Newsline

The Ten Can't Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2016

Newsline

2016 was a great year for a collegiate a cappella. As the year comes to a close, it is time to salute ten truly extraordinary groups.

A few notes:

-Groups included in The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2013,  2014, and 2015 were not eligible for inclusion in this year’s list. It’s not that those groups are any less exceptional this year, but I wanted to give ten different groups recognition. So, the following thirty groups were not considered this time around:

a.Squared
The AcaBelles
Akousticats
All-Night Yahtzee
Bare Naked Statues
Bathtub Dogs
The Beltones
Beyond Measure
The BluesTones
The Chordials
Eight Beat Measure
Faux Paz
Footnotes
Fundamentally Sound
The G-Men
The Hexachords
Men In Drag
Mix
The N’Harmonics
No Comment
The Octaves
The Octopodes
Pitch, Please!
Reverb
State of Fifths
The Statesmen
The Vassar Devils
VirtuOSO
Vocal Point (Brigham Young University)
Vocal Point (University of Delaware)

-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2016. The criteria for the list included (but was not necessarily limited to) accomplishments, public recognition, innovation, and quality of performance (live and recorded). Two other pieces of criteria that are least scientific, but unavoidable: my personal preferences and what I’ve been exposed to. I’m only one critic, and if I haven’t heard your group, I welcome you to send me some YouTube links or a CD to help bring me up to speed

- This list only considers groups based in the United States of America. I simply don’t have enough exposure to international groups at this time to fairly consider them in this context.

-I opted to limit this list to ten groups, which meant that many groups worthy of superlatives could not make it. I did want to acknowledge a handful of them with honorable mentions: Northeastern University Distilled Harmony, University of Pennsylvania Off the Beat, University of Massachusetts Amherst S#arp Attitude, The Florida State University Acaphiliacs.

Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2016.

The Carnegie Mellon University Originals

I had heard The Originals prior to 2016, but I’d never heard them anything like I heard them in 2016 until they showed up on the ICCA Finals stage in New York, Champions of the Central region. There, they delivered an absolute stunner of an electronically tinged set that moved from Nick Jonas’s “Levels” to a positively haunting, dystopian take on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. From there, the guys turned the set on its head with a heartbreakingly human take on Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold,” featuring an incredible solo. The set was good enough for second place in the world (though I’m among those fans who would humbly suggest that they should have won the whole tournament).

The Originals were not done for 2016. Elsewhere in live performance, they were finalists for the fall SoJam scholastic competition. From there, just last month, they released their well-received EP, Void, featuring songs from their ICCA set. So, The Originals left 2016 wildly accomplished, and as a truly unique artistic success story performing unforgettable music, creatively arranged and staged, to arrive as one of the most irresistible acts singing in a cappella in 2016.

University of Central Florida Voicebox

The a cappella scene in Florida is crowded, the number of top-tier groups positively swelling at this point. As such, Voicebox had escaped my attention until 2016.

In the year 2016, there was no ignoring Voicebox.

Voicebox won the ICCA South this year and made their debut on the Finals stage, where they immediately set themselves to the task of leaving an impression, starting with a spooky bit of “Come Little Children” from Hocus Pocus before exhibiting terrific restraint on a subdued imagining of Panic! At the Disco’s “This Is Gospel,” and nailing the audience with the big sound of “Victorious.” And so, Voicebox was on the map on a national scale—a milestone they only built upon this fall, winning SoJam’s scholastic competition. With this accomplishment the group has hinted at the most impressive piece of all—they may be even better in 2017.

The UCLA ScatterTones

The ScatterTones are one of those perennially great groups that a cappella can more or less assume will be great any time, any year they hear them. 2016 was a special year for the group in terms of range and expanse of accomplishment. They opened the year at the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival where they tore the house down with their live set and finished second in the prestigious scholastic competition.

In addition to succeeding live, The ScatterTones made their mark in recording, where their album Being Young encompassed so much of the group’s best work from the preceding five years, and won Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards for Best Mixed Collegiate Album, Best Mixed Collegiate Solo for India Carney’s performance on “Stop This Train,” and were the top runner up for Best Mixed Collegiate Arrangement for Taylor Fugit’s take on “No Woman No Cry.”

Headed into the new year, The ScatterTones are on their way back into ICCA competition, the venue through which they achieved national acclaim earlier in the 2010s when they placed in back-to-back-to-back Finals. In 2017, they’re certainly a group to watch for.

University of Oregon Divisi

2016 saw all-female Divisi win their way to their third ICCA Finals berth. The first time they did it, their electric set and near-win inspired the Pitch Perfect book and by extension the film franchise. The next time was at the dawn of the ICCA Wild Card era. And here the group was in 2016, opening a new chapter triumphant in a new and ever-expanding region, the ICCA Northwest. 

The group’s set was a true stand out, moving from a jazzy slowed down take on Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” to what was arguably the most emotionally vulnerable song of the whole tournament in a rendition of Sara Bareilles’s “Manhattan.” Divisi wrapped with powerhouse climax of Jetta’s “Start a Riot,” fully demonstrating the group’s tremendous versatility to go with their musical precision. Word is that Divisi is also putting the finishing touches on an EP, expected to go public this month—don’t sleep on it.

Washington University of St. Louis Mosaic Whispers

When a group makes it to the ICCA Finals stage in this day and age, there’s little doubt they’re <i>great</i>. But when a group takes the stage with the level of confidence—the sensuality and sheer bombast of Mosaic Whispers—you know you have something special.

Mosaic Whispers brought the house down at Finals with a memorable rendition of Santana’s “Smooth” (including sample of Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita”), the intensity of Sia’s “Elastic Heart,” and outright attacking the stage on Sohn’s “Tremors,” for an unforgettable performance. As if all of that weren’t enough, Mosaic Whispers also performed live during CNN’s coverage of the 2016 Presidential Debate at Washington University. That’s right, they got face time on arguably the biggest news outlet in the US, ahead of one the most watched debates in US history. Pretty cool, and a fitting cap to an outstanding year.

Cal State Northridge Acasola

The Los Angeles A Cappella Festival has become one of the brightest annual a cappella festivals in no small part because it happens so early in the year. Like many major festivals, it included a scholastic competition, and this year Acasola made a statement all the way back in January by taking first place at that show.

Acasola wrapped up the year little less impressively, with their annual No Snow Show, to benefit the local Guadalupe Community Center, stylishly themed this year around a “Hollywood Holiday.” Acasola remains a group that pushes boundaries and works toward goals, harkening back to their earlier years when they bolted from inception to placing at the ultracompetitive ICCA West semis, and a few years ago when they scored on a spot on FOX’s Raising Hope. In 2017, they’re set to return to the ICCA tournament, and one can only expect great things from them.

The Boston University BosTones

Though the western United States has had a tendency to produce ICCA Champions this past decade, there’s a proud tradition of collegiate a cappella excellence out of New England, and few groups honored that particular story better this year than The BosTones, the ICCA Northeast Champions who brought both polish and imagination to the ICCA Finals stage

From the lovely choral work to offset the power solo on Beyonce’s “Déjà vu,” to the expert staging on Adele’s “I Miss You,” to the wall of sound to close the set, The BosTones wowed the crowd in New York from end to end. In addition, The BosTones followed up that effort this fall, finishing second only to the vaunted Nor’easters in Boston’s twentieth annual Faneuil Hall A Cappella Competition, not to mention  successfully crowdfunding  to record their new EP.

