Our Favorite Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts Of 2021
As we inch towards the end of year two of the pandemic, the literal Tiny Desk — the one that belongs to Bob Boilen himself — remains empty in the NPR HQ. It's hard to think of a place where so many people once gathered to celebrate and dance and sing along to their favorite artists as being lonesome — but in spirit, the Tiny Desk has been all over the world. From a high school in Virginia to an avant-garde studio in Melbourne to a performance space in Lagos to a room full of family in Madrid, the Tiny Desk has never been more regionally expansive as it was this year.
The range of artists and locations in the nearly 200 Tiny Desk (home) concerts published this year, as well as the sneak peak of life back in the office with Tiny Desk Contest winner Neffy, gives the series as a whole a new life, a new meaning and new outlook on the world of music. No one understands this more than the staff at NPR Music: Here are just a handful of some of their favorite Tiny Desk (home) performances of 2021.
Jazmine Sullivan's Heaux Tales is NPR Music's album of the year and her Tiny Desk is one of our favorites as well. Four songs illustrating the album's narrative — women's stories and struggles around sex, our bodies, relationships and more — are featured here. What makes this concert so special is Jazmine's impressive vocal performance — oh, how she can sing — and the band's exquisite musicianship, the high production quality of the audio mix, the videography and beautiful lighting softly focused on Jazmine. —Suraya Mohamed
Lous and the Yakuza
Lous and the Yakuza's Tiny Desk (home) concert is a favorite of mine because it's everything I miss about live music: a storyteller behind the mic, prominent bass and effortless harmonies in a location that is as captivating as Lous herself. —Kara Frame
The combination of Rae Khalil's epic bellbottoms with the location she chose for her Tiny Desk (home) concert — a bright and colorful coffee shop — really keeps me coming back to this show. This Tiny Desk (home) concert felt like the perfect introduction to her music. It's a colorful mood lifter for sure. —Maia Stern
My time as a choir kid in the '90s and '00s meant I immediately pressed play on Kirk Franklin's Tiny Desk, which served as the final performance in Tiny Desk's celebration of Black History Month. One of the joys of this performance (a brief sampling of Franklin's 30-year career) is the warmth and infectious enthusiasm that overflows, even if you aren't familiar with gospel music. It's absolutely fitting that Franklin and his talented group of singers and musicians end the performance encouraging us to smile. Every time I play this (and it's been a number of times), I can't help but smile. —Mitra I. Arthur
It was challenging to make a Tiny Desk (home) concert intimate, safe and fun in 2021, but Steady Holiday did it best for me. This concert epitomized the obstacles musicians faced this year. Normally I'd be seeing this creative soul at a bustling SXSW venue in Austin along with throngs of others. But Dre Babinski, aka Steady Holiday, put this together for our Tiny Desk Meets SXSW showcase in her living room with her pooch on the floor and her band safely on the porch. It's heartfelt music from her 2021 album Take The Corners Gently, an absolute gem of a record. —Bob Boilen
It doesn't take long to get the joke: Either rapper Daveed Diggs became a giant or he's holding the tiniest mic. His bandmates in clipping. — Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson — hunch over the tiniest desks to click laptops, swipe iPads and smash harsh-noise pedals... all to scale for a DIY show dollhouse. And you know what? They commit to the bit. Snipes and Hutson stare at their equipment stone-faced, miming their horror soundtrack-worthy beat production, right down the contact mic'd glass in a bowl for "Bout That." For the first actual "Tiny" Desk in 13 years, I salute. —Lars Gotrich
From the moment the C. Tangana Tiny Desk (home) concert faded up from black, my mouth was literally open in astonishment. The way his video producers arranged the musicians and singers around the table made the video look like a Renaissance painting. The faces and voices are gorgeous, straight out of central casting. And that scene change to the string orchestra with just the slightest camera movement? Astonishing!! Of course, the music was the icing on a very memorable cake. —Felix Contreras
Who said that the Tiny Desk needed to be inside? Mahamadou Souleymane, better known as Mdou Moctar, takes his performance outdoors, as if sharing his passionate music with the world. Whether singing about someone who's always on his mind in "Tala Tannam" or questioning inequalities in the psychedelic masterpiece of the live version of "Afrique Victime," Mdou Moctar is an expert in performing about the people and places he loves most. —Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis
In the pantheon of chart-topping Latino rappers, there aren't many that could hold a candle to Fat Joe – so when someone like him jumps through five all-timer hits with ease in a Tiny Desk, you can't help but smile. He adds a salsa breakdown to the 2001 classic "What's Luv?," raps "Sunshine (The Light)" with the style of your goofy uncle at the barbecue and ends with the eternal summer soundtrack "All The Way Up." My personal favorite moment is the performance of his third song, "Lean Back," a grimy New York classic that never in my life would I have thought had a place in a Tiny Desk. Whoever booked Fat Joe, I owe you a drink – as a thank you for giving me my favorite fifteen minutes of 2021. It's, as he says, "legendary culture s***." —Reanna Cruz
It's not only the fine performances, but also the fairytale-like backstory which clinches this as my favorite Tiny Desk (home) concert of the year. In 1992, in the faraway land called Rapa Nui – better known as Easter Island, located some 2000 miles off the coast of Chile – the first ever piano finally arrives. A 9-year-old girl named Mahani Teave falls in love with the instrument, leaves her homeland and studies to become a concert pianist. Instead of launching her international career, Teave moves back to Rapa Nui to build a school out of recycled materials to teach children not only the classics but the music of the island. In this concert from the school, which opened in 2016, we get a tour of the building, lovely performances of Handel and Chopin and an encore featuring the voices of two young girls singing a traditional song. Shout-outs to runner up performances by Max Richter, Joseph Keckler and Arooj Aftab. —Tom Huizenga
