Stephen Thompson

Like many singer-songwriters, Jason Isbell writes music that mirrors developments in his own life. In recent years, that's thankfully included the hard-won contentment he's experienced on his path to 40: sobriety, marriage and on from there.

MTV is the TV network most widely associated with short attention spans. So it makes sense that its Video Music Awards would function as a jarring and disjointed jumble of moments — a howl of protest followed immediately by a singer's tears of joy, or a heartfelt speech by a grieving mother giving way to a performance of "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" by Rod Stewart and DNCE. In such a barrage, it's unfair to expect any one performance, speech or spectacle to rise above the others, especially as the telecast stretched past three hours.

In the 15-plus years since Sam Beam released his debut album as Iron & Wine, the singer-songwriter has added layer upon layer to his soft-spoken sound.

Let's get one issue out of the way up front: MTV is never again going to build its programming around music videos. For that, viewers have YouTube — as well as MTV's lower-stakes spinoff channels — and besides, if you're old enough to remember when MTV's programming revolved around videos, then you're almost certainly too old for MTV to care what you think.

From 1978 to 2006, Cat Stevens was absent from the secular music world, a long-but-temporary retirement motivated by his conversion to Islam. In the decade since his return, he's sounded musically reinvigorated in songs that only magnify the philosophical reflection that's marked his music since the beginning.

It's only rolled out a few songs so far, but the Brooklyn band Frances Cone has already carved out a distinct sound — a sweet slow burn in which songs build gradually and carefully into something truly grand. The gorgeous "Unraveling," from a forthcoming album called Late Riser, really gets at what works about Frances Cone's music: Each cooed "ooooh" is in the exact right place, weaving together to form a warm and hypnotic tapestry.

The moment you get a look at ALA.NI behind the Tiny Desk, you'll notice it in the foreground: The singer asked us to record her set using her vintage RCA Ribbon microphone, which she carries around in a small briefcase between shows. It's a security blanket, a bit of visual branding, a statement of stylistic intent — and, not for nothing, a big reason ALA.NI's voice carries with such warmth and intimacy.

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.

Maggie Rogers became a viral star on the strength of a video in which Pharrell Williams raves about a demo of what's become her signature song, "Alaska." Since then, Rogers has signed a label deal, toured extensively and released a sweetly approachable, inventively arranged EP called Now That The Light Is Fading.

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