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.

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.

A young, Niger-born Tuareg guitarist inspired by the wizardry of Saharan rock bands like Tinariwen, Omar Moctar (a.k.a. Bombino) has helped make African music more relatable to U.S. fans, thanks to both his own instrumental gifts and to collaborators like The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, who produced Bombino's new album, Nomad.

Tift Merritt was first known as a decorated country singer — her 2004 album Tambourine was even nominated for a Best Country Album Grammy — but the North Carolina native has spent the years since wandering down far-flung side roads. Merritt keeps finding ways to place literal and figurative distance between herself and Nashville: She's lived in New York City and France, while exploring the sounds of folk, cosmopolitan pop and even classical music.

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