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 the podcasts All Songs Considered and Pop Culture Happy Hour. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the weekly 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 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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All Songs Considered
7:06 am
Thu March 6, 2014

The Good Listener: Do I Come To SXSW If I Don't Have A Badge Or A Billion Dollars?

Whether you buy a $795 badge or show up with a little spare cash on hand, SXSW has something for you โ€” and will expect you to stand in line at some point.
Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

[This story originally ran on Feb. 22, 2013, but still applies today.]

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Valentine's Day cards that got returned with no forwarding address is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives โ€” and, this week, how music fans could and should approach SXSW, the gigantic music festival held every March in Austin, Texas.

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All Songs Considered
1:23 pm
Fri February 21, 2014

The Good Listener: For Bands And Fans, The No-Fault Divorce

Elton John performs in 2013. Earlier that year, he put out his 31st studio album, The Diving Board.
Mike Lawrie Getty Images

Originally published on Fri February 21, 2014 6:03 pm

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Beck single that keeps tricking us into thinking it's the new Beck album are a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives โ€” and, this week, thoughts on when superfans sever their allegiances.

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First Listen
8:58 am
Mon February 17, 2014

First Listen: The Notwist, 'Close To The Glass'

The Notwist's new album, Close to the Glass, comes out Feb. 25.
Joerg Koopman Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 2:17 pm

On paper, the German electro-pop band The Notwist sounds less accessible than it is: Since getting together 25 years ago, its members have delved into everything from hardcore to underground hip-hop to proggy jazz, with many varyingly arty detours in between. But the latter half of its history, particularly once you hit the sublime early-'00s breakthrough Neon Golden, is wonderfully warm and approachable.

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First Listen
10:09 pm
Sun February 16, 2014

First Listen: Death Vessel, 'Island Intervals'

Death Vessel's new album, Island Intervals, comes out Feb. 25.
Corey Grayhorse Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 2:18 pm

Joel Thibodeau's music doesn't emanate from a single place: The singer who records under the name Death Vessel was born in Germany and raised in New England, and he recorded his new album Island Intervals in Reykjavik with the aid of producer Alex Somers and Sigur Rรณs singer Jรณnsi. That list of places provides context beyond mere biographical background, because Thibodeau's music reflects virtually every direction in which he's been pulled.

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All Songs Considered
9:57 am
Fri February 14, 2014

The Good Listener: How Do You Make A Platonic Mixtape?

Not every mixtape has to come with romantic intentions.
The Kobal Collection

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Fun-Dip valentine cards we ordered strictly for the Fun-Dip is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives โ€” and, this week, just in time for Valentine's Day, thoughts on platonic mixtapes.

Stephanie Marten-Ellis writes via Facebook: "How do you share good music with someone without giving the impression that you're 'trying to say something'? You just like the song and want someone to know about it! Can you separate your music suggestions from how you perceive/think of your share-ee?"

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Tue February 11, 2014

First Listen: Phantogram, 'Voices'

Phantogram's new album, Voices, comes out Feb. 18.
Doron Gild Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue February 18, 2014 1:09 pm

Phantogram plays spiky, dense and danceable pop-rock songs with an electronic pulse: Most of its songs have an insistent grind to them, with a percussive through-line snapping and jabbing and infusing virtually every moment with jumpy urgency. But singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel and guitarist Josh Carter still let these songs breathe in surprising ways, so that the moments of quiet that slip through โ€” like the spare and surprising piano which pops up at the end of "Black Out Days" โ€” have that much more impact.

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Concerts
11:04 am
Tue February 11, 2014

First Listen Live: Real Estate, 'Atlas'

Real Estate plays Atlas at SubCulture in NYC.
Ebru Yildiz for NPR

Originally published on Wed July 9, 2014 12:16 pm

The members of Real Estate are awfully young to pine for their lost youth, but nostalgia remains crucial to the New Jersey band's tender, impeccable sound. Real Estate's shimmering pop-rock seems to echo out of the past โ€” from beaches and garages and tape decks โ€” with the kind of melancholy beauty few bands outside The Beach Boys could hope to match.

