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Calvin The II entered the song "Black" into the 2021 Tiny Desk Contest.YouTube/NPR
The 2021 Tiny Desk Contest closed for entries on June 7. We've heard songs from every state in the country, from big bands and solo artists, in a huge range of genres and styles — and we've seen an equally huge range of desks to match. Now, our judges will start to comb through our entries to find a winner. Here are some of the best entries we've seen recently.
Calvin The II, "Black"
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Pairs well with: The block party after the protest
To borrow a phrase from our friends at Code Switch: This is the song that is giving me life this week. Calvin Winbush (who goes by the moniker Calvin the II) shot this video on the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. You would think a performance this excellent would take a few weeks — maybe months — to put together. But Winbush told us that the idea for this video came to him at 4 a.m. the day before he made it. He got his crew got together the next morning, where they rehearsed and shot everything you see. It's an incredible feat, which goes to show what true determination and an unapologetically Black vision can lead to. Happy Juneteenth, y'all! —Pilar Fitzgerald
Oh He Dead, "The Foreigner"
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Pairs well with: Being brave
D.C.-based Oh He Dead is no stranger to the Tiny Desk Contest, having entered in 2019 and 2020. In the band's 2021 entry, its sublime instrumentation and lead singer CJ Johnson's powerful voice still shine, but there's a new grounding and gravity in the songwriting. "The Foreigner" "explores the wide spectrum of emotions [CJ] experienced as a young, expectant Black mother: fear, anxiety, depression, and pressure from the weight of judgment, expectation and responsibility," the band says. In the song, love prevails: "I thought I wouldn't be alright, tossing and turning all night / But I fell in love with my baby, I fell in love with our love." —Elle Mannion
Lily Ophelia, "Pockets"
Hometown: Nashville, Tenn.
Pairs well with: Picking wildflowers
"When I was small I didn't know the protocol," Lily Ophelia sings in her Tiny Desk Contest entry, "I didn't know that I would be so cynical." But cynicism aside, there's a sunny warmth to "Pockets," performed here alongside a skilled group of Nashville musicians, which Ophelia says is about learning to live in the moment. "I don't make the rules," she sighs, backed by graceful harmonies courtesy of singer Cara Tilghman, "when you grow up, you'll become a fool." —Marissa Lorusso
The Main Squeeze, "Go To Work"
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Pairs well with: Fighting off a case of the Mondays
Every minute of The Main Squeeze's "Go to Work" simply feels good. Lead vocalist Corey Frye leads us in a groove-filled call to action, belting, "It's not enough to say we're gonna change / it's not enough, we need real changes." Written during the middle of the pandemic and reflecting on the current socio-political climate, the song uses groovy instrumentals filled with distinct scratch breaks to re-energize your spirit, while the lyrics serve an optimistic view of the work left for us to do. Whether you're working from home or heading into the office, The Main Squeeze is here to give you all the motivation you need to "Go to Work."—Gabrielle Pierre
Hometown: Towaco, N.J.
Pairs well with: When you've just finished watching the boygenius Tiny Desk and don't know where to turn
We asked artists to submit a song they wanted Contest judge Phoebe Bridgers to hear. Screenager, aka songwriter Adri Maiella, understood the assignment. "Please enjoy my soul being excavated," Maiella writes in the YouTube description of her entry, "Things." She sings of trying to please as she shifts her weight back and forth, second guessing her every move through lyrics that expose casual, yet intimate, conversation. —Elle Mannion
Cricket Blue, "Alicia From The Store"
Hometown: Burlington, Vt.
Pairs well with: Laying in the grass and looking up at the clouds
Within the first few seconds of Cricket Blue's Contest entry, it's clear the two musicians are master storytellers. "Alicia From the Store" is a beautifully melancholy song with lyrics so poetic you will think about them long after the song ends. Singer Laura Heaberlin's entrancing voice brings the story to life alongside rich harmonies from musical partner Taylor Smith, complemented by both musicians' fingerpicked guitar melodies. Cricket Blue begins and ends the song with one central question: "Does a body worry if you keep it inside?" The song was written pre-pandemic, but this line has taken on a new meaning for the musicians over the past year, which I think we all can relate to. —Jill Britton
florid, "coup de grâce"
Hometown: New Rochelle, N.Y.
Pairs well with: Tuning out the noise for a quiet moment of reflection
Reverberating off the walls of an almost-hollow room, "coup de grâce" is beautifully chilling in its simplicity. In the video's description, florid wrote that the song came to him after "killing a firefly and feeling strangely broken by it." That description stuck with me long after the song's closing bars faded off into the distance. Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places, and florid pulls us into his musings with such heartbreaking honesty. These lyrics have a knack for gripping onto you where you're already tender, but it was the final lines that broke me: "Brutal as I've been / I forget every moment I live the world spins / The world spins and I am spinning with it." —Pilar Fitzgerald