Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2015 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2015 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 staff jointly chose one Single of the Year and one Honorable Mention.
A honey-sweet voice and a rumbly bass have never paired as perfectly as Peter and Avi do on 2015's Single of the Year, Black Is the Colour (Of My True Love's Hair). With its strong swirling atmosphere that's both intense and mysterious, this well-known folk song gets a new lease on life with a restrained tempo that creates tension for a greater payoff. Refreshing and memorable, Black Is the Colour (Of My True Love's Hair) is a new classic for modern a cappella.
If you're ready for a good ol' fashioned emotional reaction, queue up Chandelier by Elon University's Twisted Measure. In a crowded field of top-notch singles, Chandelier captured our attention and hearts with its goosebump-inducing lead from Abby Franklin, who sings over well-controlled backs that know when to pop out and when to fade away. The arrangement sets the tone for impressive vocal drama that you don't want to miss.
Choosing an album of the year has never been harder. Maybebop pulls ahead of an incredibly talented pack (including brilliant work by Naturally 7 and ONAIR) through a combination of originality, virtuosity, and elegant signature production. This German quartet is at the top of its game, and with one of the richest discographries in contemporary a cappella, that's quite an achievement.
Aching, haunting, overflowing with raw emotion and heartbreaking chords, ONAIR's version of Wolf and I will leave an indelible mark on all who hear it.
Naturally 7's vision of a cappella is wholly unique, soundly rejecting traditional rockist values and unabashedly embracing hip-hop and sampling. Either one of the most (or least) original a cappella albums to ever be released, Nat7 demands that we examine what a cappella truly is, all while dazzling us with melismatic wonder, technical wizardry, and delightfully dense harmony.
From its iconic opening chords, tinged with both human pathos and electronic perfection, Postyr's My Future Self is transcendent. The song ostensibly focuses on the future, but its true genius lies in capturing the singular beauty of a uniquely present moment with absolute clarity. No a cappella collection is complete without this song.
Being Young wasn't the most original album of 2015, but no other group came close to the vocal power presented here. The ScatterTones are superstars!
Wavin' Flag inspired millions during the 2010 World Cup, and I bet this version could empower just as many. Crank it up and let your hair fly!
Bright had my highest "Repeat Listenability" marks of the year. You can let this one roll right on through again and again without loving it any less.
High is an honest-to-goodness feel-good song with an infectious delivery and arrangement. I frequently start my day with this tune, and I think you should, too.
To quote my review, "I love this album. Love, love, love ... it is perhaps the most 'repeatly listenable' album that I've ever been asked to review." It's fantastic. At only six tracks, it certainly leaves you craving more ONAIR.
Teardrop is an experience not to be missed, the most interesting song on the best album of the year. It bears little resemblance to the instrumental snippet used for the TV show House. Instead, the piece has an almost Middle Eastern feel with chanting and whispering, and cool vocal percussion with sounds reminiscent of African music.
Postyr's electronic approach to a cappella is certainly unique, and these Danish singers find ways to enhance their vocal tones through computer-generated beats. But Postyr doesn't rely on technology, either: many of the songs on Paper Tiger feature just voices, and those are stunning as well. The album flows from the sultry to the danceable and back again, all with beautiful dynamics and emotive deliveries.
It takes a lot for a medley to win me over, but Stanford's Everyday People had me at attention with this one: a powerhouse soloist, a stunning transition, backs that are on-point and engaged, and a beautiful arrangement. Either of these songs would have been solid on its own, but the Everyday People made both halves better by combining them into one track. The waterfall "fall" in the transition is the perfect climax of the song, and soloist Tessa Pompa keeps the intensity up throughout it all.
The coed Faux Paz captures Chaos with infectious energy: killer solos, intricate arrangements, and all-in performances make this the best collegiate release of the year for me. These singers have unearthed some unexpected covers — and some unexpected twists to overdone songs — to make this an engaging, exciting collection of covers.
New York City's The Lost Keys know how to deliver a memorable cover with their sultry cover of Ellie Goulding's Burn: it creeps in with a haunting introduction then builds into something truly magical, with hints of other pop songs subtly woven into the background. It's a bold statement for a debut recording, and The Lost Keys have the chops to pull it off.
With Für Euch, Maybebop builds on its already impressive legacy of ingenious arranging, charismatic singing, and a delightful sense of humor. On the surface, this is a German Christmas album featuring a mix of traditional melodies and original compositions. At its heart, this is one of the most eclectic, entertaining collections of 2015, regardless of what language you speak or season you prefer.
This is not your grandparents' a cappella. It opens with a poetry reading of sorts that is at once hilarious, depressing, and nonchalant. Then it evolves into a psychadelic trance beat that you just wish would loop forever. Need I say more? Insomnia is so absurd and yet so cool, and will completely revolutionize the way you think about a cappella arranging and recording.
A generally mellow collection, Don't break the rhythm stands out for its complex compositions and mesmerizing grooves. The guys of Rock4 have a phenomenal grasp of the intricacies of arranging, singing, and production that enables them to transport you everywhere from medieval chapels to neon night clubs in the span of a single song. This is an a cappella journey through time and space that, once you hear, you won't soon forget.
Every few months, if you're lucky, you come across a song that sends chills down your spine. It takes just the right mix of familiarity and novelty; simplicity and complexity; and delicate quiets interspersed with climactic builds. Porcelain is one of those songs, and the Tar Heel Voices made great choices with their arrangement and leads to make it all come together in one beautiful recording.
