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Bob Boilen

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Picking one Tiny Desk Contest winner from the thousands of amazing entries we received this year wasn't easy.

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Every year, we ask unsigned artists to send us their songs.

There's a new album by Rhiannon Giddens, an album that could only have been made by this artist and only in the last year. The singer, fiddler and banjo picker loves to explore the roots of American music and in particular the impact and continued relevance of early Black American music. She and her partner Francesco Turrisi birthed a new album in quarantine at home. Well, not quite home: The North Carolina native and her Italian musical partner have been in Ireland and in lockdown.

This year, the South by Southwest music festival that takes over Austin, Texas every spring happened online. Couch By Couchwest, as I like to call it, was an on-screen festival, with 289 acts performing roughly 15-minute pre-recorded sets across five days in March. If not whole sets, I watched at least partial performances by nearly half that number, and I've collected a few of my favorites here. You can also hear me talk about some of these performances with All Things Considered host Audie Cornish at the audio link on this page.

Every January, I attend globalFEST at a New York City nightclub and see some of the most fantastic music I'll experience all year. Now, given the pandemic's challenges and the hardening of international borders, NPR Music and globalFEST moved the 2021 edition from the nightclub to your screen of choice and shared the festival with the world. We called it Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST.

Every January, I attend globalFEST at a New York City nightclub and see some of the most fantastic music I'll experience all year. Now, given the pandemic's challenges and the hardening of international borders, NPR Music and globalFEST moved the 2021 edition from the nightclub to your screen of choice and shared the festival with the world. We called it Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST.

It wasn't until I took the time to think about it that I realized how much of the music I loved in 2020 was by artists who I already knew, most making calming sounds.

Let's start with the list itself. At the bottom of this post you can find streams of each album.

Quietude. More than half of the music I connected with and loved in 2020 fit that description. In past years, many of my nights were spent at clubs, seeing live music — loud, brash, fun, uplifting, and thrilling. That all stopped in mid-March, right about the time I'd usually be in the midst of thousands of fans seeing hundreds of musicians at SXSW. Being alone, away from friends, colleagues, and clubs, I connected deeply with music that drew me in with subtly, yearning, and atmosphere. Thank you to all those musicians who poured their hearts into their instruments in 2020.

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.

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This year's Tiny Desk Contest was unlike any other.

I've just finished Mikel Jollett's memoir, Hollywood Park, and it's extraordinary. Mikel is best known as the front person in the band The Airborne Toxic Event, but his journey to his current life is both stunning and sad. The book opens with him as a child raised in a cult known as Synanon.

In 1980, there were few clubs to see bands, especially regional bands, play their original music. I would know — I was in one of those bands, Tiny Desk Unit. Where I lived, in Washington, D.C, the options you could find if you wanted to hear rock and roll were nearly all bars, not clubs, and what you'd encounter there were bands playing mostly cover tunes, some hoping to sneak in a few originals, often to the dismay of the bar crowd.

Jon Batiste came to the Tiny Desk with some surprises back in November of 2019. Midway through his set, he stopped to say, "it's the first time we're ever playing these songs, and it's the first time we're playing together." The New Orleans musician came to the Tiny Desk not with his late-night house band, but with an all-new cast. His all-female collaborators — Endea Owens on acoustic bass, Negah Santos on percussion, Sarah Thawer on drums, and Celisse Henderson on guitar and vocals — were an inspiration.

Thanks for joining our live listening party for Fiona Apple's remarkable Fetch the Bolt Cutters. NPR Music's Ann Powers, Marissa Lorusso and I had the opportunity to answer some of your great questions about the influence of the rhythms of the African diaspora on Apple's first album in eight years, as well as talk about the experience of listening in isolation. Thank you for all your love and thoughts in the chat!

The Tiny Desk is working from home for the foreseeable future. Introducing NPR Music's Tiny Desk (home) concerts, bringing you performances from across the country and the world. It's the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.


"Hello, this is Ben Gibbard, welcome to Tiny Desk, Seattle style."

This is the most engaging song by Bob Dylan I've heard in decades. As someone who grew up in the era of President Kennedy's assassination, the portrait Dylan paints in "Murder Most Foul" is extraordinary, and takes me back to those days, to my memories of a nation overwhelmed by grief. There's something eerie about this song coming out at this precise moment.

The 2020 Tiny Desk Contest is still underway. Along with supporting unsigned independent musicians all across the country, we've been reaching out to those musicians who had high hopes of performing at the SXSW Music Festival and are now unable to do that.

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In the past year, we've had some pretty big names come perform at the Tiny Desk: Lizzo,

When we first started filming musicians playing behind the Tiny Desk in April 2008, the beauty was in the intimacy and simplicity of these concerts. Now into our 11th year, after more than 900 Tiny Desks, the other treasure I find in these concerts is the variety. I remember having the cast of Sesame Street here in May, with NPR parents and their children seated on the floor watching the Muppets.

These are my favorite albums of 2019. The flood of music and the variety of music in 2019 felt exhilarating, though also overwhelming. I couldn't keep it to my usual top ten, so I extended it to twenty.

The Comet is Coming is a force of nature. The British trio's approach to the Tiny Desk was ferocious. Shabaka Hutchings, aka King Shabaka, blew his sax hard while his effects pedal added reverb, expanding not only his sound but altering the office and making it a little eerier.

Warning: The opening cut on this week's show, by Fran got stuck in my head and kept me wide awake at four in the morning. But a song from Soccer Mommy about dealing with temptation and the devil, Ruby Duff's "rainbow of emotions," Chastity Belt's first new music since 2017 and (Sandy) Alex G's devastating song titled "Hope" will help when taken at a hefty volume.

Like almost 6,000 other artists, Hobo Johnson entered the Tiny Desk Contest in 2018. But unlike the other entries, his video, for the song "Peach Scone," went viral. It now has nearly 16-million views. Though Hobo Johnson didn't win the Contest, I did invite them to play a proper Tiny Desk.

There's a cinematic theme in the songs on this edition of All Songs Considered, including a new track from Thom Yorke called "Daily Battles" and an instrumental version of it from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. These two songs were created for the Edward Norton film Motherless Brooklyn.

On this edition of All Songs Considered: songs of gratitude from Pinegrove, a take on intimacy from Norwegian artist Jenny Hval and a song of quietude with a few surprises from Anna Meredith.

I'm also thrilled to have new music from Sudan Archives, an artist who blends violin loops and catchy rhythms like no one else. And what is the sound of four Mellotrons? Hear John Medeski, Pat Sansone, Jonathan Kirkscey and Robby Grant's "Pulsar," part of their Mellotron Variations project.

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