The end of the year brings with it a time for reflection, evaluation, and--ah, yes, of course!--controversial top ten lists! Below is my stab at the top ten American collegiate a cappella groups of 2011. Note that this list does not necessarily denote the best groups, so much as the ones that were most successful and noteworthy in 2011. the criteria for ranking included (but was not necessarily limited to) accomplishments, public recognition, innovation, and quality of performance (live and recorded). I will openly acknowledge that my bias rests with those groups I had the opportunity to experience personally this year (you'll notice the list skews toward Sing-Off and ICCA stars)--unfortunately, the nature of such a list all but guarantees some bias.
If you think someone was woefully overlooked, please draw my attention to them in the comments or on our Facebook wall--I'd love to hear about them! Please feel also feel more than welcome to chime in with your own top 10s.
Honorable Mention: The following groups remained in strong consideration for placement until the very late stages of whittling down the list. Naming them here may only spark more controversy but, nonetheless, I thought they deserved at least this cursory mention: The USC SoCal VoCals, The NYU N'Harmonics, The Yeshiva University Maccabeats, The Buffalo Chips, Rider University VocalMotion, The Northeastern University Nor'easters, University of Delaware Vocal Point, The University of Delaware Deltones,The UCLA ScatterTones, and The UNC Loreleis.
10. On the Rocks
After becoming YouTube sensations and lighting up the stage on The Sing-Off's second season, On the Rocks went on to have a slightly quieter, if no less impressive 2011, highlighted by the monstrous success of their album, A Fifth, which, over the course of 2011, earned them a Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award for Best Male Collegiate Album, an opening spot on the Best of Collegiate A Cappella for "Sing a Song," and The A Cappella Community Award for Favorite Collegiate Album (in addition to helping them take home the ACA for Favorite Male Collegiate Group).
9. The University of Rochester YellowJackets
In one of the vignettes early in this season of The Sing-Off, a YellowJacket acknowledged the elephant in the room--that with three all-male collegiate groups in the competition, something had to give before too long, and The YJs were far from safe. And though The YJs could not ultimately over come The Aires or Vocal Point, they did finish a stellar seventh place out of sixteen groups, and deliver more than their fair share of memorable performances, including the most fun swan song in the show's history with "Tubthumping." In addition to their historic run on NBC, the guys also made a major statement from a humanitarian perspective, spending three weeks in a village in Kenya early this summer.
8. The Washington University of St. Louis Stereotypes
More often than not, I hear the perception from outsiders that all-male collegiate a cappella is defined by a mix of not-quite-frat boys and pretentious music nerds. The Stereotypes stand out as a beacon of all that is good and true in this realm--a collection of guys who have no shame about singing their hearts out every time they hit the stage, and who are just as happy singing songs of hope and joy as they are anything cool or sexy. The 2011 ICCA Finals were a bit of a coming out party for the group, as they exposed their sound to a national audience for the first time--running, jumping, and belting their way through a set highlighted by an awe-inspiring take on John Legend's "If You're Out There." If you're feeling disillusioned about a cappella, check out a video of The Stereotypes. I defy anyone not smile at what these guys do on stage.
7. The Florida State University AcaBelles
For the second time in three years The AcaBelles graced the ICCA Finals stage, delivering a truly inspired set. The group elected to adopt the unconventional practice of singing their set as one long piece with no breaks between songs--a decision that paid huge dividends through elegant transitions and a real sense of coherence to the set's narrative structure. Better yet, in a year when approximatley 99% of female groups took a stab at Katy Perry's "Firework," The AcaBelles made the piece their own, bending the tempo and dynamic structure to their will. And besides their ICCA run? The 'Belles, despite losing half their membership between the spring and fall, still turned in a ferocious competition set for SoJam, the insensity of which gave Pitch Slapped a run for their money, and earned the group second place honors. This is definitely a group to watch for in years to come.
6. The Vanderbilt University Melodores
The 2011 ICCA Finals marked one of the most electrifying and diverse ICCA shows in years, and despite finishing in third place, it's completely fair to argue that The Melodores stole show and put on the most memorable act of the night. After winning their way into the Finals through the online Wild Card Round, The Melodores rapped, danced, and chipmunk-sang their way through a set that felt like a revolution. Their sound and style is sure to be imitated for years to come, which may be the greatest statement anyone can make about the power and influence of a collection of artists.
5. Howard University Afro-Blue
The degree of outrage so many folks had about Afro-Blue not making the Sing-Off finals is a true testament to this group's excellence. Add to that the uphill battle the ensemble fought, getting America to not only tolerate, but actively love their jazz sound, and you have one of the most remarkable a capella stories of 2011. On top of all of this consider that, according the group's faculty director, Afro-Blue had only competed in the jazz world prior to this, and it makes the group's crossover success all the more stunning.
4. The Dartmouth Aires
In the lead up to season three of The Sing-Off, The Aires were not getting the same sort of buzz attached to groups like Vocal Point, Sonos, and Delilah. Who would have thought that an over-the-top theatrical group in goofy sweaters would be the last collegiate group standing on the show, and finish second overall? Based on this performance on a cappella's biggest stage, I'm sure that some will argue that the guys should be higher on this list, and perhaps even in the top spot. It's a fair argument to make. The Aires delivered a huge sound, killer choreography, off the wall energy, and the biggest solo star in Sing-Off history in the form of Michael Odokara-Okigbo--and they did all of this in front of a million viewers per week over the course of the fall.
3. The Tufts University Beelzebubs
In so many ways, The 'Bubs are collegiate a cappella, with a long and storied tradition of excellence in the realms of both showmanship and technical performance. Their act went mainstream in recent years, between getting featured in Mickey Rapkin's Pitch Perfect and stealing the show on more than one occasion in the original season of The Sing-Off. In 2011, the guys broke new ground yet again, providing the vocals to back Chris Colfer and Darren Criss's leads for Glee's very own a cappella sensation, The Warblers. This not only exposed The 'Bub sound to a new network audience, but also resulted in the sale of 1.3 million copies of their CD. On top of all of this, the guys returned to NBC for the Sing-Off Christmas special--correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that marks the first time in history a collegiate a cappella group has been featured on two separate, competing TV networks in the same calendar year. Not too shabby.
2. The Brigham Young University Vocal Point
You know you're doing something right when you finish fifth place on The Sing-Off and still have a large contingent of fans saying you were underrated and should have gone further in the competition. Also, don't overlook the fact that a large contingent of a cappella enthusiasts thought Vocal Point was similarly done wrong at The ICCA Finals--in which they finished second in the world. After years of success, Vocal Point is more mainstream than ever, and just may be in a better position than any collegiate group to follow The Beelzebubs into further mainstream notoreity.
1. Berklee College of Music Pitch Slapped
How do you follow up a 2010 in which your group appeared in front of 8 million viewers on The Sing-Off and finished second in the ICCAs Finals? Well, I guess you could win the 2011 ICCA championship, take home first place at SoJam, and, I dunno, send two of your top singers to help lead Delilah deep into The Sing-Off season three (not to mention win runners up in The A Cappella Community Awards for Favorite Mixed Collegiate Group). Yes, Pitch Slapped has truly become an a cappella juggernaut, and in a world full outstanding collegiate groups, no group's star shines brighter.