Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Best Albums You've Never Heard, Part 2

Hey you! Did you know there are some fantastic a cappella albums that have eluded your grasp, just because you didn’t come across them in your travels? Here is a list (in no particular order) of the a cappella albums that you should be listening to right now.

(For part 1 of this article, see: http://acappellaquest.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-best-albums-youve-never-heard-part-1.html)

1) GQ by GQ

Why should you listen to this album? Because these girls can SING. I don’t typically listen to Barbershop music in the car, but this album is way beyond mere barbershop. First of all, the barbershop tunes that ARE on this album are so perfect and so vocally amazing, that you can’t help but sit silently, listening to vocal perfection, while drool escapes your mouth. But for the non-barbershopper, there are jazz songs, a Fiona Apple cover, a Scottish folksong, and the crème de la crème, the absolute, most amazing cover of Plain Gold Ring you’ll ever hear in your life- an epic 5-minute multitracked collage of sound.

Tracks you must listen to: Plain Gold Ring, Hot Knife, Put Your Arms Around Me Honey

2) Tintinnabulation by the Virginia Belles

I came across this album while listening to tracks for Voices Only nominations. I’m thrilled that these girls have gotten their fill of credit, with tracks on Voices Only and BOCA. This album is full of finely crafted arrangements, including a beautiful rendition of “Your Song” and a burning rendition of “Rumour Has It.” Give this album your attention, or at least listen to them on the compilations.

Tracks you must listen to: Rumour Has It, Your Song, Fire, Do My Thing

3) Wonders of the World by Five O’Clock Shadow

This is probably a little behind the times, after all this album came out over a decade ago. But the tunes (almost all original) are some of the best a cappella tunes I’ve ever heard. For a whole year in college, this album was one of the only ones I listened to. One of my all time favorite a cappella songs was, and still is “What’s It All About.” Critics of the album claim the songs are too effect heavy, and maybe that’s true, but it doesn’t stop the songs from being incredibly catchy.

Tracks you must listen to: Inside Her Mouth, What’s It All About, Promise You This

4) Rhapsody in Bob by The Bobs

For someone who likes a cappella so much, you’d think my favorite musical piece of all time would be something vocal. But it isn’t. A lifelong Gershwin fan, nothing moves me more than Rhapsody In Blue, and the Bobs took the premise and ran with it. True, it isn’t entirely a cappella (the song has piano accompaniment), but they are the only a cappella group to attempt the entire song, all 17 minutes of it. Love or hate the Bobs, this is an epic feat worth discovering.

Tracks you must listen to: Rhapsody in Blue, I was a Teenage Brain Surgeon

5) Har Ar Passion by Riltons Vanner

This album is a perfect case of why you should never let a foreign language turn you off from listening to something new. I can’t understand a single word in any of these tracks, and I know them all by heart. The music is catchy pop with a little bit of jazz thrown in. It’s a shame the group no longer exists, but this album proves that the time they had was really worth it.

Tracks you must listen to: Har Ar Passion, Folket Fran Ea, Schack Matt

6) Smiley Laughy Happy Facey by Mister Tim

I both love and hate Tim. He produces a comedy a cappella album that basically solidifies him as the Weird Al of a cappella, when really, that’s what I wanted to be, because I love Weird Al, not because I have any looping talent. This album is hilarious. Simple as that.

Tracks you must listen to: We Arr Who We Arr, Hawaii, Baby, Don’t Stop Buh-LEED-in

7) German Verboten by Maybebob

And speaking of hilarious…Maybebop.

Tracks you must listen to: Krautpleasers, Smells Like Teen Spirit

8) Ricochet by Richmond Octaves

Runner-up for the CARA for Best Male Collegiate Album. My very first review was for this album, and I was blown away by the incredible interpretations of songs that I considered to be “overdone” in the a cappella world at the time. Their version of “Too Close” is the only version I’ve heard that actually does the song justice. While I criticized them for their choice of which track goes where on the album, watching them gain notoriety with appearances on several compilations solidifies what I originally thought: This album is phenomenal.

Tracks you must listen to: Never Close Our Eyes, Too Close, Basket Case

9) Rock Paper Shotgun by the Northwestern Undertones

So this is a case of don’t judge an album by its first two songs. I admit, when I heard it, it wasn’t particularly interesting to me, until I got to “Party.” Though I didn’t write the review for CASA,  a friend of mine did, and before he wrote that review, he and I had a long discussion on the merits of the album versus the flaws. He was right and I was wrong- the album, through and through, is well crafted and a lot of fun. After listening to the album umpteen times, my mind was turned.

Tracks you must listen to: Party, Gunpowder and Lead, I’ll be Waiting

10) The Hexachords EP by The UMASS Hexachords

These guys are ahead of the curve- a student run college group made up of only six singers, that took second place at the most recent ICCA semi-finals. Their EP is brilliantly arranged, and really showcases what a small group can do. Their album is available on Loudr.

Tracks you must listen to: Party Song Mashup, Stand By Me

11) Stratosphere by Fundamentally Sound

My friend Lee Stovall is an up-and-coming a cappella arranger with a tremendous amount of talent. . I dare anyone to find an a cappella track that is more powerful and more emotionally heavy than “Killing In The Name.”

Tracks you must listen to: Killing In The Name, I Believe in a Thing Called Love, The Luckiest


Q: Hey…how come you don’t include albums by popular groups like Pentatonix, Rockapella, Take 6, The Bubs, The Sil’hooettes, etc.

A: Because this post is called “albums you’ve never heard.” As an author, I’m assuming that a cappella fans will know the majority of popular groups by name, and will already own several, if not all, of their albums. Just because they aren’t on this list, doesn’t mean they are unworthy of your attention. By all means, hunt these groups down. They are well-known for a reason.

