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Best of NPR's Tiny Desk 2023

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's been a big year for NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series. From huge names like Post Malone and Maluma to emerging artists like Tiny Desk Contest winner Little Moon, there were dozens of incredible performances this year. We've given a few of our colleagues from NPR Music the difficult task of picking their favorites of 2023. Kicking us off is NPR Music writer and host Stephen Thompson.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: We did more than a hundred Tiny Desk Concerts this year, so even narrowing down a Top 10 seems impossible. But it is possible to pick just one favorite because this is the year we finally put out a Tiny Desk Concert with Gwar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWAR: Hey.

THOMPSON: Gwar is a long-running heavy metal band whose members are all intergalactic monsters. People think of Gwar as just about the most over-the-top band on Earth, and the idea of bringing them to the Tiny Desk created a lot of promise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWAR: (Singing) I got a monkey fish. I got a funky fish. I got a pig log, dig dog, turkey log, corny cob, bing-bang, ding-dong, slappy-wappy wing wam. Sex cow.

THOMPSON: Even as they were singing these raunchy songs with titles like "Sex Cow," there was something still kind of weirdly wholesome about it. It wasn't family friendly at all, but it wasn't that different from when we had the gang from Sesame Street show up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWAR: (Singing) Sex cow, (screaming).

(CHEERING)

THOMPSON: Gwar is this very extreme band, and yet they still kind of came in with the idea of meeting us on our level. And so at one point they did, like, an NPR fundraising drive. They made jokes about Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALSAC THE JAWS OF DEATH: Terry freaking Gross.

BLOTHAR: Hey, hey, watch your mouth.

BALSAC THE JAWS OF DEATH: No, she's...

BLOTHAR: Why are you calling people names?

BALSAC THE JAWS OF DEATH: No, she is a Gross. She comes from a long line of Grosses.

BLOTHAR: Terry Gross is a national treasure, so you shut your trap.

THOMPSON: And I just thought it was so sweet in a way that they kind of took the assignment at face value and had fun with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWAR: (Singing) I'll be your monster, baby.

(CHEERING)

THOMPSON: You know, I've heard a lot of people describe the Gwar Tiny Desk as, like, the pinnacle of Tiny Desk Concerts, like, something so outrageous and surprising that it can't be topped.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWAR: (Singing) Hiding under your bed. Better sleep with the light on, sugar - been awhile since I fed.

THOMPSON: To me, I don't see it as a pinnacle. I see it as a starting point. You know, I personally have a couple of very stupid and weird and funny ideas for Tiny Desk Concerts and I'm just one guy on the team, you know? So I see Gwar not as an achievement so much as a promise for 2024 and beyond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GWAR: (Singing) I'll eat you up I love you so.

(CHEERING)

ANAMARIA SAYRE, BYLINE: Hey, this is Anamaria Sayre. I'm the host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino. And my favorite Tiny Desk moment from this year was the legend - (speaking Spanish) - Ivy Queen's Tiny Desk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVY QUEEN: (Speaking Spanish). Let me take you to my motherland - Puerto Rico, that is - OK?

(CHEERING)

IVY QUEEN: Hey. You here? (Speaking Spanish).

SAYRE: Ivy Queen is an absolute legend. She is one of the first females who took reggaeton big from Puerto Rico. It's a huge deal that she came to play for us because she's essentially someone who helped create the genre that a lot of us are now so familiar with.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVY QUEEN: (Singing in Spanish).

SAYRE: A lot of people struggle with adapting their music to the Tiny Desk because no in-ears, no monitors, and you got to create those percussive beats that, for reggaeton especially, are so essential to what make it exciting, to what make people want to move. And so when people came through and they saw the setup for Ivy Queen, everyone kept asking me, where are the drums, where are the drums? And I kept saying, don't worry, just wait. It's Ivy. She can do anything. And sure enough, with no drums, with just a piano, strings and her voice, she carried the energy of a dembow beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVY QUEEN: (Vocalizing).

(CHEERING)

IVY QUEEN: (Speaking Spanish). One, two, three - let's go.

(CHEERING)

IVY QUEEN: (Speaking Spanish).

SAYRE: Oh, my God, it's taking me back to that moment. I mean, to hear "Quiero Bailar" - it's, like, the song that you put on if you really need that pump-up, if you really need to feel good about yourself, about being a woman. And to hear her do it, just incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVY QUEEN: (Rapping in Spanish).

SAYRE: She was not afraid by any means to say what she was thinking, which feels very fitting for an artist like herself because to be a pioneer in the space, to be an Ivy Queen, to be a woman who is taken seriously as a rapper, as a reggaetonera, I mean, you have to wear everything you think and you say on your sleeve. And in this Tiny Desk in particular, she showed up with her actions and showed that she's not all talk and she's really all work and game and hustle. And she brings that feminine and feminist energy to our stage, and that's amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

IVY QUEEN: (Rapping in Spanish).

(CHEERING)

BOBBY CARTER, BYLINE: My name is Bobby Carter and I'm the series producer for the Tiny Desk. And coming up at the end of the year, the highlight for me is Scarface's Tiny Desk. A bold statement is that Scarface has the best hip-hop Tiny Desk that we've ever recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCARFACE: (Rapping) I got this love forming in my life for this dame, and indeed took the form of life. And that's a shame, how a man can fall in love what leaves and not a brain, not afraid to let you up and leave him.

CARTER: Scarface is one-third of a legendary hip-hop group, the Geto Boys. And then in the early '90s, Scarface went solo, and that's when he really blossomed. I think the thing that sets him apart from so many of the other greats is his ability to tell stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCARFACE: (Rapping) Happy just to hear your name. I need to hear you say.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary.

CARTER: Stories of his upbringing, the stories of street life but in a vulnerable sense. He's your favorite rapper's favorite rapper, so he's just a legend in the game - 30, 40 years, still doing it.

(CHEERING)

CARTER: There was a part on "I Seen A Man Die" - and that song is walking you through someone actually leaving the physical life - and it's a bone-chilling moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCARFACE: (Rapping) He greets his father with his hands out, rehabilitated slightly, glad to be the man's child. The world is different since he's seen it last - out of jail, been seven years, and he's happy that he's free at last.

CARTER: He really told vivid stories from a viewpoint that Black men and people in hip-hop were just not used to hearing. He really delved into a darkness that many of us were afraid to speak about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCARFACE: (Rapping) And the life you used to live will reflect in your mother's face. And I still got to wonder why I ain't never seen a man cry till I seen that man die.

CARTER: Yeah, if there was ever any doubt about Scarface's place in history, this Tiny Desk cemented all of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Never seen a man cry till I seen a man die.

CARTER: If I could, I just - looking back on this year at the Tiny Desk, in my opinion, this was the best year that we've ever had. There were so many shows that connected to our audience in a special way this year. Like, I can go on and on and on. And it's just that little corner is where greatness and magic happens.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That was NPR Music's Bobby Carter, Anamaria Sayre and Stephen Thompson.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Tinbete Ermyas