The University of Virgina Sil’hooettes

The Sils have a long history of success, and 2016 proved to be a particularly successful year for them in the realm of recorded a cappella as their album <i>Luster</i>, earned all manner of recognition in 2016. 

The Sils made an excellent showing at the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards, top runners up in the categories of Best Female Collegiate Arrangement, Best Female Collegiate Song, and Best Female Collegiate Solo, and a big win for Best Female Collegiate Album. Besides that, the album scored an impressive composite score of 4.5/5.0 from The Recorded A Cappella Review Board, wherein critic Guang Ming Whitley commented of Luster that, “The tuning and blend are impeccable, the arrangements are solid, and the roster of talented soloists runs deep.” Indeed, The Sil’hooettes are the kind of traditionally great group that remains steady and a joy to listen to year after year.

Chapman University Soundcheck

The ICCA West has been great for most of the tournament’s existence, with groups like The SoCal VoCals, The ScatterTones, Vocal Point, Noteworthy, and Divisi posing regular threats to place at Finals if not win the championship. In 2016, the region bifurcated into the Northwest and Southwest, which opened an extra opportunity for a star group to rise out of the west—an all the more potent opportunity when a number of perennial contenders took the year off from ICCA. Soundcheck arose from this unique set of circumstances—fresh faces on the ICCA Finals stage, and group more than worthy of the west coast collegiate a cappella legacy at Finals.

The group thrived at Finals with an attitude-packed mashup of “Centuries” and “Bad Blood,” before scaling things back for the soft harmonic beauty of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” They shut things down with a crowd-pleasing take on Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man.” wrapping a wonderfully entertaining, diverse set. Down the road, this fall Soundcheck celebrated its tenth anniversary, complete with alumni returning to campus to bring the house down one more time. 

Oakland University Gold Vibration

In 2016, Gold Vibrations exploded out of the ICCA Great Lakes region to make their debut at ICCA Finals. From the confidence and sass on Tori Kelly’s “Expensive” to the stripped down take on Tove Lo’s “Talking Body,” to a rousing mashup of Pentatonix’s “Cracked” and Nick Jonas’s “Chains,” the group was positively scintillating on the Finals stage

Speaking of the mashup of “Cracked” and “Chains,” it not only worked live, but caught fire in the studio, earning Soundcheck a spot on the next Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation. This combination of live and recorded success was hugely impressive, and one can only anticipate even more great things for Gold Vibrations as we look ahead to 2017.

20/20 Cover Art

Newsline

20/20 A Cappella is a still-new all-male quintet based out of Ellensburg, Washington, and they just released their EP,titled, Cover Art. On listening to the album, I was struck by its bold overarching aesthetic. This is not an explosive album, or one that seeks to infuse rap or dubstep interludes, but rather a mature effort that comfortably situates itself in a mellow space of musical ease—soft, inviting, and a pleasure to listen to.

Cover

The group really hits its stride when the music is softest, sweetest, and most emotionally vulnerable. Their cover of Sam Smith’s “Lay Me Down” comes across as completely earnest, built on brilliant harmonization. Similarly, Ed Sheeran’s “I’m A Mess” proves to be a particularly bright spot, for starting on a simple clean solo over a stripped down track before the guys nicely complicated the instrumentation and arrived at a fuller sound.

Tracks like, Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and One Direction’s “Story of My Life” similarly capitalize on the group’s strengths, taking more raucous, upbeat numbers and adding a dimension of delicacy, even a twinge of sadness to what easily could have been less heart-felt work (besides featuring particularly good solo work).

The closing tracks, Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” and before that, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Each start on a slowed down, subdued, borderline jazzy take on the song. “Crazy” samples another song before returning to its slowed down groove, while “Shake It Off”—suitably, as the final track, final speeds into a more straightforward take on the original track. While I’d argue that these songs would be better off spaced out on the album so the originality of what the group is doing could stand out more in contrast to tracks doing other things, they’re nonetheless very solid, innovative covers.

If I were to articulate just one complaint about Cover Art, it would have to be song selection. “I’ll Cover You” from Rent was an odd pick, though arguably just dated enough to feel like a fun retro pick. “Crazy,” “Sugar, We’re Going Down,” and Gavin Degraw’s “I’m in Love With a Girl” all felt both dated and already quite over-exposed in a cappella circles, and thus strange picks for an EP released in 2016. I did appreciate the fresh takes the group had on these songs—as the album title calls attention to, literally creating art out of their cover songs, but I’d be interested to hear these guys apply their same creativity and sound fundamentals to some fresher material.

All in all, Cover Art is an easy, enjoyable listen by a skilled young group, with some nice production work from George Wiederkehr and there’s little reason not to check it out given that the group is streaming the album for free on Spotify (though you can also pay what you like at Loudr, or a fixed price on iTunes).

The Ten Can’t Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2015

Newsline

2015 was a great year for a collegiate a cappella. As the year comes to a close, it is time to salute ten truly extraordinary groups.

A few notes that I urge you to read before you critique this list:
-Groups included in The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2012, 2013, and 2014 were not eligible for inclusion in this year’s list. It’s not that those groups are any less exceptional this year, but I wanted to give ten different groups recognition. So, the following groups were not considered this time around:

a.Squared
The Accidentals
Akousticats
All-Night Yahtzee
Bare Naked Statues
Bathtub Dogs
The Beltones
Beyond Measure
The BluesTones
The Chordials
Eight Beat Measure
Footnotes
The G-Men
GQ
The Hexachords
Ithacappella
Men In Drag
Mix
The N’Harmonics
No Comment
The Nor’easters
Out of the Blue
The Pennharmonics
Reverb
The Scattertones
The SoCal Vocals
The Statesmen
Vocal Point (University of Delaware)
Voicemaile
Voices in Your Head

-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2015. The criteria for the list included (but was not necessarily limited to) accomplishments, public recognition, innovation, and quality of performance (live and recorded). Two other pieces of criteria that are least scientific, but unavoidable: my personal preferences and what I’ve been exposed to. I’m only one critic, and if I haven’t heard your group, I welcome you to send me some YouTube links or a CD to help bring me up to speed.
- This list only considers groups based in the United States of America. I simply don’t have enough exposure to international groups at this time to fairly consider them in this context.
-I opted to limit this list to ten groups, which meant that many groups worthy of superlatives could not make it. I did want to acknowledge a handful of them with honorable mentions: The University of North Carolina Loreleis, University of Pennsylvania Off the Beat, and The Yale University Whiffenpoofs.

Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2015.

Baylor University VirtuOSO This year marked my ninth consecutive trip to ICCA Finals. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing performances from an array of impressive groups, representing diverse abilities, styles and aesthetics.

I’d never heard a group from Texas.

The ICCA South has, in my time, been dominated by groups out of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee—and to be clear, these are some of my favorite groups. Just the same, I did speculate as to why the state where everything is bigger (and, heck, the state that essentially birthed Pentatonix!) seemed to have a less well-developed, or at least less represented collegiate a cappella scene.

I wonder no more.

