The Voice Season 13 finally went live on Monday, and it genuinely shocks me to type this, since this season started out so underwhelmingly … but this just might have been the best overall top 12 since Season 3. At least eight of the dozen singers brought their A-game; seriously, every time I thought I’d witnessed the performance of the night, the next contestant came along, shattered my expectations, and set the bar a notch higher. It was a thrilling two hours and a wonderful reminder of just how great this show can be.
Unfortunately, there were a few contestants who kept this from being a perfect 12, and the most surprising also-ran was someone I’d once figured was a shoo-in for the finale: Team Adam’s commercial country crooner, Adam Cunningham. The poor guy got stuck with one of the deadliest kiss-of-death songs in singing-show history, Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds,” which probably had him really wishing that he’d stayed on Team Blake. I don’t know what Adam Levine was thinking with that mawkish song choice. And then Cunningham flubbed the ballad’s intro, missing the band’s cue and struggling to salvage his performance, which gave me full-on Stephan Marcellus flashbacks. It was painful to watch someone with so much potential fall from grace so quickly, on the first live show of the season — and on a night that was otherwise fantastic, there was no room for this sort of error. It’ll be against all odds if Adam C. isn’t up for elimination this week.
But let’s get back on positive note, shall we? Because so, so many great notes were sung tonight, literally. Here’s my recap of one of the most consistently entertaining evenings in all 13 Voice seasons:
Brooke Simpson (Team Miley)
During rehearsal, Miley Cyrus confessed that she’d “stalked” Brooke’s consistently “smiley” Instagram, and wanted to see more of that bubbly personality come through in Brooke’s performances. Miley made a similar comment last week, and it’s a valid critique — but interestingly, she assigned Brooke Kesha’s not-exactly-happy-go-lucky “Praying,” an unofficial anthem for the #MeToo era. So this seemed like an odd choice. However, Brooke’s powerful performance indicated there’s a darkness and anger underneath her cutesy exterior. There are layers to this woman, and I have a feeling if she sticks around, we’re going to get to see more of them. Was Brooke singing this song to someone in particular? As the camera stayed steady on her face for the entire first verse, I could see her fury bubbling under, building, and then bursting, and it was compelling. By the end, tears rimmed Brooke’s eyes. This was intense. And vocally, it was just about flawless.
“To me, what you just did tonight you represented the power of music and what it can do. Not only did you do that, but you showed what this show is about. It’s about having a voice and using that voice,” declared Jennifer Hudson. “You are what this show is all about. … This is what Brooke is all about. Too early to say you stole the show, but you might have,” said Miley.
Spoiler alert: Miley was wrong. She jumped the gun. As I’ve already stressed, Monday was packed with so many great performances that Brooke’s song almost got lost in the shuffle. But this was a great start to the show, and on a typical Voice night, it would have been a standout.
Red Marlow (Team Blake)
OK, now this performance was smiley and bubbly! I’m not sure if that was the right vibe for wacky Red, after his last two songs, in the Knockouts and Playoffs, were somber and subdued. Shenandoah’s honky-tonkin’ “Church on Cumberland Road” was a hoot and a treat for real country fans, and it would have been fun as a results-night performance with Blake Shelton and the house band. Red’s massive personality and likability was hard to resist. But coming after Brooke, this number felt a bit throwaway and novelty-act.
Adam Levine, a big Red supporter, loved it, however, gushing, “Authenticity is No. 1 for me. That’s how I always judge any vocal performance: if it feels real. You’ve don’t need to be Blake Shelton to know that’s as real as it gets.” Blake was also pleased, saying, “My gosh, I knew you were a great singer, but that’s the first time I’ve seen the performance side. So much energy. You can move! And it was sexy.” Coming from the Sexiest Man Alive, and a country expert, maybe Blake was right. Red will likely be safe this week. But if Red wants to make it further than the top 10 or eight, on a fiercely competitive season like this one, he needs to come up with another “Outskirts of Heaven”-level performance.
