Best of NPR's Tiny Desk Concert Series
by Justin Boden
In an era where old media has generally been slow to adapt and find success within new digital mediums on the internet, National Public Radio (NPR) didn’t miss a beat building their unique programming into a successful show on the ever-popular digital platform YouTube.
2018 marks the 10 year anniversary of NPR’s prodigious series Tiny Desk Concerts. Ten years and over 600 concerts, all performed within the confines of towering bookcases stacked with vinyl records, books, cards and various trinkets from year to year. Employee desks become makeshift keyboard stands. They hold tuners and effects pedals and behind these desks, a certain rawness exposes every artist for who they really are.
This is exactly what makes Tiny Desk Concerts so unique. It is likely amongst the most personal, soul-baring environments an artist can perform in. It’s quiet, it’s quaint and it often brings out the best in musicians that have been lucky enough to find an invitation to the groundbreaking music show. A musician short list that makes Coachella lineups look meek - hip-hop greats Chance The Rapper, Macklemore and Tyler The Creator have dropped their versions of lyrical mastery. Stars like Adele, Peter Frampton, and John Legend have brought their signature sounds to the NPR offices too. Need a few more? Alt-J, The XX, Phoenix, Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, Cat Stevens and, oh yeah, even The Blue Man Group have had their chance at the series.
Our list brings everything great about NPR’s Tiny Desk together in an attempt to not just bring the best performances, but also the best, most surprising moments. Times when artists went outside of their comfort zones and still managed to delight. Moments when new artists left everyone jaw dropped and in love with a new sound and hopefully a few of the greatest performances show up too.
Penguin Cafe calls themselves an "avant-pop" group of musicians creating new, exploratory music. Hovering the lines of many different genres with a similar style to The Album Leaf you’ll hear hints of electronic music against cellos and repeating piano motifs that blend fantastically against violins and light percussion via blocks. Just cramming 9 members into the small space with a full piano and all accompanying instruments is a sight to be seen, but the dreamlike float their songs will find you in are what really shine in this orchestral performance.
Rodrigo y Gabriella
As the video description itself proclaims, Rodrigo y Gabriella are best described as “heavy metal flamenco”. Though not really Spanish guitar or heavy metal at all, but a near mechanical perfection of genre blends. The duo riff on classical guitars strung with nylon strings and take their audiences on technical voyages that require tight timing and precision yet still emit deep and profuse soul landing Rodrigo y Gabriella easily on this list. You’ll hear notes of Hendrix or Santana as idol shout-outs, but otherwise, this Mexican team has developed their own style of guitar playing that is a downright aural treat.
In 2013, singer Amelia Meath joined forces with producer Nick Sanborn in what would become the group Sylvan Esso. Barely more than one year later they would already be on the set of NPR’s Tiny Desk to show off the best of their debut album recorded just a few months prior. Amelia’s blend of artfully blended lyrics and melodies against Sanborn’s reserved electronic tracks create a unique sound that is all their own marking this TIny Desk as one of the best new artist performances even helping launch Sylvan Esso into Top 30 Billboard standings and solidifying them as a force to be reckoned with in the absolutely flooded electronic genre.
Death Cab For Cutie
Ben Gibbard’s band, Death Cab For Cutie, have created a sound just as Northwest as 90’s grunge, where it sometimes feels like it must rain every single day solely around Ben’s house. Maybe it does and keeps him at home writing, which would explain why his lyrics stand as some of today’s strongest, full of playful word games, deeper meaning and compound ways to interpret them. Death Cab’s mark on the music world has already been made, but stamping it with an NPR Tiny Desk only adds to their already long list of musical achievements.
Need proof that all those band lessons in 6th grade would eventually make you look cool and rock out on an international stage? Look no further than the avant-garde sound of Moon Hooch, a dance filled, jazz-fueled raucous trio from Brooklyn who takes busking-styled horn jamming to the next level. This isn’t your childhood’s parading horn players dressed in Cap’n Crunch garb. These guys offer up huge drops and upbeat energy that will keep your head bobbing and turn a quiet office into an outright party.
Run The Jewels
Advisory: This video contains explicit language
High energy isn’t always a Tiny Desk component and many artists have tried their best to bring concert level energy to the offices of NPR with limited success. Run The Jewels is not one of those artists, quickly getting the NPR office audience clapping, laughing and even chanting the group’s name. Much of this is simply bleed out of personality from MCs Killer Mike and El-P, two musicians that don’t just coyly spit their lyrics, they have fun with their audience, melding smart, and politically charged lyrics with funky guitar riff led beats that create a type of hip-hop all their own becoming a breath of fresh air in today’s muddled hip-hop scene.
Perhaps one of today’s strongest voices, in one of today’s most personal atmospheres. If you can make it through the entire performance without feeling a thing, you may be made of stone. Adele’s powerful voice readily finds the magic of quiet-loud and it’s almost as if she’s in your living room belting out a personal concert, just for friends. For an artist that has cooled her touring of late, even stating that she may never tour again due to the rigors of the road, this may be the best way to witness one of today’s living legends.
Advisory: This video contains explicit language.
At first glance, T-Pain seems like the last artist that could find success within the design and intent of Tiny Desk. A performance that requires musicians to strip away the aesthetic coats of effects and expose actual talent seems like that last place you’d find a rapper known almost exclusively for his use of Auto-Tune, a vocal processor that aids in pitch correction. Yet, it quickly becomes apparent that perhaps T-Pain has been a part of over 50 Billboard hits and has 2 Grammys for more than just radio friendly rubbish. This one is among the best because of just how surprising and soulful it is. It’s likely most would relinquish T-Pain as bargain bin pop fodder and he even lampooned his own Auto-Tune style in Saturday Night Live’s hit song “I’m On A Boat”, but NPR’s stage allowed T-Pain to give more than a few valid reasons why he’s made it as far as he has in the industry.
Advisory: This video contains explicit language.
Annie Clark, known by her stage name, St. Francis, is no rookie to music and the industry. A student of the Berklee College of Music, a touring band member of Sufjan Stevens, and several albums mark her as a pro and rightfully so - she can write. From her lyrics to her bombastic and complex guitar-driven electronic jams, Annie has earned her success even having several publications name her 4th album, “To Be Kind” Album of the Year and she was handed a Grammy for her latest effort. She’s new alternative, often loud and nearing dance sometimes. So how does she choose to perform on Tiny Desk? With just one acoustic dividing her from NPR onlookers. It’s surprising and heartfelt and even her sunglasses possibly suggest how naked it can feel with just an acoustic and your voice by adding one more defense line while performing.
Alright, so maybe this isn’t an actual Tiny Desk Concert and Enormodome might bring some local bias, having been a Flagstaff staple for the last several years. But when Jeff Lusby-Breault and Mike Seitz, the two members of Enormodome, recorded their Tiny Desk contest entry its safe to speculate that even they didn’t know just how much awesome it would bestow. The juxtaposition of a calm and collected office to Enormodome’s hard-hitting sound is a perfect show of duality. Former Flagstaff Mayor, Jerry Nabours gets a cameo and the song is epic. Ultimately, they didn’t win the contest, but NPR took note and gave a special shout out to the local band naming them in a shortlist of 10 entries worth a second look.