Best of British 2013: 3. Wonderwall

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day
6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow
5. All the King’s Men – Higher Love
4. The Other Guys – Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

3. The Sons of Pitches – Wonderwall

In at number 3 is one of the tracks from The Sons of Pitches‘ well received VF-UK set from 2013 and arguably one of the numbers which took them to the ICCAs in New York last April, their cover of Oasis’ Wonderwall. I’ve already raved about their album, Not Too Shabby, a masterpiece from the back end of last year, and so it’s no surprise that the group feature highly on our list.

Something the group prides itself on is their ability to make a song their own. Wonderwall is far from a straight cover of the Oasis original; in fact, the song was inspired by a swing cover by Paul Anka, and was written and arranged over one late night by the group’s vocal percussionist and now Liquid 5th employee Jack Blume. “The song immediately appealed to Jack’s sense of humour,” says Joe Novelli. “The whole concept seemed so funny and had so much performance potential for The Sons. He went home and transcribed and arranged right through the night, turned those high horn riffs into the ‘boyband’ falsetto BVs that seem to get every audience laughing, and sent us all a message saying ‘Ok, it’s 3am, but I’ve finally finished. I may be tired, but I’m pretty sure it’s funny!’”

Despite conforming to the group’s tendency to take songs apart and put them together again in their own unique way, the style of the song itself is very unusual for the boys from Birmingham, and indeed, the rest of the group were initially unsure of Blume’s arrangement. “We tend to cover a lot more chart stuff these days, throwing in dubstep, drum & bass, and occasional reggae and latin inflections for flavour,” said Novelli, before continuing: “We were all a little sceptical when Jack brought the arrangement to us and we saw he’d written ‘doo’ and ‘ba’ syllables. But as soon as Belham took the solo and the other Joes did their thing, it just kinda worked.”

The song made its début in the group’s Voice Festival set at the Birmingham Regional, where it was received raucously by the crowd. “We had a big audience full of our friends and they were laughing throughout. The YouTubers commenting on our videos may hate the ambient laughter, but we were loving it on the night!” As much as the group love performing the song, one of the other tracks from “Not Too Shabby” is held to high affection by the group. “Lose Yourself is probably our favourite from the past year, partly because it was our first ever ‘group arrangement’, and partly because it was never really notated, so it only really exists in our heads! There’s something special to be said about a song like that.”

As for the success of Wonderwall, Novelli concluded by saying: “Our performance aims to bring the very silly British humour out of all us! I think it just makes people smile in a way that more serious arrangements might not. And isn’t that sort of the whole point of a cappella?”

You can buy Not Too Shabby, which contains this song, right here.

Best of British 2013: 4. Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day
6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow
5. All the King’s Men – Higher Love

4. The Other Guys – Christmas Gets Worse Every Year

Sleigh-riding into fourth place is The Other Guys’ festive effort from last Christmas, Christmas Gets Worse Every Year, written by and featuring good friend of the group, Oscar Foxley. The song reached number 32 on the Official Scottish Charts last Christmas, and so while the group’s number one campaign didn’t quite succeed, they definitely made a splash. According to MD at the time, Matthew Pattie, however, the group never intended to release the track as a single. “We had wanted to do a Christmas album for over a year but hadn’t been able to. A single was never on the horizon until I spoke to Oscar Foxley who mentioned he had written a Christmas song. The idea of an original track was so exciting we jumped on it and I commissioned him to arrange it for us.”

The ‘album track’ quickly became popular within the group, and when the suggestion was made to record and release a video to accompany it as a potential Christmas single, the group lapped up the opportunity. “We felt it was such a wonderful song and so unique that we had to make more of it,” said Pattie. “We decided first to release it as a single. The idea for a video came afterwards. Then, freezing cold on the side of The Cairngorms mid-filming we all agreed, in a state of delirium, why not go for Christmas Number 1? We didn’t manage it – but we had a good crack. Charting at all was an amazing achievement.” The group are well known for their YouTube video successes (with last year’s St Andrews Girls charting at number 10 on our countdown last year), and Christmas Gets Worse proved more successful than the former, racking up 150,000 views at time of writing. The single also raised over £2000 for Student Bursaries in St Andrews. Pattie continues: “We couldn’t be happier. Well, we could – we could have been at Elton John’s Christmas party celebrating number 1, but you can’t win ‘em all…”

Following its YouTube exposure, the song made its live début at St Andrews’ Christmas Concert. “The home crowd loved it, and bizarrely, because of YouTube, some of them were singing along,” revealed Pattie, also adding that it was definitely his personal favourite track from his final year in the group. “It’s so special and has so many memories attached to it. That whole album does – it was a really special one to make, because it really captured so much of the group’s personality. As a stand-alone track though, yes, I think it would be my favourite. It’s a great sing.”

