Illustration by Sezi Kaya in article about Tiny Desk Concerts

6 Tiny Desk Concerts That You Need To Check Out

All of the concerts in the NPR Music series are great, but these six are guaranteed to get you moving and grooving.
August 5, 2020
9 mins read

Perhaps that concert you bought tickets to months ago was supposed to be this week and you are feeling particularly bummed out. Maybe you are so tired of your music that scrolling through your saved songs on Spotify makes your eyelids droop and elicits a snore or two. Or, maybe you just need a good smile. Whatever music-related problem you are experiencing, NPR has a solution: the Tiny Desk Concert videos, of course!

The Tiny Desk Concert series, hosted by NPR Music, is by no means new or overlooked. Since 2008, musicians have been performing at the desk of the host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered,” Bob Boilen. The result is a more intimate, often rawer look at artists that other venues do not deliver.

On the list of those who have graced the cluttered yet whimsical desk corner are big names such as Harry Styles, Lizzo, Alicia Keys and Taylor Swift. Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals hold the title of most popular Tiny Desk Concert, with over 53 million views. I’ll admit, I’ve contributed to a good number of those views.

However, Tiny Desk is not marred by elitism or exclusivity. Smaller musicians perform on the show as well. This makes Tiny Desk Concert videos the perfect resource for discovering new music.

I could go on singing the praises of Tiny Desk Concerts for pages and pages. My only problem with the series is its sheer volume. Would I like to spend a week listening to over 900 concerts? Of course! Unfortunately, as is likely the case for most people, I cannot actually do that.

Instead, I have compiled a list of my favorite Tiny Desk Concerts. These videos deserve to be dug up from the archives and shown a lot of love. If you have not seen them, be ready to bop all over your room. If you have, now is the chance to remember how excellent they are.

1. Lianne La Havas

When I first found Lianne La Havas’ 2015 concert, I was immediately entranced by what I had stumbled upon. It introduced me to the Tiny Desk world, and I have never looked back. Five years later, I still find myself returning to this video.

The British singer-songwriter’s joy is palpable as she sings. Her smile says it all. It is as if you are doing her a favor by letting her perform for you. Throw in her raw, powerful voice and her warm, resonant guitar, and perfection is near. My favorite part of the performance is La Havas’ gentle guitar backing her vocals in the second song, “Unstoppable.” The sound is akin to light raindrops during a sun shower.

This captivating performance introduced me to one of my favorite musicians. If you watch the video and, like me, are hooked, be sure to check out La Havas’ new self-titled album. You won’t be disappointed.

2. Andrew Bird

Most people can sing. Some can whistle. A few can play an instrument. Not only does Andrew Bird do all three, but he also does them in tandem. This is just one element that makes Bird’s Tiny Desk Concert from 2016 the most unique of this list.

Bird’s violin is key to his sound. But don’t be turned off by this if you are not a fan of classical music — this is not violin like you might know it. Bird blends shades of classical, as well as jazz and folk, into his indie-leaning sound. The result is a particular character of music unlike any other I have heard.

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While watching the performance, be sure to listen for the clever lyrics. An example of the way Bird plays with words can be found in the second song, “Roma Fade.” “Used to be so willfully obtuse, or is the word abstruse? Semantics like a noose, get your dictionaries out,” he sings. Watching Bird balance singing, whistling and playing the violin (sometimes like a guitar) is undeniably fun.

3. Natalia Lafourcade

NPR describes Natalia Lafourcade’s music as “an ode to a magical time in Mexican popular music,” and magical is just how I would describe her Tiny Desk Concert. Lafourcade’s music blends pop and Mexican folk music. Her sound is gentle and bright, with lyrics to match. Even if you don’t understand any Spanish, you can still enjoy the music’s beauty.

This concert in particular is an instant stress reliever, guaranteed to make you smile. Lafourcade sings with closed eyes as if her music transports her to another place. In fact, the second song she performs, “Veracruz,” is an ode to her hometown in Mexico. It manages to make me feel nostalgic for a place I have never been to.

The addition of multiple strings, including traditional Mexican guitar, lends layers to each song. A listen will have you getting lost in the music alongside Lafourcade.

4. Leon Bridges

If Lafourcade’s performance will transport you to another place, Leon Bridge’s Tiny Desk Concert will transport you to another time, particularly the 1960s, during the height of soul music. “We probably should’ve shot this Tiny Desk Concert in black-and-white,” NPR acknowledges in the description of the video.

Bridge’s smooth voice is the highlight of this performance, as he sings about love, home and even how his grandparents met. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the saxophonist and Bridge’s talented background singer, who are visually feeling the music.

Be warned that this performance will have you swaying around your room. It may even convince you to learn soul dancing. You may even develop a little crush on Bridges — I’m guilty as charged.

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5. Raveena

Raveena’s Tiny Desk Concert embodies the word ethereal. With her delicate high voice, sherbet dress and makeup, and the way she dances while singing, she is the embodiment of her sweet, dreamy music. The desk is even decorated with mushroom and flower props brought by the band. As a result, watching her, even in this casual setting, is a whole experience that requires full attention. Viewers seem to agree, leaving comments like “this is what butterflies listen to after a long day.”

Raveena blends R&B and pop, creating a sensual tone. Her voice is crisp and gentle, and you can hear the smile that is permanently spread across her face while she sings.

In between songs, Raveena comments on the purpose of her music, which often focuses on growing from traumatic experiences. While performing, she strives to create a space of love to do that, and to “cultivate a feeling of softness in the room … and create a sense of togetherness.” Her Tiny Desk performance is a successful attempt at doing so.

6. Liniker e os Caramelows

Limiting your music to English only closes off a world of gorgeous tunes, so my final recommendation is another non-English performance. Liniker e os Caramelows, led by Liniker, is a Brazilian band that delivers funky soul music. Their Tiny Desk Concert is warm and inviting.

Liniker sings with suavity. Her range is fantastic, with smooth lower tones and effortless falsetto. Her Portuguese sounds poetic and velvety as it flows from her lips, even to someone who does not understand the language; she could likely convince me to learn.

The band feels the music, bopping around despite the small space. This is another performance that invites dancing, especially during the second song, “Tua.” So, set up your computer on a piece of furniture with some space in front of it, and get ready to groove like you are at a concert.

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This is just a taste of a whole world of Tiny Desk Concerts to explore. Luckily, this world is still growing, even in the face of a global pandemic, with the release of Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts.

Hopefully, these videos will convert you into a Tiny Desk fanatic, such as myself, or help you discover exciting new music. At the very least, I hope they make you smile. Now, the next step is applying for an NPR Music Internship. Apparently, interns get to attend the concerts while they are recorded. It can’t get much better than that.

Renee Cantor, University of Pittsburgh

Writer Profile

Renee Cantor

University of Pittsburgh
English Literature and Fiction Writing

I’m Renee, a rising junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying literature, fiction writing, and Spanish. Aside from writing, some of my favorite activities are reading, hiking, baking, and playing with dogs (of course!).

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