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Tiny Desk Concerts
1:03 pm
Mon February 10, 2014

Suzanne Vega: Tiny Desk Concert

Suzanne Vega performs at a Tiny Desk concert in January 2014.
Meredith Rizzo Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Originally published on Mon February 10, 2014 1:51 pm

In pop-music circles, Suzanne Vega is known almost entirely for two songs from the late 1980s: the child-abuse ballad "Luka" and a song that launched literally dozens of dance remixes, "Tom's Diner." But Vega has been making vital, inventive music the entire time โ€” much of it folk-based, though her sound has taken many smart detours along the way โ€” and is about to put out her first album of original material in seven years, Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles.

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All Songs Considered
2:22 pm
Fri February 7, 2014

The Good Listener: What's The Perfect Soundtrack To Teenage Flirtation?

These teenagers in the 1998 film Can't Hardly Wait needed their own nostalgia รขย€ย” which is why today's teenagers might not connect with Can't Hardly Wait the way an earlier generation did.
Columbia Pictures

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the Bachelor Bouquets we ordered ourselves in order to appear loved is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives โ€” and, this week, thoughts on music to play at a dance for nervous, flirtatious teenagers.

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All Songs Considered
3:13 pm
Thu February 6, 2014

Playing SXSW 2014? Send Us Your Songs

Several of us loved The Soil and the Sun at SXSW 2013 โ€” and we'd have never heard the band if it hadn't sent us an MP3 before the festival.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri February 7, 2014 4:23 pm

Every year around this time, the All Songs Considered team begins the process of listening to nearly 2,000 MP3s by bands playing the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. We acquire them from any number of sources, as bands willing to circulate their songs for consideration make them available online. But every year, we wind up missing something. In pursuit of music by thousands of bands, hundreds slip past our radar altogether.

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First Listen
10:02 pm
Sun February 2, 2014

First Listen: Cibo Matto, 'Hotel Valentine'

Cibo Matto's new album, Hotel Valentine, comes out Feb. 14.
Sean Lennon Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue February 18, 2014 12:52 pm

For many bands who return after long hiatuses, the absences melt away quickly. My Bloody Valentine, gone 22 years, put out an album last year that jumped directly from the sound of 1991's Loveless.

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All Songs Considered
9:46 am
Fri January 31, 2014

The Good Listener: Leave 'We Built This City' Alone!

Everyone piles on Starship's "We Built This City," at least in part, because it's too feeble to fight back.
George Rose Getty Images

Originally published on Fri January 31, 2014 1:47 pm

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First Listen
10:02 pm
Sun January 26, 2014

First Listen: 'Sweetheart 2014'

Sweetheart 2014 comes out Feb. 4.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue February 4, 2014 9:21 am

Compiled by Starbucks every few years, the Sweetheart compilations adhere to a simple concept in which well-liked contemporary artists cover well-liked classic love songs just in time for Valentine's Day. But, more importantly, the collections revolve around a refreshing and consistent mindset: There are no arch piss-takes, no goofs, no skirting sincerity with a wink and a sneer. Even when an effort feels like a minor pairing or a failed experiment, goodwill carries the day.

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First Listen
10:02 pm
Sun January 26, 2014

First Listen: Jeremy Messersmith, 'Heart Murmurs'

Jeremy Messersmith's new album, Heart Murmurs, comes out Feb. 4.
Kyle Dean Reinford Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue February 4, 2014 9:22 am

Minneapolis singer-songwriter Jeremy Messersmith sings sweet, timeless songs about love, desire, death and grief โ€” not, it would seem, the stuff of grandiose artistic ambition. And yet Messersmith stands out by trying harder, doing more and always reaching farther than it seems.

