TINY DESK CONCERTS EVERYONE SHOULD HEAR Small Setting, Huge Experience
If you don’t know NPR’s Tiny Desk series, congratulations; you’ve played yourself. What began in 2008 when NPR’s Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson realized it was better to simply have a touring folk singer come to their office than to try and get a good quality recording in a loud bar, has since grown into a full-fledged phenomenon.
The charm of the Tiny Desk series is all about the misfits: the venue is intimate (they’re literally playing behind Boilen’s actual desk) so musicians who rely on heavily produced music are forced to strip it all down. But for all that, they’re still just playing in an office, so the whole vibe is kind of off kilter. Additionally, the Tiny Desk series features both well-established figures like Adele, Macklemore, and the Avett Brothers, and not-yet famous artists who nevertheless have the unique talents that will propel them to fame and critical regard. A surprising number of artists are genuinely nervous since NPR is such a big deal, and for emerging artists it’s an intimate yet prestigious badge of recognition that they can wear back home.
I recently went down a deep rabbit hole watching these with a few friends, and it was so hard to stop because each video was just as good as the last. These are five performances you really don’t want to miss.
When you think of intimate musical experiences, T-Pain is likely the furthest musician from your mind. Which might explain the man’s obvious jitters and nervousness as he begins to perform his work without his infamous auto-tune. Don’t worry, he tells them to laughter, “I got it in my pocket, it’s totally fine...it’s all surgically inserted.” He then goes on to blow everyone away with his incredible singing voice. It isn’t hard to see how this video is the most viral from the series, and one of the more viral YouTube videos in general.
Described by NPR as someone who carries himself with the impeccable dress and down-to-earth charm of “a folk singer mayor”, Josh Ritter delivers some incredible performances of his intimate and metaphorical love songs in this unique venue. While obviously sincere, he’s aware of the construct of the form which comes through in his wry smiles at his own lyrics.
Chance The Rapper
It’s nearly impossible not to love Chance. Even if you’re somehow not a fan of his music, his age, talent, sincerity, and stunning charity work are all unbelievably admirable. He’s a true fan of the Tiny Desk series and mentions his surprise that they’re actually filmed behind actual NPR worker’s desks. From there he goes on to perform a yearning and simple version of “Juke Jam” that is sure to stop anyone’s heart. He reads a poem that he wrote that very morning, only to be interrupted by an intercom of some sort, after which he playfully decides to start over. The poem was a first for the Tiny Desk series, but hoo boy does Chance have the earnestness to pull it off. He closes out with a beautiful cover of Stevie Wonder's’ “They Won’t Go When I Go” that you won’t want to miss.
These guys are truly one of the funkiest groups around and they didn’t pull any punches when it came to their moment in the Tiny Desk series. Moon Hooch is comprised of two scrappy sax players and a drummer and these guys know how to get down. Their self-described “cave music” mixes EDM, Jazz, and Rock into a truly new form. Boilen often reaches for this concert when asked to describe his favorite performance behind his desk, and it’s not just because one of the saxophonists decided to augment his instrument with an actual traffic cone.
Run The Jewels
It’s still possible to get hella amped up with the Tiny Desk concerts, you just need to hear it done by Run The Jewels. First formed in 2013, Run The Jewels have a unique blend of provocative lyrics, incredible beats, and a surprisingly supportive atmosphere. The two leads have a great rapport that you really ought to see.