Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2016 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2016 were asked to select one Pick of the Year and one Honorable Mention from albums that they personally reviewed for RARB. Reviewers with fewer published reviews could choose only a Pick of the Year. (Albums chosen in both categories are listed as Picks only; the full listing may be found under individual reviewers.) Reviewers could submit descriptions of their picks, but were not required to.
Reviewers were also asked to select Tracks of the Year on a similar principle, again restricted to the tracks that they personally reviewed for RARB. Reviewers could also abstain from making selections in any or all categories.
Finally, our editorial staff jointly chose one Single of the Year and one Honorable Mention from among all the singles reviewed in 2016.
Run for Cover has delivered our choice for Single of the Year with its version of the Adventure Club (ft. Yuna) EDM track Gold. The arrangement by Ahon Sarkar is intriguing and complex, creating a song that is full of creativity and movement. What started out as an experiment for Sarkar developed into an amalgam of talent, production and collaboration once it went into the studio. Initially there was some concern in choosing a group with a guest soloist as Single of the Year. But Kari Wei's solo made us forget all about that by living inside this song and evoking all of the emotion of the original. The track is indeed the gold standard of a cappella for 2016.
This emotional track by the Vassar Devils has it all: a beautiful build; twisty, jazzy chords and tone clusters; and wonderful, stretchy phrases that showcase precision and blend. The beauty is in the simplicity here — it's sometimes harder to execute a slow, simple arrangement than a fast and frilly one, especially in the studio, and the listener can't help but hang on to every single note here. Plus it's an original, which makes us like it even more.
Early music from amarcord! This is an album to consume in great gulps, full of musical satisfaction and guaranteed to add ambience to your quiet morning or evening at home with your books and your thoughts.
The Beelzebubs know they're the Bubs and have a standing obligation to sound good. On this new release, they also sound like they had a lot of recent fun and want their new album to pass it on.
One of my favorite texts in a lovely setting as performed by Germany's champions of gorgeous polyphony.
Neri Per Caso is always delightful, as shown in this original tune from 2016's overall excellent NPC 2.0 duepuntozero.
Finnish lyrics focus on and reference the natural world with haunting, whispering, and even piercing vocals that dance through tone and texture. Tuuletar's melodies are emotionally evocative and their arrangements are like paint on a canvas. But where this group truly rises above, establishing itself in the upper echelon of a cappella, is in its originality.
Burn is brilliant, easily deserving of its many awards and accolades (Winner CARA 2015: Best Professional Arrangement for a Scholastic Group — Chris Rishel; Runner-up CARA 2015: Best Mixed Collegiate Song; RARB Single of the Year 2014). Creative tempo changes, unexpected rhythmic choices, heart-wrenching chords, beautiful use of studio wizardry, and gorgeous ensemble power makes this track a must-have.
How can you surpass greatness? By being The Chordials and continually putting out some of the best music in the collegiate realm. These "kids" are the real deal and make being masterful musicians seem entirely effortless. Five of these tracks were vying for my pick of the year during my initial review. And one of them succeeded in besting the others as well as the thousands I've listened to for RARB and sing 13: Superstition. There's nothing surface about just being able to flat out sing.
A bit sleepy at times, but there's nothing wrong with that. The Sil'hooettes know what they do and they know how to do it extremely well.
"Transcendant" is the first word that came to mind while listening to this song. It's not an earworm, but more like a soulworm. Everything just locks into place in one magnificent package.
Initially, my choice for honorable mention was The Living Waters by the new Sweet Honey in the Rock. It's a great song and utterly deserving, but then I remembered that I had Father Figure in my collection. I'm a sucker for this song, if you didn't already know. But it was a very different listening experience hearing Retrocity's version post-December 25th, 2016, versus the hundreds of times that I'd heard the song in general. This time, I just sat at my desk and wept. And it hit me like running head first into a brick wall. I had been numb upon hearing the news of George Michael's death, and for days afterwards. Thank you, Retrocity, for helping me cope, remember, accept and deal. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Equal parts artistically outstanding and technically impressive, you just can't argue with how compelling and inspiring Higher Love sounds. Once again, OneVoice gave quite a gift to the a cappella community.
The Pennharmonics decided to devote an EP to creating a full-throttle, clear-the-streets release. It's intense. You'll love it.
I'm not sure I'll ever love another a cappella song as deeply and completely as I love Make It Holy. This work displays a perfect arrangement, a perfect lead and harmonies, perfects backs, perfect lyrics, and perfect production with punch-in-the-gut effectiveness. "Did I ever, ever, ever do you wrong?..."
