NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts are a national treasure. It’s been almost a decade since Bob Boilen starting inviting people to play behind his desk and in that time, established artists and brand new bands alike have graced the space with some of the best musical performances ever played. The bar’s exceptionally high and we recognize there’s no way to make a list like this objective. Instead, we focused on the performances we connected with the most or the ones that caught us by surprise, like music from genres we thought we didn’t like, or acts we never thought would fit behind a standard office desk. We suggest you put on your headphones and forget about getting anything else done for the rest of the day. Here are 15 of our favorite Tiny Desk concerts.
Laura Gibson’s performance is the one that proved the Tiny Desk series could be successful. It’s highly likely that if she told Bob Boilen and NPR that playing music behind an ordinary office desk was a weird and stupid idea, we wouldn’t have nearly a decade of amazing, unique performances. But she proved the idea was practical and there would be an audience for it, two of the major hurdles any kind of project has to deal with. Her performance also showed artists what they had to work with. Acoustic acts don’t have much to worry about, but bands with larger instruments or a reliance on electronic setups were going to have to figure out how to adapt to the space. Thankfully, her time behind the desk went smoothly, and now we have an excellent, long-standing musical tradition.
Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper has some of the best stage presence we’ve ever seen. If you need a perfect example and can’t get to one of his live performances, check out his time on SNL. He brings that same energy to his Tiny Desk concert, filling out his limited space with his personality and talent in equal measure. He’s also one of the only artists who have shaken up the Tiny Desk formula, bringing some original poetry to his performance rather than keeping strictly to music. But in a great credit to his talents, his recitation doesn’t come off as self-indulgent. It’s a genuine expression of what he thought would best suit his time at NPR and he made the right call.
Common at the White House
Common’s already a gifted rapper and performer, so his Tiny Desk concert probably would have still made the list even if it hadn’t been at the White House. But it was, so including it doesn’t have any kind of counter-argument. He and his fellow performers are so obviously loving their unique opportunity that they suck you right into the act, infecting you with their enthusiasm and talent so you’d have to be a truly heartless person to not enjoy what they’re playing, even if you’re not a hip hop fan. The performance goes beyond musical genres, to where you’re more invested in the thing as a whole rather than a single example of rap or hip hop.
Most of the time, a musician’s weirdly specific requests for a gig speak more to their own neuroses or insecurities than their talent or performance. But ALA.NI bringing her own vintage microphone to a gig is less about her want to play up hipster technology and more about playing to the strengths of her unique voice. Her RCA Ribbon microphone gives her performance an inviting, healthily nostalgic feel that sets her apart. She’s not pretentious, she just knows what works best for her. Listening, it’s easy to imagine yourself in a Parisian cafe in the 1920s quietly sipping a cocktail.
Ben Folds has one of the more endearing Tiny Desk concerts for the same reason so many people connect with his music. His performance is honest in his energy, the plain spokenness of his lyrics, and how he doesn’t try to gloss over how he forgets the words. He owns up, crowdsources the recovery, then follows the song with stories about his development as a musician. His energy draws you into the music and the lyrics speak to common feelings in humanity, especially the last song he plays. The video also gives you a much closer look at his technical talents, which made us realize we never knew just how fast he could play.
Run the Jewels
Holy shit does Run the Jewels get you amped up. If you know anyone who doubts the power of hip-hop, show them this Tiny Desk. Seeing these two guys support each other, share the spotlight, and spout some of the best lyrics we’ve ever heard put to any sort of beat makes for an amazing and deeply effective concert. These are two very different men who found common ground in subject matter and talent and used it to make excellent, provocative music. And Killer Mike ends the session the best way he could when he says the group is not a political rap group. Their lyrics absolutely do not espouse one political viewpoint over another. Instead, they’re warning against the things they see threatening everyone’s freedom, regardless of who you vote for.
Blue Man Group
Blue Man Group is the only Tiny Desk concert we’ve seen that gets its own video introduction and it plays pretty much the same way their concert does. It’s a pared down version of their live show, but with all the charm and creativity that makes their show so distinct. The group careens around the NPR offices gathering anything and everything they’ll need for their performance, doing so with their signature skin and wide eyed stare. They also quickly make it clear their typically larger than life performance will not be limited by their space, a risk their group would be particularly susceptible to. It’s a weird, fun, creative, vaguely unsettling concert, just like you’d see if you made your way to one of the many cities they perform.
