Hundreds, maybe even thousands of a cappella albums are released every year. The number of albums flooding the market is both a huge positive and a crushing negative. On the plus side, we know that a cappella is thriving, vibrant, and the musical equivalent of the Energizer Bunny. Album output keeps studios in business, raises the self-esteem of group members, and is the number one promoter for all of us.
The downside to the staggering number of albums released is simple: The real gems, the ones that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, the ones that change your perspective on life, are often lost in the weeds.
Depending on who you are, this post will either be very helpful for you, or completely useless. The die-hard a cappella fans will have already downloaded and listened to these albums ad-nauseum, but this post isn’t for them. It’s for the reader who is new, or inexperienced, or just looking for some new music.
I came across these albums due to various circumstances. Some I had to listen to, for judging or writing a review. Some I’ve had stockpiled in my brain for the last ten or so years. Some appeared before me with a magical beam of light, as if someone were leading me down a righteous path, or the window was open slightly and I didn’t notice it.
I fear the controversy that this post will create, because naming a five-star album from thousands of options is like telling one of your three children that “you are their favorite.” So please do not misunderstand me. If your album is not on this list, I am in NO WAY saying it is a bad album, nor am I saying it isn’t excellent. A man is entitled to his opinion, and in my opinion, these albums made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. And the more I want to talk about them, the harder it is to find others who have listened to it.
[Side Note: Compilations, such as SING, BOCA, and Voices Only are not included on this list]
So here is part 1 of the best albums you’ve never heard (in no particular order):
1) Bioluminescence by ARORA
The album of 2013. No doubt about it. One of my favorite things about SONOS…sorry…ARORA... is their ability to make so much out of so little. The chords have a tremendous amount of life to them, even though the fundamental structure of the song is a loop, which rarely changes. One of my biggest pet peeves with a cappella albums is the group’s choice of track order, and ARORA finally gives me what I want: An album that flows from beginning to end, with great care given to the order of songs. It could almost be considered an a cappella concept album that takes you on a journey from simple to complex, from light to dark, from beauty to dissonance.
Tracks you must listen to: The Bridge, Satellite, Morning Light
2) Hold That Thought by Fermata Town
I think Fermata Town believes I am stalking them, because I can’t stop talking about this album. The reason being, is that when I was desperate for something new, starved for something different, I discovered this album at the right moment, and it was like I had listened to “Sgt. Pepper” for the first time.
Hold That Thought has exactly the kind of music I want to listen to: Pop music with complex jazz harmonies, sort of like the popular Swedish band Dirty Loops. (with whom they pay homage to in Circus) This album takes the music you can’t stop listening to, and gives you an entirely new reason to be obsessed with it.
Tracks you must listen to: Seven Nation Army, Stereo Hearts, Circus
3) Beatles Connection by The Kings Singers
Nineteen. There are nineteen tracks on this album. Nineteen of the Beatles' best songs sung by one of the greatest a cappella groups of all time. The Kings Singers don’t have a beatboxer, they don’t use auto-tune, and they don’t conform to traditional harmonies. You’ve probably sung at least one of these arrangements in your high school choir, the most popular being “Can’t Buy Me Love” in a Renaissance Madrigal style or the ever popular arrangement of “Blackbird” where the tenors have one note in the entire song.
But the album is more than just these familiar songs. “And I Love Her” is harmonically complex and gorgeous. “Here Comes The Sun” is as simple and chilled as it was intended to be. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is fast and furious, with an omage to Swingle Singing. The album is much older than the others, but it remains a cappella canon.
Tracks you must listen to: And I Love Her, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Back In The U.S.S.R, Can’t Buy Me Love, Blackbird, Here Comes The Sun
4) 1812 by The Swingle Singers
I know a lot of people love the new renditions of the Swingle Singers, and I do too. But I’m also a Swingle purist, and 1812, even though it’s live, is perfect. Beatles covers, Trois Chanson by Debussy, Sondheim, Clair De Lune, and, of course, the 1812 Overture a cappella.
Oh, and by the way, it’s live (did I forget to mention that?), so everything you are hearing is real and unedited. And live. This album is live....Live.
Tracks you must listen to: 1812 overture, Lady Madonna, Another Hundred People, Clair De Lune
5) Unwrapped by Sweet Signatures
I came across this album as part of a required listening assignment. It was the first track, Santa Baby, that drew my attention right away. Not only is it extremely different, but there are sections of the song, and other songs, when the harmony is so complex and advanced that it becomes something worthy of a musical analysis. Among the throngs of Christmas albums from a cappella groups, it is very difficult to make one stand out, but Sweet Signatures succeeded.
Tracks you must listen to: Santa Baby, Deck The Halls, Silent Night/Night of Silence
6) Steps by Cluster
If you haven’t heard their rendition of Hallelujah, stop what you are doing right now and listen to it.
It’s true that the first track, “Just Kidding” uses piano, but the tracks on this album demonstrate Cluster’s real talent for music making and the re-imagining of popular jazz standards. You probably won’t recognize many of the track titles, but it’s probably better that you don’t, since you leave yourself open to being pleasantly surprised.
Tracks you must listen to: Hallelujah, Just Kidding, One Note Samba
7) Collective by Duwende
The popular podcast “Mouth Off” once did a show where both Dave and Chris listed their top ten a cappella albums of all time, and on both lists, this album was near the top or at the top. Collective is all original material, and it’s truly a shame that more people don’t know these tunes. Perhaps it was because this album was released a few years before original a cappella material was considered “the future of a cappella.”
The tunes rock. It’s as simple as that. High energy, driving beats, catchy hooks...everything that makes Duwende an a cappella household name. Don’t be turned off by the all original material. These songs are better than most of the songs on the radio today, and this album was released over five years ago.
Tracks you must listen to: Young Leaders of Tomorrow, Someone I Don’t Know, Electrify
8) Life’s So Lyrical by Forte
Speaking of original material…Forte’s all original album was released only a year ago. The kids (that’s right…high school kids) wrote these tunes themselves and after every listening, I can literally hear my self-esteem as a songwriter slipping away.
Yes, the songs are that good. No, they are not perfect, but I really wish more bands had an album as good as this one. The best part? Every song sounds completely different. The group explores different styles, like piano rock and club beats, and it’s almost hard to tell that this is the same a cappella group throughout the whole album.
Tracks you must listen to: Life’s So Lyrical, Before I Met You, Celebrate
9) Commonly Unique by The Real Group
A lot of people know the Real Group as a jazz group. While it’s definitely true that Commonly Unique is nowhere near their best album (Nothing But The Real Group probably takes that honor), the songs in Commonly Unique are really catchy and totally original.
The thing I respect the most is how different this album was from Real Group albums that came before it. Much like the Swingle Singers are doing right now, Real Group transformed their image into something new. They tried something different, and for whatever reason, I like it.
Tracks you must listen to: Substitute For Life, Cage of Promises, Big Bad World
10) Late Night Parades by Men In Drag
THIS is how you make an album.
Tracks you must listen to: Cherry Pie, Something in the Water, Pretty Girl Rock
11) Chameleon by Vox One
This is the first a cappella album I ever bought. Vox One is the a cappella group that broke up too early, and released an album that was way too ahead of their time. That’s probably why people don’t know it today. But if you want to hear one of the forerunners for the contemporary a cappella explosion, Chameleon is your best bet.
Tracks you must listen to: Chameleon, Danny Boy, Over The Rainbow