Brimming with nostalgia, Lucy Dacus' third album, Home Video, is a masterclass in revisiting the past with newfound compassion. In her Tiny Desk (home) concert — which is aptly set in her alma mater, Maggie L. Walker Governor's School in Richmond, Va. — Dacus and her bandmates perform a four-track set with grace and humor, each song a poetic vignette. The second track is "VBS," which "means vacation bible school ... for any of you heathen folks," Dacus says with a laugh. Dacus' calm, cool and casual demeanor comforts viewers during the first three tracks; whereas her sobering solo delivery of the last song, "Thumbs," nurtures an almost unsettling intimacy. "It might be tough to hear," Dacus warns before she takes a deep breath and begins. —Elle Mannion
Vince's Tiny Desk (home) concert was bittersweet for me. On one hand, I was over the moon that we finally made it to this point, given that just a few years back we rarely saw him perform with a DJ, much less a full band. But this is the (home) concert I wish we were able to experience behind Bob's desk the most. I think it was the way Staples effortlessly coasted through the entire set and never fell off that stool. Maybe it was the fact that he was performing his best material to date. Maybe it was the way Kenny Beats, Dutchboi, Reske and David Meyers Jr. filled every single space in the room with sound with flawless precision. Then Fousheé comes in like an old pro to add the cherry on top. This is what you call perfection. —Bobby Carter
The Hiatus Kaiyote Tiny Desk (home) concert got me excited to eventually record the eclectic band at Bob's desk. The show provided the escape I've been craving during this crazy time working for home for months on end. I can only imagine how the band will one-up itself when it visits NPR HQ in person. —Josh Rogosin
Little Simz delivered an intimate performance that was incredibly smooth and precise. Her chill vocals were a perfect match with her band, and you could tell everyone there was having a good time. Outside of the music, her video crew's production value and her stage presence only enhanced the entire experience. She's grown as an artist since her first Tiny Desk performance, and this concert proves it. —Josh Bryant
More than anything, watching Rico Nasty perform is exciting. In her Tiny Desk, the queen of sugar-trap oscillates between tender croons and firecracker howls with relentless energy. Watching Rico dance across the space, it's cathartic to see a woman so delighted by her own rage, particularly one backed by an impossibly cool all-woman rock band. But more than that, Rico's expansive blend of sound and genre creates a space for all of us to be loud, frivolous, amorous, and vengeful all at once, offering a blueprint for embracing all the ungovernable emotions inside of us with glee. —Fi O'Reilly
The stories of generations are revived in the vibrant layers of Silvana Estrada's unwavering vibrato. All I could think about the first time I laid misty eyes on her El Tiny concert is the story of my two abuelitas — one a violinist and the other a singer — whose big musical dreams felt alive in this meticulously produced musical elysium. I couldn't help but imagine both their faces — closing their eyes and gripping their chests, stunned by the power and command of a Mexican woman singing to the world, pulling from generations of Mexicana voices that could never have dreamed of reaching so far. Her performance is a wonder in every way. It is visually captivating and sonically unmatched, making it an easy delight for most. But for me, it is all of that and generations more. It is the sound of her corazón and mine and my abuelas' all keeping tempo with a cuatro venezolano and the voice of an angel. —Anamaria Sayre
Survey the many intimate stages that formed the year in Tiny Desk (home) concerts and you'll find bigger names than Yasmin Williams, whose album Urban Driftwood made her a sleeper rather than a star. But the Virginia guitarist's set turned heads with what can only be described as flashy understatement: Watch her calmly graceful performance of "Juvenescence" and you'll see her fingers dance with virtuosity that never noodles for noodling's sake.
It's not that Williams eschews whistles and bells. She's not above adhering a kalimba to her instrument, wielding a tiny mallet, or donning tap shoes to give her lively compositions more propulsive energy. But every move — every note, every tap, every flourish — serves a clear and crucial purpose, in a set that's as emotionally rich as it is technically dazzling. —Stephen Thompson
Circuit des Yeux
Haley Fohr of Circuit des Yeux has a gorgeous, howling voice, so thunderous in its depth and power that it sounds like it could shatter glass. And while no windows were broken in the beautiful cathedral that serves as the backdrop to Fohr's Tiny Desk concert, the gloomy setting is the perfect spot to watch her perform songs from 2021's incredible -io. —Hazel Cills
What made this Tiny Desk (home) concert so special to me was the deviation from Ed Sheeran's usual live performances. I saw him in concert in 2015 for his × tour and in 2017 for his ÷ tour, and both times it was just Sheeran, his guitar and his loop pedal. For his Tiny Desk (home) concert, he was joined by world-class musicians, which only added to his signature vocals and guitar that usually fill up a stadium. True to Tiny Desk style, it was both intimate and stripped-down, but with the brass instruments and choir behind him, this concert was like no other Ed Sheeran performance. —Jill Britton
Though Tems enjoyed hard-earned recognition in 2021 for her part in the summer's runaway hit, "Essence" by Wizkid, for her Tiny Desk concert debut, the Nigerian singer stuck strictly to her own discography and dazzled with deep, luscious live vocals — some of which sounded even better than her recordings. —Sidney Madden
Pulling in at the very last second before the buzzer on 2021 is up, Olivia Rodrigo's Tiny Desk (home) concert is simply the absolute best of the year in my eyes. She did a Tiny Desk (home) concert exactly as it should be done: stripped down acoustics, funky and weird location (shoutout to the California DMV decked out in purple office supplies) — and played her biggest songs in a brand-new way. This felt like Rodrigo at her absolutely, heart wrenchingly best. Her performance of "deja vu" here is the stuff that Tiny Desk dreams are made of. —Cat Sposato
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