2015 was the year when VirtuOSO, a less-well known group from a very well-known university broke through to the national spotlight, winning its way all the way to ICCA Finals, with a set featuring “Best Day of My Life,” “Honeymoon Avenue,” “I’m Not The Only One,” and “Uptown Funk.” Check that set list. All top forty hits. All songs that were arguably over-exposed in the a cappella world this year. And that’s part of what I loved about VirtuOSO—a group that demonstrated a cappella need not be brooding or rooted in hipster music no one has heard of. On the contrary, VirtuOSO was infinitely accessible, fun to both listen to and watch on stage, and they nailed their fundamentals to deliver a rousing, irresistible set.

The Florida State University AcaBelles The AcaBelles have been at the fore of women’s a cappella for the better part of a decade now, constantly pushing boundaries and asserting a powerful presence that dares anyone to claim all-female a cappella is boring. This year, it was the AcaBelles’ studio work that earned them the most accolades, winning Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards for Best Female Collegiate Album for Rebel, and Best Female Collegiate Arrangement and Song for “Blue Ocean Floor.”

On top of all of that, though, The AcaBelles asserted themselves on a national stage as one of just five groups to be featured on PopTV’s Sing It On docu-series. Though The ‘Belles were cut short in their ICCA journey this year, they proudly represented all-female groups around the country that have to work harder and be that much better to earn the same respect and audiences as their all-male and co-ed counterparts. Make no mistake about it, The AcaBelles continue to be a great a cappella group, and it was wonderful to see them further establish their notoriety on a national stage.

The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes From 2008 to 2014, I lived in Baltimore and had the pleasure of getting to see The Octopodes steadily evolve from a good group, to the kind of group that threatened to break the glass ceiling and explode into ICCA Finals on a perennial basis. Not only were they a great live group, though—they also established themselves as a recording powerhouse.

In 2014, The ‘Podes unleashed The Kraken. It’s an all-original album featuring a great group at the height of its powers, expertly produced via The Vocal Company, and though it was released in 2014, the album earned its just desserts in 2015, starting with a stellar review on The Recorded A Cappella Review Board, followed by big-time success when it came time for awards. The JHU crew picked up Contemporary A Cappella Awards for Best Original Song by a Scholastic Group, and tied for Best Mixed Collegiate Album—worthy praise for a special album that points a way forward for a cappella as more than a form in which groups perform and record as vocal cover bands, but rather a form in which fresh new music is happening.

Brigham Young University Vocal Point Vocal Point is perpetual success story in the a cappella world—one of a small handful of scholastic franchises that has remained elite for across roster overhauls and the passage of years, most famously thriving on The Sing-Off and winning two ICCA championships.

For 2015, in addition to continuing to offer up electric live performances, Vocal Point added to its legacy via recognition of their recording efforts. Spectrum dropped in the spring of 2014. In the 2015 Contemporary A Cappella Rewards, their work earned them the superlative of Best Male Collegiate Album—an honor hard-won over some tough competition. They followed up this effort with an inspired music video, in partnership with the All-American Boys Chorus, to “Homeward Bound.”

Northeastern University Pitch, Please! Pitch, Please! can get lost in the shadow of schoolmates The Nor’easters, or high profile aca-presences that share the city of Boston, like Pitch Slapped. Therefore, it was great to see them get their share of the spotlight in 2015 when they arrived on one of the featured groups on PopTV’s Sing It On, doing all-female a cappella proud in front of a national audience.

In addition to garnering exposure on TV, Pitch, Please! killed it live in 2015, with accomplishments including winning first runner-up honors at the Boston Sings (BOSS) A Cappella Festival, and picking up superlatives at that competition for Best Soloist and Most Powerful Message.

University of Maryland Faux Paz As I referenced earlier, during my six years living in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to see the a cappella scene grow in that region. Along with groups like The Octopodes, Faux Paz was one of the units that I had the opportunity to see evolve, change, and improve a period of years, and I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to see them again in 2015 when they won their way all the way to the ICCA Finals for the first time in thirteen years.

Faux Paz’s finals set was dark, powerful, and mesmerizing—a true emotional tour de force that demonstrated unrelenting intensity from both an aural and visual perspective. In this performance, the group shored up its spot as not only the champions of the Mid-Atlantic region, but one of the elite college groups in the country.

Michigan State University State of Fifths Since its inception in 2013, the ICCA’s Great Lakes region has steadily developed into one of the most intriguing of the tournament. While The G-Men have been the perennial regional champs, 2015 was the second consecutive year when State of Fifths were nipping at their heels as the top runners up for a spot at ICCA Finals.

Dramatic flair and very real emotion were key to a stellar showing for State of Fifths, a co-ed group we have reason to believe will only get better for years to come, and further cement their place as an ensemble everyone ought to be listening for.

The Vassar College Vassar Devils For those of us who watched Sing It On, a funny thing happened. The Nor’easters were not only one of the featured groups, but also one of the favorites—a group portrayed as heroes and likely winners. As such, The Vassar Devils, who stood out as one of the most formidable obstacles to a Nor’easter Finals bid, became something like villains.

The thing is, for those of us who caught the Vassar Devils live in 2015, it’s hard to root against them. It’s also hard to deny them recognition as one of the absolute best American collegiate a cappella groups of the year. The group sang with very real intensity, besides planning some of the most compelling visuals of the year. What’s more, their set featured an original song, “Nothing,” that helped the group stand out at every level of competition.

University of Wisconsin Fundamentally Sound Over the years, Fundamentally Sound has cultivated a well-earned reputation as one of the most consistently entertaining, engaging and, yes, fundamentally sound all-male groups singing out of the Midwest. The guys put these pieces together for another compelling ICCA run in 2015, which brought them just one place away from advancing to ICCA Finals.

Post-competition, Fundamentally Sound rounded out the 2014-2015 academic year with a National Treasure-themed show. That may be the perfect theme for this group of guys—a too-well kept secret on the national scene, but a real treasure to take in when they hit the stage.

The University of Richmond Octaves Nearly twenty-five years into Octaves history, the group added an important new accomplishment to its resume—their first Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award for Best Male Collegiate Song, in honor of their work on a cover of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.”

While all-male groups covering female pop artists isn’t exactly novel in the 2010s (thanks, Lady Gaga), The Octaves’ rendition of “Wrecking Ball,” arranged by Tom Anderson and Jared Feinman, featured so many of the potential strengths of such a cross-gender re-imagining—a strong, straightforward solo; a brilliant falsetto bit around the three-minute mark; a phenomenal bass line; and a simply beautiful, full finish. With this song, and the accolades to follow, The Octaves shored up their spot, among the finest a cappella groups singing today.

The ICCA Bracket of Champions: What Was the Best ICCA Set of the Last Eight Years?

Newsline

Since Mike Scalise and I launched The A Cappella Blog in 2007, we have attended every International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Final, live in New York. Today, one week before the launch of the 2015 tournament, and as I hope all of you have completed your entries to the 2015 ACB ICCA Bracket Contest, I’d like to take a look back at the last eight years of ICCA Champions—and what more fun way to do that than with a bracket all its own?

To start from a fairly objective point, I seeded the champions based on the number of points they earned from the judges for their championship-winning sets. In the event of ties, margin of victory over the top runner up came into play. Thus, the groups were seeded as follows.