Shi’Ann Jones (Team J.Hud)
Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” was a challenging song for Shi’Ann, who at age 15 possesses a startlingly womanly and mature voice but does not possess the life experience to relate to such a sultry ballad. But, hey, Jennifer wanted her to go for that dolphin-whistle note, which even Jennifer can’t do (Mariah can’t do it anymore either, come to think of it), and Shi’Ann did that damn thing. She pulled it off! And that was admittedly impressive. Shi’Ann is improving, but I still think she’s out of her depth among the more seasoned top 12. Host Carson Daly excitedly described her performance as “effortless,” but I heard the effort. Her performance sounded labored at times.
Blake appreciated the effort, though, saying, “I’m just super-jealous. I swear you picked the perfect time to become the highlight of this show, because that was so good!” Jennifer added, “I see you’re singing for your home. You’re singing your way home. It touches my heart.” But I think Shi’Ann has a chance of going home this week.
Jon Mero (Team Adam)
Jon is my most pleasant surprise of the season. Just a couple of weeks ago, I’d written him off as fodder, after a couple of corny corporate-band party performances. But now that he’s tapped into his serious balladeer side, I think he’s a formidable contender. (Jon should never do another uptempo song, ever again.) Belting “Why I Love You” by rising R&B star Major was a risk, since it was the least-known song of the night, but Jon’s performance was so spectacular, he could turn it into a top 10 pop hit; I can’t wait to check his iTunes ranking Tuesday morning. Adam’s go-to compliment these days is comparing soul singers to Prince, but in this case, the remark was fitting (Jon should have done “The Beautiful Ones” this season instead of Lucas Holliday), with Jon’s otherworldly falsetto on full, glorious display. What a range this guy has! This was magical. This was dramatic. This was theater. Jon should never do another uptempo song, ever again, and he should never play another corporate party again — unless he wants to play the Yahoo holiday party next month and do only performances like this one. Which he is of course invited to do.
“This is how you, Jon, needed to start this live show. You’ve just created a fanbase and such a competition for all the other coaches and all the other artists. You just stepped up the game so much. I’m your No. 1 fan now,” said Miley, while Jennifer, sitting next to her, removed her shoe. And we all know what that means. “First shoe of the night!” yelled Adam, adding: “You’re not just a technically amazing singer. … What you do modernizes it so much. You’re a contemporary artist rooted in the classics but doing something for tomorrow. That’s why I think you’re unbelievable, man. I’m so blown away. It’s better than the amazing I thought it was going to be.”
Ashland Craft (Team Miley)
During rehearsals, Miley and Ashland went back and forth between the Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” and Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” eventually settling on the latter. It was the right call. While last week’s “When I Think About Cheatin’” ballad was tepid and MOR, this week Ashland got her mojo back covering one of country music’s original bad girls. I wish she’d hadn’t tossed her guitar aside so quickly, after just a few lines (this is a talent-show pet peeve of mine), and the backup singers drowned her out on the chorus, but overall, this was a solid effort. This was the badass Ashland I remembered falling in love with weeks ago. Can she do Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” next week?
“I’m so happy for you. I’m so happy to see you own the stage believing in yourself the way we believe in you. You owned the stage tonight and showed why you should be on the stage,” said Jennifer. “You showed that lane you can fill. I knew things were going to go well when you said, ‘Come on!’ and started clapping. You were totally out of your shell. You set the standard. Nothing less than this, ever!” said Miley.
Adam Cunningham (Team Adam)
Oh, dear. The GIFable look on Cunningham’s face when Levine suggested he “imagine Chris Stapleton singing ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins!” matched the expression on my face and probably every face in America. Beside the fact that almost anyone who’s ever performed “Against All Odd” on a singing competition immediately went home (Adam C. would have had a better shot at survival if he’d done “Feeling Good”), and the song is a tired TV cliché (did NBC’s music-clearance budget get trimmed this season?), Cunningham was unfamiliar with the song. I hoped Levine knew was he was doing and that Cunningham would have a genre-flipping moment with it … but instead Cunningham didn’t know what he was doing, and he had a brain-farting moment when he messed up the intro. He did his best to regain his footing, but his desperation and drop in confidence was apparent, and he was shouting the song by the end in some attempt to convey passion. He convinced no one, even though the coaches claimed otherwise.
