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.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun August 31, 2014

First Listen: Ryan Adams, 'Ryan Adams'

Ryan Adams' self-titled 14th album comes out Sept. 9.
Julia Brokaw Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu September 11, 2014 8:56 am

Once known as a poster child for heedless prolificacy, Ryan Adams now seems to have discovered how to live at a human pace. His self-titled 14th album is his first in three years — a span that would have seemed inconceivable a decade ago.

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All Songs Considered
5:54 am
Sun August 31, 2014

The Good Listener: Parents Just Don't Understand?

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince said it themselves: There's no need to argue.
Jive Records YouTube

Originally published on Sun August 31, 2014 6:46 am

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the gigantic bottle of Marmite we probably shouldn't have ordered on a late-night whim is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on getting your parents into your favorite music.

Erik writes via Facebook: "How do you get your parents to respect the music of today?"

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First Listen
11:06 am
Tue August 26, 2014

First Listen: Interpol, 'El Pintor'

Interpol's new album, El Pintor, comes out on Sept. 9.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed September 3, 2014 9:14 am

Interpol once seemed like a candidate for a quick post-debut flameout. Its 2002 debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, broke through with seemingly instantaneous intensity, setting the band up for an equally ferocious second-album letdown. So many bands in its fickle New York scene were playing a variation on Interpol's sleek, stylish, darkly driving post-punk that success was bound to be difficult to sustain.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun August 24, 2014

First Listen: Blonde Redhead, 'Barragán'

Blonde Redhead's new album, Barragán, comes out Sept. 2.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed September 3, 2014 9:12 am

You can't really apply just one catch-all adjective to the New York band Blonde Redhead, which just entered its third decade and will soon release its ninth album, Barragán. When it began, the group fit somewhere in the literal and figurative neighborhood of Sonic Youth, as its free-jazz-inflected noise-rock kept one foot neatly planted in art school.

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All Songs Considered
4:29 am
Sat August 23, 2014

The Good Listener: Can I Ask Loud Talkers At Outdoor Concerts To (Please) Shut Up?

You're looking at Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. But about 50 feet in front of him is a dude who will not shut up.
Adam Kissick for NPR

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the letters informing us that we've won amazing prizes in contests we didn't enter is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on etiquette at outdoor concerts.

Karyl writes via email: "Is it OK to ask incessant loud talkers to stop talking or to talk softly at an outside concert?"

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun August 17, 2014

First Listen: J Mascis, 'Tied To A Star'

J Mascis' new album, Tied to a Star, comes out Aug. 26.
Justin Lapriore Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed August 27, 2014 2:02 pm

As singer and guitarist for Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis presides over a sound that can be skull-splittingly loud and intense, especially onstage. It feels strange to describe Tied to a Star as a "quiet" record, even by simple comparison, but for the most part Mascis' new solo album feels downright delicate. Though not entirely unplugged, Tied to a Star showcases the soft intricacy of a veteran craftsman who knows when to hang back and decide to pulverize another day.

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All Songs Considered
7:03 am
Mon August 11, 2014

Song Premiere: Stars, 'From The Night'

Stars' new album, No One Is Lost, comes out Oct. 14.
Shervin Lainez Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed October 29, 2014 11:15 am

Stars' music has assumed many forms, from shimmery power-pop to full-throttle dance-floor fillers to doomy ballads about death and romantic dissolution. Throughout the Montreal band's seven-album history, the recurring thread has mostly been songs that reflect some sort of conflict, whether singers Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell are viewing breakups from every angle or musing on death itself.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun August 10, 2014

First Listen: Bishop Allen, 'Lights Out'

Bishop Allen's new album, Lights Out, comes out Aug. 19.
Matt Petricone Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed August 20, 2014 11:14 am

There was a time, nearly a decade ago, when the New York power-pop band Bishop Allen couldn't stop saturating the market with songs. More specifically, the group released an EP in each and every month of 2006, then bundled together the highlights for a full-length album, The Broken String, the following year. When Grrr... came out in 2009, prolificacy still seemed hardwired into the Bishop Allen mainframe.

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All Songs Considered
7:03 am
Sat August 9, 2014

The Good Listener: How Much Is Too Much To Pay For A Concert T-Shirt?

