The Most Powerful of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts

The Most Powerful of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts

A list of the best and most powerful NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.

The Most Powerful of NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts

A list of the best and most powerful NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.

Music is inherently subjective: listeners feel different emotions and take away myriad themes from songs. For this reason, it’s inherently difficult to rank such a wholly subjective and intimate experience. Nevertheless, I’ve compiled a short list of the most powerful National Public Radio (NPR) Tiny Desk Concerts (powerful in the sense of having a strong impact on one’s thoughts and feelings).

This is not an exhaustive list. I am leaving out dozens of other incredible concerts that moved me. Moreover, it seems like a new Tiny Desk is released weekly that has me considering making alterations to the list. But rest assured that the Tiny Desk Concerts listed below, in aggregate, are likely to have a strong impact on your thoughts and feelings. With no further delay, here is my list of the five most powerful NPR Tiny Desk Concerts.

1. St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Alabama-grown band St. Paul and the Broken Bones took over NPR’s tiny desk with a performance comparable to a soulful yet sweet sermon. Sweat drips from lead singer Paul Janeway onto the wooden desk. Sporting a suit and shiny gold dress shoes, Paul jumps onto NPR’s desk, spreads his arms out, and belts out sonorous vocals you’d expect from Otis Redding or Amy Winehouse. In their third song “Broken Bones and Pocket Change”, Paul screams lyrics, drops to his knees, and pleads to the audience––he seems to be crying out for someone to understand the meaning and emotions behind his music. What distinguishes St. Paul and the Broken Bones from other Tiny Desk Concerts is Paul’s clearly visible raw emotion that drives the band’s jazzy and soulful performance.

2. Partner

Canadian rock band Partner’s performance is nothing short of an emotional rollercoaster. The concert begins with kazoos and ends with tears. Clad in technicolor sweaters, the band began their concert with a light-hearted tune featuring kazoos and a wacky-sounding piano, then moved to a song about how a dog defecated on a neighbor’s lawn. Starting off with a comical yet amusing set, Partner eased into more serious and musically intricate ballads. Their last song began with an emotional and raw speech from guitarist Josée Caron, who spoke of the importance of self-sufficiency.

“When I’m able to stop looking outside myself for the things that I need, and I can tell myself that I’m enough, and that this moment is enough, and that you can even for a second just experience the fullness of life,” Caron says as she chokes back tears. Seeing her open up about finding personal fulfillment as the band continues an emotionally charged tune is hardly a powerful and subjective experience of emotion: you can literally see it unfolding in front of you. There’s no need to guess if Partner’s Tiny Desk Concert is a powerful performance, the emotion is clear.

3. Leon Bridges

Texas-native Leon Bridges could be from another era. In a smoke-filled bar in Casablanca, he would set the atmosphere perfectly with his soulful and smooth vocals. His rhythmic guitar riffs are accented by warm and organic sounds: a saxophone, other warm guitars and humble backup vocalist. The band, which is dressed in quaint formal attire, has an obvious and alluring feeling of timelessness to their performance. His final song, “River”, feels like a gospel hymn that might put non-believers on their knees. What makes this Tiny Desk so powerful is Leon Bridges’ ability to set a distinct oldened mood, which is augmented by his band’s organic and raw sound.

4. Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals

Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals create a distinct mood of focused poise and soul in one of NPR’s most watched Tiny Desk Concerts. Singing and tapping intricate drum patterns, Paak has a cool confidence that propels the band’s stage (or rather, desk) confidence. But besides their stage presence and Paak’s addictive rhythmic patterns,the Free Nationals supplement Paak’s performance with smooth guitar riffs and flowing piano chords. Most importantly, Paak and The Free Nationals are enjoying their time on stage, effortlessly laughing and performing

mesmerizing melodies.

5. Steve Martin and T-Pain (Tie)

There’s an extra variable I forgot to add in my measurement of the most powerful Tiny Desk Concerts -- astonishment. Seeing Steve Martin, the famous actor many know from The Pink Panther or Cheaper by the Dozen, in front of NPR’s desk wielding wire-rimmed glasses and a banjo produces nothing short of shock. And he’s damn good at the banjo: his left hand slides up and down to reach notes while his right hand works away at complex picking patterns. The band he is playing with, the Steep Canyon Rangers, have honed North Carolina bluegrass with mandolins and violins and backup banjos.

The other most shocking NPR Tiny Desk Concert was T-Pain: an artist well-known for his autotuned voice and club-pumping songs. T-Pain begins his Tiny Desk by making a joke of his reputation for autotune, saying, “I know everyone is wondering where the autotune is going to come from, it’s okay, it’s in my pocket, it’s totally fine...It’s all surgically inserted.” The crowd laughs, possibly half-expecting him to still use his trademark vocal effect. But instead, the piano smoothly waltzes into “Buy You A Drank”, and T-Pain begins singing with a deeply honed and beautiful voice. It made me rethink T-Pain’s use of autotune: he clearly didn’t need it because his vocals––to my and likely other’s astonishment––were nothing short of wonderful.