The popularity of the song comes not just because of the arrangement or the performance, but also because of the story behind it, according to the former Musical Director: “I think people love the love story. It’s something they can connect with. It’s a beautiful piece of music, arranged wonderfully for us to sing. Also the uniqueness of it – it’s a genuine, heart-felt original Christmas song. You don’t get those very often anymore and I think people appreciated that.”

You can watch Christmas Gets Worse Every Year again right here, or listen to and buy the whole album on Bandcamp.

Best of British 2013: 5. Higher Love

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day
6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow

5. All the King’s Men – Higher Love

Dropping delicately into the top 5 of our countdown is the opening number from All the King’s Men‘s award-winning VF-UK 2013 set, Steve Winwood’s Higher Love merged with Ed Sheeran’s Give Me Love. The group actually topped our countdown last year with their cover of Imogen Heap’s Hide and Seek, and while Higher Love isn’t far from the standard of Hide and Seek in terms of musicality, arrangement and performance, it was more the raised standard of competition that has caused this slight dip in placing for the group – and indeed, what probably led to the group leaving this year’s VF-UK Final empty handed.

The song made its début very early on the year at the group’s annual Greenwood Theatre curtain raiser in October, where the group welcomes the new members and says goodbye to the old. MD Jonny Stewart revealed it was perhaps a little rash to perform what ended up being the most difficult number of the year so early on, but believes the gamble paid off. “Understandably the guys were a little nervous about performing in front of the old Men, but for a first performance it was solid enough, and it went down really well with the audience.” He added that a lot of the arrangements learnt later that year seemed a breeze in comparison: “In retrospect, it made everything else after that look a lot easier!”

With Higher Love being one of Stewart’s favourite songs for a long time, it was perhaps no surprise that the song was introduced so soon into his tenure as the group’s Musical Director, a position he has retained this year. “I can’t stop myself from smiling whenever I hear it. There’s something uplifting about the combination of warm pad and vibraphone, allied with a surprisingly complex beat and cheeky horn fills, and having Chaka Khan on backing vocals gives it some serious soul power.” The seeds of the Ed Sheeran sample came about during the group’s flight to Singapore earlier in 2012 as he and fellow group member Josh Cooter ended up “taking full advantage of British Airways’ generous alcohol policy, which made the mashup seem like a great idea at the time!”

The arrangement that the group ended up with went through several revisions: “One of my favourite artists, James Vincent McMorrow, recorded a haunting cover with only piano and vocals, which became the inspiration for the opening section. Removing the instrumentation makes the lyrics come to the fore, and it gave the song a new meaning for me.” However, even when the arrangement had been initially completed, tweaked and performed several times, Stewart and the rest of the group felt there was something missing. It wasn’t until February, one month before the Voice Festival, that the finishing touches were added on the number. “Previously the song had ended with the solo bringing back ‘Bring me a higher love‘ over the ‘O my my a‘ 6/8 accompaniment, which was interesting but not really a climactic ending; we noticed that audiences weren’t really sure when to clap or not! As it happened, our hosts at Yale, the mixed-voice group Out of the Blue, did a version of Higher Love which was much closer to the original, including the trio of bombastic backing singers at the end. The audience were absolutely loving it, and, although nobody said it at the time, we were all thinking that this was something we could use to our advantage.” Stewart took full advantage of this receptive ending being fresh in his mind: “Feeling inspired on the train the next day, I tinkered with the arrangement, printed it off at Harvard, and then rehearsed it with the group. It couldn’t have worked any better; though the arrangement is (of course) not lifted, we owe a debt of thanks to Yale OotB for the ‘lightbulb’ moment!”

The track was not only the opener for their Voice Festival UK set, but also for their studio album, ‘Royal Flush’, released in the summer. Stewart claims the song perfectly encompasses the spirit and nature of All the King’s Men in a succinct four minutes. “In a competition such as VF-UK, the opening song needs to be all-encompassing, showing the full capability of the group, and Higher Love ticks that box; the opening requires a great deal of sensitivity, both musical and emotional, and the rest is all about the energy of the performance. The arrangement grows continually throughout the song before climaxing in a rousing gospel-style chorus, and I think that forward momentum is really important to any song’s success, both on CD and in competition.” Stewart urges against the idea that the song carried them to the Final of the competition though: “A lot of our work was done in the second and third numbers, but Higher Love did fulfil its function by condensing the spirit of All the King’s Men into roughly four minutes.”

In his closing remarks, Stewart springs a surprise along with some advice: “I usually don’t like mash-ups, as I think they can be highly tenuous. There’s got to be a real connection between the songs involved, far more substantial than a shared chord sequence, and collegiate groups often don’t develop enough ideas when doing a mash-up – they tend to be one song followed by another, rather than a unification of musical and lyrical themes. Higher Love and Give Me Love are both about a deep yearning for something greater, and the mutual themes in the lyrics help make our mash-up effective. It’s also one of the [ed. very!] few instances where the dreaded step-clap works…”

You can purchase Higher Love as part of the group’s latest album, ‘Royal Flush’, on iTunes or listen to it on SoundCloud.

