Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2014 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2014 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 singles reviewers and editorial staff jointly chose one Single of the Year.
We reviewed 28 singles last year, but one release packed more punch than the rest for this inaugural selection. For its artful delivery atop an unforgettable arrangement, the RARB editorial staff jointly chose Voices in Your Head's Burn for the 2014 Single of the Year. Our editor-in-chief remarked: "My heart can't handle the 'When the lights...' section that starts at 1:03. I'm just destroyed with the beauty there." And TeKay's review concluded, "Burn will sear into your brain for years to come."
Excellent singing plus a truly excellent range of songs and arrangements, drawing on old traditions and new composers.
I was humming it for days and I don't even know what it's about.
Shiny! Every track feels sparkly — bounce around to a cappella radio pop.
You probably haven't heard anything like this. You should.
The musicality of amarcord's singers is so superb, so detail-oriented, and so graceful that they could sing the phone book and listeners would be thrilled. The fact that they've turned their skills to such well-loved music is a pure delight. Their vowel matching and diction are ideally aligned, and their balance is like a beautiful tapestry in which the parts with exciting colors move briefly to the front and then fade back in, to be woven back in to the image as a whole. The artful play of dynamics practically leaps from the speakers. "Excellent" is amarcord's rating, but the category is simply too coarse for such refined singing. This ensemble is in a class above.
There's an earnest, straightforward quality that makes Face's original How Was the Show Last Night especially endearing. It doesn't aim for clever. The chord progression isn't unusual. It's just got the kind of pure honesty and melodic ease of a truly timeless classic, and that may be the rarest gem of all.
The soloists leave it all on the floor: vulnerable and wildly dramatic interpretations combine with technical fireworks and soaring high notes. And unlike so many other recent releases, the back-ups bring dynamic phrasing and unusual textures to lift each song miles above the ordinary. Production is lovingly crafted, and liner notes, from credits to photos, are exemplary. The original songwriting stands as strong as any cover on the album. Highly recommended, The Singles: In My Mind is a bar-setting, award-winning, and deeply varied collection that any aca-fan will enjoy.
The vision required to see Life of the Mind to completion is nothing short of herculean. Subject matter, delivery, arrangement — all mind-bending. And the Charlie Chaplin feature is truly inspiring. It's one thing to say that we must learn the lessons of history lest we be doomed to repeat them. It's quite another to bring that phrase to life.
Well, this is definitely a first. A Christmas album as TeKay's pick of the year? Shocked the sh*t out of me too, though I guess it shouldn't be a surprise since the group in question is Basix. Granted, my favorite songs aren't recognizable as holiday music to the English ear, but the titular track is just catchy enough that I couldn't help but love the whole album. Has Scrooge officially died?
Truth, this is. "...what will possibly be the best female track of 2014, This Is What It Feels Like, brings it — the funk, the sass, the rhythm, the grit, the sophistication, the magic that gets into your soul and plays forever." One of the first tracks selected to be on sing 11: One Louder in all of its evocative splendor.
I'm copying from myself because I must have been thinking about Picks when I wrote: "What it is, though, is a collection of near-signature songs by a group that understands how to build upon a quarter of a century of excellence that is firmly grounded in the present. Ballsy, brilliant, and beautiful come to mind. Several of the tracks likeBreath of Life, Creep, and This Is What It Feels Like should stand the test of time. The Sils are continuing the tradition of mesmerizing excellence that will propel them into the next 25 years.
Everytime I want to be swept away in my emotional cocoon of safety and introspection, this is the song that I'm listening to. Disregarding the actual lyrics, I create my own narrative that suits my mood and helps me move past whatever particular ennui that I'm feeling. Masterful writing and performing.
My two choices for the Best of 2014 came down to a world-class professional vocal ensemble and The A Cappella Group from Cypress Lake High School. Choosing TAG's release not only speaks to the group's continued growth and vocal excellence, but also its ambition. As I wrote in my review for Stay Gold, "There's so much emotional weight in this album it's like a vocal tattoo for the heart." Congratulations to the whole Cypress Lake community!
A wonderful, uplifing original from Gabrielle Macafee. Can't wait to listen to her post-high school career unfold.
"If some a cappella groups exist to entertain, Pust exists to fascinate." If you're not familiar with Pust's catalog, you'd best change that this year before this group totally runs away with the show. Fryktløs is a creative delight.
A cappella art, in one exceptional track.
This album of folk songs by amarcord features fantastic singing and many songs from around the world that will be new to most listeners.
Erlkönig is so impressive that I spent more than half my review of Weniger sind mehr talking about this one track. See my review for more details about why I love it so much, but as I state there, "It's genius. Genius... This song alone is worth the 'price of admission' for this release."
Odd Man In kicks off with a bang — or, rather, a grunt — and never lets up. The Amalgamates are fully engaged in every song here; listeners can hear the intensity and focus from every single member of the group on every song. But what makes the album so compelling is the delivery: while we have certainly heard several of these songs performed a cappella before, the Amalgamates deliver them in a heartfelt way that makes these performances uniquely their own. Odd Man In is what it sounds like when a routinely strong group takes its game up a notch.
Alright crackles with energy, from Dorian Pistilli's saucy solo down through the rest of the Bubs, who layer an arrangement that maintains a sultry groove where many lesser singers would just repeat, repeat, repeat. The Bubs' bassline rumbles and moans, unifying the group's delivery and making Alright one of the sexiest a cappella tracks of the year.
