Best Signed Professional Group
Winner: Take 6
Rather than remain satisfied with the success of their first two albums, Take 6 has grown in daring new directions. 1991 saw national and international concert tours, appearances on numerous television and radio programs, and the Grammy-winning album He Is Christmas. All this was accomplished while founding member Mervyn Warren was replaced by Mark Kibble's brother Joey. In short, they've done what we all want to do: pioneer a musical style within the genre of a cappella, and at the same time achieve immense popularity and respect. Congratulations, gentlemen.
Runner up: Rockapella
Everywhere you turn, Rockapella seems to be popping up, from the first episodes of Carmen Sandiego at the beginning of the year, to their appearance on Johnny Carson's New Year's Eve Special. They had several interesting occurrences in between, including a cable special with Whoopi Goldberg, a recording contract in Japan, and a nationally televised Taco Bell ad. If they keep it up, these guys might earn the title of "hardest-working a cappella band."
Best Signed Professional Album
Winner: The Bobs Sing the Songs of... - The Bobs
Containing a few songs from their first three albums and several covers recorded for the first time, this album serves as both a greatest hits compilation and a new release. It's a landmark recording for the group in a number of ways. First of all, it's the first time we hear more than four Bobs. The old order overlaps with the new as we hear Gunnar Madsen singing with Joe Finetti and last-round auditionee Maureen Smith. Second, "drums" resound throughout, as The Bobs' signature sound expands to include vocal percussion on a regular basis, as well as a host of other imitated instrumental sounds. Third, the previous two changes have spurred them to draw from a much larger spectrum of vocal timbres and textures in their most recent arrangements. The amazing variety of sounds and styles that has characterized their decade-long career is captured here beautifully. The Bobs Sing The Songs Of... is destined to be an a cappella classic - an essential addition to any a cappella fan's collection.
Runner up: He Is Christmas - Take 6
There are few groups that are more perfectly suited to Christmas music than Take 6, and from this observation He Is Christmas was born. More traditional at times than their other two albums, He Is Christmas gives us an insight into the majesty and variety of Take 6's arranging abilities and effectively explores the subtler use of their voices.
Signed Professional Best Original Song
Winner: (Where in the World Is) Carmen Sandiego - Rockapella (Sean Altman and David Yazbek)
You can turn on your local PBS affiliate each afternoon to hear Rockapella sing the title song to one of the nation's most popular children's game shows. It's catchy, educational, and, most of all, fun.
Runner up: Through the Wall - The Bobs (Gunnar Madsen and Richard Greene)
The Bobs decided to cover one of their own songs on their most recent release. Hidden in the middle of their first album, "Through the Wall" never attracted much attention. Gunnar Madsen, during a recent interview, admitted that it has always been one of his very favorite compositions and solos because, despite all of its quirkiness, it's an honest song.
Best Signed Professional Arrangement
Winner: Helter Skelter - The Bobs (Gunnar Madsen and Richard Greene)
Nominated for a Grammy in 1984, "Helter Skelter" is one of the definitive arrangements of contemporary a cappella. Rather than translating instrumental parts to voices or relying on cliched syllables and voicings, Gunnar and Richard created a new vocabulary of sounds and textures. The arrangement deconstructs the song line by line, transforming the Beatles classic into an a cappella, post-modern performance art piece.
Runner up: Silent Night - Take 6 (Cedric Dent)
"Silent Night" seems to have a hidden message: after its Gene Puerling-esque introduction, the song shifts into a slow, ominous groove where the singers interject extra lyrics, such as "everything is all right," that seem to contradict the tone of the arrangement. The bridge is even stranger, complete with chimes and an infant's crying. The arrangement is lush and beautiful, and yet all of the dissonances in seconds and minor chords dispel the original's comforting mood. In this juxtaposition lies the song's appeal; it seems to transcend its simple beauty to reach for a higher metaphor.