“I know you’re probably frustrated at yourself right now, but that was a hell of a recovery from that beginning,” said Blake, lying. “We’re human. We make mistakes. All of us sitting up here make them all the time. It’s not about the mistake. It’s the recovery. You recovered. Then you got them. The hardest thing is to falter a little bit and then get everybody on board. You did, and they all responded. … It’s a victory, man,” lied Adam. I’m sorry, but this was not victorious.
Chloe Kohanski (Team Blake)
Chloe scored the highest-charting song in the history of The Voice Knockout Rounds, with “Landslide” two weeks ago, and she stayed strong with last week’s plaintive “Time After Time.” This week’s song choice, “Thank You” by Dido, was too even-keel, with a meandering melody and no breakout power moments, for Chloe to match the glory of those performances. And that worries me, because she is my favorite contestant of the season. However, this was one of the coolest and most current performances of the night, from Chloe’s slick styling to the stage’s stark, Stephen Sprouse-like graffiti wall. And Chloe’s star quality was undeniable.
“I really think you’re a total superstar. This just took me out of the competition for a second. I felt like I was at an awards show, and I was going next, and I was saying, ‘How do I get out of this? I don’t want to go next! She was so good,’” joked Miley. Blake was even more impressed, raving, “I have been sitting in this seat for 13 seasons, and I have never heard a more well-rounded voice than that right there. I’ll be damned if you’re not a star.” I do think Chloe is special, and she will probably be safe this week, but if she wants to remain the star of Season 13 and not become one of the middle-packer contestants who go home in the pre-finale bloodbath week, song choices like this one will not suffice.
Davon Fleming (Team J.Hud)
Speaking of stars, Davon sparkles and shines from head to toe, infusing all of his performances with so much energy and an infectious sense of joy. “Love on Top” by Jennifer’s Dreamgirls co-star Beyoncé was the perfect song for this dreamboy. Even if his happy-dancing compromised his vocals a bit (Davon is no Beyoncé), he put on a stellar show and handled this tricky, key-changing number with ease. He’s always a confident, consummate entertainer. Jennifer wasn’t the only one tossing shoes this time — Adam also threw some footwear Davon’s way.
“What the hell was that? It’s a workout. I was tired. That has to be exhausting. If I was going to do that, I would have to spend, like, six months preparing for it and work out a lot, and then faint afterward. That’s how hard that song is,” laughed Adam. “You made it your own and took it to a whole other level, and you entertained the crowd. It was unbelievable. That’s why you got my shoe, and I almost broke my nail too. I’m proud of you,” said Jennifer.
Addison Agen (Team Adam)
Chloe better be worried about Addison stealing her thunder, since they occupy a similar lane and Addison definitely gave the stronger performance tonight. Her rendition of Sara Bareilles’s “She Used to Be Mine” was exquisite. There was so much soul and tenderness and grit in her voice, her phrasing was impeccable, and she never showboated or oversang. Her performance was so professional, she would have fit right in on the previous night’s female-dominated American Music Awards alongside Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Kelly Clarkson, and P!nk.
“I was singing on this type of stage at 16, but I did not have the stillness and calm and confidence that you have right now; I was running around all over the place trying to find a way to entertain. I was awkward and wanted everyone to look at me. The way you’re still and everyone can focus on you, you’re so confident. Amazing to see,” marveled Miley. “You’re this pillar of class and dignity and soulfulness. I feel like every young person can identify with and be inspired. That’s exciting for me to be a part of it and a part of your journey. I think you’re one of the most special singers not just on in this competition, but in this world,” said Adam.
