Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2017 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2017 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.
Clef Hangers (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) – Castle on the Hill
Carolina's oldest a cappella group has a crisp new award — RARB's Single of the Year for 2017. We love the sonic drama on display here: the Clef Hangers visit more highs and lows than Ed Sheeran does in his original, and we're pumped for every measure. 2017 was a pretty big year for the Clefs; in addition to releasing Castle on the Hill, the group put out an anniversary album (Fixate) to celebrate its 40th anniversary. That release also received high praise from RARB, and now we're positively buzzing about the legacy of this special group.
This may be my favorite album anywhere for the year, not just in a cappella land. Stunning singing and wonderful melodies combine to magnificent effect.
A cappella fiddle tunes! With guest fiddle cameo. This is pretty much everything I want in a song. Also it sounds good for everyone else.
Original music, catchy melodies and an overall strong result.
Listen to this one on good speakers, it'll make a difference. It's nice to hear some ambitious original music from a group like this.
Maybebop continues its legacy of aca-dominance with a non-stop onslaught of originality, dramatic range, musicality and prodigiousness. 15 tracks. All excellent. There is no serious collector of a cappella without a hefty dose of Maybebop in their library.
Sugar is a heartbreaking, dare I say beta-male love story, told with vulnerability and passion. It's the kind of raw longing you might find from a classic Indigo Girls track, but where the Indigo Girls would display something raw, here, as its title implies, the music is ever so sweet. Thankfully, because the lyrics eschew cliché messages — always finding truth through specificity — the song just soars. Ben Bram's arranging stays simple, letting the story of unassuming love, by Jean Seizure and Cheeyang Ng, simply tell itself.
Did you really think that I would pick anything else? Each song is full of emotion and movement and melancholy and magic. I'm going to miss new music from these guys something fierce, but as life happens and new journeys appear, we have to realize that moving on is sometimes saying a new hello.
I'm a sucker for this song with multiple versions in rotation on my playlist. This version by the Octāves burrows into my psyche like the greatest of earworms do. It soars. It grounds. It tugs. It breathes.
This one snuck up on me. I've been a fan of SLIXS (and its predecessor STOUXINGERS) for a number of years. This German group attacks every song with panache and gusto, challenging you to be an active listener of its sound. With Playgrounds, the group presents its unique brand of funky jazz pop in increasingly amazing ways. Is It the Rain and Jasmine Flower both made my short list for Track of the Year because of the stunning originality and captivating performances. If nothing else, you'll be spellbound by Heroes — making the album great all on its own.
Melancholic ballads are my jam, and Chi Rho has delivered one powerful performance. As a Universalist Unitarian, I often gravitate towards religious songs that transcend dogma. This cover of a Josh Garrels song does just as his website claims: "Resting in the space between accessibility and honesty ... wrestl[ing] with and celebrat[ing] the mystery of faith with authenticity and heart." Good job, guys.
The strongest arrangements and approaches to vocal music I heard in 2017 came from Pust's Huggu Over Vatn. If you pretty much listen to American a cappella exclusively, prepare to be enthralled.
In my review, I scored When We Were Young a "4" and the album it hails from a "3". My personal standard of "excellent" technical proficiency simply isn't present for the track to squeak out a "5". However, when I looked at my playlist counts for 2017, I found that the track I listened to the very most was When We Were Young. It's the passionate delivery each new soloist brings that keeps me coming back — I feel completely connected from start to finish. And that kind of power in music-making goes far beyond a numeric metric.
If you like hearing both the best a cappella plus daydreaming about the future of a cappella, tune-in to the talented teens from OneVoice.
Expensive can brighten the most surly of moods. RARB continually comments about how hard it is to capture genuine exuberance in the recording studio, but the students from Cypress Lake High School light up the sky with happiness.
Sistemfeler continues Maybebop's tradition of outstanding albums. The music is fantastic, and extremely well-produced. The lyrics are even better, albeit in German. They range from humorous to satirical to touching. Well worth my RARB Pick for 2017.