Best Unsigned Professional Album
Winner: Naturally - North Shore A Cappella
1991 was good to 11-year doo-wop veterans North Shore A Cappella: they won the National Harmony Sweepstakes Championships and recorded Naturally, all while performing at least five nights a week in Boston. Their recording, available only on cassette, is an excellent example of how to keep doo-wop alive and current without breaking tradition. The sound is bright, the arrangements fresh, and the solos - the most important aspect of doo-wop - are excellent. The album works well as a unit, each song leading comfortably into the next one. Dick Paris, the group's leader, attributes the album's success to "talented people singing songs they enjoy. All aspects of the album were a democratic collaboration, and that, for us, is the best possible way to do things."
Runner up: I Hear a Rhapsody - Ambiance
Ambience is firmly rooted in the Sweet Adeline tradition - superb arrangements exactingly delivered with brilliant vocal resonance. On their 1991 album they lend their considerable talents to a surprisingly broad spectrum of jazz, pop, and classical songs.
Best Unsigned Professional Original Song
Winner: Second Chance - 17th Avenue All-Stars
The All-Stars' disc Talkin' A Cappella has a few incredible songs on it, and "Second Chance" is one of them. The song locks into a cool reggae groove supporting a powerfully-delivered solo. Composer and group member Jeff Harris' formative years were spent singing gospel music; this training melded with his pop sensibilities to produce this great song.
Runner up: Everything Used to Be - North Shore A Cappella
Doo-wop is often about reminiscing, which takes a special touch to keep from lapsing into melancholy. Guy Chiapponi's "Everything Is Used To Be," the last song on Naturally, manages to fit comfortably into their style, yet avoids sounding like so many tired doo-wop copies.
Best Unsigned Professional Cover Song
Winner: Try a Little Tenderness - 17th Avenue All-Stars
A great song choice, a great arrangement, and a great solo combine to make "Try A Little Tenderness" (the classic Otis Redding tune recently made popular by the Commitments) into a powerhouse. Rather than approach the song from a new perspective, the All-Stars were wise to build from the framework of the original version, building from a quiet sparse texture into a driving vocal jam.
Runner up: "A Little Respect - Knudsen Brothers
The Knudsen Brothers do an engaging take on Erasure's hit, "A Little Respect," keeping the vitality and danceability of the original with the use of studio effects and a prominent drum track.
Best Unsigned Professional Arrangement
Winner: Rhapsody of New York - Ambiance
David Wright was flirting with disaster when he decided to arrange Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue for four female voices and to write his own lyrics. The result, however, was brilliantly innovative, weaving the textures of the time-tested orchestration into a vocal tapestry, and spinning a witty, Porter-esque commentary on a day in the life of the Big Apple.
Runner up: With or Without You - Knudsen Brothers
The Knudsens recreate the haunting mood of U2's Number One smash. The arrangement transforms the Edge's Banshee guitar moans into a soothing monotone that gradually crescendos throughout.
Best Unsigned Professional Soloist
Winner: Jake Schroeder -17th Avenue All-Stars
"Try A Little Tenderness" and "Wonderful Tonight," Jake's contributions as a Soloist to Talkin' A Cappella, are two of the more inspired solos on the recording. Jake's rich, husky baritone is one of the finest voices in a cappella today. Founder Norm Silver's vision for the group has always been "to build a group sound from the very best solo voices around," and he has a winner in Schroeder.
Runner up: Guy Chiapponi - North Shore A Cappella
On Naturally, Guy shows the versatility of his beautiful tenor, performing Smokey Robinson's "Ooh Baby Baby," the Platters' "My Prayer" and his award-winning original "Everything Is Used To Be." The Miracles' tune showcases his flexible falsetto and imperceptible break, and he delivers his "Prayer" with clear, ringing power.
Best Female Collegiate Album
Winner: Bar Nine - Cal Golden Overtones
One of the judges liked this album so much that he 1) bought his own personal copy, 2) played it on his car stereo for months, and 3) flocked to see the Overtones whenever and wherever he could. We can see why. Having only 9 members has resulted in a bright, rich, powerful group sound that comes off great in the studio. Andria Wagner attributes the album's success to Musical Director Veronica Lustre: "She was an insufferable perfectionist. First we had to have an amazing take, then we overdubbed and punched in until each note was perfect." While the song selection is pretty traditional ("Lion Sleeps Tonight," "Fire," Yaz's "Only You"), the arrangements are creative and engaging, and the sound quality is perfect -- bright with the just the right amount of effect. Standouts include "Rockin' Robin," featuring a psychotic "House of Blue Lights" allusion; the deliciously bottom-heavy "Take It To The Limit," featuring Wagner's rich alto; and the Roches' healthy "We." Buy Bar Nine and play it in your car; if you don't have a car, buy one just for this purpose.
