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.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the bales of fan letters for HMSTR is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, tips for new parents who can't wait to share their favorite songs with their kids.

Tiny Desk Concerts often require creative and logistical transformations, from electric bands going acoustic to big bands squashing into a tiny space to many players gathering around a single microphone. But the setting is particularly challenging for vocalists, especially those accustomed to heavy production, effects or — in the case of recent guest T-Pain — generous dollops of Auto-Tune.

One of Neil Young's recent records, 2009's Fork In The Road, contains nothing but rambling songs about his beloved electric car. Young has generated stacks of live albums — one of which, 1991's Arc, consists of exactly 35 minutes' worth of feedback and noise. Whether he's recording front-porch ballads, anthemic rock, early archival tapes, scathing protest music or even a rock opera, Young has become one of the most uncompromising, unpredictable, unbound and, at times, unearthly brilliant living musicians.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the fake blood we ordered for our son's Andrew W.K. costume is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on Halloween music.

Robin Bacior's honeyed but vibrant voice hits gently, bestowing the listener with comfort and calm. The Portland singer-songwriter knows exactly what kind of arrangements suit her best: In "If It Does," from her forthcoming album Water Dreams, that gorgeous voice is laid atop a spare but shimmering bed of piano — and paired perfectly with Dan Bindschedler's cello.

This is subtle, nuanced music: Like the rest of Bacior's work, "If It Does" doesn't grab you audaciously. But it doesn't let go, either.

Here's Bacior, writing about "If It Does":

It's hard to divine, on paper anyway, a formula for effectively covering The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety. It's not an album that had been crying out for improvement — to put it mildly — nor has it ever receded far enough toward the cultural margins to require rediscovery. These songs still occupy the ether of the everyday, even for those who've never sat down and studied the record from front to back.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the shoes our kids outgrew in the time it took to have them shipped is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on remedial music fandom.

Late in Horse Feathers' fifth album, So It Is With Us, singer-guitarist Justin Ringle unleashes a provocative little five-word phrase — "softly screaming, 'woe is me'" — that's summed up a lot of the band's music over the past decade. Ringle's songs generally set wearily fatalistic lyrics against a gentle backdrop of strings and banjos and other exquisitely appointed Americana.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the promotional ghost peppers we unwittingly spilled on our pants is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a request for music to fill your head with sound, but not distractions.

Quint Smith writes via Twitter: "I'd love to see that editing playlist with Stars Of The Lid you mentioned on [Pop Culture Happy Hour] posted somewhere. I'm in need of ideas."

Brooklyn's The Lone Bellow seemed to arrive fully formed: Its self-titled 2013 debut came stuffed with intricately assembled bundles of crowd-pleasing folk-pop, each more dramatic and infectious than the last. Charismatic, photogenic, endlessly hooky — The Lone Bellow has been the complete package since day one.

Whether playing string-infused melancholia or insistent dance-floor fodder, Stars' members infuse their songs with the weariness and wisdom of someone who understands the realities behind our worst fears. Knowledge of death and disappointment and war lies barely concealed beneath even the most effervescent exterior of a Stars song.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the ingredients to an Ozzy Osbourne costume that'll fit a 10-year-old girl is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on managing a library while maintaining one's connection to music.

When LPs and cassettes gave way to compact discs in the late '80s and early '90s, many bands seized on the format's 80-minute time limit as a challenge: If a disc can hold that much music, the thought process went, then why shouldn't it? This led to some legendarily bloated albums, as well as an increased tendency to tuck in tossed-off bonus tracks after 20- and 30-minute blocks of silence, until cooler heads and quality control (mostly) prevailed.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and among the Penzeys Spices catalogs that help us remember our ex-roommates' names is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on pop music's nadir.

Josh in Chicago writes via email: "Paula Abdul had four No. 1 hits, spanning 1989-90. One of them featured a rapping cartoon cat. Was that period the nadir of pop, pre-Nirvana?"

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the unsolicited phone books we toss straight into the recycling bin is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on words we'd prefer never to hear associated with music.

Eleanor writes via email: "You've tweeted about your hatred of the word 'songstress.' Writing about music is tricky, but what words do you think should ALWAYS be avoided, and why?"

For more than a decade, Norwegian-born singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche has made pop music his primary weapon in a full-frontal charm offensive. A slyly charismatic presence, he sings with an air of playful whimsy — it's no mistake that he was cast to write and perform the songs in the lightly melancholy 2007 romantic comedy Dan In Real Life — even when his subject matter veers into love's sordid underbelly and aftermath.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Amazon Prime order containing items we could have acquired at the nearest vending machine is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on fatigue and embitterment.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside a stuffed Pikachu the size of an ottoman is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on music to accompany the new football season.

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.

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?"

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.

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.

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?"

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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