What a thrill to watch songwriter Gabrielle Macafee's legacy continue to unfold with her now established sound. TAG makes this gem sparkle like their Atlantic ocean on a sunny day.
One of my all-around favorite collegiate albums that I've ever reviewed. Inventive arranging anchors top-notch solo performances, with fantastic original songs to take it over the top!
Fifteen timeless early music tracks. They require you to pay attention, but your attention will be rewarded! Amarcord's musicianship is superb, and there are too many great things happening on this album to even begin to list.
The Pretender was my favorite song on a fabulous album. Incredibly intense, even when shouting, but without ever becoming harsh. I played the track three times back-to-back-to-back the first time I listened to it, just in awe of the experience.
VoCabulary is a solid collection of pop songs, one with so many standouts that I had a hard time calling out specific favorites in my review. The SoCal VoCals continue their tradition of high-energy uptempo songs, but the group shows that it has breadth as well as depth with the unexpected: a soft-rock ensemble piece and a beautifully-arranged traditional song fit alongside the group's Top 40 fare. This is a group that has been able to grow even at the top of its game.
I stand by my original review of sQ!'s Bird (For Now): there isn't a bad song on this album. This is a group that keeps getting steadily better with each recording; on this album, the group has found the best lead for each song (and yes, that includes a male-fronted Bootylicious), and the arrangements suit this group's current lineup perfectly. It's an album I keep going back to, not for any one particular standout song, but for its overall cohesion.
My biggest beef with the AllNighters is that Night Shift, the recording the group sent to RARB in 2016, was just an EP. Those six songs are the textbook example of leaving listeners wanting more, and that's true especially on the standout 'Round Midnight. There's a stunning lead, a gorgeous scat section, and a perfectly-unhurried tempo that takes listeners on a journey to another place and time. It feels easy and effortless, and I just can't stop listening.
It seems like every year at RARB, there's a European group that breaks new ground in a cappella. All-female Finnish quartet Tuuletar was that group in 2016: their eight original songs presented folk harmonies with a modern flair. Ei Leijuta switches between quieter moments and sassier ones; these singers' voices actually sound like the storm that they're singing about. But you don't need to know what they're singing to know what the song is about, and that's the mark of a truly outstanding performance.
The G-Men infuse ordinary pop songs with extraordinary imagination and talent. ABCDEFH is not music that plays passively in the background; it is music that actively draws you into a current of excitement and awe.
It takes courage to cover a song that falls outside the realm of the stucturally and thematically familiar. To cover such a song with so much suspenseful silence, towering percussion, and unfaltering pizzazz is nigh on heroic. The possibilities of recorded a cappella are officially limitless.
Peppy, corny, rockin', groovin', solemn, and downright insane. A cappella comes in all shapes and sizes, but nothing leaves a lasting impression quite like a soulful anthem. Big White Room, led by the stellar Swaroop Rao, starts out so vulnerable and builds to such defiance that in an instant you can't help but cry and laugh and want to hear it all over again.
Polarized is a great representation of 2016 a cappella. It's current, well-produced, and full of life. The songs truly embody youth, and both the soloists and arrangements are fantastic.
What I enjoy most about Night Shift is the level of maturity the group exudes with the arrangements. While much of the tracks include widely popular Top 40 hits that many groups have covered, The AllNighters don't settle for mediocrity. Each song is capable of standing on its own without relying on the full project to make it special. I continue finding myself returning to these tracks long after the initial listen, solidifying the talent of these gentlemen.
What's most impressive about Oblivion (Live) is how Psalm 100's previous album features a studio version of the track, and both versions are nearly identical. This can only be achieved by a top tier group, which Psalm 100 is. "Epic" may be 2016's most overused word, but it's the only term that comes to mind when describing the level of complexity, the hard-hitting percussion, the fluid layering and the stellar soloist all featured in this song.
Break Free is one gigantic build-up after another, and the surprises that The AllNighters deliver are worth the wait. There's something remarkable about a soloist who can cover a song by an artist of a different gender and still provide listeners with the full effect of the original. The AllNighters' lead has a range for days and makes the cover his own, which is the true challenge of all cover songs.
Eventide by Cognitive Resonance is a fantastic first release! This is a group to keep an eye on.
Summertime was the year's standout for me for sure — a lithe arrangement, warm and full.
With Higher Love, Briarcrest OneVoice continues to produce exemplary material that raises the bar for not only high school a cappella but the community at large. Director J.D. Frizzell and his very talented students push the bar with the various styles featured in this album, a must-hear for anyone.