Keisha Renee (Team Blake)
Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” was the ideal song for Keisha to merge her soul background with her new country direction. Singing a banjo-embellished bluegrass version of the 1973 classic, she gave a performance worthy of being on the CMAs, ACMs, ACAs, or CMT Awards. I am sure many doubters out there will debate if it was really a “country” performance or if Keisha is really a country singer, since her ad-libs and runs pushed this song more into straight-up R&B territory. But those ad-libs and runs were so amazing, and her molten-honey tone so lovely, I genuinely do not care. Call it soul, call it country, or call it soul-country. I just want some record label to call Keisha. She deserves to be a star.
“I don’t think you can make a wrong note. Your voice is like silk. … The way you delivered it was special. I see you headed to the top, little sister. That was everything,” said Jennifer. “If you have ears and eyes and you didn’t experience how beautiful that performance was, there’s something wrong with you. That’s one of my all-time favorite performances I’ve ever seen on that stage. Thank you. I’m so proud to take this journey with you to Nashville,” gushed Blake.
Noah Mac (Team J.Hud)
Coldplay covers are a mixed bag on singing shows, not only because Chris Martin’s voice is so distinctive, but because many of the British band’s midtempo songs can make for dull performances. Not so with Noah, aka Hunter Plake 2.0. By choosing a lesser-covered Coldplay tune, X&Y’s “Speed of Sound,” and then completely dismantling it, rearranging it, and putting it back together, he delivered the most creative moment of the night. (Please note: This kid did a Phil Collins song last week, and, unlike Adam C, he was captivating. This is one singer who knows how to “make a song his own.”) This was cool, edgy, different … and Noah even played this guitar the entire time! At this rate, he’s going to overtake Chloe and become my new favorite.
“This is going to sound super-weird, but did you ever see the movie Back to the Future? It looks like you’re from the ’50s and you’re trapped in the future. You’re playing a song from a future band. You’re playing a song from the ’50s right now. It freaks me out, but I like it a lot,” babbled Adam. I’m not sure what he meant, but if he was trying to say that a) Noah is timeless, b) Noah appeals to music fans of different generations, or c) Noah has a big future in music, then OK. Jennifer put it more clearly when she said, “You are a star. You’re it. You’re so unique. You’re ready to go. I could see you on every awards show. I could see you winning every award. I could see you at the top of Billboard.”
Janice Freeman (Team Miley)
And just when you think the night had peaked, out came alt-soul singer Janice, described by Miley as “if the Foo Fighters’ lead singer was Mary J. Blige,” pouring every drop of blood, sweat, and tears in her body into Brandi Carlile’s Grey’s Anatomy-popularized folk-rock ballad “The Story.” And Janice, a cancer survivor dedicating the love song to her devoted husband, told a story with every awesome note. The beginning, hushed and delicate, drew me in — and then the song burst to life and, had I been wearing a wig, it would have been effectively snatched. Forget about my AMAs analogy from a few paragraphs ago. This felt like Grammy night. This was so stupendous, even Blake got in on the shoe game and threw his cowboy boot.
“I threw my boot. I haven’t taken my boot off in 10 years. That says it all,” said Blake. “Janice, look at my hands. This is shaking. I’m in tears. I’m so proud of you. I’m going to start crying. I know this week has been a hard one for you. You delivered. You told the story,” said Miley. I am not sure what was going on with Janice personally this week, and I wish her well, but I do know it is the mark of a great artist to be able to channel any personal pain into a performance and let the show go on.
So now, it is prediction time. My personal bottom three were Adam Cunningham, Shi’Ann Jones, and Red Marlow, but I believe Red will be safe. So let’s go with Adam, Shi’Ann, and, unfortunately, Brooke, who I think was at a severe disadvantage going first. When these three sing for Twitter’s Instant Save Tuesday night, Adam has a chance of redeeming himself with a straight-ahead country song that he picked himself, and Brooke is obviously a fighter, so I think the not-ready-for-primetime Shi’Ann will get the boot — and not in the good, boot-tossing sense of the phrase.
Tune in Tuesday to find out if I’m right. See you then!