Traditional Mexican music is one of those genres that gets you moving no matter your musical tastes, even if you’re just tapping a foot. If you’re never listened to the genre beyond hearing a guy blaring some music out his windows, Lila Downs is a great introduction. She and her musicians are amazingly talented, bringing passion and energy to the music itself. If you feel like dancing, you totally can. If you speak or understand Spanish, you can give interpretation a shot too. These aren’t mindless pop songs. They tell stories, give insight into the history and psychology of Mexicans and Mexican immigrants, and point to common experiences in North, South, and Central America.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
We should admit up front we were disappointed that “S.O.B.” wasn’t included in this performance. At the same time, we were reminded that Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats have other songs and that they’re good too. This is an act that specializes in musical storytelling that gets people moving, a specialization on full display in their time at the NPR offices. Their clear, soulful sound is particularly inviting and we’re glad to see this band isn’t going to be a one-hit wonder.
Judging both from his performance and Kwani Ansu’s description on NPR’s website, I Wayne is a fairly reticent artist. He lets the music speak for itself and for him, which is something we absolutely respect. There are a lot of talented artists who get in their own way, but I Wayne seems to only surface when it comes time to play. His musical style is super casual too, with interjections and spoken sections of his songs, though that’s also a little more expected in reggae. He also puts the NPR offices on the spot, inviting them to join him on the choruses and it’s endearing how awkwardly the staff tries to fill the gaps.
According to NPR, Young Fathers had the most difficulty adjusting to the limited space of the office. Where their normal concerts are full of energy, movement, instruments, and equipment, they had to limit themselves to quieter, more low key performance for their Tiny Desk. As a result, their performance is the shortest one in the catalog, but it still serves as a great way to get to know the group. This is a band that emphasizes lyrical complexity and poetry, which is definitely conveyed in their short time. The Young Fathers Tiny Desk proves the group is just as effective when they have to rely mostly on their voices and songwriting talent.
Like Lila Downs, Raquel Sophia makes us wish we spoke better Spanish. But where Downs plays more folk music, Sophia’s first song sounds like the Wild West and Mexico blended into the same culture and her second is a worthy entry into the ever popular “I messed this relationship up real bad” category. In fact, her songwriting style is hard to pin down, as each of the songs she plays are wildly different, with the major similarity being that she turns her own emotionally personal moments into inspiration for her music. It’s cathartic no matter the language you speak.
While it’s not what they normally sing, Afro Blue’s time at Tiny Desk was spent performing African-American spirituals and if there’s music that hits deeper emotional notes than this, we haven’t heard it. The amazing part of this performance, besides the performance itself, is the age of the performers. Everyone in the group is a student at Howard University, which means these kids could feasibly have been thinking about homework in the time between songs. It also means this group won’t look the same in four years. It’ll be new faces, but with no dip in quality or
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers
Steve Martin’s musical career was always like Bigfoot for us. We heard rumors about it and even saw and heard some pretty convincing video and audio clips, but we never really sought it out for ourselves. But his Tiny Desk concert was the first time we encountered it head on, and there’s a lot more evidence for Steve Martin being a talented musician than a large simian relative living in the Pacific Northwest. This isn’t Steve Martin’s ego project either, so no Russell Crowe vanity project here. The video opens with Martin playing solo banjo and he moves as fast and deftly with it as Ben Folds does with a piano and the Steep Canyon Rangers is the perfect name for the band, both in general and for a group Steve Martin would work with. Plus you get some quality Steve Martin comedy, so everyone wins.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Christmas music or not, there’s no way we’re not going to include a New Orleans jazz band on this list. Maybe more than any other genre, New Orleans jazz is the most joyful music out there. It’s impossible to be in a bad mood when music like this is playing. Just listen to Preservation Hall play and tell us you’re not immediately ten times happier. While we were writing this, a Sazerac magically appeared next to our computer. A Cajun food truck pulled up outside our front door and force fed us Jambalaya until we died and they revived us with a personal Mardi Gras. These musicians are so talented we don’t even care they’re playing mostly Christmas music. We’re going to listen no matter the time of year.