So, All the King’s Men open our top 5. Who will complete it? Stay tuned…

Best of British 2013: 6. Ode To Glasgow

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own
7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day

6. Choral Stimulation – Ode To Glasgow

Award: ‘Outstanding Arrangement’ – Voice Festival UK 2013, St Andrews Regional

Staggering drunkenly into sixth place on our countdown is the hilarious, hugely varied and frankly wonderful ‘Ode To Glasgow’ from Glasgow’s only university group, Choral Stimulation. The song was part of the group’s award winning Voice Festival set earlier this year, and indeed went some way to helping the group to their first ever VF-UK Final. However, had the group not débuted the song in a small room at Glasgow University’s Students Union in preparation for the St Andrews Regional, the outcome may have been slightly different. “It didn’t go well,” admits David Ragg, MD of the group and arranger of their entire VF-UK 2013 set. However, some jokes were reworked and a few of the harmonies were tweaked, and the second public performance came on stage under the pressures of VF-UK competition, a performance which, according to Ragg, went “considerably better.”

The origins of the arrangement came about after the group for the first time decided to capitalise on their perception as ‘outsiders’ at the St Andrews Regional. “I had wanted to do a ‘super-medley’ for a long time,” said Ragg, “And we had been throwing about ideas in the group what this could be. We hit on Glasgow as a theme because we have, in the past few years, been the outside contender in St Andrews; we wanted to acknowledge and be proud of this. When I suggested it to a Glaswegian I was sat down and given a list of songs that HAD to be in there. It then evolved from others’ input into an Ode to Glasgow, with an overarching storyline to it that I hope can be seen in the finished thing.” Incorporating music from Love Actually, several Glasgow folk songs, Travis, the infamous ‘There’s been a murder’ line from Taggart, and even a solo for Ragg himself, the song really caught the imagination of the audience, although more so in St Andrews than at the Final in London.

“The final was an entirely different dynamic for the group,” said Ragg, “As well as being our first performance as a Final and outside Scotland, the audience was significantly smaller than the extremely popular Scottish Regional stage. Some of our Scottish humour may have fallen slightly short at times!” Despite the popularity of the song, it was not Ragg’s favourite from the groups’ setlist this year. “My favourite song would be ‘Feeling Bad’, the last song in our 2013 set. I had come up with an idea and came with it unfinished to the group. We then worked on it together as a group to make a funny and fairly silly song that has really grown on me. It is special as it is the first song I’ve co-written and I’m glad it came off so well.”

Despite this, Ragg understands why ‘Ode’ has become so highly regarded, and trumps the variety of the song, both in the arrangement, and also in the distribution of solos, as one of the main factors for its success. “We gave everyone in the group a solo to give everyone a chance; too often in a cappella, MDs, myself included, give the solos to a few good tenors or female voices because it is easier to write for these voices; in one way this was an exercise to help stop myself doing this, and I think audiences enjoy it because you get to see everyone in the group equally, and I think in our video you can see that we’re not taking ourselves too seriously and having a lot of fun.”

You can hear ‘Ode To Glasgow’, as well as the rest of the group’s Voice Festival UK 2013 right here. I’ve also been told that this track will feature on the group’s brand new EP – release date TBC!

So, only the top 5 remains. Who will be named the Best of British 2013? Stay tuned…

Best of British 2013: 7. Lovely Day

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium
8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own

7. The Oxford Alternotives – Lovely Day

In at number seven is a late entry into proceedings – The Oxford Alternotives‘ version of Lovely Day only really came into existence after March’s Voice Festival UK and the Alts’ successful run to the final of the competition. Beating out their covers of Knights of Cydonia and Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You into our top 10, Lovely Day was arranged by friend of the group and UACUK contributor Nick Barstow, who even ended up joining the group as the song débuted at August’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Ex-OOTB member Barstow was drafted in to arrange after the group had tried in vain to incorporate some so-called “Barstow Chords” into some of their own arrangements. Departing group member Heather Young describes how they coaxed him into getting involved: “With a few puppy dog eyes and some batting of eyelids we got him to write an arrangement for us!” Indeed, Young claims the arrangement, and the way it enhanced the group’s togetherness, was part of the reason for the success of the number. “All the individual lines were nice to sing in isolation which I think is difficult to achieve in arranging, but is very rewarding to perform! This is definitely a song where we were working really closely as a group, with everyone being linked, quite intuitively, into what everyone else was doing.”

The arrangement, combined with the feel-good nature of the song, made it one of the group’s favourites by the end of the year, despite its relatively short life as part of their set. “The song itself is very sunny and it’s impossible not to be in a good mood when singing it! Combined with Beyonce’s Sweet Dreams mash up in the middle and you’re on to an absolute winner!” However, the irony of singing the song on the grey and rainy Royal Mile was not lost on the group, nor on the spectators: “We particularly enjoyed singing it on the mile, although the crowds seemed to quite enjoy the irony when it was bucketing it down with rain!”

