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 Tunde Olaniran, art is about big ambitions, bigger ideas and the relentless pursuit of joy and comfort within his own skin. The Flint, Mich., native's bold and wildly dynamic 2015 debut Transgressor announced him as a playful multi-hyphenate provocateur who sings, raps, writes and choreographs from a vast well of creativity.

Two years ago, Laura Veirs shared top billing on a collaborative album with vocal powerhouses Neko Case and k.d. lang.

Austin singer-songwriter Mélat Kassa used her hometown's recent SXSW music festival as a springboard to reach new fans from around the world. Mélat, who performs under her first name only, crafts a smart and stylish sound that's inspired by a mix of contemporary American R&B and Ethiopian pop. At the Austin Convention Center's Radio Day Stage earlier this month, she performed her standout single "Push" with the help of a stripped-down live band.

SET LIST

  • "Push"

In the run-up to SXSW 2015, the All Songs Considered team could agree on one pop jam to rule them all: Genevieve's "Colors." Sometimes billed as "Show Your Colors," the song has popped up in commercials and landed the singer at the Tiny Desk, where curmudgeonly pop skeptic Bob Boilen couldn't help but marvel at how thoroughly he'd been won over.

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.

Sampling the thousands of bands playing South By Southwest each year is like trying to take a sip from a tidal wave: It's hard to find an entry point, and you're more than likely going to wind up flattened.

Next week, the annual music festival kicks off in Austin, Texas, so All Things Considered weekend host Michel Martin requested a digestible primer — five songs by artists worth hearing this year.

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.

If you're a Spotify user, you can listen to most of this year's Austin 100 in our Spotify playlist. For a complete list of the musicians in our mixtape, visit npr.org/austin100.

Hometown: New Orleans, Louisiana

Genre: Funk, R&B, Bounce Music

Why We're Excited: Winners of the third annual Tiny Desk Contest last spring, Tank and the Bangas' many members have spent the past year winning over the rest of the world. The band's brassily kinetic, genre-smashing energy absolutely must be witnessed live, but "Quick" shows that it's possible to contain Tank and the Bangas' immense allure on a recording, too.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Genre: Chamber Pop

Why We're Excited: Gracie Coates sings ominously but brightens the proceedings with soft, buoyant piano parts; Rachel Ruggles, for her part, plays swooping, hypnotic lines on the violin. It's a particular sound — at once sunny and dark, sad and sweet, gentle and intense. In "Only a Child," Gracie and Rachel place lives of anxiety and conflict in simple, refreshing context.

SXSW Schedule:

Hometown: Seattle, Washington

Genre: Rock

Why We're Excited: Thunderpussy's chugging, blustery, feel-good stomp would really liven up the playlist at your old classic-rock station — that is, if its music had been made many years ago, by a band that wasn't called "Thunderpussy." As it is, it's an enormously appealing, sweat-flinging throwback that still finds a way to sound fresh.

SXSW Schedule:

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: Seattle, Washington

Genre: Rock

Why We're Excited: "Syml" is the Welsh word for "simple," which should provide a sense of the aesthetic at work in SYML's "Where's My Love." Brian Fennell writes straightforwardly heartwarming, sweetly engaging folk-pop songs, softening each with a voice that embodies comfort and kindness.

SXSW Schedule:

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: New York, New York

Genre: Rock

Hometown: Henderson, Nevada

Genre: Bedroom Pop

Why We're Excited: Nick Rattigan sings and plays drums in the surf-rock band Surf Curse, but he's been doing more and more with the solo bedroom pop songs he writes under the name Current Joys. Propelled by sinewy guitar lines and sweeping synths, songs like "Fear" — from a new, self-directed "visual album" titled A Different Age — reflect on the underbelly of modern life without resorting to self-pity.

SXSW Schedule:

Haley Heynderickx's songs have a way of sneaking up on you: They start out spare, animated by a lone voice or a subtly snaky guitar line, only to billow out into something strange, beautiful, bracingly intense or some combination thereof.

The trajectory of the night said it all. The 60th Grammy Awards opened Sunday with the promise of an explosive performance by apparent frontrunner Kendrick Lamar, punctuated by superstar cameos (U2, Dave Chappelle) and a heady cocktail of grit and visual imagination. The show closed with the completion of the least exciting possible sweep, as Bruno Mars — a gamely appealing pop star whose funky but lightweight jams peppered radio playlists all year — won Album Of The Year (for 24K Magic), Record Of The Year (for "24K Magic") and Song Of The Year (for "That's What I Like").

The Grammy Awards have many roles to play in the cultural conversation. Above all, they're a music-industry showcase and infomercial, stuffed with three and a half hours of live performances meant to spark social-media conversation — and, by extension, sales, streams and TV ratings. But they also function as a way to crown what you might call ambassadors: marketable standard-bearers the industry sees as its faces and future. Each year, the Grammys provide a window into how the music business wishes to see itself, which in turn makes each telecast a surprisingly useful snapshot.

Every year around this time, many of us on the All Songs Considered team — including Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and me — each dredge through nearly 2,000 MP3s by bands playing the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, in search of great new discoveries. And every year, we wind up missing something. In pursuit of music by thousands of acts, hundreds slip past our radar altogether.

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.

The last time bandleader Kim Deal, her sister Kelley Deal, bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim Macpherson got together to make a record, they recorded The Breeders' 1993 classic Last Splash, a wiry and infectious burst of sly invention and shambling joy. On March 2, at long last, that lineup returns with All Nerve, the first full-length Breeders album with any lineup since 2008.

[Note: In this discussion, I refer to Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2 as the third-highest-grossing movie of 2017, after Beauty And The Beast and Wonder Woman. We recorded this episode before the holidays, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi has since surpassed all three.]

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