Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2018 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2018 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 shadows of amarcord's tenebrae hold a wealth of dissonances. Selections from the 14th century to the 21st, including pieces written expressly for this ensemble, come together in a wonder of classical singing. This is amarcord at its best.
This Kyrie by Guillaume de Machaut is beautiful, eerie, and wonderfully sung. As Robert Pohlers of amarcord says: "Too much of the music is inexpressible. You have to listen to it."
This recording is original, well-sung and full of quirky variety. I really like it.
This zwo3wir original has punch and staying power, and it kicks off the whole album with a satisfying bang.
As my review stated: "An album can really kick you in the gut in unexpected ways. And that's exactly what's happened with the Virginia Sil'hooettes latest recording, From the Depths. It's at once old-school, yet fresh, having an often organic quality that emphasizes the emotional aspects of each song, allowing them to explode from somewhere deep inside." Highs and lows, seductive and secluded, every emotion bubbles up to the surface.
Though there were many contenders (over 70 minutes worth, actually), I really don't know how any other track could have been at the top of this list.
This was a tough one as I had at least four albums that ticked all the major checkmarks for epitomizing life as TeKay. There is something about the music these Log boys made that chiseled away every chip of old man snark I had in me this year. From How Deep Is Your Love to Redbone to my unofficial tie for track of the year honorable mention, 715 — CRΣΣKS, the songs sang and soared in unexpected ways.
Okay, just a little more eloquently in case the group wants to do a pull quote: "Girlfriend is fire. The watery smoothness is the siren song of seduction. But it's really the boom-boom bass that sealed the deal on this most majestic of tracks. Oh lort."
OneVoice is the most impactful non-pro group recording today.
Another enchanting original by Gabrielle Macafee, You Don't Love Me Anymore fits into that sacred space that's simultaneously fragile and strong.
11:11 is beautiful, compelling, refreshing, and easy to love.
There's nothing light about this typically sad song coming from the Whispers; here it's bold and crisp and message-driven.
Tenebrae contains sixteen songs of medieval and early Renaissance music, with five modern pieces thrown in for seasoning. This album continues what we have come to expect from amarcord, with the same lovely blend, spot-on intonation with no hint of auto-tuning, and soaring high tenor. Highly recommended.
O Crux splendidior takes a Gregorian chant melody from the Liber Usualis and adds polyphony and pedal tones in a genius arrangement. When combined with their immaculate singing, this is a mesmerizing experience not soon to be forgotten.
It may seem predictable to list the Beelzebubs as the best a cappella album I reviewed this year, but the group hasn't earned that spot in my ranking since 2013, and Full Rally is a shining return to form for this group. These singers have managed to make the challenging seem effortless yet again, tackling classic tunes and obscure ones, giving a definitive version to an old arrangement (Space Oddity / Major Tom (Coming Home)), and — most importantly — knowing how to write an arrangement that pulls out the essence of a song. The group takes two different approaches with two heavily electronic songs here, embracing the glitchy jubilance at the end of Should Have Known Better but smoothing out the glitch to enhance the beauty of Heavenly Father. The group's decision to give two different approaches to similar source sound is at the core of what makes Full Rally so enjoyable: the Bubs' ability to pull out the essence and emotion of a song and channel it fully for listeners.
Billie Jean is the standout track on the excellent Loreleis' album Where the Secret Lies. It's also the song that shows the Loreleis doing what they do best: their decision to tackle the Civil Wars' sultry, smoky interpretation of this song — rather than the Michael Jackson dance-pop original — shows the group embracing its ability to take on an emotive, measured pace, and the result is outstanding.
With 11:11, The A Cappella Group has taken a significant step forward from its previous work (which was already really great!). The group has smoothed out some of the over-brightness, sounding more mature than ever with a repertoire that shows even more depth than in the past. The icing on the cake here are the three(!) original numbers, which flow so seamlessly amongst the covers that most listeners won't be able to differentiate the source material. This album is even more impressive when you consider that it was created predominantly by freshmen and sophomores, which means (I hope!) that the best is still yet to come for TAG.
Should Have Known Better is not a song that I would have expected to be a successful a cappella song, and I'm glad that the Bubs proved me wrong. Arranger Michael Grant does a stellar job with the pacing and build of this song, keeping the beginning cold and sparse and gradually building the arrangement as the narrator's tone changes. The sound of the song matches the emotion and story in the lyrics, down to the bright, vocalized electronic keyboard line that is flawlessly performed. The group builds its crescendo at exactly the right pace, never coming on too strong and yet taking the listener through the narrator's beautiful journey and awakening. It's a song I can't ever listen to just once.