Runner up: Out with the Old... In with the Blue - Duke Out of the Blue
Out With The Old... is the most recent in a series of excellent albums by Duke's Out Of The Blue. Almost an hour long, the album features some of the most inventive arranging in its style. Deee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart," Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield," and Journey's "Girl Can't Help It" highlight an excellent album (which, incidentally, contains the lowest female bass we've ever heard!) The only fault we found was in the general sound of the album, which was the result of a manufacturing problem.
Best Female Collegiate Song
Winner: I wanna Be Like You - Cal Golden Overtones
The Overtones' exhilarating rendition of this Jungle Book standard intersperses catchy, lyric vocal lines with precise, syllabic accompaniment, and some of the best jungle sounds we've ever heard. Cheryl Ridder's seductive solo lends a new perspective to human-simian relations. Veronica Lustre's muted trombone solo is simply incredible. A brilliant song choice, a captivating arrangement, and a masterful performance.
Runner up: Somebody Groovy - Wash. U. Greenleafs
The Greenleafs "Somebody Groovy" off their album It Ain't Easy Being Green is a perfect example of the "less is more" camp of arranging. This Mamas and Papas classic starts with the second altos and adds a part at a time, using precise unison singing and bursts of harmony to build in its funky intensity. No fancy frills, no vocal percussion, just some good old-fashioned singin'.
Best Female Collegiate Arrangement
Winner: Material Girl - Cal Golden Overtones
C. Komoroske's arrangement of "Material Girl" is the coolest thing we've heard in a long time. The second altos sing the entire song on the syllables in Madonna's name, while the lead is actually sung by a section, in whining synchronization. The arrangement solves the problems of covering pop tunes by incorporating the "background vocals" effortlessly into the rhythmic textures of the "instruments." The tapestry of melodic vocal hooks keep the forward motion, without a breath of vocal percussion. As if all that weren't enough, Veronica Lustre's little vocal flip at the end of the breakdown is worth the price of the entire album.
Runner up: Listen to the One You're With - Duke Out of the Blue
Kim Lathrop must have been wired from an all-nighter when she came up with the deliciously twisted idea to turn the Doobies' "Listen to the Music" and Steven Stills' "Love the One You're With" into a unified work of art. Mixing the two tunes effortlessly together, combining lyrics and vocal hooks, Lathrop keeps the listener smiling, if a little off balance. The song is aggressive and full of subtle surprises, with a surging vitality that the genre too frequently lacks.
Best Female Collegiate Soloist
Winner: Veronica Lustre - Cal Golden Overtones
If you thought her name was amazing, wait until you hear her voice. Veronica is all over Bar Nine, and her soulful, rock diva sound puts her in a class with today's most accomplished pop stars. Veronica has a gift for putting new life into tired songs -- she revitalizes "Rockin' Robin," and her piercing alto provides a fascinating blend with Andria Wagner in Springsteen's "Fire." Out of so many renditions of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" on the many albums we reviewed, hers was the only one we could listen to -- indeed, even wanted to listen to -- straight through. Ms. Lustre has the warm, low notes of a blues balladeer, the vocal agility of a gospel singer, and the pop instincts that make her one to watch out for in the future.
Runner up: Amy Golemo - Smith Smithereens
Amy Golemo's spunky, dynamic solos are the shining highlight of The Smithereens' latest release Ring Around The Moon. Her high, pop, funky wails are bursting with energy and gutsy soul, and her style puts her far ahead of the pack. She is wonderful on "One Fine Day," "Operator," and "You Can Have Him," three no-nonsense, straight ahead R&B jams.
