This was the decade when a cappella grew up. We watched NBC's The Sing-Off and three Pitch Perfect films — and amazingly, so did everyone else. We heard groups like Pentatonix hit international airwaves thanks to iheartradio.com, and we dealt with our dear older relatives saying, "If you like a cappella, you should hear this group called Pentatonix — they sing Hallelujah!". We became social media fans of hugely popular solo artists and shared their videos with everyone on our feeds. And to our great delight, a cappella artists shifted from primarily performing covers to showcasing incredible original songwriting.
We bore witness to female-identifying groups catching up to and surpassing their male-identifying and mixed counterparts. These groups were conspicuously absent from our last Picks of the Decade; this time around, four made the list. We also saw a very sharp rise in high school recordings of increasing quality, recognized here with the inclusion of two groups. With high school performers now competing mic to mic with professionals, and students being mentored by the best artists in the business, we expect this trend to continue as these students grow up to become seasoned professionals themselves.
Starting in 2013, RARB opened our submissions to include eligible singles, eight of which are honored here. This popular (and vastly more affordable) group-at-a-glance format pairs nicely with both social media and the resurgence of music videos. We are also receiving far more EPs than full-length albums; this shift is reflected in our Picks. And these submissions have been almost exclusively digital.
Eligibility for Picks of the Decade was limited to works reviewed by RARB. We know the very creation of such a list means having to exclude artists worthy of praise. However, we worked hard as a team (with more than 150 group emails exchanged, many playlists created, four rounds of voting, and several pie charts for analysis) to create our Picks below. This is not meant to be a "Best Of" list; these are the works we felt were the most significant, the most influential, the most lasting, and the most worthy of your time and attention. They are also the most representative of how this diverse art form has evolved and matured over the last ten years.
Finally, in addition to our album and singles Picks, we also created two special categories to honor particularly compelling achievements: Group of the Decade, and the Artistic Vision Award.
Which professional group has submitted the greatest number of albums to RARB for review over the past decade? Which group has submitted the greatest number of original tracks to RARB over the past decade? Which group had the greatest number of albums selected for RARB Picks of the Year over the past decade? The answer to all three questions is Maybebop.
This prolific German group sent us seven albums for review from 2010-2019, and each was chosen by one or more RARB reviewers for an Album of the Year pick. We decided this remarkable feat deserved special note. The group's unique arrangements resulted in each album being an eclectic mix of musical styles and topics, including pop tunes bumped up against dance music, polkas, raps, emotional ballads, barbershop, African music, even classical pieces redone in a modern, syncopated style. And these examples are all taken from just one of the group's albums! Multiply ten to fifteen different song styles per album by the seven albums submitted this decade, and you're close to understanding what Maybebop is about. Now, mix in silly, clever, poignant, and often politically cutting lyrics (mostly in German), and you've really got it. Consider these quotes from our reviewers over the years:
If you are reading these Picks of the Decade and haven't experienced Maybebop yet, you should! For those who are not German speakers, the group's nearly all-English album German Verboten is an appropriate place to begin; but given that the lyrics (and sometimes full arrangements) are often posted to the group's website, even the German songs are pretty accessible via tools such as Google Translate to help you appreciate the clever words that accompany this outstanding music.
Beginning in late 2008, opera composer Michael Ching and a cappella group DeltaCappella collaborated for two and a half years to create a new theatrical work, one that hadn't been attempted on such a grand scale since the 1994 Off-Broadway show Avenue X. We didn't see further comparisons in the United States until the successful mounting of the Broadway musical In Transit in 2017. On January 23, 2011, A Midsummer Night's Dream — opera a cappella was born on the stage at Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, TN — a city far better known for birthing the blues, R&B, and rock-and-roll than opera. And yet, Memphis hosted the world premiere production of this outrageous undertaking as well as two live recordings broadcast on local NPR station WKNO. But that was not to be the end of the Shakespearean songfest for DeltaCappella; the women's group founded for the show, RIVA; nor the cast and conductor.
Three years later, the release of the studio recording permanently solidified the artistic achievement of almost 40 musicians, deft conducting by Maestro Curtis Tucker and hundreds of studio hours by producer Tony Huerta of Sonic Audio who recorded, mixed and mastered the two hours of music. The double album cements the production in a cappella history. According to the project's website, the recording incorporates the passion and finesse of classical opera, the vernacular phrasing of musical theater, and the organic voicing of contemporary a cappella to conjoin and produce a unique and powerful fusion of traditions. The album is a pastiche of familiar classical works as well as inventive original melodies by composer Ching with creative drum compositions by Paul Koziel. Some of the sheer magic of the recording is returning to it again and again, not only to uncover the quotes and Easter eggs, but also to find new layers of meaning in the evocative soundscape and emotional storytelling.
