Behind The Stories

First Listen Turns Four

A view of the crowd during the Flaming Lips' performance at the 2011 Sasquatch Music Festival. i i

A view of the crowd during the Flaming Lips' performance at the 2011 Sasquatch Music Festival. Mito Habe-Evans/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mito Habe-Evans/NPR
A view of the crowd during the Flaming Lips' performance at the 2011 Sasquatch Music Festival.

A view of the crowd during the Flaming Lips' performance at the 2011 Sasquatch Music Festival.

Mito Habe-Evans/NPR

Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of one of the most popular features on the NPR Music site: the First Listen series, which provides free, full-length streams of albums just before they're released for sale. In that time, there's been no shortage of groundbreaking albums and breakout artists to make the cut.

As it turns out, we aren't the only ones who've noticed the series. Just last week, Evolver.fm spoke with NPR Music senior product manager Amy Schriefer about how NPR Music manages to advance stream so many great albums. During the interview, they asked Amy to share her favorite. (See what she said below.)

All this got us thinking, of the hundreds of new albums and thousands of new songs NPR listeners hear for the first time through the First Listen series, which ones made the biggest impression? Whether it was the album you were chain-streaming for the whole week it was available, or perhaps the song that introduced you to your next favorite artist, here are a handful of the answers we got on our Facebook page:

The Avett Brothers / The Carpenter
Belle & Sebastian / Write About Love
Adele / 21
Andrew Bird / Noble Beast
Choir of Young Believers / This Is For The White In Your Eyes

Some of brains behind the First Listen operation offered to share the previews for which they maintain a soft spot, too.

Jazz writer Patrick Jarenwattananon, of NPR Music's A Blog Supreme, pointed out records from Jason Moran and Vijay Iyer, each of which ended up being a top jazz release.

NPR Classical blogger Tom Huizenga said his recent favorite is from artists Hilary Hahn and Hauschka.

First Listen contributor Sami Yenigun shared a few words about a release from JD Allen, as well as what (and who) makes the series so special.

"I trust the tastes of my colleagues," Yenigun said. "So I'm always willing to give a First Listen album a shot, even if it's not something that I would immediately pick out of a stack of CDs."

That's what makes the series great, according to Yenigun. First Listen is "a way to discover music that falls outside of my listening comfort zone."

An example is one of Yenigun's favorite albums of last year, JD Allen's Victory.

"I'm not someone who listens to a whole lot of jazz, just bits here and there," Yenigun said. "But whenever Patrick Jarenwattananon puts his stamp of approval on something, my ears perk up."

NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson said, "One of my favorite things about First Listens is the way they continue to confound expectations. Even four years into the series, we hear from readers and bloggers and media types that they cannot believe NPR would include some album or other."

"It makes me giddy to scan the series' recent offerings," Thompson said. "And blow past this crazy Cecilia Bartoli record, the metal band Baroness, the R&B singer Miguel, the electronic-music producer Ricardo Villalobos, an obscure singer beloved by me and a few thousand people, and on and on."

So whether you're reading reviews or the one writing reviews, there's always a new band (or a whole new genre) out there, and we're glad NPR Music is here to be a part of it.

This post was updated Monday, October 1, 2012.

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