The Best I've Seen

2014 ICCAs, plus an Important Note on the Future of The A Cappella Blog

The Best I've Seen

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.

The 2013 ICCAs

The Best I've Seen

Note: This is one of the final regular posts for this publication season. We want to extend a special thank you to Irene Droney, Eric Soriano, Keith Tripler, and all of our other guest contributors from this season. We also want to thank all of our readers for making us a part of your day, sharing your work, and contributing to The A Cappella Blog’s highest traffic season to date! Be sure to check back for a handful of news updates and features during the off-season. We will return to regular posting in September 2013.

The Best I’ve Seen highlights the very best in collegiate 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 2013 ICCAs. Please note that selections are limited to the 54 ICCA sets that Mike saw in-person this season.

Best Set: It should come as little surprise that The Northeastern University Nor’easters earn top honors for the best ICCA set I saw in 2013. Combining unwavering intensity with raw emotion and original song selection; top tier soloists with premier vocal percussion; unbelievable swells of sound with sureness of movement--no other act could really touch the crew from Boston this year. The group delivered a set that, at once, aced nearly every category available on an ICCA scoring card, and won over audiences through the group’s palpable will to succeed. It just doesn’t get much better than this.

Honorable Mention: The UCLA ScatterTones, Florida State University Reverb, The Cornell University Chordials, University of Birmingham, The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs

Best Song Selection: There are many different angles from which to assess this category. In selecting The Belmont University Beltones I’m prioritizing thematic connection and clearly defined identity. In terms of a theme, The Beltones had rivers and spirituality coursing through their set. More importantly, when it comes to identity, the 2013 ICCA Wild Card champs had the most readily recognizable sets I heard this year, moving from Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River” to The Civil Wars’ “Bottom of the River” to Alison Krauss’s “Down to the River.” This country fried set spoke of simplicity and angst; tradition and a rebel spirit. While I questioned the group’s decision to mash its way into Michael Buble for its closer (“Cry Me A River” fit the water theme, but not the southern spirit), nonetheless ,The Belotnes

Honorable Mention: Florida State University Reverb, Syracuse University Main Squeeze, The Northeastern University Nor’easters, The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs

Best Solo: Over the last couple years, there has no shortage of collegiate groups covering Mumford and Sons. One of the most frustrating elements of hearing these covers is how few groups tap into the soul of what they’re singing about. The point at which raw-edge desperation meets folksy simplicity has carved Mumford and Sons their niche in popular music, but I often get the sense groups are going through the motions with these songs. The Penn State Statesmen, and particularly their soloist, got it right on “Below My Feet”. This wasn’t just an excellent lead vocal—it was a solo that aurally dripped with emotion and for which the soloist, without going over the top, sold the sorrow and the epiphany of this song with perfect facials and body language. Just a remarkable performance to cap an underappreciated performance at the group’s home quarterfinal.

Honorable Mention: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment for “Breathe Again,” The Northeastern University Nor’easters for “Drumming Song”, The Penn State Statesmen for “Come Wake Me Up,” Ithaca College Ithacappella for “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved,” The UCLA Scattertones for “Call Me,” The Cornell University Chordials for “Lies,” Salisbury University Squawkappella for “Just a Fool,” The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes for “Who You Are,” The Syracuse University Otto Tunes for “Show You How To Love.”

Best Arrangement:The New York University N’Harmonics are nothing if not intense. This year, the group brought “Whipping Post” back to competition. Like previous incarnations of this song, the group executed a deftly planned arrangement, filled with complex, ugly, wonderful harmonies and power moments. Most winning of all, the group infused a new sample of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” reinventing the slick, jazzy song stylings into a positively desperate plea for one more dance. This is the stuff chills are made of.

Honorable Mention: University of Nebraska Rocktavo for their Maroon 5 Medley, University of Wisconsin-Madison Fundamentally sound for “Pumped Up Kicks,” The Northeastern Unviersity Nor’easters for “Don’t You Worry Child,” Florida State University Reverb for “This Is How We Do It”/“Bad,” The University of Michigan G-Men for “Radioactive,” University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” University of Rochester After Hours for “Samson,” The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes for “Locked Out of Heaven,” Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella for “I Try”

Best Vocal Percussion: The Northeastern University Nor’easters did so many things right this year that it’s easy miss the impact of the masterful VP underlying each piece of their championship set. It’s a mistake for anyone to ignore Beejul Khatri, one of the driving forces behind the Nor’easter machine whose power perc anchored the group and delivered some of the most dramatic moments of the year’s best set.

