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.

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.

When thinking about populism, it's easy to focus on either the relatable day-to-day struggles of average people — of the majority somewhere in the middle, glorified by so many rootsy tropes — or the more strung-out striving of those at the bottom. In politics and in culture, "the little guy" has typically made it far enough up the ladder to have a voice echoed in anthems and slogans, or else sunk far enough into desperation, homelessness or famine so as to surpass the need for detail entirely.

Waxahatchee began as a vehicle for the raggedly beautiful indie-pop home recordings of Katie Crutchfield, a singer-songwriter who'd appeared in a small assortment of bands in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala. On her 2012 debut, American Weekend, Crutchfield set a narrative tone for the increasingly fleshed-out recordings to follow: She writes from the perspective of one who's young, keenly intelligent, and both hyper-aware of and overwhelmed by everything that could ever go wrong.

All over SXSW, kiosks were plastered with posters that posed a provocative question: "Who the hell is Stromae?"

Sufjan Stevens' career has covered vast swaths of thematic ground: To say nothing of his ballet score, his electronic concept record about the Chinese zodiac or his album-length instrumental tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, 2005's Illinois and 2003's Michigan synthesized lessons in state history and geography with finely detailed, tenderly emotional treatises on love, faith, grace, alienation, want and death.

If Death Cab For Cutie's 17-year career has focused on a single overarching theme, it's the process of growing up: fumbling for connection, finding oneself, feeling out the ways human beings do and don't settle into their own skin.

Courtney Barnett made her name with 2013's "Avant Gardener," a deadpan, loosely rambling account of a severe anaphylactic attack. The song, like its counterparts on her early EPs, was many things — wordy, funny, surprising, wittily crafted — but it wasn't forceful.

It's hard to believe Laura Marling is only 25 — not just because Short Movie is her fifth album, and not just because she's been singing with wise, almost impatiently weary authority since she was 16. What's especially striking is the way she's allowed her recordings and persona to evolve through so many decisively rendered, fully formed phases. Marling found her voice unusually early in life, but she's also never stopped refining it or discovering new ways to bare its teeth.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside laminates containing SXSW's most coveted VIP party passes, all of which are set to arrive the day after we leave for Austin, is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on SXSW envy.

There's a lot of music on this page — 100 songs, to be exact, each from an artist worth discovering at this year's SXSW Music Festival. It represents more than six genre-defying hours of music.

Still, we started out with far more to choose from. It took an enormous amount of effort to get here: Thousands of acts play SXSW each year, enough that winnowing them down to 100 required months of seeking, listening, culling and decision-making. What remains are some of SXSW 2015's most thrilling discoveries and highlights.

The Austin 100

Mar 3, 2015

Put on your headphones and listen to NPR Music's 100 picks from SXSW 2015.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

When Purity Ring released its debut album Shrines back in 2012, it came bundled with some of the most ill-defined genre signifiers imaginable, from chillwave to the band's self-deployed "future pop" to the even-less-meaningful "witch house." Now that the Edmonton duo is back with a follow-up, it's time to call it what it is: Like its predecessor, Another Eternity dispenses some of the most ingratiating electro-pop around, simple as that.

For 10 years, Screaming Females' music has come wailing out of the scruffiest and homiest of venues — basements across its home state of New Jersey, house shows from coast to coast, even NPR's Tiny Desk — in a ragged style befitting the band's lean, raw, punk-informed rock.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the boxes of chocolate we bought ourselves to eat alone in the dark on Valentine's Day is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on the collision of concert etiquette and first-date etiquette.

As the patriarch of the Staple Singers, Roebuck "Pops" Staples presided over some of the most crucial music of the 20th century, as his family band lent a righteous soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement, crafted song standards ("Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," et al) and functioned as a cross-genre conscience that spanned soul, gospel, blues, folk and rock music.

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