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In Memoriam 2019: The Musicians We Lost

Dec 31, 2019

Heroes of alt-rock and idols of classic Hollywood, jazz luminaries and Pulitzer-winning composers, cult legends and rule-breakers, rising stars and old masters: Music communities around the globe lost dozens of shining voices this year. Here's NPR Music's celebration of some of the musicians who left the world in 2019.

Where a musician lives can tell you a lot about their songs. Joan Shelley wears her love of Kentucky proudly, but for her latest album, Like The River Loves The Sea, Shelley left her home outside of Louisville, Ky., and headed to a very different environment: Iceland.

Over the last half century, Jeff Lynne has left an indelible mark on popular music.

This Tiny Desk concert was part of Tiny Desk Fest, a four-night series of extended concerts performed in front of a live audience and streamed live on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

The first time Raphael Saadiq played Tiny Desk, "it was really a tiny desk."

Our guest, Azniv Korkejian, records as Bedouine. The name reflects the many moves Azniv has made in her life — born Syria, Azniv grew up in Saudi Arabia before coming to the United States. Here, she lived in Boston and Houston, as well as several other Southern cities, before she settled in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood.

"Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast," sang Steely Dan in their 1973 hit "Reelin' in the Years," "So you grab a piece of something that you think is going to last."

If you believe that 1973 marked the real end of the 1960s as a cultural era, it's a fitting sentiment — the year was the last gasp of an age of possibility, when sunny idealism gave way to economic recession and cynical disillusionment.

Or as Andrew Grant Jackson writes in his fascinating new book, 1973: Rock at the Crossroads:

The Go-Betweens' Perfect Pop Cracked Open

Dec 5, 2019

"Perfect pop" is subjective, but a song or album that be defined as such gets that tag because of one key factor: It's hooked itself into a listener's ear. A person's reasons for the desire to hear a piece of music on repeat may vary; it can be a simple yet devastating turn of lyrical phrase, a seductive melody, or even a buried-in-the-mix detail like a particularly buoyant bass line.

Evgeny Pobozhiy, a virtuoso guitarist with a busy profile on the Moscow jazz scene, has won the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition. As winner of the prize, one of the most prestigious of its kind, he'll receive $30,000 in scholarship funds and a recording contract with the Concord Music Group.

He also joins an honor roll of past winners including pianist Jacky Terrasson, saxophonists Joshua Redman and Melissa Aldana, and singers Jazzmeia Horn and Cécile McLorin Salvant.

Coldplay, one of the biggest bands in the world, recently announced that the Chris Martin and company will not be touring in support of their latest album until they can figure out how to negate the environmental impact of their concerts.

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On Wednesday, Bon Iver was nominated for four Grammy Awards, snagging nods for record of the year (for "Hey, Ma"), as well as album of the year, best alternative music album and best r

The only thing we know for sure about new posthumous studio albums from Leonard Cohen, Harry Nilsson, Prince, Arthur Russell and others: Final approval did not come from the artists themselves. At some point, a producer – or manager, or official from the estate or other individual a step removed from the name on the marquee – acted as the artist's proxy and gave an OK to release the work to the public.

Seconds before we hit record, Snarky Puppy's bandleader, Michael League leaned in to ask if he could "do a little crowd work." I suspect he waited until the last second on purpose, but it's been easy to trust this band when they have an idea, judging by the three Grammy Awards they get to dust off at home after every tour run.

The 62nd Grammy Awards nominations are here, and it appears to be Lizzo's year to lose.

The singer, songwriter, flutist and rapper was nominated across five of the night's top categories, including song of the year, record of the year, best new artist, best pop solo performance and best R&B performance.

Lil Nas X was nominated for best new artist, album of the year (for his debut record, 7), and record of the year, where his Gen Z opus "Old Town Road" is up against Post Malone, Bon Iver, Swae Lee, H.E.R., Ariana Grande, Lizzo and Billie Eilish.

Hosting an interview show means you don't want to ask silly questions. But sometimes, a silly or lighthearted question is a great way to learn something about a band, and that's what happened with Matty Gervais, Charity Rose Thielen and Jon Russell of The Head and the Heart when they visited for an audience session at World Cafe.

