisors. All attempt, with vastly varying degrees of success, to reframe and re-present the history of music.
Ben Ratliff, November 27
Ten years ago, I thought the effect of widespread, immediate access to so much of the history of recorded music would be that the past would come to merge with the present. It would simply become another room in the house. I liked that idea, and I imagine Mary Beard would too. But it seems, instead, that the more likely use of the past, and the more profitable one, is as a weird or uncanny diversion. It delivers you a punch in the neck and then retreats back into a flat, non-hierarchical landscape.
Kendrick Lamar's record was, by a landslide, the year's most-lauded. Some were initially confused by its sound, so distant it seemed from the density and musical erudition of To Pimp A Butterfly. That was, as we've learned, an underestimation of Lamar. Here, in a piece that goes well beyond DAMN., Rodney goes poking around salvation.
Rodney Carmichael, December 12
This is an album that requires much of faithful listeners. It suggests even more about his relationship with his audience, and the ways in which he envisions himself as a prophet more than a pop star. Like a lot of fans, I've found myself meditating over DAMN.'s verses like scripture, dissecting the text forward and backward in search of holy discernment. Lord knows I'm no biblical scholar. Hell, I can't remember the last time I set foot inside a church. (Trust, my mother reminds me of this often.) But Lamar's magnanimous LP has me wrestling with the nature of my supposed cursed existence as a black man in the bowels of Babylon — and the ways in which I may be complicit in it.
And more worth reading:
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.