The Ten Can't Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2016

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2016 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:

-Groups included in The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2013,  2014, and 2015 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 thirty groups were not considered this time around:

a.Squared
The AcaBelles
Akousticats
All-Night Yahtzee
Bare Naked Statues
Bathtub Dogs
The Beltones
Beyond Measure
The BluesTones
The Chordials
Eight Beat Measure
Faux Paz
Footnotes
Fundamentally Sound
The G-Men
The Hexachords
Men In Drag
Mix
The N’Harmonics
No Comment
The Octaves
The Octopodes
Pitch, Please!
Reverb
State of Fifths
The Statesmen
The Vassar Devils
VirtuOSO
Vocal Point (Brigham Young University)
Vocal Point (University of Delaware)

-This list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2016. 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: Northeastern University Distilled Harmony, University of Pennsylvania Off the Beat, University of Massachusetts Amherst S#arp Attitude, The Florida State University Acaphiliacs.

Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2016.

The Carnegie Mellon University Originals

I had heard The Originals prior to 2016, but I’d never heard them anything like I heard them in 2016 until they showed up on the ICCA Finals stage in New York, Champions of the Central region. There, they delivered an absolute stunner of an electronically tinged set that moved from Nick Jonas’s “Levels” to a positively haunting, dystopian take on “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears. From there, the guys turned the set on its head with a heartbreakingly human take on Demi Lovato’s “Stone Cold,” featuring an incredible solo. The set was good enough for second place in the world (though I’m among those fans who would humbly suggest that they should have won the whole tournament).

The Originals were not done for 2016. Elsewhere in live performance, they were finalists for the fall SoJam scholastic competition. From there, just last month, they released their well-received EP, Void, featuring songs from their ICCA set. So, The Originals left 2016 wildly accomplished, and as a truly unique artistic success story performing unforgettable music, creatively arranged and staged, to arrive as one of the most irresistible acts singing in a cappella in 2016.

University of Central Florida Voicebox

The a cappella scene in Florida is crowded, the number of top-tier groups positively swelling at this point. As such, Voicebox had escaped my attention until 2016.

In the year 2016, there was no ignoring Voicebox.

Voicebox won the ICCA South this year and made their debut on the Finals stage, where they immediately set themselves to the task of leaving an impression, starting with a spooky bit of “Come Little Children” from Hocus Pocus before exhibiting terrific restraint on a subdued imagining of Panic! At the Disco’s “This Is Gospel,” and nailing the audience with the big sound of “Victorious.” And so, Voicebox was on the map on a national scale—a milestone they only built upon this fall, winning SoJam’s scholastic competition. With this accomplishment the group has hinted at the most impressive piece of all—they may be even better in 2017.

The UCLA ScatterTones

The ScatterTones are one of those perennially great groups that a cappella can more or less assume will be great any time, any year they hear them. 2016 was a special year for the group in terms of range and expanse of accomplishment. They opened the year at the Los Angeles A Cappella Festival where they tore the house down with their live set and finished second in the prestigious scholastic competition.

In addition to succeeding live, The ScatterTones made their mark in recording, where their album Being Young encompassed so much of the group’s best work from the preceding five years, and won Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards for Best Mixed Collegiate Album, Best Mixed Collegiate Solo for India Carney’s performance on “Stop This Train,” and were the top runner up for Best Mixed Collegiate Arrangement for Taylor Fugit’s take on “No Woman No Cry.”

Headed into the new year, The ScatterTones are on their way back into ICCA competition, the venue through which they achieved national acclaim earlier in the 2010s when they placed in back-to-back-to-back Finals. In 2017, they’re certainly a group to watch for.

University of Oregon Divisi

2016 saw all-female Divisi win their way to their third ICCA Finals berth. The first time they did it, their electric set and near-win inspired the Pitch Perfect book and by extension the film franchise. The next time was at the dawn of the ICCA Wild Card era. And here the group was in 2016, opening a new chapter triumphant in a new and ever-expanding region, the ICCA Northwest. 

The group’s set was a true stand out, moving from a jazzy slowed down take on Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” to what was arguably the most emotionally vulnerable song of the whole tournament in a rendition of Sara Bareilles’s “Manhattan.” Divisi wrapped with powerhouse climax of Jetta’s “Start a Riot,” fully demonstrating the group’s tremendous versatility to go with their musical precision. Word is that Divisi is also putting the finishing touches on an EP, expected to go public this month—don’t sleep on it.

Washington University of St. Louis Mosaic Whispers

When a group makes it to the ICCA Finals stage in this day and age, there’s little doubt they’re <i>great</i>. But when a group takes the stage with the level of confidence—the sensuality and sheer bombast of Mosaic Whispers—you know you have something special.

