Note: An important update about the future of The A Cappella Blog, and particularly coverage of Varsity Vocals events appears at the end of this article.
The Best I’ve Seen highlights the very best in a cappella, as seen in the admittedly biased and limited view of the author. In this special edition, ACB Content Manager Mike Chin reflects upon the best of what he had the chance to see in the 2014 ICCAs. Please note that selections are limited to the 67 ICCA sets that Mike saw in-person this season.
Best Set: For me, no set in 2014 captured my attention or my imagination quite like The University of Michigan G-Men’s ICCA Finals performance. From an emotionally devastating interpretation of “Skinny Love,” to a creative reinvention of “Bleeding Love,” to a barnstorming, dubstep-laden, de-rapped, re-musicalized take on “Love Lockdown,” The G-Men offered up the set of a lifetime—and the very best I had the pleasure of consuming in 2014.
Honorable Mention: University of Delaware Vocal Point, The New York University N’Harmonics, Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped, The University of California Los Angeles ScatterTones, and The University of Rochester YellowJackets
Best Opener: An opening song has the burden of grabbing the audience’s attention, setting a tone, and making a big first impression. When it comes to each of these threads, I don’t think anyone quite surpassed Rutgers University Casual Harmony for their rendition of “Stutter,” with which they opened their 2014 quarterfinals set. The performance was just so dynamic aurally and visually that it had audience members applauding mid-song, and delivered an all-around unforgettable spectacle. Truly, the only shortcoming of this opener was that it set the bar so high the group never could quite get back to that climax for the eight minutes to follow, which, I reckon, is why they shuffled this song to the end of their set at semifinals.
Honorable Mention: The University of Michigan G-Men for “Skinny Love,” The New York University N’Harmonics for “Green Garden,” Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped for “Radio Song”/”Aint It Fun,” University of Delaware Vocal Point for “I Had Me a Girl,” and Ithaca College VoiceStream for “Iscariot”
Best Solo: First, let me concede that it almost pains me not to be giving top soloist superlatives to Kiah Victoria of The N’Harmonics or The YellowJackets who sang “I Won’t Give Up,” or “Such Great Heights.” But in the end, there was no solo quite as emotionally arresting for me as the one delivered by The University of Michigan G-Men’s Apoorv Dhir for “Skinny Love.” He had the opportunity to occupy the stage all alone for the opening bars of the opening song of the group’s Finals set, and from that point forward, told an aural and visual story that positively rained emotion upon the New York crowd. Simply sensational stuff.
Honorable Mention: The New York University N’Harmonics for “Green Garden,” The University of Rochester YellowJackets for “I Won’t Give Up,” University of Delaware Vocal Point for “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light ‘Em Up),” The University of Rochester YellowJackets for “Say Something”/“Such Great Heights,” University of Delaware Vocal Point for “I Had Me a Girl,” Ithaca College Voicestream for “You and I,” The University of Pennsylvania Counterparts for “Big White Room,” University of Maryland Faux Paz for “Skinny Love,” Rutgers University Casual Harmony for “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and The Haverford College Outskirts for “No Light, No Light”
Best Arrangement: No group in the world sounds quite like The New York University N’Harmonics. Their 2014 competition set featured masterful and unique song selection, arranged to perfection to represent a combination of throwback musical styling, urban chic, and all-around brilliant musicianship. They mastered their dynamics, the breathy sound effects on “Stillness is the Move” were fresh and captivating, and the group sound on “Roundabout” just may have been the sweetest sound I heard in collegiate a cappella this spring.
Honorable Mention: University of Delaware Vocal Point for the full set, Pitch Slapped for the full set, The Belmont University Beltones for “Unconditionally,” The University of Rochester YellowJackets for the full set, Wagner College Vocal Synergy for their Kanye West medley, The University of Pennsylvania Counterparts for “Creep,” The Westminster Choir College Deaftones for the full set, and Ithaca College Voicestream for the full set
Best Vocal Percussion: I’ll come out and say it: I loved just about everything about the 2014 Finals set from The University of Michigan G-Men. But one of the most consistently great parts about their presentation was the vocal percussion, courtesy of Will Ropp—a skilled drummer who could disappear and provide an invisible engine for the group at times, then explode into the spotlight at others. It’s easy for VP to go unnoticed, but Ropp was a vital part of The G-Men’s success this year.