1. The 2008 University of Southern California SoCal VoCals (454 points, 70 point margin of victory)
2. 2009 Mt. San Antonio College Fermata Nowhere (445 points, 79 point margin of victory)
3. The 2010 University of Southern California SoCal Vocals (445 points, 69 point margin of victory)
4. 2007 Brigham Young University Noteworthy (431 points, 59 point margin of victory)
5. 2014 Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped (431 points, 48 point margin of victory)
6. The 2013 Northeastern University Nor’easters (415 points, 49 point margin of victory)
7. 2011 Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped (403 points, 36 point margin of victory)
8. The 2012 University of Southern California SoCal VoCals (394 points, 7 point margin of victory)

Note: Each of the groups discussed in this article were great groups that put on tremendous sets. None of the content to follow is intended to diminish the accomplishment of these groups, but rather, to entertain you, the readers, and to celebrate a brief segment in the rich history of Varsity Vocals’ ICCA Tournament. I’ll be the first to admit the write ups and decisions below are very much subjective and welcome you to Tweet your own thoughts using #ICCABoC.

Without further ado, I present the first ever iteration of the ICCA Bracket of Champions.

Round 1

1. The 2008 SoCal VoCals vs. 8. The 2012 SoCal VoCals

Immediately, we get a clash of two generations of the same group. How do we separate the two when they stem from the same tradition? When they, conceivably, could have an overlapping member or two, or at minimum similar mentorship from alumni who saw the group through to the promised land?

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m pushing most of those questions to the sidelines and acting as though these were two completely separate performances from two completely different groups that just happen to have some overlapping tendencies.

The 2008 group racked up more points than any other champion at Finals in the last eight years. Along the way to Finals, the group earned the high score in the overall 2008 ICCA bracket, with a 463-point quarterfinal. I’m pleased to say that this was a group that lived up to the hype. Singing “Feeling Good” in the style of Michael Buble is all but a scholastic a cappella cliché nowadays, and I dare contend that the 2008 SoCal VoCals’ opener was both the inspiration for this movement and the reason why no group should ever try it again—seven years later, I’ve heard over a dozen groups perform this same song, and not one of them touched the SoCal VoCal treatment, from its shimmering vocals to the positively jaw-droppingly original and dynamic choreo. They progressed to a choral treatment of “All the Things You Are” in which the crew demonstrated its fundamentals and its precision—singing as unit, blending perfectly, and using dynamics to build moments. Finally, the group closed on “Somebody to Love.” Any other group probably would have been screwed choosing this song, after All-Night Yahtzee killed it directly before them. But this was the 2008 SoCal VoCals who rose to the occasion with a dynamite solo and a positively compelling group sound, guaranteeing that they would not be denied.

Fast forwarding to 2012, it should be noted that this was the first SoCal VoCals unit since 2008 not to win its semifinal, and the first Wild Card winner to go on to win the whole tournament. On one hand you can credit the heart of this group for not giving up, for tweaking its set, and for proving the doubters wrong when they won their third championship in three attempts. On the other hand, you can argue that this was the SoCal VoCals unit that, as great as they were, weren’t quite as great as the ones to come before them.

And while I hesitate to call the 2012 group anything short of great, I do fall in the latter camp. The group opened with Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” anchored by a stellar male solo. Next up was “Poison and Wine.” Was “Poison and Wine” well put together, well sung, and compelling? No doubt. The trouble is that the group arranged, choreographed, and plotted this song as a spitting image of their 2010 rendition of “Crazy Ever After.” Should we penalize a group for revisiting a concept that worked in the past? We can argue the point all day long—what I will say that as a long-time observer of the Finals, I could recognize the repetition and was disappointed that this group that had been so innovative and cutting edge in the past seemed to be pulling from its back catalog. The 2012 group ended with “Tightrope.” The good news here is that they Oluwasegun Oluwadele very arguably turned in the single best solo in ICCA Finals history. The unfortunate side of that revelation is that this is a rare instance of a SoCal VoCal star outshining the rest of the group. That’s not to say that the ensemble was poor in this instance, but it was difficult to remember them in the face of Oluwadele’s iconic performance.

So, with all due respect to the 2012 crew, there’s little question in my mind that the 2008 version of the SoCal VoCals put on the stronger set. They cruise to the second round of the bracket.

4. 2007 Noteworthy vs. 5. 2014 Pitch Slapped

We go from a matchup of two versions of the same group with so many similarities, to a clash of opposites.

In Noteworthy, we have the only all-female champions of the last eight years. A hungry, take-no-prisoners group that stormed the stage and, in the tradition of their on-campus siblings Vocal Point, and their west coast frenemies Divisi, demanded that the judges and audience take notice.

In Pitch Slapped we have a co-ed group making its third Finals appearance in five years, including one previous Championship win three years earlier. They swapped songs between each round of the tournament and performed with a breezy, free-wheeling, irresistible brand of charisma that darn-near had the audience dancing in the aisles.

To their credit, each of these groups thought differently. For Noteworthy, it was starting out their set with the screams of Bulgarian folk music, singing a hymn, and stitching the bombast of “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” in between to positively throw down in the face of more traditional acts. For Pitch Slapped, “Radio Song,” “Ain’t It Fun,” and “Come On Over (All I Want Is You)” set a party tone uncommon to the gravitas of the ICCA Finals, all the more special for the group executing these songs with their signature musical precision. “Take Back the Night” and “Say Something” added a wisp of weight to the middle of the set, but these numbers were woven together and clipped to keep them relatively light.

There’s a temptation to reward Pitch Slapped for offering one of the best relatively light-hearted Finals sets in recent memory. However, I have to maintain my original assessment from last April. That, in 2014, Pitch Slapped may well have been the single greatest collegiate a cappella group in the world—but they didn’t assemble the greatest set. For me, Noteworthy broke more ground in 2007. They made good on Divisi’s 2005 Finals promise, and set the table for groups like The AcaBelles go to war in the years to follow. Thus, I have to give Noteworthy the nod coming out of the first round.

2. 2009 Fermata Nowhere vs. 7. 2011 Pitch Slapped

This match up has some of the trappings of the Noteworthy-Pitch Slapped matchup I just described, but also some pretty stark differences. In this scenario, Fermata Nowhere plays the role of raw, hungry group without any trepidation about thinking outside the box. Pitch Slapped has the same arsenal of superstar soloists and musical acumen that comes with a Berklee education; all that and the group boasted a record of finishing top runners up in the previous year’s ICCA Tournament and appearing on The Sing-Off the preceding fall.

All that said, 2011 Pitch Slapped had its share of differences from 2014 Pitch Slapped. This was a group that, for all its acclaim had not yet garnered an ICCA crown. Enter all of the urgency and desperation to win that I felt was missing from their 2014 run, and you have the kind of group that, no one wants to compete against, but everyone wants to hear live. Pitch Slapped came to play with a super fun take on “The Other Side” that featured an excellent rap breakdown, followed by an emotional and earnest rendering of “Because of You,” before the group brought the house down with “Takin’ It to the Streets.” This was Pitch Slapped blending edginess with musical precision for a simply sensational result.

