NPR's Tiny Desk concerts are basically "MTV Unplugged" run through a Hipstamatic filter—the bookshelves behind producer Bob Boilen’s desk brimming with novelty hipster flotsam, rock stars looking slightly sheepish in the daylight, the throng of office workers crowding around for the chance to see rock stars up close. Someone’s going to shake an egg shaker or sleigh bells before the set is over or it’s not a Tiny Desk Concert. It’s the epitome of public radio sincerity, and I love it. (Full discolure: I once worked at an NPR affiliate, but I still consider myself an impartial observer.)
Often, the guests are the usual suspects: NPR-friendly voices like Iron and Wine or hip classical artists like Simone Dinnerstein and Hilary Hahn. Would anyone be surprised to find Rufus Wainwright sleeping on a cot under the tiny desk? But occasionally, Boilen throws a curveball, like earlier this week when Autotune maestro T-Pain sat in for his stripped-down, soulful, and surprisingly sincere set. After finishing “Buy U a Drank,” T-Pain exhaled, “weird as hell!” and it was. But his performance was also delightful in its incongruity—“booty goin’ up!” isn’t exactly an NPR tagline—as well as an intimate introduction to T-Pain’s real, actual voice. Which is quite lovely, as it turns out.
In honor of T-Pain’s bravery and NPR producers’ twisted imaginations, some other Tiny Desk Concerts that might surprise you:
An Of Montreal show usually involves an abundance of visual spectacle—the word “carnival” comes to mind. Costumed characters, fanciful light projections, confetti, performance art scenes, all of it led by strutting, enigmatic frontman and songwriter Kevin Barnes. He ditches all of the flamboyant trappings in this rare, up-close and personal acoustic performance, unveiling the real personality behind the sideshow. (January 2013)
Tom Tom Club
This performance gets the spirit stick for fully embracing everything the Tiny Desk Concert can and should be. Tina Weymouth (in a crocheted dress!) and Co. transform themselves into the world’s most enthusiastic Waldorf preschool faculty band teaching a unit on funk, complete with egg shaker, washboard, accordion, handclap chorus on “Genius of Love” and Chris Frantz in shades, totally unabashed about scatting that “oopsie mama” line, playing the cowbell. The only thing this set is missing is a ukulele. (October 2010) Watch it here.
If you’ve seen The National in concert, you’ve seen frontman Matt Berninger crumpled to his knees, wrenching his guts out and going rogue, climbing onto, up and down the sides of stages with one hand, a microphone and a bottle of red wine in the other. In this lush, full-band acoustic performance, he stands still, hands stuffed in his pockets, allowing the camera to fully capture his face. He sings with his eyes closed. He doesn't look comfortable with everyone this close, but he channels that trembling vulnerability into an unforgettable performance. (June 2013)
Boilen and crew followed up their runaway hit T-Pain set with another under-the-production exposé. Banks is the current epitome of the heavily produced pop singer, her voice swaddled in so many layers of effects and sound that it’s almost an afterthought in her recordings. Not here. Underneath all of that production is a charming rasp and just the hint of a vibrato. Her performance is sultry in an awkward, I’m-in-an-NPR-office kind of way, which is to say, perfectly twee. (October 2014) Watch it here.
Foster the People
Acoustic guitar, bass, gentle percussion. Zero effects. All the sincerity and eye contact in the world. This set is kind of like what happens when your old roommate’s band covers “Pumped Up Kicks” one night for laughs and it accidentally becomes the best thing they ever do. (September 2011)
What in the hell, you’re thinking. Exactly. Party god Andrew W.K. rolls into this classic episode with only a keyboard, shows off his classical chops with two piano improvisations, offers a few motivational statements like “just put yourself out there, even if it’s humiliating,” and then rambles through a cheeky cabaret-style rendition of his anthem “I Get Wet.” He closes with Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.” Tiny Desk Concert expectation-subversion at its finest. (November 2009) Watch it here.
Who says you have to go full acoustic to make a memorable Tiny Desk moment? Scottish electronica band Chvvrches proves it’s not always humans against machines in this surprisingly intimate set starring Lauren Mayberry’s clear, strong voice. It’s all electronic, but never on auto-pilot. (May 2014)
Here’s a rare chance to hear Neko Case without her signature vocal reverb. Unadorned, her voice has this innocent, wistful quality that adds an unexpected layer of optimism to haunting songs like “Calling Cards” and “Local Girl.” Also, it’s Halloween, and she’s wearing a gorilla costume. (October 2013)
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
If you are predisposed to rolling your eyes at Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, this very earnest delivery of “Same Love” might not help. But there’s something endearing about Ben Haggerty’s face as he delivers those lines about equality and fearless love. Most of this TDC is way too reliant on recorded tracks, which diffuses some of the spontaneity, but hang on through “Thrift Shop” to the end when Ray Dalton lends his gorgeous voice to “Can’t Hold Us” and Haggerty jumps up on Boilen’s desk to hype the crowd and suddenly we’re in the detention scene of a high school movie I’d definitely watch any time it came on. That’s Tiny Desk magic. (December 2012)
The Polyphonic Spree
In the running for most ridiculous Tiny Desk Concert ever is the Polyphonic Spree’s Christmas show. There are way too many of them to fit, violating the entire premise of the minimalist Tiny Desk Concert, but they did bring a French horn, the sound of which will open any locked door in any public radio station across the country, so Boilen kind of had to let them do their thing. It’s hard to even wrangle all of them into one shot, but here are at least 15 choir-robed happy kids nerding out to “Silver Bells” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” Um, wow. They’re kind of freaky up close. Those eyes. Those smiles. I’m sorry. Maybe some things are best seen from a distance. (December 2012)