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RARB Picks of the Decade: 2000 — 2009

Each year, our reviewers select albums of the year for extra notice and comment. For the first time ever, reviewers were asked to dust off old CDs, pore over their published reviews, and debate with each other what has stood the test of time as the best recorded a cappella of the past ten years!

After nomination, discussion, and vote, the results are fairly evenly split between two rough categories.

First, there are vocal bands: Duwende, Five O'Clock Shadow, and The House Jacks, each with a style and genre preference of its own; plus the hard-edged thrill of the University of Pennsylvania Off The Beat and the glittering post-modern glam of the Stanford University Harmonics.

Second, and for want of a more precise musical term, there are groups whose style is more audibly grounded in "classical" or "traditional" singing: amarcord and Riltons Vänner; plus Cadence's engaging jazz and the mind-blowing jazz- and world-inspired musics of Pust and Rajaton.

Each group's winning album is described below.

In a third category, a category of its own, is a group whose inclusion and albums—not album—deserve special comment. Three of its albums were voted onto our Picks of the Decade. That group is The Beelzebubs of Tufts University.

The Beelzebubs, Tufts University

Code Red (2003)
Shedding (2004-5)
Pandæmonium (2005-7)

Code Red Shedding Pandaemonium

Code Red, Shedding, and Pandæmonium were among the best and most influential of their years and deserving of special recognition when considering the last decade of recorded a cappella.

On all of those albums the 'Bubs seem to sing in a musical and emotional space all their own. Few groups record with such technical skill, and even fewer capture the joyful energy of live performance that is obvious on every 'Bubs album since Code Red. All together, the 'Bubs have set the bar and defined the sound of contemporary a cappella.

The style of Code Red influenced not only later 'Bubs albums (while drawing on earlier, e.g., 1991's Foster Street) but also countless other a cappella groups as well. Easily the most referenced collegiate album of the decade, it drew on groundbreaking production—especially for a collegiate album—including extensive and controversial use of effects.

But there was nothing on Code Red that couldn't technically have been done 50 years ago ... and nothing that won't sound fresh—and inspire fresh sounds—for some time to come. With astonishing replications (Mr. Roboto) and searing solos (Nothing Compares 2 U), the album's sound became the signature sound of the decade: electronic in precision and electrifying in emotional effect.

On Shedding the 'Bubs showed a consistency in the studio that furthered the achievements of Code Red. Deepening that album's palette, Shedding includes vocal imitations—at the time, reviewer Dave Trendler called the group "master imitators"—that surprise without descending into novelty, remaining raw and authentic.

For the first time, really, the flash wasn't about what an a cappella group—any group—can do (" ... wouldn't it be cool to cover ... ?"), although the album gains value for including songs and genres that weren't obviously in fashion. What awed then and impresses still today is the group's capability. There seems to be nothing the 'Bubs can't do well. This is the album that turned the 'Bubs from a great college group into the college group.

It's the groove—that perfect mix of bass, backbeat, and bounce (try not bobbing along with Pony)—and the group's insistence on excellence that make Shedding the funnest of the three and still the best overall listen. The syllables and arrangements (by Ed Boyer, a game-changer with Paranoid Android and the underlistened Hurt), enable the 'Bubs to to capture the spirit of imitated instruments without totally destroying the character of their voices.

All of this continued—and, some at RARB suggest, reached a new highest point—on Pandæmonium. True to its name, the album offers a disconcerting but coherent and powerful collection of music. With a wide range of styles and decades of popular music represented, it is that very rare thing in contemporary a cappella: a complete album. The confident and unforced opening to Magical Mystery Tour; the punch, post-modern swagger, and sting of Digging in the Dirt; the shining close harmony and welcoming irony on Come Sail Away (recently featured on The Sing-Off).

And all of this is undergirded by the biggest, ringingest, most glorious chords sung on that spectacularly blended and iconic "ah"! Imagine 128 digital Beelzebubs planting their feet, squaring their shoulders, arms jammed at their sides, lungs reaching endlessly down to their guts and swelling, shuddering in anticipation, then unleashing the biggest, most room-filling chords you've ever heard!

Successfully balancing the humor and off-center nostalgia endemic to covers with bottomless fires of youth and boundless artistic ambition, The 'Bubs' three albums sound like recordings of big a cappella dreams coming true. To The 'Bubs' credit, and to the artform's benefit, they've also sounded unrelentingly good.

