Editor’s Note: This week’s playlist is straight outta our Assistant News Editor Aarthi Ramnath’s music library. An a cappella aficionado, Aarthi’s selected some of her favourites from the genre—ranging from original compositions to Indian song covers. I personally think this is one of the best playlists we’ve put together so far.
When it’s all about voice
Written by: Aarthi Ramnath
Ever since the hit 2009-TV drama ‘Glee’ and the 2012 musical comedy ‘Pitch Perfect’, a cappella acts have been having their moment. From university choirs to independent musicians and groups, all have flaunted their musical pipes and harmonies to make a cappella a unique musical genre.
But, what is a cappella?
A cappella (also written ‘alla cappella’) is Italian for ‘in the church style’. It is essentially a musical arrangement written for the human voice where both instruments and melodies in a song are sung by an individual or a group. As the name suggests, it has roots in the Christian choral music, but it has been long since it moved away from that. Most of the popular a cappella that is out there today are covers of popular songs, with very few original arrangements.
With that out of the way, here are some of my favourite tracks:
Some original compositions:
- ‘Spread Love’ by Take 6. This a cappella act from Alabama, USA formed in the 1980s. They won their first Grammy for their debut album ‘Take 6’ in 1988 which features this lovely song.
- ‘Rasathi’ from ‘Thiruda Thiruda’. This is hands down my favourite composition from AR Rahman. Inspired by South African Mbaqanga which has a jazzy feel to it, ‘Rasathi’ is also considered the first a cappella in Tamil music.
- ‘Breathe’ by Backstreet Boys. This one is recent, it is from their album ‘DNA’ for which they are currently touring (and will be in India next week). This track really shows off their vocals, but seriously, what can’t they do?
- ‘Moon River’ by Jacob Collier. Okay, I cheat a little here. This one is not entirely original but is a rendition of ‘Moon River’ by Henri Mancini and Johnny Mercer which was sung by Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. This rendition is so unlike the original, I am willing to consider it part of this list.
Some of my favourite cover songs:
- ‘Teenage Dream’ by Glee cast ft Darren Criss. I had to include a Glee number up top because this cover is just that good! This rendition of the famous Katy Perry song is groovy and sweeps you right off your feet. (Dare I say it, even better than the original).
- ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Pentatonix. ‘Queen’ are masters of adding drama to their music and the only other band that can begin to do justice to the complicated scores is Pentatonix.
- ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ by Home Free. Many have tried to recreate this American folk song written in 1913, most notably by Bob Dylan in 1961. It was later popularised by the fictional band Soggy Bottom Boys in the 2000 film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ starring a young George Clooney. I may be biased, but Home Free’s cover of the song is nothing short of magic.
- ‘Sea Shanty Medley’ also by Home Free. This one had been going around on my social media a few weeks ago. Maybe it sounds familiar to you too?
- ‘Happy’ and ‘Shut up and Dance’ by Straight No Chaser. This a cappella group first originated in 1996 at Indiana University but have become an independent group now. They still retain nine original members. Although they rose to fame with Christmas numbers, I love their discography, especially these two songs listed above.
Great university a cappella groups:
- ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ by Hullabahoos. Hullabahoos is an all-male group from University of Virginia which started in 1987. The song itself is a classic but to sing it without instruments is definitely a feat in my books.
- ‘Death of a Bachelor’ and ‘Electric Love’ by Juxtaposition. Also, an all-male varsity musical group from Virginia Tech. They have incredible voices and just put out their 14th album.
- ‘Breakeven’ by Pitch Slapped. Pitch Slapped is a co-ed a cappella group representing the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. I am a big fan of the original song and artists The Script. This is a solid cover, IMO.
A few Indian options:
- ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’ and ‘Ghanan Ghanan’ by Penn Masala. Something about AR Rahman’s compositions beautifully lend themselves to a cappella. One of the first groups to bring them to life was University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Masala, an Indian a cappella group formed in 1996. I also love their rendition of ‘Yuhi Chala Chal Rahi’ also by AR Rahman.
- ‘Dil Se’ by Berkeley Dil Se. University of Berkeley’s South Asian co-ed a cappella group is top-notch, and so is this cover.
- ‘Mann Mera’ by Chai Town. Chai Town is an all-male, South Asian a cappella group formed in 2001 at the University of Illinois. I really like this cover of theirs from their 2015 album.
Fantastic European folk songs:
- ‘Vuelie’ by Cantus. A rendition of this was made popular by the ‘Frozen’ franchise. This song is inspired by the Scandinavian Sami people's culture and traditional form of song, yoiking.
- ‘Gøta’ by The Real Group and Peder Karlsson. This is a lovely musical arrangement from Swedish a cappella musical group The Real Group and Peder Karlsson. The dynamic buildup of the song is truly out of this world.