Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2019 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2019 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 one Honorable Mention.
Voices in Your Head (University of Chicago) – Sing for Myself
"You never know when happiness will find its way to you with utter simplicity," remarked TeKay, who had the pleasure of reviewing Sing for Myself when it gracefully landed at RARB last winter. Though often extreme in volume and complex in production, Voices in Your Head went a purposefully different way with this moving composition. An original penned by Will Cabaniss and Ire Olagbami, the opening lyrics are so captivating ("Out of the fallen trees we sing…") that you’re sure to lean in for the rest of this story. With some RARB reviewers declaring it’s their favorite single ever, Sing for Myself was an easy selection for our 2019 Single of the Year.
After marveling at every aspect of Nomadic’s high octane single, reviewer Kyle Yampiro concluded, "Top of the World should be at the top of any a cappella listener's wish list." This keenly designed cover is packed with dazzling details in every measure, driven by arranger Matt Goldstein’s genre-bending fusion flavorings and lead Archie Gopal’s cool vocals that are beyond imitation. Yampiro also praised the production team (Angela and Dave Longo, Dave Sperandio) for adding sophisticated power to the final output. This is a supergroup your speakers should know.
Vocal folk pop never sounded so good or so intriguing as it does on Tuuletar's Rajatila/Borderline. The group floats in between genres, never gets boring, and includes a cameo from an obscure stringed instrument adding its voice to the choir. Broaden your mind when you listen.
This track starts out with a catchy folkpop bounce and transforms into a breathtaking coda that has a magical feel of its own. Don't miss it.
Singing takes the spotlight on this lovely Swedish album of original music. Good songs, good voices, good variety, and good listening for us.
Whatever your preconceptions, prepare to have your mind blown. World beat at its best.
I think that in my 20+ years of reviewing albums for RARB, 2019 has delivered one of the the strongest fields I've ever heard. Rilton's vänner, Tuuletar, Fool Moon and Rebel Bit — all best-in-world type groups — delivered incredible offerings that I will treasure. But somehow, an "upstart" collegiate group named Voices in Your Head managed to do the unthinkable and edge ahead of these shining professional masters. Begin Again is a stunner. In terms of dynamics, tone colors, source material, interpretation, tempo choices, and stylings, the tragically too-short Begin Again is easily one of the most original a cappella recordings of the past decade. What's more, it is emotionally compelling. If you don't hear Begin Again then you don't really know what the cutting edge of a cappella sounds like today.
In all fairness, Between Us should be considered part and parcel with Part of Me, the track it seamlessly flows into. The track separation is one of mere labeling only. So let those involved in both proudly take their credit. But if only one may get the crown, Between Us takes it, if only for the burden it bears. The first song of an album brands the group. It must do the near impossible: be both the beginning of a journey and also hint at the exciting destinations that will come later. Between Us accomplishes this and so much more. The soloists are to die for; the production, flawless; the songwriting original and moving. But the superstar arranging here is so dense with perfectly executed genius it boggles the mind. It's a work that that impresses on every level and still leaves the listener with chills, listen after listen.
Riltons vänner is one of the all-time greats of contemporary a cappella. There is practically no one I know who has ever heard or seen them who cannot still recount the memory of being deliciously, heartbreakingly lost in their sound. Orkar, Orkar inte is equally joyous and bittersweet, breathy and effortlessly blended, smooth, intense, imaginative, and inviting. What Rilton and his "vänner" say about themselves: "We can manage. We can't cope. We get stuck. We are passionate. We are playing. We get scared of each other. We become afraid of our longing. We dare to take our longing seriously."
Vad är det? (What is it?) is like the ocean: irresistibly powerful, unfathomably mysterious, forever in motion and seemingly still. It's the first song of the album, and it perfectly sets the tone for an intimate and inspired journey. From the first notes, Riltons vänner invites you into a world that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Yes, the lyric is Swedish, but "the music is so compelling, so story-esque on its own, that it's more than sufficient to feel narrative without the immediacy and precision of language. In some ways, it's more freeing."
Sometimes I pour every ounce of my writing talent and ability into a review. In this recap, I cannot improve upon what I originally said about this singular artistic achievement from VIYH: "Here's the tea: Begin Again by University of Chicago's Voices in Your Head borders on being a masterpiece. It is a concept album so invasive that 'earworm' doesn't aptly describe the music that you are listening to. These songs are soul-worms — the most bioluminescent that can be humanly mustered. Producer and music director Will Cabaniss and the production team, as well as every artist present on this album, bled so much life into these words and notes and blips and pings and crackles that 'breathtaking' comes across as a trite descriptor for something that moves me so much."