Stiletta, the group, exudes vocal prowess, creativity, and unwavering ambition. Stiletta, the EP, packs all that goodness into five bring-the-house-down arrangements that leave you wondering what just happened and where can you hear more.</p,
Those beats. That rap. Those dynamics. That blend. Those leads. Stiletta does it all, and it all comes together with extra sizzle in Bang Bang.
Retrograde achieves that perfect balance between atmospheric and melodic. The arrangement is bold, the soloist is on point, and the production bolsters the powerful moments without steamrolling the natural tones of the human voice.
In terms of delivering conviction and emotion, it's absolutely impossible not to mention Psalm 100. The creative arranging and compelling sound the group displays on Remain is unlike anything else put out recently, and the group's effort and hard work put forth into creating this project is commendable. Great music lingers and resonates within your very being, and that is exactly what you can expect after listening to this album. Song selection here is key as Psalm 100 has meticulously featured twelve incredible tracks giving every listener at least one song that will no doubt move you. Well done!
The way The Opportunes balance patience, warmth, and so many stylistic choices on Grows Old was truly unexpected. Each movement feels delightful and surprising as the song builds till the very end. Even more amazing is how the group uses their collective sound without featuring one singular lead, as well as body percussion to create BIG moments. This is advanced level a cappella and the Opportunes hit a home run!
Accessible to a casual listener, with the bonuses of top notch skill in performance and arrangement. The love this group has for its art makes Unpeeled a true masterpiece.
Pure fun, with no frills, You're Welcome gets right to the point and throws in a few Easter eggs that keep you enjoying this one endlessly.
An excellent set of songs, even by OneVoice's exalted standards, Giants presents some of the year's more innovative arrangements with stellar execution. The bar continues to rise for one of the world's best recorded a cappella groups, and this reviewer is thankful for its annual album output.
"Mumford & Sons covered a cappella? You don't say," said no one about this cover. The performance by the trio of Sarah Mikkola, Avery Veteto, and Hayden Gray is one not to be missed.
An absolute delight to bookend my reviewing year, the collaboration between Danish groups Vocal Group SONO, Vokalkompagniet, Vox 11, Nauta, Vocal Line, EVE, and Maestra is a compilation of holiday pieces absolutely bursting with musicality, featuring everything from pieces in the classical choral style to contemporary a cappella. If not now, it's a must-hear for whenever you deem it seasonally appropriate to listen to Christmas music.
In capturing the essence of hope and uplifting vibes, I en Stjerneregn af Sne by Vox 11 presents the sort of intangibles that one listens to music for.
The group identity in this album is just spectacular. Every member has their own element they bring to the group, and it leads to an explosion of raw power that is virtually unparalleled. It might be a quick listen, but you won't regret a second of it.
I didn't think twice about naming this song "track of the year". I was enamored with this song when I first wrote about it, and I'm still amazed by it now. Whitman Constantineau absolutely leaves his soul bare for us to see when he sings the lead. The emotion is absolutely dripping in every second of this track. Many of the chords are just so dense and passionate that I can't help but pay attention to every second. It is by far my favorite track of 2018, but I have a feeling I'll be listening to it again many times in the coming years, too.
The Sils do something with this album that is almost a surprisingly bold statement in contemporary a cappella: it's surprisingly simple. This album doesn't have a large number of frills, insanely complicated arrangements, or overwhelming digital effects. It takes the best element of the group — the deep talent pool of soloists — and sets them up to succeed in every way on every song. Check out the well-done simplicity and enjoy.
This track is fierce. Stiletta delivers a fusion of power and technique as an anthem to its excellence. It's a stunning display that is a standard of greatness that I hope to hear again from these ladies in the future.
The musicality of the G-Men on this album is way above average. Leaning towards the avant-garde realm is a brave move for a collegiate a cappella group and we need more of this dare-to-be-different creativity moving forward.
All-original a cappella albums are a rarity in the world of contemporary a cappella music. I had fun listening to Unduzo's creative works.
It's no coincidence that, for the second year in a row, I'm picking the final song off a Semi-Toned EP. Bat out of Hell, once again, represents everything phenomenal about Semi-Toned at the group's peak: contagious energy, a fantastic and fully committed soloist in Sam Harper, and the right amount of patience and build to give the listener room to breathe. It's an absolutely insane venture to cover an all-out Meat Loaf song and give it justice. But Semi-Toned does just that and more. Bat out of Hell is pure hype condensed into song form, and it achieved this by understanding that hype comes equally from a buildup and the payoff.
These ladies brought the technical skill, the musicality, the innovation, and tears to my eyes — what an album!
While I'm obsessed with several songs on this album, there is just something about this bridge and build to the end that gets me every time!
Incredibly clever mashups with added Disney nostalgia — what more can I say?
So many of these mashups are so clever, but the brilliant crossover between these two characters coupled with the thrilling musicality of the background vocals puts this one over the top for me!