Signed Professional Groups
Artist of the Year
Winner: Boyz II Men
No group or individual has done more for contemporary a cappella music during the last year than Boyz II Men. In the last five years, the pop music scene has rediscovered the joys of vocal music. A slew of vocal groups -- New Kids on the Block, En Vogue, Color Me Badd, Hi-Five -- have ridden the wave to fame and fortune. Many of them have flirted with a cappella, busting a few measures during an interview or an awards telecast, but Boyz II Men has consistently proven their commitment to the genre, forcing a cappella up to the top of the charts. Their incredible success has demonstrated to a generation of musicians and fans that a cappella is viable, accessible, and cool. Their successful formula has been to introduce an a cappella tune on the coattails of a megahit: "Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" followed "Motownphilly," and they followed their ultra-smash "End of the Road" with "In the Still of the Night," sparking a doo-wop renaissance. One can say without hesitation that they have paved the way for other chart-topping a cappella groups, the first of which is Shai, whose hit "If I Ever Fall In Love" shared the Top Five with "In the Still of the Night" towards the end of last year. All this, and they've only released one full-length Album! At their young age, Boyz II Men can only grow stronger artistically over the course of this decade, and the a cappella community can only benefit.
Runner up: Rockapella
Would somebody please give Rockapella a recording contract? Their daily appearances on the PBS kids' game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and its accompanying soundtrack Album have gained them a slew of young fans in America, while their three Japanese Albums (To NY, From NY and Bash, a Christmas Album) have made them an actual pop phenomenon in the Far East. They have done national radio and TV advertisements for Taco Bell, Budweiser, and many other Large and Powerful Corporate Interests. Their sound continues to get more polished with every project, while their Original Songs get catchier and more cleverly written. They are a band whose star is rising; look for them soon on a pop chart near you.
Best Signed Professional Album
Winner: In This Land - Sweet Honey in the Rock
Bernice Johnson Reagon and her tremendously talented cohorts have recorded their Best Album yet. Previously, there was no substitute for the power of their live performance, but finally their CD In This Land accurately reflects the conscience and soul that defines Sweet Honey in the Rock. Their elaborately woven textures are more varied than on previous Albums, and the solo performances are exquisite. As always, their lyrics blend politics and spirituality with careful insight and sensitivity; "I Be Your Water" and the title track are excellent examples of this formula. "Fulani Chant" is a gorgeous and delicate piece, and "See See Rider" features a world-class solo performance by Aisha Kahlil.
Runner up: From NY - Rockapella
Rockapella made four excellent Albums this year, but the Best is clearly Rockapella Two: From NY. "Zombie Jamboree" is no longer their Best song - in fact, it's not even in the top ten, with classics like "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" and "Heart of Gold" and excellent originals including "I Like You Very Much" and "Fliptop Twister." The only drawback is that you can't get this album in the US. There are places that import it, but it'll cost you $30. Is it worth it? If you wish the Nylons would lose the backing tracks and sing some rock & roll, then the answer is an overwhelming yes.
Best Signed Professional Original Song
Winner: My Home - Rockapella & The Persuasions
Rockapella's Sean Altman and collaborator David Yazbek have written a classic. And the performance by Rockapella and the Persuasions, featured on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, is clean and moving. Sean Altman and Jerry Lawson share the solo and trade lines with a comfortable vocal strength and freedom. You can't help but smile at the warmth and sincerity they bring to this song. This tune is destined to receive lots of attention, as it will fit in almost any a cappella group's repertoire. Sometimes the simplest things are the best, and "My Home" is simply the Best thing we've heard this year.
Runner up: In This Land - Sweet Honey in the Rock
"In This Land" is a powerful expression of a homeless person's anger and disillusionment. Unlike many "political" songs, the lyrics do not patronize. The melodic lines overlap in a conflicting counterpoint that underlines the tension and distress in the group's rich voices. Steve Langley has written a song that ranks with Sweet Honey's very best.
Best Signed Professional Cover Song
Winner: Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress - Rockapella
We hate to go on about songs that you have to import from Japan, but we have no choice. They're just that good. "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" is three minutes of high-energy vocal prowess. The background settles into a smooth groove as Scott Leonard goes completely nuts with the solo. You couldn't ask for more in a Cover Song of a classic rock tune. It makes you want to climb into a convertible and drive 90 miles an hour through Southern California.