"Ooh, Love Horse, definitely one of those. Wait, forty dollars?!"
iStockphoto

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the promotional Pop Rocks we're consuming as noisily as possible is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what we should feel comfortable spending on T-shirts at live shows.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun August 3, 2014

First Listen: Sarah Jaffe, 'Don't Disconnect'

Sarah Jaffe's new album, Don't Disconnect, comes out Aug. 19.
Dutch Rall Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed August 13, 2014 5:25 am

When Texas singer-songwriter Sarah Jaffe released The Body Wins in 2012, it functioned as both a high-profile introduction and a radical left turn. Jaffe had spent a few years as an under-the-radar up-and-comer, but her best-known songs ("Clementine," "Even Born Again") tended toward brooding folk-pop balladry.

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Newport Folk Festival
10:25 am
Sun August 3, 2014

Mavis Staples, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Mavis Staples performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Originally published on Tue August 5, 2014 10:09 am

Newport Folk Festival programmers like to close their lineups on a note of uplift; to send fans to the exits feeling elated and moved. On that front, they couldn't have done much better than the great Mavis Staples, whose titanic career has spanned more than 60 years. From her time in the best-selling gospel family band The Staple Singers through her role in the civil rights movement, she's been a face of change and a voice behind some of the most powerful songs in modern history.

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All Songs Considered
9:03 am
Fri August 1, 2014

The Good Listener: Why Do Band Photos Look Like That, Anyway?

Banjo! Exposed brick! Open sky! Still, Mumford and Sons, you could use some hay bales...
Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Archer paraphernalia we bought at Comic-Con and shipped to ourselves is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on musicians' publicity photos.

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Newport Folk Festival
9:19 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Jeff Tweedy, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Jeff Tweedy performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

There aren't a whole lot of failures on the resume of Jeff Tweedy, who co-piloted the groundbreaking alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in the '80s and early '90s, then multiplied its popularity as the leader of Wilco. In that band, Tweedy's refusal to compromise his vision led to his greatest commercial success, vaulting idiosyncratic records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born into the canon.

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Newport Folk Festival
9:17 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Conor Oberst, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Conor Oberst performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Far removed from his days as a white-knuckled teenage prodigy in Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has settled into his 30s as a wise and wizened elder statesman. He's come to channel his youthful intensity into real showmanship, especially onstage, while continuing to mine powerful emotions and a sort of fearless poignancy in his songwriting.

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Newport Folk Festival
9:14 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Dawes, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Taylor Goldsmith of the band Dawes performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

The Newport Folk Festival sells out months before its lineup is announced, but fans aren't entirely in the dark: Most know there's at least a 50 percent chance that the lineup will include the countrified California roots-rock band Dawes. Led by brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, Dawes is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser, both on stage and on albums like last year's Stories Don't End.

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Newport Folk Festival
9:09 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Ages And Ages, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Tim Perry and the band Ages and Ages perform at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

The Sunday lineup of 2014's Newport Folk Festival will take thousands of fans to church, as it opens with the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir and closes with the gospel and R&B titan Mavis Staples.

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Newport Folk Festival
8:40 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

The Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

In the past, the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir has been employed as a sort of Newport Folk Festival palate-cleanser: a way to kick off the day with something kind, approachable, reverent and rooted in many folk traditions. This year, with Mavis Staples on top of the bill, the group, which opens the proceedings on Sunday, functioned as both and a theme-setter.

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Newport Folk Festival
8:31 am
Tue July 29, 2014

Deer Tick, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Deer Tick performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

John McCauley's ragged roots-rock band Deer Tick has become a Newport Folk Festival staple, along with McCauley's frequent collaborators in Dawes and Delta Spirit.

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Newport Folk Festival
10:55 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Nickel Creek, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Chris Thile and Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek perform at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins and Chris Thile started out as child prodigies, then built their band into a Grammy-winning commercial force. At the height of their success, though, the three decided to break up and pursue other projects — albeit temporarily, as the title of 2007's "Farewell (For Now) Tour" suggested.

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Newport Folk Festival
10:52 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Shovels & Rope, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent of Shovels and Rope perform at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Equal parts rowdy and loving, the husband-and-wife South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope radiates knockabout charm. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are equally adept at crooning moonily while locking eyes and tearing through blistering folk-rock anthems without seeming to take a breath. Hearst and Trent often swap instruments, giving their sets a freewheeling, unpredictable quality.

