Best of British 2012: 2. Titanium

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 continues 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

Awards: ‘Outstanding Vocal Percussion’, Voice Festival UK 2012, St Andrews Regional

Prowling in at number two is a hard-hitting ballad from St Andrews’ mixed group, The Alleycats, from their latest album, We’re Not Kitten. The track, a cover of David Guetta ft. Sia’s Titanium, debuted at the St Andrews Regional Round of the Voice Festival UK but, according to Musical Director Brendan Macdonald, the group weren’t quite up to the standard they had hoped for that night. “We were a bit nervous and weren’t as satisfied with that performance of ‘Titanium’ as we have been with others, but nevertheless, we were still told by friends and family that they absolutely loved it.” The song was such a hit that it featured prominently on their Edinburgh Fringe setlist, and was an instant crowd-pleaser during their BBC Choir of the Year Section Final set.

The arrangement itself was a little rushed, but had very original intentions behind it. According to Macdonald, the group were looking for “a track which would not only highlight Cammy [Dobbie]’s incredible vocal percussion skills, but change the idea of what a slow a cappella ballad sounded like. We only actually decided on Titanium in January.” Having mentioned the premise of their ballad to fellow group member Annie Faichney, Brendan received a response almost immediately. “A few days later she messaged me with the idea of Titanium. It was the perfect track. I started coming up with different parts for the song, and quickly wrote out an arrangement that could work for the group.” As for where Brendan got his inspiration from, a specific Alleycat alumnus is to thank for that: “Lizzy Weintz’s arrangement of Violet Hill for our ’08-’09 litter really influenced how I came at arranging Titanium. Violet Hill is a complete departure from its original, and does what I think any great cover should do: gives the listener a completely new understanding of the song. We wanted to do the same thing with Titanium.”

Since its debut, the song really became one of the favourites of the group as the a cappella season progressed, but Macdonald claims the complexity of the song also helped the group improve as an entity. “The arrangement forced us to adopt better singing habits, and as such, really strengthened us as a group.” Macdonald went on to reveal why the song was so enjoyable for the group to perform. “The dynamics of the song, with the ever-growing crescendo until the very final chorus, are so enjoyable to execute. And of course, any chance to get to hear Heather [Robertson, the soloist on the track]’s unbelievable alto voice completely commit to that solo is worth taking.”

Having been asked about how they would tackle the song now the soloist, Heather Robertson, has left the group, Macdonald made a poignant point. “There are, in my eyes, two soloists in Titanium – Heather (obviously), and Cammy as well, because the beat-boxing is relentless, and drives the entire emotional arc that we intended to create.” Having said that, “Heather’s haunting rendition of Sia’s part is so powerful.” With regards the future of the song, Brendan suggested the emotional ties to the original soloists would not be released so readily. “To me, I still think of the song as Heather’s and Cammy’s, and so at the moment we’ve decided to put it on the shelf for a while.”

So, Titanium charts at Number 2 on our list, a track which can be found on their album, We’re Not Kitten. But who will chart at Number 1? Stay tuned…

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Album Review: We’re Not Kitten

We’re Not Kitten is the eighth studio album from The Alleycats, and represents the culmination of the previous two generations of Cats.

We’re Not Kitten is the first studio album to come out of St Andrews’ only auditioned mixed-voice a cappella group in two years, and is very much the culmination of the previous two years’ of Cats: scattered arrangements from 2010/11 MD Lizzy Weintz bless the album, as well as one marvellous solo, while songs from their award winning Voice Festival set back in March of 2011 combine with those from this year to form the backbone of this generally impressive effort from the Scotland-based group, which provides a much fuller offering of the group’s musical tastes than their previous 7-track effort, Cat Touch This.

Naturally infused with cat-related puns, We’re Not Kitten, like most albums, has its highs, lows and middle-of-the-roads. Three things stand out immediately from a superficial first listen: firstly, Cammy Dobbie will be sorely missed. His beatboxing throughout this album is nothing short of phenomenal. The fact that on several of the tracks I am overwhelmed by the ever-giving smorgasbord of vocal percussion that I forget to listen to the song itself is credit to the recent graduate who will be very difficult to replace. Secondly, The Alleycats are definitely not short of solo oomph. The standout quality of the soloists does occasionally impact on group blend, particularly on Kiss Me, in which Annie Faichney’s delightfully floated angelic solo has to navigate backing in which it is a little too easy to pick out individual voices. But all of the solos are delivered powerfully, pitch-perfectly and with real verve. And finally, the immense amounts of energy and enthusiasm bursting through the seams of this album make it almost feel as if you’re at one of their live shows. Unfortunately, almost is the operative word here, and I must say the group sound better in person, when their music and energy is combined with their signature choreography.

By the way, this album sounds way better through headphones. Or with any kind of bass booster. Do it.

The highlights of the album heavily outweigh the lowlights. We are treated to a beautiful, lustrous solo from Garrett Turner on Track 1, Ray LaMontagne’s You Are The Best Thing, which incorporates some lovely deep bass resonance, a couple of strong female harmonies throughout and some typical Alleycat backing ‘ba’ sounds. Garrett even treats us to some lovely falsetto at the end of the number – another gem of a find that the group will miss dearly. The slow arrangement of When You Were Young is one I have always championed, and Philip de Winter Shaw’s solo is again pitch-perfect and suits this arrangement down to the ground. That Don’t Impress Me Much is brightened up by some hilarious spoken interludes, including references to being able to name all 151 original Pokemon, living with your parents and studying Maths. (If that went straight over your head, listen to the song – you’ll get it). Titanium is one of the best recent songs the group has covered, with a massive solo delivered magnificently by the tragically underused Heather Robertson. But the real highlight is the mash-up of Usher’s DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love, Britney’s Till The World Ends and Enrique’s Tonight (I’m Lovin’ You), which is one of the most original and seamless mash-ups I have heard recently. It’s a shame the group don’t try their hand more often at mash-ups, because this one has everything – songs blended from start to finish, immaculate transitions between solos, and a real Alleycat stamp on the whole thing.

There are no bad tracks on this album; rather some which make choices that sometimes don’t make that much sense. Two stand out as songs which could have potentially been killer tracks, but instead remained above average: The Cave and Toxic. On the former, the unique voice of Thomas Ziolkowski comes to the fore, and while his voice is the most Mumford-esque in the group, I find it difficult to figure out whether or not it works on this track. The problem I have with it is that Ziolkowski jumps off the originally long high “I” notes in the chorus a little too quickly, which causes the track to lose some of the echoey atmosphere contained in the original. This isn’t helped by the fact the song never really reaches a climax and the group’s decision to fade the song out at the end – especially as the original doesn’t even do that. Fade-outs are a bit of a cop out, and so I would have preferred a sense of finality to the song. After all, you can’t fade out live. The latter track, Britney’s Toxic, starts off with a strong solo from Ollie Hayes, but again, the decision to place the song in a key that meant Hayes had to drop an octave during the chorus was a bizarre one and lead to the solo becoming a little lost within the blend, which in turn dented the impact a chorus should have, which is to be the most memorable, climactic and catchy part of the song.

Nitpicking aside, on the whole this album delivers an accurate representation of the last two years of Alleycat history, crammed full of energetic songs which demonstrate the considerable arranging abilities of the current and past MDs, Brendan Macdonald and Lizzy Weintz, and the phenomenal vocal talent that the group had at its disposal. With over half of the group having left at the end of the last academic session, we’d better hope the group have recruited new members willing and able to fill the enormous boots left behind.