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The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

13 Beats: NPR’s Tiny Desk


NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts are playful, intimate iterations of musicians’ best work for a small crowd, and whether it’s Mac Miller’s performance of “What’s the Use?” with Thundercat or Harry Styles’ raw vocals on “Cherry,” several of these performances stand out from the rest. Each concert features an artist singing alongside an NPR jury’s selection of fine-tuned musicians in a small office space riddled with books, portraits and posters.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tiny Desk concerts left NPR’s studio in Washington, D.C., and shifted to a sing-from-home format. Miley Cyrus performed from a punk-rock-themed bedroom and Phoebe Bridgers addressed her indie pop audience from a mock set of the Oval Office. Pop stars such as Justin Bieber played the keys on a set reminiscent of a college student’s dorm: in front of a bohemian tapestry under red LED lights.

The Tiny Desk is also a space for lesser-known artists to publicize their talent. Each year, NPR holds the Tiny Desk Contest and holds auditions to select one up-and-coming performer to play a set. 2022 winner Alisa Amador’s teary rendition of “Milonga Accidental” was the first Spanish song to win NPR’s contest, and it saw the return of the series in person.

Whether they’re performed from home or from behind the tiny desk, here’s 13 songs that sound just as sweet as — if not better than — the original from the NPR collection. 

1. “Endlessly” — Omar Apollo (2022)

As part of NPR’s LatinX Heritage Series, Omar Apollo closed his Tiny Desk set last September with “Endlessly,” a track which began as an interlude and developed into its two-minute length (per Apollo’s fans’ demands). Apollo, who came up at the time of bedroom pop and indie fanatics, has measurably evolved as an artist. This soul-style track is defined by his boyish belts and carried by a sweet chorus of supporting vocalists’ ad-libs. 

2. “Certainty” — Big Thief (2022)

As part of the Tiny Desk (Home) Concert series, indie folk band Big Thief performed tracks from their album “Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You” in the corner of a white-walled bedroom, circa 2022. “Certainty” is a bouncy, rocking tune that paces along as lead vocalist Adrienne Lenker idealizes affection. 

“You lay beside me, sleeping on a plane in the future,” foresees Lenker, whose voice is accompanied by sweeping drums and a guitar with its own voice.

3. “Love Again” — Dua Lipa (2020)

With over 100 million views, Dua Lipa’s 2020 Tiny Desk (Home) Concert is currently the most popular episode of the series. Her four-song set features pop hits such as “Levitating” and “Don’t Start Now,” but slows it down for “Love Again,” where her all-natural pop-star voice is revealed by her deep song. The performance reaches a dramatic end as, swaying with the acoustic melody, Lipa belts in a tone that is reminiscent of Christina Aguilera or Ariana Grande, but is clearly all her own. 

4. “Tadow” — Masego (2020)

Masego, a Jamaican-American singer and saxophone player, showcases his multifaceted talents on “Tadow.” The jazz-rap track is carried by a repetitive chorus: “I saw her and she hit me like (Tadow).” At the tiny desk, these lines fall between Masego’s thoughtful, strident solos under the guidance of a dreamy piano.

5. “He Won’t Hold You” — Jacob Collier (2020)

For Jacob Collier’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, he doesn’t bring in a band — he clones himself (using video recording software) and plays every instrument. In his performance of “He Won’t Hold You,” Collier plays the keys, bass and drums, among layers of his soothing vocals. The track fills Collier’s at-home studio with a special sense of serenity.

6. “Bassackwards” — Kurt Vile (2019)

Vile’s “Bassackwards” became a cult-classic upon its 2018 release for its resemblance to Bob Dylan and John Prine’s guitar-storytelling. On this track, Vile’s imperfect, experimental style overlaps guitar loops with lyrics. 

“Bassackwards” portrays restlessness in fleeting moments: “I was on the beach, but I was thinking about the bay / Got to the bay, but by then I was far away.”

7. “Maria Tambien” — Khruangbin (2018)

In a racing, psychedelic guitar loop, the Tiny Desk performance of “Maria Tambien” pulls us into a high-speed chase within Khruangbin’s world of bright-yellow instruments and whispering voices. But what makes this track so special is all in the drums; Khruangbin’s resident percussionist Donald “DJ” Johnson keeps time to a tee. 

8. “Green Eyes” — Erykah Badu (2018)

For Badu, it’s as effortless to carry a soul tune as it is to speak a sentence. Shortly after she introduces her crew of performers, she eases the crowd into “Green Eyes,” a song about jealousy and denial. Backed by skipping piano melodies, Badu’s song is slow-paced and introspective. “My mind says move on / My heart lags behind,” sings Badu, as she questions her feelings for an ex-partner.  

9. “What’s the Use?” — Mac Miller ft. Thundercat (2018)

When Mac Miller’s thoughtful raps meet Thundercat’s skittering bass melodies, the result is an upbeat performance rich with chemistry. The artists’ Tiny Desk performance of “What’s the Use?” is perhaps the preview to a collaborative album that we never received in the wake of Miller’s 2018 passing. This performance took place just a month before Miller’s passing and has garnered over 100 million views.

10. “Put Me Thru” — Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals (2017)

Anderson .Paak isn’t just a raspy-voiced rapper — he’s a drummer, too. In his 2017 Tiny Desk performance with the Free Nationals, he suspends the beat between his drumsticks while he sings of a relationship where his hands are tied. Through a wide, white smile, .Paak creates a catchy melody while condemning an ex-lover.

11. “Juke Jam” — Chance the Rapper (2017)

Perhaps listeners were surprised to hear Chance perform “Juke Jam” over his better-known hits such as “Same Drugs” or “Blessings” at the tiny desk. But this goofy, jazzy version of the original track (which features Justin Bieber and Towkio) allows him to shine through on his own, backed by a low trumpet.

“I used to talk way too much, you used to know everything,” says Chance, smiling with his memories of a childhood crush.

In the characteristically raspy voice that defines his 2016 album, “Coloring Book,” Chance melodizes his way through the coming-of-age story and evokes chuckles from the audience.

12. “Half the City” — St. Paul and the Broken Bones (2014)

For the entirety of St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ set, lead singer Paul Janeway stands on the desk, tapping his golden shoes at the heels. In “Half the City,” his loud, leathery voice overflows with soul and is backed by a blaring trumpet. 

“Oh, this poor and lonely heart […] it is made of pure steel,” bursts Janeway, as he flails his arms in song.

13. “Someone Like You” — Adele (2011)

English singer-songwriter Adele defined the music scene of the 2010s with her one-of-a-kind voice and dramatic ballads. It’s no surprise, then, that her 2011 Tiny Desk Concert found itself at the moment of her rising success. She performed “Someone Like You” on the series shortly after the release of her career-defining album, “21.” The Tiny Desk version is backed only by a soft piano, as Adele’s loud yet controlled voice carries the slow-paced, emotional track.

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