Maybebop's Ab und zu ein paar Geigen (English translation: "Now and then a Few Violins") blew me away to the point that I had to include a full English translation in my RARB review. It's not all a cappella (although sections are), but the instruments are used with care. It tells the story of a solitary man who longs to hear the violins in his life, but sadly cannot. The song starts a cappella but when the first chorus is reached — as he's singing about how he needs violins in his life — the violins come in. Then various other instruments join, building throughout the song. The second verse has woodwinds, the second chorus adds brass, and the bridge adds snare drums. The final chorus after the loud bridge goes back to being pure a cappella, quiet and contemplative. Very effective, and beautiful.
The Amalgamates have delivered a masterpiece with The Lockbox: excellent soloists, lovely arrangements, and an album flow that's both cohesive and compelling. The group takes us on a journey through rock songs and ballads, with both swelling dynamics and perfectly-placed pauses; the 'Mates have been at the top of their game for years, but the group has really outdone itself with The Lockbox.
The Amalgamates close The Lockbox with Hold Back the River, and it's the perfect ending to the group's outstanding album — there's Mallory Feldman's compelling lead, the group's beautiful delivery, and the stunning arrangement that moves and swells and allows us to get lost in this gorgeous performance. I can listen to this song over and over on repeat and still find a new nuance I hadn't noticed before; it's one of the most memorable songs I heard this year.
A fantastic album from The Hyannis Sound is not a surprise: this group features some of the best collegiate male singers in the country. Boys of Summer is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of classic hits with a few surprising twists and additions. The group's engaged performances and beautiful dynamics are always expected, but creative arrangement choices and unusual song choices (especially the gorgeous It All Fades Away) are what make this album so interesting.
Nothing More finds The A Cappella Group excelling at something that hasn't typically been in the group's wheelhouse: this beautiful ballad features a soloist who captures the song's emotions, an arrangement that grows and fades in just the right spots, and a fun bridge that adds to the song's overall story. It's a departure from TAG's usual pop fare, and it shows so many of the group's strengths.
Coming Alive is an album that unabashedly feels. The amalgamation of creative arranging, stunning vocals, and dynamic production is the listening experience of 2017 that I am most excited to revisit over and over again.
The soliloquy introduction to this R&B ballad makes my skin crawl every time. From there it builds into something even more soulful, more melodic, and more enrapturing to land gracefully back at that haunting moment of stillness. Gone is by no means a cheerful track, but there is a unique sense of joy that comes from hearing such sincerity in a vocal performance.
Pust has a surreal style that, if you let it, washes all of your senses. Sometimes calming, sometimes sprightly, Huggu Over Vatn is an album of original compositions and Norwegian folk tunes that exemplify the intimate resonance of the human voice.
The world can never have too much atmospheric a cappella music. Using the human voice to create something akin to trance or electronic music sounds so cool, and the Stereotypes achieve it perfectly in Tempest with just the right amount of melodic momentum and production sheen. Just follow the rhythm and, as so fittingly phrased in the lyrics, "get lost along the way."
Disintegrate exudes a high-level of identity that often escapes many collegiate groups, beckoning me to continually return for another listen. Both the flow of the EP and the creativity infused into each track makes it one of my favorite projects that I've had the pleasure of listening to in 2017.
The style switch-ups present in Weathered, plus the emotional rollercoaster that the lead guides you along, makes this track my favorite of the year. It has modern appeal, but the depth of the arrangement and the way it is executed are what really grab the listener. It's all so unexpected, but exactly what you'd hope for in a song by a talented group like The Octāves.
Amazing musical craftsmanship in an album chock full of personality. Quality pickup for casual listeners and diehards. The twists and turns of Iscariot alone are worth adding this one to your playlist.
Beautiful reimagining of an unexpected Walk the Moon track. I get chills every time I listen to it.
A professional album from a group we've come to expect it from, Elemental delivers on all fronts. The strong collaboration between a cappella all-stars is on full display here and there is no weak track. An absolute standout!
