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.

Like many musicians, Okkervil River's Will Sheff responded to the end of 2016's contentious election season by hunkering down to write songs. It'd only been a few months since Okkervil River had released Away, a somber and mournful reflection on hard transitions, from the passing of Sheff's beloved grandfather to some major turnover in the band. So he'd already been neck-deep in re-examinations of his life in the aftermath of monumental 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.

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.


Every band needs to refresh and reconsider its sound sooner or later, no matter how sharp it's gotten over the course of a long career. Creative stagnation comes for us all — even The Decemberists, a band whose records have always come bursting with verve and verbosity.

Look, it's gonna be a tough week. Maybe you stayed up late watching the Oscars and you're already underslept; maybe there's a lot going on at work right now; and certainly, if nothing else, whatever transpires in the news will accumulate so quickly, you won't believe that only four days have passed by the time we get to Friday.

The Austin 100

Mar 1, 2018

In the middle of every March, the SXSW Music Festival fills Austin, Texas, with thousands of musicians from around the world. It's a marathon so daunting — it's a marathon and a sprint, really — that even longtime SXSW veterans need a hand winnowing the festival's countless discoveries down to digestible doses.

That's where The Austin 100 comes in. Handpicked from thousands of bands playing at this year's festival, these 100 songs highlight the best SXSW 2018 has to offer — songs from around the world, across a broad spectrum of genres, sounds and styles.

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

Genre: Folk / Funk / R&B

Why We're Excited: When singer and violinist Sudan Archives discovered the way the violin is played in Northeast Africa, she overhauled her sound to accommodate it. Now, her slippery pop and soul music incorporates sharp and hypnotic violin lines like the ones that animate the irrepressibly clattering "Come Meh Way."

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago

Genre: Soca

Hometown: Montreal, Canada

Genre: Rock

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee

Genre: Americana

Why We're Excited: Lilly Hiatt writes about thorny aftermaths and cascading consequences, but her work is conceived and played with a full and generous heart. For every note of recrimination, there's a double-edged but ultimately kind appreciation like "Records," in which the singer lays bare her dependence on the music that's helped keep her sane and alive.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Portland, Oregon

Genre: Folk Rock

Why We're Excited: Sometimes, the phrase "singer-songwriter" can't begin to capture how many different things a vocalist can do with a guitar in her hands. Haley Heynderickx's voice can embody nervy intensity, caustic strangeness or cooing beauty, while her songs never seem to take the same journey twice. In just three minutes, "Oom Sha La La" keeps popping down surprising side roads.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Canowindra, Australia

Genre: Singer-Songwriter

Why We're Excited: Simultaneously warm and cool, singer-songwriter Gordi (a.k.a. Sophie Payten) shares some creative DNA with Bon Iver: She's toured with the band, she records for its label, and she helped make a name for herself by releasing a hauntingly cavernous cover of "00000 Million." In "Heaven I Know," she swathes her voice in Imogen Heap-style effects, but her debut album (2017's Reservoir) also showcases a joyful side.

Hometown: London, England

Genre: Jazz

Why We're Excited: Ezra Collective keeps one foot planted in traditional jazz but lets the other wander far and wide, bringing back rhythmic traces of hip-hop and Afrobeat. On the new Juan Pablo: The Philosopher EP, Ezra Collective sounds alternately taut and spacey in tunes that don't stay in one place long, let alone recede into the background.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Genre: Roots Rock

Why We're Excited: Field Report's Christopher Porterfield got his start playing alongside Bon Iver's Justin Vernon all the way back in their DeYarmond Edison days, and now his Field Report project is getting its due after several strong albums. Summertime Songs slickens Porterfield's sound without sacrificing warmth or depth, as evidenced by the hooky, handclappy anthem "Never Look Back."

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Montreal, Canada (born/raised in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo)

Genre: Funk / Pop

Why We're Excited: Congolese Canadian Pierre Kwenders sings in five languages — and incorporates at least that many genres into his sultry, swaying, busy, funky pop music. Named for a Henry Miller trilogy, "Sexus Plexus Nexus" brings sex talk and saxophones together, where they've always belonged.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: London, England

Genre: Jazz

Why We're Excited: Tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia exudes a kind of breezy, sultry, downtown cool — no surprise, given her history as a club DJ. On her debut, Nubya's 5ive, she and her band strike an engrossing balance between long stretches of dreamy exploration and surges of vital, virtuosic intensity.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii

Genre: Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Genre: Americana

Why We're Excited: At first, Dead Horses' songs can sound like simple back-porch roots music. But Sarah Vos and Daniel Wolff dig deeper than that, enriching their material with evocative, empathetic storytelling. Inspired in part by a difficult childhood — Vos grew up in a strict religious household, only to see her family expelled from its church when she was a teenager — Dead Horses' songs find her searching for meaning and connection.

Hometown: Düsseldorf, Germany

Genre: Dance

Why We're Excited: Gato Preto's sound is insistent to the point of relentlessness: The globetrotting band piles on layer upon layer of percussion — traditional and electronic — while brandishing earworms like bazookas. Between the feast of rhythm and the wild Afro-futuristic garb, Gato Preto doesn't just put on a show; it makes a scene.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Genre: Afropop

Why We're Excited: Born in Sudan and based in Brooklyn, with other stops along the way, Alsarah is used to fusing the sounds and styles of disparate cultures. As leader of Alsarah & The Nubatones, she accurately describes her approach as "East African Retro-Pop" — a lavish, joyful, era-spanning sound full of Arabic-language reflections on identity and survival. It's modern and nostalgic, timeless and new.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Los Angeles, California

Genre: Rock

Why We're Excited: Sego's "Whatever Forever" unpacks the inner monologue of a frenetic and frustrated mind: Bored and anxious, singer Spencer Petersen rambles and seethes over a throbbing bassline until it's time for a soaring chorus that feels both chaotic and cathartic.

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Genre: Americana

Why We're Excited: Buck Meek is best known as the lead guitarist and cofounder of Big Thief, but he's also got a nice, low-key side gig going as a solo artist. On his own, he rambles and twangs through conversational, countrified, vividly detailed stories of wanderers, lost souls and dreamers.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Melbourne, Australia

Genre: Rock

Why We're Excited: Australian singer-songwriter Jess Ribeiro got her start playing country music, but on 2015's Kill It Yourself, she steered toward a sparer, more haunting sound. On that album's tremendous title track, Ribeiro crafts a solemn bit of timeless country-noir that would have been perfectly suited to those Bang Bang Bar spots on the latest iteration of Twin Peaks.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Genre: Indie Rock

Why We're Excited: Nassau's songs drift along with moody grace, propelled by clean, fluid guitar lines and an overarching vibe of calm contentment. But listen closely to "Whatever Brings You Peace of Mind," and you'll hear a note of melancholy and unrequited want — a bittersweet mix that haunts as it soothes. Fans of Noah and the Whale's The First Days of Spring, take note.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Silsbee, Texas

Genre: Indie Rock

Why We're Excited: In Lomelda, singer-songwriter Hannah Read reflects on isolation and distance, but there's nothing remote about her music. If anything, she seems compelled to pull listeners ever closer; to share sung secrets amid some of the most intoxicating liquid guitar lines you'll hear this year.

SXSW Schedule:

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 The Decemberists release I'll Be Your Girl on March 16, it'll be the band's eighth album — part of a 17-year career that's taken listeners through everything from wry folk to ambitious rock opera. If I'll Be Your Girl's first single is any indication, Colin Meloy and his band have used their new record as an opportunity to try new things and hit a few reset buttons along the way.

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