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.

Newport Folk Festival programmers like to close their lineups on a note of uplift; to send fans to the exits feeling elated and moved. On that front, they couldn't have done much better than the great Mavis Staples, whose titanic career has spanned more than 60 years. From her time in the best-selling gospel family band The Staple Singers through her role in the civil rights movement, she's been a face of change and a voice behind some of the most powerful songs in modern history.

There aren't a whole lot of failures on the resume of Jeff Tweedy, who co-piloted the groundbreaking alt-country band Uncle Tupelo in the '80s and early '90s, then multiplied its popularity as the leader of Wilco. In that band, Tweedy's refusal to compromise his vision led to his greatest commercial success, vaulting idiosyncratic records like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born into the canon.

Far removed from his days as a white-knuckled teenage prodigy in Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has settled into his 30s as a wise and wizened elder statesman. He's come to channel his youthful intensity into real showmanship, especially onstage, while continuing to mine powerful emotions and a sort of fearless poignancy in his songwriting.

The Newport Folk Festival sells out months before its lineup is announced, but fans aren't entirely in the dark: Most know there's at least a 50 percent chance that the lineup will include the countrified California roots-rock band Dawes. Led by brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith, Dawes is a heartwarming crowd-pleaser, both on stage and on albums like last year's Stories Don't End.

The Sunday lineup of 2014's Newport Folk Festival will take thousands of fans to church, as it opens with the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir and closes with the gospel and R&B titan Mavis Staples.

In the past, the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir has been employed as a sort of Newport Folk Festival palate-cleanser: a way to kick off the day with something kind, approachable, reverent and rooted in many folk traditions. This year, with Mavis Staples on top of the bill, the group, which opens the proceedings on Sunday, functioned as both and a theme-setter.

John McCauley's ragged roots-rock band Deer Tick has become a Newport Folk Festival staple, along with McCauley's frequent collaborators in Dawes and Delta Spirit.

Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins and Chris Thile started out as child prodigies, then built their band into a Grammy-winning commercial force. At the height of their success, though, the three decided to break up and pursue other projects — albeit temporarily, as the title of 2007's "Farewell (For Now) Tour" suggested.

Equal parts rowdy and loving, the husband-and-wife South Carolina duo Shovels & Rope radiates knockabout charm. Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are equally adept at crooning moonily while locking eyes and tearing through blistering folk-rock anthems without seeming to take a breath. Hearst and Trent often swap instruments, giving their sets a freewheeling, unpredictable quality.

You can bundle it up in MP3s and send it zinging through the ether, but Pokey LaFarge's music still seems as though it has emerged from the dustiest 78 at the thrift shop. LaFarge is a man out of time and a true wanderer, with the vintage clothing to match, but he never seems like a mere novelty act: His songs are too sturdy, with too much infectiously zippy energy, to feel anything but authentic.

Aoife O'Donovan got her start in a pair of folk-leaning groups, Sometymes Why and Crooked Still, the latter of which became one of the country's top modern string bands.

Cinematic sweep is hardwired into Band of Horses' sound: Ben Bridwell's voice always seems to be echoing through some canyon or other, whether the guitars are chiming to the rafters or drifting along drowsily. The group's most recent records, Infinite Arms and Mirage Rock, have tended toward the latter half of that equation, but Band of Horses remains versatile in tone, especially onstage.

Jenny Lewis' voice has helped provide a soundtrack to the last 15 years, but it's not part of one specific sound: She's sung heartsick ballads and spiky rock (in Rilo Kiley), summery surf-pop (in Jenny and Johnny), winsome electro-pop (in

A thumbnail description of The Devil Makes Three — "acoustic string-band music with no drummer" — makes its music seem old-fashioned, even quaint. But the California trio plays with boozy aggression and unhinged intensity. If there were a Newport Punk Festival (and, really, why shouldn't there be?), The Devil Makes Three wouldn't be out of place in its lineup, amplification be damned.

There's ambition rooted in the pursuit of personal glory, and then there's creative ambition, rooted in a desire to do what hasn't already been done. Anais Mitchell is a folksinger with a kind, approachable voice.

