Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2023 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2023 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.
It wasn't even close; every single member of our panel had this awesome track by the Ransom Notes at the top of their list for Single of the Year. The sheer creativity on display in the arrangement and the production, not to mention the bold, angsty leads from Achu Menon and Hina Masuda Singh, placed TAKE WHAT YOU WANT a cut above everything else we heard this year.
This album is a delight from start to finish. Bach is timeless, and the vocal arrangements here bring these instrumental compositions into new focus.
Folk music from the Caucasus is overdue for a comeback, and the Zulal Armenian A Cappella Trio is up to the challenge. Gorgeous songs, good singing, and a wide variety of arrangements make this album one to seek out.
Original music is such a delight in the a cappella world, and Postyr always brings new ideas to the table. Footprints, the latest album from this Danish collective, delivers the goods with No Home Without You as the standout of the release.
This song is a party, and I am here for it.
The hypnotically attractive lure of Zulal lies in the smallest of details; they are music under a macro lens, revealing the invisible world in our midst, a world of familiar emotions and deep connection. That their work also preserves and enhances a culture whose contributions could easily be lost is all the more reason By the Shephard's Clock deserves my recognition as RARB's 2023 Album of the Year.
Tyler Huk's emotional tenor crests atop the chill-inducing swells of Josh Carter's irresistable arranging. They put the big guns first. So by the time we meet the rest of the alluring, impressive leads, we're already primed to luxuriate in their textures, takes, and tones. Here's to many more releases from this impressive Buffalo-based septet!
What an interesting year for my a cappella listening. Both of my selections this year for Picks are what could be called "halfs". Half the tracks of my album Pick were instrumentalized, and an EP is half the length of a full album. But when the quality is this good, the music has to be rewarded.
There is a little bit of everything (including instruments!) from this jazz-infused gospel soul group, or gospel-tinged soul jazz group, or soul-pop covered gospel jazz ensemble. Whatever you want to call it, 7th Element gave us one of the most polarizing albums that we've had at RARB in a long while. And yet, without a doubt, this music moves you in many ways like sipping on a bourbon in silk pajamas on a Sunday. Yep. That.
It was a double-dipping of gloriousness for The Tarps as they put out two great recordings this year with Homeward and Push to Start. Combining those two halves into one supreme whole would have been awesome, but Push to Start is absolutely ridiculous on its own. As I stated in my review: "This mixed voice group can twist and turn and ring and wrang every inch of desire and nuance and gut-punch and longing out of a single note. Just sublime all the freaking time." Each track on this recording is a gem of magic.
Nostalgic. Groovy. Just religious enough to warm the heart. Funky and fun. Yah Mo B There has almost everything I want in a listening experience.
This was in a tough battle with The Tarppegios' Kiss the Sky for Honorable Mention. Wade in the Water has top-notch singing, super solid production values, and a fresh arrangement bathed in genre inclusivity/intersectionality. But the key that pushed it to the win column is the fact that I still want my group DeltaCappella to perform this arrangement. Nuff said. I gotta get on that.
SUPERNOVA was the soundtrack for collegiate a cappella in 2023. This release offers a very high-energy delivery, often with dizzyingly demanding notes and rhythms. This is sweaty, athletic a cappella, told in themed parts. The crowning achievement of SUPERNOVA is fantastically imaginative arrangements coupled with pristine sound work.
A release everyone in your car will love and sing along to, Time After Time adds the signature OneVoice sophisticated arrangement and production style to a long list of classic radio hits from across the decades. What did we do to deserve such easy and endearing entertainment?
RARB received many fantastic oldies-turned-new in our 2023 submission queue. With its softly enchanting presentation that stays with you long after the last note is sung, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road may be the finest example.
The year of odies-turned-new continued with Burning Love, a piece that begins as a slow jam before knocking your socks right off with zip and power! The one is electrifying.
