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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Music
6:16 am
Fri July 18, 2014

At 2014's Newport Folk Festival, 5 Discoveries To Stretch Folk's Limits

If you look closely, Reignwolf's guitar is plugged in. Newport's 1965 crowd would not be pleased.
Dana Yavin

Originally published on Mon July 21, 2014 2:37 pm

From its legendary beachfront locale to its celebrations of folk music's past, the Newport Folk Festival draws on more than half a century of celebrated traditions. But it's also an event in which folk's boundaries are tested: This is, after all, where Bob Dylan famously plugged in an electric guitar 49 years ago, in the process enraging the purists in the crowd.

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All Songs Considered
6:03 am
Fri July 18, 2014

NPR Music Returns For 2014's Newport Folk Festival

Hurray For The Riff Raff performed at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival — and makes a return engagement this year.
Meagan Beauchemin NPR

Originally published on Fri July 18, 2014 10:39 am

The Newport Folk Festival has been around for more than half a century now — this is its 55th year, to be exact — and the event now routinely sells out months before its lineup is even announced. And why shouldn't it?

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All Songs Considered
11:03 am
Sat July 12, 2014

The Good Listener: Has The Term 'Indie Rock' Lost All Meaning?

If Arcade Fire sells gold and wins a Grammy for Album of the Year, is it still outside the mainstream?
Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the flyers that either wildly underestimate or wildly overestimate our credit-worthiness is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what constitutes "indie rock" in 2014.

Antfitgodd writes via Facebook: "The term 'indie' has been subsumed by major labels, whose acts often try to mimic indie-rock sensibilities — which changes what it means to play music that is not bland Top 40 drivel. Do you think 'indie rock' as a genre is dead?"

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun July 6, 2014

First Listen: Trampled By Turtles, 'Wild Animals'

Trampled By Turtles' new album, Wild Animals, comes out July 15.
Zoran Orlić Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 10:11 am

The bluegrass-based Minnesota folk-rock band Trampled By Turtles knows how to play at extreme speeds, to the point where its careening compositions can seem downright unhinged. But its last two records, 2012's Stars and Satellites and the new Wild Animals, mostly move at a deliberate, even graceful pace.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun July 6, 2014

First Listen: Luluc, 'Passerby'

Luluc's new album, Passerby, comes out July 15.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Thu July 17, 2014 10:09 am

Luluc writes songs for late-night drives and uneventful mornings — stuff to slow the blood and the world outside. Bred in Australia but partly based in Brooklyn, Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett traffic in gentle, disarming simplicity, rarely allowing their music to speed up past a gentle lope. But for all their consistency of tone — and quality — Passerby's 10 songs never congeal into a blur or feel like a slog. Like the duo's labelmates in Low, Luluc uses calm as a medium unto itself.

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All Songs Considered
10:03 am
Fri July 4, 2014

The Good Listener: On Recommending Songs With Profanity

Cee-Lo.
Matthias Clamer Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside our neighbors' mis-delivered subscription copies of unnerving magazines is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on sharing music that might inadvertently expose someone else's kids to foul language.

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Tiny Desk Concerts
1:40 pm
Tue July 1, 2014

Lydia Loveless: Tiny Desk Concert

Alex Schelldorf NPR

Originally published on Thu July 3, 2014 10:46 am

For 23-year-old singer-guitarist Lydia Loveless, gritty, countrified blues-rock is a palette broad enough to include literary drama — complete with fatalistic references to the doomed French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud — and a plainspoken plea for oral sex.

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All Songs Considered
11:03 am
Fri June 27, 2014

The Good Listener: When Should A 'Washed-Up' Band Pack It In?

Only one member of Quiet Riot remains from its early-'80s heyday — and the founding members are all gone. Does it matter?
Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside a $23.95 book of cat cartoons by The Jesus Lizard's David Yow is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when and whether once-successful musicians should give up.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun June 22, 2014

First Listen: Old Crow Medicine Show, 'Remedy'

Old Crow Medicine Show's new album, Remedy, comes out July 1.
Andrea Behrends Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue July 1, 2014 11:51 am

Old Crow Medicine Show knows how to attract attention: The Virginia band's big, brash shows are carried off with rollicking energy and a carnival barker's showmanship.

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All Songs Considered
4:20 am
Sat June 21, 2014

The Good Listener: What Makes A Summer Song?

Summer is a season of simplicity.
iStockphoto.com

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside that one CD which appears to have been pulverized by a steamroller is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what transforms a mere hit single into the agreed-upon song of the summer.

Kemper writes via Facebook: "When do we know what the song of summer will be? Have we already heard this year's song? If not, when do we typically start to hear it? Why do the other seasons lack their own song?"

