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.

For more than a decade, the members of The Builders And The Butchers have specialized in a kind of white-knuckle Americana: Their acoustic folk-rock sound is shot through with nervy, hellfire-and-brimstone intensity.

It's been about 10 years since Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan made his U.S. debut with The End Of History, a Mercury Prize-nominated collection of soft-spoken acoustic folk-pop songs in the tradition of Damien Rice and Nick Drake.

As a musician, Aimee Mann has long indulged her bleaker side, dating all the way back to her mid-'80s debut as the lead singer of 'Til Tuesday. In the quarter-century since she launched her solo career, Mann has released nine solo albums — not counting her classic film work in 1999's Magnolia — and formed a duo called The Both with Ted Leo.

"We're gonna play a whole bunch of new songs for you," said Amelia Meath as she introduced her electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, adding, "because we're tired of playing the old ones."

For Big Thief, fragility and power come inextricably intertwined. Singer and guitarist Adrianne Lenker may let her songs sit and seethe for long stretches, but those slow builds only maximize the catharsis of the big, loud, high-volume bursts of force that follow.

When PWR BTTM takes the stage, it doesn't take long to figure out what you're going to get. From the first glitter-smeared seconds of the set-opening "Silly," the band came to shred and swagger with infectious joy, complete with backbends and solos and spangly outfits — at least one of which wouldn't survive the band's set at Stubb's BBQ in Austin, Texas, recorded live for NPR Music Wednesday night.

If you've only heard Lizzo's hit "Good As Hell" — and if you haven't, listen now, I'll wait — you might think the Twin Cities singer is a funny and ingratiating but fairly straightforward purveyor of self-affirmation and charismatic confidence. But as her joyful and explosive live show unfolded, complete with the arrival of the ecstatic backup dancers she calls "The Big Girls," it became clear that Lizzo has something more powerful going on.

"I'm ready for the world," Alynda Lee Segarra sings in the chorus of the rousing "Hungry Ghost" — and her band's set told that simple truth again and again. In the past seven or eight years, Hurray For The Riff Raff has blossomed slowly but fully, transforming its sound from intense-but-delicate one-woman bedroom recordings to the rip-roaring full-band jams that dominated the group's set at Stubb's BBQ in Austin, Texas, recorded live for NPR Music Wednesday night.

For more than a decade, singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone has specialized in a shy, introverted kind of folk music: She started her career at the back of the stage, playing drums for Carissa's Wierd and Band Of Horses, and the solo songs that followed reflected the gently unassuming nature of a singer who couldn't showboat in the spotlight if she tried.

Camae Ayewa, who records under the name Moor Mother, doesn't waste time. The Philly-based artist and agitator stuffs every moment of her densely packed, combative songs with unease and piercing static — that she doesn't allow listeners a moment of peace or rest can only be part of the point.

The combination of an acoustic guitar and the human voice can trigger powerful emotions in countless ways, but it's pretty remarkable when they come together in ways that sound novel. "Goji Berry Sunset" — the first single by Naomi Hamilton, a singer from Northern Ireland who goes by the name Jealous Of The Birds — is made from some of the sparest ingredients imaginable; it's just a gently plucked acoustic guitar, a whistled hook and Hamilton's layered vocals. But those simple sounds dig deep.

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.

Two years ago, when Scottish singer-songwriter Charlotte Brimner was just 17, her work with music and technology helped send her to SXSW — but not as a performer. Instead, she was part of a panel discussion at SXSW Interactive titled "Making Music Physical Again," in which she described the way tech informs her work as an emerging singer-songwriter.

Madison, Wisc., singer and rapper Trapo was in third grade when he started scrawling rhymes in notebooks. Now less than a year removed from high school, he's ready for — and deserving of — a massive audience. For one thing, he's already developed a distinct songwriting voice to go with a sonic palette that's instantly, identifiably his. Trapo performs with a beguiling mix of rawness and ache, often lending a growl to his delivery that can sound tender, or desperate, or angry.

Austrian-born U.K. percussionist Manu Delago specializes in the Hang, a cousin of the steel drum that produces soft, muted, subtly shimmering tones. The instrument provides a perfect counterpoint to the gentle production effects of Delago's new third album, Metromonk, on which a sense of haunted, worldly mystery never gets in the way of approachability and warmth.

The annual South By Southwest music festival kicks off March 13, bringing with it more than 2,000 artists performing at dozens of clubs across Austin, Texas. Winnowing all that music down to a digestible list of recommendations is a months-long endeavor, but now NPR Music has launched its annual Austin 100 — a downloadable 100-song playlist highlighting some of the festival's most exciting discoveries.

The Austin 100

Mar 1, 2017

Every year, the SXSW Music Festival serves a daunting, days-long feast of sounds from around the world. And once again, NPR Music's Austin 100 is here to distill it all down to a digestible meal of music discovery.

Picked from a playlist that spanned more than a hundred hours, these 100 songs represent a broad and exciting cross-section of SXSW's many highlights. Here's how you can listen:

For nearly 20 years, Little Big Town's members have plugged away through label troubles, divorces and the death of loved ones, but they've never endured a lineup change.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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