Honorable Mention: The UCLA Scattertones, Penn State Unviersity None of the Above, The Penn State University Penn’harmonics, The Penn State University Statesmen, Rider University Acapocalypse, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella, University of Birmingham Sons of Pitches, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment, Syracuse University Main Squeeze, Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure, University of Rochester After Hours , The Fordham University Ramblers

Best Visual Presentation: It was nearly impossible to look away during The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs’ Midwest Semifinal set. The group marked every song reconfigurations, bends, and gyrations; leaps and instances of crawling across the stage—all of it sold full-tilt, complementing the music at every turn. Most groups that throw in this level of choreography are overdoing it, or going overly literal with their presentation, The Bathtub Dogs planned their movement innovative and shrewd ways to maximize the impact of every motion, ultimately delivering one of the most visually captivating ICCA sets I’ve ever seen.

Honorable Mention: University of Wisconsin-Madison Fundamentally Sound, Florida State University Reverb, The Northeastern University Nor’easters, The Penn State University Penn’harmonics, University of Rochester After Hours, Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure, University of Maryland Faux Paz, The Johns Hopkins University AllNighters, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, The Fordham University Ramblers

Best Mashup/Medley: In recent years, mashups have become an ICCA staple. Many of them are good, creatively, smartly arranged. And then there are the small handful that threaten to reinvent sub-genre. Florida State University Reverb did just that with its inspired combination of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The piece featured different sets of group members taking over the stage while the rest of the guys stood in the wings, before the two songs came together for song-war of Westside Story proportions. Reverb is one of the most delightfully unselfconscious groups in a cappella today and watching the gentlemen in powder blue bowties dance and groove was one of the most unexpected and most pure joys of the 2013 ICCA season.

Honorable Mention: Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockappella for “Because of You”/”My Immortal,” Rocktavo for their Maroon 5 medley

Best Outfit: As the years go by, more and more competitive a cappella groups have developed distinctive looks. In a year full of well-dressed singers Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure stood out from the pack with a stylish black blazer over black shirt look, accented by neon orange ties that not only looked sharp but paid tribute to the group’s school colors. Better yet, the guys made their attire a part of their performance, peeling off blazers in dramatic fashion as they rocked out on the finish to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” When it comes to the ICCAs, each group has just 12 minutes to make its case for why it deserves to advance to the next round of competition; why it’s a championship caliber squad. Eight Beat Measure is one of those groups with a fundamental understanding that serious competitors will use anything they can get their hands on—including the clothes off their backs—to make a statement.

Honorable Mention: The Fordham University Ramblers, The Northeastern University Nor’easters, The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Xtension Chords, University of Birmingham Sons of Pitches

Breakthrough Performance: When you scan the list of 2013 ICCA Finalists, there are many groups there with traditions of excellence who many would have expected to make it to the final round of the tournament—The ScatterTones, back in New York after their second place finish in 2012; The Nor’easters, arguably the best competing college group not to have made the Finals prior to that point; Reverb that won its quarterfinal in 2012 and came painfully close to placing at semis; The G-Men, who have a consistent force in the Midwest and Great Lakes; The Chordials, who, despite a lapse in ICCA competition, had a pedigree of ICCA Finals appearances to live up to. Then there’s University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment, a group that had never made it past quarterfinals before. For every moment they sang at their Midwest semifinal and at ICCA Finals, the group came across as earnest, passionate, and thrilled just to have earned their place on that particular stage. From their soft, warm reinvention of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” to the sterling solo on “Breathe Again,” the raucous fun of “Clarity,” all underscored by some of the top vocal percussion of the year, No Comment delivered a set to remember, and a set that very much earned them consideration among the world’s elite college a cappella groups.

Honorable Mention: Salisbury University Squawkappella, The University of Michigan G-Men, Florida State University Reverb, The College of New Jersey Trentones, University of Rochester After Hours, The Syracuse University Otto Tunes

Best Moment: A confession: I do not like the Swedish House Mafia song “Don’t You Worry Child.” I find it to be an awkward mix of melodramatic sentimentality with Nickelback-like vocals.

When I heard The Nor’easters were bringing this song to competition, I questioned the choice.

