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Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2021 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2021 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.
Faux Paz (University of Maryland) – How Do You Sleep?
We had many singles this year that could be described as compelling, but this one from Faux Paz stands out for its gorgeous slow-burn textures and jaw-dropping leads. As Kimberly Raschka Sailor said in her review: "The kids have gone and done it."
Tuuletar's latest is the soundtrack to a movie I haven't seen, that may not exist and that probably isn't long enough. The songs are distinct and they flow together. They are timeless and they are over in a flash. There are four voices that feel like the world.
I just loved this track. Great song, great groove, great singing.
bei Zeiten has some of the best pure singing I've heard on a record in a while. The four singers of baff! have brought their A-game to this new recording of mostly self-composed songs. It's also refreshing to hear a quartet that sounds like a quartet – great voices making lovely music together.
Limbo is delightful: well-picked, well-arranged, and well-performed, with a wonderful range of textures.
Baff!'s bei Zeiten ("At Times") is the crowning achievement of a jazz/pop powerhouse. This group of street-seasoned but still youthful singers is as original as it gets. A stunning eleven of bei Zeiten's twelve tracks are penned by group members, with the group's one cover, Wake me up, showing such a bold reimagining that the original will be your second favorite version after but a single listen. Jazz and pop fans, especially those who delight in German, have a new crush in baff!. The rich chordal and textural expression are colors from the jazz world that form an ever-present back drop of emotionally moving musicality, while the intensity, modern stylings, and production add the bolder colors of the pop world that ground the sound in honesty and relevancy. Even if you don't speak German, bei Zeiten is well worth your time. This is an album that makes fans out of the curious and crosses the cultural divide of language.
What makes a Song of the Year? More than anything else, the track stays with you. Maybe its catchiness; maybe the emotions it evokes; maybe something raw from which you cannot turn away, despite all else that shines brightly. Wake me up has all of these, but it's the first that elevates it above the many strong contenders in 2021. Baff!'s reinvention echoes long after bei Zeiten ends. It's sweetly naive and tragically sad, and my heart breaks more than a little every time I hear it. That this well-known pop song offers such a touchstone to the human condition is only revealed through the transformative power of the unexpectedly artful arranging and compelling, understated vocal delivery.
Better Days, y'all! I'm still supremely enamored of this album and this group. Thank you all for being your authentic selves and sharing that unabashedly with the world. The music is fun, yet touching. I can't get enough, and hopefully the many listeners to come won't either.
As I said before, there's something about Maggie Kozak as a performer that just sits so perfectly with me. The track is jubilant and mystifying. I will add that it's hard to separate it from its partner song The Village, as I think of the two tracks as one package of greatness. But since that's not an option, Green Light's more energetic punch edges it just a bit over its sister.
What's the opposite of Bare Maximum? Clothed Minimum (no, that sounds like the same thing). Um, I don't know, but in any case this album still sounds like heaven all these months later. I'm grateful.
Apparently, I was gaying it up in 2021 more than I thought possible. I've M/M romance novel-ed the Sound's rendition of Fast Car, and it is sublime and moving and mesmerizing. There are other tracks that are just as emotionally touching (Under the Bridge from this album, and Slow Dancing in the Dark from Bare Maximum), but this story of what should have been is just too heart-damaging not to give it the light it deserves.
Tuuletar's work is a great reminder that there's more to contemporary a cappella than just covers of current pop songs, and the group's EP Vetten vuoro / Turn of the Tide is stunning. These three songs take the listener on quite a journey; this lyric-less recording evokes either a single event (like a frolic in the woods), or a longer emotional journey from sorrow to a jubilant rebirth.
It would be surprising if a 'Bubs album didn't feature a whole bunch of songs that could be a Track of the Year. On this year's release, Sanctify takes the top marks with an arrangement that moves deftly from verse to chorus to verse and a recording that I just can't stop listening to.
Forever falls into the upper echelon of elite vocal music. The ideas are fresh, groundbreaking and full of youth, amassing enormous appeal. The tracks produced by All-Night Yahtzee do more than just inspire, they act as the fuel for starting a vocal movement of emotive and tantalizing music that is poised to be the standard for the next generation of a cappella music.
There's no denying the chills that a song such as All For Us causes. There's a raw and powerful energy expressed almost effortlessly through the vocals of All-Night Yahtzee and its something that doesn't let up for all 2:47 of the track. You can't help but be floored by the unbelievable talent that went into making such a track as you listen.
