Stephen Thompson

Stephen Thompson is an editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he writes the advice column The Good Listener, fusses over the placement of commas and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the weekly NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk.

In 1993, Thompson founded The Onion's entertainment section, The A.V. Club, which he edited until December 2004. In the years since, he has provided music-themed commentaries for the NPR programs Weekend Edition Sunday, All Things Considered and Morning Edition, on which he earned the distinction of becoming the first member of the NPR Music staff ever to sing on an NPR newsmagazine. (Later, the magic of AutoTune transformed him from a 12th-rate David Archuleta into a fourth-rate Cher.) Thompson's entertainment writing has also run in Paste magazine, The Washington Post and The London Guardian.

During his tenure at The Onion, Thompson edited the 2002 book The Tenacity of the Cockroach: Conversations with Entertainment's Most Enduring Outsiders (Crown) and copy-edited six best-selling comedy books. While there, he also coached The Onion's softball team to a sizzling 21-42 record, and was once outscored 72-0 in a span of 10 innings. Later in life, Thompson redeemed himself by teaming up with the small gaggle of fleet-footed twentysomethings who won the 2008 NPR Relay Race, a triumph he documents in a hard-hitting essay for the book This Is NPR: The First Forty Years (Chronicle).

A 1994 graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Thompson now lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his two children, four cats and a room full of vintage arcade machines. His hobbies include watching reality television without shame, eating Pringles until his hand has involuntarily twisted itself into a gnarled claw, using the size of his Twitter following to assess his self-worth, touting the immutable moral superiority of the Green Bay Packers and maintaining a fierce rivalry with all Midwestern states other than Wisconsin.

A couple weeks ago, Code Switch blogger Gene Demby and I sat down to reflect on a decade-old sports moment — a single play in a single game — and describe how it affected us as rival fans of the teams involved. In this second episode of the series we're calling The Giant Foam Finger, the two of us tackle a far unwieldier subject: hatred.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the shipment of cat sedatives that have us pondering just how often we order shipments of cat sedatives is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on sedating children (not cats) via music.

We talk a lot about nostalgia on Pop Culture Happy Hour — about the ways entertainment has shaped our youth and placed our memories in perspective — but in doing so, we've mostly discussed movies, TV shows, music, books, board games, that sort of thing.

Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is a relentless tinkerer: His songs have an impeccable, fussed-over quality, to the point where fussy impeccability could easily seem like the sum total of his mission. Sounding great and being great are two vastly different features in the ever-subjective world of rock 'n' roll, after all, and yet the Australian band's best songs have found ways to check both boxes.

Just a little less than five years ago, Linda Holmes and I decided to book a studio after-hours and record what we'd call "an audio experiment" — a roundtable discussion of pop culture with the two of us and our pals Trey Graham and Glen Weldon, produced by the essential Mike Katzif. By the time the first recording was complete, we'd decided to come back every week, even though our budget was zero and we'd never asked our bosses for permission.

Country singer Kacey Musgraves opened this Friday's Tiny Desk Concert with four charming songs from her new album, Pageant Material, which we'll post online soon. But she couldn't possibly skip "Follow Your Arrow" on the very day the Supreme Court handed down its historic ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges.

Alicia Bognanno isn't one for wasted motion: The indefatigable lead singer of Nashville's Bully crafts her songs for maximum impact in minimal time, taking care never to overstay her welcome or overdress her arrangements. Feels Like, the Nashville band's effervescent debut, speeds by in about half an hour, having left behind a trail of two- and three-minute songs that stick in the brain for ages.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the mail-order grapefruits that have us pondering the nature of the mail-order-grapefruit business is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on pop music's staying power.

Steven F. writes via Facebook: "Which current music stars will be remembered 20 or 50 years from now, which will be forgotten, and why?"

There are so many quick-twitch responses to this question — and virtually all of them are, at least on some level, wrong.

The Canadian pop band Walk Off The Earth has followed a thoroughly modern path to success, starting with the way it broke through on the strength of adorable YouTube covers ("Somebody That I Used To Know" has 165 million views and counting) and continuing through its approach to its own compositions.

(Note: If you have photosensitive epilepsy, this video features strobe effects.)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the weekly magazine that seems to show up at least four times per week is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This time around: thoughts on the playlists at amusement parks.

The first words Bridie Monds-Watson sings on her debut album double as a tidy thesis statement: "A teenage heart is an unguided dart." The Irish singer-songwriter, who records under the name SOAK, made Before We Forgot How To Dream while she was still 18 — some of these songs date back to her early teens — so she knows whereof she speaks.