The Sil'hooettes have shown their consistency on 1989: yet again, these ladies have delivered an album chock-full of beautifully-performed arrangements with stunning leads. There are several truly standout songs and soloists here, but more importantly, 1989 remains an infinitely-listenable and cohesive album.
TAG was wise to name its album after this killer track written and soloed by group member Gabrielle Macafee; beyond the soaring lead, this group sounds fully invested in the dynamics and story arc of this song. Original compositions on an a cappella album can be risky, but Stay Gold feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. Macafee has made a name for herself as a songwriter and vocalist here, but with a delivery this compelling, the rest of TAG will be on everyone's radars as well.
This three-track EP listens like one magnificent medley. The Statesmen take a few familiar melodies and create an epic narrative filled with imaginative arranging, powerful singing, and vibrant production. It's always great to hear a group breaking the mold, and in 2014 nobody did it as confidently and competently as the Penn State Statesmen.
State of the Art is awesome on so many levels. Not Too Sharp arranged just the right amount of psychadelic kookiness and went to town in the studio to create a truly state of the art recording that makes you question the reality of performance, perception, technology, and taste in contemporary music.
If you're looking for an album to remember 2014 by, this is it. The all-male Stereotypes cover four of the most stereotypical pop songs of the year, but do such a good job that you can't help but get excited hearing them again. Huge percussion, strong soloists, and upbeat tempos make Tiebreaker a high-energy recording that will have you singing along in no time.
This song is unabashedly joyful. Twisted Measure has consistently outstanding singers, infectious energy, and sweet production. It may not be the most innovative arranging you hear from 2014, but darn if I Choose You isn't the song you choose to blast in the shower, in the car, and everywhere else you go to let it all hang out.
Terrifically crafted, with mostly original tunes, sung to near perfection in a variety of pop-flecked styles and polished with shiny, effective production. That's the simplest way to describe the best album I reviewed this year, another top-notch effort from German quartet Maybebop. These guys are still at the top of their game, and for that the a cappella community should be immensely greatful.
It's not flawless, but the latest from mixed Tufts group The Amalgamates sure is a whole lot of fun. The group plays with textures and emotions, exudes energy, and generally clicks on all cylinders, which is why it was the best scholastic album I reviewed in 2014.
My copy of this album has nearly worn out due to so much play time in the car. Definitely worth the repeat listening. Without a doubt my Top Pick for 2014!
Drumming Song is pounding and powerful. It sucks me in every time.
This gets my Honorable Mention because I didn't expect to like this album, but it completely won me over. Fun all the way through.
This is a very dynamic arrangement. It ebbs and flows exactly the way it needs to. And it's exquisitely performed.
After reviewing this high school group's last album, I concluded that Here To Stay fit perfectly amongst many of my favorite collegiate a cappella albums; the same can be said of Drive All Night. If you haven't checked it out already, I highly suggest purchasing it!
Radioactive expertly sets the mood for The GP with Matt Shirer's intricate arrangement. Complex and innovative arranging work permeates The GP, expertly capturing the lyrics in stunning, electrifying ways.
Black Cloud Silver Lining features brilliant, in-your-face arrangements and raw, powerful soloists. With covers of Muse, Justin Timberlake, Ed Sheeran, Linkin Park and more, the Pennharmonics present this album with boundless energy. The production work by Colin Egan and Marianne Cheng (Five Spice Records) is forward and bright, lending itself to some tasteful and natural studio enhancements. Superior musicality, creative arrangements, and flawless deliveries make Black Cloud Silver Lining a powerful release.
Thinkin' Bout You showcases the performance and arranging abilities of Brendan Asante. Giving Frank Ocean a run for his money against the backdrop of rich background harmonies is a welcome and necessary break from the mid-tempo tracks that surround this one.
Ovaries. To. The. Wall.
Pure, clear-toned a cappella recorded in Venezuela during periods of political unrest. A heartwarming example of how our community has grown.
With a concise set jam-packed with emotion and innovation that translates beautifully from the collegiate competition stage, the Statesmen set a high bar with my first album to review at RARB. Perhaps even more impressive is that in just a few short years of existing, they received Honorable Mention last year for The Album and earned my clear-cut Pick of the Year. Check out The EP and look out for these gentlemen in the future.
I didn't rate this as high as the other tracks on The EP at the time of my review, but with the clever Beach Boys opener followed by a strong rendition of an oft-covered Mumford tune that concludes with a high-powered recap of the entire set, this sticks with me as one of the most memorable I heard this year.
High Five provides a collection of fun character pieces for even non-native speakers to enjoy in Momentaufnahmen. The singers present a diverse selection of original songs with a unique sense of wit combined with an attractive tunefulness. The album is very much worth a listen as one of the best albums from this year you may not have heard of States-side.
It may not be the most flashy, but I've been drawn to this original tune from High Five since I first heard it. The textures created — from simple background syllables and instrument imitation, coupled with extremely effective text setting from the sweet solo — make this song one to seek out.
Stay Gold is not a "great high school a cappella album"; it's a great a cappella album that happens to feature high school singers. It holds its own against the top albums produced this year, and has a number of songs (including one original) that I keep coming back to again and again.
This is now my go-to version of this song. The lead is sultry and emotional and fits perfectly against the restrained background. It's a beautifully-paced arrangement that doesn't settle for an easy gimmick.
There's a lot of raw power, energy, and intensity on Black Cloud Silver Lining. While many individual tracks stand out, it's also obvious that deliberate attention was paid to having a coherent feel tying the album together.
I Wish is just plain fun. Fun arranging, fun singing, fun energy. I can't listen to it without bouncing along. It's a great example of what a cappella can bring to a song in such simple ways.