Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Top 10 ‘Tiny Desk’ concerts

NPR started its “Tiny Desk” concert series in April 2008 as part of its All Things Considered department. Since then, over 1,000 artists have huddled together with their respective accompaniment within the small confines of a personal workspace at NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. 

Within a 15-to-25-minute timespan, artists who have appeared on “Tiny Desk” have gotten very creative with how they present their music to both the small live audience and the online audience. Not only has “Tiny Desk” been a place for artists to promote new music, but it’s also provided artists like Usher, Babyface, and most recently, Juvenile with a widely reverberating renaissance. 

Juvenile, who didn’t even know what “Tiny Desk” was just a few months ago, delivered one of the best editions of the year, garnering nearly two million viewers on YouTube after just three days. Is his performance among the best ever? TheGrio counts down the top 10 “Tiny Desk” performances ever. 

10. T-Pain (2014)

Love it or hate it, T-Pain’s utilization of autotune revolutionized Black music in the 21st century. Although he stacked up plenty of hits records and guest features, a backlash against autotune was in full swing by 2014. T-Pain took to “Tiny Desk,” sans autotune, armed with just a keyboard player, to shut his critics up. His stripped-back renditions of hits like “Buy U A Drank (Shawty Snappin’),” “Up Down (Do This All Day),” and “Drankin’ Patna” let fans know he didn’t need to autotune to sound great.

9. Miguel (2012)

Miguel’s career was bubbling in 2012. He received some buzz with his debut album, “All I Want is You,” but his career hit another gear when he took the “Tiny Desk” stage. Miguel gorgeously sang three songs from his new sophomore album, “Kaleidoscope Dream,” accompanied by a single acoustic guitarist. The final song was the album’s lead single, “Adorn,” which he acknowledged as the most important song of his career at that point. 

8. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings (2015)

Few knew that by Christmas time 2015, soul singer Sharon Jones had less than a year to live. After surviving a tough battle with cancer, she and her backing band, the Dap-Kings, came to “Tiny Desk” to spread some holiday cheer from their album, “A Holiday Soul Party.” They performed a version of “Silent Night” worthy of the finest Memphis-style soul, but the highlight of the three-song set was Jones and her Brooklyn soul band’s original piece, the funky “8 Days of Hanukkah.”

7. Juvenile (2023)

To think, just a few months ago, Juvenile didn’t even know what “Tiny Desk” was. But after seeing an online campaign for the New Orleans rap hitmaker to appear on the series, Juvenile went full steam ahead into the experience. The Cash Money Records MC came to the Washington, D.C., office with a full backing band, horn section, string section, and local sister duo The Amours on background vocals. Fellow New Orleans music royalty Mannie Fresh, Jon Batiste, and Trombone Shorty joined Juvenile for a nearly 30-minute set of his hits, including back-to-back go-rounds of “Back That Azz Up.”

6. Erykah Badu (2018)

While most artists try to fit as much music as possible into their short time, Erykah Badu believed that less is more. The Grammy-winner, backed by a full band, opened with a quick version of “Rimshot,” the opener from her 1997 debut album, “Baduizm.” She then only sang one song, “Green Eyes,” the epic closer from the 2000 album, “Mama’s Gun.” For nearly 13 minutes, she performed the song in full, with all three movements showcasing her dynamic voice at its absolute peak. 

5. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah (2015)

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is one of the most talented, forward-thinking trumpet players of the 21st century. When he and his quintet arrived at “Tiny Desk” in 2015, he was at a new artistic plateau with his album, “Stretch Music,” the moniker he gives to the music he writes and plays in place of so-called jazz. Like on the album, the set included a brilliant platform for up-and-coming flutist Elena Pinderhughes. Playing incendiary compositions like “Twin” and “K.K.P.D. (Ku Klux Police Department),” aTunde Adjuah and his band fired on all cylinders, playing one of the longest Tiny Desk sets ever with just over 33 minutes. 

4. The Roots (2017)

While the nation gets to see The Roots every weeknight on “The Tonight Show,” the version of the Philadelphia hip-hop band at “Tiny Desk” was atypical for fans. In place of the regular line-up, co-founders Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter were joined by only sousaphonist Damon Bryson and a seven-piece brass section. After marching onto the set to a funky instrumental, vocalist Bilal emerged to sing “It Ain’t Fair,” their fiery collaboration from the “Detroit” soundtrack. It was the only song they performed, but the energy put forth was more than enough.

3. Tank & The Bangas (2017)

NPR held a “Tiny Desk” contest, asking for votes for a band to play on the series. Tank & The Bangas, a New Orleans genre fluid band, was 2017’s clear-cut winner, and they made the most of their opportunity. Playing their songs “Boxes And Squares,” “Quick,” and “Rollercoasters,” the band played different styles, different tempos and expressed different emotions in their nearly 24-minute showcase. Frontwoman Tarriona “Tank” Ball was a chameleon, doing playful rapping, wistful spoken word, and power and poignant singing with equal ability.

2. Usher (2022)

As Usher Raymond celebrated the 25th anniversary of his breakthrough sophomore album, “My Way,” he took a break from his acclaimed Las Vegas residency to dial things back for “Tiny Desk.” The R&B-pop legend, devoid of his big stage and masterful choreography, let his vocals and his band wow the audience with just as much charisma and virtuosity. While he belted out hits like “You Make Me Wanna” and “Nice and Slow,” he became a meme with an impromptu hand gesture during the intro of “Confessions Pt. II.” It was a signature moment for the longtime superstar. 

1. Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals (2016)

Before the rest of the world knew Anderson .Paak, as one half of the supergroup Silk Sonic with Bruno Mars, he was one of the most talked about musicians in the industry by the time he and his band, The Free Nationals, hit “Tiny Desk.” The polymath slickly and concurrently sang, rapped, and played drums with the Free Nationals to selections of his new album, “Malibu.” Just when you thought things were over, .Paak received a request to play “Suede,” a breakthrough track from his NxWorries side project with Knxwledge. Even though they didn’t plan on playing it, you couldn’t even tell how they marched through it without breaking a sweat. To date, .Paak and the Free Nationals’ is the second most-viewed “Tiny Desk” set with 100 million YouTube views (Mac Miller featuring Thundercat is currently on top with 104 million views to date).

Matthew Allen is an entertainment writer of music and culture for theGrio. He is an award-winning music journalist, TV producer and director based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music, Okayplayer, and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!


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