The song garnered the most successful reviews from Fringe for its soloists, Barstow and Niamh Furey, both of which Young describes as “amazing.” Indeed, despite the intricate and clever arrangement, no song is complete without an excellent soloist (or, in this case, two!) However, it was the laid-back nature of the song which Young believes was the real source behind the popularity of the track. “The arrangement manages to really capture that kind of chilled out, lying-in-the-sunshine vibe which I think is quite hard to find in a cappella; usually the songs chosen are either slap-you-in-the-face-til-you-smile happy or sad and brooding, so I think this arrangement was both refreshing for us to sing and for others to hear.”

So, The Oxford Alternotives make our countdown for the first time at Number 7. There are still two more débutantes on our countdown to come. Any guesses? Stay tuned.

Best of British 2013: 8. Dancing On My Own

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia
9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium

8. The Alleycats – Dancing On My Own

Strolling in at number eight is the gorgeous ballad from The Alleycats, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own, which was the group’s middle song in this year Voice Festival UK competition and part of their recently released EP, Furplay. The song shows off what The Alleycats arguably do best these days – taking an originally more upbeat number and slowing it down, allowing the voice of the incredible soloist, in this case, Ayanna Coleman, to shine through. Last year, the group hit number 2 on our countdown with Titanium, and while this number hasn’t reached those dizzy heights this time around, it certainly had a similar impact on its début public performance – at the St Andrews Regional of the Voice Festival UK.

“As always with VF-UK numbers, it was accompanied by some pretty intense nervous energy, but in a way I think that helped,” said former MD of the group, Brendan Macdonald. “Because it has never been heard by anyone apart from ourselves within a rehearsal setting, those first performances can be a bit of an experiment, but it was received well and, of course, Ayanna was spectacular.” The origins of the arrangement are an indication of the group’s never-ending desire to look to the future. “During 2012′s Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” explains Annie Faichney, another graduated member of the group, “Robyn’s version of the song was playing in C Main all the time. Despite the fact we were focused on the Fringe run and the current setlist, everyone was still speculating as to how it would make a really good a cappella number, especially if it was slowed down further.” Macdonald was initially doubtful at the suggestion of the latter, feeling the impact of the power-ballad would be lost with the removal of some of the tempo in the song. “However, when the new aca-year rolled around, Annie showed me Robyn’s acoustic version of the song, and it was just perfect – so I went right ahead with the arrangement.”

Macdonald credits another ex-Cat as a source of inspiration for this and many of his arrangements – Lizzy Weintz. “Lizzy was seemingly an expert at taking faster numbers and slowing them down, and as such this has become almost an Alleycat tradition. I also took inspiration from some of Out of the Blue’s older stuff, specifically Cold Water [which featured on BOCA 2008], a number which focused specifically on the solo while being simplistic yet effective in its execution.” On the subject of the solo, Macdonald confirms that Ayanna was always at the top of his list: “Ayanna was definitely in mind when arranging this number, and the arrangement is built to highlight her strength as a soloist and a performer. We knew that she would absolutely nail the song, and bring the power into the song that it might have lost from slowing it down.” However, he adds that she is not the only one to have blown audiences away on lead vocals over the year. “Melissa [Wilkie] deputised for Ayanna for a few nights during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and absolutely nailed it as well!”

Faichney believes the song’s success works on two levels: “While our slowed-down version initially sounds like a heart-wrenching ballad, when you listen to the lyrics it becomes clear that really it’s all about empowerment, and how great it feels to rise above that awful feeling. Ultimately the song’s effectiveness is in its universal familiarity – it definitely portrays a feeling we can all relate to at some ungodly hour in a nightclub!”

In terms of legacy, Faichney is unsure if the song will be handed down from litter to litter: “The arrangement was specifically written for the 2012/13 litter, and as such I think it really reverberated as the sound of that year. It was definitely one of our favourites from the year, as it’s a relatively simple number to perform but so enjoyable and always garners a brilliant reaction from any crowd. But because it was so special and unique to last year’s group, I don’t know how it will develop in the new group – I guess that’s up to them to decide!”

So, the hard-hitting Dancing On My Own ballad, complete with stunning solo, makes number 8 on this year’s list. It’s going to take some beating to top that! Who will be at number 7? Stay tuned…

You can buy The Alleycats brand new EP, which includes this track, on Bandcamp.

Best of British 2013: 9. As Long As This Is Titanium

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other Guys‘ Christmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown continues:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia

9. The Oxford Belles – This Is Titanium

Award: ‘Outstanding Musicality’ – Voice Festival UK 2013, Oxford Regional

Rolling in at number 9 is the first of two tracks on our countdown that have garnered considerable acclaim and success as a professionally filmed YouTube video: The Oxford Belles’ rendition of David Guetta and Sia’s Titanium, mixed in with As Long As You Love Me and This Is Love – stylised as “As Long As This Is Titanium”. While the group didn’t make it through to the Final of the Voice Festival or, indeed, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, we at the blog were impressed at the group’s inventiveness to broaden their horizons in a brand new way – and with a top quality arrangement to boot.