Tackling a Demi Lovato song in both a successful and unique fashion is no easy feat, but Off the Beat delivers here in a huge way. Between the adept solo and matching intensity of the background vocals, this is a rendition I will continue to turn to for the foreseeable future.
Perspective is an ambitious multilingual album project from Shir Appeal and it certainly stands out as a memorable one. The mindfulness behind the crafting of this album is also a major highlight for me. I am impressed with groups that are able to bring passion to songs of varying genres, but the adept handling of multiple languages is even more impressive here and certainly worth a listen!
I consider this song to be a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine for 2017. That's not to take anything away from it; on the contrary, this is a song I can turn to for an instant smile. The infectious energy radiates from the entire group, and I was delighted to find a video that proved this to be true in live performance as well. While it may not be groundbreaking musically, the value of this track is priceless for its ability to make the listener feel good, and for that, it most certainly deserves an honorable mention.
Perhaps it stems from my discovery of a cappella intersecting with the explosion of new ideas over the past five or so years, but I have always loved the modern contemporary sound that comes from larger student-based groups. With Yours, One Note Stand delivers this style in an explosion of powerful chords over interwoven rhythms, and it is absolutely unreal. Pearce Illmer outdoes himself time and time again in the arranging and the individual and group voices make those ideas reach through the speaker and force the listener to pay attention. This album is definitely worth a listen.
I could pick any one of about four songs from this album, but Turn The Beat Around is The Hyannis Sound doing what the group does best: having fun while making complicated music seem like a walk in the park. With this dance anthem, these young men deliver an amazing performance that is virtually impossible to not dance along to. The fun is infectious, and absolutely one of the best tracks of the year.
When it comes to group identity, the young men of The Hyannis Sound are at the top of their class. This album perfectly captures the boyish charm and unbridled energy the group possesses while displaying top-shelf musical talent. The song selections are timeless, and I anticipate that this album might be as well.
The climax of the entire album, this track is everything I love about the sound coming from One Note Stand. It's powerful, it's complex, and it's inspiring. Aubrey Folck has a stellar voice, and the whistle tones near the end of the track just add the cherry on top of this delicious musical sundae. It's worth every listen.
The men of Ithacappella knock it out of the park with this album. The album is compact, purposeful, well-executed, and commands the listener's attention throughout. It does not just cover songs — it builds on them in ways that are creative and fun to listen to. This album has many elements of a cappella at its best and is one of the top albums of 2017.
Everything about this song is impeccable. The soloist, arrangement, and creativity in its production are all outstanding. It should be the gold standard for how to do an a cappella mashup. The group totally nails it. There are many excellent tracks that came out of 2017, but this one is at the top.
This is one of my favorites of 2017. The album is a good example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It is well-constructed, well-executed, and showcases some of the top talent in collegiate a cappella. And with a diverse track list, it offers something for everyone.
This one gets the award for 2017's "most pleasant listen". If you're an Adele fan, or simply a fan of good a cappella, this is a song for you. The a cappella world is saturated with covers of Hello, but the Ramblers do a great job offering a new take on the original and do it well. And the solo is outstanding.
Ithacappella continues to impress with outstanding soloists, inventive arrangements, and production that matches the music impeccably. Deviations is undoubtedly heavier on mixing in production than the group's previous outing, To Build A Home. At the same time, however, it's used just enough to match the textures and intent of the music while still showcasing the voices at the foundation. Deviations isn't just a good a cappella album — it's a fantastic album, period. Ithacappella knows what it excels at, but the members choose to push beyond their comfort zones and it pays off with an album without a single weak link.
I mentioned in my review of Sing Theory EP that Rich Man exemplifies everything I love about Semi-Toned and everything I want more of in the future. This is such an infectiously good mashup from start to finish. It's animated, dynamic, and confident. Edward Scott also nails the bass solo — he sings with abandon, never feeling the need to prove that he's a bass. It makes this song a perfect conclusion to the EP. As I said earlier this year, this song is "downright silly, and Semi-Toned embraces this silliness all the way through."
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