For whatever reason, I had not yet learned my lesson. Do. Not. Question. The. Nor’easters.

Via precise dynamics, outstanding staging decisions, and some of the most passionate vocals I’ve ever heard in a cappella, The Nor’easters made “Don’t You Worry Child” into more than a good ballad and more than a dramatic set closer. They made this song into a positively epic anthem, and the fitting climax to their storied journey of taking years to make it to The ICCA Finals stage, and overcoming the tragedy struck their native Boston just days before (which nearly prevented the group from making it to New York at all). There are but a handful of moments each year in collegiate a cappella that make a long-time fan want to stand up and cheer. That make you proud to be an a cappella fan. The Nor’easters delivered just that sort of moment on the biggest stage collegiate a cappella has to offer. You just don’t get much better than that.

The 2012 ICCAs

The Best I've Seen

Note: This is the penultimate regular post for this publication season. We want to extend a special thank you to our staff members Andrea Aquino, Stephen Hutchings and Keith Tripler, and all of our guest our contributors from this season, including Colin Adams, Dave Samuels, and Alexa Gedigian. We also want to thank all of our readers for making us a part of your day, sharing your work, and contributing to The A Cappella Blog’s highest traffic season to date! Be sure to check back for news updates during the off-season. We will return to regular posting in September 2012.

The Best I’ve Seen highlights the very best in collegiate 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 2012 ICCAs. Please note that selections are limited to the 58 ICCA sets that Mike saw in-person this season.

Best Set: In a year full of exceptional performances, this is one of the toughest categories to call. In the end, I have to give it to the act that I thought should have won the ICCA championship, University of Chicago Voices in Your Head. Rarely have groups implemented such innovative sound and visual presentation into a set, all the while singing so impeccably and so engagingly. Moreover, the set told a cohesive story, recalling visual themes over the course of the group’s 12 minutes on stage, and beckoning back to earlier sounds in the closing moments of the set. No, this is apparently not what the judges at Finals were looking for, and that’s fine, but in my mind, no group offered a better ICCA set this year Voices in Your Head.

Honorable Mention: The UCLA ScatterTones, The Florida State University AcaBelles, The University of Southern California SoCal VoCals, The Universtiy of Georgia Accidentals

Best Song Selection: In recent years, a number of pundits have been asking—why aren’t all-female groups as successful as all-male or co-ed groups in competition? I maintain that the biggest reason for the lack of all-female success is that groups don’t pick songs that will make the most of their talents. For years, The Florida State University AcaBelles have defied the stereotypes of all-female a cappella, singing with passion and volume in addition to musical skill. More so than any other year, though, 2012 was the year in which The ‘Belles put all of the pieces together with near-perfect song selection. Their set opener was an offbeat, creative, and utterly distinctive female take on a mashup of “For the Love of Money” and “Gold Digger.” From there, they turned in the highest impact all-female power piece in years with “Dirty Diana.” They followed that up with early ‘90s pop hit, Shakespeare’s Sisters’ “Stay”—a piece that allowed them to pair a real sensitivity and vulnerability only women can pull off with a brief, dramatic rock out section that played perfectly to their abilities as a power group. Take all of these pieces and cap them off with the ultimate all-female empowerment song for 2012, “Shake It Out.” The group ramped up the drama by playing out the set in seamless fashion. Much like Divisi and Noteworthy were the definitive role models for all-female a cappella groups in the early-to-mid-2000s, this set should be required listening for all-female groups picking songs with an eye toward ascending to the top tier of ICCAs in 2013.

Honorable Mention: The University of Georgia Accidentals, The Penn State University Pennharmonics, University of Chicago Voices in Your Head

Best Solo: I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a collegiate solo that better synergizes charisma, intonation, breath control, range and rhythm than that put forth by The USC SoCal VoCals’ Oluwasegun Oluwadele for “Tightrope.” As great as The SoCal VoCals are now, and have been for years, I have to imagine that it was this unreal front man who sealed the deal on bringing the ICCA Championship back to LA. Simply an electric performance from a young man I’m certain we haven’t heard the last of.

