2014 was a heck of a 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 critique this list:
-Groups included in The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2012 and 2013, 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 Dartmouth Aires
Eight Beat Measure
On the Rocks
Out of the Blue
The SoCal Vocals
Voices in Your Head
The Yellow Jackets
(For those asking, I am considering rotating groups back in for eligibility after four years have passed since their most recent inclusion.)
-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2014. 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: Michigan State State of Fifths, Rutgers University Casual Harmony, The Missouri State University Beartones, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, Cornell University Last Call, The University of Richmond Octaves, and Duke University Out of the Blue.
Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2014.
University of Delaware Vocal Point I first saw Vocal Point perform in 2007, at one of the first ICCA shows I ever reviewed. I distinctly remembered them as good but not great—a group with some star soloists and good fundamentals that was missing a certain X-factor that would elevate them to elite status.
Each time I’ve seen Vocal Point since has demonstrated progress, but I don’t think that anything prepared me for their performance at the ICCA South Quarterfinal at Johns Hopkins University. The group stormed the stage with a fiery set that included a ripping take on “I Had Me a Girl,” a soft and tender handling of “Dark Side,” and a positively electric cover of “My Songs Know What You Did In the Dark (Light ‘Em Up).” The group rightfully took home first place in Baltimore and moved on to win their first ICCA South regional title.
All of that probably would have been enough to call it a banner year for Vocal Point, but the group then proceeded to finish third place in the world at the International Finals (picking up Outstanding Arrangement and Choreography superlatives along the way), and then capped their scholastic year by returning the next day for a show on their home campus at which they released their vaunted new album, Momentum. As a cherry on top of one heck of an aca-sundae, Momentum’s “Wrecking Ball” scored the group a spot on Varsity Vocals’ Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation.
University of Chicago Men in Drag Chicago is an underappreciated collegiate a cappella hot spot, featuring top tier groups from Northwestern University and The University of Chicago. The latter school underwent a revolution when Voices in Your Head exploded on the national scene in 2012, winning the college competition at BOSS, and turning heads with an innovative set at the ICCA Finals. And then there was Men in Drag.
When I first heard of Men in Drag, I was confused. Was it an all-male group? A drag group? The answers were a definitive no, and a sometimes, as it turned out to be an all-female group established to question gender stereotypes—particularly the myth of the meek all-female a cappella ensemble. The group’s history reaches back to the late 1990s, but in the 2010s they have made their own bid for national notoriety via strong outings in the ICCAs and on the a cappella festival scene. Moving past live efforts, though, 2014 saw Men in Drag distinguish themselves all the more clearly for their accomplishments in recording. Their cover of “Coming Undone” dominated the all-female collegiate CARAs, taking home superlatives for Best Female Collegiate Song and Best Female Collegiate Arrangement, in addition top runner up honors for Best Female Collegiate Solo.
Florida State University All-Night Yahtzee Speaking of a cappella hot beds, Florida State University has the distinction of having sent no fewer than three different a cappella groups all the way to ICCA Finals over the last decade. All-Night Yahtzee didn’t punch its ticket to New York this year, but did have a remarkable year in competition—winning its ICCA Quarterfinal (plus Oustanding Arrangement and Vocal Percussion honors) and going on to place in a super-competitive ICCA South Semifinal (where they, again, were recognized for Outstanding Arrangement). In addition to their ICCA run, All-Night Yahtzee finished second only to their sibling group, The AcaBelles, at this year’s SoJam competition. In the process, the co-ed crew picked up the superlative for Best Execution of the Theme.
As the years go by, it’s getting harder and harder not to expect big things out of the Florida State a cappella scene. All-Night Yahtzee is a huge part of that vibrant community.
The New York University N’Harmonics In 2014, no a cappella group in the world sounded quite like The N’Harmonics.
That’s not to say that The N’Harmonics were the best group singing this year (though you could argue that), but they were undeniably unique. From their distinctive ICCA song selection—Laura Mvula’s “Green Garden,” The Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness is the Move,” and Yes’s “Roundabout,” to unforgettable soloist Kiah Victoria, to wild dance moves, to the breathy backup singers on “Stillness,” to taking their tuning notes from a frigging melodica, The N’Harmonics, like great artists in so many fields, thought differently. Folks who have read my event or CD reviews know how much I like to harp on the importance of each group establishing its own, distinctive identity. In 2014, I don’t know that any group had a better or more uniquely defined personality than this one.