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All Songs Considered
11:44 am
Fri January 24, 2014

The Good Listener: How Can I Conquer A Musical Blind Spot?

Devendra Banhart.
Courtesy of the artist

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First Listen
10:02 pm
Sun January 19, 2014

First Listen: The Autumn Defense, 'Fifth'

The Autumn Defense's new album, Fifth, comes out Jan. 28.
Chloe Aftel Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue January 28, 2014 9:07 pm

Side projects often provide a chance to take wild left turns; to indulge a desire to experiment outside the formulas dictated by a musician's primary creative outlet. For The Autumn Defense โ€” which features bassist John Stirratt and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, both of Wilco โ€” it's actually a chance to pursue a narrower focus. Where Wilco sprawls, The Autumn Defense drills down to a sweetly straightforward style of classic pop and rock.

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First Listen
10:02 pm
Sun January 19, 2014

First Listen: Dum Dum Girls, 'Too True'

Dum Dum Girls' new album, Too True, comes out Jan. 28.
James Orlando Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue January 28, 2014 9:03 pm

Dee Dee Penny and her band Dum Dum Girls made their name on primitivism, only to demolish the expectations they'd created for themselves. Even the name Dum Dum Girls suggests adherence to the garage-bound basics, and the group's early recordings follow suit. But the new Too True is different: A streamlined record, it borrows the cool, plainspoken efficiency of its predecessors while slickening and smartening the songs themselves.

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All Songs Considered
1:13 pm
Thu January 16, 2014

The Good Listener: How Do You Know If You'll Love A Song Forever?

Oh, Carly Rae Jepsen. We knew it couldn't last.
Courtesy of the artist

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First Listen
10:01 pm
Sun January 12, 2014

First Listen: Warpaint, 'Warpaint'

Warpaint's self-titled album comes out Jan. 21.
Mia Kirby Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 10:58 am

A few years back, the band Low sold T-shirts emblazoned with a fine unofficial motto for its music: "I don't like cool, I like beautiful." For the four women who make up Warpaint, those two qualities aren't mutually exclusive: The L.A. group's swirling sound is full of mysterious buzzes and coos, and there's a sense of everything-in-its-right-place grace and impeccability to it, yet the songs themselves never feel icy or distant.

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First Listen
10:00 pm
Sun January 12, 2014

First Listen: Against Me!, 'Transgender Dysphoria Blues'

Against Me!'s Transgender Dysphoria Blues comes out Jan. 21.
Ryan Russell Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 11:01 am

The bracingly political Florida punk band Against Me! has been a going concern since 1997, but Transgender Dysphoria Blues can't help but feel like a debut: It's the group's first album since singer Tom Gabel came out as a woman. Now named Laura Jane Grace, she still barks her lyrics with fiercely assertive intelligence โ€” with a voice as yet largely unchanged from the one in the band's earlier work โ€” but Against Me!'s subject matter can't help but be turned on its head.

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All Songs Considered
1:45 pm
Thu January 9, 2014

The Good Listener: When Good Musicians Do Bad Things

Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, seen here in 1968, had a relationship that offended many fans' sensibilities. But their complicated romantic history hasn't affected either's musical legacy.
Getty Images

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid a deluxe version of the Ashley Monroe record in which "deluxe" means "packed in a 10-pound wooden crate" is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives โ€” and, this week, how and whether to enjoy music by folks whose real-life actions offend us.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun January 5, 2014

First Listen: Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings, 'Give The People What They Want'

Give the People What They Want, Sharon Jones' new album with The Dap-Kings, comes out Jan. 14.
Paul McGeiver Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed January 15, 2014 9:33 am

For veteran soul singer Sharon Jones, 2013 was a year of frustration, fear and false starts: She'd just announced the summer release of her fifth album, Give the People What They Want, when she was diagnosed with cancer and had to put her career on hold. Tours were canceled, while the finished record had to be shelved until she'd recovered to where she was in a position to promote it. Anyone who's seen Jones live knows how much she pours into performing, so fans appeared to be in for a long wait.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun January 5, 2014

First Listen: Damien Jurado, 'Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son'

Damien Jurado's new album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, comes out Jan. 21.
Steve Gullick Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri January 10, 2014 1:43 pm

It's a testament to singer-songwriter Damien Jurado's versatility that he's made nearly a dozen albums of largely inward-looking folk and rock music, and yet has never made two records that sound the same.

