The 2013 ICCAs

The Best I've Seen

Note: This is one of the final regular posts for this publication season. We want to extend a special thank you to Irene Droney, Eric Soriano, Keith Tripler, and all of our other guest contributors from this season. We also want to thank all of our readers for making us a part of your day, sharing your work, and contributing to The A Cappella Blog’s highest traffic season to date! Be sure to check back for a handful of news updates and features during the off-season. We will return to regular posting in September 2013.

The Best I’ve Seen highlights the very best in collegiate a cappella, as seen in the admittedly biased and limited view of the author. In this special edition, ACB Content Manager Mike Chin reflects upon the best of what he had the chance to see in the 2013 ICCAs. Please note that selections are limited to the 54 ICCA sets that Mike saw in-person this season.

Best Set: It should come as little surprise that The Northeastern University Nor’easters earn top honors for the best ICCA set I saw in 2013. Combining unwavering intensity with raw emotion and original song selection; top tier soloists with premier vocal percussion; unbelievable swells of sound with sureness of movement--no other act could really touch the crew from Boston this year. The group delivered a set that, at once, aced nearly every category available on an ICCA scoring card, and won over audiences through the group’s palpable will to succeed. It just doesn’t get much better than this.

Honorable Mention: The UCLA ScatterTones, Florida State University Reverb, The Cornell University Chordials, University of Birmingham, The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs

Best Song Selection: There are many different angles from which to assess this category. In selecting The Belmont University Beltones I’m prioritizing thematic connection and clearly defined identity. In terms of a theme, The Beltones had rivers and spirituality coursing through their set. More importantly, when it comes to identity, the 2013 ICCA Wild Card champs had the most readily recognizable sets I heard this year, moving from Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River” to The Civil Wars’ “Bottom of the River” to Alison Krauss’s “Down to the River.” This country fried set spoke of simplicity and angst; tradition and a rebel spirit. While I questioned the group’s decision to mash its way into Michael Buble for its closer (“Cry Me A River” fit the water theme, but not the southern spirit), nonetheless ,The Belotnes

Honorable Mention: Florida State University Reverb, Syracuse University Main Squeeze, The Northeastern University Nor’easters, The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs

Best Solo: Over the last couple years, there has no shortage of collegiate groups covering Mumford and Sons. One of the most frustrating elements of hearing these covers is how few groups tap into the soul of what they’re singing about. The point at which raw-edge desperation meets folksy simplicity has carved Mumford and Sons their niche in popular music, but I often get the sense groups are going through the motions with these songs. The Penn State Statesmen, and particularly their soloist, got it right on “Below My Feet”. This wasn’t just an excellent lead vocal—it was a solo that aurally dripped with emotion and for which the soloist, without going over the top, sold the sorrow and the epiphany of this song with perfect facials and body language. Just a remarkable performance to cap an underappreciated performance at the group’s home quarterfinal.

Honorable Mention: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment for “Breathe Again,” The Northeastern University Nor’easters for “Drumming Song”, The Penn State Statesmen for “Come Wake Me Up,” Ithaca College Ithacappella for “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved,” The UCLA Scattertones for “Call Me,” The Cornell University Chordials for “Lies,” Salisbury University Squawkappella for “Just a Fool,” The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes for “Who You Are,” The Syracuse University Otto Tunes for “Show You How To Love.”

Best Arrangement:The New York University N’Harmonics are nothing if not intense. This year, the group brought “Whipping Post” back to competition. Like previous incarnations of this song, the group executed a deftly planned arrangement, filled with complex, ugly, wonderful harmonies and power moments. Most winning of all, the group infused a new sample of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” reinventing the slick, jazzy song stylings into a positively desperate plea for one more dance. This is the stuff chills are made of.

Honorable Mention: University of Nebraska Rocktavo for their Maroon 5 Medley, University of Wisconsin-Madison Fundamentally sound for “Pumped Up Kicks,” The Northeastern Unviersity Nor’easters for “Don’t You Worry Child,” Florida State University Reverb for “This Is How We Do It”/“Bad,” The University of Michigan G-Men for “Radioactive,” University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” University of Rochester After Hours for “Samson,” The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes for “Locked Out of Heaven,” Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella for “I Try”

Best Vocal Percussion: The Northeastern University Nor’easters did so many things right this year that it’s easy miss the impact of the masterful VP underlying each piece of their championship set. It’s a mistake for anyone to ignore Beejul Khatri, one of the driving forces behind the Nor’easter machine whose power perc anchored the group and delivered some of the most dramatic moments of the year’s best set.

