Male Collegiate Album: Menergy!
This is one energetic category! That’s the one thing I can say about all of the nominees: each one packs a punch in its own right.
But punch isn’t always enough (especially if everybody exhibits it). Which albums went above and beyond?
I think three of the nominees can be more or less grouped together. They have a lot in common in terms of production approach, song choice, and really, overall, what is fundamentally good about them. They are Sound the Alarm (Fundamentally Sound), Yao Lissen (Bathtub Dogs), and Boyfriend Material (Exit 245).
The energy of all five nominees is off the chain, but these three albums have a specific kind of exuberance to them. It’s that sort of “we’re all dudes, and we’re going to rock the house” thing. “Menergy,” perhaps? Sure, why not.
The strength of these albums lies in their ability to win over the listener with aural charm. And each one succeeds, in its own way. I’d say it’s a spectrum: on one end is wild, Pop/Rock energy, on the other is sizzling Pop/R&B. Similar energy, but applied to different material
On the wild side, we have “Sound The Alarm.” This is a rhythmic, go-for-broke album. The sound is slick, but not sultry. Soloist give it their all, sometimes to the point where the song feels like it’s getting away from them. There isn’t really a true ballad to be had – even the slower songs feature active arrangements that keep the party moving. Most everything is very intense!
In the middle lies “Yao Lissen,” which features more ballads/sentimental material than “Alarm,” but still likes to keep things churning along wherever possible. Tunes like Song About Love and Skipping Stones reel in the energy a little, but there are also plenty of tunes that hit hard. City Of Delusion soars over a gritty bed of distortion, P.Y.T (Pretty Young Thing) zips ahead with a crisp energy, and My Girls kind of bridges the gap – featuring a sentimental melody over a rhythmically complex arrangement.
Skewing more R&B, we have “Boyfriend Material.” Right off the bat we get a smoother, slower Titanium. Things pick up quickly into Cinema, yet the vocals still have a slick quality over the frantic percussion. The arrangements here can sometimes be active to the point of distraction – a greater risk when you’re working with R&B. The best example is This Time, where the wordy background steals focus from the intimacy of the solo. Overall though, plenty of energy and charm to keep the listener engaged!
Those three nominees are all kind of on the same page. That leaves Groundbreaker (The Techtonics) and Refraction (The Pitchforks). What sets them apart, and is it enough to score a win?
The narration on the first track of “Groundbreaker” tells us that we’re about to enter “a world where science and music collide.” It might seem like hype, but I actually do think that this album fuses the technical and human sides of a cappella in a significant way. In some respects that’s a big win – in others I think the blend highlights the failings of one side or the other.
Let’s look at Earthquake (probably the most acafamous track from this album). I like this track (a lot), but at the same time the things that I like so much about it also highlight for me the ways in which I wish it were stronger.
What’s awesome: the drums. The rhythmic foundation is so solid and hard-hitting, and to their credit, the leads keep up with that energy level for the most part. The backgrounds don’t fare quite as well.
The places where the voices have been sculpted beyond recognition fit right in with the largeness of the track. Yet that same largeness exposes how the raw vocals (in the places where they are less effected) could really have had a bit more attack and energy. Listen to the “ah ahs” at :52 – they’re still pretty tame compared to the rhythmic foundation that they’re sitting on.
Do I think the production needs to cool off to match the vocals? Hell no! I want those raw vocals to kick it up a notch so that they match the intensity of the treated percussion. That’s a tall order, for sure, but one that I think could yield some incredible results!
This is a theme across this whole album. I think there are a good handful of gutsy production choices that spin good singing into great tracks. The end result is good music, and the group should be lauded for that. Now that they know what they’re capable of, I suspect there’s an even ballsier album ready to explode out of this group.
Last but not least we turn to “Refraction,” which I honestly think is half of a stellar album.
The last 8 songs on this album are pure gold. Starting with Fade Into Darkness, we’re treated to some of the most original, beautiful material released this year.
Hallelujah actually made me feel something. That alone is an amazing achievement, in my book. It’s such a heartfelt arrangement – one that takes its time, and stays true to a clear honest vision for the song such that it made me actually listen to the lyrics again, and thus love the song all over.
Holocene is similarly beautiful and haunting – one of my favorite tracks of the year. The interludes (original compositions, if I’m not mistaken) are perfect touches that bridge the songs in a meaningful way. It’s a boatload of awesome.
What frustrates me is that we have to wait to get to all this through the first half of the album, which is really just OK. Some Nights? Overdone, but only recently, so I’ll let it slide. Somebody To Love though, straight up with no major arrangement tweaks? Way old school. Wagon Wheel? Playing it safe.
It’s not that any of these tracks are bad per se. They just pale in comparison to the second half of this album, which is comprised of thoughtful, meaningful, musical moments. If you can turn stuff like that out, why not just give us that? No reason to put out anything other than your ‘A’ game! I think this great 15-track album could have been trimmed down to a 10-11 track classic.
This is basically a shot in the dark.
Winner: Refraction (The Pitchforks)
Runner Up: Sound The Alarm (Fundamentally Sound)
Were “Refraction” comprised solely of its best parts, I would give it the win whole-heartedly! As it is, I still think that the “great” will far outweigh the “OK.” There is undeniable warmth and artistry to this album that I think sets it apart.
“Sound The Alarm” I just think is the most fun of the super-fun bunch, and that’s got to count for something. It’s bursting with energy and little moments of sonic candy to make it stand out (check the crazy breakdown at the end of DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love).
I give a sincere honorable mention to every other album in this category!