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.

We talk a lot about nostalgia on Pop Culture Happy Hour — about the ways entertainment has shaped our youth and placed our memories in perspective — but in doing so, we've mostly discussed movies, TV shows, music, books, board games, that sort of thing.

This week's taping presented us with a few conundrums: Host Linda Holmes had already begun her vacation, while I know jack-all about the seven accumulated seasons of Mad Men, whose finale we were duty-bound to discuss. Our solution involved a pair of our most beloved guest panelists — Gene Demby and, from a studio in L.A., Barrie Hardymon — and a brief interregnum in poor Linda's vacation. (I stayed home and ate snacks.)

It's hard to divine, on paper anyway, a formula for effectively covering The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety. It's not an album that had been crying out for improvement — to put it mildly — nor has it ever receded far enough toward the cultural margins to require rediscovery. These songs still occupy the ether of the everyday, even for those who've never sat down and studied the record from front to back.

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.

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)

The Avett Brothers
Courtesy of the artist

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. And, given the lengthy touring cycle that each major album release generally spawns — the Avetts of last month's Newport Folk Festival with songs from The Carpenter — fans had no reason to expect new music this year.

It's not a stretch to call Frank Turner a folksinger, by any means, especially when he performs solo with an acoustic guitar. But he's also a rocker, a punk, a storyteller and an all-around delightful raconteur who sings self-deprecating songs about love, survival, debauchery, revolution and the many ways those topics intersect. Take away his backing players in The Sleeping Souls, and he still radiates the gale-force energy of a full band.

Rising Brooklyn folk-pop band The Lone Bellow infuses its songs with charm, radiant hooks and intense emotions. Formed as a creative outlet for singer Zach Williams as his wife recovered from an accident that nearly paralyzed her, The Lone Bellow performs with a sense of necessity; given the circumstances, it's no surprise that the group so often reflects on redemption in memorable ways.

Pennsylvania native Sean Scolnick (a.k.a. Langhorne Slim) describes his own sound as "country punk," but it's not out of line to call him a sort of supercharged folksinger. He's got a big, ragged voice and a bigger personality — and little trouble grabbing a crowd's attention with raucous songs from his newest album, 2012's The Way We Move.

Hear Langhorne Slim and his band The Law perform as part of the 2013 Newport Folk Festival, recorded live on Saturday, July 27 in Newport, R.I.

Justin Townes Earle has marinated in outlaw country music his whole life: The son of Steve Earle, named for the legendary Townes Van Zandt, was born to be an iconoclast.

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