2015 was a great year for a collegiate a cappella. As the year comes to a close, 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, 2013, and 2014 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:
Bare Naked Statues
Eight Beat Measure
Men In Drag
Out of the Blue
The SoCal Vocals
Vocal Point (University of Delaware)
Voices in Your Head
-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2015. 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: The University of North Carolina Loreleis, University of Pennsylvania Off the Beat, and The Yale University Whiffenpoofs.
Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2015.
Baylor University VirtuOSO This year marked my ninth consecutive trip to ICCA Finals. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing performances from an array of impressive groups, representing diverse abilities, styles and aesthetics.
I’d never heard a group from Texas.
The ICCA South has, in my time, been dominated by groups out of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee—and to be clear, these are some of my favorite groups. Just the same, I did speculate as to why the state where everything is bigger (and, heck, the state that essentially birthed Pentatonix!) seemed to have a less well-developed, or at least less represented collegiate a cappella scene.
I wonder no more.
2015 was the year when VirtuOSO, a less-well known group from a very well-known university broke through to the national spotlight, winning its way all the way to ICCA Finals, with a set featuring “Best Day of My Life,” “Honeymoon Avenue,” “I’m Not The Only One,” and “Uptown Funk.” Check that set list. All top forty hits. All songs that were arguably over-exposed in the a cappella world this year. And that’s part of what I loved about VirtuOSO—a group that demonstrated a cappella need not be brooding or rooted in hipster music no one has heard of. On the contrary, VirtuOSO was infinitely accessible, fun to both listen to and watch on stage, and they nailed their fundamentals to deliver a rousing, irresistible set.
The Florida State University AcaBelles The AcaBelles have been at the fore of women’s a cappella for the better part of a decade now, constantly pushing boundaries and asserting a powerful presence that dares anyone to claim all-female a cappella is boring. This year, it was the AcaBelles’ studio work that earned them the most accolades, winning Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards for Best Female Collegiate Album for Rebel, and Best Female Collegiate Arrangement and Song for “Blue Ocean Floor.”
On top of all of that, though, The AcaBelles asserted themselves on a national stage as one of just five groups to be featured on PopTV’s Sing It On docu-series. Though The ‘Belles were cut short in their ICCA journey this year, they proudly represented all-female groups around the country that have to work harder and be that much better to earn the same respect and audiences as their all-male and co-ed counterparts. Make no mistake about it, The AcaBelles continue to be a great a cappella group, and it was wonderful to see them further establish their notoriety on a national stage.
The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes From 2008 to 2014, I lived in Baltimore and had the pleasure of getting to see The Octopodes steadily evolve from a good group, to the kind of group that threatened to break the glass ceiling and explode into ICCA Finals on a perennial basis. Not only were they a great live group, though—they also established themselves as a recording powerhouse.
In 2014, The ‘Podes unleashed The Kraken. It’s an all-original album featuring a great group at the height of its powers, expertly produced via The Vocal Company, and though it was released in 2014, the album earned its just desserts in 2015, starting with a stellar review on The Recorded A Cappella Review Board, followed by big-time success when it came time for awards. The JHU crew picked up Contemporary A Cappella Awards for Best Original Song by a Scholastic Group, and tied for Best Mixed Collegiate Album—worthy praise for a special album that points a way forward for a cappella as more than a form in which groups perform and record as vocal cover bands, but rather a form in which fresh new music is happening.
Brigham Young University Vocal Point Vocal Point is perpetual success story in the a cappella world—one of a small handful of scholastic franchises that has remained elite for across roster overhauls and the passage of years, most famously thriving on The Sing-Off and winning two ICCA championships.
For 2015, in addition to continuing to offer up electric live performances, Vocal Point added to its legacy via recognition of their recording efforts. Spectrum dropped in the spring of 2014. In the 2015 Contemporary A Cappella Rewards, their work earned them the superlative of Best Male Collegiate Album—an honor hard-won over some tough competition. They followed up this effort with an inspired music video, in partnership with the All-American Boys Chorus, to “Homeward Bound.”
Northeastern University Pitch, Please! Pitch, Please! can get lost in the shadow of schoolmates The Nor’easters, or high profile aca-presences that share the city of Boston, like Pitch Slapped. Therefore, it was great to see them get their share of the spotlight in 2015 when they arrived on one of the featured groups on PopTV’s Sing It On, doing all-female a cappella proud in front of a national audience.
In addition to garnering exposure on TV, Pitch, Please! killed it live in 2015, with accomplishments including winning first runner-up honors at the Boston Sings (BOSS) A Cappella Festival, and picking up superlatives at that competition for Best Soloist and Most Powerful Message.
University of Maryland Faux Paz As I referenced earlier, during my six years living in Baltimore, I had the opportunity to see the a cappella scene grow in that region. Along with groups like The Octopodes, Faux Paz was one of the units that I had the opportunity to see evolve, change, and improve a period of years, and I was thrilled that I had the opportunity to see them again in 2015 when they won their way all the way to the ICCA Finals for the first time in thirteen years.
Faux Paz’s finals set was dark, powerful, and mesmerizing—a true emotional tour de force that demonstrated unrelenting intensity from both an aural and visual perspective. In this performance, the group shored up its spot as not only the champions of the Mid-Atlantic region, but one of the elite college groups in the country.
Michigan State University State of Fifths Since its inception in 2013, the ICCA’s Great Lakes region has steadily developed into one of the most intriguing of the tournament. While The G-Men have been the perennial regional champs, 2015 was the second consecutive year when State of Fifths were nipping at their heels as the top runners up for a spot at ICCA Finals.
Dramatic flair and very real emotion were key to a stellar showing for State of Fifths, a co-ed group we have reason to believe will only get better for years to come, and further cement their place as an ensemble everyone ought to be listening for.
The Vassar College Vassar Devils For those of us who watched Sing It On, a funny thing happened. The Nor’easters were not only one of the featured groups, but also one of the favorites—a group portrayed as heroes and likely winners. As such, The Vassar Devils, who stood out as one of the most formidable obstacles to a Nor’easter Finals bid, became something like villains.
The thing is, for those of us who caught the Vassar Devils live in 2015, it’s hard to root against them. It’s also hard to deny them recognition as one of the absolute best American collegiate a cappella groups of the year. The group sang with very real intensity, besides planning some of the most compelling visuals of the year. What’s more, their set featured an original song, “Nothing,” that helped the group stand out at every level of competition.
University of Wisconsin Fundamentally Sound Over the years, Fundamentally Sound has cultivated a well-earned reputation as one of the most consistently entertaining, engaging and, yes, fundamentally sound all-male groups singing out of the Midwest. The guys put these pieces together for another compelling ICCA run in 2015, which brought them just one place away from advancing to ICCA Finals.
Post-competition, Fundamentally Sound rounded out the 2014-2015 academic year with a National Treasure-themed show. That may be the perfect theme for this group of guys—a too-well kept secret on the national scene, but a real treasure to take in when they hit the stage.
The University of Richmond Octaves Nearly twenty-five years into Octaves history, the group added an important new accomplishment to its resume—their first Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award for Best Male Collegiate Song, in honor of their work on a cover of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.”
While all-male groups covering female pop artists isn’t exactly novel in the 2010s (thanks, Lady Gaga), The Octaves’ rendition of “Wrecking Ball,” arranged by Tom Anderson and Jared Feinman, featured so many of the potential strengths of such a cross-gender re-imagining—a strong, straightforward solo; a brilliant falsetto bit around the three-minute mark; a phenomenal bass line; and a simply beautiful, full finish. With this song, and the accolades to follow, The Octaves shored up their spot, among the finest a cappella groups singing today.