10 A Cappella Songs That Changed Pop Music History

Written by Deke Sharon

July 21, 2016

A cappella is the oldest form of music, and has been a driving force within music ever since the dawn of singing. Below are the top 10 a cappella songs that changed pop music forever!

1939 – “Mbube” (aka “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) by Solomon Linda

The song was written in the 1920s in Zulu, and Solomon Linda recorded the song (with its familiar “Wimoweh” chant) with his group The Evening Birds. It sparked an entire style of music in South Africa (appropriately called “Mbube”). In 1961, a couple of writers added English lyrics, and it became a #1 hit for The Tokens, having been recorded countless times since then and appearing everywhere including the Disney film “The Lion King.” Sadly, Mr. Linda died a pauper, but a Rolling Stone article in 2000 sparked publicity that lead to his descendants receiving royalties for the first time.

1985 – “Something To Fall Back On” by Todd Rundgren

Always the pioneer, Todd Rundgren released A Cappella an album comprised entirely of voices (mostly his own). With the use of sampling technology, he created all the instrumental sounds and drums on his own: a first glimpse into the sound of contemporary a cappella.

1986 – “Homeless” by Paul Simon & Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Paul Simon was at a low point in his career and life when he heard a bootleg cassette of South African township music. He got on a plane, and the result was the critically acclaimed, multiple Grammy award winning Graceland album which sold 16 million copies. Multiple tracks feature the choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo who sings a cappella in the isicathamiya style, a later development of Solomon Linda’s original Mbube style.

1987 – “(Na Na Hey Hey) Kiss Him Goodbye”  by The Nylons

Throughout the Doo-Wop era, many a cappella groups wrote and sang what would be hit songs, but their producers invariably added instruments when bringing them in the studio. It wasn’t until DJs started spinning an a cappella version of this classic rock song by Steam as performed by the Canadian group The Nylons that a cappella made it onto the Billboard Charts (#12).

1988 – “Don’t Worry Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin

First heard in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, this song captured the late 80’s zeitgeist and became an anthem, the first a cappella song ever to hold the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and later won Grammys for “Song of the Year”, “Record of the Year” and “Best Male Pop Vocal Performance”. The song it knocked out of first place? Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine”.

1992 – “(Where in the World is) Carmen Sandiego” by Rockapella

For the first time ever, all of the music on a game show was created by the five voices of Rockapella, first seen on Spike & Co’s Do It A Cappella special (both on PBS). The show won several Emmys for its 295 educational shows spread across five seasons, with Rockapella not only providing all of the music, but also playing various characters (in increasingly silly outfits).

1994 – “Chant” by Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos

You had to be alive then to believe it: somehow an order of Monks in Spain became a huge international sensation, with their album “Chant” climbing to the #5 spot on the Billboard pop album chart. That’s right, the POP chart! Singing chants from the 11th century, they were inescapable, appearing on every show from Good Morning America to the Tonight Show. You can’t make this stuff up!

2010 – “Teenage Dream” by Darren Criss & the Tufts Beelzebubs (Glee)

The Sing Off was a hit on NBC, and The Tufts Beelzebubs came in second place. When the creators of Glee wanted to add an a cappella group to the second season of their show, they asked the guys to create the vocals, over which Darren Criss would sing the lead vocal. The result? Their first collaboration, “Teenage Dream”, was the first song from Glee to go to #1 on the Billboard charts. Rumor has it the show was initially going to be about a cappella groups, not show choirs… perhaps it should have been!

2013 – “Cups” by Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect soundtrack)

A sleeper hit released in 2012, Pitch Perfect smashed many expectations, not the least of which was the stratospheric rise of a 1938 song sung by a single woman and… a plastic cup! (Is that even a cappella?! We’ll let it slide.) The song was such a breakout hit rising up the charts that Anna Kendrick went in the studio and added instruments, eventually selling quadruple platinum (4 million copies). (We prefer the original version.)

2015 – “Daft Punk Medley” by Pentatonix

After an explosive decade of a cappella growth, the Grammys finally decided to include a cappella in one of their categories: “Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella” (it was previously “Best Instrumental Arrangement”). The result? Pentatonix wins with their “Daft Punk Medley”, currently with over 200 million views on Youtube. Then, in 2016, the instruments fought back, right? Nope, PTX won it again with their version of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy”.

Deke Sharon is a singer, arranger, composer, director, producer, and teacher of a cappella music. He produced NBC’s The Sing-Off and founded the Contemporary A Cappella Society. Deke was the arranger, music director, and vocal producer for Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 and is currently preparing for the filming of Pitch Perfect 3. For more about Deke, check out Performer Stuff’s introductory article, “Introducing…Deke Sharon!” and his Facebook page.
Thumbnail image from the Pitch Perfect. Photo © 2012 Universal Pictures.