And then there’s Fermata Nowhere. The group featured a positively killer rhythm section, including young Avi Kaplan (who has gone on to even greater success with Pentatonix), and palpable energy as they exploded on stage with a monster sound and choreography that included cartwheels and constant motion. They opened with a powerfully unique sound on “Maghalena” before exposing their souls on Secondhand Serande’s “Fall For You.” And then there was a closer. To be frank, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a group incorporate high-octane choreo and comedy this aggressively, and still turn in such a musically sound and compelling final song, as they developed a medley from “Heartless,” “Disturbia,” and “Single Ladies.”

2011 Pitch Slapped vs. 2009 Fermata Nowhere ended up as one of the most difficult matchups for me to pick—so different that they defied comparisons, each so driven that it’s hard to deny either one this early in the bracket. In the end, I’m giving Pitch Slapped the duke by a hair for a bit more polish and precision on their end.

3. The 2010 SoCal VoCals vs. 6. The 2013 Nor’easters

We close out the first round with another humdinger of a pairing. It’s one of the most polished sets in ICCA history versus one of the greatest stories in ICCA history. The return of the kings and queens of the ICCAs up against the uncrowned champions striving for their first tournament win.

In 2008, The SoCal VoCals established themselves as undeniable champions. When they returned to the tournament two years later, they went from the hunters to the hunted—a group that suddenly had not only championship aspirations but expectations to be exceptional. And holy guacamole, did they deliver?! They kicked of the with bold choice of a jazzy take on “God Bless the Child.” They followed up with one of their most iconic performances of all time—boasting a cast of rotating soloists for “Crazy Ever After.” It’s hard to describe just how good that middle song was, not just for highlighting the depth of the group’s solo talent, but also for remaining so musically seamless despite people trading out parts constantly. They closed with Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”—a marvel of a party song that was positively infectious and had the crowd applauding well before the group even finished the song.

Fast forward to 2013, and you have The Nor’easters. The Boston-based group traveled to New York for finals beneath the shroud of the Boston Marathon bombing tragedy—an event that not only rocked the group emotionally, but actually threatened their presence at the tournament when their bus and a variety of other transportation options were shut down. Fortunately, the group scrambled to find car rides and make their way to the Big Apple to take their shot at ICCA Championship glory, after coming one place shy of Finals the previous two years. And boy am I glad they made it. With a positively killer bass sound and VP, out of this world soloists, and some of the most creative arrangements I’ve ever heard on the Finals stage, The Nor’easters captivated the New York crowd via “Drumming Song,” “Wrong Side of a Love Song,” and a haunting reinvention of “Diamonds.” And then there was “Don’t You Worry Child,” which the group somehow transformed into an anthem of hope, culminating in the single most emotional song I’ve ever heard a cappella, anywhere, anytime.

This is another matchup that’s nearly impossible to pick. Could I deny the lightning in a bottle that the SoCal VoCals managed to harness for a second time, in favor of the scrappy crew from Boston that brought a ridiculous proportion of the New York crowd to tears?

Yes, I could. And I did.

Round 2

1. The 2008 SoCal VoCals vs. 4. 2007 Noteworthy

2007 and 2008 gave us two very different Finals shows. In 2007—my very first time attending the big dance live—the competition was exceptionally tight and exceptionally diverse, with top contenders including a rambunctious Binghamton Crosbys power group, a quirkily old fashioned and comedic leaning Rocktavo, the out of this world energy of the Zumbyes, a crazy talented version of All-Night Yahtzee, and, of course, the tournament champs, Noteworthy. While 2008 boasted its share of worthy finalists and I don’t mean to disrespect any of them, the competition began and ended with The SoCal VoCals—not so much an a cappella group as it was a machine designed to win a cappella competitions.

So, I can understand an impulse to sell the SoCal VoCals short for not having to duke it out against such tight competition en route to the Championship. The thing is that the kids from USC were so good, I dare say they would not only have dominated in 2008, but in just about any other year they might have competed.

These two groups each executed wonderfully diverse sets. I don’t know that any champion has demonstrated greater pure fire than Noteworthy. Just the same, they happen to be up against the single most polished champs I’ve ever heard, and I can’t help but push the SoCal VoCals on to Finals of all Finals.

7. 2011 Pitch Slapped vs. 6. The 2013 Nor’easters

Things just do not get any easier to pick in the final four round of this bracket. Here, we have two of the all-time great ICCA Northeast groups squaring off. Each of these groups celebrated emotional wins—Pitch Slapped for culminating a lengthy journey to arrive at the top of the aca world; The Nor’easters having walked a long road themselves and withstanding the added drama in 2013 of making it to New York in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Putting human interest stories aside, these were two very talented a cappella groups, putting on two genuinely special sets. Pitch Slapped served up a set that was not only musically expert, but shrewdly designed to cater to the Finals stage with a hot opener, an emotional ballad in the middle, and a barn burning closer. The Nor’easters, to the contrary, came to New York with a set that defied convention—four songs long, defined by non-stop intensity.

It’s hard to leave either one of these groups behind in the bracket, but only one can move on. If you’re a long-time follower of The A Cappella Blog, it may not surprise you to learn that, when all other things are equal, I tend to back groups that attack the stage with more vigor and that achieve greatness through superior creativity. On each of these counts, I have to give the edge to The Nor’easters, and send them all the way to the final round.

Round 3

1. The 2008 SoCal VoCals vs. 6. The 2013 Nor’easters

And so we arrive at our final showdown. East coast versus west coast rivalries aren’t just for the rap world—they come to a head in a cappella as well, particularly at the highest levels of competition. In the last five years of the ICCAs, only two regions have been represented among the champions, and only two regions have been represented among the first runners up—the West and the Northeast. (And for the three years before that, a group from the West won the tournament every single time.)

In the 2008 SoCal VoCals and 2013 Nor’easters, we have two of the greatest stories in a cappella history.

The SoCal VoCals spent years cultivating their talents, planning, preparing, and researching before they arrived at the winning formula to finally break the glass ceiling and make it to ICCA Finals. When that time came, they would not be denied their championship. The 2008 Championship marked less of a culmination than a launching point, though. The SoCal VoCals won championships again the next two times they tried, and are poised to give another shot in 2015. Spinoff groups The SoCals and The Backbeats made major waves on The Sing-Off (in addition to one-time VoCal Scott Hoying fronting Pentatonix). Indeed The SoCal VoCals are on a shortlist alongside The Beelzebubs, Whiffenpoofs, and On the Rocks for best-known collegiate groups in not only a cappella circles, but the world-over.

The Nor’easters may not have become household names in the immediate aftermath of their championship win—but they may become so as they remain ICCA Championship contenders, CARA winners, and have been one of the first groups announced to be featured on the upcoming Sing It On ICCA-centered television series.

But for the purposes of this bracket, we’re looking less at legacy more at twenty-four minutes of immortality—two of very best twelve-minute ICCA sets I’ve ever heard. The Nor’easters darn near burst with emotions on a set that built to “Don’t You Worry A Child”—a pedestrian top 40 hit that the group fundamentally transformed into a song of recovery, hope, and empowerment, not to mention a masterful piece of music. For The SoCal VoCals, the moment that will always stick with me is “Feelin’ Good” soloist David Rakita exploding from the back of two lines of VoCals to pop at the front of the stage in the perfect pairing of image and sound—the apotheosis of a cappella.