The Bubs have been consistently excellent for years now, and Prevaill is no exception; it’s hard to pick a favorite song here because they’re all so exceptionally great. In this digital era where songs are meant to be streamed and shuffled, the Bubs have given us a cohesive album that’s well-sequenced in addition to being impeccably-performed. These songs flow beautifully from one song to another, making Prevaill an obvious choice for my album pick for 2023.
In my review of the Loreleis’ EP Somewhere Between, I said that Wouldn’t Come Back is perfect. It’s been several months since I wrote that, and I still wholeheartedly stand by my words: this performance is flawless. The three soloists sound perfect together, the group remains engaged even on a slower ballad, and the entire recording just captures so much emotion. It’s a great example that an arrangement and recording don’t have to have a lot of bells and whistles to be this good; simple can sound great, especially with soloists who sound this outstanding together.
Erase Me is beautifully arranged, beautifully sung, and beautifully soloed: lead Jaiden Casey handles the lower register of this solo as beautifully as the soaring notes in the chorus, and arranger DeJuan Woods Jr. knows how to add texture or pull back, depending on the pacing of the song. This kind of emotional and connecting performance is an absolute home run for Low Key.
7th Letter by the G-Men is simply too riveting to ignore. Move past all the surface-level requirements to make an album stand out (production, song selection, compelling soloists), and you have a top-tier project that begs for a listen! So many tracks on 7th Letter hit on an emotional level, be it joy or sorrow, and display grand moments of resolution convincingly. The album is a testament to why the G-Men continue to be one of the best around.
Brighter Days deserves more than an honorable mention if I am being honest. What Shades of Blue A Cappella has crafted on this album is not only remarkable but spellbinding. This "high school" group sings with authority and maturity and is on par with some of the best collegiate groups around. How Will I Know and Gold are on my list of some of the best songs from 2023, and this group deserves all the accolades for delivering such tantalizing art. In my opinion, the thing that takes an album to the next level is consistency in its solo performances. Brighter Days has this quality for days! This is a release that I will remember for a long time.
Saint Honesty is like a warm hug on an autumn day while you're standing on the front porch. It is everything you never knew you needed! South Creek Revival's beautiful vocals are furthered by such a spirited arrangement that gracefully dances on the soul. Julia Vaccaro's lead vocals are not only incredibly soulful and comforting, but absolutely unfair — her vocal control is what singers dream of! Couple that with the song's smooth pacing, and the backing group's colorful and artistic vocal foundation, and you truly have a Song of the Year!
I cannot tell you how much I love Gold. The power with which Audrey Brown dishes out every refrain on this track is stunning! Her riffs are gorgeous and her range is incredible. Shades of Blue A Cappella has produced a track that literally makes me fall over from joy with each listen. Every detail of this song was handled with care and it shows!
A genre-bending surprise, REMEMBER: A Choral Experience delivers vocal beauty through the choral medium. Is it classical? Is it contemporary? Who knows. Either way, it's quality recorded a cappella: so many of the elements shine, from textural changes to dynamics and beyond. Take half an hour, give this a spin, and enjoy the journey.
OneVoice's prominence and dominance in the recorded a cappella realm continues. Expanding on their oft-used formula in bringing new life to classic songs with dynamic arrangements and vocal performances, Time After Time is an absolute delight for any listener.
Sometimes you're so wrapped up in the loveliness of a song that you don't even realize after multiple listens that there isn't any vocal percussion. Between the tasteful studio effects, impassioned vocals by Tine Fris-Ronsfeld, a thick and deep voicing pallette in its arrangement, and effective balance of sound vs. silence, Broken Parts (an original by group member Lucas Tuan Minh Hoang) can find its way onto your playlists on repeat, too.
It's no small feat to cover Céline Dion (let alone in high school), but soloist Sophia Bonasso deftly handles the task, buoyed by a fresh arrangement by Matt Goldstein.