An unexpected joy from my reviewing year came in the form of Sverige, an excellent assortment of songs to celebrate Swedish heritage in many forms. Pros & Cons' renditions of songs in both English and Swedish are not to be missed.
The introduction to this track is nothing short of captivating, effectively setting up the album for success. The instrumental interludes are fully engaging and energetic and the lines with lyrics are laden with passion. This unique track was certainly the most memorable for me in 2016 and a must-hear on a very strong album.
Covering Sam Smith has become fairly commonplace, but a truly imaginative cover of Lay Me Down by Divisi is deserving of honorable mention. The ending section, incorporating earlier elements from the song in ways that the source material doesn't, is nothing short of brilliant. In a world full of Sam Smith covers, this one is very much worth a download.
The format of FLUX seemed a bit controversial, but if the discussion tracks aren't your thing then just skip 'em. Whatever you do, don't miss out on the music that Lady Jaye is making. To me, this album stands out by far as the most real from the works I reviewed in 2016. There's so much honesty in Lady Jaye's music, and it makes for powerful listening.
Unsurprisingly, TAG makes my top two again this year. At this point, I'm not sure what more these singers can show us, but man am I looking forward to hearing it.
I still can't get over the first time I listened to this track with headphones on, and recalling that first moment when the soloist comes in. It's just raw and real, and hits something that I think makes music such a powerful and shared human experience.
Mashups aren't always everyone's thing, but I keep coming back to this inventive blending of a classic we all know with Justin Timberlake. It's smooth and sultry, and to me it just works.
This album was the whole package from the very first note — interesting and innovative arrangements, killer soloists, and varied and balanced repertoire.
In one song, Distilled Harmony took us on a roller coaster that was the ultimate thrill ride.
AQUAREAL is an album quite unlike anything I've ever heard. This release is composed entirely of sea shanties, and it's phenomenal. Listeners are transported to another time and place, hearing the stories, dreams, and triumphs of sailors. It's definitely worth a listen.
Once again, the SoCal VoCals prove that they are one of the best a cappella groups in the world, scholastic or otherwise. This album is full of powerful soloists, stunning arrangements, and is overflowing with attitude.
There's really something to be said about a group that can find a way to take everything that they excel at, and put it into one musical track. SKETY was able to take the jazz skills of the group, add in driving bass and percussion, and put it all together in an insane mixed-meter presentation. Every group member is exactly where they need to be for this track, and it results in a phenomenal final product.
There's something to be said about groups that find their sound. When every member is on board and driving full force, I can't help but listen. With Proud Mary, Hyannis Sound tapped into their high octane sound and delivered a showstopping ending to an album with an absolutely insane amount of energy. It's everything I want to hear from them in one track, and it's definitely worth a listen.
SKETY is the only album I rated a "5" across the board. I love the musicianship displayed on this album.
Mixtape by Retrocity is themed by the group's retro music. You can never go wrong with '80s music sung a cappella.
An original takes the spot for my track of the year. Because, why not — ViYH is a bunch of talented kids who can make original a cappella music sound like a summer hit song.
The choral approach in this song captures my heart, and I feel every emotion expressively poured in by the Clef Hangers. The gentle swelling of the notes from a simple "ooh" in the beginning to a majestic, grandiose ending is the best way to tell the story of this song.
There was never really any question as to which album would be my pick of the year. Tuuletar's folk hop is innovative, emotional, explosive, and it's some of the best a cappella music I've ever heard.
Countermeasure aims for the stars with this album, assembling a wide range of different styles and audacious ideas on a mostly original album. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's stellar indeed. Required listening for any arranger.
To Build A Home is a contemporary collegiate a cappella album that I can show to friends who don't even care for the genre, and they'll still like it. In fact, I have done exactly that, and it has yielded precisely those results. There's a lot of attention placed here into adapting songs to a cappella, rather than purely imitating the originals, and there's equal attention to tailoring the music particularly to Ithacappella. It's also great to see a collegiate a cappella album that orders its songs with an emotional arc. It makes re-listening to the album as a whole, rather than just individual songs, incredibly appealing.
There isn't really an element of Madness that I would do without. A breathtaking soloist, offset by an arrangement that is both inspired and coherent, is already a formula for excellence. What takes this song over the top, however, is the beautiful 80-second introduction that hardly consists of anything but humming and whistling overtones. It's a huge risk to use something like this on an a cappella track, but as part of the album as a whole, it creates a breath of fresh air that allows the listener to rest in between two particularly intense songs.
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