Goodness, this one is hard to pick. But push comes to shove, I can’t pick against my choice for greatest ICCA set of all-time. All hail the kings and queens of collegiate a cappella: The 2008 SoCal VoCals.

The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2014

Newsline

2014 was a heck of a year for a collegiate a cappella. As we reflect on the time past, it is time to salute ten truly extraordinary groups.

A few notes that I urge you to read before you critique this list:
-Groups included in The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2012 and 2013, and The Top 10 American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2011 list were not eligible for inclusion in this year’s list. It’s not that those groups are any less exceptional this year, but I wanted to give ten different groups recognition. So, the following groups were not considered this time around:

The AcaBelles
Akousticats
The Accidentals
Afro-Blue
Bathtub Dogs
The Beelzebubs
Beltones
The Chordials
The Dartmouth Aires
Eight Beat Measure
Footnotes
The G-Men
GQ
Ithacappella
The Melodores
Mix
No Comment
The Nor’easters
On the Rocks
Out of the Blue
The Pennharmonics
Pitch Slapped
Reverb
The Scattertones
The SoCal Vocals
The Stereotypes
Vocal Point
Voicemaile
Voices in Your Head
The Yellow Jackets

(For those asking, I am considering rotating groups back in for eligibility after four years have passed since their most recent inclusion.)
-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2014. The criteria for the list included (but was not necessarily limited to) accomplishments, public recognition, innovation, and quality of performance (live and recorded). Two other pieces of criteria that are least scientific, but unavoidable: my personal preferences and what I’ve been exposed to. I’m only one critic, and if I haven’t heard your group, I welcome you to send me some YouTube links or a CD to help bring me up to speed.
- This list only considers groups based in the United States of America. I simply don’t have enough exposure to international groups at this time to fairly consider them in this context.
-I opted to limit this list to ten groups. Which meant that many groups worthy of superlatives could not make it. I did want to acknowledge a handful of them with honorable mentions: Michigan State State of Fifths, Rutgers University Casual Harmony, The Missouri State University Beartones, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, Cornell University Last Call, The University of Richmond Octaves, and Duke University Out of the Blue.

Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2014.

University of Delaware Vocal Point I first saw Vocal Point perform in 2007, at one of the first ICCA shows I ever reviewed. I distinctly remembered them as good but not great—a group with some star soloists and good fundamentals that was missing a certain X-factor that would elevate them to elite status.

Each time I’ve seen Vocal Point since has demonstrated progress, but I don’t think that anything prepared me for their performance at the ICCA South Quarterfinal at Johns Hopkins University. The group stormed the stage with a fiery set that included a ripping take on “I Had Me a Girl,” a soft and tender handling of “Dark Side,” and a positively electric cover of “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light ‘Em Up).” The group rightfully took home first place in Baltimore and moved on to win their first ICCA South regional title.

All of that probably would have been enough to call it a banner year for Vocal Point, but the group then proceeded to finish third place in the world at the International Finals (picking up Outstanding Arrangement and Choreography superlatives along the way), and then capped their scholastic year by returning the next day for a show on their home campus at which they released their vaunted new album, Momentum. As a cherry on top of one heck of an aca-sundae, Momentum’s “Wrecking Ball” scored the group a spot on Varsity Vocals’ Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation.

University of Chicago Men in Drag Chicago is an underappreciated collegiate a cappella hot spot, featuring top tier groups from Northwestern University and The University of Chicago. The latter school underwent a revolution when Voices in Your Head exploded on the national scene in 2012, winning the college competition at BOSS, and turning heads with an innovative set at the ICCA Finals. And then there was Men in Drag.

When I first heard of Men in Drag, I was confused. Was it an all-male group? A drag group? The answers were a definitive no, and a sometimes, as it turned out to be an all-female group established to question gender stereotypes—particularly the myth of the meek all-female a cappella ensemble. The group’s history reaches back to the late 1990s, but in the 2010s they have made their own bid for national notoriety via strong outings in the ICCAs and on the a cappella festival scene. Moving past live efforts, though, 2014 saw Men in Drag distinguish themselves all the more clearly for their accomplishments in recording. Their cover of “Coming Undone” dominated the all-female collegiate CARAs, taking home superlatives for Best Female Collegiate Song and Best Female Collegiate Arrangement, in addition top runner up honors for Best Female Collegiate Solo.

Florida State University All-Night Yahtzee Speaking of a cappella hot beds, Florida State University has the distinction of having sent no fewer than three different a cappella groups all the way to ICCA Finals over the last decade. All-Night Yahtzee didn’t punch its ticket to New York this year, but did have a remarkable year in competition—winning its ICCA Quarterfinal (plus Oustanding Arrangement and Vocal Percussion honors) and going on to place in a super-competitive ICCA South Semifinal (where they, again, were recognized for Outstanding Arrangement). In addition to their ICCA run, All-Night Yahtzee finished second only to their sibling group, The AcaBelles, at this year’s SoJam competition. In the process, the co-ed crew picked up the superlative for Best Execution of the Theme.

As the years go by, it’s getting harder and harder not to expect big things out of the Florida State a cappella scene. All-Night Yahtzee is a huge part of that vibrant community.

The New York University N’Harmonics In 2014, no a cappella group in the world sounded quite like The N’Harmonics.

That’s not to say that The N’Harmonics were the best group singing this year (though you could argue that), but they were undeniably unique. From their distinctive ICCA song selection—Laura Mvula’s “Green Garden,” The Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move,” and Yes’s “Roundabout,” to unforgettable soloist Kiah Victoria, to wild dance moves, to the breathy backup singers on “Stillness,” to taking their tuning notes from a frigging melodica, The N’Harmonics, like great artists in so many fields, thought differently. Folks who have read my event or CD reviews know how much I like to harp on the importance of each group establishing its own, distinctive identity. In 2014, I don’t know that any group had a better or more uniquely defined personality than this one.

The James Madison University BluesTones As more and more groups throw their hats in the ring, the world of recorded a cappella has become increasingly competitive. Amidst a deep field, the women of The BluesTones teamed up with James Gammon Productions to put together a knockout of a studio album in Do Not Cross. Their efforts resulted in an excellent recording that justly earned Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award recognition in the form of winning Best Female Collegiate Album honors, taking home the Best Country Song superlative for their cover of The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” and winning Best Female Collegiate Soloist for Nina Beaulieu’s performance on “Lie to Me” (originally by Sara Bareilles).

In addition to taking top honors in the aforementioned categories, they earned top runner up nods for Best Female Collegiate Arrangement and Best Female Collegiate Song, each for “Lie To Me.” Each of these bits of recognition confirmed what the group’s fans have known for quite some time—that they are one of the elite all-female a cappella groups singing today.

Brigham Young University Beyond Measure The Brigham Young University campus is no stranger to great a cappella, boasting Vocal Point and Noteworthy, an all-male and an all-female group that each have at least one ICCA Championship and a Sing-Off run to their names. And then there’s Beyond Measure.