Ugh. So angry at Maybebop for yet again providing the world with an absolutely impeccable album full of killer hooks, sterling production, and terrific singing. It's easily the most versatile and impresive album I heard all year. Maybebop is disgusting(ly great).
Phoenix marks a breakthrough from Vocal Point, as the group found a way to keep arrangements smart, fluid, and effective for the duration of each song. With a little polish and style from The Vocal Company, Phoenix is one of the best-sounding albums I heard all year, and Vocal Point has successfully raised the bar for itself and other groups in the collegiate a cappella community.
Exposed was one of my favorite listens of 2015. It has such a unique balance of light versus dark arrangements, and a few surprises along the way. The album and energy just feels youthful and the production makes the whole experience even better. Inventive tracks such as When You Were Young made this project a standout for me during this past year.
Phoenix Burn has such a strong progression throughout the song. From the lyrics to the intensity, this song is just great to listen to, with a killer lead, a powerful message, and interesting backing parts ... how can you not love it?
One Savior One Voice is not your typical collection of tracks copied out of church hymnals; rather, it's a compelling work of art. SoundStage has produced one of the most spiritually uplifting assortment of tunes that truly captivate and tell an unforgettable story through song. This will easily be your go-to album when you need inspiration or are seeking to be moved by the human voice.
When a really good song hits you, it sticks for a long time. I Need Thee Every Hour does just that. No, it's not some mega pop tune or rock track, but it comes from a place of traditional music with soul-piercing, pure vocals. Featuring great production without being over the top, this song simply allows the voices to move any listener.
Five-star, five-song, five-course meal!
Choosing just one song from this album is one of the hardest things I've had to do!
Finely-tuned, precision a cappella machines from Austria!
A blast to listen to! I want to hear more like this from these guys!
The album from 2015 that moved me the most was, without question, Starry Eyed by OneVoice. These high schoolers from Memphis are certainly worth looking out for in 2016 and beyond. This EP showcases both their musicality and ingenuity, with the tracks creating a full story while updating their source material. It's very easy to lose yourself in the beauty of the work done here and forget that the singers are still in high school: just another tip in director J.D. Frizzell's cap. Starry Eyed is certainly a must-hear for anyone reading this and anyone they know.
Perhaps flying in under the radar for most, Divisi's cover of Stay by Sara Bareilles caught my ear and has held it since. This rendition is not only true to its source material but updates the background parts in ways suitable for vocals and interesting to listeners that are both familiar and unfamiliar with the original. Besides the chilling chords and a clever modulation, the male soloist is powerful in a way that is not too showy for the emotional tenor of the song. All elements come together to form a truly memorable track.
A welcome surprise at the end of my reviewing year, Paper Tiger by Postyr is creativity and innovation at their finest. I was moved by the subtlety and originality of everything here, and simply overtaken by the ethereal nature of the soundscape presented. This album is certainly a standout and worth your attention.
As I did in my review, I can do no less than gush over the brilliance of OneVoice's Life Support. At first I was unfamiliar with the Sam Smith original, and once I did my research, I could further appreciate this cover, which not only created haunting high dissonances and a compelling duet, but essentially turned the form and feel on their heads. Both compelling conceptual work and a solid execution make this a must-hear track.
It's not much of a surprise that TAG tops my list for the second year running. The amount of heart and passion in each of the tracks, combined with excellent arrangements and production work, make Bright a clear stand-out.
Although it set my expectations for the rest of the album a little unreasonably high, I keep coming back to Bang Bang again and again. It's fun, energetic, and interesting, which is always a huge breath of fresh air, especially on popular tracks. This is the type of track you keep on hand for friends who need to be "introduced" to all that a cappella can be.
When considering albums as a whole, I keep coming back to Linguistics. I think Shir Appeal did an excellent job putting together a rounded and cohesive album filled with positive, approchable tracks that really lift up the listener. I strongly encourage everyone to check it out.
I didn't spend a ton of time on Gabrielle Macafee's original song in my review of Bright, but that certainly doesn't mean it went unnoticed. I think there's a growing desire for more a cappella originals, and having someone so young stepping up to the plate (and knocking it out of the park!) will hopefully only encourage the rest of the community to rise to the challenge as well!
A complete album from start to finish — awesome soloists, well-paid attention to dynamics and the emotion of each track, and fantastic arrangements. It's hard not to groove along to each of these five tracks.
The first minute of this track ... oh my goodness ...
A lot of fun from top to bottom — passionate solos, and some really innovative and exciting arrangements. These guys really delivered in putting together a great album for all a cappella listeners.
Even if you don't speak German, this is a fun, upbeat track with an amazing duet, a stellar arrangment, and innovative and cool background vocals. Definitely one track that I will be listening to for a long time.
Vocal Point delivered a tremendously polished album that featured familiar songs with new twists, outstanding arranging, and tremendous soloists. Phoenix is by far one of my favorite albums of the year.
Break Free is the climax of a tremendous album, full of energy and musicality. It's an easy candidate for top song of the year in my book.
Power rock inspired German a cappella Christmas songs. What's not to love?
I'm always a sucker for a good ballad, and Samson is my favorite ballad of the year. The arrangement is absolutely stellar, and definitely deserving of recognition.