Nonprofit media organization National Public Radio (NPR) launched the Tiny Desk Concert series in 2009, hosting an astounding roster of musicians over the years.
After Bob Boilen, host of the podcast All Songs Considered, and Stephen Thompson, NPR Music editor, attended the music festival South by Southwest and couldn’t hear folk singer Laura Gibson’s set over the sound of the crowd, the two decided to have her perform at Boilen’s desk.
It was then that Gibson officially became the first-ever performer of what would soon become a popular series and favorite among music fans. The name of the program was coined after Boilen’s band, Tiny Desk Unit, active from the late seventies into the early eighties.
Now fourteen years later, NPR has excelled at bringing standout acts to the NPR Headquarters.
Even when the world shut down and in-person events were no longer happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NPR adapted and created Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts, with acts including Dua Lipa, whose performance is currently the most viewed of all the Tiny Desk Concerts to date.
While NPR tends to enlist some of the most popular acts, they have also created Tiny Desk Contest, where any act can submit an original video and have the chance to be selected to perform their own Tiny Desk Concert, as well as to go on tour with NPR Music. Utah-based, indie rock band, Little Moon, won the 2023 Tiny Desk Contest.
The in-person audience is typically made up of NPR staff, but if you aren’t lucky enough to be on the NPR team, you can comfortably watch all of your favorite artists perform from any device…starting with this list.
Here are five (of many) of the best Tiny Desk Concerts.
Opening with his claim to fame, Take Me to Church, Irish singer-songwriter Hozier made an appearance at NPR in 2014, to promote his first album, Hozier, which was released just months after his Tiny Desk Concert.
In preparation for his debut album, Hozier also sang To Be Alone and Cherry Wine, his bandmates leaving him alone on the “stage,” thus amplifying the soulful energy that Hozier carries all on his own.
With the August 2023 release of Unreal Unearth, Hozier’s third album since being discovered in 2013, now is a perfect time to revisit his bluesy performance in celebration of his decade long journey to get to where he is today.
Performing in the NPR office just one month after the 2012 release of Roses, which effectively ended their eleven year hiatus, Irish rock band The Cranberries began their comeback in close quarters.
The set included Linger, Tomorrow, Ode To My Family, Zombie, Raining in My Heart, tracks from their previous albums Everybody Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We and No Need to Argue, and from the newly released Roses.
Lead singer Dolores O’Riordan’s instantly recognizable voice is what makes this Tiny Desk Concert so special. O’Riordan never needed a stage to entrance audiences. Just her voice and a couple of instruments.
As fans still mourn the tragic passing of O’Riordan in 2018, this performance is a great piece to remember her by.
When singer-songwriter Leon Bridges opens his mouth to sing, the rhythm and blues inspired sounds transport you back in time to the sounds of the 60s.
Bridges’ 2015 appearance at NPR came just three months after the release of his debut album, Coming Home, which would then be nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Album at the 58th Grammy Awards.
Bridges sang Coming Home, Smooth Sailin, and Twistin’ & Groovin, before he ended with River, playing acoustic guitar as his voice shines through all instrumentation, crooning “take me to your river, I wanna go,” swaying in place all the while.
Michelle Zauner of indie pop group Japanese Breakfast joined the list of Tiny Desk performers in 2017, the year following the band’s debut studio album, Psychopomp. Zauner was supported by Washington D.C. ‘s string quartet Rogue Collective for most of the concert, with the exception of the last song, This House, where just she and her pianist took the tiny quarters.
Zauner also sang Boyish and Till Death, her delicate voice only accentuating the lyrics as she sang about love, loss, trauma, and relationships.
This performance was years before Japanese Breakfast began to gain popularity, but is stark proof that she was destined for the success she has recently garnered.
Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys made it to NPR in February of 2020, just one month before the entire nation went into quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While NPR eventually hosted Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts in March of 2020, Keys’ performance was a great note to end on, not only due to her talent, but also because of her words of encouragement and love she opened with.
Keys’ fingers danced across the piano as she expressed the ideas of uplifting and seeing each other, and showing and needing love. She engaged the tiny audience by having them sing “show me love,” back to her, before she began her performance.
Keys sang Show Me Love, Gramercy Park, and Underdog, all from her December 2020 album, Alicia, as well as one of her most popular songs, Fallin’, from her debut album, Songs in A Minor (2001).
Keys’ soulful voice combined with her kind and creative aura makes this Tiny Desk performance one of the best.
We have to give an Honorable Mention to the Sesame Street cast, who joined NPR in 2019, for the 50th Anniversary of the longtime favorite children’s television show. Bird Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, and more sang Sunny Days, People In Your Neighborhood, What I Am, Sing After Me, Medley, and Sing to the audience filled with families and young children excited to see their favorite characters in front of their very eyes (and not on their television screens.)
Which Tiny Desk Concert is your favorite?