Just like the previous number in our countdown, the song’s origins came about by chance, according to the MD of the group, Alicia Gayle: “It was a bit of a random epiphany moment at a bus stop, to tell the truth! I conceived the idea and then it came to fruition mainly thanks to the creativity of the group as a whole.” The song debuted at the groups’ Michaelmas concert to high acclaim and soon became a staple in the Belles 12/13 repertoire, featuring in their Regional Voice Festival set and contributing somewhat to their reception of the ‘Outstanding Musicality’ award.

As for the decision to turn the track into a video, expanding the group’s horizons was very near the top of the list of motivations. “This song was chosen over others in our repertoire because we felt it would have the most impact.” Indeed, Gayle hinted that the video had already procured them some game-changing opportunities, as well as helping them to sell their subsequent EP. “We’ve been able to film a potential promo for Skype – more details on that will be revealed shortly!”

With over 2,000 views on YouTube, Gayle concludes by sharing her views on why she thinks the song made such an impact, both inside and outside the a cappella sphere: “It’s quite mainstream in content, fun to watch in a performance, and as an arrangement, it’s quite different from other songs that we sing.”

You can watch the video again right here or buy the single on iTunes

Best of British 2013: 10. Knights of Cydonia

The Best of British 2013 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live OR competitive debut since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
b) A song that was featured on an album released since our last countdown commenced (Dec 2012 – Nov 2013)
Furthermore:
c) No tracks considered for last year’s countdown are eligible this year.
For example, although The Other GuysChristmas was released in 2012, last year’s countdown started before the release of the album, so all the tracks on the album were eligible. On the flip side, although The Oxford Alternotives wowed with their rendition of Regina Spektor’s Samson at this year’s VF-UK, because it was released in album form in 2012, it was considered last year and therefore was ineligible this year.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown begins here:

10. Semi-Toned – Knights of Cydonia

Awards: ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’ and ‘Outstanding Choreography’ – Voice Festival UK 2013, Exeter Regional

Starting our countdown is the bold, big and boisterous version of Muse’s Knights of Cydonia, as performed by Semi-Toned. Those of you who were at the Voice Festival Final in London back in March will remember the bizarre twist of fate which saw Semi-Toned and The Oxford Alternotives perform this song back-to-back – while both versions were of the highest quality, we felt the dexterity, versatility and sheer brashness of this version made it just that little bit more impressive. Indeed, the story of the song pre-Voice Festival is an interesting and impressive one.

The song’s origins came about almost by chance, according to departing Musical Director and founding member Eddie Henley. “Joe Lane, Ed Jillings and I came together one evening ended up singing ‘No-one’s gonna take me alive’ in super falsetto!” After that, it was a no-brainer that the song would become a part of the group’s repertoire – indeed, debuting the song in front of 1,000 people and the Military Wives Choir back in September 2012 was a baptism of fire, but one which kick-started a monumental year for the group. “It was an epic performance to a huge audience, and it went down very well with the crowd and gave us a lot of confidence at the start of a new year with new members.”

Commenting on the coincidence of the song being performed back-to-back in a competitive sphere, Henley was complimentary of both arrangements, and inferred that the very nature of the song makes it perfect for an a cappella group to perform: “There are a few different arrangements of Knights circulating on the Internet, and it has a sort of inherent, prescribed structure, which all arrangements have to follow in order to hit the mark, and therefore many arrangements of the song are likely to follow that structure.” However, Henley was confident that their version stood out above the rest: “When it came to the meat on the bones, the performance, musicality and general wow moments, I think our arrangement really hit the spot.”

Although the arrangement followed a prescribed structure, and Eddie claims this version as his own arrangements, he gave a lot of credit to the rest of the group for fleshing the number out in their own unique way. “It’s something all of the group had a part in creating: from the addition of instrument mimicking through choreography to the 6 beat break we put in before the last refrain. It’s a piece that is really representative of the hard work the Semi-Toned class of 2012-13 put in during the immensely successful year we had.”

The song received immense praise wherever it was performed: from the Military Wives concert in September, to the Exeter Regional of the Voice Festival in February through to the group’s début year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – Ed expressed his excitement at reading Tobias Hug’s comment on their VF-UK feedback form – “YOU NEED TO RECORD THIS!” He continues: “It’s my personal favourite, mainly because of the fantastic memories and emotions I associate with performing the song. We got a standing ovation from the 400-strong crowd at the Exeter Regional. However, for me, the first time we performed the song on the Royal Mile was so amazing – literally seconds before we were shaking with nerves and full of worries about our upcoming run and how we all felt like we were out of our depth, being these twelve singers from Exeter taking a show up to Edinburgh. But we opened our mouths, drew a great crowd in and had an amazing time, and ended up having an amazing début run up there.”

