Cranney: Tiny Desk Concerts host big talent in NPR office

Cranney lists his favorite Tiny Desk Concerts.

Joey Cranney

Joey CranneyI have a great way to distract myself from being productive. It involves public radio, live music and a tiny desk.

With its so-called “Tiny Desk Concerts,” the music office of National Public Radio has created what is simultaneously my favorite vessel for listening to music online and the most common diversion keeping me from doing work.

For those who are unaware of the tiny desk, the concept is simple: NPR invites bands – new and old – to come into its office and perform a 3-to-4 song set that is recorded and put online. It’s a well shot, intimate and charming series, with nearly 200 videos dating back to 2008.

It’s also my go-to for music to listen to while writing, which can be as much of a detriment as it is a pleasure.

Though, really, my struggle to write while listening to music has been an ongoing one.

I used to have a go-to playlist on my iTunes, cleverly titled “For Writing” that was more than 125 songs long and spanned a bizarre combination of genres. On shuffle, “A Horse With No Name,” by America might skip to “Changes,” by 2pac.

I gave up on that playlist a long time ago.

I also haven’t fully embraced the evolving technology of online music, like Pandora. To me, Pandora falls short because it manages to be predictable despite having a platform based on randomness. For proof, go to classic rock radio and start hitting next. I’d be willing to bet whatever it costs to update to Pandora premium that you’d hit “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” or “Sympathy for the Devil” by the six-click limit.

That limit of skipping no more than six songs really is one of the more insulting aspects of online listening. A listener isn’t satisfied with what he/she is hearing, but in pursuit of something better, Pandora treats you like you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar.

“You can have another one in an hour, Joey.”

When I’m online listening, I pick and choose. I’m a proponent of Google Music, which is a far-too-unknown feature that allows you to sync your iTunes to Google and play it from any computer. But when I want something new and something that I like, I don’t often stray away from the confines of the NPR Music office and its tiny desk.

10. The Mountain Goats

I’m convinced if I asked John Darnielle to write a song about something as mundane as a list column in a student newspaper, he would still find a way to make it charming, inventive and relatable. Anyone ignorant to Darnielle’s brilliance need only watch his opener, “Color in Your Cheeks” from his 2010 set behind the tiny desk to become totally hooked.

9. Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra

Amanda Palmer sings a six-minute epic about playing a ukulele. In the opening of her September 2012 set, she rubs two knives together as an instrument. At one point during “Want It Back,” she takes off her shoe and starts banging it on the desk. Though the tiny desk is small, it somehow contains the sheer magnitude of Palmer’s ability as a performer.

8. Fountains of Wayne

In a four-song set from 2011 that lasts 14:30, Fountains of Wayne demonstrates why its one of the most underrated bands in the world. The band gets it right by playing two standouts from 2011’s “Sky Full of Holes” and chooses two fan favorites in “Valley Winter Song” and “Troubled Times” to close out the set. By going with a career-spanning set list, Fountains of Wayne showcase its ability to tell stories through catchy-as-hell pop rock.

7. Alt-J

I hadn’t heard of Alt-J before I stumbled onto the band’s December 2012 tiny desk performance, but I immediately knew what I had been missing by the time they finished their three-song set. Alt-J coolly navigates through its pointed melodies in one of the sleekest sets that I’ve seen behind the tiny desk. The set’s closer, “Matilda,” will get inside your head and stay there.

6. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

In a rare appearance from a rap act, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis turn the tables on the tiny desk with an enthralling set. The group brings “Thrift Shop” to the NPR office and dance on the table in their closer, “Can’t Hold Us,” in two energetic, rousing performances. But the set’s opener, “Same Love,” steals the show as Macklemore demonstrates his lyrical ability in an emotional song about gay rights.

5. Jimmy Cliff

Jimmy Cliff brings the same charm and innocence that made him a legend in the reggae community in his 2010 set. Cliff plays two classics – “Sitting in Limbo” and “You Can Get It if You Really Want” – and a new song, “I Got to Move On,” that would fit right in on his 1972 classic “The Harder They Come.” More than anything, Cliff’s set indicates his music is still as universal today as it was in his hey day.

4. The Avett Brothers

The Avett Brothers make excellent, seemingly calculated song choices for its 2009 set that lasts 15:56. The band opens with “Laundry Room,” a sublime album cut from their major-label debut “I and Love and You.” Following “Down With the Shine,” a song that eventually appeared on 2012’s “The Carpenter,” The Avett Brothers close with “Bella Donna,” a track from a 2008 EP that hasn’t been widely released. The band’s beautiful, understated performance of the closer begs the question: Why not?

3. Adele

Adele gave the NPR office a taste of her raw talent with a three-song set in 2011, a few months after her certified-diamond breakthrough “21” debuted. Adele opens with “Someone Like You” in a stunning, near a capella performance. She picks “Chasing Pavements,” the best song from her 2008 album “19” to follow, and closes with the future mega-hit “Rolling in the Deep.”

2. The Tallest Man on Earth

A mega talent with an acoustic guitar, The Tallest Man on Earth is one of the most natural fits behind the tiny desk. So it seems only natural that his three-song set from 2009 is one of the first recorded in the NPR office. With guitar picking skills that don’t seem humanly possible and lyrics that are so good they’re painful, TMOE mesmerizes as a live performer. His tiny desk set is no different.

1. Booker T. Jones

The man who made the Hammond B3 Organ famous with “Green Onions” brings both behind the tiny desk in the greatest video that the series has to offer. His performance, which also includes “Born Under a Bad Sun” and “Down in Memphis,” is perfectly executed, but it’s the dialogue he exchanges with the NPR staff that makes Jones’ concert the best. NPR should recognize the opportunity it has when it invites famous musicians into its office, and would do well to treat more Tiny Desk Concerts like interviews.

Honorable Mention: Anais Mitchell, Foster the People, Antibalas.

Three sets that I wish were better: Dr. Dog, Passion Pit, Ben Gibbard.

Joey Cranney can be reached at
or on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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