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

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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.