Honorable Mention: Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped, The University of California Los Angeles ScatterTones, and Rutgers University Casual Harmony
Best Visual Presentation: A big part of why I tend to deter college groups from over-choreographing, and why I’ve gone so far as to rename “Outstanding Choreography” to “Outstanding Visual Presentation” in my event reviews is because so many groups have eyes bigger than their stomachs when it comes to staging, and end up planning elaborate dance numbers that the group is simply not up to performing. Then there’s a group like The St. Louis University Bare Naked Statues. Make no mistake about it, these guys popped their hips, slid, jumped, jived, and flailed in perfect synchronicity to unleash one of the most visually memorable ICCA sets I’ve ever seen.
Honorable Mention: Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped, University of Delaware Vocal Point, Syracuse University Orange Appeal, and University of Maryland Faux Paz,
Best Mashup/Medley: Let’s be real. There are a lot of mashups and medleys in a cappella these days that just aren’t very good. The melodies don’t line up. There’s no thematic connection. The mashing together happens too soon or too suddenly, or there are so many shifts that the listener gets whiplash. Then there’s The University of Rochester YellowJackets’ combination of “Such Great Heights” and “Say Something.” Musically, the songs turn out to be near seamless fit for one another. Better yet, The YJs told a truly haunting, beautiful story of profound love and its bittersweet juxtaposition to a profoundly broken heart. Mashups just don’t get much better than this.
Honorable Mention: Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped for “Radio Song”/“Ain’t It Fun,” and Wagner College Vocal Synergy for their Kanye West medley
Breakthrough Performance: I’ve had the chance to review sets by University of Delaware Vocal Point several times over the last eight ICCA seasons. I’ve seen them as a plucky, good group. I’ve seen them grow into consistent quarterfinal contenders. This year, they exploded onto the national scene by winning their first semifinal and going all the way to ICCA Finals. Through sheer grit, emotion, and determination, no one can deny that Vocal Point left everything they had on the stage at every level of ICCA competition this year. Their reward? Third place at Finals and an undeniable arrival as one of the elite groups in collegiate a cappella today.
Honorable Mention: Wagner College Vocal Synergy and Elizabethtown College Melica
Best Moment: Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped won the ICCA Championship this year. If there’s one thing I will always remember about this year’s incarnation of this special group it was the way in which they performed as a unit: musically impeccable, perfectly at ease with their movement, and positively having a blast performing with one another. Particularly in their opening number, a mashup of “Radio Song” and “Ain’t It Fun,” the group seemed to embody everything that collegiate a cappella should be—a collection of young people in love with music and in love with performing together. And in that moment, Pitch Slapped demonstrated just what a special, unique collection of talent they are, and for me, helped me remind me why I’m such a fan of the a cappella form in general. Now that’s a magic moment. While the opener was my favorite part of Pitch Slapped's championship set, the vibe permeated the rest of the set, as well as the group's encore.
Honorable Mention: Kings College London All the King’s Men for “Spiderman,” Rutgers University Casual Harmony for “Stutter,” The University of Michigan G-Men for “Skinny Love,” Wagner College Vocal Synergy for “Same Love”/“Brave”
In closing this post, and this A Cappella Blog season I'd like to offer an update about the future of The A Cappella Blog. At the end of this summer, I will be moving from Baltimore, Maryland, to Corvallis, Oregon to start the next chapter of my life in an MFA program for creative writing with a concentration in fiction. I'll be going back to school full time, teaching undergraduates, and living off a graduate assistant's stipend. Thus, in the months ahead I am about to undergo several major life transitions that I can only assume will affect the site--including changes in my geographic location, discretionary income, and time commitments. My intention is for The A Cappella Blog to remain live and well in the years to follow. I'm excited for the opportunity to personally cover a cappella events on the west coast for the first time, and we have a number of contributors who will remain on the east coast whom I hope can maintain a consistent level of coverage in the Mid-Atlantic in my absence.
With that, thank you, the readers, for joining us for our 2013-2014 season. You’ll hear from us a bit in the summer, and we plan to kick back into gear for the 2014-2015 season in September.