Honorable Mention: The Florida State University AcaBelles for “Dirty Diana,” The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes for “Skyscraper,” Yale University Out of the Blue for “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” The UCLA ScatterTones for “No Woman, No Cry,” The University of Georgia Accidentals for “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” The College of St. Rose Girls Next Door for “Turning Tables,” The AcaBelles for “Stay,” University of DelawareVocal Point for “Swimming,” Rutgers University Deep Treble for “Beautiful Child,” Rutgers University Casual Harmony for “Say (All I Need),” Rider Universsity ‘Til Further Notes for “So Close,” Rider University Vocalmotion for “Who You Are”

Best Arrangement: Gone are the days when a near-perfect transcription is enough to garner a group top honors in this category. I’m looking for complexity, creativity, and perhaps most importantly, appropriateness of the arrangement for the group at hand. Though it’s very, very close, no arrangement interested, surprised, or moved me more than what The UCLA ScatterTones did on “No Woman, No Cry.” They transformed reggae to incredibly sensitive ballad, capturing all of the emotional richness of the original piece, while instilling a new purity of sound that reinvented the song, and made it the perfect vehicle to highlight this group’s unique sound.

Honorable Mention: University of Chicago Voices in Your Head for “We Found Love,” University of Chicago Voices in Your Head for “Titanium,” The Florida State University AcaBelles for “For the Love of Money”/“Gold Digger”, The USC SoCal VoCals for “Poison and Wine,” The University of Georgia Accidentals for “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” University of Rochester After Hours for “Mad World,” SUNY Albany Serendipity for “Wonderwall”

Best Vocal Percussion: For the second time, Schafer Gray of The University of Geogia Accidentals earned Outstanding Vocal Percussion honors at the ICCA Finals, and you’ll hear no argument from me. Gray kept the beat pulsing whilst executing some insane choreography on the group’s set opener, “Never Say Never,” used his perc to infuse drama and movement into “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and was more than up to the task of bringing the rhythm on a closer that spotlighted his talents, “Something to Believe In.” Simply stellar stuff.

Honorable Mention: The Johns Hokins University Octopodes, The USC SoCal VoCals, The UCLA ScatterTones, Rutgers University Casual Harmony

Best Visual Presentation: Leading into the 2012 ICCA season, I elected to diverge from ICCA a little in recognizing best “visual presentation” instead of “choreography.” While the two can often be interchangeable, there are plenty of times in which over-choreographing is a group’s undoing and the set that’s truly more appealing to watch is the one for which the group shows greater restraint on its visuals. Moreover, there are times in which staging, transitions and movement that I have trouble quite classifying as choreography end up resulting in the best visual show of the night. Such was the case for the The Florida State University AcaBelles’ set in which brilliant dramatic staging, seamless transitions, and instances of reconfiguration and just dancing rather than choreography per se built sensational moments.

Honorable Mention: University of Chicago Voices In Your Head, The University of Georgia Accidentals, The UCLA Scattertones, The Vanderbilt University Melodores, Syracuse University Groovestand, SUNY Potsdam A Sharp Arrangement, Drexel University 8 to the Bar

Best Mashup: Good mashups fit up melodically or thematically, or tell a good story in general. It’s the upper tier of mashups that accomplish both of these ends, but also serve the extra functionality of saying something unique about a group’s identity. In that realm, no group was more successful than The Penn State Pennharmonics with their set opener combining Muse’s “Uprising” and Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall.” The group somehow managed to weave together dark, intense material from two very different time periods for an opening song thematically about oppression and overcoming it, but that musically played tribute one of today’s more cutting edge mainstream acts, while also giving a nod to their musical forefathers.

Honorable Mention: Rutgers University Deep Treble for “Pricetag”/“Where is the Love,” Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockappella for “Someone Like You”/”Secrets”

Best Outfit: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the most memorable, and, in my mind, most successful ICCA sets forge a unique identity for the musicians performing them. As such Florida State University Reverb’s decision to go all black with bow ties communicated something intrinsic to the group identity—that they weren’t necessarily aiming for cutting edge or intimidating, but rather celebrating an old-fashioned, nice-guy, un-cool culture. The look was distinctive and instantly likeable, almost in spite of itself.