There's no denying the versatility of the offerings featured on Words Unsaid. The album is a glorious mixture of elegance, passion, and an unyielding spirit presented in the form of polished vocals. The Vassar Devils continue their standard of vocal excellence with this album, and there's a new emotion, musical concept, or vocal feat to discover as you listen, making the entire experience that more thrilling.
There's an ethereal and hypnotic nature to the vibes of Phillip's Bicycle that are so far and away beyond what you'd expect any vocal group to attempt. And the complexity continues to build as the track progresses, showing that the unexpected can often produce the best results. The Academical Village People were on their A-game for this track and our musical horizons have just been widened for the better!
All-Night Yahtzee fully displays its mettle as a recording powerhouse with this album, which is absolutely rife with dynamic contour. Coming in at 23 minutes, Forever is anything but forever, but in that short time you will not be disappointed.
If you know my color palette for listening, you may be particularly surprised by this choice. But the utterly haunting strains written by Shawn Kirchner are beautifully delivered by Fraser. Let these few minutes be a wholly peaceful time to start off your year!
One of the most unique albums I've reviewed so far, Harriet Fraser explores the word "peace" through solo a cappella vocals with an excellent sense of nuance. The way serenity is captured in the studio is remarkable.
To re-imagine Stevie in a way that is new, innovative, and welcome is something many fail to do (for those who even attempt). Rob Dietz's arrangement, as masterfully interpreted by Dr. J.D. Frizzell and OneVoice, is all that and more: it's bouncy and fun!
I said it in my review and I will say it again: "Some things in life just aren't fair. The fact that Fundamentally Sound can pivot on a dime to switch from side-splitting comedy to strong emotional connection is one of them." Many months removed from reviewing this album, I'm still enamored with what this album is. Whether your eyes are filled with tears from laughter or strong emotion, Imbroglio will make you feel something you can't ignore.
Out of all the tracks I've reviewed this year, this one still rings in my head from time to time. In a lineup filled with songs about self-doubt and conflict, this anthem of self-love is everything a good piece should be. From Oliva Keane's jaw dropping solo to Matt Goldstein's immaculately crafted arrangement, this is the Vassar Devils playing to every single one of their strengths and doing it flawlessly.
Make no mistake, this album is way too good to be just an honorable mention. Words Unsaid is the next chapter in what has been one of my favorite groups to watch grow and evolve over the past five years. This album is an explosion of sound while remaining dense and emotional. It's a must-have for any contemporary a cappella collection, and I anxiously await the Vassar Devils's next release.
I've noticed that when I find a moment I truly love in music, I don't think about it; it's an immediate and and involuntary motion. The climax of this piece is such a moment for me. Rob Dietz did the Herculean to summarize an album in the bridge of one song. Josh Tarver sings like there is no tomorrow, and OneVoice explodes through the speakers with sheer musical perfection. When that climax hits, I still find myself wanting to scream out and celebrate. It's that good.
The Hyannis Sound hit different. You're not going to find many gimmicks or incredibly experimental styles or genres of a cappella on Detour. Instead, you'll find perpetually fun and infectious energy, perfect soloist placement, tight and varied arrangements, and hardly a dud moment the entire duration. For fans of video games out there, it's similar to playing a Super Mario game: you know what to expect, and yet the sheer polish and execution still blow your mind every time.
Abide with Me, as performed by Harriet Fraser, demonstrates vulnerability and honesty in a way matched by almost no other a cappella track I've listened to this year. As with the rest of the album, it is performed entirely by Fraser and produced and arranged immaculately by a small team (consisting of Fraser, Dana Nielsen, and Shawn Kirchner). Beyond the cathedral-like setting and the beautiful vocals, what really elevates this track is the conviction to the lyric. There is a contour to the arrangement by Kirchner in every harmony, every breath, every cadence. This, combined with Fraser's execution of it, sticks with me long after every listen and relisten.
A dazzling display of the group's range and musicality. Creativity shines through on both the comedic and melancholic tracks. I can listen to this album repeatedly and still find a new, awe-inspiring sound or choice.
This subtle but tight track immediately became my new favorite version of this song. It has everything: eclectic percussion, a smooth solo, a new bossa nova groove, and fantastic singing all around.
A very good album with some incredible, genre-bending covers of holiday classics.
As stated in my review, in this parody of a parody, Fundamentally Sound trains its caricature at the clichés and stylistic idiosyncrasies of ICCA and contemporary collegiate a cappella more broadly. This comedic love letter to our art form is not only well structured but also incredibly well sung.
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