Runner up: Heart of Gold - Rockapella
Rockapella has found a comfortable niche between rock and doo-wop a cappella that relies almost entirely on clean, simple background parts, and a solo that blows wide open. Neil Young would be proud listening to their version of his classic "Heart of Gold." Many a collegiate group will consider covering this deceptively facile arrangement and solo, but will learn the hard way that it takes incredible skill to make it sound that easy.
Best Signed Professional Soloist
Winner: Aisha Kahlil - Sweet Honey in the Rock
Aisha Kahlil's vocal control is amazing. In "See See Rider," she pulls and stretches her vocal lines with amazing precision. For example, she spends several measures evenly sliding up small intervals. The effect is gripping, but would be nothing more than incredible vocal control if it weren't supported with ample emotion. "Fulani Chant" is also her work, and couldn't be more different, requiring a buoyant soprano timbre and a vocal palate full of difficult-to-produce sounds. We'd love to hear Aisha record a solo album.
Runner up: Scott Leonard - Rockapella
Scott Leonard spends most of his time in that part of the Male vocal range that forces blood veins out of the neck, sending most people to a vocal therapist. Yet he swoops, soars, and floats above us all, with finesse, grace, and a healthy touch of grunge. Both "Long Cool Woman..." and "Heart of Gold" are his deft handiwork, and his shimmering, stratospheric solos are a large part of their success. And, to top it all off, we've never once seen a single vein stick out of his neck.
Unsigned Professional Groups
Best Unsigned Professional Album
Winner: Out on the Road - The Flirtations
The Flirtations made a wise choice when they decided to make a live recording, for they are a group that is as much about their communication with an audience as their music. This album has a spirit -- an energy that you can taste and feel while you listen. And unlike so many live albums, the recording is so clean you'd swear they brought their audience inside a studio. Out On The Road is a work best listened to from beginning to end, as the songs complement each other in painting a picture of humor, compassion, and understanding.
tie for Runner up :
Sweet Harmony - Main Attraction
The Cafe at the Gate of Salvation - The Cafe at the Gate of Salvation
Sweet Harmony is a gem. Seattle's Main Attraction has put together a happy, incredibly consistent album of R&B/gospel tracks; imagine the 17th Ave. All-Stars meets Take 6 with a tastefully programmed drum machine. There is an even mix of originals and covers, all receiving the same mellow, finger-snapping treatment. Definitely a good album to have for warm summer days.
The Cafe at the Gate of Salvation's self-titled debut album heralds from the Sydney A Cappella Association. It's an album of original gospel songs, sung with strength and soul by some amazing Soloists. If you're a connoisseur of gospel, this album is a must-have. If you shy away from gospel because it's sometimes poorly recorded or out of tune, this album is neither. Also, its gorgeous yellow-tinted photography throughout earns it the title of Best Professional Album Art. Unfortunately, you can't get it anywhere in the States.
Best Unsigned Professional Original Song
Winner: Everything's Possible - The Flirtations
"Touching" isn't a word in your usual a cappella vocabulary. But there's no better word to describe "Everything's Possible," an a cappella lullaby that bundles many of the hopes and anxieties of parents into a song reminiscent of an Irish ballad. Michael Callen's warm, resonant tenor is tremendously affecting as he sings the first verse alone. The group's seamless blend appears, and carries the song gently, through to the last line, "the only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you're gone."
Runner up: Don't Wait (For Sunda) - The Cafe at the Gate of Salvation
"Don't Wait (For Sunday)" infuses a number of a cappella traditions, including chords from Bulgarian women's choral music and the sound of shape-sung hymns. Whatever was in Tony Backhouse's ear and mind while he was writing, it works. This song is fresh, clean, and uplifting.
Best Unsigned Professional Cover Song
Winner: Hurdy Gurdy Man - The EDLOS
The word is out -- and the word is "weird." For that left-of-center a cappella experience, there's nothing like the EDLOS, and "Hurdy Gurdy Man" does not disappoint. The first thing you notice is the sweeping, string-quartet-like chords, awash in reverb. Then Ed Cohn kicks in with a flawless reproduction of Donovan's trademark tremolo, as the rest of the group gurgles glottally and whines like cats in heat. Then all four lock in a blissful tremolo unison -- interspersed with sweeping, accordion-on-steroids expulsions -- finally climaxing in a barrage of ape-like cries, presumably from the hurdy-gurdy man's monkey. Did we mention that this song was sort of weird?