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Newport Folk Festival
10:49 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Pokey LaFarge, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Pokey LaFarge performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

You can bundle it up in MP3s and send it zinging through the ether, but Pokey LaFarge's music still seems as though it has emerged from the dustiest 78 at the thrift shop. LaFarge is a man out of time and a true wanderer, with the vintage clothing to match, but he never seems like a mere novelty act: His songs are too sturdy, with too much infectiously zippy energy, to feel anything but authentic.

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Newport Folk Festival
10:47 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Aoife O'Donovan, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Aoife O'Donovan performs with bassist Paul Kowert at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Aoife O'Donovan got her start in a pair of folk-leaning groups, Sometymes Why and Crooked Still, the latter of which became one of the country's top modern string bands.

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Newport Folk Festival
8:52 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Band Of Horses, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Band of Horses performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Cinematic sweep is hardwired into Band of Horses' sound: Ben Bridwell's voice always seems to be echoing through some canyon or other, whether the guitars are chiming to the rafters or drifting along drowsily. The group's most recent records, Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock, have tended toward the latter half of that equation, but Band of Horses remains versatile in tone, especially onstage.

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All Songs Considered
7:03 am
Mon July 28, 2014

Horse Feathers, 'Violently Wild'

Horse Feathers.
John Clark Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed October 29, 2014 9:38 am

Describing Horse Feathers almost inevitably diminishes the band's music: "Let's see, the lead singer has a beard and a soft voice, and he plays the acoustic guitar, and there's a string section. Oh, and they're from Portland, of course." All those identifying details hold true, and yet Horse Feathers' music never feels slight or ineffectual.

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Newport Folk Festival
1:26 pm
Sun July 27, 2014

Jenny Lewis, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Jenny Lewis performs at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Originally published on Sun August 3, 2014 12:32 pm

Jenny Lewis' voice has helped provide a soundtrack to the last 15 years, but it's not part of one specific sound: She's sung heartsick ballads and spiky rock (in Rilo Kiley), summery surf-pop (in Jenny and Johnny), winsome electro-pop (in

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Newport Folk Festival
5:23 am
Sat July 26, 2014

The Devil Makes Three: Newport Folk 2014

Pete Bernhard (right) and Cooper McBean of The Devil Makes Three perform at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Originally published on Sat July 26, 2014 2:43 pm

A thumbnail description of The Devil Makes Three — "acoustic string-band music with no drummer" — makes its music seem old-fashioned, even quaint. But the California trio plays with boozy aggression and unhinged intensity. If there were a Newport Punk Festival (and, really, why shouldn't there be?), The Devil Makes Three wouldn't be out of place in its lineup, amplification be damned.

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Newport Folk Festival
5:17 am
Sat July 26, 2014

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, Live In Concert: Newport Folk 2014

Anais Mitchell (right) and Jefferson Hamer perform at the 2014 Newport Folk Festival.
Adam Kissick for NPR

Originally published on Mon July 28, 2014 9:03 am

There's ambition rooted in the pursuit of personal glory, and then there's creative ambition, rooted in a desire to do what hasn't already been done. Anais Mitchell is a folksinger with a kind, approachable voice.

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All Songs Considered
7:41 am
Thu July 24, 2014

The Good Listener: When Is It OK To Hold Seats At A Festival?

These Newport Folk Festival fans knew well enough to position themselves a ways back from the stage.
Mito Habe-Evans NPR

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the flyers from reputable debt-consolidation companies is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a vexing piece of concert-going etiquette.

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First Listen
10:01 pm
Sun July 20, 2014

First Listen: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, 'Hypnotic Eye'

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' new album, Hypnotic Eye, comes out July 29.
Mary Ellen Matthews Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed July 30, 2014 8:03 pm

Even when he was in his late 20s, Tom Petty had a curmudgeonly edge to him, so it's no surprise that he's sneering about threats to the American dream in the opening moments of his new album, Hypnotic Eye. At 63, Petty is well into his transition to full-blown misanthropy, at times splitting the difference between Randy Newman and Bob Dylan.

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