Best Mixed Collegiate Album
Winner: Co-Ed Naked A Cappella - U. Michigan Amazin' Blue
Karl Kasischke attests that Co-ed Naked A Cappella was "a hell of a lot of fun to make." And it shows -- from a clever spoof of Pachelbel's Canon to an excellent original, the fun they are having singing somehow survives the transfer to tape. Other successful songs include Howard Jones' "What Is Love," Katrina and the Waves' "Walkin' On Sunshine," and Smokey Robinson's "Tears Of A Clown." All this from a group that's only been around for five years!
Runner up: Quarter Past Six - Tufts Amalgamates
The Mates' most recent recording is one of the most consistently excellently arranged albums we've heard from a college group. Add to this a roster of solid Soloists, great song choices, and a very clean studio sound, and you have Quarter past Six - their Best Album to date. And would you believe that they've only been around for five years as well? The album title refers to the fact that when recording the album, the group was 6-1/4 years old.
Best Mixed Collegiate Song
Winner: Found a Home - U. Michigan Amazin' Blue
Many musicians fancy themselves songwriters. Some even happen to be in a cappella groups. And a few even end up performing them. Unfortunately for us, most of these originals suck. Fortunately for the Amazin Blue, group member David Im's "Found A Home" doesn't suck at all. Written and arranged specifically for the group, David sings his own contemplative solo beautifully, over a simple yet compelling background. Honestly, we didn't expect any collegiate a cappella originals to be worthy of an award, and we're all very glad that David's work is so deserving.
Runner up: Pretending to Care - Tufts Amalgamates
Todd Rundgren's contemporary a cappella standard is so exquisitely performed here that we had to acknowledge it. The background voices sensitively support Jennifer DePreist's gorgeous voice. We usually harp on groups for covering too many already a cappella songs, but the Amalgamates have proven that just one, done well, can be an invaluable asset.
Best Mixed Collegiate Arrangement
Winner: Mother's Pride - Tufts Amalgamates
New England Conservatory student and Music Director John Churchwell chose a simple ballad by George Michael and built delicate vocal structures on ideas from the sparsely orchestrated original. What's left out is just as important as what's included in this arrangement, and John's gentle vocal lines make a strong case for a minimalist approach to arranging heartfelt ballads.
Runner up: Taco Bell Canon - U. Michigan Amazin' Blue
Unsure who arranged "Taco Bell Canon," Karl Kasischke comments, "Well, it's based on Pachelbel's Canon in D and we sing it in F, so that must account for something..."
Best Mixed Collegiate Soloist
Winner: Leslie Ahern - Tufts Amalgamates
Soprano solos are hard to find in pop music, and those available are usually quite difficult to sing. Kate Bush's "The Man With The Child In His Eyes" is no exception, and Leslie Ahern delivers it beautifully. With a tender, breathy tone Leslie floats effortlessly over another beautiful Mates slow song. You can also hear her playfully singing "La Bamba" in the middle of "Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic" and floating in descants in various other songs on the album, but her best work is definitely on "Child."
Runner up: Shelly Barnard - Kenyon College Chasers
Shelly Barnard's rendition of the Bonnie Raitt tune "Have a Heart" is clearly the highlight of the Chasers' 15 People Enjoyed Having You. Her voice is smooth and consistent, yet always engaging. We wish she had been given more time in the spotlight before she graduated.
Best Male Collegiate Album
Winner: Foster Street - Tufts Beelzebubs
Foster Street has sold more than 4000 copies, which is more than any other collegiate album as far as we know. The basis for its popularity -- besides the Bubs' busy touring schedule and energetic live shows -- is that it succeeds on both the cerebral and visceral levels. The ballsy songs are impeccably executed, while the slower ones still pack a punch. The arrangements have to be heard to be believed, and the ample vocal percussion is brilliantly engineered. The brilliant solo performances clinch Foster Street's classic status. Todd Herzog struts his pipes on "Always Something There To Remind Me" and "Pinball Wizard." Rob Penn packs a wallop on "Rio," and then delivers a breathy, soulful rendition of "I Get Along Without You Very Well." Brad Linard positively swings on "Beyond the Sea." Stated bluntly: great songs, great arrangements, great Soloists, great album.
tie for Runner up:
Just Like That - Stanford Mendicants
Prairie Fire - U. Of Virginia Gentlemen
The Mendicants' 19 track album Just Like That is as exciting as it is diverse. From barbershop to rap and even an original, this album effectively represents most of the many styles of contemporary a cappella. Their fascinating arrangements are executed with musical precision and sensitivity, their Soloists are solid, and the engineering is great.
