2013: The Year In Tiny Desk Concerts
For weeks now, we've been compiling lists of 2013's best music — favorite albums, favorite songs, individual staff members' personal Top 10 lists and so on. Applying a rank to the year's best can be a stress-inducing, conflict-intensive process behind the scenes, but we wouldn't dare attempt such a maneuver when the topic is NPR Music's Tiny Desk Concerts series. We published 67 of the things in 2013, and if there's one idea the staff can agree on publicly, it's that all of our Tiny Desk shows are bunched together in a 67-way tie for No. 1. (What, you want us to rank our respective children, too?)
Still, we had no shortage of highlights at the Tiny Desk in 2013, a year in which we hosted many different musicians from many different genres in many (okay, two) different buildings. We've already got an impressive bundle of performances in the queue for 2014, so here's to many more.
2013: The Year In Tiny Desk Concerts
Biggest Crowd: The National (tie)
The National didn't perform the first Tiny Desk Concert we recorded in our new headquarters, but its show marked the first time we got to feel like we were load-testing the floor beneath us. Right around the release of the band's album Trouble Will Find Me, The National swung by — and somehow managed to park its gigantic tour bus within — the new building to perform delicate acoustic versions of four characteristically moody songs. With hundreds of staffers, friends and pushy acquaintances in attendance, it's a wonder we didn't all get swept away in an ocean of tears.
Biggest Crowd: John Legend (tie)
We don't count heads at these things, so it's hard to tell which drew a bigger crowd, The National or best-selling, Grammy-festooned R&B singer-songwriter John Legend. Both played to gigantic audiences, though, with Legend commanding the rapt attention of hundreds accompanied only by a piano, an acoustic guitar and applause that thundered deafeningly at every appropriate opportunity.
Most Unexpectedly Quiet: Of Montreal
The 1975's show was a close runner-up in this category, as singer Matthew Healy stripped his spiky pop-rock down to base-bones acoustic ballads, but Of Montreal had a rowdier reputation to uphold. Singer Kevin Barnes usually presides over a decadent, pan-sexual carnival, yet he used his Tiny Desk Concert as an opportunity to showcase some singer-songwriterly chops. Fully intact: his considerable capacity to surprise.
Most Expectedly Loud: NO BS! Brass Band
If The National helped us load-test our new Tiny Desk space, NO BS! Brass Band load-tested our coworkers' willingness to withstand concerts performed at tremendous volume. See, the new NPR building features an open-air floor plan in which the NPR Music workspace can't be fully sealed off from, say, the newsroom. As NO BS! Brass Band whoomped and pummeled along, we reveled in not only the music, but also the gracious patience of our beloved neighbors within NPR.
Most Unexpected Use Of A Bucket Of Water For Musical Purposes: Mohammed Reza Shajarian
As if it weren't enough to host one of the most beloved and decorated singers in the world — even in his 70s, Iranian superstar Mohammed Reza Shajarian has lost none of his dazzling vocal chops — his crack backing band included the (literally) fluid sounds of a large drum filled with water. It's not often that we get to welcome one of NPR's 50 Great Voices to our offices, but the novel instrumentation was pretty cool, too.
Biggest Band: Mother Falcon
Mother Falcon isn't our first Tiny Desk guest to include 17 members — The Polyphonic Spree had 17 when it performed a holiday show for us last year — but it's the first to boast 17 members wielding instruments. Thanks to a feat of real-world Tetris, the good-natured Austin chamber-rock group squashed itself behind and around the Tiny Desk with relative ease. And, even more impressively, Mother Falcon knocked out three stirring songs without anyone getting fish-hooked with a violin bow.
Biggest Insurance Risk: Nicola Benedetti
When twentysomething Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti played the Tiny Desk, she brought her 1717 "Gariel" Stradivarius worth $10 million, thus prompting a certain member of the NPR Music staff (guess which one?) to unleash a long string of jokes about borrowing it, accidentally spilling grape juice on it, and so on. Ever the good sport, Benedetti responded with two gorgeous pieces — one by Bach, the other by film composer John Williams.
The One That Moved Us: OK Go
Bob Boilen's brain is a shadowy netherworld full of demented calliope music and dogs in bowler hats, so we've gotten used to sifting through his odd ideas. Amazingly, they sometimes pan out as well as this one, in which Bob asked the always-game OK Go to help us move from our old office into a brand new building across town. The quartet started playing a song at the original Tiny Desk as it was being packed up, was transported (while performing) to the new building, and finished up at the current Tiny Desk. All it took was 223 shots and a stunning feat of audio engineering by our man Kevin Wait, to make one seamless work of "How did they do that?"
The One That Moved Nina Totenberg: Lawrence Brownlee
We often hear our coworkers lament that deadlines and meetings make it impossible for them to break away for Tiny Desk Concerts. And, while we relish the notion of compelling someone to cancel a meeting, we can certainly empathize with the deadlines. Fortunately, the Supreme Court's schedule allowed NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg to catch the brilliant operatic tenor Lawrence Brownlee, in town to perform songs from his recent album of African-American spirituals. We're not sure her feet have touched the ground since.
The One That Moved The Richter Scale: Buika
Spanish singer Concha Buika gathers many sounds — flamenco, ranchera, jazz and more — around a deep, husky voice and an internal megaphone that must be heard in person. Buika sings with fierce, fearless, muscular abandon; live and unplugged, she performed with such force and volume, she could have drowned out a brass band had one been playing nearby.
Most Gorilla Suits: Neko Case
It's a shame that Neko Case didn't have more competition in the category of Most Gorilla Suits — would it have killed The xx to at least make a run for the title? — but she sure took the prize in style. Performing on Halloween with the aid of Kelly Hogan (dressed as some sort of zombie farmer) and Crooked Fingers' Eric Bachmann (dressed as Dracula), Case sang three songs that would have sounded wrenchingly beautiful even without the gorilla suit.