It is consistently amazing to me just how much more a cappella product is being introduced on a monthly or weekly basis now than when I first started listening 15 years ago. At times, it is actually difficult to keep up with the latest albums, singles, YouTube videos, etc.
Well, I’m going to do what I can to help all of us in the aca-community keep up with recent album releases from contemporary pro and semi-pro groups. To do so with the college groups would be virtually impossible, though I will mention a few noteworthy albums here and there as well. In any event, since this is my first post on this, I will identify and summarize albums released in the past 3 months or so, and then list those which are rumored to be coming out in the next few weeks or months. In this case, we have reached that time of year where the holiday albums come out fast and furious. It is actually astonishing how many talented groups released a holiday album in the past two years, and there are a few with tremendous potential coming out this season as well.
Most of the albums which have already been released are available for purchase through various digital music retailers such as iTunes or Amazon. If you, like me, are unable to purchase every single a cappella album which seems interesting (though I certainly wish I could), some of these are also available for listening through Spotify, and you can use this terrific service to listen and decide which albums are worth shelling out your hard-earned money.
Without further ado, and no particular order, here are some recent noteworthy a cappella albums:
Committed– Committed: The debut album from the winners of Season 2 of the Sing Off is full of sleek, heavily-produced tracks which make Committed sound like Take 6 on steroids (or HGH?). When the Sing Off ended last season, I believed the wrong group won. This album proves me very, very wrong. The arrangements on this record are fantastic, and the group drops surprising and mind-blowing chords and progressions like the rest of us drop spare change. The production is very tight, perhaps too much so at times (there isn’t a whole lot of air in the mixes), but there isn’t a bad-sounding track on the album. The group also takes some risks, like re-imagining the all-time southern-rock classic “Sweet Home Alabama,” a very bold choice for a song which many rock fans might well consider sacrosanct. The result? A fantastic version of the song which is as catchy and addictive as the original, but for totally different reasons. All in all, a really strong debut album and probably a must-have for any collector of contemporary a cappella.
Street Corner Symphony– Unpractice Makes Perfect: The debut album from the runners-up of Season 2 of the Sing Off is a breezy, light album with more than a touch of southern charm and a few smiles, but is perhaps a bit lacking in identity. In many ways, this album is the polar opposite of the Committed album, and it is perhaps unfair to compare the two considering the (likely) disparity in recording budgets. Contrasting with the dense, complicated arrangements which Committed chose to utilize, the arrangements here are generally more sparse, straightforward, cleaner, and more accessible to the listener. This is not a bad thing, as the performances really shine and the music is very easy on the ears. The production is clean, professional, and also accessible (meaning this is an album which will not likely cause non-acaphiles to suggest that an instrument was used in a track). The biggest problem which I feel every time I listen to this album is a sense, about halfway through, that the group hasn’t gone anywhere and doesn’t intend to leave a somewhat narrow zone of music. Yes, they do mellow music and laid-back charm very well, but the album doesn’t deviate from that model or grow a whole lot from start to finish. The talent here is unquestioned, and there are some really terrific moments on the album, so I look forward to seeing what they can do with a little more time and ambition on the next album. Bonus points for an album which features some a cappella original songs!