Prairie Fire has a lot of music on it. 22 songs, almost 70 minutes worth. What's more, it's all good. That should almost be enough. What we liked best about this album were the ambitious song choices: OMD, Jeff Lynne, Toad the Wet Sprocket, REM, Paul Young, Prince. The album's standouts are "Tainted Love" and "When Doves Cry," and most of all the intense rendition of Howard Jones' "The Prisoner."
Best Male Collegiate Song
Winner: Rio - Tufts Beelzebubs
"Rio" is the kind of song you play for your friends when they ask you what a cappella is all about. At least this writer does. It's almost better than Duran Duran's original version (it's certainly faster). From the breathy tidal winds and wickedly flanged percussion at the song's start to the sweet trio at the end, the arrangement grabs on and doesn't quit. Rob Penn's Teflon throat certainly -- what did we say before? -- packs a wallop. Yeah, that's it.
tie for Runner up:
Long Train Runnin' - Stanford Mendicants
Good Times Roll - Skidmore Bandersnatchers
"Long Train Runnin'", the Mendicants' version of the Doobie Brothers' classic, grooves solidly. At first, you think it's just because the arrangement, solo, and scat are all superlative. But upon listening more closely, you should be able to pick out a quiet bongo drum track that adds just a little extra flavor.
"Good Times Roll" is the highlight of the Bandersnatchers' Random. Like the original, it is consistently in your face but always slightly off-kilter. The vocal percussion is effectively snappy, and Terry Mullane's solo retains just the right touch of irony.
Best Male Collegiate Arrangement:
Winner: Comfortably Numb/Brain Damage - Tufts Beelzebubs
With vocal percussion and arrangements that often have each member of the group singing his own part, the Beelzebubs have defined a unique and successful group sound that is unlike any other. "Comfortably Numb/Brain Damage" is a good example of this - a song that most people would swear would never survive the transition to a cappella in an arrangement that justifies itself by creating something different from the original. Listen closely -- behind the solo, heartbeat, basses, and echos there's another level of vocal lines and rhythms. And the ending, interweaving trios from various portions of both songs, converges on the climactic lyric, "I'll meet you on the dark side of the moon," and fades to the trademark subliminal message.
Runner up: Brown Eyed Girl - Stanford Mendicants
Okay, so the Floyd thing is a tour de force, but if you're thinking about arranging a normal tune, the first thing you should do is listen to the tongue-in-cheek, self-aware "Brown Eyed Girl." Music Director John Livingston maintains all of the vitality of the original with a buoyant bass line and well-placed finger snaps and claps. The arrangement bounces along from first note to last with constantly changing vocal lines that intersperse scat syllables with clever lyric twists and the occasional subliminal come-on. John's other arrangements on the album are equally diverse and compelling, and with two years left in the group, we look forward to hearing his work in the future.
Best Male Collegiate Soloist
Winner: Todd Herzog - Tufts Beelzebubs
Todd's got pipes. His clear, powerful tenor electrifies "Always Something There To Remind Me" and "Pinball Wizard," and he pulls off Billy Joel's difficult "And So It Goes" with a breathy intensity. When asked if the New England Conservatory jazz voice major has anything to say about his award, Todd replied, "I'd like to thank all the little people. Oh, that's right - I am one of the little people."
Runner up: Terry Mulland - Skidmore Bandersnatchers
Terry Mullane is all over Random. His "Good Times Roll" embraces the dry quirkiness of Ric Ocasek's lyrics without resorting to imitation. His stellar live performance on "Up On the Roof" makes a good closing. But what really shocked us is his performance of "Boy From New York City." That's right -- boy. Billed on the album as "(Terri)," his falsetto is more than funny -- it's incredible. Were he to send this recording to Motown, they'd respond "Dear Ms. Mullane."