Honorable Mention: University of Maryland Faux Paz, The Florida State University AcaBelles, The USC SoCal VoCals

Breakthrough Performance: While every scholastic a cappella group changes with every passing year, rare is the group that can change my mind about them in such a pronounced way as Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella did this year. While I more or less wrote them off as also-rans in 2011, in 2012 the group attacked the stage with distinctive song selection, a unique sound, beautiful harmonies, and an outstandingly edgy visual presentation that made them truly stand out against stiff competition at their ICCA quarterfinal at Rutgers this February. Though they weren’t recognized by the judges that night, I had placed them in third, and right on the edge of advancing to semifinals. In a year full of great performances, Stockapella may just be the fastest rising stars in the field—if they continue to evolve at this rate, they have every chance to make the leap to Mid-Atlantic semifinal mainstays in the years ahead.

Honorable Mention: Florida State University Reverb, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, University of Chicago Voices in Your Head

Best Moment: A part of what elevates a set from good to great is a group’s ability to manufacture moments that will stick with the audience long after the performers leave the stage. The best moments intertwine great vocals and great visuals in organic ways. In this realm, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes were without peer in 2012 for their sterling climax to “Skyscraper” in which one of the year’s finest soloists receded into the mass of her group only to be elevated on their shoulders, slowly, steadily, and perfectly on her final iterations of the “skyscraper” lyrics (check out 6:20-7:15 in the video below for the full impact of the moment).

Honorable Mention: University of Chicago Voices in Your Head for “Titanium,” The UCLA ScatterTones for “No Woman No Cry,” The Florida State University AcaBelles for “Shake It Out,” Florida State University Reverb for “You and Me,” The Vanderbilt University Melodores for "Sail"

The 2011 ICCAs

The Best I've Seen

Note: This is the final regular post for our 2011 publication season. We want to extend a special thank you to all of our guest contributors from this season, including Andrea Aquino, Jessica Bryant, Stephen Hutchings, and Michael Marcus. We also want to thank all of our readers for aking us a part of your day, sharing your work, and contributing to The A Cappella Blog’s highest traffic season to date! Be sure to check back for news updates and coverage of the fall 2011 season of The Sing-Off during the off-season. We will return to daily posting in January 2012.

The Best I’ve Seen highlights the very best in collegiate 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 2011 ICCAs.

Best Set: There were a number of great sets this year and, in the end, I had no choice but to go with one I felt should have taken home the ICCA championship, Brigham Young University Vocal Point. Vocal Point had a number of things going from it. There was the sheer range of songs, from classic Michael Jackson, to Michael Buble song with a Latin groove, to a hymn, to swing. The guys brought cleanest, crispest sound of the year to their whole set, towering basses, impeccable intonation, and a real clarity that so few groups can produce. And then there was the entertainment factor. Whether the guys moonwalked, salsa danced and swung; they created an at least three-part vocal percussion section; and on top of all this, they executed the entire set with a swagger that never let the audience think they might fail. More than any other set, this was the one this year in which I felt I watched true masters of their craft plying their trade over 12 minutes.

Best Song Selection: Although Vocal Point delivered the best set on the whole at this year’s Finals, the biggest knock against them was their failure to innovate. Despite how different their songs were, we’ve heard most every style before, and even heard these styles coming from the very same group. The honors for best song selection go to the group that went the furthest to innovate--The Vanderbilt University Melodores. A lot of folks question the musicality of a set that put so much weight on rappers, dancers, and a guy with a gimmicky voice. The thing is that The Melodores called upon what made them unique and played it to their full advantage. I defy you to find another group in collegiate a cappella today that could have pulled off “How Low” in half-as-entertaining fashion. The “Strange Fruit”/“A Change Is Gonna Come” mashup was a perfect fusion of all-male power and soul with social consciousness. And “Supermassive Blackhole?” Simply epic stuff, and a perfect climax of the use of the guy with the chipmunk voice to let him explode on his own solo.

Best Solo: This is a very tough pick, but in the end I’m going to go withRider University VocalMotion for “Landslide.” Richard Crandle was the star of this set, but had his truest opportunity to shine on this particular song. Beautiful, crisp, and showing excellent range this song was the perfect showcase for one of the most beautiful pure talents in collegiate a cappella today. Crandle just barely edges out my pick for the second best solo I heard that night, and, indeed, all season, in the form of Syracuse University Groovestand’s Hannah Corneau on “Empire State of Mind.” Groovestand wisely inverted the proportions of this song to underscore the ballad over the rap, and when Corneau had the spotlight, she turned in an emotionally-wrenching song that blended melancholy, aspiration, and just a hint of urban swagger.