Tufts Beelzebubs– BATTLE: Ok, ok, I know I said no college albums. But the Beelzebubs are the exception to every college a cappella rule, right? They have been at the forefront of college a cappella for so long, and the list of their alumni in the contemporary a cappella scene (both on mic and behind the mixing board) is so extensive that each of their albums is noteworthy and closer to a semi-pro (or perhaps professional) a cappella album than to a standard college group’s album. Sure enough, they begin with a track (now on Sing 8: Too Cubed) that breaks new ground. If you are web savvy or listen to Mouth Off, you probably remember the Bubs inviting anyone with a microphone to sing a few refrains from the song “Kings and Queens” apb by 30 Seconds to Mars and email it to the group for inclusion on the recorded track. And sure enough, right before the end of the song, you hear a chorus which sounds very large indeed of singers who may well not be members of the Beelzebubs. This is not likely to be a gimmick which many groups will repeat, but it was a cool idea and I applaud the creativity. As for the rest of the album, it is really quite good. I know the guys on Mouth Off suggested that it wasn’t “ambitious” enough, but I think I disagree (or perhaps we have different applications of the word “ambitious”). The majority of the album consists of 3 types of songs: epic rock tunes (which are always ambitious to me, in the sense that they really cannot sound good without depth, experience, and a very high quality arrangement), R&B/Hip-hop tunes, and Indie Rock tunes. The first category is ambitious for the reasons I stated; the second is ambitious because it is clear that very few college groups can really pull off R&B or Hip-hop without the listener questioning: “Why, oh why, did they try this and why did they not realize they would fail?” I think the Bubs were ambitious for knowing that they could pull these tunes off where other groups could not, and I think they were generally correct. As for the indie rock tunes, I’m not sure they qualify as “ambitious” but any group which wants to really make a Rufus Wainwright song work clearly demonstrate their ambition.
All in all, a great album with top-notch arranging and production.
The Boxettes- The Boxettes: This is the EP that will be considered the turning of the tide in contemporary non-collegiate female a cappella. The timing is right, with Delilah captivating on the Sing Off and Musae captivating online and at SoJam, but this is the first album that shows that an all female group can be as badass as the boys while sounding haunting and stunningly beautiful in ways the guys simply can’t. It’s only a few songs, I know, but trust me- you need to buy this album.
Fork– Pink Noise Live: Whaaaat is happeningggg?!?! I have never seen Fork live, but it was my understanding that they consist of 4 members. I know this because the interwebs tell me so. Listening to this album, I know either my ears are lying, or the worldwide web is. In reality, I’m sure they use a variety of pedals, processors, and other goodies to get a fuller sound. Nevertheless, it is impressive. Not every arrangement blows me away, but when I remember that they are only 4 corporeal bodies, I am generally impressed.
Redline– Inbound: Just released on 11/11/11, I haven’t yet gotten my hands on this debut album. Considering it landed a track on Sing 8, it must be pretty impressive.
The Backbeats– The Backbeats (from The Sing-Off): Another album released in the past 2 weeks, another album I have not yet heard. The samples sound good, and I think I read somewhere that Sing Off arranger Ben Bram was involved in the production. Can’t wait to hear it!
And some upcoming releases:
Straight No Chaser: Six Pack, Vol. 2– Due out on Nov. 29, this EP has such diverse songs as “Like a Prayer,” “Get Ready,” and “Buddy Holly.”
Sonos: I believe an album of original music is due out next Spring from this absurdly talented group.
Musae: Their first single, “I am Woman,” is up on iTunes and was played on the Nov. 13, 2011, episode of Mouth Off! Can’t wait to hear what else is coming from this up-and-coming female powerhouse group.
Euphonism: This Washington D.C. Contemporary A Cappella League group is busily working on their full-length debut, tentatively due out in January, 2012.
And some recent and upcoming holiday releases:
The Sing-Off- Songs of the Season: This album features holiday songs covered by numerous groups from Season 3 of the show, as well as one each from Committed and The Backbeats.
Eclipse- It’s Christmas Time: I have not heard the album, but the guys at Mouth Off gave it a great review on the 11/6/11 show right here.
Rockapella- A Rockapella Holiday: Just released this past week, this is Rockapella’s third holiday album, and their first with the current lineup. It appears to have all different songs from the previous 2 holiday albums, and features some very different songs such as “Happy Christma-Hanu-Kwanzaa Holiday” and “Ukranian Carol.”
Cadence– Cool Yule: Due out any day now!
Swingle Singers- According to their recent post on Twitter, the famous Swingle Singers will be releasing a holiday EP on November 27, 2011.
PS- DON’T FORGET, each song performed on Season 3 of the Sing Off is available for purchase on iTunes and available for listening on Spotify. I suspect that these are mixes directly from the soundboard, so you get a truer sense of how the groups are singing than listening on your television. And this, indeed, is a very good thing.