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)
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…