Jewly Hight

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.


"As of this writing, I am sixty-one years old in chronology," the novelist Madeleine L'Engle once mused. "But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and... and... and..."

This was the year that all discussion of Guy Clark, standard-bearer of narrative-unfurling Texas songwriting, slipped from present tense into past. After his death in May came innumerable published remembrances, a sold-out tribute show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium featuring the cream of the writerly Americana crop and a meticulously researched biography, Without Getting Killed Or Caught: The Life And Music Of Guy Clark, all of it celebrating the singular sturdiness of his canon.

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.

Few in the roots scene had heard of Yola Carter before she made her first appearance at Nashville's Americana Fest in September, which might've suggested that she was some sort of musical rookie. In fact, the 33-year-old black, British singer-songwriter is a seasoned studio and stage pro.

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."

Ponder for a moment the intensity of devotion that Gillian Welch has commanded among a certain highbrow listenership for the better part of two decades. She and her musical partner Dave Rawlings — who perform together under her name — have become archetypes of entrancingly austere, two-voiced artistry.

An empowerment anthem can be a beautiful thing, a dramatic transcending of suffering's isolating power. But what's glorious about Sarah Potenza's blistering, riff-propelled personal anthem "Monster" is that it doesn't seek to transcend the unpleasantness of her reality — the fact that she's been told countless times in countless ways that the body she inhabits is socially unacceptable. Instead, we hear a woman's fierce determination to stay present, to stare down those who would shame her, to revel in her corporeality.

Realness is one of the most malleable and fetishized concepts in 21st century popular music. And nothing's revered as realer in the country-punk scene that Lydia Loveless emerged from than the contrarian rawness listeners found in her first two albums, The Only Man and Indestructable Machine.

NPR listeners first met fiddle player Sara Watkins in Nickel Creek — the trio of prodigies that brought a youthful spirit to a bluegrass world that reveres its elders. Once she started making solo albums, however, she figured out what maturity sounds like for her.

If Sara Watkins hadn't thrown a fistful of salad, toppled a pineapple and squished a deviled egg during the otherwise well-mannered, family-dinner-themed music video for "Move Me," a potent song from her new album Young In All The Wrong Ways, there probably wouldn't be any footage of her behaving badly. And to think that the 35-year-old fiddle player first stepped onto the national stage in her late teens.

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.