While I cannot remember exactly when my love of hearing a cappella singing began, I do recall I aspired to emulate it through extensive involvement in elementary school choruses and junior high competitive barbershop quartet before putting my vocal dreams on the same shelf as my attempts to learn the guitar, piano and the trumpet. I resigned myself to the fact that I was more of a fan and less a performer and that is the path I have happily walked for more than thirty years now. I still get excited every Christmas to hear what a cappella offerings the season brings. The following are some of my favorites in the ever-expanding genre for 2016.
From a trio of Texas high-school classmates who began singing together in an unsuccessful effort to win a meeting with the cast of Glee in 2009, the trio evolved into a quintet calling themselves Pentatonix for the third season of the a cappella competition show The Sing-Off, which they eventually won in November 2011. The same week they won, the compilation The Sing-Off: Songs Of The Season was released featuring Pentatonix singing "We Three Kings". A month later, The Sing-Off: Season 3 - A Sing-Off Christmas was released with Pentatonix making three appearances:
In 2012, the group released PTXmas then re-released it as an expanded Deluxe Edition in 2013. They followed with That's Christmas To Me in 2014 and re-released it as an expanded Deluxe Edition in 2015. For 2016, Pentatonix finds themselves atop Billboard's Holiday Albums chart yet again with their new release A Pentatonix Christmas. (We'll have to wait and see if a Deluxe Edition appears in 2017.) The latest album features Manhattan Transfer joining Pentatonix on "White Christmas" and what has proven to be a timely cover of Leonard Cohen's majestic "Hallelujah" among the eleven tracks.
Peter Hollens preceded Pentatonix on The Sing-Off, as part of his college group On The Rocks in 2010. They did not win but made an appearance on that season's Christmas compilation disc with "White Christmas". After getting his degree, Peter began producing and recording other a cappella groups in his home studio while also releasing his own solo albums. For 2016, he has released A Hollens Family Christmas, an eleven track disc recorded with his wife along with their family and friends, featuring fresh versions of no less than three of my all-time favorite Holiday hits.
The ten voices of Straight No Chaser came to national attention in 2007 after a video of their 1998 free-wheeling live performance of "12 Days Of Christmas" featuring comedic, crowd-pleasing mid-song detours into several other Christmas carols as well as "I Had A Little Dreidel" and Toto's "Africa" went viral, earning them a recording contract. They released Holiday Spirits in 2008, Christmas Cheers in 2009, Under The Influence: Holiday Edition in 2013, the "Rocking Around The Christmas Tree/Winter Wonderland" single in 2015 and now I'll Have Another...Christmas Album in 2016. I enjoy the group's arrangements, their witty sense of humor and the variety of their voices but like every a cappella group, a little goes a long way; after an initial listen to the entire album, I prefer to sprinkle their tracks throughout my Christmas playlists.
Voctave ups the vocal group membership ante by featuring eleven multi-ethnic voices of different ages, both male and female, for an unparalleled sound that rivals larger choirs. I first heard the group while researching "Mary, Did You Know?" and came across a video showing the group backing up Mark Lowry, the song's lyricist, in a powerful performance. All the group's members are current or past members of Epcot performing vocal group Voices Of Liberty, which has been performing at Disney World since before Epcot opened way back in 1982. I'm a very jaded and cynical Disney fan in my advanced age, rejecting most things Disney outright over the past two decades especially after they acquired The Muppets, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm but listening to Voctave's The Spirit Of The Season, a fully independent album with no financial ties to Disney, just once soothed the raging consumer that lies within. Your results may vary.