Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2013 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2013 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.
The Bobs! Pay attention. There's so much going on, musically and vocally. Good times.
I loved it instinctively. Also a cappella needs more jazz.
Great record from a great group. Some of my favorite solos of the year.
I listen to this one for fun.
With moments of stunning elegance, extreme vocal effects and endless wit, German Verboten belongs in every collection.
Breath of Soul is at its zenith with Bee. So catchy, so earnest and so confidently sung that you'll swear you've already heard the song, yet so distinctly original that your attention won't waiver for a second.
Like fresh squeezed juice for scurvy-ridden sailors, Life's So Lyrical is both delicious and desperately needed: ten originals, two remixes, and no covers. And they're pretty awesome.
Displaying exceptional blend and balance, the singers effect an almost effortless grace that's all too often lacking in over-processed contemporary a cappella. With a Lily in Your Hand is classical, and yet, it is also something more. That terra incognita is what makes this elegantly sung piece, and the Capital Hearings themselves, something special.
What more can be said about the artistry that The Chordials accomplished with their latest release? Nearly half of the thirteen tracks they released in '13 (woo) could have been my picks for Song of the Year — Lies, Lights, Bizness and Plain Gold Ring especially. Commanding so many different genres: funk, rock, soul, dance, and altera-pop, I laughed, I cried, I jaw-dropped, I danced. It's not a perfect album, but it made me perfectly happy.
Spilling the T: if sing 10: neon could have had two tracks from the same group on it, Men in Drag would have been that group. Cherry Pie was the selection until Coming Undone slammed us in the face. So I still want to tell the world that Cherry Pie is one of the best screaming anthems you'll ever enjoy.
Sorry, I'm not sorry. Heh. In a more melancholic time, two other albums could have taken this spot. But of the male collegiate albums I reviewed this year, Sorry for the Noise was the most consistently fun and engaging. From concept to execution, they had a blast and so did I. Shall we go Outside?
Sean Brewer + Paul Carrack = Heaven. I'm often exposed to unfamiliar artists and songs through a cappella groups, but none have had quite the impact that The Octāves did. Good lawd. Gritty, funky and engaging from the first to the fortieth listen.
Here We Go was the most professional and ambitious release of 2013. In fact you could swap out "2013" for any number of years gone by and the same statement would probably be true, because the level of arrangement sophistication, production refinement, and highly creative collaboration on display here is rare from any corner of the world. And this year the best came from Singapore. These singers are perfectionists, and self-disciplined artists. Keep your ears on MICappella.
A cappella unicorns are real, and Here We Go is the proof. This work of art was simply unmatched in 2013 on the arranging, delivery, and production fronts, and is poised to hold its own for a long time.
Receiving an album of originals from High School students would be enough to get our attention, but the fact that their work is really good makes this achievement really special. Buy Life's So Lyrical and let the kids school you on vocal personality and ambition.
The Harmonics make this cover sound like a new composition, anchored by a sensitive trio and a skillful arrangement that enhances the darkness and light of the original.
In this album Maybebop's wonderful music and witty lyrics have been made much more accessible to the typical English-speaking a cappella fan. The album received straight fives from me in all categories and I consider this a "must have".
Mere Words makes it onto the very short list of songs I'd want to add to my own repertoire if I were forming an a cappella group tomorrow. Beautiful melody, harmonies, and words ... I could listen to it over and over.
This album is an outstanding work in the vocal jazz sub-genre and the musicianship of all singers is apparent. Fans of vocal jazz will love it.
For Love of You has really grown on me since I wrote my initial review. It's just fun to listen to — the soloist's voice is gorgeous and the background textures are interesting. This all-female group creates a very full sound.
BATTLE finds the Beelzebubs covering more genres than are typically wise for an a cappella group (folk, funk, reggae, contemporary rock, classic rock, and R&B, to name a few), but these singers tackle any style in their path effortlessly, flawlessly, and beautifully. Truth be told, we always expect greatness from the Bubs — and they always deliver it, down to their impeccably thorough liner notes. BATTLE is a must-hear.
Ballads aren't always easy to pull off, but the Bubs make Careless sound effortless: arranger and soloist Penn Rosen brings the song from a whisper to a goosebump-inducing crescendo, then drops back to a murmur that's drenched in the song's heartbreak. It's a beautiful arrangement and an even more stunning delivery.
Hyannis Sound is the best of the best in male collegiate singers, and album after album they deliver beautifully-sung performances. With Over the Bridge, though, they've outdone themselves: making the predictable sound fresh, and throwing in a few surprises (an original song and some unexpected song choices) along the way.
Every year, there's an unexpectedly great song on an otherwise average album, and the North Carolina State Ladies in Red's version of Uninvited was that song for me. Eerie, haunting, and harsh in ways that a cappella songs rarely are ("eeeeee" is a questionable syllable for backing voices, but it is shockingly effective here), the Ladies deliver a dramatic arrangement and intense solo (both by Chelsea Schwabe).
Southern Autumn Nostalgia is not only the best a cappella release of 2013, it is one of the best contemporary a cappella albums of all time. Street Corner Symphony has produced one of the most ambitious albums within the a cappella sphere, combining excellent original songwriting with a plethora of classic rock influences. Southern Autumn Nostalgia veers wildly from style to style and from mood to mood, but it never loses sight of its goal: to make some kick-ass a cappella music. As a result, there isn't a dull moment on the album.