Best Unsigned Professional Soloist
Winner: Antowaine Richardson - Main Attraction
Antowaine is so effortless in his solo delivery that you forget he's singing, and just lose yourself in the smooth sound of his voice. He's got just the kind of voice that doo-wop groups were formed around; soulful, dextrous, and full of emotion, he's part Motown and part LA (which is quite an accomplishment, coming from a group based in Seattle). He sings lead on most of the songs on the Album with an understated soulful styling. I wouldn't be surprised if he's hired to sing the theme song to the next Disney animated hit. He's that good.
Runner up: Tony Backhouse - The Cafe at the Gate of Salvation
Tony Backhouse's voice can be heard several times on The Cafe..., and each time he manages to cleverly shape otherwise simple melodic lines. He's very effective at blending into the ensemble and then appearing again, wrapping around notes, gliding above the sopranos, growling between the tenors and baritones. Few ensemble leaders have as clear an understanding of their group's sonic spectrum, and how their voice fits within as a Soloist.
Best Female Collegiate Album
Winner: On The Rocks - UNC Loreleis
Of all the female collegiate albums we heard this year, On The Rocks was the clear favorite, hands down. While it is only available on cassette and the production is not as crisp as some of the other albums in the running, On The Rocks consistently wowed us with its diverse song choices, innovative arrangements and impressive solo performances. Songs like Prince's "Kiss" (featuring a sexy solo by Sara Austin) and Madonna's "Borderline" are juxtaposed with standards like "Amazing Grace" and "Body and Soul" (led admirably by Jennifer Gaydosh). Also notable is "Tellin' Me Lies," from the Ronstadt/ Harris/ Parton Trio Album, which features three deftly interlocking trios. The vocal percussion is excellent throughout the Album, especially on "Tangled" and the original tune "What You Don't Know." The album's only glaring flaw is the inclusion of Berlin's "Metro." We frown upon Berlin. Heavily. We mean it.
Runner up: Testimony - Yale Something Extra
This CD is impeccably recorded and executed, featuring a diverse collection of folk, pop and vocal jazz -- all admirably handled by the capable Something Extra. The arrangements and solos are crisp and solid; the tuning and blend are seamless. Especially notable are "The Man with the Child in His Eyes," featuring a haunting solo by Anne Johnsos; Laura Chequer, whose solo on the folk ballad "As Gentle Tides" soars and dips like the rolling Irish hills; and "Shenandoah," featuring the delicately beautiful voice of Christine Kuper.
Best Female Collegiate Song
Winner: Tangled - UNC Loreleis
"Tangled" is a joy to listen to -- ear candy from end to end. The tune was performed on the Pretty Woman soundtrack by Jane Wiedlin, former bassist for the Go-Go's. Well, Jane, go back to your axe -- the Loreleis have gone you one better. Liesl Puckett's simple but effective arrangement is peppy and engaging; the background voices interlock in staccato counterpoint, building to thick chords at the chorus. Sally Stevens' understatedly beautiful solo voice puts Jane's to shame. Two live vocal percussionists provide an excellent rhythm track that keeps the song moving and gives it a Professional quality.
Runner up: This Woman's Work - Jackson Jills
"This Woman's Work" is a hauntingly emotional song, written by Kate Bush, is interpreted beautifully by the Jackson Jills. On the solo, Sara Vahabi (see below) confidently spans a range of vocal and emotional textures. Amanda Jacobs' arrangement starts out delicately and gradually builds in intensity, washing the listener in chords of agony and pathos. The song has been impeccably engineered as well.
Best Female Collegiate Arrangement
Winner: Road to Nowhere - UNC Loreleis
Several of the arrangements on On the Rocks are textually complex, comprised of several interesting layers, each with their own rhythms and syllables. "Road to Nowhere" is no exception, as the solo rides above an amalgam of syncopated parts, combining to fill almost every sixteenth note with a different combination of sounds. We understand that arranger and basso-profundo Soloist Nancy Ingram is pursuing a career in music; she is clearly on the right track.
Runner up: As Gentle Tides - Something Extra
Priscilla Anderson's arrangements on Testimony are all wonderful, each very successful in its own way, but "As Gentle Tides" is particularly well considered and constructed. She has taken a simple, moving Irish folk ballad by Sandy Denny and transformed it into a world music influenced masterpiece. Its gorgeous four part texture rings with hints of Bulgarian choral traditions and pan-Asian pentatonic scales. The chords range from simple and traditional - several are dissonant, resulting in a rich, satisfying sound.
