Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2020 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2020 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 and two Honorable Mentions.
Fundamentally Sound (University of Wisconsin — Madison) – Silhouette
This dramatic piece performed by Fundamentally Sound caught a lot of RARB ears last year, starting with reviewer Dan Fister who declared, “The track’s rich soundscape and emotional depth will awe a cappella novices and audiophiles alike.” Collectively, we have a lot of descriptions for this single, including “majestic”, “lush”, and “cinematic”, anchored by crystalline production work and excellent singing.
Medusa (University of Chicago) – Kill of the Night
"The purity of the swells are massive here" in this latest entry from the kick-ass ladies of Medusa. Kill of the Night is simply a cut above.
Fleet Street Singers (Stanford University) – All-Nighter
The men of Fleet Street have been cranking out hilarious original songs for more than 30 years, but All-Nighter just might be their best yet — and the "zany" music video puts it over the top.
Lengt etter lys is the holiday album that forced you to sit down and find a bit of peace in 2020's odder-than-usual holiday season. From the pull of the wild North to the stillness of new fallen snow, this album has something beautiful for all of your holiday moods. Perfect to sit, listen, and dream.
End of Time is the full package: great song, superlative solo from Isabel Grossman-Sartain, standout percussion anchored by Thomas Risoleo, another strong arrangement from Charles Winston, and an overall sound that grabs your attention and holds it without ever weighing it down.
Fifteen years ago I called Six13 "the most accessible, enjoyable and talented Jewish a cappella group I've ever heard". A generation later, Six13 still delivers the goods.
Most rewarding of all, the group offers its own original, We Won't Run, penned and arranged by the talented Kennedy Jean-Baptiste (also an album producer and arranger). Not only is her rock ballad satisfyingly dramatic, but her lyrics are inspirational: "I will be seen. I will be me. Silence isn't in my blood. I'll never hide. I won't run." This reviewer is all snaps. In 2020, this is exactly what the world needs more of.
What a message to give the world. As stated in my review, Love, MICappella is a love letter to all sorts of people: from best friends to new loves to recent births, thematically the album has all of the emotional heartstrings covered. The greatest recipients of this gift are the group's fans all around the world. Thank you, thank you.
Four tracks vied for this distinction, but on this day Calin Wong touched my soul.
Out of the darkness comes light. A lot of that joy rested on the shoulders of the men in Six13 and the music they brought to the world.
Hands down one of the best songs of 2020.
This isn't the first time OneVoice has earned an Album of the Year distinction, and somehow I bet it won't be the last. My summary for this memorable, highly satisfying release: "OneVoice specializes in excellence, dominating the high school scene year after year. Someone to You is a markedly different flavor in its treat shop; go ahead and indulge."
It's hard to pick a more fitting song for 2020, and it's really a bonus that it's gorgeously performed and arranged. There's a permanent sting when soloist Makayla Sawyer sings: "Oh, I miss you most at six feet apart..."
The members of Pust are perfectionists, whatever the genre, no matter the style. I expounded on this when writing about Christmas release Lengt etter lys: "This is gentle work, peaceful work, but meticulously considered work that was tweaked to perfection long before recording."
My honorable mention earns its nod from the work of soloist Kristen Smith. Her pacing creates a "chillingly good" performance, with a voice you'll never forget.
Ten years from now, when we go back to revisit Six Feet Apart, there's nothing beyond the title that will make us remember that this was recorded during a global pandemic. TAG has put together its usual high-quality mix of pop covers and originals, recorded separately and safely, and the listener can't tell the difference from the group's consistent standard of top-notch recordings.
The Loreleis excel at the cover-of-a-cover — they pick excellent songs and, album after album, find the perfect interpretation of that song to fit their voice and mood. On Solstice, they take on Sara Bareilles's version of Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and soloist Karli Krasnipol's melancholy sigh captures the ennui we all felt about 2020.
Speak On It is a thoroughly enjoyable listen; these singers capture truly cohesive and emotive covers, with beautiful phrasing and dynamics. It says so much about the quality of this album that I'm unable to pick a favorite track; each one becomes my new favorite as I listen through the album.
Beyond the Amalgamates' typical high-quality performances, Pray doesn't necessarily sound that special when the song begins. But it's the end of this track that makes it so special: the arrangement grows and swells, and the group sounds like a choir whose voices are echoing inside a cavernous church building. It's the perfect marriage of sound with the lyrics of the song, and that ability to make the song sound like what the group is singing about is what makes this performance so memorable.
It's not often that you can use the terms "bold" and "fearless" when describing music, but there may be no better words to adequately express Reign by All-Night Yahtzee. The group's progressive sound and dynamic arranging combine to deliver an album that's full of exhilarating music that feels right for the current music scene. These singers' efforts and their music deserve the highest of praise!
There are certain tracks that after you experience them, you simply need a moment to catch your breath. That's exactly the type of track Heavenly Father is. The Harvard Opportunes will leave your emotions completely obliterated by the song's end, reducing you to tears with the group's compelling and beautiful rendition of the song. What puts this track over so many others is its use of pacing and at times sparseness to let listeners take in musical moments. Pair this with the way every member executes their part in flawless fashion, and you have a heartbreaking performance that you just can't help but to enjoy, no matter how much it tears you up inside.
Simply put, The Doo-Wop Shop has mastered the ability to put its full personality and authentic self into its music. And Flying Colors is an absolute testament to this! Much like the group, the album is fun, zestful, animated, imaginative, and complex. Not only is each track a joy to listen to, but the music itself is arranged, performed, and produced at a high level. When it comes to aligning your music with who you are as an artist, The Doo-Wop Shop is one of the best to do it!
