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.

San Fermin's 2013 debut brims over with ideas: The brainchild of one guy, classically trained Brooklyn composer and multi-instrumentalist Ellis Ludwig-Leone, it's a nearly hourlong feast of gorgeous chamber-pop storytelling.

Villagers began as a lush one-man band with 2010's Becoming A Jackal, then morphed into an even more complex collaborative effort in time for 2013's {Awayland}, as Dublin singer-songwriter Conor O'Brien learned to work with a team he'd assembled.

When thinking about populism, it's easy to focus on either the relatable day-to-day struggles of average people — of the majority somewhere in the middle, glorified by so many rootsy tropes — or the more strung-out striving of those at the bottom. In politics and in culture, "the little guy" has typically made it far enough up the ladder to have a voice echoed in anthems and slogans, or else sunk far enough into desperation, homelessness or famine so as to surpass the need for detail entirely.

Waxahatchee began as a vehicle for the raggedly beautiful indie-pop home recordings of Katie Crutchfield, a singer-songwriter who'd appeared in a small assortment of bands in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala. On her 2012 debut, American Weekend, Crutchfield set a narrative tone for the increasingly fleshed-out recordings to follow: She writes from the perspective of one who's young, keenly intelligent, and both hyper-aware of and overwhelmed by everything that could ever go wrong.

Sufjan Stevens' career has covered vast swaths of thematic ground: To say nothing of his ballet score, his electronic concept record about the Chinese zodiac or his album-length instrumental tribute to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, 2005's Illinois and 2003's Michigan synthesized lessons in state history and geography with finely detailed, tenderly emotional treatises on love, faith, grace, alienation, want and death.

If Death Cab For Cutie's 17-year career has focused on a single overarching theme, it's the process of growing up: fumbling for connection, finding oneself, feeling out the ways human beings do and don't settle into their own skin.

It's hard to believe Laura Marling is only 25 — not just because Short Movie is her fifth album, and not just because she's been singing with wise, almost impatiently weary authority since she was 16. What's especially striking is the way she's allowed her recordings and persona to evolve through so many decisively rendered, fully formed phases. Marling found her voice unusually early in life, but she's also never stopped refining it or discovering new ways to bare its teeth.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the tiara we ordered as the grand prize at our upcoming eating contest is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on people who simply don't enjoy music.

If you listen to NPR's newsmagazines, short bits of instrumental music often provide the connective tissue linking one story to the next. We call them buttons or breaks or deadrolls, and each is chosen by the show's director that day. Sometimes the selections make a sly reference to the story they follow — say, a snippet of "Baby Elephant Walk" after a story about elephants — but more often they're there to capture, enhance or brighten the mood while helping the listener differentiate between news pieces.

Back in 2011, an album called A Very She & Him Christmas joined the eternal glut of holiday music. As might be expected, it featured a string of agreeably executed staples — "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," "Silver Bells," et al — played with timeless impeccability by the duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Pokemon products whose arrival signals our kids' descent into video-game-induced catatonia is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on whether superior technique can detract from music's quality.

Before James Mercer broke through as lead singer of The Shins, he spent a good chunk of the '90s in a like-minded New Mexico band called Flake Music. The group only managed one full-length album in its five-year existence — 1997's When You Land Here, It's Time to Return — before giving way to the band that made Mercer famous.

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Kung Fu Panda DVD to replace the one we wore out is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on a playlist for the whole family.

Joe writes via email: "Thanksgiving will be at my family's place this year, and I'm having fun with the meal-planning. All the stress, though, is built around how my relatives and I get along. We love each other, but ... you know how families are with politics and different tastes and all that.

It's rare that a record lays out a mission statement as efficiently as the new supergroup Thompson does in the first 60 seconds of "Family." Here's Teddy Thompson, singing about the perils of being surrounded by his particular relatives:

My father is one of the greats to ever step on a stage

My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world

And I am betwixt and between

Sean Lennon, you know what I mean

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the pulverized shards of an Eli "Paperboy" Reed LP is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on how aging might affect your concert attendance.

Michaela writes via email: "I'm growing increasingly conscious of being among the oldest attendees at concerts lately. Is there a specific age at which I should stop going to indie-rock shows and just stay at home in my rocker?"

In terms of sheer commercial heft, the release of Taylor Swift's 1989 is one of the stories of the year in music: Its first-week sales are expected to outstrip those of any album since Swift's last record, Red, in 2012. For the 24-year-old singer-songwriter, 1989 completes her transformation from country stardom to pop stardom; it's full of massively radio-friendly, synth-driven songs that are virtually guaranteed chart-topping ubiquity in the months and years to come.

Pages