Honorable Mention: The UCLA Scattertones, Penn State Unviersity None of the Above, The Penn State University Penn’harmonics, The Penn State University Statesmen, Rider University Acapocalypse, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockapella, University of Birmingham Sons of Pitches, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment, Syracuse University Main Squeeze, Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure, University of Rochester After Hours , The Fordham University Ramblers

Best Visual Presentation: It was nearly impossible to look away during The University of Nebraska Bathtub Dogs’ Midwest Semifinal set. The group marked every song reconfigurations, bends, and gyrations; leaps and instances of crawling across the stage—all of it sold full-tilt, complementing the music at every turn. Most groups that throw in this level of choreography are overdoing it, or going overly literal with their presentation, The Bathtub Dogs planned their movement innovative and shrewd ways to maximize the impact of every motion, ultimately delivering one of the most visually captivating ICCA sets I’ve ever seen.

Honorable Mention: University of Wisconsin-Madison Fundamentally Sound, Florida State University Reverb, The Northeastern University Nor’easters, The Penn State University Penn’harmonics, University of Rochester After Hours, Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure, University of Maryland Faux Paz, The Johns Hopkins University AllNighters, The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes, The Fordham University Ramblers

Best Mashup/Medley: In recent years, mashups have become an ICCA staple. Many of them are good, creatively, smartly arranged. And then there are the small handful that threaten to reinvent sub-genre. Florida State University Reverb did just that with its inspired combination of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” The piece featured different sets of group members taking over the stage while the rest of the guys stood in the wings, before the two songs came together for song-war of Westside Story proportions. Reverb is one of the most delightfully unselfconscious groups in a cappella today and watching the gentlemen in powder blue bowties dance and groove was one of the most unexpected and most pure joys of the 2013 ICCA season.

Honorable Mention: Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Stockappella for “Because of You”/”My Immortal,” Rocktavo for their Maroon 5 medley

Best Outfit: As the years go by, more and more competitive a cappella groups have developed distinctive looks. In a year full of well-dressed singers Rochester Institute of Technology Eight Beat Measure stood out from the pack with a stylish black blazer over black shirt look, accented by neon orange ties that not only looked sharp but paid tribute to the group’s school colors. Better yet, the guys made their attire a part of their performance, peeling off blazers in dramatic fashion as they rocked out on the finish to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” When it comes to the ICCAs, each group has just 12 minutes to make its case for why it deserves to advance to the next round of competition; why it’s a championship caliber squad. Eight Beat Measure is one of those groups with a fundamental understanding that serious competitors will use anything they can get their hands on—including the clothes off their backs—to make a statement.

Honorable Mention: The Fordham University Ramblers, The Northeastern University Nor’easters, The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Xtension Chords, University of Birmingham Sons of Pitches

Breakthrough Performance: When you scan the list of 2013 ICCA Finalists, there are many groups there with traditions of excellence who many would have expected to make it to the final round of the tournament—The ScatterTones, back in New York after their second place finish in 2012; The Nor’easters, arguably the best competing college group not to have made the Finals prior to that point; Reverb that won its quarterfinal in 2012 and came painfully close to placing at semis; The G-Men, who have a consistent force in the Midwest and Great Lakes; The Chordials, who, despite a lapse in ICCA competition, had a pedigree of ICCA Finals appearances to live up to. Then there’s University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign No Comment, a group that had never made it past quarterfinals before. For every moment they sang at their Midwest semifinal and at ICCA Finals, the group came across as earnest, passionate, and thrilled just to have earned their place on that particular stage. From their soft, warm reinvention of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” to the sterling solo on “Breathe Again,” the raucous fun of “Clarity,” all underscored by some of the top vocal percussion of the year, No Comment delivered a set to remember, and a set that very much earned them consideration among the world’s elite college a cappella groups.

Honorable Mention: Salisbury University Squawkappella, The University of Michigan G-Men, Florida State University Reverb, The College of New Jersey Trentones, University of Rochester After Hours, The Syracuse University Otto Tunes

Best Moment: A confession: I do not like the Swedish House Mafia song “Don’t You Worry Child.” I find it to be an awkward mix of melodramatic sentimentality with Nickelback-like vocals.

When I heard The Nor’easters were bringing this song to competition, I questioned the choice.

For whatever reason, I had not yet learned my lesson. Do. Not. Question. The. Nor’easters.

Via precise dynamics, outstanding staging decisions, and some of the most passionate vocals I’ve ever heard in a cappella, The Nor’easters made “Don’t You Worry Child” into more than a good ballad and more than a dramatic set closer. They made this song into a positively epic anthem, and the fitting climax to their storied journey of taking years to make it to The ICCA Finals stage, and overcoming the tragedy struck their native Boston just days before (which nearly prevented the group from making it to New York at all). There are but a handful of moments each year in collegiate a cappella that make a long-time fan want to stand up and cheer. That make you proud to be an a cappella fan. The Nor’easters delivered just that sort of moment on the biggest stage collegiate a cappella has to offer. You just don’t get much better than that.