From its legendary beachfront locale to its celebrations of folk music's past, the Newport Folk Festival draws on more than half a century of celebrated traditions. But it's also an event in which folk's boundaries are tested: This is, after all, where Bob Dylan famously plugged in an electric guitar 49 years ago, in the process enraging the purists in the crowd.

The Newport Folk Festival has been around for more than half a century now — this is its 55th year, to be exact — and the event now routinely sells out months before its lineup is even announced. And why shouldn't it?

Luluc writes songs for late-night drives and uneventful mornings — stuff to slow the blood and the world outside. Bred in Australia but partly based in Brooklyn, Zoë Randell and Steve Hassett traffic in gentle, disarming simplicity, rarely allowing their music to speed up past a gentle lope. But for all their consistency of tone — and quality — Passerby's 10 songs never congeal into a blur or feel like a slog. Like the duo's labelmates in Low, Luluc uses calm as a medium unto itself.

The bluegrass-based Minnesota folk-rock band Trampled By Turtles knows how to play at extreme speeds, to the point where its careening compositions can seem downright unhinged. But its last two records, 2012's Stars and Satellites and the new Wild Animals, mostly move at a deliberate, even graceful pace.

Old Crow Medicine Show knows how to attract attention: The Virginia band's big, brash shows are carried off with rollicking energy and a carnival barker's showmanship.

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.

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.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At NPR Music, they're wrapping up the year the best way they know how, with their hotly contested list of their 50 favorite albums of 2013. Now, all this week, we'll get a peak of that list from our in-house experts, including NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson, whose beat is the ever amorphous indie pop, which - Stephen, what exactly is that these days?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I have absolutely no idea. It used to mean accessible but unpopular.

CORNISH: OK. So...

(LAUGHTER)

Bluegrass' most beloved pros often play well into their 80s and 90s, so it would surprise no one if our children's children's children turn up at a Sarah Jarosz concert 70 years from now. The singer and multi-instrumentalist first surfaced as an 18-year-old wunderkind with the release of 2009's Song Up In Her Head, which generated the first of what will likely be many Grammy nominations; now a grizzled 22, she's out performing songs from her fine new third album, Build Me Up From Bones.

Daughter first popped up on our radar when we heard the London band's song "Landfill" while preparing for SXSW early last year: Achingly pretty and melancholy, the track builds to an absolute gut-punch of a line — "I want you so much, but I hate your guts" — that conjures a pitch-perfect mix of gloom, desire and hostility.

Shovels & Rope's presence in the NPR Music offices attracted plenty of interest; many in attendance had long since fallen in love with the husband-and-wife duo's mix of rowdy folk-rock and rootsy balladeering.

Sarah Jarosz was still in high school when she signed her record deal, and she released her debut album (2009's Song Up In Her Head) shortly thereafter, but the versatile bluegrass star seemed to emerge fully formed. For one thing, the 22-year-old keeps her music sounding warmly pretty — and rooted in accessibly poppy folk — rather than focusing solely on her Grammy-nominated instrumental chops.

It hasn't even been 11 full months since The Avett Brothers released The Carpenter, the North Carolina band's most recent collection of poignant and infectious, bluegrass-inflected folk-rock.

The Newport Folk Festival understands the value of a good palate-cleanser — not to mention the way folk and gospel's roots intertwine — so this year's lineup taps the rich vein of talent at Boston's Berklee College of Music to bring fans the Berklee Gospel & Roots Choir.

Hear the group perform as part of the 2013 Newport Folk Festival, recorded live on Sunday, July 28 in Newport, R.I.

Set List

  • "Strange Fruit"
  • "Work Song / It Is Well With My Soul"
  • "I'll Never Turn Back To More"

Iris DeMent is as credible as folksingers come: The 52-year-old singer-songwriter grew up singing traditional gospel and country music alongside 14 siblings in rural Arkansas. Once endorsed as "the best singer I ever heard" by no greater an authority than Merle Haggard, DeMent seems to emerge from another era entirely.

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