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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then there are The Bathtub Dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

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