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An understated gem, Josh Ritter’s second album Hello Starling is an album not to be missed this year.

First listens to this Idaho-born singer-songwriter will reveal touchstones as familiar as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, even Tim Hardin.

There are some artists that just don’t act their age. And in the case of XPN Aritst To Watch Michael Kiwanuka, that's a good thing! The fact that this singer-songwriter is in his early 20’s will be the last thing to come to mind (if at all) when you make your way through his debut album Home Again. Kiwanuka is the latest in a wave of British soul and R&B singers to captivate audiences. And while connections to his peers like Adele exist, he paves his own path to our ears with the songs of Home Again.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals have come a long way from their blues-rock beginnings in Waitsfield, Vermont. For Grace, she's finally emerging as the superstar frontwoman that so many of us knew she had the potential to be. And on the latest album, The Lion The Beast The Beat she grabs hold of the spotlight and seems unwilling to let it go. We know what a commanding presence this band, and Grace in particular, can be on stage, yet until now capturing that on record has been a challenge. The Lion The Beast The Beat may be the step in the right direction.

Following her impressive debut in 2005, there were big names lined up to work with Seattle songwriter Brandi Carlile. On The Story Carlile enlisted Grammy winning producer T-Bone Burnett, and on Give Up the Ghost the band bunkered down in Los Angeles with famed studio wizard Rick Rubin. For her latest, Brandi decided to settle in a little closer to home. The album Bear Creek takes its name from the studio in which it was recorded just outside of Seattle. As usual, Carlile is flanked by “the twins” Tim and Phil Hanseroth. And along with producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris), Brandi and the band set out to make an album that captures the heart of their sound.

Joan Osborne calls this new album - Pretty Little Stranger - her version of a country record, and that seems pretty fair after a few listens. The pace is moderate, the songs nicely arranged, and the whole package is tied together by her most important attribute - that remarkable voice.

It’s interesting to think back to over twelve years ago when many of us first heard the music of John Mayer. Fresh-faced and innocent he would become yet another staple in the emergence of acoustic rock joining the likes of Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson. Unlike the aforementioned songwriters, Mayer grabbed as many headlines for his off-stage activities as he did for his music. Controversial interviews and high-profile arm candy may have acted as distractions for critics and fans. But on his fifth studio album Born and Raised, Mayer aims to strike those public perceptions and regain focus on his music. If you’re ready to listen, you’ll find that these songs are some of his best yet.

.Rarely, over the course of a year, is there a lack of music that we would categorize as ‘retro’ or ‘old school’. It’s easy to become enchanted by the familiar sounds of years gone by that are injected with a breath of youthful charisma. But there is that dilemma of separating the purely redundant with a talent that acknowledges his or her influences and is forward-thinking enough to still engage; cue Nick Waterhouse. A young soulful hipster from San Francisco, he surely takes a page out of the book that preceded him, but fits quite nicely into the current musical landscape as well.

It’s been almost four years since their last studio album. Shy Pursuit is a welcomed return and as mentioned above, reconnects listeners to their knack for writing quick and catchy indie-pop gems. But on the new album their sound branches out a little more than we’ve heard previously. They approach some of these songs with a more worldly musical vision. Think along the lines of bands like Fools Gold or Vampire Weekend. Songs like “Jackhammer” soar over funky rhythms, as does the strummy album closer “The Living Things.” Overall, an adventurous musical ride.

While The Spinto Band has been making music for over 15 years, Cheers Elephant will have to play the role of new-comer this week. With that said the band’s third album Like Wind Blows Fire does a lot to impress. In many ways the new album does much to prove the band’s identity. Bright, summery tunes showered with melodic guitar riffs and catchy sing-a-long harmonies. The album starts with the tempting falsetto driven “Peoples” and follows with the album stand-out “Doin’ It, Right.” And as you work your way through these songs, more and more it’s clear that this is a band that’s realizing their potential with each note.

Since the announcement of Little Broken Hearts, the new studio album from Norah Jones, lots of critics have alluded to a change in direction. Initially, that was due in part to her collaboration with producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) whose tactics behind the board have been well documented with bands like The Black Keys, Beck, Broken Bells and Gnarls Barkley. But it would be somewhat misleading to say a sonic shift wasn’t something we saw coming with Norah’s last few projects. In fact, she worked previously with Burton as part of his Rome project with Daniele Luppi. So what is it about this new collection that sets it apart from Jones’ previous works? Well, quite simply, it’s the subject of the songs.

For an artist that’s been as prolific as Jack White, it's hard to believe that Blunderbuss is the first full solo album from the former White Stripes frontman. From his time with the Stripes, The Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, to producing for the likes of Loretta Lynn & Wanda Jackson and even starting his own record label White has been somewhat of a musical chameleon. No matter what shade of Jack White most appeals to you, Blunderbuss can likely scratch that itch. Much like White's career this collection is full of sonic twists and turns that only prove to engage with each listen.

Honestly, what’s not to like about JD McPherson? The teacher turned rocker dials up a sound reminiscent of rock and roll’s early days on Signs & Signifiers, his first album. His style and attitude are both representative of those times, but noticeably his influences run the gamut from rockabilly to soul, from punk to hip-hop. It’s that combination of appreciation and living in present that makes Signs & Signifiers an absolute gem.

Simply stated, Slipstream is an album that stands as a welcomed return from Bonnie Raitt. Fans have been longing for a new album since 2005’s Souls Alike. And while Slipstream is definitely a reconnection to a cherished voice and heritage artist, there is some new territory covered on this collection. Most notably, Raitt collaborates for the first time with producer Joe Henry. And Slipstream also marks the first album Raitt has released on her own record label (Redwing Records).