Why was it so successful? “It really showcases the best of the group. Semi-Toned are blessed with an immense range, with their highest note being well in the whistle register, and this range is something that is seen in Knights; every part has a hugely important role to play and every single member has their own moment to shine in the song. But most importantly, it’s a fun song to perform. It is exhausting but exhilarating. The audience can see that we love performing it and we really feed off that. For me that’s absolute fundamental first rule of a cappella arranging – do something that you know you’re going to enjoy performing and something that the audience is going to know you enjoy performing.”

As for the legacy of the song, Henley believes it epitomises what the group is all about. “The guys, generally speaking, steer clear of chart toppers and tend to go for alternative and indie classics; that’s their niche and it’s something that’s been really successful at home and in Edinburgh. Knights has been our flagship song in that respect and is our ‘hand down’ arrangement that we expect will be passed down through the years, as is the case with many other groups in the UK.”

You can watch the award-winning performance of Knights of Cydonia right here, or alternatively, listen to it on the group’s Soundcloud.

Exclusive Interview: The Voice Festival UK 2013 Kicks Off

Guess what? The time has almost come for the biggest collegiate event of the year. Forget University Challenge, forget the publication of the league tables, this is all about pure, unadulterated awesome in the form of university a cappella.

As always, we here at University A Cappella UK will be following every group, every round and every song as the events unfold, including previews and reviews of each round and the prediction polls, which we hope will evoke much discussion like last year. Before all of that though, we spoke to Cherith Graham, member of the Voice Festival team, about the structure of this year’s competition, the upcoming ‘Big Weekend’ and personal favourites from the past season.

UACUK: Hi Cherith, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. Before we start, let’s clarify your role in the team. What exactly is your area?

CG: Hi Mark! Each of the team has specific responsibilities. I’m Brand and Marketing Manager for the Voice Festival (VF-UK) as well as being one of the team’s Event Managers.

My focus for the last year has been on revamping the Voice Festival’s look and feel so that we can better communicate who we are and what we do. The Voice Festival has come a long way in five years – our offering has flexed and multiplied and we now have three fully fledged programmes (youth, universities, and communities) for supporting and developing singers of different ages and experiences. So in response to this growth, and taking on board feedback from our singers, volunteers, audiences and patrons we’ve made some significant changes.

As part of this rebrand journey, I’ve been responsible for designing our new website. It’s a privilege to work with so many vibrant and inventive singers and we wanted our website to be a stage for showcasing this talent, and energising new communities of a cappella singers and enthusiasts. The site makes it easier for existing singers and a cappella fanatics to share opportunities and knowledge, stay up to date with VF-UK opportunities and events, and keep talking to us and telling us what is needed from our programmes.

With my Event Manager hat on, I work on various events in the Voice Festival calendar. Like the rest of the team, this means anything and everything from sourcing venues for hosting workshops and events, setting up the box office, advertising the events, liaising with the performers, and making sure our workshops go to plan.

UACUK: And now the applications have closed, how has the response been in general compared to last year?

CG: The response has been great – we’ve had a lot of interest, and have ended up with more groups from more universities competing than ever before. We’ve had new groups coming forward, or at least expressing interest and making enquiries, and we’re really excited for the year ahead.

UACUK: Are you still running the three competitions (i.e. Community, Youth and University) side-by-side this year?

CG: That’s the plan. Applications have now closed for University and Community groups, and Youth applications will close shortly. Obviously a big part of what we at the Voice Festival aim to do is to encourage and enable a cappella singers of all ages and life experiences to meet and interact with each other, and this is once again a vital ingredient of the 2013 season.

UACUK: Have you ever thought about combining the three competitions?

CG: We have considered it in the past, especially when considering whether or not the competition would remain in its current format, but we felt that in order to keep the competition fair and healthy, it makes sense to grow them individually.

UACUK: Members of groups involved may know, although outsiders may not, that you were considering changing the competition from Regionals to one large ‘Big Weekend’ style competition in March in London. You then asked for feedback on these suggestions and have since reverted to the previous format. What exactly has changed since last year, and was this partly due to the feedback given by previously competing groups?

CG: Yes, having taken on board feedback from previous competing groups, and the feedback from our Big Weekend consultation, we’ve decided to maintain our UK wide competition format, as well as introduce the Big Weekend to this year’s programme.

This structure was prompted by feedback, yes, because we received some very strong opinions from several groups who said they would prefer the University competition format to stay as it was. But we also felt in order to further the goals of the Voice Festival, we wanted to keep our plans for the ‘Big Weekend’. as we felt it would be a great opportunity for groups to come and meet each other, learn from each other and from professionals, and to perform with each other in a less tense and competitive atmosphere. It will take place 15-17 March 2013 in London, and all groups from the regional rounds are invited to attend, with the idea being that transport will be paid for by the profits from each Regional Round.