Q: Can I write you hate mail if I don’t see an album on your list?

A: I’d prefer if you didn’t, but I welcome any suggestions. (Free from profanity) I love listening to new things.

Marc Silverberg

Follow the Quest For The A cappella Major:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hero Worship

I don’t know if you have noticed this trend, but I have noticed that certain pop stars get covered by a cappella groups more than others. For every Lady Gaga cover, two Ben Folds covers appear. For every Titanium, we get two covers of Hide and Seek. Why are a cappella groups drawn to certain artists, who, in the grand scheme of music, are not as popular as the Katy Perrys, One Directions, and Pharrell Williams of the world? Let’s discuss…
1) Ben Folds
Not only is Ben the champion of a cappella promotion (see: Ben Folds Presents: University A cappella!, Sing-Off) but I can understand the musical draw his songs provide. I have been a Ben Folds Five fan since I first heard "Underground" on their self-titled album. His songs are harmonically complex, full of detailed characters with backstories and plots, and his rhythmic piano style lends itself easily to a cappella syllables. Ben seems to be the underground (no pun intended) a cappella superstar-the pop star that every college bound singer can look up to. He is a music theory geek and advocate for music distribution. It’s no wonder that a cappella groups from around the world clamor to cover his songs first and foremost.
Listen to these tracks:
“Don’t change Your Plans” by the Harvard Callbacks- BOCA 2006
“The Luckiest” by VOCES 8
“Effington” by Ben Folds- Ben Folds Presents: University A cappella!
“Gone” by The Duke’s Men- The Chase
2) Sara Barellies
A cappella’s first superstar artist. You can actually hear the premiere of Gravity on BOCA 2004, with Sara singing lead. Sara proves the dream can come true: You can build your musical chops in an a cappella group, and then go on to superstardom. Just like Ben, her piano style lends itself easily to a cappella syllables and her mezzo-like range makes every female in your group fight for the solo. It also doesn’t hurt that she was the breakout judge of the Sing-Off’s longest running season.
Listen to these tracks:
“Winter Song” by Sweet Signatures- BOCA 2013
“Gravity” by UCLA Awaken- BOCA 2004
“King Of Anything” by UCD 6
3) Imogen Heap
The a cappella artist from the UK. Imogen heap is a live looper and multi-track artist…kind of like the first Peter Hollens, but not entirely a cappella. Her a cappella releases, "Hide and Seek" and "Earth," have been covered years after their release. Not only that, but lesser known Imogen Heap songs are appearing more frequently on BOCA and Voices Only compilations. Her driving beats and repetitive background parts are too catchy to resist. It also helps that she commissions a cappella groups to cover her songs and even sing with her on stage.
Listen to these tracks:
“Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap- Speak For Yourself
“Earth” by Imogen Heap- Ellipse
“First Train Home” by The Bostonians- BOCA 2011
4) F.U.N.
Without rambling on too much about Some Nights, it should be easy to see why this band is the new target for a cappella- The incredibly catchy harmonies, many of which you can improvise, the long narrative stories woven through their music, and the constant and difficult tempo changes that make groups work that much harder. Honestly, it’s fun to sing F.U.N. When their second CD finally premieres, I bet we will see a lot more covers of F.U.N. to come. Oh, and it probably didn’t hurt that Pentatonix covered "We Are Young."
Listen to these tracks:
“We Are Young” by Pentatonix- PTX Vol. 1
“Some Nights/We Are Young” by Straight No Chaser- Under The Influence
5) Michael Jackson
Before you roll your eyes and say “DUH,” let’s delve deeper into this one. Yes, Michael Jackson has always been, and will probably always be the king of pop. Yes, his albums are still among and including, the highest grossing albums of all time. Yes, we can probably sing every one of his number one singles by heart. But shouldn’t that relegate Michael Jackson songs, especially rhythmically driven beats like Billie Jean and Smooth Criminal, to the “Lion-Sleeps-Tonight-Memorial-Pile-of-Overdone-A cappella-Songs?”
In short, no. No offense to Lion Sleeps Tonight, but his songs are WAY better than that. They are iconic, and the more we hear a cappella covers, the more we hear groups either trying to promote their solo as the next Michael Jackson, or trying to cover the song in a way that no one has ever done before. And speaking as someone who has seen a lot of live a cappella, it’s clear that when a group picks a Michael Jackson song, it’s usually because someone can dance like him…which, good or bad, is always entertaining to watch.
Listen to these tracks:
“Smooth Criminal” by FORK- Helsinki
“Billie Jean/Poison” by Straight No Chaser- Six Pack Vol. 2
“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” by Duwende- Remember: The Music of Michael Jackson
6) Rihanna
The musical draw of Rihanna isn’t hard to determine. Driving beats, simple harmonies, catchy melodies, an accessible singing range- She has all the makings of an a cappella idol.
But lately, groups have been re-imagining her music in completely different ways. Why?
Maybe it is because most of Rihanna’s music contains simple harmonic progressions- simple and repetitive, so there is a lot of room to play with the form. As an arranger, I find that the songs I have the most fun arranging are the ones where the chord progression is so simple that there is room to branch out and try a slew of different things. Maybe it is the fact that most of Rihanna’s music is beat driven, so eliminating that key identification is an exciting opportunity for an arranger, because it challenges them to think of a new interpretation of the music. Or maybe people just like Rihanna. (How could you not?)
Listen to these tracks
“We Found Love” by Voices In Your Head- BOCA 2013
“Diamonds” by Nor’Easters- Equilibrium
“Please Don’t Stop The Music” by Treblemakers- Pitch Perfect: The Soundtrack
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest For The A cappella Major: