Nancy Cheng is an English major and pre-med junior at Duke University, where she is also a member of the group Out of the Blue. She enjoys shower-singing, hemiolas, and funk. Nancy writes Members Only once a month for The A Cappella Blog.
I'm in a group called Out of the Blue at Duke University. We have won CARAs, most recently in 2008, for Best Album (RED), Best Song ("Magic Tree"), and Best Soloist (Sharon Obialo), so it's obvious we tend to take recording pretty seriously.
Last year we picked both "Nude" by Radiohead and "Ain't Nothing Wrong with That" by Robert Randolph for our next CD. Coincidentally, a little birdy told me that UNC's Clef Hangers (also multiple CARA winners) did the exact same thing.
We at Duke prefer to think that UNC sent out a spy down Tobacco Road to steal our awesome ideas for CD songs, but I suppose it's possible it was just luck. Our groups wouldn't be in the same categories for CARAs, if that ever came up, since we're an all-female group and the Clef Hangers are all male. At the same time, however, you don't really want to pick songs you think may be very popular on a cappella CDs across the country.
CD song selection requires a certain amount of cognizance concerning what's hot in music now so that people will buy the CD based on what they know, what will sound just as good or better in an a cappella version, and what you can offer your prospective audience that no other group can. This includes the song choices, amongst other things like kick ass soloists or gorgeous arrangements. If you can rock a somewhat popular song (say, by Muse or Keane) then it would probably be a good pick for the CD. Unknown songs that are fun to sing and offer new things to the a cappella genre should be considered. Be wary, though – those effects you may want on your track that are on the original song may be costly to mix.
Putting popular songs on your CD is a good way to attract listeners outside of your normal audience, but keep in mind that by doing do, you definitely won't be pushing the envelope when it comes to a cappella, since those songs have been and will be covered many times over. If you're only making a CD as a keepsake of your college a cappella years, then it'd be fine to pick any songs you like to put on your CD. It'll be for you, after all.
That being said, don't be afraid to pick songs for your live set that are popular. For guy groups, classics by the Beach Boys or Boyz II Men are sure to please a crowd, and girls can't go wrong singing oldies like "Love Will Keep Us Together," something by the Pointer Sisters, or even The Supremes, if you can pull that off. Mixed groups--take your pick.
The wide appeal of a cappella is that people can hear their favorite songs in a voices only version, and they're more likely to enjoy your performance if they can recognize songs and bob their head along. My group personally has a little trouble picking mainstream songs—partly because a lot of them will have boring backgrounds or because we worry people will already be sick of listening to them on the radio once we learn how to sing them. But, like many other groups, we have to learn how to strike a balance between popular songs and songs we would put on a CD.