2017 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 2014, 2015, and 2016 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:
- The AcaBelles
- All-Night Yahtzee
- Bare Naked Statues
- Beyond Measure
- The BluesTones
- The BosTones
- Faux Paz
- Fundamentally Sound
- Gold Vibrations
- The Hexachords
- Men In Drag
- Mosaic Whispers
- The N’Harmonics
- The Octaves
- The Octopodes
- The Originals
- Pitch, Please!
- The ScatterTones
- The Sil’hooettes
- State of Fifths
- The Statesmen
- The Vassar Devils
- 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: Berklee College of Music Upper Structure, The University of Rochester YellowJackets, University of Oregon Mind the Gap, University of Pittsburgh Pittch Please, The Missouri State University Beartones, Texas A&M University HardChord DynaMix, UMass Amherst S#arp Attitude, and Georgia Tech Sympathetic Vibrations.
Without further ado, I am very pleased to present, in no particular order, The Ten Can’t-Miss American Collegiate A Cappella Groups of 2017.
All-female KeyHarmony finished 2016 strong by releasing their well-received second EP, War Without Weapons. After a successful year, the group wound up winning one of the highest profile collegiate competitions there is at SoJam XV. Besides winning the competition on the whole, the group collected superlatives for Best Visual Performance and Best Vocal Percussion, solidifying their status as a star collegiate a cappella group.
The Nor’Easters have been a perennial threat in the ICCA tournament for quite some time. In 2017 they won their way through the Northeast to arrive at Finals as stars. Their set not only awed the crowd in terms of soloists, complexity of sound, and visual presentation, but was so impressive for breaking down convention in a genuinely unique set. Add onto that placing a track on the Best of Collegiate A Cappella (a cover of Andra Day's "Rise Up") and The Nor’Easters furthered their legacy as an ensemble that breaks boundaries, and sounds like no other a cappella group on the planet.
In speaking with a Voices in Your Head alum after ICCA Finals, I picked up the impression that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the group. On the Finals stage, they came across as anything but a group in transition, much less trying to find itself. An inspired, original set positively took command of the competition, and rightfully landed Voices a second place finish. You can add onto that they also won a CARA in the same year—Best Mixed Collegiate Album for LIGHTS--and you have a special year for a special group.
Ohio State of Mind won its way to ICCA Finals out of the Midwest this year, with superlatives including winning the Outstanding Arrangement award at their regional semifinal. The truest story for this truly excellent group, however, may well have been their rhythm section. Not only did they pick up an Outstanding Vocal Percussion honor at the regional level, but at Finals in New York, Music Director Jojo Otseidu garnered the rare recognition of Outstanding Bass. When the most auspicious collection of judges in collegiate a cappella deems fit to tailor fit a special award to you—and the last time they did so was to honor Avi Kaplan—you’d better believe you’ve achieved something sensational.
One of the rarest feats for a scholastic a cappella group is to maintain excellence over the course of a calendar year. We expect groups to peak in the spring, after a year of singing together. We expect for the fall to be rougher, as the group reorganizes after the summer, rallies from losing seniors, and incorporates new members. Gestalt is that rare group that managed to finish third in an ultra-competitive ICCA South region, only to come into the fall guns-ablaze for a second place finish at the SoJam, while collecting the Best Soloist and Best Arrangement accolades. Add onto that the release of their debut album, Beyond the Archetype and it was a heck of a year for this group. The scariest part? They were only founded in 2016. There are surely big things ahead for Gestalt.
One of the greatest ICCA innovations of the last decade is the Wild Card round, which grants one regional semifinal runner up entry into the Finals. The Wild Card has offered the Finals audience in New York the opportunity to hear some truly fantastic groups, and Amazin’ Blue was a particularly luminous addition to that legacy. Coming out of the Great Lakes region, Amazin’ Blue delivered huge with a brilliantly cohesive set, that was not only fundamentally sound, but underscored with a sense of danger at every turn.
2017 saw Furmata A Cappella not only win its way out of the ICCA Northwest to their first appearance at Finals, but saw them become the first group to represent the state of Washington at Finals. They brought a wonderful intensity to competition, including a wild closing number for which the group left everything on the stage. Add onto that alumni of the group (and UW Awaaz) doing them proud as part of SeaNote—releasing a fine new album, Transititions, and competed as part of the first Varsity Vocals Open competition.
After just a year and a half singing together, The Towson Trills did the unthinkable. The seven-member ensemble qualified for ICCA Finals. If you think that’s a small group size or a short period of time together to make it to Finals, you’re correct on both counts, and the group brought a truly unique style to the Finals stage, anchored by keen arranging work and killer VP. The best news for Trills fans? No one from the group is set to graduate before 2019, so they’ve still got a year and a half ahead of them to thrive before losing any seniors.
The ICCA Finals have taken a turn for the dark side. While some have criticized it, a lot of the top groups in the world have come to embrace intensity, sorrow, and rage over representing happier ideals. There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact I’d call recent years of ICCA Finals some of the best a cappella I’ve experienced—but it’s nonetheless a breath of fresh air to encounter a group like The Water Boys. While this all-male group isn’t necessarily happy go lucky, they represent a polished aesthetic that leans toward silky smooth and professional. The guys’ competition set simultaneously felt like a bit of a throwback, and like a new direction for the genre. For groups seeking to make their presence felt on the national level, its so important to forge a unique identity, and The Water Boys were one of the best groups at doing that in 2017.
Nashville is known as a prime location for serious musicians and for a certain country fried sensibility. Out of these traditions, The Beltones arise as a quietly awesome group that tends to get wrongfully overlooked in conversations about the best contemporary collegiate a cappella franchises. In 2017, they reached ICCA Finals for the third time in five years by winning the very competitive South region. Their competition set this year saw them diversify their sound and their presentation, ranging from pop, to power, to a jazzier sound, lined with seamless transition and their trademark musical precision.