Best Female Collegiate Soloist
Winner: Sara Vahabi - Tufts Jackson Jills
Many Soloists who attempt Kate Bush songs spend most of their energy just trying to keep up with her inevitable vocal roller-coaster rides. Not so with the Jills' Sara Vahabi, who attacks "This Woman's Work" admirably, beginning with a spine-tingling, lilting vibrato and building up to a powerful expression of restrained agony as she sings, "I should be crying but I just can't let it show." Sadly, this is Sara's only solo on Seven Generations, but fortunately the group has dibs on her until at least 1995.
Runner up: Amanda Jacobs - Jackson Jills
Amanda Jacobs has star quality. Her soul-shouter presence and vocal control are reminiscent of another collegiate diva, last year's CARA winner Veronica Lustre. Her razor-sharp voice cuts through blue notes like butter. Unfortunately, "Let It Go," her only solo on Seven Generations, suffers from an over-ambitious arrangement, and she is graduating this year. We expect big things from her after college.
Best Mixed Collegiate Album
Winner: Shut Up and Sing - Yale Red Hot & Blue
Shut Up And Sing is full of shimmering complex harmonies and smooth solos. Red Hot & Blue has a reputation for being one of the nation's most consistently excellent Mixed Collegiate a cappella groups, and this year proves no exception. Excellent arrangements of jazz standards are given sensitive treatment, and the result is an Album of great clarity. It also has a cohesive sound and mood, perfect for candlelight dinners and cocktail parties. If you like vocal jazz, this is a great Album to have.
Runner up: Unanimous - Stanford Mixed Company
Unanimous is diverse, clever, silly, and quite good. There are several unique tunes, including Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 (Jenny)" and They Might be Giants' "Particle Man." "The Sweater," a wry monologue with accompaniment, is delivered exceptionally well by Molly McKenna, and is easily the most bizarre Collegiate track on any Album this year.
Best Mixed Collegiate Song
Winner: Calling You - Yale Red Hot & Blue
Occasionally a song choice, group, arrangement, and Soloist align, melding into a perfect collegiate a cappella song. "Calling You" is such a moment. This song, featured in the movie Baghdad Cafe, has been recently heard on a series of AT&T commercials. Usually that kind of exposure strips a song of meaning, but this version breathes more than ample life into it. The arrangement is full and perfectly balanced, the performance by the group is stellar, and the solo is sensational. You'll find yourself rewinding this track over and over, not wanting to leave the mood in which it so completely immerses you.
Runner up: Englishman in New York - U. Michigan Amazin' Blue
"Englishman In New York" is simple and very much like Sting's original. And it works wonderfully. Certainly the Best thing about the song is the fabulous Branford Marsalis sax line throughout by Anna Callahan, though there are many other wonderful moments, including a superb talking drum. This song is from the superb album ABCD, which also includes several tracks from last year's multiple CARA-winning album Coed Naked A Cappella.
Best Mixed Collegiate Arrangement
Winner: Sesame Street - Yale Red Hot & Blue
Usually Collegiate arrangers stay within the general feel of the original version of a song, but that's too easy for the talented, educated, vocal jazz-savvy arrangers in Red Hot & Blue. "Sesame Street" sounds nothing like you think it will. Or could. It's a little like a smooth, strolling version of Gershwin's "Summertime" with periodic chord changes. This very ambitious arrangement succeeds because it creates a mood different from the original, but still true to the flavor of the song. It's very cool, relaxed, and effective.
Runner up: Mad About You - Stanford Mixed Company
Sting's original "Mad About You" is texturally complex, with numerous polyrhythms and contrapuntal lines. This is not an easy song to translate to voices, but Ken Johnson and Suzanne Holmes have successfully translated several of the original's instrumental parts, and added other rhythms as well. The result of their hard work and combined creativity is intriguing and satisfying. Both the constant flow of syncopations and the uniquely clever syllables make the background parts fun to sing along with, once you get the hang of it, that is.
Best Mixed Collegiate Soloist
Winner: Marya Grandy - Yale Red Hot & Blue
Marya can really sing. In "Calling You" she uses every piece of her voice - from timid to fearless, from cautious to careless, from classical control to soulful stylings. She grabs a hold of the melodic line with the beginning of her breath and doesn't let go until her lungs collapse. It's rare for a Collegiate vocalist to give so much in one song, and it's rewarding to be able to hear how successful such persistence can be.
