The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2012

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2012 was a pretty amazing year for a collegiate a cappella. As we reflect on the time past, it is time to salute ten 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 last year’s 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 new groups the exposure. In short, On the Rocks, The Yellow Jackets, The Stereotypes, The AcaBelles, The Melodores, Afro-Blue, The Dartmouth Aires, The Beelzebubs, Vocal Point, and Pitch Slapped were not considered this time around.

-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2012. 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 college 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 Colorado-Denver Mix, The Tufts University Amalgamates, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes,Ohio State University Buck That!, Duke University Out of the Blue, Rutgers University Casual Harmony, The University of Michigan Dicks and Janes, and The Tufts University Jackson Jills.

Without further ado, and in no particular order, I present to you the ten can't-miss American collegiate a cappella groups of 2012:

University of Chicago Voices in Your Head While the number of groups that sound phenomenal has only grown in recent years, there are still very few groups that threaten to redefine a cappella. That’s exactly what Voices in Your Head did this past spring when they advanced out of the Midwest to the ICCA International Finals, winning the collegiate competition at BOSS along the way. Whether they were re-arranging the bejeezus out of “We Found Love,” achieving new heights in the realms of drama and transitions, or developing unheard of techniques to maximize the use of microphones through the benefit of the Doppler effect, the kids from Chicago just plain had it covered.

Towson University GQ OK, to acknowledge the potential controversy up front, no GQ was not technically a 100 percent collegiate group in 2012, but the members did get together in their undergrad and 75 percent of the group’s members remained at Towson University this spring. So deal.

GQ was one of a capppella’s most unique stories of 2012, and to this day remains criminally under-acknowledged. They’re a quartet with a firm grounding in the barbershop tradition, but, just the same, an incredible capacity for transcending genre and a bent toward contemporary song selections. This spring, the group won its way to The Harmony Sweepstakes Finals (where they finished second), won the open Aca-Idol competition at SingStrong, and saw their cover of Regina Spektor’s “Samson” go darn near viral. Clarity. Blend. Precision. Courage. Spunk. These are just a few of the qualities that define GQ, a group with bright post-collegiate future ahead of it.

The Northeastern University Nor'easters Plenty of groups have a year of success in the ICCAs then fade into the mist. The Nor’easters tell a different story. For two straight years, they’ve finished as first runners up in the ultra-competitive ICCA Northeast Semifinals, and for two years straight they’ve finished as first runners up in the even more contentious ICCA Wild Card Round. Furthermore, the group set the stage on fire at BOSS, by all accounts painstakingly close to taking first place honors over Voices in Your Head in the collegiate competition there. The co-ed crew shook off its “always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride” shackles by positively exploding at SoJam, earning a well-deserved first place finish in the college competition at the US’s biggest a cappella festival, against stiff competition. With an experienced and intense collection of singer and a deep roster, one can only assume a storm’s brewing in Boston. 2013 promises to be a heck of a year for The Nor’easters.

The University of Southern California SoCal Vocals In 2012, The SoCal VoCals won a record third ICCA International Championship and, in the process, became the first group to take top honors while progressing from the Wild Card seed in the Finals. The set was powered by a ghostly, rotating-soloist version of “Poison and Wine” and an electric solo on “Tightrope,” the group proved itself to have all the musicality and dramatic flair to sustain itself as champions. Great groups can enjoy repeat success in competition and boast some star power. What can you say about a group that has gone three-for-three in attempts to win the ICCA championships over the last six years, that has seen numerous alums shine on The Sing-Off, and that shows no signs of slowing down? I dare say it’s a dynasty.

Ithaca College Ithacappella I don’t know that any collegiate a cappella group does more to further the good name of collegiate a cappella than Ithacappella. Sure, the guys consistently deliver an exceptional, high-octane live show. But on top of that, it’s worth recognizing what they do for the community, leading workshops and singing in unconventional settings and with non-traditional partners, including a standing relationship through which the group sings each year with the PSS Elementary School Chorus. Better yet, 2012 was the year when Ithacappella rallied the troops, bringing together sibling Ithaca College groups Premium Blend and VoiceStream to sing Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way;” from there, they took matters one step further to record the song, not just with those three groups, but also with a little professional outfit called Pentatonix. The conglomeration of artists donated 100 percent of sales from the single to charity, splitting the funds between The Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth in New York City, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, an organization dedicated to fostering acceptance and love among young people with an eye toward celebrating individuality.

The best news of all for fans of Ithacappella’s live sound: after back-to-back appearances at ICCA Finals in 2008 and 2009, the boys in blue blazers are set to return to the competition for the first time in four years in 2013.

The Penn State Pennharmonics I don’t know that any group brought quite the level of raw emotion or intensity to ICCAs in 2012 as The Pennharmonics. The group won the Mid-Atlantic region, kicking off its set with a startling mashup of Muse’s “Uprising” and Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall.” They transitioned smoothly into a more sensitive, but nonetheless edgy rendering of Sia’s “I’m In Here,” then the set culminated with Mumford and Sons’ “Sigh No More,” featuring a solo that positively dripped with feeling. The group is slated to return to the ICCAs in 2013, facing the challenge of a restructured region that will put them head to head with the college groups from NYC. Some incredible competitions are sure to follow.

The University of California Los Angeles Scattertones The Scattertones will forever hold the answer to one of the great trivia questions of ICCA lore—from 2008 to 2012, they were the only a cappella group to have topped The SoCal VoCals in live competition. Indeed, The Scattertones emerged as champions of the incredibly stacked ICCA West, and came within just seven points of besting their SoCal neighbors again at the International Finals.

The story of The Scattertones is far more than one of statistics, though. In addition to winning the West region of ICCAs, the group won the 2012 LAAF scholastic competition, brought a cappella fans to tears with their innovative take on “No Woman, No Cry,” and produced sterling takes on songs like “C’mon Talk,” “End of Time,” and “Proud Mary.” On top of all of that, this fall the group celebrated its tenth anniversary as an ensemble.

The University of Georgia Accidentals The Accidentals offered up one of the most versatile sets of the ICCA tournaments that earned them their second trip in three years to the ICCA Finals. Their set featured a rendition of Justin Beiber’s “Never Say Never” with ridiculously complicated and awesomely executed choreography, a stellar rap solo, and an awesome dubstep breakdown; a heartbreaking, brilliantly arranged take on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and a rousing closer in “Something To Believe In.” All told, the group seemed to legitimately reinvent itself in this year of competition, and made a very legitimate case to be included in a short list of the very best all-male college a cappella groups in America today.

Yale University Out of the Blue Out of the Blue emerged as champions from the ultra-competitive ICCA Northeast this year. Their set felt like a throwback, not so much based on song selection (though the style of their latter two songs did feel relatively old school) but rather because they were one of the few groups at Finals that did not innovate wildly, but rather focused on near-perfect fundamentals—nailing their music rather than trying to reinvent it. Plenty of groups across the country could learn a lot from Out of the Blue’s example. Better yet, Out of the Blue proved itself to have a shrewd business sense, promptly releasing an EP over the summer with sterling recordings of each of the three songs from their competition set.

Brandeis University VoiceMale In a word, “Phoenix.”

Over the years, VoiceMale has developed a very well-deserved reputation as a tremendously high-energy, entertaining live act. The group reinvented itself with “Phoenix,” the title track to their latest album. The song is an original, and a far step removed the group’s jocular image—on the contrary, soft, slow, pensive, and soulful. The effort garnered the group four CARA nominations, two CARA wins (Best Scholastic Song and Best Male Collegiate Solo), in addition to placement on BOCA 2012 and Sing 8. Not too shabby, gentlemen.