Best Arrangement: Though there are a handful of arrangements I might, more objectively, laud over this one, the arrangement I found most refreshing, and that I most enjoyed was that of The Florida State University AcaBelles on “Firework.” Here’s the thing—this is a fun, catchy song, and plenty of groups have done a good job covering it this year. It’s just that, so few groups have done a great job covering it, and the underlying downfall of so many groups has been poor arrangement decisions. Katy Perry has made a career out of yelling lyrics, and this is fine for overproduced radio play, but groups that translate this style too literally to the stage are asking to make their audience’s ears bleed. The AcaBelles marked the one group to really make this song its own, playing with dynamics and tempo truly create moments and let the solo and everything around it explode for a terrific finish.

Best Vocal Percussion: Brigham Young University Vocal Point offered up top notch percussion throughout its Finals set, but the group set a new bar on “Meglio Stasera” by supplementing its outstanding drummer with vocal maracas and wood blocks. This was ambitious, entertaining, innovative, and flat out sounded great.

Best Choreography: It’s not unusual for groups to cover Michael Jackson and to imitate some of his signature moves. What separated Brigham Young University Vocal Point from the rest of the pack was that you had the full group executing the moves, carrying them out as slickly as possible, and not letting it do a thing to hurt the sound. This is off the charts visual presentation that complements the music. The guys carried on this standard for excellence and “Meglio Stasera” and arguably exceeded it an ultra-fun take on “Jump Jive An’ Wail.”

Best Mashup: Mashups are rapidly becoming a staple in collegiate a cappella, the point that making one stand out demands a real combination of execution, creativity, and fluidity. The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes hit all the marks on their mashing of “Firework” and “Starlight,” a cutting edge, contemporary, and thematically-linked power piece that wrapped up their set in epic fashion, and arrived at one of the great moments in a cappella this year when the component soloists synergized their sound on the finish.

Best Outfit: Just as the sheer quality of competing groups has increased and, in some regards, leveled out over recent years, so has group attire, as most groups are smart enough to put together a good, reasonably uniform, reasonably distinctive look. The SUNY Buffalo Buffalo Chips get the duke this year for steady improvement, individuality, and overall aesthetic appeal. Those who have followed the group over the years have seen them evolve generic collared shirts and jeans, to baseball tees, to the blue shirts and white ties of their school colors, to this year’s look with the same shirts and ties under stylish matching black vests. It’s classy, it reflects school pride, and it’s just a notch different from the many shirt and tie and blazer-clad groups roaming the east coast.

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Best Moment: There are some moments that transcend the more basic, quantifiable measure of a cappella excellence. Moments where the arrangement was strong, but not exceptional; where the solo was great, but not the best of the year; when the presentation was visually engaging but not entirely memorable. There are moments when you can take the best of these qualities, give them a dramatic build through the surrounding dynamics and visuals, and explode into something sublime. That’s exactly what happened when The Washington University of St. Louis Stereotypes reached the climax of “If You’re Out There.” The Finals’ top soloist, Marcus Brown, led thecharge for the group’s soaring vocals. The greatest strength of The Stereotypes is that, when they compete, every guy on stage is selling every moment of a song to his fullest ability, and leaving every conceivable ounce of energy right there on the stage. Therefore, when this group marches forward and culminates in a wall of sound, you just can’t help getting caught up in the emotion, and wanting stand up and clap along. This is the kind of moment that represents what collegiate a cappella should be all about.

The Best We've Seen: The 2010 ICCAs

The Best I've Seen

Note: This is the final regular post for our 2010 publication season. Thank you to all of this year's contributors, and to all of our readers. Be sure to check back for news updates during the off-season. We will return to daily posting next season.

The Best I’ve Seen highlights the very best in collegiate a cappella, as seen in the admittedly biased and limited view of the author. In this special edition, ACB Content Manager Mike Chin and ACB Production Manager Mike Scalise team up and, on more than one occasion, butt heads about the best they’ve seen in the 2010 ICCA season.

Best Set
Mike Chin: The easy, objective pick here is The SoCal VoCals--after all, the group that wins the international championship should have put forth the best set of the year. I’m veering a little off course on this one, though, to instead offer up my pick for the set I enjoyed most this season, which would have to be the one put forth by The Washington University Stereotypes at the ICCA Midwest Semifinals. The guys started with a spot of high energy musical theatre with “Seize the Day” from Newsies, before taking on some old school Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “With Carry On.” It was a solid opening to the set, but the guys really were just getting started. In one of the top five solos I saw this year, the guys let loose “Your Song” in the style of Moulin Rouge, to be followed by an impossibly high octane version of “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire. Sets just don’t get much more fun than that. Although the crew didn’t make it to the finals, it sure as heck wasn’t for lack of effort.

