Stephen Thompson

When Leon Russell died last November, the 74-year-old star was recuperating from heart surgery and itching to get back out on the road. So it's no surprise that Russell — whose music fused soul, rock, gospel and country — left behind an impressive batch of songs that hadn't yet seen release. On Friday, 10 months after his death, On a Distant Shore continues a recorded legacy that hasn't dimmed.

Awards shows often mirror current events, from politically pointed acceptance speeches to winners whose subject matter feels especially relevant in the moment. The 69th Emmy Awards, held Sunday night, didn't skimp on either, as The Handmaid's Tale, Saturday Night Live and Veep posted strong — even dominant — showings over the course of the night.

David Simon and George Pelecanos made The Wire and Treme together, among other shows, and now they've teamed up to create The Deuce, a new HBO drama about prostitution and the rise of the porn industry in New York's Times Square. Set in 1971, when prostitution took place out in the open on Times Square's grubby streets, the show stars Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Franco (as twins!) and a huge cast of character actors who help form an ambitious web of stories. It's a lot to take in, and the first eight-episode season — which premiered Sept.

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.

Ever since the early days of Pop Culture Happy Hour, we've set aside the occasional block of time to champion a few of our favorite entertainers in a segment we call People We're Pulling For. We keep the criteria pretty loose: They can be little-known up-and-comers, major stars at a crossroads, or anything in between. The important thing is that we're rooting for them, and we think others ought to root for them, too.

If you haven't heard "Namesake," one of the many wildly joyous highlights of Tunde Olaniran's 2015 debut Transgressor, take a few minutes to listen before proceeding with... well, anything in your life. A boundlessly inventive ode to individuality, it sounds, appropriately enough, like nothing else.

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.

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.

Recording under the name Silver Torches, Seattle singer-songwriter Erik Walters specializes in smart and melancholy Americana — the sort of stuff that ought to be catnip to fans of, say, Ryan Adams or late-period Paul Westerberg.

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.

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.

We thought this episode was going to be all about The Dark Tower, a new movie adaptation of Stephen King's ambitious series of novels. Then... we saw The Dark Tower, which attempts, at least in part, to condense 4,000-plus pages into a 95-minute movie. We didn't like it — and, more to the point, we didn't think it was interesting enough to warrant a whole segment of Pop Culture Happy Hour.

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.

With host Linda Holmes still in Los Angeles, where she's attending the Televisions Critics Association press tour, Glen Weldon and I have assembled without her for a discussion of director Kathryn Bigelow's new film, Detroit. We're joined by our pals Gene Demby (from NPR's Code Switch) and Aisha Harris (who hosts Slate's Represent podcast).

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.

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.

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