Five O'Clock Shadow, Wonders of the World (1999-2000)

Wonders of the World

Wonders of the World was one of the major professional albums to advance the distortion-pedal sound that quickly characterized vocal bands. (Five O'Clock Shadow was one of the very few bands to do so via an unprecedentedly coordinated publicity push, through Hot Lips Records and an associated DVD.) The group treated voices like rock band instruments, processing them during real-time performance. And for the first time, one singer covered bass and percussion parts simultaneously. The result wasn't universally loved, and that's what helped to make it revolutionary: it continues to exert a strong influence especially on collegiate recordings ... even if not everyone can do what FOCS did live and in concert. Like Duwende, Wonders of the World is significant also for its contribution to original writing.

The House Jacks, Drive (2000)

Drive

Mostly original music: good original music. (Listen to Dive into You and learn.) A few hot covers, each a masterclass-in-miniature making clear how covers can matter (by making the moment of the cover essential). And it's that good, that important, live. Described by one reviewer as "the best live album I have heard, a cappella or otherwise", Drive is almost literally the record of the House Jacks' triumphant return from the hinterlands of label hell to the musical city they did so much to build. (It also marks their first full-length collaboration with producer Bill Hare.) We owe the Jacks so much, including a sense of what's possible in arranging for five voices. We owe this album in particular a sense of what's possible in live performance: from start to finish, it traces the arc and structure familiar to every floored concert-goer. Drive is a reminder that live performance—the original a cappella "recording"—can be both musically solid and still such outrageous fun.

Duwende, Duwende (2000-1)

Duwende

An album of all-original songs by a fairly new vocal band was nearly unheard-of at the beginning of the decade. (Even "a fairly new vocal band" was close to unheard-of!) But it isn't only that historical quasi-novelty that makes Duwende an important listen. Ed Chung's beats are deeply pocketed, the block smartly dressed and staged, and the soloists well-intonated but fierce ("I see you through the lightning and the thunder!", and you're hammering along on Come Rain). And with voices like Ari Picker's groovy bass, Abbey Janes' serene soprano, and Morgan Phillips' wail-away tenor, this is the album—among only a few others at the time—that showed how original contemporary a cappella can honor its incredibly varied vocal musical roots (Was a Time prefigures Afro-pop; Pomper is funky fresh French rap insanity) and still rock.

amarcord, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (2004)

Nun komm der Heiden Heiland

Amarcord wields warm and exquisite voices to sing such breathtaking ensemble work that one reviewer felt the group's members held a "telepathic link". The group's medieval arrangements of ancient tunes have not worn out their welcome. A consummately sung and deeply felt album from beginning to end, Nun komm includes special gems in Jacobus Vaet's Magnificat sexti toni (traditionally and beautifully alternating chant and polyphony) and a Stella Splendens hair-raisingly rich with limpid and unforced overtones. Alongside Rajaton's album, below, amarcord's singing is simply, professionally, classically Western European.

Off the Beat, The University of Pennsylvania, Burn Like a Roman Candle (2004)

Burn Like a Roman Candle

On the one hand, it's arguably less important which OTB album represents them than that the group itself is on the list. Their immediate recognizability and long-standing reputation, their position at the (very) cutting edge of a cappella, and above all their aural attitude has made Off the Beat the group to love, hate, admire, imitate, and try to surpass, year after blistering year. Off the Beat sounds like no other, and—this is the clincher—they sound so completely and uncompromisingly like themselves. On album after album, on track after track, you're made—not asked—to hear a group that knows its strengths, plays to them loudly (by definition, there was screaming before More Screaming), and lovingly doesn't care what you think. But Burn Like a Roman Candle is the one. Usually musical groups can't resist some sap. From the very beginning of BLARC (Chop Suey and Mono), you know that OTB is so fiercely cutting edge it draws blood.

Riltons Vänner, Här är passion (2004-5)

Här är passion

Smooth production, smoother voices, and original songs barely rooted in Euro-pop make for a high-quality album. But it's Riltons Vänner's feel that sets them off from others. There is a mild emotional distance in the approach, a thinned bass paired with crisp percussion, a sparse and sparklingly-tuned clarity of arrangement. The overall effect isn't warm, and the overall sound isn't at all huge, but it's precisely those choices that distinguish this album from so many others that are much more eager to please (not to say easy to enjoy). The album's title (in English, "Here there is passion") isn't a description so much as a thesis for your critical consideration. Listen closely: for audible and affective choices in breath and glottal fry (När du ler); for mysterious dialogue between the phrasings of soloist and block (Inga ord); for the sense—not shouted, but just about glanced your way—that Riltons Vänner could smash, punch, pop, and rock if only they hadn't decided, in full possession of their forceful musical faculties, to do something different (Schack matt).