This will be made possible by one of the other differences this year. Instead of the Voice Festival team organising each Regional Round, volunteers from the groups competing will be forming what we’re calling ‘Event Co-Ordinator Teams’, which will work in partnership with a Voice Festival representative as the ‘Event Manager’. This gives each region more of a say in the format of their round and will hopefully lead to more regional character. It also encourages local groups to work together and become a central hub for growing a cappella in their region. Obviously, the adjudication side of the events will still be taken care of by us to ensure fair competition.

UACUK: Are you happy with the progress that the Voice Festival has made, both in the past four years and with the introduction of the Big Weekend? Are you happy that the majority of the groups appear to be on board with the developments?

CG: Absolutely. It’s a new, exciting journey for us as a team and for UK a cappella. In the feedback, people always tell us that one of the most rewarding aspects of VF-UK is the opportunity to sing to new audiences and in new environments, and so promoting those opportunities is central to what we are doing – adding to opportunities that groups make for themselves throughout the year. But also, we feel a bit of competition is healthy, because it leads to groups pushing themselves and pushing the boundaries of what they are capable of as a vocal group. So I think it’s definitely lining up to be a fantastic season.

UACUK: You’ve confirmed the date of the Big Weekend as 15-17 March. With regard to the Regional competitions, will you be suggesting dates to the team organising each event, or will it be up to them when they take place?

CG: A balance of both. We’d like it to be a collaboration between the Event Co-Ordinator Team and Event Manager so that a stretch of weekends are found that work best for everyone. Obviously they have the guidance of when the events have occurred in previous years to help them, and are encouraged to hold them at times that would be good, depending on term times and exams etc., but at the same time we’d like them to be roughly at similar times as in previous years, simply because those dates have worked well in the past. I think we’ll probably end up with Regionals sitting in the same time period as before.

UACUK: However positive it is that you’ve got a record number of groups competing in this year’s university competition, why do you think groups such as Cadenza, Out of the Blue, The Fitz Sirens and The Oxford Gargoyles have decided to pull out of the competition in the past two years, and is this a concern?

CG: I think it’s partly due to the nature of university groups. Because they change membership year on year, they also change their priorities. It depends on the group make-up. Obviously, we provide a service for the groups, giving them new opportunities and experiences, so it’s completely up to the groups whether or not they want to take that opportunity. While Out Of the Blue have decided they don’t want the competition to be a feature of their year, they are still keen to support the Oxford event and join the activities for the Big Weekend, as well as being involved in future years. And even though The Fitz Sirens didn’t compete last year, they still came and performed at our showcase up in Edinburgh in August. So it’s not a case of ‘if you don’t compete, you don’t get anything’; rather, groups are free to take part in our events as they see fit. It’s not a concern for us – the competition is still growing and we are still achieving our aims, and we are positive the groups not involved will still have thoroughly successful seasons.

UACUK: Are there any kind of plans to extend the competition to involve Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals as the competition element grows in the future?

CG: We can see the rationale for doing it that way, definitely, but what we’d like to focus on more is this idea of the Big Weekend. We don’t want to put up metaphorical ‘fences’ around different regions and only ever have groups meeting and competing with each other from certain regions. We want to encourage, for example, groups from St Andrews to really listen to and take interest in, say, the groups from Exeter, and vice versa. And the Big Weekend is, for this year, our way of doing that. Obviously there will be a post-Festival evaluation, as ever, analysing whether or not it worked. However, at least for 2013, the idea is to hang the Festival around our Big Weekend in London.

UACUK: One final question: as you may or may not have seen, we’ve been running a ‘Best of British’ countdown of our favourite tracks from 2012. Do you have a personal favourite from the past year?

CG: That’s a tricky one- I have too many favourites! There’s just too much great UK talent to choose from….hence.. the Voice Collection 2013! Now there’s another exciting Voice Festival project to look forward to for 2013.

The Voice Festival Regional Round dates are now confirmed as follows:

London: Sat 9th March
St Andrews: Sat 23rd February
Exeter: Sat 2nd March
Oxford: Sun 3rd March
Birmingham: Sat 9th March

The ‘Big Weekend’ and University Final will take place on the weekend of the 15-17 March. Don’t worry! We’ll keep you in the loop as we learn more.

Best of British 2012: 1. Hide and Seek

The Best of British 2012 is our unofficial countdown of the top ten UK a cappella tracks of the past year. Over the next few weeks leading up to the Christmas period, we will be counting down, from ten to one, what we believe have been the best tracks on show this year, ranging from awesome arrangements, sensational solos, marvellous mash-ups, punny parodies and everything in between.

Eligible Tracks

In order to determine which tracks were to be considered for this accolade, we decided to restrict our selections to songs that fell under ONE or BOTH of the following categories:
a) A song that made its live debut in 2012
b) A song that was featured on a 2012 album

For example, although all of the tracks featured on The AccidentalsEP made their debuts at the 2011 Voice Festival, because the album was released in 2012, all of the tracks on the album were considered. Also, several tracks were considered that were not released on albums, for example songs by The Oxford Belles or The Sons of Pitches from their 2012 repertoire.