Gestalt is. That's pretty much all you have to say. And Ceci is the epitome of that quality. The transition from English to French on their live album is brilliant and leads into one of the most energetic and enthralling bops of the year. I danced and screamed along with the audience.
Sometimes less is more. I initially had issues giving a "best album" nod to an EP, but Faking It is an exceptional reflection of what it means to be juxta — boisterous, bawdy and beautiful. The guys succeeded in being just what 2019 needed.
There were several strong contenders for my end-of-the-year love fest. Distilled Harmony takes the spot because of the perfection presented by this trio of divas. The dexterity of their delivery commands your ear with an ease and excitement that elevates all other aspects of the track.
Begin Again is akin to spirituality in its complexities, and rewards. When highlighting its most unique feature, I wrote: "... an album completely filled with near-tangible textures and spaces that you'd expect to see realized only in visual art, not recorded sound art." This is one to listen to, and hold on to.
Singer-songwriter (and high school student) Isabella Sbarra-Michelland easily runs away with her exquisite composition, Last Drop. Hers is a name you'll come to know.
Celebrating a surprise release from this once defunct group, I penned: "Orkar, Orkar inte is a well-designed mood-altering experience." Riltons vänner returned in top form for this album, and we couldn't be luckier to hear more of this group's boundary-pushing work.
Color me surprised: the glee club stylin' Spizzwinks(?) decided to take one of the most iconic songs ever recorded, and make it so unpredictable and lovely that it's reharmonized in a new kind of beautiful permanence.
Ziel:los! continues Maybebop's tradition of extremely high quality recorded a cappella albums, along with the group's ability to give me things I didn't even know I wanted and needed. Ziel:los! has a truly eclectic mix of styles and topics, which include: an anti-hatred pop tune; electronic dance music about being forced to dance to society's tune; a polka about a boy falling in love with his piano teacher; a rap about chocolate muffins; an emotional ballad of a parent looking at his sleeping child; an African song about saving the planet; a barbershop song about barbershop puns; a serious, sad piece about dementia; a creation story about man creating himself; a modern, syncopated Ave Maria; and more.
I'm a sucker for Maybebop's ballads, and In deiner Tür is one of the group's best. It tells the poignant thoughts of a parent looking in at his sleeping child, thinking of how limited their time is together and how the child will one day be going off on her own path. The words of the song are beautiful, with phrases like: "I've known you and been beside you your whole life long. I'm still at your side, but I know someday we'll part. You'll go on alone. Life will divide us. I'll be both friend and stranger to you, and will learn — with a heavy heart — to step away. For now you are a part of me, and yet, the time in which you complete me is short." (It's better in the original German.) As a father of two daughters, one of whom just got married a couple of months ago, it hit me right in the feels, with beautiful music to complement the emotional lyrics.
A cappella's wheelhouse is covers of contemporary pop songs. There are many groups that do this exceptionally well, but it's especially refreshing to find a group that excels at something different. Fermata Town brings a heavy jazz influence and a just-under-the-radar song selection to its music; even the most commonly covered song here, Give Me One Reason, is completely revamped and sounds fresh and new. These singers perform these arrangements beautifully, and Time and Chances still has me at the edge of my seat with every listen.
The A Cappella Group's newest songwriter, Isabella Sbarra-Michelland, knocks it out of the park with her original Last Drop. The breathwork that kicks off the song will grab your attention, and Sbarra-Michelland's lead will keep you entranced for the song's entire duration. Original songs have been TAG's forte for the last few albums, and it is incredible to hear another strong voice added to the group's songwriting arsenal.
Listeners know what to expect from The Hyannis Sound: beautiful and heartwarming covers of popular songs, and the group delivers these impeccably. There aren't a lot of surprises on Always / Sometimes, but there doesn't need to be: you know what you're going to hear when you read the track list, but it's still a delightful and well-performed album.
Light of a Clear Blue Morning sounds nothing like anything else on Stanford Counterpoint's album Close to Home, and that's part of what makes it stand out: on an album full of pop covers, this angelic trio sounds heavenly. The harmonies are gorgeous, and the simplicity of the arrangement is breathtaking. This track is a bright spot on Counterpoint's latest recording.
Exaltation! Business Casual breathes passion and innovation into everything from well-worn classics like Lean on Me to brand-new compositions like Ain't No Way. The dynamics and breadth of musical styles on display within each song and throughout the album make it exciting, whether you are hearing it for the first time or are putting it on repeat for the millionth time. Thank you, Business Casual!