Runner up: Amy Hunn - Stanford Mixed Company
A simple and clever arrangement of Miles Davis' "All Blues" (by one time Duke Out of the Blue music director Kim Lathrop) serves as the perfect backdrop for Amy Hunn's clear, warm, and dextrous voice. She phrases many of her lines with a smooth trumpet-like determination, and scats like a professional, turning this difficult, ambitious song into an effective vocal jazz piece.
Best Male Collegiate Album
Winner: 30 Minute Fun Break - Stanford Fleet Street Singers
What an album! Fantastic Soloists, arrangements, mixing, music direction, and group sound make for the Best Male Collegiate Album released in 1992. There were several very good albums, but 50 Minute Fun Break is of Professional quality. In addition to all of the other CARA's it has won, this album also has the Best original Collegiate song ("Prayer to the God of Partial Credit"), the best cover design and art of any collegiate album (full-color computer-rendered 3-D graphics), and the best engineering we've ever heard on any collegiate album. Ever.
Runner up: 1992 Whiffenpoofs - Yale Whiffenpoofs
Year after year, the Whiffenpoofs are always one of the Best Collegiate a cappella groups. Their latest album, 1992 Whiffenpoofs proves this year to be no exception. Elegant versions of classic songs are performed with impeccable taste. Whether you call the style "Ivy a cappella" or "Collegiate vocal jazz," they continue to define the genre with their precision and excellent voices.
Best Male Collegiate Song
Winner: You Always Hurt the Ones You love - Stanford Fleet Street Singers
Spike Jones would be proud. His whimsical version of the previously dour classic is brought to digital life by the Fleet Street Singers. Ben Evans, the group's music director, and Ben Meisel must have spent hours recording all of the vocal special effects that pepper this song. We found ourselves laughing at the humor of the effects and at the same time amazed that so much could be going on at once. Highlights include a mid-song spin down the radio dial to a soap opera in progress, and a skip in the record complete with frustrated scratch and new needle drop (on CD, of course). And the editing is seamlessly clean. Plus, it's a great song, great arrangement, and both the group and soloist sound great (I'm all adjectived out). Frankly, all things considered, an unbelievably professional track.
Runner up: Freedom '90 - Brown Jabberwocks
This tune is indicative of the rest of the Jabberwocks' Sharpest Tools in the Shed: while not perfect technically, it crackles with such an intense energy that the flaws fall by the wayside. Starting with a wicked rhythm track by Ben Gregg (easily this year's best collegiate vocal percussionist), Peter Welch's straightforward arrangement kicks in as Welch holds his own trading solo lines with the godlike Matt Dobkin.
Best Male Collegiate Arrangement
Winner: Crazy - Conn. College CoCo Beaux
"Crazy" is an exceptionally well constructed arrangement. Treating voices as instruments or parts of a synthesizer, Karl Warner weaves a tapestry of sounds and colors that mirror Seal's original version. (The only fault in the recording is that it's a little too slow to work up the methodical momentum of the original.) Hopefully more arrangers will take a cue from Karl and devise new, interesting ways to treat voices.
Runner up: Africa - UNC Clef Hangers
Like "Crazy," this song opens its Album and proves to be a hard song to follow. There are at least twelve parts, four of them vocal percussion, all intertwining to form a subtle texture. It's like the original by Toto, except better.
Best Male Collegiate Soloist
Winner: Matt Dobkin - Brown Jabberwocks
Matt Dobkin is all over the Jabberwocks' Sharpest Tools in the Shed, and deservedly so. Quite simply, Matt has one of the most unabashedly soulful voices we have ever heard. His throaty baritone and dextrous vocal control overpower anything in the vicinity. He glides through lyrics, dipping and flipping like a professional. His interpretation of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" is absolutely spine-tingling; his plaintive rendition of Elvis' Costello's "Everyday (I Write the Book)" is masterful; his vocal gymnastics routine at the end of "Young Americans" would make Take 6 jealous. If this guy isn't a major pop star within 5 years, we will be very surprised.
Runner up: Njoli Brown - Drew U. 36 Madison Avenue
Njoli has a voice that can sound 25 or 45. On "29 Ways" he flexes like the Persuasions' Jerry Lawson; on "Lonesome Road" he sounds more like a member of Chanticleer. Both are comfortably within his voice, and both are beautiful.