A cappella groups around the world have created theatrically based concerts — FORK, Toxic Audio, Rock4 and The Voca People come to mind — with an inclination towards thematic storytelling. But it is still rare to have a show that, as its foundation, is a play which is then told completely through a cappella music. Midsummer employs the use of a separate a cappella group as its orchestra, or "voicestra" — a concept created by Bobby McFerrin in 1986. In doing so, Michael Ching's A Midsummer Night's Dream — opera a cappella remains innovative, inspirational, and visionary.
[Editor's Note: RARB Marketing Director TeKay is a current member of DeltaCappella, and RARB reviewer Kyle Yampiro is a former member but does not appear on this recording.]
Bossa nova is a largely untapped resource in the rich vein of contemporary a cappella, and this album from Brazil's BR6 is a gorgeous place to start. Women's voices you can get lost in, men's voices that blend seamlessly, and polyrhythms to soothe your cares away. Like all the best recordings, it gets better with every listen, as new details find their way to the surface of your listening attention.
As an all-original release by high school students, Life's So Lyrical seemed destined to leave a big dot on a cappella's historical timeline even before we even heard the sometimes peppy, other times moody, but always memorable melodies. The group cast a wide net for collaboration, another hallmark of the past decade for our genre, with big names like Robert Dietz, Christopher Diaz, Ben Bram, Deke Sharon, and Nick Girard. Somehow, even with ten composers, eight arrangers, and nine studios involved with this work, the album sounds like it's from one singular, creative mind: that of director Ben Spalding.
The Sing-Off breakout star Peter Hollens adds so much to our world with his "heroic, rich tenor". With Hollens on lead, the Swingles singing backup, and arranger Tom Anderson at the top of his game, Poor Wayfaring Stranger was destined to be a hit from its very inception. And that final, ethereal high note still gives us chills.
This work was the lead single off a captivating sensory experience called Medusa Complex by the women from the University of Chicago. Nuanced and complex, the album laid bare the emotional charge of the pissed-off female voice. Coming Undone eschews the sexy for gut-punching reality as Korn's pop-metal ode to psychosis explodes all over the place.
Looking back on the reviews, all three writers were astonished at the fresh sound and high talent level presented. Descriptions included "the fabled unicorn of a cappella", "our new standard of excellence", "best album of the year, perhaps the past several years", plus "wonderful, sexy, and energetic". Though many traits elevated this release to Pick of the Decade status, we took particular note of the spectacular audio engineering on Here We Go, featuring work by famed producers Ed Boyer, Dave Sperandio, Freddie Feldman, Bill Hare, and — perhaps most critically — the special and unmistakable finesse of Tat Tong.
This vocal band and Sing-Off success story gave us '70s-inspired progressive rock leanings with Southern Autumn Nostalgia, a joyful release that provides an awed sense that this is exactly the album each member of Street Corner Symphony wanted to record. You feel like you know the band after just one listen; on subsequent listens, you wish you could be an honorary member. With creative original songwriting and distinct leads, this is a rare so-easy-to-love accomplishment.
There is no forgetting the decade that was the springboard for female a cappella, when power pop ruled supreme from groups who were able to blend sexy and strong into one superb sound. With several members getting their starts on various seasons of The Sing-Off, Musae led this charge with songs that evoked memories of late nights and party sights. None more so than Amnesia, which is rich in sound, production, and texture with a natural earthiness that burrows into the soul.
We kept coming back to this short but powerful release from Germany when discussing our Picks of the Decade. Reviewers noted its incredible sound design from the field's top talents paired with captivating arrangements, resulting in music that is at once hypnotic and dramatic. Moon received a rare 5.0 for Repeat Listenability from RARB, with each reviewer noting the pristine construction of the album from top to bottom.
The group we came to know and love as Voices in Your Head dominated much of the past decade, an astounding journey that started with Burn and culminated with Begin Again. Chris Rishel created what would become the group's signature sound with Burn through his crafty arranging skills — a sound that continues to permeate the mixed collegiate recording landscape. Burn was the definition of "epic" during its time, and it retains its luster even today. As TeKay stated in his review: "Burn will sear into your brain for years to come." Well, it's been six years so far, and we still have scorch marks.