This week's taping presented us with a few conundrums: Host Linda Holmes had already begun her vacation, while I know jack-all about the seven accumulated seasons of Mad Men, whose finale we were duty-bound to discuss. Our solution involved a pair of our most beloved guest panelists — Gene Demby and, from a studio in L.A., Barrie Hardymon — and a brief interregnum in poor Linda's vacation. (I stayed home and ate snacks.)

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the package shipped Next Day Air but addressed to the guy who moved out of our house eight years ago is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: deep thoughts on beach balls at concerts.

Margaret H.W. writes via email: "Why do music festivals seem to hand out beach balls to drunk, high 19-year-olds? If I would like to listen to music WITHOUT beach balls, what are my anti-beach-ball options? CAN I DEFLATE THE BEACH BALLS?

The Milk Carton Kids' Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan craft soft, timeless ballads in close harmony — and, as such, recall the reverently beautiful likes of Simon & Garfunkel. But, while the duo's first three albums are gorgeous throughout, the studio can have a way of making music just a little too impeccable.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside a backup pallet of kennel-grade cat sedatives is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: thoughts on when music might stand between life and death.

Ann L. writes via email: "Can a song really save your life?"

For all their intricacy and precision, Patrick Watson's shimmery ballads never lack emotion or intimacy: The Montreal singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and prolific film-score composer puts every tiny sound in its right place, but his perfectionism is deployed for the sake of grace that feels almost otherworldly.

Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel aren't the first married couple to write songs about the challenges and celebrations inherent to lifelong love, but few focus more intently on a sense of play. Still, there's nothing naive or unrealistic about their songs: When they sing, "Love loud / Don't lose loud" in 2008's "The Re-Arranger," they're taking care to package a sweet little two-word slogan with a subtle but potent reminder that loving loudly is a job of endless maintenance.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside flyers that assume we have the means to acquire luxury items is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: thoughts on the intensity of online backlash.

Andy S. writes via email: "Why do certain bands get singled out for seemingly out-of-proportion online hate? (See: Nickelback.)"

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside bales of deep-discounted Easter candy is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on buskers, tipping and etiquette.

Holly R. writes via email: "How much of a tip is good for the street-side musician with a cup at his feet? What about for one playing in a bar?"

Last Friday, Netflix dropped its latest 13-episode bundle of original programming: the grim and occasionally grisly superhero drama Daredevil, based on the Marvel Comics mainstay of the same name. Starring Charlie Cox and a large supporting cast, the show takes place in a bleak New York City neighborhood that's ruled by a murderous crime syndicate and defended by blind lawyer Matt Murdock, whose other heightened senses make him an oft-overmatched but extremely resourceful crime-fighter.

Shamir is best known for his buoyant, elastic electro-pop-rap song "On The Regular," but his live shows careen in altogether different directions. For one, the 20-year-old Las Vegas native sings far more often than he raps, with a high but rich voice versatile enough to accommodate Sylvester-esque disco, sleekly modern pop and robust funk.

San Fermin's 2013 debut brims over with ideas: The brainchild of one guy, classically trained Brooklyn composer and multi-instrumentalist Ellis Ludwig-Leone, it's a nearly hourlong feast of gorgeous chamber-pop storytelling.

Villagers began as a lush one-man band with 2010's Becoming A Jackal, then morphed into an even more complex collaborative effort in time for 2013's {Awayland}, as Dublin singer-songwriter Conor O'Brien learned to work with a team he'd assembled.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside an assortment of expensive cat sedatives is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on whether all the great song ideas have been used up.

Some concerts build gradually, tentatively, until they reach an encore full of rousing classics. Others open at full blast and somehow find ways to open the throttle from there. As TV On The Radio began closing out NPR Music's SXSW showcase, held at Stubb's BBQ in Austin, it was clear that no time would be wasted on slow-footing or throat-clearing. From the opening song — "Young Liars," a 2003 favorite that's aged wonderfully — the band unleashed a storm that barely let up in intensity.

For Heartless Bastards, rock 'n' roll entails a lot of heavy lifting, most often in the form of hundreds of club shows each year. It's a work ethic reflected on the Ohio-born, Austin-based band's albums, as singer/guitarist/powder-keg Erika Wennerstrom sets her rugged wail against the efforts of musicians churning out muscular blues-rock.

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