The James Madison University BluesTones As more and more groups throw their hats in the ring, the world of recorded a cappella has become increasingly competitive. Amidst a deep field, the women of The BluesTones teamed up with James Gammon Productions to put together a knockout of a studio album in Do Not Cross. Their efforts resulted in an excellent recording that justly earned Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award recognition in the form of winning Best Female Collegiate Album honors, taking home the Best Country Song superlative for their cover of The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” and winning Best Female Collegiate Soloist for Nina Beaulieu’s performance on “Lie to Me” (originally by Sara Bareilles).
In addition to taking top honors in the aforementioned categories, they earned top runner up nods for Best Female Collegiate Arrangement and Best Female Collegiate Song, each for “Lie To Me.” Each of these bits of recognition confirmed what the group’s fans have known for quite some time—that they are one of the elite all-female a cappella groups singing today.
Brigham Young University Beyond Measure The Brigham Young University campus is no stranger to great a cappella, boasting Vocal Point and Noteworthy, an all-male and an all-female group that each have at least one ICCA Championship and a Sing-Off run to their names. And then there’s Beyond Measure.
This co-ed group first took shape in the fall of 2013, focused on their religion and espousing a mission of service. By the end of that academic year they had finished second at the ICCA West Semifinals—just one place shy of a trip to New York for Finals, picking up Outstanding Vocal Percussion honors at both their tournament quarter- and semifinals. With a dynamite freshman year under their belt, Beyond Measure has quickly established itself as a top-tier new group to watch for in the years ahead.
The St. Louis University Bare Naked Statues When I look back on the 2014 ICCA Finals, I’ll remember it for being a diverse show. A show that started with emotionally intense offerings from The G-Men and ScatterTones. A show that turned on its head with a free-wheeling showcase on the part of eventual champions Pitch Slapped, that included a coming out party of epic proportions for Vocal Point, and that saw The N’Harmonics unleash a unique set in their utterly inimitable style. And when I think of The Bare Naked Statues—I’ll smile.
The ICCA Midwest Champions took the stage last and proceeded to open their set with an ultra-choreographed, crisp, and fundamentally fun cover of Little Feat’s “Let It Roll,” which gave way to a choral reinvention of “When You Were Young,” before the guys brought the house down with Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.”
Over the top choreography and playing for laughs are each gambles at the upper echelon of competition. You run the risk of losing your musical precision in favor of entertainment, or even if your mechanics are on point, there’s the chance the judges won’t take you seriously. But The Bare Naked Statues reinforced everything that is good about an up-tempo, high-entertainment a cappella, bringing the night to an uproarious and unforgettable conclusion.
The Penn State Statesmen The Statesmen only got started in 2011, but have wasted no time establishing an identity on the national scene. In 2012 and 2013 they made excellent showings for themselves in the ICCA tournament, finishing as high as first runners up at the semifinal level. From there, they’ve scored some pretty high profile gigs, not the least of which was a 2013 visit to The Today Show on NBC.
2014 proved to be another banner year for the guys from Penn State—this time around, thriving in the world of recorded a cappella. Their creatively titled, The Album earned them a CARA win for Best Male Collegiate Solo on “Breathe Again,” and runner up for Best Male Collegiate Arrangement on “Higher.” “Breathe Again” also won over listeners at Varsity Vocals, and landed the guys on the Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation. On top of all of that, they went viral this spring, when they sung a love song medley that culminated in group member Ben Mays proposing to his girlfriend live on stage.
The UMass Amherst Hexachords With just six voices, The Hexachords have proven themselves as one of the most exciting new a cappella groups of recent years. Among their accomplishments—in 2014, for the second straight year, they finished in second place in the ultra-competitive ICCA Northeast bracket. This is especially impressive when you consider that the last two first place winners from that region—The Nor’easters and Pitch Slapped—went on to win the championship at International Finals.
2014 also saw The Hexachords release their debut EP, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. With successes in live performance and recording under their belts, the future looks very bright for this group.
Yale University a.Squared a.Squared was one of the most ambitious new college groups of 2014, espousing a focus on electronic music, and particularly the usage of Ableton Live software that allows them loop their music in live performance.
The pay off? Having the opportunity introduce not just themselves, but an exciting, offbeat brand of a cappella to the entire country next week when The Sing-Off returns and a.Squared joins The Melodores as the only two collegiate groups in this incarnation of the show. Like so many of us, I can’t wait to hear what they bring to the show.