The most gloriously insane song of the year, Dragon Rider is a wonderful combination of progressive rock (fantastical theme, general bombast) and contemporary a cappella (driving pulse, groovy backgrounds). Featuring the best vocal guitar solo I've heard, Dragon Rider is an awesome work to behold. As I said in my review, it's "a delightful blend of King Crimson, Van Halen, and insanity."
Maybebop has always been a group that has taken chances on innovative material, but the language barrier prevented these German singers from achieving their rightful prominence in the upper echelons of American a cappella. With German Verboten, the men of Maybebop prove their fluency with English as well, and the result is a wonderfully delirious thrill ride.
The most surprising album I reviewed this year was the excellent Christian a cappella album The Life I Owe by Chi Ro. The album was immaculately crafted, featuring some of the best production work (by rising superstars Derek West and Brad Stephenson) heard on any a cappella album this year. The standout track, though, is the lush Washed by the Water. Featuring a gorgeous solo and calm, meditative background vocals, Washed by the Water blends a great arrangement with superb production to become a memorable a cappella track.
Ten original tracks with two fun remixes that utilize an unbelievably rich array of arranging techniques, musical styles, moods, and soloists. Life's So Lyrical is all the more amazing because it is the result of a collaboration between high school students and some of the biggest producers in a cappella. Thank you Forte for being an inspiration to us all!
Celebrate is a bumpin' Forte original to begin with, but then Tat Tong went to town with his box of studio tricks to make the remix a bonafide pop masterpiece. I wouldn't consider this a cappella in the traditional sense of the genre, but it is a delightful taste of the genre's frontier that you don't want to miss.
This is a top-notch collection that takes all the ordinary features of a male collegiate debut album and makes them sound extraordinary. Rousing school spirit staples, spunky dance hits, and powerful anthems are creatively arranged and convincingly sung to draw you into the dynamic energy The Statesmen possess.
Six Appeal does a cappella exactly the way it's supposed to sound: tight harmonies, warm bass, and fun syllables and wordplay in the backgrounds with a suave solo in front. The original compositions are the best tracks on Plan A, and everything comes together just so in the salsa stylings of Little Black Dress.
Terrific arrangements, shiny production, and a nice stylistic balance. Here We Go is the most polished and complete album I reviewed in 2013, and it isn't really close. if you don't own this album, you're missing out on the best all of contemporary a cappella has to offer.
There are still some things you cannot fake in recorded music. The authentic heart and soul which Street Corner Symphony puts into this album, the humor and humility, tenderness and sarcasm, are almost too much of a good thing. On second thought, you can never have too much quality songwriting, singing, and mixing.
The Life I Owe has stayed on repeat in my music collection. There's just something about music with a defined purpose, and a clean and great sound ... it stays with you.
Night of Your Life is a track that is ready for airplay. It has killer production, a great lead, and holds my interest throughout. It is a party jam that even those outside of the aca-community would fall in love with.
You cannot help but to be drawn into the infectious energy of United We Sing. That, along with the myriad of great guest artists, makes this one of the top albums of the year.
Beautiful You is spiritual, fresh, and has a continuous build. The singing is great with added fantastic harmonies. It has a modern feel without beeing what every other current pop song is … forgettable.
2013 was a great year for a cappella albums. What puts United We Sing by The YellowJackets above the rest for me is its message of acceptance. The production is top notch, as you’d expect. But the care and the heart put into every performance and arrangement, filled with passion and hope, makes this a really special album.
If I were stranded on a deserted island and could only pick one song from the albums I’ve reviewed to listen to over and over again, it would be Waka Waka by The YellowJackets. It catches the ear right away and makes you want to sing and dance along. It’s a dynamic arrangement that seamlessly includes real African influences beyond Shakira’s original concept.
When it comes to production value, Here We Go by MICappella is exemplary. The sophisticated arrangements, killer beatboxing and damn fine vocals makes this one of the most legit a cappella records I’ve ever heard. I absolutely cannot wait for the next release by this Singapore-based powerhouse!
I love it when groups experiment with their arrangements. When it clicks, it’s magic. That’s what happened with Moves Like Jagger by MICappella. Starting slow and sweet, easing into different club beats, and finally ending with a samba feel, and making it all sound like a natural progression makes this my honorable mention for 2013.
With production help from a cappella luminaries like Bill Hare, Dave Sperandio, Ed Boyer, and Deke Sharon, Street Corner Symphony presents a lighthearted and unique album of original songwriting with Southern Autumn Nostalgia. With this release, Street Corner Symphony proves that it is a group to watch out for in 2014. I wholeheartedly recommend this album to anyone.
The track list for The Madison Project panders to the more overplayed songs of the past several years (Gone Gone Gone, I Won't Give Up, Clarity, Don't You Worry Child, and As Long As You Love Me). But it also brings fresh takes to lesser-arranged songs (Heartbeat, Colder Weather, Industry, and Ever After), the last of which earned The Madison Project a much deserved spot on Voices Only 2013. A heart-wrenching solo performance by Dan Johnson coupled with innovative arranging work by Braden Pierson, this track serves as an emotional pillar around which the entire album gravitates. Condensing the nearly seven minutes of material that Marianas Trench presents in the original into a cohesive arrangement is an accomplishment on its own. My only wish is that the arrangement could have been the full length of the original song ...
As a sophomore release from a high school group, this album fits perfectly amongst some of my favorite co-ed collegiate albums! If you haven't checked it out already, I highly suggest purchasing Here To Stay.
Opening Statement is a clear-voiced and refreshing album that made me love jazz a cappella again. "Great music belongs together, regardless of genre" — especially when the selection is so carefully considered.
Grippingly passionate, this track is infused with emotion. It drives forward and compels you to go with. Sing along with me.