Brittany Howard Featured in Episode 2 of the New Tiny Desk Top Shelf Series

NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series has held close to a thousand concerts since its inception in 2008. It’s hosted the likes of Adele, Anderson Paak, Dan Auerbach, and the legendary Roots crew. It has also helped lesser known genre-defining luminaries like Frances Quinlan, Gogol Bordello, Chicano Batman, and Idles to rise above relative obscurity. When NPR is not featuring legends and icons, the task of picking which obscure but talented musicians to feature next lies in the hands of the Tiny Desk contest judges.

In their new weekly Top Shelf series, NPR gives us a peek at the judging process behind the Tiny Desk contest. Episode one featured concert creator Bob Boilen and associate producer Bobby Carter, who’s brought in some of the more popular musicians featured by the series. In episode two, Bob Boilen is joined by Tiny Desk alumnus and soul icon Brittany Howard, whom you might know from the band Alabama Shakes. With several award-winning songs under her belt, Brittany Howard is more than capable of handling the tedious but fun task of choosing the next talents Tiny Desk will feature next. Here are her five Top Shelf picks from around 120 music video submissions.

The Bengsons


The Bengsons consist of married couple Shaun and Abigail Bengson. In their featured song, Pulls Out, Shaun paints the picture with an accordion, a digital drum pad, and vocal work, while Abigail’s dynamic, soulful, theatrical, blues-fueled vocals brings it all to bright, shining life. Howard relates the story behind the powerful song. “She wrote this when they found out they were pregnant, and then later unfortunately loss their child. But they kept singing that song ‘cause to them, it’s a very powerful prayer of transformation. She says that the transformation isn’t always obvious from the outside, and all that cracking open can feel good.” Out of the five songs on this list, Pulls Out is the closest to Howard’s own dynamic and unorthodox vocal work.

Yasmin Williams


“She had a guitar across her lap, tap dancing shoes on, a little harp that apparently was velcroed or glued to her guitar, and I’m like, ‘What is about to happen?” Yasmin Williams is a guitar player and percussionist with the unique ability to play her instruments using all of her limbs at once. Her song Through the Woods is both a peaceful and relaxing melody as well as a masterful display of Williams’ complex compositions and unique playing style. It’s a calming and meditative journey.



“They made this really cool video in a laundromat. And instantly, I’m liking the groove, what I’m seeing, I’m liking the energy,” explains Howard, who has also expressed her desire to collaborate with Nané, the only big rock band on the list. As Bob Boilen tells Howard, the band has an energy and personality that’s very similar to Howard’s own rock group. Both Howard and Nané’s guitarist do have a shared love for the familiar crunch of overdrive modulation, a staple sound in Howard’s instrumental contributions to Alabama Shakes. Much like many of her own songs, Blue Velvet is one of those songs that you play to get yourself hyped and positively energized in the morning.



As alums of the Chicago run of the Broadway hip hop sensation Hamilton, both Candace Quarrels and Brittany Campbell took on the role of Angelica Schuyler. Now they’ve combined their talents to form Mermaid, an rnb and soul-singing duo with Campbell on the electric guitar. Out of Howard’s five song and artist picks in this Top Shelf episode, the duo Mermaid is the closest to Howard’s vocal style on her more melancholic and brooding songs. In Find Me, Mermaid echoes the mad, romantic nostalgia of young love.

Peter “Madcat” Ruth


“I’m not even sure how to prepare anyone for what’s about to happen,” explains Howard before she signs off and introduces Peter “Madcat” Ruth and his song, Madcat Extravaganza. Madcat starts off with a kubing, a Southeast Asian mouth percussion organ which he plays like a banjo, while backing himself up with a pedal-driven percussion. He then switches to several tremolo and diatonic harmonicas which he plays on both inhales and exhales, letting him play with seemingly endless breath. Along the way, he uses several different percussions including a squeaky toy, all while stuffing different wind instruments into his mouth to play them simultaneously, shaping the sound by changing the shape of his mouth. It’s a heaping dose of mad fun to cap off this mad list of new talent.

Article written by Penny Thomas

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