Very Specific Playlists is a weekly feature in which Jezebel staffers make very specific Spotify playlists based on their weird proclivities.
A cappella, as a listening experience, is not for everyone. Some might argue that it’s not for anyone—and to that I say: could be, yes.
If you were in a college a cappella group, like myself and a number of my coworkers (I am not sure exactly how many, as I suspect reporting levels are low), you’ll know that arranging, learning and performing a cappella music is extremely work-intensive and vocally challenging. You’ll also know that a cappella performances generate an enormous blast of fear, excitement, and targeted sexual attention that can boost performer morale for at least two weeks.
I probably don’t need to explain a cappella to you—we’ve all seen Pitch Perfect (although it is frankly rife with practical inaccuracies)—but I will mention that college and professional a cappella groups, at their very best, provide surprising, intricate musical interpretations and incredible harmonies. They can also sound sanitized and kind of passionless, and very, uh, white—imagine an earnest tenor trembling through the wan opening bars of John Mayer’s “Dreaming With a Broken Heart,” or Rihanna’s “We Found Love” performed in crisp, dramatic 8-part harmony.
And yet, some combination of nostalgia, respect for people who do hard things that are kind of pointless, and the crucial role the O.C. soundtrack played in my adolescent development has made me vulnerable to the a cappella sound. Many, like, for example, my colleague Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, struggle to get past the idea that a cappella is just a way to make cool songs lame, or lame songs lamer. I struggled to provide her with a compelling argument.
Anyway, here are some songs I listen to sometimes and am not ashamed of. (Playlist below.)
1. Sonos, “Joga” (originally by Björk)
Sonos (and some others on this list) are technically a professional rather than college group, and they’ve apparently changed their name to ARORA, maybe because there was a confusing overlap with the more famous electronics company. There are only six singers and they’re very talented, which I know because I may or may not have seen them live one time.
2. The Backbeats, “Landslide” (originally by Fleetwood Mac)
The Fleetwood Mac catalogue is absolutely brimming with a cappella mainstays, and although I am not sure that that is what Stevie Nicks would have wanted, that is life, Stevie!!! Deep within my heart, I love this arrangement, even though I do understand that it also kind of sounds like computers singing.
3. Twisted Measure, “Chandelier” (originally by Sia)
This arrangement, by Elon University’s Twisted Measure, is nuts. The lead vocalist is incredible, and it genuinely feels like an entirely separate entity from the original track—and if given the choice between this version and the original, I’d probably choose this. I’m honestly not sure how these people have time to do their homework?
4. SoCal Vocals, “Poison & Wine” (originally by The Civil Wars)
This has everything I need from a good a cappella cover—blend, emotional build, original track is an overly-sentimental folk-adjacent number by a group of the “singer-songwriter” genre. As a side-note, I am just now learning that writing about a cappella covers is really hard; what am I supposed to say, the “doo’s” were beautifully uniform? I don’t know!
5. The Nor’easters, “Woods” (originally by Bon Iver)
Although a cappella groups sing mostly everything (see Björk), music they gravitate towards comes in a few categories: heartbroken indie-pop circa 2007-2011 a la Sarah Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson; oldies; bad pseudo-EDM; Top 40 tracks, generally minus people whose ranges are impossible like Beyonce or Ariana Grande; “Fidelity” by Regina Spektor; and Bon Iver.
Most a cappella groups have covered “Woods,” because the original track is already mostly arranged. There are a few shrill moments in this one, but for the most part I’m into it.
6. Pentatonix, “Where Are Ü Now” (originally by Skrillex and Diplo ft. Justin Bieber)
Um, you’re welcome! Leaving you, my readers/listeners, with this absolute banger from Pentatonix, the house band of purgatory. We have understated beat-boxing, we have a traveling solo, we have a perfectly coordinated drop. Julianne said it is “fine.” I say it is flawless.
This video is, to put it bluntly, a waking nightmare, and if you want to enjoy the song I really do recommend that you not watch it; if you want to see a bunch of wide-eyed, excruciatingly confident people with terrible hair lip sync badly in an abandoned warehouse, please go ahead.
Illustration by Sam Woolley