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, his girlfriend, their 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.

It's been a dozen years since Alec Ounsworth became an Internet sensation, as his band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah bypassed the label system to become internationally known through support from music blogs. But as that support waned with subsequent releases, and as the power of Internet buzz grew more diffuse, Ounsworth found a way to endure.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.


Musicians face many barriers to long careers, from shifting commercial whims to a cruel industry. One obstacle that doesn't get discussed often enough is the simple aging process: If you get famous for songs you wrote as a 20-year-old, then you often have to either remain in a state of arrested development or find a way to get the public to grow — and grow up — with you.

My Twitter feed is still roiling. As I write this, it's been mere moments since my friends and colleagues (and a few assorted celebrities) started taking a break from praising the 2017 Grammys' most vital and viral performances — A Tribe Called Quest, Beyoncé, The Time, a bonkers Lady Gaga-Metallica mashup — to fume about Adele's sweep of the night's top three prizes.

Like many awards shows, the Grammys are about more than just honoring artistic achievement: They're also about anointing ambassadors for a music industry that's forced to evolve as quickly and constantly as trends and technology mandate. Of course, the awards also attempt to represent dozens of far-flung genres, from traditional pop to EDM to country to jazz to Latin music to classical to rap and beyond.

When Uncle Tupelo splintered into two bands back in 1994, both offshoots seemed primed for more or less equal success. After all, Uncle Tupelo had always balanced two distinct singing and songwriting voices, and both were held in similarly high esteem at the time.

February isn't exactly the best month, what with all the cold weather, limited daylight, copious awards shows, New England Patriots Super Bowl victories, and Valentine's Day. So you'd be forgiven for thinking, "The only thing that could truly articulate my pain is a band in which puppets sport eyeliner and sing a song called "I Am Sad And So Am I."

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Cloud Nothings began when leader Dylan Baldi was a freshman in college back in 2009, and the Cleveland band's early recordings capture the bratty scrappiness of seemingly directionless kids.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

In a career that spans more than 20 years, Spoon has perfected a kind of ruthlessly airtight efficiency: Every few years, the Austin band returns with a new batch of perfectly compact three-minute pop-rock songs. As consistent as it is beloved, Spoon never fails to hit its mark — delivered forcefully, and with hooks for days.

"Restless" is one of 2017's first great songs: a dreamy, sweetly throbbing electro-pop jam with a warmly soaring, heartfelt vocal at its core. The latest single from darkDARK, a production duo based in LA and Austin, the track features some of the best ingredients around, from charming analog synths to the relentlessly pleasing voice of Haley Bonar.

As the lead singer and songwriter in The Hold Steady — and, before that, Lifter PullerCraig Finn filled the air with a frenetic flood of words, singing vividly about antiheroes who seek escape and redemption in the form of drugs, religion, rock 'n' roll and many pursuits in between.

Sherlock and Pop Culture Happy Hour both premiered in 2010, but until now, the two have never intersected in the form of a full segment on our show. The series of 90-minute episodes — which air in America as part of PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! series — stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively. Last weekend, Sherlock launched its fourth three-episode season (not counting a one-off special in January 2016), which makes this a perfect time to dive in.

The brainchild of classically trained songwriter and bandleader Ellis Ludwig-Leone, San Fermin has evolved from an immaculate, studio-bound chamber-pop ensemble to a looser, livelier full-time operation.

In the last week of 2016, we're featuring just a few of the songs that, for whatever reason, never got their due this year.

Low's dreamy and deliberate sound lends itself to holiday music beautifully: The Duluth, Minn., band knows how to evoke winter, as well as the heartfelt reverence it takes to infuse Christmas songs with meaning beyond the usual mutant reindeer and other Santa-adjacent shenanigans. It's a high compliment to say that Low's holiday songs sound like Low songs, with all the attendant beauty and ache.

You'd be forgiven for viewing nominations for the 59th Grammy Awards, announced Tuesday morning, as a battle between two powerhouse singers: Beyoncé, whose Lemonade leads the field with nine, and Adele, whose 25 has been a sales juggernaut since its release late last year.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.

With Pop Culture Happy Hour's fall tour and the 2016 elections behind us — though the latter hadn't taken place at the time of this taping — now's a fine time to dig into a pair of movies dominating the year-end landscape. With host Linda Holmes off on a much-deserved vacation, Glen Weldon and I recently sat down with Code Switch's Kat Chow and Gene Demby to discuss two very different fall movies: Doctor Strange and Moonlight.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.


For nearly 20 years, guitarist, singer and label head John Dwyer has followed an incredibly circuitous creative path: Charting the course of just one of his bands involves breaking down a discography that includes records by Orinoka Crash Suite, OCS, Orange County Sound, The Ohsees, The Oh Sees and, now, Thee Oh Sees. (This says nothing of his work with other groups around San Francisco, most notably Coachwhips.)

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

The twists and turns of the 2016 election — not to mention the characters at the top of each major-party ticket — provide many opportunities for comedy. But it's tough out there for late-night joke-makers, who face more competition than ever, not to mention a social-media landscape in which seemingly every possible quip is being made in real time.

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

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