The List: Trump's tiny desk inspires us to revisit the best NPR Tiny Desk performances of 2020

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Donald Trump photographed at a tiny desk

As President Donald Trump continues to spiral into conspiracy-laden tantrums following his election loss to Joe Biden, we’re forced to look for levity where we can, includingthis much-circulated photo of Trump seated at a comically tiny desk. The image got us thinking about NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series, which has been filming remotely much of the year amid the pandemic. Here’s a collection of some of our favorite performances.

Michael Kiwanuka 

The British soul man released one of the best albums of 2019 in Kiwanuka, and his recent home concert for Tiny Desk pulls heavily from that release, including a stirring take on record highlight “Hero.”

Black Thought 

The Roots rapper is criminally underrated as a lyricist, owing in part to the ample skills of the musicians who surround him within the group. Nowhere is this more evident in this video, where Thought kicks back in a recliner and delivers a breathless, awe-inspiring stream of words.

Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron

Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum is still wrestling with grief on songs such as “Belief”— “So imagine what it was like to watch up close a loved one die/And then look into the pit/I lived on the edge of it,” he sings — but as he harmonizes alongside Doiron you can gradually hear the musician being recast.

Phoebe Bridgers

Bridgers uses green screen technology in order to beam her home performance live from the White House, but there are no tricks employed in a doom-laden “I Know the End,” which unfolds like the ideal soundtrack to this upended year.

Bill Callahan

On “Another Song” Callahan sings of being “lonesome in a pleasant way,” which is about the best any of us can hope for right now.

Yola 

Yola performed for NPR on both sides of the pandemic, first in the studio in January and more recently from a sunlit backyard in Nashville. It’s the latter we’re focused on here, a set that includes a lovely take on “Faraway Look.”

Lucinda Williams

It’s clear who Williams had in mind when she penned “Man Without a Soul,” though her words are so angry, so cutting, that it’s an open question as to whether she’s talking about an electoral defeat or something far darker when she sings, “How do you think this story ends/It’s not a matter of how/It’s just a matter of when.”

Trupa Trupa

Though the hypnotically droning “Another Day” predates the pandemic, lines such as “nowhere to go” and “another day waiting for another” mirror the feel of this stay at home era. “It’s kind of a quarantine song,” the Polish band offers at the close of the performance, “but it’s not composed for this event, this tragic event.”

Polo G

Backed by a four-piece band, the Chicago rapper works through a trio of broken anthems shaped by street violence, death and trauma, including set highlight “Epidemic.” “I’m so sick of farewells,” he sings, sounding like a man too often made to say goodbye.

Angel Olsen

I was lukewarm on the singer/songwriter’s 2019 album, All Mirrors, which felt too fussy by half. So I was pleasantly surprised when she opted to release this year’s Whole New Mess, which was recorded prior to the creation of All Mirrors and presents the same songs in significantly stripped-down form. “Whole New Mess,” performed here from the back porch of her home in Asheville, North Carolina, is emblematic of the power these minimalist takes can hold.

Tribute to John Prine

The Country Music Awards neglected to pay tribute to John Prine, the legendary singer and songwriter who died of COVID-19 this year, an oversight that caused musicians such as Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell to withdraw their CMA memberships. This NPR tribute offers a glimpse of what could have been, particularly on Margo Price’s lovely rendition of “That’s the Way That the World Goes Round.”