Cryin' is simply a phenomenal song, no matter what you compare it to, be it collegiate, pro a cappella, or simply music! The Doo-Wop Shop put every ounce of energy and vocal capabilities into this track, and you not only hear it, but you feel it. The range of the soloist is otherworldly, and the efforts put forth by the group are praiseworthy. If you are a hard rock fan, or just like music that just leaves it all out there, you will LOVE this track.
The most recent edition of OneVoice's discography, featuring expert work from the usual suspects of a cappella notoriety and a talented troupe of students, features some of the group's strongest innovation yet.
As a fan of Cody Fry (and, in recent years, OneVoice), I recognize that I am the exact demographic for this track. But as a frequent listener and reviewer of covers, this J.D. Frizzell arrangement is truly masterful work: taking an already-brilliant indie artist's song and adding a layer of musical complexity while adapting to an all-voices medium with one of the country's most polished high school a cappella groups providing the vocals is a surefire recipe for success.
Smoothness, tapestry, and flow: just a few of the words I can use to describe the marvel that is All-Night Yahtzee's first RARB submission in a dozen years.
If we're talking unforgettable tracks from the year, The Capital Hearings' Auld Lang Syne fits the bill: between traditional pronunciation, vocal bagpipes, crowd effects, and more, there are elements that make this rendition of a holiday classic something extra special and deserving of honorable mention.
If there ever was an album that captured 2020, it would be Six Feet Apart. But looking just beyond the lyrics, this album is everything a good album should have. The songs were selected with the group's strengths in mind. The arranging lets the soloists tell their stories, and they do so to perfection. Every member of this group has a story to tell from the year that got turned on its head virtually overnight, and those emotions they experienced are present in every second of this album.
Despite being on one of the first albums I reviewed this year, it was obvious to me at that time Through Your Eyes would be a candidate for Song of the Year. This song is a gorgeous love letter spoken from a parent to a child. It pulled at my heartstrings the first time I heard it and still continues to pull after listening dozens of times later.
Love is an incredibly overplayed theme in western popular music. However, MICappella was able to take such a simple theme and explore every facet. Love is all around us, whether romantic, familial, platonic, interpersonal, or simply just spread into the world. This album takes you on a journey to breathe new life into a classic theme and will make you fall in love with love songs all over again.
It shouldn't come as too much of a shock, but I am absolutely enamored with the titular track of the album that I rated as Album of the Year. It's clear throughout the song that every member of the group has a story that they want to tell, and soloist Makayla Sawyer acts perfectly as a focal point for all of those stories and emotions. This track captures the emotions that comes with being so close together yet still so far apart. Regardless of the year, it's an amazing piece to listen to.
When picking my standout albums of the year, my priorities tend to favor risk-taking and interesting musicality. Holidays with The Capital Hearings was easily one of the most refreshing a cappella albums I've listened to in a while, and on a holiday-themed project no less!
The stripped-down production elements can be discomforting at first, as we're so used to incredibly and meticulously micro-managed a cappella productions these days. Take the time to sink into the album, however, and you may find it oddly comforting and cozy. The raw production adds a layer of vulnerability to The Capital Hearings — they cannot hide behind production shortcuts — and that makes all the incredibly strong phrasing, arrangement choices, and captivating soloists stand out all the more so. Not all of the musical risks here pay off, but I'd rather see these risks taken than not. And the payoffs that do occur result in stunning moments, culminating into an Auld Lang Syne finale track that was exactly what I needed to say farewell to the troubling year that was 2020.
While risk-taking and pure performance are highlights I prioritize when picking standout albums, sublime consistency and self-contained beauty start to play a far bigger part in my song picks.
I can't really fault or say less than excellent about any component of Heavenly Father by The Harvard Opportunes. The arrangement is inventive and incredibly momentum-driven, every soloist is captivating, the production is impeccable, and there isn't a single distracting blip or peculiar chord progression to cause an eyebrow-raise on repeat listens. It is as engaging a listen the tenth time as it was my first, and that is an incredible feat for a song to accomplish.
Heavenly Father showcases The Harvard Opportunes at their best, showcasing both their evolution over the years as well as an even stronger potential future.
Second priority for picking my favorite albums is energy and emotion. And as I stated in my review of Flying Colors, "You'd be hard-pressed to find many college a cappella groups having as much audible fun on their albums as The Doo-Wop Shop." Whether opening with a bang with Grace Kelly, swapping in a charming bass solo for Oops! ...I Did It Again, or going full-blown Aerosmith cover on Cryin', The Doo-Wop Shop's members work their hardest to ensure that you're having a blast listening to their project. While this energy may get the best of the group at times, tracks like The Scientist create enough of a space to ensure the listener at least has a moment to breathe as well. If I had to recommend one album that I reviewed this year based on that pure fun-factor, Flying Colors is it.
Brother certainly nails my soft spot for Jewish A Cappella with ease. On my first listen when reviewing Evolution, this song didn't particularly captivate me. But on repeat listens it kept growing on me until it was my favorite on the album, and one of my favorite tracks of the year. It's safe enough in musical design to be consistent, while risk-taking in its blend of an originally Christian-intended song with appropriate Jewish sensibilities to stand out. The addition of Hebrew lines up perfectly in meaning with the rest of the song, and it is especially moving for those who dig to learn more. And on an album where the energy of soloists and background voices don't always line up perfectly, the two components are perfectly in sync here. It's not just a fantastic Jewish a cappella song; it's a fantastic a cappella song, period.
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