We first met the Alabama Shakes this fall when the young band from Athens, Alabama released their first EP. Four songs rarely ignite a career as much as they’ve done for the Alabama Shakes. Fresh out of high school, the soulful rockers have been aggressively touring, impressing show-goers and gearing up for the release of their debut, full length album, Boys & Girls, due out this month on ATO Records. Led by dynamic frontwoman Brittany Howard, the Shakes deliver on their potential with Boys & Girls for one of the year’s most exciting debuts.

Mac is back! Well, to be fair, it’s not like Dr. John hasn’t been consistent in his musical output. He’s released more than a handful of albums since the turn of century. But with Locked Down, his latest, perhaps none of those recent releases matches this latest collection in terms of energy and/or sheer appeal. Many will argue that a five time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has the latitude to do just about whatever they want, but for Dr. John Locked Down is an album he needed to make and music fans need to hear.

On his new album Justin Townes Earle aims to prove a few things, including the fact that it’s ok if the title of your album is longer than the actual runtime of the record. Alright, joke’s aside Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now may be one of the more verbose album title’s we’ve seen in quite a while, but that hardly reflects the concise nature of the songs it headlines. Ten songs clocking in just over thirty minutes, Nothing’s Gonna Change… is one of Justin’s finest works to date harnessing his strength as a captivating storyteller.

Port of Morrow may be the first new album from The Shins in nearly half a decade, but those five years were far from your typical hiatus. The new album may better serve as a reintroduction and/or reincarnation of frontman James Mercer, rather than a continuation of what we’ve come to know from the band itself. The primary reason is that since 2007’s Wincing the Night Away, the entire band with the exception of Mercer has been replaced. Port of Morrow is also the first album from The Shins to not be released on the Sub Pop label. Mercer is releasing the collection on his own label Aural Apothecary (distributed by Columbia). And perhaps most notably Mercer seems to have confidently taken the reigns with a distinct vision and sonic direction for the band.

For Bruce Springsteen, an artist of true iconic stature and fame, you sometimes wonder where the motivation comes from. He’ll sell records as long as he keeps making them and fill seats as long as he keeps playing in front of them. For ‘The Boss’ life doesn’t seem too shabby. However listening to his new album Wrecking Ball, Bruce seems anything but content. For Springsteen making records at this point is hardly about moving up Billboard charts or filling stadiums, it’s about marking a moment in time. Wrecking Ball speaks to our hardships, our challenges and the eventual hope that lies ahead.

Few bands have the natural chemistry that you’ll find on Come Back As Rain, the new album from XPN Artist To Watch, Good Old War. The latest album from the Philadelphia trio is all at once a comfortable, feel good collection and a fresh step forward. Keith Goodwin, Tim Arnold and Daniel Schwartz capture liveliness on Come Back As Rain that they’ve been applauded for onstage and translate it somewhat effortlessly in the studio.

Some music fans may remember a band called The Format. They released a couple records in the mid-2000’s and toured a good bit. The enjoyed some mild success, but decided to take a break in 2008. Nate Ruess, one of the founders of The Format, moved from Arizona to New York to form a new band, appropriately called fun. They released their first album in 2009 called Aim and Ignite and just recently put out there sophomore effort Some Nights. Their latest release has already grabbed some ears due to the anthemic “We Are Young” which features Janelle Monae. But as captivating as that song is, Some Nights is in many ways the album Ruess have been aiming to make his whole career.

Heartless Bastards front woman and founder Erika Wennerstrom has that indefinable appeal where when she sings, you listen. Sure, her voice is rather interesting. She sings with unapologetic power, an almost roar that prefers whiskey to wine (or so you’d imagine). Since 2003 she’s fronted the now four piece rock outfit that originated in Cincinnati and now calls home to Austin, Texas where the band recorded their new album Arrow. The band has evolved since 2003 with Wennerstrom pursuing as the lone original member, but perhaps with Arrow she’s finally captured the intended vision for what the Heartless Bastards have aspired to be.

They may qualify as newcomers, but the Minneapolis band Polica has already captured some keen ears as interest intensifies surrounding their first album, Give You The Ghost. An official release of their debut is slated for Valentine’s Day, yet their songs have been making the rounds on the internet since late last year. Some of the interest stems from Polica’s relation to the indie soft rock outfit Gayngs. Ryan Olson, founder of Gayngs, produced Give You The Ghost, and vocalist Channy Leaneagh was rotating member of Gayngs as well. Other notable touch points on the album include a guest appearance by Mike Noyce of Bon Iver (another member of Gayngs) and Jim Eno of Spoon who also helped produced the album.

It seems that whoever crosses the path of Sharon Van Etten eventually falls under the spell of her songwriting and subtle magnetism. In addition to a growing fan base and critical appeal, fellow musicians have taken notice of the once independent singer-songwriter. Perhaps there’s no better example of such admiration than on Sharon’s new album Tramp. In addition to producer Aaron Dessner, a legion of notable indie-rockers helped make Tramp, one of the more confident and surprisingly engaging early releases of the year.

Welcome back Dr. Dog, it’s almost as if you never left. Listening to Be the Void, the 7th album from Philadelphia’s favorite indie-rockers is a quick reminder as to how likeable and captivating they can be. In some ways Be the Void picks up where the last Dr. Dog album, Shame, Shame left off. But add to that tuneful collection of songs an energy that’s indicative of their live shows and you have an album that will keep attracting new fans plus reignite their already faithful following.

The latest in our series of recordings from World Cafe interviews with some of our favorie artists of the past year is available now. Pick up your copy of Live at the World Cafe, Volume 33 CD when you Pledge Now!!

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