Cadence, Twenty For One (2005)

Twenty For One

One of only two albums in RARB history to get straight 5s on all tracks from all reviewers, Twenty For One features great songs, engaging arrangements, and agile and versatile singing from all group members. Above all, there is a very fun feel: the listener is always in on the joke, even invited to the afterparty. Favorites from this Canadian quartet include the Billboard-ready Don't Fix What's Broken and the warm cool of the not-quite narrative Hit That Jive Jack. Cadence's arrangements—and, even more, their aura: groove on the tasteful percussion, casual imitation of instruments, and judicious engineering—have influenced too many other groups to count (with, perhaps, Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps being the front-runner in numbers).

Pust, Femkant (2007)

Femkant

Anglophone a cappella listeners have come to associate northern European a cappella with amazing singing. One reviewer enjoyed "feeling absolutely vocally inferior" to the Norwegian group Pust, which puts its astounding talent to innovative use. Whether you consider the music "jazz", or "world", or "folk", or altogether off the wall, it is in any case a desperately needed new direction for contemporary a cappella. Much of contemporary musics can converge uninterestingly (thanks in part to many of the influential artists on this list). In that context, Femkant makes you sit up and take notice, surprised—or reminded—at what "voices only" can do. Key tracks include the haunting Innocent and the achingly beautiful Vaggviselåt.

Rajaton, Maa (2007)

Maa

Any discussion of amazing, northern-European sound must include—and could easily consist entirely of—Finland's Rajaton. One reviewer long ago ran out of compliments, and he's far from alone. Like several other groups on this list, Rajaton (in Finnish, "boundless") could have been represented by almost any of their albums: beating even the 'Bubs, they've received overall 5s from all three reviewers on five straight albums. On Maa—their 10th anniversary release—the group eschews some more modern musical tendencies to focus on the subtle complexities of Finnish folk melody. Tracks like Tasangot, the jazzy, gently engaging Tuuti Lasta, and the more distant, multi-atmospheric, and vocal-effect driven Pakkanen all put the singers' astonishing musicality to use, shaping and freshening somewhat older and longer-standing ideas.

The Harmonics, Stanford University, Escape Velocity (2008)

Escape Velocity

It's tempting to describe this album by listing its numerous awards and honors, but that would be to let accolades speak for the album, instead of the album speaking for its own ambitious and—count on it—enduring self. To judge from all of those awards, you've already heard it. Now listen again, accurately, sharply, and lovingly to everything from the effective ordering of songs (it has the feel of a real rock album, almost music's peculiar frumious bandersnatch: the concept album) through the deliberate and artistic production (by Charlie Forkish and Bill Hare) to the stunning singing from these extra-curricular college kids.

If that last bit sounded like a definition of "a cappella", it's because—for 2000-9—Escape Velocity does, too. All of its achievement, all of its innovation, is within the now-traditional archetype of the amateur collegiate a cappella cover band.

Conclusion

The past ten years saw the idea of "the vocal band" spread definitively from professional and semi-professional to collegiate a cappella; a greater awareness of a cappella internationally, including styles and musical traditions from around the world; and—from where we sit—a dramatic uptick in the consistently high quality of recordings. If the generally better sound of contemporary a cappella is due in part to the greater availability of D-I-Y technology, and in part to the prominence of several specialized a cappella engineers, it must depend also on the continual coming together of the community: making music, recording it, listening to it, discussing it.

The best of it is listed above. Listen to it (again!), and let the discussion begin.


The text above is a composite of nominators' contributions and Coordinator Benjamin Stevens' reactions after listening to the winning albums afresh. The albums were discussed and selected by current and past RARB staff, specifically: Andrew DiMartino, Brian Haverkate, Catherine Lewis, Corey Slutsky, Dave Trendler, Elie Landau, Freddie Feldman, Guang Ming Whitley, John Colton, Jonathan Minkoff, Kevin Sawyer, Kimmie Raschka Sailor, Rebecca Christie, Robert Dietz, Seth Golub, Thomas King, and Tom Czerwinski.

How To Get Your Work Reviewed

To have your album (2 or more tracks) reviewed by RARB, please email us with your name, group name and album title. You will receive a response with information on how to register your album in our system.

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