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All Songs Considered
8:03 am
Mon June 16, 2014

Song Premiere: Sinead O'Connor, 'Take Me To Church'

Sinead O'Connor.
Donal Moloney Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed June 18, 2014 4:23 pm

Sinead O'Connor's nearly 30-year career forms a portrait of an artist in conflict; a brilliant singer who remains musically, politically and personally uncompromising after forays into folk, pop, standards, reggae and points beyond. By definition, her catalog is erratic, but it's consistently bold and surprising.

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First Listen
10:45 pm
Sun June 15, 2014

First Listen: Phox, 'Phox'

Phox's self-titled debut comes out June 24.
Jade Ehlers Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue June 24, 2014 9:28 am

The word "charisma" is often used to imply a certain kind of attention-grabbing showiness, or even neediness. But it can also suggest subtle ease; a simple gravitational pull that draws people in by making them feel comfortable and at home.

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All Songs Considered
11:09 am
Fri June 13, 2014

The Good Listener: When We Call Songs 'Filler,' What Does That Mean?

For fans of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, filler is in the eye of the beholder.
David Black Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the large wooden crates housing our new summer interns is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what makes some albums seem padded and inconsistent.

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All Songs Considered
12:39 pm
Fri June 6, 2014

The Good Listener: What Makes A Hit Song Overplayed?

You can't spell "Pharrell's song is overplayed" without "Happy."
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri June 6, 2014 2:54 pm

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside Bob Boilen's 64-ounce tub of Kirkland-brand gong polish is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what separates a mere hit from an invasive irritant.

Chris Kiraly writes via Facebook: "When (if ever) does a song earn the distinction of being 'overplayed'?"

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun June 1, 2014

First Listen: First Aid Kit, 'Stay Gold'

First Aid Kit's new album, Stay Gold, comes out June 10.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue June 17, 2014 11:35 am

Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg first made their names with feather-light chamber-folk confections that echoed the soaring sweetness of Fleet Foxes. A cover of that band's "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" even helped launch the then-teenagers to YouTube fame back in 2008. But in 2014, styles have changed and so have the Söderbergs: First Aid Kit's major-label debut, Stay Gold, moves well beyond the portentous prettiness of the pair's 2012 breakthrough, The Lion's Roar.

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Monkey See
10:03 am
Fri May 30, 2014

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Recycling Franchises And Judging Books By Their Covers

NPR

Originally published on Tue June 3, 2014 10:08 am

With Glen Weldon tweeting from the various paradises of Barcelona, this week's Pop Culture Happy Hour calls on the services of two familiar Code Switch pals — Kat Chow and Gene Demby — to discuss the eternal recycling of unlikely pop-culture franchises. We use the July return of Sailor Moon as an excuse to talk about everything from Girl Meets World to Hocus Pocus, George of the Jungle, Newsies, Transformers and more.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun May 25, 2014

First Listen: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 'Only Run'

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's new album, Only Run, comes out June 3.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 10:57 am

Early in its career, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah seemed unlikely to last a decade: One of the first major bands to rise to prominence on the strength of support from music blogs, it followed a successful 2005 debut with the oddly produced and underwhelmingly received Some Loud Thunder. For a time, CYHSY seemed destined to become a footnote; a cautionary tale about bands that find ephemeral success on the Internet, only to fade as quickly as they came.

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All Songs Considered
12:19 pm
Fri May 23, 2014

The Good Listener: When's The Right Time To Delete Your Music?

Sometimes you just have to erase some files.
Olivia Merrion NPR

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the six-pack of Hanson-branded beer that cost $25 to ship is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on disposing of music in a digital age.

Tami Anderson writes via Facebook: "How long do you keep songs in your collection when you rarely/never seem to listen to them?"

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First Listen
7:03 am
Fri May 23, 2014

First Listen: Hamilton Leithauser, 'Black Hours'

Hamilton Leithauser's new album, Black Hours, comes out June 3.
Lauren Dukoff Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed June 4, 2014 10:56 am

Hamilton Leithauser sounds worn-out and weary on Black Hours, his first solo record since his long-running band The Walkmen went on indefinite hiatus late last year.

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All Songs Considered
10:03 am
Fri May 16, 2014

The Good Listener: When Should I Keep Criticism To Myself?

Morrissey's new album doesn't come out until July, and one of his diehard fans is already worried about starting the backlash.
Kevin Winter Getty Images

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the bag of caramel-filled chocolates we're neglecting to share with our colleagues is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when hardcore fans hate their favorite artist's new project.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun May 11, 2014

First Listen: Jolie Holland, 'Wine Dark Sea'

Jolie Holland's new album, Wine Dark Sea, comes out May 20.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue May 20, 2014 11:55 am

When she sings, Jolie Holland's words come out warped and slurred, the notes bent sideways and raw at the edges. When she first emerged as a solo artist a decade ago, Holland set that eccentric delivery against dustily barren old-time arrangements that often made her sound as if she were echoing out of a transistor radio many decades ago. But these days, on the new Wine Dark Sea, she sets it against low, sullenly rumbling arrangements that sprawl and wander ambitiously across the sounds of blues, rock, jazz and soul.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun May 11, 2014

First Listen: Haley Bonar, 'Last War'

Haley Bonar's new album, Last War, comes out May 20.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue May 20, 2014 11:56 am

Haley Bonar first reached a national audience as a teenager, when fellow Minnesotan Alan Sparhawk heard her perform and offered her a spot on tour, opening for his band Low. At the time, the pairing made sense: Her recordings were sweet and lovely, but also frequently dour. Over time, though, Bonar — in case you were wondering, it's pronounced "Bonner" — has brightened and polished her sound to a glistening shine.