An anthology devoted to early Nat King Cole recordings was recently released, and it offers a new window into his artistic development. The collection is called Hittin' the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943), and this massive 7-CD, 10-LP package is clearly aimed at obsessives. It's a deep dive that traces Nat King Cole's evolution — from smooth, unflappable piano player into a singing star with an endearingly smooth style all his own.

It's easy to imagine that Ringo Starr's closet is full of shoe boxes containing old mementos, like the photographs that populate Another Day In The Life, his newest book. The reality is a bit different though.

"If I'm in them, I just lift them off the internet," he says. "Others are what I do on tour when I'm hanging out."

It almost sounds like a twisted science experiment: Invite a dozen rock and roll warriors to spend a week at a ranch in the California desert, encourage them to write songs and play together, then capture the results.

"It is an iconic part of so much pop and rock music, but it's also an instrument that's yet to be fully explored," says jazz keyboardist John Medeski.

Motherless Brooklyn is a new film about a private detective trying to solve a murder in 1950s New York.

When it comes to bands performing at the Tiny Desk, there's dressing up, and then there's dressing up. Just in time for Halloween, we've pulled together a handy playlist starring artists whose stage wear crosses over from "outfits" to "costumes."

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We live! We die! We live again! There's something remarkably pointed about the War Boys' rallying cry from Mad Max: Fury Road.

"It was really important to me to write about what happened," Mikaela Straus, the musician known as King Princess, says, referencing being thrust into a career that she wasn't as prepared for as she'd imagined.

Dan Piepenbring was a 29-year-old editor of the literary magazine The Paris Review in 2016 when he met Prince for the first time — and agreed to help the musical icon pen a memoir. It was the assignment of a lifetime for a writer who had not yet published a book, but Prince wanted someone he could open up to — and Piepenbring fit the bill.

The "profession" of rock criticism was still in its tender adolescence in 1969. Daily newspapers were beginning to hire writers to cover pop, rock and what was sometimes described as "youth culture." Alternative weeklies like the Village Voice became trusted early warning systems for new bands. And Rolling Stone magazine, which began in San Francisco in 1967, had by 1969 become the rock and roll "paper of record."

"I'm naturally soft spoken," Laetitia Tamko says. "But when I sing, I'm not soft spoken."

Much of Infinite Worlds, the first album Tamko recorded as Vagabon, was her with a guitar, singing achingly introspective songs about the search for home and safety. Tamko says when she recorded it, she was uncomfortable with how deep her voice was. But now, hundreds of live performances later, she's embraced it.

The recent biopic Rocketman painted a Hollywood version of Elton John's life, but a new memoir, Me, comes straight from the artist himself. In it, he describes how, as a young man, he was determined to enter the music business, in spite of some misgivings about rock 'n' roll in his household. As he tells Fresh Air, "My dad, of course, hated it."

It's a Friday night in London, but the cityscape is far from sight. On a small stage, the silhouettes of two dancers undulate in double time, then half-time, their limbs slicing through the red-lit fog that blurs their outline. A digitally frayed, hummed refrain keeps the pace in and out of which they keep moving, as the rise and fall of composer and sound artist Klein's amplified breath signals her impending arrival through the crowd.

There's something striking about Tamino when you meet him. The Egyptian-born, Belgium-raised musician has a calm energy, a measured performance style and, quite frankly, a heavenly voice.

"The fire you like so much in me / Is the mark of someone adamantly free," Liz Phair declared in her 1993 song "Strange Loop."

The song, which appeared on her debut studio album, Exile in Guyville, was a fitting introduction to the Chicago-raised singer-songwriter ⁠— Phair was serving notice that she was unwilling to be anyone other than herself, and if people didn't approve of her sexually frank and defiantly profane lyrics, or her lo-fi sensibility, they were more than welcome to listen to something else.

This week, Big Thief will release its second album of the year. The double play alone doesn't capture just how prolific this band is, though. Two Hands is the third Big Thief release in the past year and six days, if you count lead songwriter Adrianne Lenker's solo record, abysskiss. Broaden the count from there, and it is the fifth Big Thief-related LP of the past year and a half, including solo outings from guitarist Buck Meek and drummer James Krivchenia. Big Thief is like a hydrant with its top knocked off. Music is pouring from Big Thief.

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