Mike Scalise: The best set that I’ve seen in the 2010 season comes from The SoCal VoCals at the finals in NYC. The group, which is tremendously talented, delivered three solid songs sung with near perfection. They began with “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday. The solo was clear and professional-sounding. Couple that with a strong visual performance by remaining group members and you have a hit. They continued with “Crazy Ever After” by The Rescues. I wasn’t very familiar with this song, but after hearing a number of soloists sing their hearts out, I was really moved. It was an amazing performance. The group completed their set with “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder. What stood out to me about this song was the group’s entertaining and energetic choreography which consisted of free-style dancing, hand gestures, and even a raising of the soloist (who, in case you were wondering, was exceptional). The overall set was hand over fist better than the rest of the competition, and rightfully earned this group the title and bragging rights for the ICCA 2010 season.

Best Song
Mike Chin: The SoCal VoCals put together a set like an a cappella highlight reel, but I think what I’ll remember most was their innovative imagining of The Rescues’ “Crazy Ever After”. With rotating soloists and rotating positions on stage, the group cleverly created a sense of group unity, while at the same time asserting the individual talents of the group members. Better yet, the constant shifting fit the "story" of the song well, illustrating the shift's in the narrators' minds, and the conflicted feelings at play. Emotionally heart-wrenching, musically sound, and altogether interesting to watch, this was the best song I saw in the 2010 season.

Mike Scalise: The 2010 ICCA season offered up a number of very good songs, both old and new, performed by the competing groups. I have to say, though, the best song I heard was “American Girls” by Counting Crows, performed by Casual Harmony at the Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal at Nazareth College. I like this song a lot – it’s by one of my favorite bands and I never thought I’d see it performed a cappella. It’s not that mainstream of a song, but it’s not that obscure either. Casual Harmony gave a very good performance and made it enjoyable to hear in a different context. I could see this turning into a situation where I start listening to the a cappella version much more than the original.

Best Solo
Mike Chin: Northwestern University’s John Park turned in the best solo of the year in my book with John Legend’s “Coming Home.” Park demonstrated a beautiful even tone, while knowing just how to punch his power notes and command the emotion of the audience as the song built toward its climax.

Mike Scalise: Hands down the best solo I’ve heard this season was by a member of the Potsdam Pointercounts at the Mid-Atlantic Semifinals at Rutgers University. The soloist sang “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” flawlessly. Every note, every inflection was point on (no pun intended) In addition, he had the right type of voice for the song – just a very good fit. I had also seen this performance at the Mid-Atlantic quarterfinal at Cornell University, where he rightfully won best soloist, but he outdid himself at the Semis. Ironically though, he was not awarded the best soloist distinction the second time around. Regardless, it ranked high on my list for the 2010 season.

Best Choreography
Mike Chin: I ordinarily hate choreography on a ballad, but when University of Rochester After Hours set their minds to staging “The Chain by Ingrid Michaelson, they were more than prepared to challenge convention and put together something uncommonly beautiful. From dancing in co-ed pairs at the start, to singing in a round while orchestrating a round of arm movements to match the music late in the song, this was simply a joy to behold.

Mike Scalise: When it comes to choreography, there’s no question that many groups are talented at creating entertaining and appropriate moves for their song selections. As a result, picking the best one out of the bunch has proved to be an extremely difficult task. The best I’ve seen in the 2010 ICCA season was The SoCal VoCals for their performance of “Crazy Ever After,” originally performed by The Rescues. The group starts off with their backs to the audience and soon turns to deliver a number of different solos throughout the song. Those who weren’t singing had a mixture of steps behind and to the side of one another, with certain members re-appearing in the front to deliver more solos or duets. At one point during the song, the group repetitively sang the word “stay” while reaching out towards the audience, which embodied all of the raw emotion they were portraying on stage. It looked like everyone had an integral part in the success of this group’s choreography. All things considered, this was an extremely well-performed and moving performance.