Every year, it's a challenge sometimes to just remember everything I've listened to. However, this album stuck with me long after I reviewed it. It's filled with strong soloists, captivating arranging, and awe-inspiring moments of theatricality that will leave you truly believing that there will be "Brighter Days" ahead if they're not already here.
This album is a fantastic debut from Northern Lights. With a really cool mix of jazz influence and pop selections, there's something for everyone on this album. Once you're done listening for enjoyment, use Meet Me in the Sky as a score study and figure out how they pulled off the vocal gymnastics. It's a welcome addition to any a cappella collection, and one I think I'll go back to many times in the future.
This piece is unreal, plain and simple. OneVoice pushes itself to the limit, giving an incredibly poised and powerful display of musicality and emotional connection. Sophia Bonasso provides a solo that outshines seasoned professional touring musicians. If It's All Coming Back To Me Now isn't already in at least one of your playlists, it needs to be added.
I'm always a sucker for a good ballad, and this track explains why perfectly. My favorite from my Album of the Year, How Will I Know is sonically rich and emotionally captivating. The theatricality ties this piece all together so perfectly, putting a new spin on an old classic that is sure to be loved for years to come.
I got noticeably giddy when listening to Brighter Days for my review. I opened said review with, "Art is subjective, but craftsmanship is honed, and growth in craftsmanship is one of life's greatest satisfactions." It is something for which I actively listen when evaluating the same group on multiple albums — the extent to which they pursue growth and evolution. I'd listen back to select tracks from Courage and remark how the execution of the same concepts got so much cleaner, more subtle, more interesting. Consistency got a major bump — not a single song scored below a "4" from any of the three reviewers. As for the high points? Well, one became a clear frontrunner for my RARB Song of the Year.
Well done, Shades of Blue A Cappella. You've made a fan out of me with this one.
Chi Rho's Greatest Hits so Far is one of the most fascinating a cappella albums I've reviewed in years. I don't know how many other groups have "remastered" past hits in a compilation album like this before — where the songs and arrangements from past group recordings are redone and re-recorded from the ground up — but it's the first time I've heard it done. What a fantastic way of paying homage to a group's history while also welcoming in the growth and evolution since then!
The first time I listened to Shades of Blue A Cappella's How Will I Know, I was fairly confident it would be my Song of the Year. As good as some other tracks were that I reviewed later, nothing quite came close. I've become fairly jaded and disencahted by the trope I like to call "a big pop banger, but make it slower and more dramatic" that has become quite popular in scholastic a cappella. Even when done well, I've grown tired of it. How Will I Know reminded me how much I can enjoy this format when it's given the love, attention, context, and nuance it deserves. It's so good that, months after writing my initial review, it reappears in my head and I have the urge to listen again. What a beautifully transcendant piece.
Another Day is simply a fun bop polished to brilliance, and sometimes that's all you need. It's got a sheen of charisma on every facet of its existence. It also takes full advantage of the diversity of style and genre on its home album, functioning as a perfect mid-album refresher. The track is a joyous mood booster and a fitting counterweight to my Song of the Year pick.
Quer Bach 3 showcases impeccable vocal performances by the German sextet as well as intricate arrangements, pristine tuning, and fascinating vocable choices. For those at the intersection of Western classical music and a cappella group singing, this album is for you!
The Dynamics pack a lot of songs, talent, and strengths into this long release. The production quality, arrangements, and fantastic singing make this album a must-listen!
A pitch-perfect take on this atmospheric, powerful ballad. The group executes the complex arrangment very well and soloist Luke Pace delivers a heart-wrenching performance.
A number of tracks on SUPERNOVA could have taken this spot. But the original compositions that begin and structure the album's three parts are among the most creative a cappella charts I've heard this year, none more so than this opening track by Rob D'Alessandro and Isaiah Carter. As I said of ASCENSION in my review of the album, "It sounds like the music I want to hear while the production company title cards go by in films."