This co-ed group first took shape in the fall of 2013, focused on their religion and espousing a mission of service. By the end of that academic year they had finished second at the ICCA West Semifinals—just one place shy of a trip to New York for Finals, picking up Outstanding Vocal Percussion honors at both their tournament quarter- and semifinals. With a dynamite freshman year under their belt, Beyond Measure has quickly established itself as a top-tier new group to watch for in the years ahead.

The St. Louis University Bare Naked Statues When I look back on the 2014 ICCA Finals, I’ll remember it for being a diverse show. A show that started with emotionally intense offerings from The G-Men and ScatterTones. A show that turned on its head with a free-wheeling showcase on the part of eventual champions Pitch Slapped, that included a coming out party of epic proportions for Vocal Point, and that saw The N’Harmonics unleash a unique set in their utterly inimitable style. And when I think of The Bare Naked Statues—I’ll smile.

The ICCA Midwest Champions took the stage last and proceeded to open their set with an ultra-choreographed, crisp, and fundamentally fun cover of Little Feat’s “Let It Roll,” which gave way to a choral reinvention of “When You Were Young,” before the guys brought the house down with Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”

Over the top choreography and playing for laughs are each gambles at the upper echelon of competition. You run the risk of losing your musical precision in favor of entertainment, or even if your mechanics are on point, there’s the chance the judges won’t take you seriously. But The Bare Naked Statues reinforced everything that is good about an up-tempo, high-entertainment a cappella, bringing the night to an uproarious and unforgettable conclusion.

The Penn State Statesmen The Statesmen only got started in 2011, but have wasted no time establishing an identity on the national scene. In 2012 and 2013 they made excellent showings for themselves in the ICCA tournament, finishing as high as first runners up at the semifinal level. From there, they’ve scored some pretty high profile gigs, not the least of which was a 2013 visit to The Today Show on NBC.

2014 proved to be another banner year for the guys from Penn State—this time around, thriving in the world of recorded a cappella. Their creatively titled, The Album earned them a CARA win for Best Male Collegiate Solo on “Breathe Again,” and runner up for Best Male Collegiate Arrangement on “Higher.” “Breathe Again” also won over listeners at Varsity Vocals, and landed the guys on the Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation. On top of all of that, they went viral this spring, when they sung a love song medley that culminated in group member Ben Mays proposing to his girlfriend live on stage.

The UMass Amherst Hexachords With just six voices, The Hexachords have proven themselves as one of the most exciting new a cappella groups of recent years. Among their accomplishments—in 2014, for the second straight year, they finished in second place in the ultra-competitive ICCA Northeast bracket. This is especially impressive when you consider that the last two first place winners from that region—The Nor’easters and Pitch Slapped—went on to win the championship at International Finals.

2014 also saw The Hexachords release their debut EP, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. With successes in live performance and recording under their belts, the future looks very bright for this group.

Yale University a.Squared a.Squared was one of the most ambitious new college groups of 2014, espousing a focus on electronic music, and particularly the usage of Ableton Live software that allows them loop their music in live performance.

The pay off? Having the opportunity introduce not just themselves, but an exciting, offbeat brand of a cappella to the entire country next week when The Sing-Off returns and a.Squared joins The Melodores as the only two collegiate groups in this incarnation of the show. Like so many of us, I can’t wait to hear what they bring to the show.

The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2013

Newsline

2013 was a sensational year for a collegiate a cappella. As we reflect on the time past, it is time to salute ten truly extraordinary groups.

A few notes that I urge you to read before you start slamming this list on Facebook or Twitter (if you still want to slam the list with these notes in mind, be my guest):
• Groups included in The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2012, and The Top 10 American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2011 list were not eligible for inclusion in this year’s list. It’s not that those groups are any less exceptional this year, but I wanted to give ten different groups recognition. So, the following groups were not considered this time around:

The AcaBelles
The Accidentals
Afro-Blue
The Beelzebubs
The Dartmouth Aires
GQ
Ithacappella
The Melodores
The Nor’easters
On the Rocks
Out of the Blue
The Pennharmonics
Pitch Slapped
The Scattertones
The SoCal Vocals
The Stereotypes
Vocal Point
Voicemaile
Voices in Your Head
The Yellow Jackets

• This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2013. The criteria for the list included (but was not necessarily limited to) accomplishments, public recognition, innovation, and quality of performance (live and recorded). Two other pieces of criteria that are least scientific, but unavoidable: my personal preferences and what I’ve been exposed to. I’m only one critic, and if I haven’t heard your group, I welcome you to send me some YouTube links or a CD to help bring me up to speed.
• This list only considers groups based in the United States of America. I simply don’t have enough exposure to international groups at this time to fairly consider them in this context.
• I opted to limit this list to ten groups. Which meant that many groups worthy of superlatives could not make it. I did want to acknowledge a handful of them with honorable mentions: University of Wisconsin Fundamentally Sound, The Fordham University Ramblers, The University of Virginia Sil’hooettes, The Penn State University Statesmen, James Madison University Exit 245, Northwestern University Purple Haze, The Duke University Pitchforks, and Northeastern University Pitch Please.

University of Colorado-Denver Mix Fall 2012 proved to be something of a coming out party for UCD Mix—finishing second in the college competition at SoJam and capping the year with the release of their beautiful original single, “Water.” The year 2013? That was the coronation. Mix kicked off the year by winning the scholastic competition at Mile High Vocal Jam. Then they crossed the country to New England to top all comers at BOSS in April. Finally, they went for crown jewel of festival competitions, returning to the SoJam stage to take home first prize in front of the North Carolina crowd.

In a world in which many good groups get lost in the shuffle, Mix has established itself as great via impeccable song choice, wonderful musicianship, and complete trust in their small collection of talent (just eight members). Something tells me 2013 won’t be the last we hear from this crew.

The Cornell University Chordials After a lengthy absence from the competitive a cappella scene, The Chordials exploded back onto the ICCA scene this year, winning their way through the ICCA Mid-Atlantic and becoming the first group from the region since 2005 to place at ICCA Finals, when they took home third on collegiate a cappella’s biggest stage in New York.

The keys to The Chordials’ success? No doubt, an unabashed willingness to stomp, belt, and generally attack their music was important. Killer soloists, nuanced arrangements, and a sheer will to win played their parts, too.

Following up on their Finals run, The Chordials released an excellent CD, The Shadow Aspect, which didn’t just earn them a solid ACB review, but also earned them acclaim on RARB and is sure to be contender in the next round of CARA nominations. An a cappella group that gets it done through three rounds of live competition, then kills it in the studio is an ensemble that can hold its own with any group in the world.

The University of Kentucky AcoUstiKats Upon their debut on The Sing-Off, it was tempting to write off The AcoUstiKats as a knock-off version of On the Rocks or Vocal Point. But as America got to know this group, they demonstrated that there was much more to them. Yes, they could entertain the audience with a raucous take on “Blurred Lines,” and bring the party to the stage with “Hey Ya.” But the group reached its turning point on episode three, in which they let down their college-party-animal façade and let the audience see their hearts, starting with a positively sterling rendition of “Amazed” and culminating when AcoUstiBass Mike popped the question to girlfriend for all of America to see. In a matter of five minutes, the group offered one of the premier vocals of the season and followed it up with one of the show’s must unforgettable moments… ever. On episode five, the guys followed up with a fun take on “Old Time Rock and Roll” and an inspiringly collaborative riff on “Eye of the Tiger,” teamed with fellow contestants VoicePlay.