Best Song Selection
Mike Chin: There are a lot of factors that go into picking competition songs. You want to highlight your group’s strengths, show off a range of emotion, and engage your audience—not to mention create a performance that will match up with the interests of the judging panel. The University of Georgia Accidentals put together a really unique compilation of songs that I have come to appreciate more with the passage of time, looking back on it. From the vocal percussion showcase of “Comin’ Home Baby” complete with the VP guy’s back flip, to the power, beauty, and out of this world solo of “I Shall Not Walk Alone” to the biggest moment of the ICCA Finals in the dramatic build to “Come Together,” The Accidentals made the smartest picks for songs this year.

Mike Scalise: When it comes to song selection, it can be difficult to choose a best because you’re not choosing a great group nor a great song. You’re choosing the best combination – what song was the best selection for a particular group. There are numerous close calls on my list, but I think “Halo” by Beyonce, performed by Berklee School of Music’s Pitch Slapped at The Finals in NYC, was a great choice for the group. The soloist was phenomenal and the backing vocals and fluid choreography made for a great presentation overall. If one wanted to dig even deeper, he or she could take note of how there was a lot of meaning in their movements in addition to the song itself – linking arms together, raising hands together to give a sense of empowerment. This was a memorable performance.

Best Outfit
Mike Chin: While I ordinarily prefer a group to be dressed more uniformly, and I very nearly picked one of the mixed groups from The University of Michigan I saw at the Midwest Semifinals, I ultimately have to go with the Northeast champs, Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped. The group dressed formally with the guys in white collared shirts, black vests, black slacks and black ties, the women in less uniform black and white dressy attire. Add in a couple baseball caps and you have a fun, individual and yet still refined look. Unique, urban, and classy, Pitch Slapped gets my vote here.

Mike Scalise: There was such a range of outfits worn by groups throughout the 2010 ICCA season. I saw groups with ties, dresses, button-up shirts, jeans, and even pastel-colored tee shirts with funky words written on them. However, one group’s attire stood out from the rest, completely blowing away the competition. This is ironic, because it wasn’t even a competing group, but rather a host group – Nazareth College Call4Backup. Naz’s Call4Backup acted as the host group for the fourth Mid-Atlantic Quarterfinal. They sported a modern, yet classic look of sky blue A Cappella Blog tee shirts and jeans. The uniformity was unparalleled and visual presentation untouched. The all-girls group performed as well as their outfit was good. I like to think there was a correlation.

Best Closing Song

The Best I've Seen

This time, we share the best closing song to an ICCA set.

To those who have read Mickey Rapkin’s Pitch Perfect Brigham Young’s Noteworthy may come off as villains. At the least, they serve as dramatic foils for Divisi, one of the groups on which the book centers, and, as history would have it, one of the top groups for Noteworthy to overcome en route to the ICCA Finals.

But for those of us who didn’t have such a story cast on the performance; for those of us who were experiencing the all-female juggernaut out of Utah for the first time that Saturday night in 2007, the ladies were nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Don’t get me wrong, because the group’s whole set was fantastic. But where the group went from great to simply sublime was on their barn burning, turbo-charged, never-forget-me closer, belting out Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Earlier that night, the Binghamton Crosbys had physically owned the stage with their Man medley, and The Amherst Zumbyes had pushed all their chips to the center of the table with “Thriller,” complete with the full dance routine from the music video. I point out these prior accomplishments so as to demonstrate just how good Noteworthy was, dominating the stage with unparalleled confidence, complete with a stomp routine and lift to leave absolutely no question they were the masters of movement.

Though it was the visual aspect of the presentation that may have stood out most, you can’t ignore just how tight the song was musically, or just how high octane the soloist was to wrap up the twelve minute set. When group can both be this good, and look like its having as much fun as these ladies world you have something truly special—in this case, a performance that sealed the deals on securing Noteworthy its well-deserved first ever ICCA championship.

2014 ICCAs, plus an Important Note on the Future of The A Cappella Blog
The 2013 ICCAs
The 2012 ICCAs
The 2011 ICCAs
The Best We've Seen: The 2010 ICCAs
Best Closing Song
Best Opening Song
Best 'Different' Song, from Fermata Nowhere
Incorporation of Attire Into Performance
Best Venue
Best Solo
Best Choreography, Part II
Best Choreography, Part I
Best Show, Part II
Best Show, Part I
Performances, Part II
Performances, Part I
The Top 5 Best Names for Collegiate A Cappella Groups