Welcome to RARB Picks of the Year, 2011 Edition!
Reviewers who published at least seven reviews in 2011 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 Songs of the Year on a similar principle, again restricted to the songs that they personally reviewed for RARB.
Although this isn't a perfect album, it's got a wonderful combination of clever lyrics (in German), clever arranging, terrific singing, original songs, and hilarious liner notes. Most of what I'd like to say about the album I've already mentioned in my RARB review, but one thing I didn't mention there was that I literally burst out laughing the first time I heard the group break into the chorus of Panzerfahrn. Roughly translated, "In school I just pretended to fit in and respect others while really what I wanted to do was DRIVE A TANK!" Moments like that are what made this the most enjoyable album of the year for me.
Although the review hasn't shown up quite yet on RARB (waiting on one of the reviewers), this album gets an honorable mention because it's one of the most unique a cappella albums I've ever heard. It also contains one of my favorite songs of the year, Walking. With guitar accompaniment, this original folk-sounding song has one of the simplest yet catchiest choruses I've heard, "These are hard times...". It's beautifully sung and played. The album is definitely worth a listen by anyone looking for something outside your typical pop song covers.
This is one of the most unique songs I heard all year. Not really pop, and certainly not rock, blues, classical, etc., I'm not sure what genre it fits into. But the singing is wonderful, and the Italian is fun to listen to even if I didn't understand much of it. Each of the six singers is clearly audible and each has a gorgeous voice. To that, a haunting reoccurring whistled theme is added with some of the most pure-sounding whistling I've ever heard. I listened to the song more than five times one day without it growing old. Nicely done, Maybe6ix.
With a strong vision and some solid original material, I Used to Live Alone stands out from the collegiate a cappella pack. There's an uncommon thoughtfulness about both the music and the presentation of the album that elevate the product beyond amateur.
Smart, funny songwriting combines with excellent vocals for one of the best comedy releases of the year.
Elspeth Michaels' solo is just outstanding. The arrangement is perfectly supportive, authentic, and energetic.
An excellent track from an alum that showed a massive improvement in this group. The arrangement is fantastic — I replayed the cascade at 0:40 at least a dozen times to figure out what was happening.
This is perhaps one of the weirdest albums I've heard in stylistic choices and track listing. And that's why it works. It speaks to a very specific aesthetic, and it made me excited to hear what the group was going to do on the next track. Also, it closes with one of the only medleys I've ever found listenable, let alone liked (which I did), so that has to say something about them.
If ever I reviewed an album that squarely deserved a 4.5, this was it. Fantastic production and just a few missteps in terms of track selection make this album really great, and it's still one of the only ones of the past year that I keep coming back to.
GAH. Unfathomably low (and comfortable!) basses, a cohesive atmosphere, and a lead that actually means what he's singing? I wish I made this track.
Things I never thought I'd say: "This medley is fantastic." It just works so well, not in small part due to the fact that whoever is singing the Free Your Mind section is going off and is just ridiculously good.
I keep coming back to this one. A first-rate album that crackles with energy, fires on all cylinders, and continues to surprise me with the small touches. And they're just so freaking talented.
While not perfect, this album has grown a lot on me in the months since filing my review. The one-two punch of The Process and Polite Dance Song show the range of which the group is capable, and why Feed the Sound is a winner.
Two years ago, Durham Academy didn't have an a cappella group. Less than a year later, they produced this. I keep hearing that today's high school singers are next year's superstars, and Earth makes a very strong case for that.
I bow down in the direction of Peter Park. Rhythm & Blue takes a deep cut from Maroon 5 and gives it sass and a walking groove. And while the track itself is strong, it serves a greater purpose as the cathartic final track on House on Fire, which thematically follows a tumultuous relationship through the breakup to "The Acceptance".
The guys brought it this year, and the top of the heap for me were the Pitchforks. Six of the tracks grabbed either my heart, my head or my body in some form or another. Black and Gold was one of the most danceable tracks of the year. Thank you.
Was the Top Cats album perfect? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Was it full of emotional grit? More than most of the more successful albums from 2011 — along with stellar production that really allowed them to stretch their wings, and offers of a bit of creativity that can only get better as the guys mature in their sound and arranging skills. And truth be told, this was the album I returned to most often to give it a spin when I was feeling jaded about a cappella. You want an album that can do that without really trying.
In a year full of great scholastic originals, the pitchforks were able to pull together this mighty opus. It starts out with an atmospheric calm — this plaintive, yet scary, wish in the form of a whisper before moving into a seductive jazzy number through to a terrifying rock command returning to the original wail. Calling Out will leave you breathless and looking at your lover with a bit of a side-eye. Think of it as an Every Breath You Take for the 21st century.
Sia is a goddess. The Penny Loafers remain so true the original that I simply got lost in the passion. Kudos.
There's a reason (several, actually) why Speak Easy won the 2011 CARA for Best Jazz Album. Mastermind Aaron Jensen gives us one arranging gem after another, along with three originals that slide in seamlessly between the standards. Flawless tuning, crunchy chords, vocal horns — this is about as good as it gets.
Only a handful of all-male collegiate ensembles could put out a collection of tracks as good as All In. Bold song choices, killer leads, and fresh, definitive takes on the likes of Fireflies and Viva La Vida — not to mention an original song — put the Pitchforks head and shoulders above their peers.
This is easily the best and most creative track on an album full of them. Aaron Jensen's epic arrangement captures the Broadway atmosphere of the original and yet somehow sounds nothing like it. Pure genius.
On an album that prioritizes technical excellence over artistry, this thoughtful Rufus Wainwright cover stands out for its honest emotion and its clever, complex arrangement. More, please!
Today's technologies make imitative accuracy a mere matter of time and money. While still a necessary component of RARB metrics, pitch, rhythm, percussion sounds and more are in the hands of editors and producers as much as singers and music directors. Average recordings are perfectly in tune, but often perfectly predictable. To rise above this heightened level of mediocrity requires not impossibly greater accuracy, but bold creativity. Gabbahey's stunningly inventive work transcends the accuracy checklist, creating unexpected chords and beautiful textures in support of a powerful emotional core.
No More Bets is the result of both macro- and microscopic attention, and the effort has resulted in an album that may do nothing less than redefine what it is to create a collegiate album. "Jin doh ah" is officially dead, and Bruin Harmony just put the final nail in the coffin.
It's rare to hear originals at the collegiate level, rarer still that the writing has a maturity beyond the writers' years. Elspeth Michaels delivers a lead of power and intimacy which haunts and warms us, making Boomerang a standout song. Here's hoping for more from these young artists. All-original collegiate album? With tracks like this, yes please!
Chilling and majestic, this piece shows both delicate respect for space and unabashed strength. It's a worthy start to an incredible album.
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