In the span of two weeks, The AcoUstiKats went from just another all-male college a cappella group in a constellation of them across the US, to quite arguably the single most recognizable college a cappella group in the world. Not too shabby.

Florida State University Reverb Over the last few years, Reverb has risen to the cream of the crop amidst a red hot a cappella scene out of Florida State University. The guys deliver a unique brand of charm, combining profound heart with unabashed silliness, making every performance simultaneously heartwarmingly sincere and wickedly tongue-in-cheek. Consider the all-male group’s ICCA set, featuring a raucous mashup of “This Is How We Do It” and “Bad,” followed by Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break,” capped with a mashup of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” No, they didn’t place at their first ICCA Finals (though they quite arguably should have). That said, they did leave their mark with what I would consider one of the top two most memorable sets of the year (tournament winners The Nor’easters offering the only competition for that crown).

Reverb followed up their epic Finals run with their first EP, Blueprints a stellar recording that includes “Give Your Heart a Break.”

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment For all of us who love a good underdog story, No Comment may have offered the most satisfying journey of the ICCAs year. Long-time competitors, they the won their first quarterfinal this year, then overcame some stiff competition at the Midwest semifinals to bring their soaring soloists, tremendous sense of drama, and open hearts all the way to Town Hall in New York for the ICCA Finals.

Part of what was so special about No Comment’s set was the simplicity of it all—starting with a warm and soft reimagining of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” building ballad “Breathe Again” on the back of superstar soloist Kelsey Stanker, and cutting loose on the finish with Zed’s “Clarity.” No, there weren’t back flips, monster chords, or stomp routines, but there was a fundamentally sound, smart, and heartfelt competition set that took No Comment all the way from Urbana-Champaign to New York City. I hope we haven’t heard the last of them.

Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure Pop quiz: which collegiate a cappella group’s alumni include aca-entrepreneurial wizard Dave Longo, aca-meme machine Andrew Athias, and arranger/producer/coach extraordinaire Rick Thomas? You probably guessed it by the group name under which this quiz appears, but in case you didn’t, it’s Eight Beat Measure.

I’m in no way trying to suggest that this group is only notable for its alumni, but rather trying to illustrate the path laid down for the current group—an a cappella entity that has slowly evolved into one of the most noteworthy ensembles in the country. Consider 2013. This is the year in which the group re-entered the ICCA fray and brought a scintillating, leave-it-all-on-the-stage set to Nazareth College, finishing second to only the eventual regional champions, The Cornell Chordials, and went on to place at their semifinal. This is also the year when CASA members voted Eight Beat their number two Favorite All-Male College Group in the A Cappella Community Awards (second only to The Beelzebubs). On top of these accomplishments, the group innovated, starting work on a bold new concept album, and going so far as to release individual singles of tracks that wouldn’t fit their vision for that upcoming CD, free of charge on their website. A group with musical finesse, a world of stage presence, and enterprising outlook has every reason to expect a bright future. Keep an eye out for Eight Beat Measure.

The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs Yes, yes, we’ve all seen an all-male group execute good choreography, and in a post-Gaga a cappella dystopia, we’ve heard countless all-male groups sing songs made famous by female vocalists.

But then there are The Bathtub Dogs.

Rising from a school with a rich musical theatre program, and rising out of the shadow of Midwest giants like Voices in Your Head, Purple Haze, and The Stereotypes, 2013 was the year when The Bathtub Dogs ran full force at the glass ceiling and challenged the world. Their ICCA run became the stuff of legend, featuring a truly phenomenal visual show to rival most Broadway musicals, on top of which they delivered an artfully executed set featuring exclusively songs originally voiced by female leads. Sincerity, intensity, and unparalleled showmanship melded to make The Bathtub Dogs one of the most unforgettable acts of the year.

The University of Michigan GMen Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, there may have been no greater (nor more deserving) beneficiary of the ICCA Midwest-Great Lakes split than The GMen who went from annual top-tier regional threat to finally becoming ICCA finalists in 2013. The guys commemorated the occasion in perfect form, debuting in New York City with a positively ripping rendition of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” Sure, a ton of groups covered the song this year. I would argue that no collegiate group delivered it better. Back that up with brilliant percussion all set long and a stunning solo on “Settle Down,” and you have a coming out party of epic proportions for one of 2013’s top groups.

The Princeton University Footnotes Although The Footnotes made a prompt exit from season four of The Sing-Off, let’s face facts—about eight million viewers caught their act. With the exception of The AcoUstiKats, that makes The Footnotes the college group with the most exposure in 2013. I’d argue the early elimination had much more to do with stiff competition and desirable TV demographics than lack of talent—their take on Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In” was raucous good fun, and they held their own, stepping it up for the ultimate sing-off battle version of “Bye, Bye, Bye.”

Out of the shadows into the light, this group that has sidestepped the bright lights of the ICCAs and CASA for the last 13 years just made a return to the national consciousness. I’ll be interested to hear what they do next.

The Belmont University Beltones When I review ICCA and ICHSA events I consistently come back to the idea of group identity. Yes, musical proficiency and nuance come first and foremost in competition, and I’m not looking to devalue elements like stage presence or innovation. But I typically find that one of the key factors to separate a group that’s really good from one that is great is identity.

The Beltones won their way to ICCA Finals via the Wild Card, wowing both regional judges and the Wild Card panel with a southern-fried set that moved from “Bottom of the River” to “Barton Hollow” to “Down to the River to Pray.” The group was clearly telling a story, projecting soul, sorrow, and intensity with every bar they sang and every well plotted move they made, re-staggering the group members across the stage to maximize their dramatic effect. While few in attendance for the Finals will argue The Beltones should have won the ICCA Championship, few can argue that they didn’t hang with the best in the world, and a fewer still will ever forget this group.

Next Page
The Ten Can't Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2016
20/20 Cover Art
The Ten Can’t Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2015
The ICCA Bracket of Champions: What Was the Best ICCA Set of the Last Eight Years?
The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2014
The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2013
Acappellooza and Kickstarter Project out of University of Delaware
These Are the Glory Days of A Cappella
The Sing-Off Season Four Auditions
ICCA International Round, Newtown Memorial Fundraiser Show at the University of Delaware, Call for ICCA Reviews
The 2013 ACB ICCA Power Rankings
A Cappella Festival News
Straight No Chaser Movie, Song for Marion Opens in the UK, Anna Kendrick's Next Musical Role
Two Big A Cappella Shows in the Northeast
The Texas A Cappella Celebration is Coming In March; Choir App
The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2012
The A Cappella Book Cover
Event Preview: SoJam X
Event Preview: ACappellaFest
Lady Antebellum's A Cappella Contest, A Cappella at The Rochester Fringe Festival, ACappellaFest Updates
Festival/Concert News for Montreal and Williamsburg
The ACB Cool 100: Apologies, Explanations, Lessons Learned, and Gratitude
The ACB Cool 100: 10-1
The ACB Cool 100: 20-11
The ACB Cool 100: 30-21
The ACB Cool 100: 40-31
The ACB Cool 100: 50-41
The ACB Cool 100: 60-51
The ACB Cool 100: 70-61
The ACB Cool 100: 80-71