The Process

We made a list of all the eligible songs from all the eligible groups, and then picked the top three tracks from each group, where possible. We then narrowed this shortlist down to 25, before picking our 10 favourite tracks. Opinions were divided, scores were combined, and in the end there was only one winner. But who will it be?

The countdown concludes here:

10. The Other Guys – St Andrews Girls
9. The Sons of Pitches – Club Medley 2
8. The Oxford Gargoyles – Fields of Gold
7. The Accidentals – Rolling in The Deep
6. The Oxford Gargoyles – Dancing in the Moonlight
5. The Oxford Belles – Jar of Hearts
4. Out of the Blue – Got To Get You Into My Life
3. The Techtonics – Earthquake
2. The Alleycats – Titanium

1. All the King’s Men – Hide and Seek

Sneaking into the number one spot is the only track on our list that failed to win an award of some sort in 2012, partly due to its omission from the group’s Voice Festival set, it’s the magnificent Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap, covered superbly and precisely by our current UK Champions of A Cappella, All the King’s Men. It is testament to the strength in depth the boys had over the past year that they managed to win the Voice Festival despite this track, in our opinion their finest, not featuring on their set. Upon hearing that the group had claimed the number one spot, former MD Henry Southern was delighted. “That’s great news! The song definitely became the one we were most proud of in our repertoire last year.”

The song is, admits Southern, the first number the group have performed that was not arranged by a member of the group. “I’d wanted to do the song as I thought that it would work well with the voices we had for the ’11-’12 group. Our blend, musicality and ensemble singing was quickly coming together, particularly on the slower songs, and I thought it would fit the group perfectly.” However, just as Southern was about to start arranging the song, fellow group member Josh Cooter chimed in with a suggestion. “Josh said that he had done Tom [Recknell]’s arrangement with him at school and that Tom kindly granted us permission to use it.” Southern was delighted with the arrangement, and having heard it himself, Recknell was also pleased with the results. Henry adds that “it was great to have Josh’s guidance when we were rehearsing the arrangement, as he was already so familiar with it.” The group were also honoured to be able to work on the song with their patron, Paul Phoenix from The King’s Singers, who had recorded the track back in 2010. “His input was invaluable,” says Southern.

The debut performance of the song was recorded at Hollywood High School and was a warm up to a larger performance at Claremont later that evening, during the group’s early 2012 West Coast US Tour. “The reception was always very positive and it is probably one of the songs that people remember the most – partly because we almost always had it at the end of the set. “The tight musical control that is evident throughout the song was something that was worked on from the very beginning of the performance process. “Because we were so diligent about the musical points from the very beginning, the performance of it didn’t change that much over the months we performed it. Usually an arrangement gradually develops and improves through time, but we only performed this when we felt we were 100% ready – it took a lot of work!”

The story of why the song didn’t make their Voice Festival set, not to mention their ICCA Final set, is a long one with many factors for and against the song. “We already had a strong ‘slow song’ lined up with Hallelujah which we had been singing all year and so we were very comfortable with it.” Despite the perhaps overdone nature of the song, Southern still claims this was a good decision. “We felt that Noah Mosley’s arrangement was very unique, it fitted with the style we were developing, and above all Tom Aldren nailed the baritone solo every time! It ticked all the boxes for a competition piece.” Added to that, Southern didn’t feel Hide and Seek was ready for the Voice Festival. “As mentioned before, we only started learning it in January, and the very nature of the piece meant it had to be perfect otherwise it could have fallen a bit flat.” Timing was also an issue. “If we were to have replaced Hallelujah in our set with Hide and Seek, it would have been too long to fit within the assigned 12 minutes and if we’d taken out another number in its place it would have been detrimental to the overall set – it wouldn’t have been balanced or demonstrated everything the group could do.” The group did toy with the idea of performing the number as a part of their ICCA Final set after speaking with Dominic Peckham post-Voice Festival final, but the group decided to stick with their winning combination, finishing 3rd in the final in New York in the process.

To close, Henry gave us some words of wisdom that can translate to any performance of a song. “I really think that if you enjoy singing something, it comes across to the audience. We knew the effect that this arrangement could have on an audience and we milked it for all its worth! Something which Paul worked on with us is not being afraid to express the meaning of the words. If you want to make the audience cry, you have to feel like you are going to cry. That sounds very pretentious, but it is all too easy to switch off when singing an arrangement you’ve sung countless of times – when we all locked in it was magic!”

Hide and Seek has been specially uploaded onto Soundcloud for your pleasure and enjoyment. We recommend closing your eyes and taking in the breathtaking blend.

Our countdown is now over! We hope you enjoyed reliving 2012 with us. Here’s to an even better 2013!