Jason Heller

Singer-songwriters such as Justin Townes Earle often get pegged as being self-reflective, and it's a fair accusation. Earle himself lingered on his own confessional psyche on his last album, 2017's Kids in the Street, which unearthed all kinds of rocks from his past to see what was squirming underneath them.

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

Ever since Led Zeppelin took it up on themselves to sing songs about hobbits, rock music and fantasy literature have had an intimate relationship. But rarely has anyone explored that overlap as effusively as Nicholas Eames.

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.

In the 2010 documentary Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion, director Ron Wyman explores the culture of the Tuareg people of North Africa — specifically their music. As pointed out in the film, one name has become synonymous with Tuareg music. The guitarist and singer-songwriter Bombino, born Omara Moctar, grew up amid the social, political and economic unrest in the Sahara in the 1980s and '90s.

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.

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.

Dragons, thanks to Game of Thrones, are cool again. But for many of us, dragons never stopped being cool. Even during the long stretches where the mainstream has largely ignored these awesome, ancient lizards of genre fiction, authors from Lucius Shepard to Robin Hobb to Naomi Novik have kept dragon lore alive, radically reinventing the scaly beasts along the way. On the considerable merits of her new novel, The Sky Is Yours, Chandler Klang Smith should be added to that list — although it would be a mistake to think that dragons are the book's bread and butter.

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 Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

On the second page of Curioddity — the debut novel by Eisner-winning comic-book writer Paul Jenkins — the book's protagonist Wil Morgan wakes up and looks in the mirror. Thankfully he doesn't do the expected thing, which is describe his appearance for the benefit of the reader. Instead, Jenkins writes, "Not a good time to make eye contact with his reflection, he decided, and he hastily backed away." It's a tiny scene, but it's telling. By and large, Curioddity tries to subvert — or at least smirk at — a whole host of fictional clichés and tropes.

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.

Lower Dens' last album, 2012's Nootropics, dealt with singer-guitarist Jana Hunter's preoccupation with transhumanism — the notion that human evolution is far from over, and that we may have to alter our own species radically in order to survive the challenges of the future, both here on Earth and in the far reaches of space. It's far-out stuff for sure, although Hunter has decided to probe a little closer to home on Lower Dens' arresting new album, Escape From Evil.

"It was a great time for storytellers," says Matthew Biggs, the central character in Kenneth Calhoun's haunting debut novel, Black Moon. The irony of his comment comes with a horrific aftertaste: The world is suffering from a sudden, unexplainable pandemic that's made everyone a perpetual insomniac. Biggs is one of the few who can still sleep. Humanity's state of chronic wakefulness has caused mass insanity — in the noonday sun, dreams overflow and chaos reigns.