This song weaves through different acts; an entire theatrical performance packed into four minutes of edge-of-your-seat intensity. Business Casual keeps simultaneously reveling in the groove du jour while eagerly anticipating the next string of vocal antics.
Business Casual is one of the best albums released in 2019 due in large part to the level of risks the group takes in rewriting the script on popular tracks. While the album may be full of covers in the traditional sense, the group's bold reimagining of each song makes the entire project feel like an offering of original works. There's life, energy and a heavy dose of fun infused into the album that makes it all a joy to listen to.
I still cannot get over how wonderful and rich the textures are in Change of Heart. What makes a track complete is not only how full and nuanced the sound is, but also what it does to the listener. In the case of Change of Heart you're absolutely elated at how each part seamlessly and joyfully bonds together to create a vocal jam-fest!
Lifeline is a glimpse of what the future of a cappella is going to be. The Octopodes have delivered a sophisticated and artistic array of all-vocal, electronic music that, simply put, stuns and excites the mind. It's a progressive album that will be enjoyed for years to come.
Bellyache is a fantastic representation of the current state of a cappella. Young, vibrant, a bit indie, a bit pop, and all passion! It's the sound of the current generation, and Mixed Company captures it flawlessly.
The sheer elegance and stunning innovations on Rebel Bit's latest album earned it my highest scores of any album to date. As far as I'm concerned, this is what you look for in an a cappella album.
Drawn in by the enticing introduction, I can't get enough of how this low-voiced cover combines the impassioned with the sultry. But the star of the show is the arrangement, which features some delightfully crunchy chords and switching up the texture in ways that always support the soloist and the vibe.
Though the album was early in my reviewing year, Time and Chances is far from forgotten. A composed intro and outro bookend some stellar covers in which Fermata Town takes true ownership of the material and adeptly adapts it to serve the group's vision and concept.
As if the reimagining of a recognizable radio song while maintaining its identity wasn't enough, soloist Avery Veteto's honesty in storytelling makes this one of the more memorable tracks of my reviewing year.
As I wrote in my review of this album, "language is irrelevant when presented this effectively". This album is a full spiritual journey that encompasses a full array of emotions while remaining true to the group. This album is unique, brilliant, and absolutely deserving of being my Pick of the Year.
From my first listen, it was obvious to me that this track would be my pick for Track of the Year. Anthony Rodriguez delivers an absolutely jaw-dropping performance, and Jared Graveley has penned an arrangment that shines and sparkles in every way imaginable. This track takes everything that makes The Hyannis Sound the powerhouse it is and delivers it all in one package, and it is deserving of every listen.
I'm never ashamed to admit my love for The Hyannis Sound, and this album is another shining example as to why. This album is jam-packed with moments to make you laugh, cry, or otherwise just forget about the world for a moment. When it comes to absolutely unbounded energy that leaves a listener smiling, there may not be a group in the world better than these men in Cape Cod.
This track is one of the reasons I love a cappella so much. Even when arrangements are getting more layered and complicated to take the limit of the human voice to new heights, there is something so incredibly heartwarming about a song that is simple in it's presentation but with an absolutely flawless emotional presentation. Matt Goldman arranged and solos on a track that lets him present his tale to the world with his heart on his sleeve, and it will make yours melt. If you ever want just a perfect feel-good track, look no further than this one.
This album is proof that Hyannis Sound doesn't settle for what's good from its previous releases; this group always has something up its sleeve.
High Definition is a rare instance of an a cappella album that checks almost all of my boxes. Rich and bright core sound? Check. Outstanding soloists that consistently deliver beautiful sounds and ownership of the song? Check. Devotion to nuanced musicality on the per-phrase level by both soloist and ensemble? Check. Focus on overall album arc with both varied song choice and ebb-and-flow between the songs? Check.
I'm starting to go into the weeds here, but it is truly hard not to geek out on this album for its consistency, attention to detail, and overall inviting sound. Definitely give it your time because it is very deserving of it.
So much of modern a cappella focuses hard on trying to prove impressiveness. Big standout moments, crazy dynamics changes, incredibly intricate harmonic progressions, and soloist flair dominate a lot of attention that goes into recordings.
Black and Gold doesn't need to prove that it is good because it is good. Nonsequitur is patient and gentle in its handling of swing rhythm. The arrangement by Shin Cousens reinforces the original source material without overpowering it with extravagance. Jason Lei's solo is rich, relaxed and fluid. The song embraces its own calm, smooth nature in every respect, which in turn earns it my own respect.
My Song of the Year choices tend to steer towards those that I consider refreshing to me in one way or another. In other words, they catch me off guard and impress me in ways I rarely see in contemporaries. Black and Gold was definitely that for me this year.
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