Think of the book High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (or the movie with John Cusack). I’ve got lists in my head for best arrangements, best reimagination of an original, best groove, best driving music, etc. I’m also gonna provide some lists with additional examples of concepts I discuss in my substantive posts. It’ll take me some time to get this all organized, but for now, I’ll just start with the best contemporary a cappella tracks *I have heard* in the past few years. I know there is quite a bit out there which I have not heard, and there are also a ton of college tracks which are pretty amazing, but I wanted to stick with my preferred listening category first. A few of these tracks come off albums with numerous great songs, making it very difficult for me to choose… just know that these are the songs I want to replay most often from these groups.
**NOTE- THIS LIST IS OUTDATED, BUT THE SONGS ARE NOT. BRAND NEW LISTS COMING SOON!
- Sonos (Now ARORA)– I Want You Back: I already discussed this in my post on their exit from The Sing Off, but what is there not to love about this track? The grooving bassline which crawls into your ears and infects your brain, the dark, creepy take on the lyrics, or the sinewy trade-off in solos? C’mon. It’s just so good.
- Overboard– Good Day Sunshine: the original is cheery, bouncy, and a great example of the Beatles’ tight harmonies. The cover is cheerier, bouncier, and better-arranged. It also does a tremendous job of painting a soundscape; you can feel the warm sun on your skin, and then a moment two minutes in where a cloud passes over, before the sunshine is back.
- The House Jacks– Red Dress: an absolutely infectious pop/dance song off their recent album “Level,” this original is an unstoppable force of catchy hooks.
- Duwende– Billie Jean: Another Michael Jackson cover? Well, the man did produce an unending slew of hits with Quincy Jones. This cover allows enough space (something often overlooked in a cappella) to highlight one of Duwende’s greatest strengths– the ridiculous groove from the rhythm section of Ed Chung (VP) and Ari Picker (bass).
- Club for Five– Brothers in Arms: a stark, ethereal, compelling version of the Dire Straits song with a rich bass solo.
- Cadence– The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines: I can’t provide analysis of the brilliant arrangement quite like Tom Anderson deconstructs it on the 8/7/11 episode of Mouth Off, so you’ll have to listen to the podcast to get a more informed explanation. But I simply love the way the song has space where necessary, an unbelievable groove, and of course the ridiculous skill necessary to pull off some very difficult chords and progressions.
- The Swingle Singers– No More “I Love You’s”: Arrangement. Arrangement. Arrangement. Jo Goldsmith-Eteson takes a song which has been covered thousands of times by a cappella groups, pushes them all aside, and emerges with a dissonant, rubato version that is haunting and taunting. And after seeing The Swingles live, I can confirm that their pure talent and musicality makes them perhaps the only group that could pull of an arrangement like this.
- Firedrill!– Can’t Stop Thinking of You: a taut, gritty song which ebbs and flows beautifully. I can’t describe it exactly, but the solo and backs have such emotion and edge that they cut deep to the bone.
- basix– Diversity: I just have to put this song on here for the sake of boldness. It is bold lyrically (an original, btw), harmonically, rhythmically, and even production-wise.
- Cluster– Let You Go: shimmery arpeggios, sparkling color tones, and then a full-blown organ/keyboard solo? Um, yeah.
- The Boxettes– Free: this moody, atmospheric song will surely be looked at as one of the more revolutionary all-female a cappella tracks, due in no small part to VP Bellatrix’s powerful lip buzz chugging along underneath plaintive wails.
…more songs coming!
You should buy these tracks and the albums from which they came to support these absurdly talented artists, but you can also find some of the tracks on various a cappella compilations (e.g. SING) which are incredibly worthwhile investments. Some of the songs are also available to view on YouTube.
BEST AMERICAN PRO/SEMI-PRO GROUPS
Since this list is totally subjective and far from exhaustive, I will limit this category to groups that I have either seen live or whose albums I have purchased. These groups are presented in no particular order. Happy to hear suggestions for groups I overlooked or neglected.
– The House Jacks
– Naturally 7
– ARORA (nee Sonos)
– Blue Jupiter
– Five O’Clock Shadow
– Take 6
– Street Corner Symphony
– The Exchange
BEST NON-AMERICAN PRO/SEMI-PRO GROUPS
– The Swingle Singers
– The Real Group
– Club for Five