Marc Masters

For solo musicians playing fingerpicked acoustic guitar, technical skill and physical dexterity are kind of important. So important, in fact, that it could be tempting to concentrate on technique, letting musical creativity – i.e. actually writing unique, compelling songs – take care of itself. That might work for some, but it's never been Daniel Bachman's way. He's always been more interested in following ideas, making his chops serve his songs' journeys, not the other way around.

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.

To create her wide-ranging music, New York-based artist Lea Bertucci has used a wealth of instruments and compositional techniques. But her primary creative tool is the saxophone, and on her new album, Metal Aether, she delves into it perhaps further than she ever has.

Ian Svenonius doesn't like to sit still. The singer, bandleader, and author is always juggling multiple projects, and the one he's helmed longest — the garage-rock group Chain And The Gang — has gone through multiple configurations in its eight years of existence. In June, he released a sampling of their catalog re-recorded by recent members, and now, just a few months later, he's back with a completely original album, Experimental Music, made with a new set of co-conspirators.

Reese McHenry's got a voice like a preacher turning a standard sermon into a cathartic epiphany. Sometimes her croon has a country twang; at other times, she melds bluesy growl with smooth melodic hums. Whatever mode she's in, her voice is always an attention-grabber.

If Atlanta's Omni were a machine with a rhythm switch, it would probably just have one setting: staccato. Nearly all of the trio's songs are built around twitchy, start-stop beats that instantly get pulses rushing and nerves tingling.

"Experimental" is a pretty broad term when used to describe music, but it's rarely meant in the scientific sense. You don't often imagine an experimental band sitting in an actual laboratory, building machines and tinkering with gadgetry from 9 to 5. But that's the actual life that Raymond Scott led, which is why he's considered a pioneer of electronic experimentalism.

Bill Orcutt's guitar playing scrambles conventional logic. Filled with unpredictable fits and starts, off-key tangents and buzzing half-notes, and sometimes enhanced by the haunting accompaniment of his own wordless moans, Orcutt's work continually challenges notions of musical rules — or whether there should even be any. His deconstructive approach is clearest when he covers other people's songs, dissecting and disemboweling them in ways that don't just change their skin, but alter their basic DNA.

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.

Woods hadn't planned to make any new music in 2017, happy to rest temporarily on the laurels of last year's excellent City Sun Eater In The River Of Light. Then the election happened, and the Brooklyn band found itself — like many around the country — bewildered about what to do next. So it did what it knows best: it made more music. The songs on the resulting album, Love Is Love, don't directly reference politics or offer slogans or screeds. But they're clearly about the aftermath of Nov.

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.

There seems to always be a time during winter when snow falls in slow motion, gliding to earth like a parade of tiny white parachutes. Many people hope that time will fall on Christmas, but if you're not seeing white in your neck of the woods this weekend, you can at least recapture a bit of the feeling by listening to Windy & Carl's "Christmas Song." The pair's patient guitar strums and shoegazing reverberations cascade down like gentle weather, the kind that takes its time while you watch from the warmth of your window.

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.

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.

Listening to the music of Canadian singer and composer Ian William Craig is like watching a classic black-and-white movie slowly fade, decay and disintegrate. A trained opera singer, Craig bases most of his songs around his poignant, searching vocals. Using analog synthesizers and tape delays, he turns this self-generated source material into tactile, abstract art. The resulting sounds flicker and dissolve in unexpectedly moving ways.

Mogwai has never been afraid of drama. The music of this Scottish quartet – soaring instrumental rock, filled with swelling crescendos – has been called cinematic so often, it's surprising that they've been significantly involved in only three soundtracks over their 21-year career. But perhaps it's also wise: with a sound this theatrical (even bombastic, at times), a request to ratchet up the drama might cause Mogwai to collapse under its own weight.

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.

Lyrics tend to be what we remember most about Christmas music, but a song doesn't need to have words to evoke the holidays. In the case of North Texas-based musician Derek Rogers, all he had to do was put Christmas in the title of one of his rich, suggestive drone pieces, and suddenly these thoughtful waves of sound conjure chilly atmospheres and faded family memories.

Mike Connelly has spent most of his musical life in the land of dissonant noise, primarily with his spectacularly cacophonous Kentucky-based trio Hair Police. But there's often been an undercurrent of drama beneath the din, especially during his seven-year stint in the pounding, industrial-tinged Michigan group Wolf Eyes.

Note: NPR's audio for First Listens comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.