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First Listen
10:08 pm
Sun December 29, 2013

First Listen: Peter Gabriel, 'Scratch My Back ... And I'll Scratch Yours'

Peter Gabriel's new album, And I'll Scratch Yours, comes out Jan. 7.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Sun January 12, 2014 10:27 pm

These days, album-length covers collections tend to be minor footnotes in a musician's catalog, ranked somewhere just above live albums, holiday recordings and those greatest-hits packages that tack on one or two new songs. After all, covers albums at least seem as if they should be easy to assemble, in large part because they remove the artistic and logistical hurdle of writing songs. And, for their part, listeners tend to process them by way of comparison rather than raw appreciation.

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Best Music Of 2013
9:20 am
Fri December 27, 2013

2013: The Year In Tiny Desk Concerts

Hayley Bartels NPR

For weeks now, we've been compiling lists of 2013's best music โ€” favorite albums, favorite songs, individual staff members' personal Top 10 lists and so on.

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All Songs Considered
6:03 am
Mon December 16, 2013

Stephen Thompson's Top 10 Albums Of 2013

Kacey Musgraves.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 2:44 pm

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Music
3:29 pm
Tue December 10, 2013

Indie-Pop Albums That Make The Cut Are More Than Mere Collections

Originally published on Wed December 11, 2013 11:30 am

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At NPR Music, they're wrapping up the year the best way they know how, with their hotly contested list of their 50 favorite albums of 2013. Now, all this week, we'll get a peak of that list from our in-house experts, including NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson, whose beat is the ever amorphous indie pop, which - Stephen, what exactly is that these days?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I have absolutely no idea. It used to mean accessible but unpopular.

CORNISH: OK. So...

(LAUGHTER)

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Tiny Desk Concerts
12:19 pm
Mon December 9, 2013

Dessa: Tiny Desk Concert

Dessa performs at a Tiny Desk Concert on Sept. 24, 2013.
Abbey Oldham Abbey Oldham/NPR

Originally published on Mon December 23, 2013 12:20 pm

Part of the Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree, rapper, singer, poet and songwriter Dessa divides her time between singing and rapping, often landing on a spoken-word splitting of the difference.

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Tiny Desk Concerts
7:03 am
Sat December 7, 2013

Sarah Jarosz: Tiny Desk Concert

Sarah Jarosz performs a Tiny Desk Concert in September 2013.
Meredith Rizzo Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Originally published on Mon December 23, 2013 1:25 pm

Bluegrass' most beloved pros often play well into their 80s and 90s, so it would surprise no one if our children's children's children turn up at a Sarah Jarosz concert 70 years from now. The singer and multi-instrumentalist first surfaced as an 18-year-old wunderkind with the release of 2009's Song Up In Her Head, which generated the first of what will likely be many Grammy nominations; now a grizzled 22, she's out performing songs from her fine new third album, Build Me Up From Bones.

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Tiny Desk Concerts
1:06 pm
Mon December 2, 2013

The Dismemberment Plan: Tiny Desk Concert

The Dismemberment Plan performs a Tiny Desk concert in October 2013.
Meredith Rizzo Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Originally published on Mon December 23, 2013 1:26 pm

When NPR Music started inviting musicians to perform at Bob Boilen's desk back in 2008, we never could have expected that we'd one day host The Dismemberment Plan. For one, the D.C.-area group had long since disbanded; for another, its fleshed-out and periodically funky sound wouldn't seem to lend itself to vastly stripped-down arrangements.

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