Fast forward to 2019, and Voices was still going strong with a completely new roster well after Rishel's departure — truly a rare feat at the collegate level. Begin Again, brought to life by the album's music director, Will Cabaniss, is the kind of artistic endeavor that "borders on a masterpiece" and should be required listening indefinitely. Reviewers marveled at the message-driven originals and were astounded by the textures and use of space in the album's sound design. One track, the original Sing for Myself (written by Cabaniss), was also the 2019 RARB Single of the Year. Cabaniss wrote that he hopes the songs on Begin Again will have afterlives, but the celebrated reception to this album proves this music is already immortal.
Reviewer Jonathan Minkoff succinctly described this release in his opening paragraph: "Naturally 7 is one of the world's best a cappella groups, and Hidden In Plain Sight is the absolute cutting edge of artistic sampling in a cappella." However, the very act of extensive sampling, mixed with heavy hip hop production techniques, placed this release in its own not-for-everyone category. At RARB, we celebrated its brazen, non-apologetic innovation coupled with the group's raw talent and power. Our fingers are still crossed for Volume 2.
There must be something in the Chicago water, as the men of Run for Cover from the University of Chicago complete the trifecta of collegiate groups from the Windy City making RARB's Picks of the Decade. Run for Cover scored big with its cover of Gold, with guest artist Kari Wei making this track soar high above the rest.
We were startled by the ease with which these disparate songs came together to form a new piece of art in this Indian fusion mashup. Malhotra's recording is top-notch, from initiation with the arrangement to execution through production and mixing. It still sets the standard for the level of inventiveness expected for a track to be world-class.
Selecting just one submission from OneVoice's revered catalog was pretty tough for this Picks project. Higher Love represents the strongest iteration of the group, with a release that gave us Make It Holy, soloist Hannah Gray as a senior, and the striking realization that Dr. J.D. Frizzell was building an empire — which he did, and with two supergroups (June and Nomadic, both also represented here) yet to come at the time of release.
Another entry packed with television star power, this is the first track from the supergroup experiment led by Dr. J.D. Frizzell. With members who performed on America's Got Talent and The Sing-Off, and guest soloist Brennan Villines from The Four: Battle for Stardom, this first release had high expectations. And oh, did June deliver! The melancholy is gone from the original rendition, and we're left with an anthem to self-fulfillment.
An emotionally charged album that was described as "sublime" and "magnificent", and with the clear realization that "you'll be hard-pressed to find songs recorded so expressively and with such conviction." Fans have received this type of music from the Sils for thirty years, though, so we know what to expect each time: impressive soloists, recorded storytelling, and collaborator James Gammon putting these ladies in their best light.
This was the final album for beloved BaSix, a group known for its intelligent and creative original music (particularly the lyrics), and a group that stood firmly on its own across ten albums and twenty-one years. Reviewers noted the music tilted in a melancholy manner on Moving On, surely reflective of the group's own mood, and our mood as appreciative listeners saying goodbye.
Tenebrae is not only gorgeous, it's also a significant addition to the canon of recorded classical music. Spanning centuries, amarcord unearths and presents an unusual selection of very early music, paired with a selection of contemporary music that ranges from Tavener's modern classic The Lamb to pieces composed specifically for this group over its illustrious career. In addition to these achievements, amarcord is the only group on this list that also received a 2000-2009 Pick of the Decade, and RARB has heartily recommended each and every one of amarcord's recordings that have come our way.
This self-titled debut packs a wallop, with five slamming tracks that show this professional women's sextet is a force to be reckoned with. The group transforms its material via its signature sound: a blend of dance, hip hop, and sheer awesomeness. Excellent vocal percussion and creative arrangements propel this record to the fore.
The second iteration of Dr. Frizzell's June production house hit us with this powerful world music gem. The recording is expansive and engaging, seemingly growing larger and larger as Archie Gopal's voice grows increasingly energetic. This recording is what being on top of the world sounds like.
Rhythmic, dissonant, and compellingly melodic, Rajatila / Borderline is one of the most eclectic, innovative, and original albums RARB has ever received. Tuuletar builds on Finland's vocal traditions on the way to making something that is entirely its own. This album is a watershed project that should stand the test of time.
The text above is a composite of nominators' contributions and reactions after listening to the chosen albums and singles afresh. These picks were discussed and selected by current and past RARB staff, specifically: AJ Johnson, Catherine Lewis, Elie Landau, John Colton, Jonathan Minkoff, Kimmie Raschka Sailor, Kyle Yampiro, Louis Jack Ades, Michael Marcus, Rebecca Christie, Stephen Lanza, and TeKay.