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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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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All Songs Considered
1:07 pm
Fri April 25, 2014

The Good Listener: Is It OK To Bootleg Concerts?

Phish has a thorough set of policies for fans who want to tape the band's shows.
Jeff Kravitz FilmMagic

Originally published on Fri April 25, 2014 3:31 pm

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the two quart-size tubs of barbecue sauce is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on recording and trading live shows for our private enjoyment.

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First Listen
8:30 am
Mon April 21, 2014

First Listen: Pixies, 'Indie Cindy'

The Pixies new album, Indie Cindy, comes out April 29.
Jay Blakesberg Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 8:40 am

Last year, My Bloody Valentine released its first album since 1991, and the result sounded as if not a minute had passed in the intervening 22 years. Every bleary, bended note of m b v sounded immaculately crafted, as if Kevin Shields and company had been toiling away in pursuit of perfection since the release of Loveless and merely lost track of time.

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All Songs Considered
2:39 pm
Thu April 17, 2014

The Good Listener: Does The World Still Need Cassettes?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the postage-paid crates we'll use to ship home the spring interns is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on cassette tapes and their utility in 2014.

Jennifer Spuehler writes via Facebook: "Will there be a place for cassette tapes in the future? What should I do with cassette tapes — especially those beloved mixtapes — that don't have a place to live anymore?

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Field Recordings
7:03 am
Thu April 17, 2014

Merchandise Sprawls Out In The Sunlight

Merchandise performing "Become What You Are" for a NPR Field Recording.
NPR

Originally published on Tue July 8, 2014 12:13 pm

Merchandise got its start on the Tampa punk and hardcore scene, then got weirder as artier influences like krautrock took hold. As its sound became harder to pin down, the band inspired an 18-month bidding war between record labels: This year, Merchandise finally signed with 4AD, and adventurous new material has begun to trickle out.

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All Songs Considered
3:52 pm
Thu April 10, 2014

The Good Listener: How Do I Appear Knowledgeable Without Acting Like A Jerk?

Jack Black in a scene from the 2003 film School Of Rock
Andrew Schwartz PARAMOUNT

Originally published on Thu April 10, 2014 4:25 pm

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the fliers for yard-cleaning services that know a big job when they see one are a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on ways to drop musical knowledge without seeming obnoxious.

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All Songs Considered
2:19 pm
Thu April 3, 2014

The Good Listener: What Makes An Anthem?

The Boss: Maker of anthems for the young, for the old, forever.
Courtesy of the artist

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All Songs Considered
1:16 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

The Good Listener: Am I Too Old For Music Festivals?

At some point, you'll probably feel like you're too old to attend a music festival.
20th Century Fox

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 4:04 pm

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the hundreds of water bottles we were supposed to give away at SXSW is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on when a person can rightly be considered too old to attend music festivals.

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Field Recordings
11:17 am
Thu March 27, 2014

One Wytch, Unplugged In A Sunny Backyard

Mito Habe-Evans NPR

Originally published on Mon August 18, 2014 8:30 am

The Wytches' furious, hair-flinging psych-rock isn't the stuff of back-porch acoustic sessions: Both live and on the English band's singles, the energy is so intense, it can barely be contained. But when NPR Music arranged a Wytches session during SXSW — held in the charming backyard setting of Friends & Neighbors in east Austin — singer-guitarist Kristian Bell stood in for the whole band, with just his voice and an acoustic guitar.

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First Listen
10:03 pm
Sun March 23, 2014

First Listen: Cloud Nothings, 'Here And Nowhere Else'

Cloud Nothings new album, Here and Nowhere Else, comes out April 1.
Pooneh Ghana Courtesy of the artist

Originally published on Tue April 1, 2014 1:13 pm

The word "maturation" and the word "punk" don't often coexist easily: For a band like Cleveland's Cloud Nothings, whose sloppily aggressive songs channel slackerdom and frustration, growing up would seem antithetical to its mission. But the group's third album, Here and Nowhere Else, threads the needle just right, tightening and brightening Cloud Nothings' sound in ways that never numb its blistering, careening forcefulness.

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