Mosaic Whispers brought the house down at Finals with a memorable rendition of Santana’s “Smooth” (including sample of Justin Timberlake’s “Senorita”), the intensity of Sia’s “Elastic Heart,” and outright attacking the stage on Sohn’s “Tremors,” for an unforgettable performance. As if all of that weren’t enough, Mosaic Whispers also performed live during CNN’s coverage of the 2016 Presidential Debate at Washington University. That’s right, they got face time on arguably the biggest news outlet in the US, ahead of one the most watched debates in US history. Pretty cool, and a fitting cap to an outstanding year.

Cal State Northridge Acasola

The Los Angeles A Cappella Festival has become one of the brightest annual a cappella festivals in no small part because it happens so early in the year. Like many major festivals, it included a scholastic competition, and this year Acasola made a statement all the way back in January by taking first place at that show.

Acasola wrapped up the year little less impressively, with their annual No Snow Show, to benefit the local Guadalupe Community Center, stylishly themed this year around a “Hollywood Holiday.” Acasola remains a group that pushes boundaries and works toward goals, harkening back to their earlier years when they bolted from inception to placing at the ultracompetitive ICCA West semis, and a few years ago when they scored on a spot on FOX’s Raising Hope. In 2017, they’re set to return to the ICCA tournament, and one can only expect great things from them.

The Boston University BosTones

Though the western United States has had a tendency to produce ICCA Champions this past decade, there’s a proud tradition of collegiate a cappella excellence out of New England, and few groups honored that particular story better this year than The BosTones, the ICCA Northeast Champions who brought both polish and imagination to the ICCA Finals stage

From the lovely choral work to offset the power solo on Beyonce’s “Déjà vu,” to the expert staging on Adele’s “I Miss You,” to the wall of sound to close the set, The BosTones wowed the crowd in New York from end to end. In addition, The BosTones followed up that effort this fall, finishing second only to the vaunted Nor’easters in Boston’s twentieth annual Faneuil Hall A Cappella Competition, not to mention  successfully crowdfunding  to record their new EP.

The University of Virgina Sil’hooettes

The Sils have a long history of success, and 2016 proved to be a particularly successful year for them in the realm of recorded a cappella as their album <i>Luster</i>, earned all manner of recognition in 2016. 

The Sils made an excellent showing at the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards, top runners up in the categories of Best Female Collegiate Arrangement, Best Female Collegiate Song, and Best Female Collegiate Solo, and a big win for Best Female Collegiate Album. Besides that, the album scored an impressive composite score of 4.5/5.0 from The Recorded A Cappella Review Board, wherein critic Guang Ming Whitley commented of Luster that, “The tuning and blend are impeccable, the arrangements are solid, and the roster of talented soloists runs deep.” Indeed, The Sil’hooettes are the kind of traditionally great group that remains steady and a joy to listen to year after year.

Chapman University Soundcheck

The ICCA West has been great for most of the tournament’s existence, with groups like The SoCal VoCals, The ScatterTones, Vocal Point, Noteworthy, and Divisi posing regular threats to place at Finals if not win the championship. In 2016, the region bifurcated into the Northwest and Southwest, which opened an extra opportunity for a star group to rise out of the west—an all the more potent opportunity when a number of perennial contenders took the year off from ICCA. Soundcheck arose from this unique set of circumstances—fresh faces on the ICCA Finals stage, and group more than worthy of the west coast collegiate a cappella legacy at Finals.

The group thrived at Finals with an attitude-packed mashup of “Centuries” and “Bad Blood,” before scaling things back for the soft harmonic beauty of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” They shut things down with a crowd-pleasing take on Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man.” wrapping a wonderfully entertaining, diverse set. Down the road, this fall Soundcheck celebrated its tenth anniversary, complete with alumni returning to campus to bring the house down one more time. 

Oakland University Gold Vibration

In 2016, Gold Vibrations exploded out of the ICCA Great Lakes region to make their debut at ICCA Finals. From the confidence and sass on Tori Kelly’s “Expensive” to the stripped down take on Tove Lo’s “Talking Body,” to a rousing mashup of Pentatonix’s “Cracked” and Nick Jonas’s “Chains,” the group was positively scintillating on the Finals stage

Speaking of the mashup of “Cracked” and “Chains,” it not only worked live, but caught fire in the studio, earning Soundcheck a spot on the next Best of Collegiate A Cappella compilation. This combination of live and recorded success was hugely impressive, and one can only anticipate even more great things for Gold Vibrations as we look ahead to 2017.