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All Songs Considered
8:19 am
Fri May 9, 2014

The Good Listener: Can I Ruin My Wedding By Playing The Wrong Song?

Sing it with us: "I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow. I hope it bleeds all day long..."
Sergey Galushko iStockphoto.com

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the flyer for a maid service that disappeared into a massive pile of papers is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when to deviate from traditional wedding-reception music.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun May 4, 2014

First Listen: Mirah, 'Changing Light'

Mirah's new album, Changing Light, comes out May 13.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed May 14, 2014 2:31 pm

Mirah wrote Changing Light, her fifth full-length solo album, in the years-long aftermath of a punishing breakup. Maybe it's the amount of time it took for the material to gestate, or maybe it's the thoughtfulness and patience gleaned from a nearly 20-year career, but Changing Light keeps looking at her ache from wise angles. Nervy and sonically inventive in spots, tender and graceful in others, it's a breakup record that eschews childish outbursts and pointless wallowing.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun May 4, 2014

First Listen: Sylvan Esso, 'Sylvan Esso'

Sylvan Esso's self-titled debut album comes out May 13.
DL Anderson Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed May 14, 2014 2:32 pm

The product of an unlikely pairing of musicians, Sylvan Esso works in equally unlikely ways: Singer Amelia Meath first surfaced as a singer in the largely a cappella Vermont folk group Mountain Man, while Nick Sanborn plays bass in the versatile North Carolina psych-rock band Megafaun.

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All Songs Considered
9:48 am
Fri May 2, 2014

The Good Listener: Is It Fair To Call A Band A Sellout?

"Did you know that [The Promise Ring] made fifty thousand dollars last year?"
Courtesy of the artist

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Pokemon games we purchased for our kids even though they're entirely indistinguishable from the other Pokemon games we've purchased for our kids is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on what it means (and whether it's even possible) to sell out as a musician.

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All Songs Considered
2:28 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Song Premiere: Banks, 'Goddess'

Banks' upcoming album is titled Goddess.
Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue April 29, 2014 1:06 pm

At SXSW this year, I found myself wondering whether Banks was even a real person: Every time I tried to catch one of her shows, the venue was filled to capacity, with no hope of ingress. My curiosity had been piqued by a string of intriguing singles and remixes, each of which showcased a nifty juxtaposition of coolly expressive vocals and forbidding but beautiful electronics. But I left empty-handed, forced to file her name away for later exploration.

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Tiny Desk Concerts
1:18 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Johnnyswim: Tiny Desk Concert

Johnnyswim performs at a Tiny Desk Concert in April 2014.
Jim Tuttle NPR

Originally published on Wed June 18, 2014 10:00 am

Once you're able to see this three-song set by the band Johnnyswim, NPR Music will have published exactly 350 Tiny Desk Concerts — so we've developed a pretty good sense of when a set will stick in our memories for a while. We intuited, for example, that Adele was about to become a dominant force shortly after she breezed into our offices.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun April 27, 2014

First Listen: Kishi Bashi, 'Lighght'

Kishi Bashi's new album, Lighght, comes out May 13.
Kaden Shallat Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Fri June 13, 2014 12:50 pm

K. Ishibashi opens his second solo album, Lighght, by taking a tone-setting 48-second violin solo. Titled "Début - Impromptu," it skids and squeaks with accelerating abandon until the notes distort and smash together chaotically; by the end, the instrument has become largely indistinguishable from the machines he so often uses to loop and manipulate it. It's equal parts introduction and mission statement for Lighght, in which technique and experimentation collide in high-spirited, even disorienting ways.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun April 27, 2014

First Listen: Nikki Lane, 'All Or Nothin"

Nikki Lane's new album, All or Nothin', comes out May 6.
Chuck Grant Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 11:16 am

Many young singers are stalked by an ill-fitting, virtually unshakable descriptor, whether it's a limiting and vaguely dismissive adjective ("quirky," for example) or a limiting and vaguely dismissive noun ("songstress," to pick one that should be banished from the language and buried under 10,000 pounds of rock salt). For Nikki Lane, that descriptor seems to be "outlaw country" — a generally defensible expression, but one that can subtly imply an element of posturing, even posing.

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