It’s been a strange season of The Voice — and not just because of Gwen Stefani’s penchant for pairing torturous heels with tights.
But despite the almost constant shift in contestant momentum and often head-scratching results (Damien over Toia Jones in the Knockouts? Ryan Sill in the Top 8?), something kind of miraculous occurred during tonight’s performance finale: NBC’s reality singing behemoth finally took on its most obvious shortcoming — that it’s never produced an American Idol-level superstar — and did something that may very well obliterate all those “what’s the point of all this, anyway?” criticisms.
Yep, Mark Burnett, the Season 7 coaches and/or the wizards working tirelessly behind the scenes dug deep (AKA spent some serious money) and came up with Billboard chart-worthy songs for all four of the show’s finalists: Chris Jamison, Matt McAndrew, Craig Wayne Boyd and Damien (last name TBD?).
To which I say, “Hallelujah!”
Because it’s one thing to hear a TSA agent or a college student present a kickin’ cover of somebody else’s radio hit. It’s quite another to have them deliver an entirely new audio experience straight to your ears — and in the course of three minutes, make you say, “Yes, I will willingly add this to my iTunes playlist, somewhere between Beyoncé and Róisín Murphy.” (Subject for future internal dialogue: Do I inexplicably fall for artists whose names contain accented vowels? Or, in other words, would I like Season 7’s inevitable fourth-place finisher any better if his name was Dámíén? #perhaps)
Anyhow, the excellent “Contestants’ Singles” round, combined with majorly fun duets and one final set of solid (albeit mostly risk-free) covers, combined to make Season 7’s performance finale The Voice‘s strongest episode in the last 12 weeks.
What radio — the place where fresh voices go and smash their foreheads into concrete walls — does with the eventual winner (and his immediate runners-up), only time will tell. But here’s hoping Pharrell, Gwen, Blake and Adam double-down on these chaps in 2014 and use their pop-cultural currency to help one or two of ’em break on through to the other side. (Sidebar: How come no one ever covers The Doors on reality singing competitions anymore? My brain can only recall “Light My Fire” during Season 7 Hollywood Week of American Idol.)
Oh my stars, I’m off on a tangent. Before I wind up in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven in Duluth, let’s grade tonight’s performances — not listed in chronological order, just so we can compare like vs like.
FINAL SOLOS (JUDGES’ CHOICE)
Damien (Team Adam): Donny Hathaway’s “A Song for You” — Grade: C | Not one coach pointed out the fact that Damien either forgot his lyrics or missed his cue on the line “you taught me precious secrets” — and that his grasp of pitch slipped through his fingers like a gallon of Wesson in the aftermath of his misstep. But lest we forget, this is The Voice, a program that threw the final shovel-load of dirt on criticism’s grave about three seasons ago. The voting public, however, will probably be more discerning, which means last week’s Wild Card winner will have to settle for the “it was an honor just to make the finale” statuette.
Craig Wayne Boyd (Team Blake): Alabama’s “In Pictures” — Grade: B+ | Did Craig give us absolute perfection on this schmaltzy love letter from an on-the-road musician dad to his growing child? I cannot answer in the affirmative (thanks to some wobbly intonation in the second verse and a smattering of swallowed words throughout). What saved the performance, though, was the rawness of the country contestant’s emotions: I mean, that break in his voice as the music dropped out on the final chorus activated my tear ducts like a bell to Pavlov’s dogs (or the flash of a camera to a Kardashian). At his best, Craig not only feels his lyrics deeply, but is able to convey said feeling to his audience. I’m not convinced the guy delivered the kind of TKO performance necessary to claim the Season 7 crown, but if he pulls off the upset, “In Pictures” deserves credit as the performance that tipped the scales.
Chris Jamison (Team Adam): Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” — Grade: A+ | If I knew how to add an emoji to a recap — don’t bother trying to give me guidance in the comments, I’m too ooollllllddddd to learn new tricks — I’d sum up my feelings about this performance with a jaw-dropped and drooling little yellow fellow. True, saved for some amped up guitars and Chris’ decision to deliver both the J.T. and Timbaland lines — the arrangement stayed pretty true to the original. And yet, something about Chris’ note perfection combined with the way he ruled the stage like an actual superstar (not just a potential superstar) left me feeling like he’s the winner NBC’s reality singing franchise really needs. The piercing falsetto on that last “don’t it make you sad about it” went through me like a steak knife through room-temperature butter. (Uff da, see why I just wanted to go with a simple emoji?)
Matt McAndrew (Team Adam): “Over the Rainbow” — Grade: B | I figured that since exec producer Mark Burnett saved Matt’s solo cover for last, that it was bound to take us on an epic journey to Emotional Middle Earth, complete with bubbling lava, that pesky ring and Frodo and Sam exchanging their long-overdue wedding vows. Which is why it came as such a surprise — and yeah, a disappointment — when Matt went for the three-pointer instead of the touchdown, treating the classic melody with all the enthusiasm of a 5th grader finding socks under the tree on Christmas morning. OK, OK, maybe it wasn’t quite so dreary — although that final glory note definitely got away from him — but for a guy whose sole life goal is checking the unmarked tattoo box on his arm to denote he’s been signed by a label, I wanted Matt to make me hear the lyrics in a new way — like they’d been written about his own personal experience. If he’d closed with “Wasted Love,” there’d be no question about Matt sewing up the Season 7 race, but even his most ardent fans have to admit “Over the Rainbow” opened a door for Chris to potentially spring the mild upset.
Craig Wayne Boyd (Team Blake): “My Baby’s Got a Smile on Her Face” — Grade: B+ | Craig’s debut single — which Blake Shelton says he wrote eons ago but never got around to recording — has an appealing rhythm and a naughty playfulness to the lyrics (all about a guy who’s keeping his lady satisfied in the Cialis advertisement type of way. I couldn’t shake the notion that the melody of the opening verse sounded like a sped-up “Angel of the Morning,” but that craziness dissipated as I got lost in the Craig’s charm — and the genuine thrill that the Nashville vet was conveying in the midst of (finally) getting his big break. The last few runs didn’t land quite as squarely as they could’ve/should’ve, but Pharrell’s prediction — “welcome to your future” — could absolutely come true in the next year.
Chris Jamison (Team Adam): “Velvet” — Grade: A- | I know subtlety has now dropped to No. 194 on the Billboard Top 200 Qualities Appreciated by Modern Radio Listeners, but even so, the lyrics to “Velvet” are undeniably filthy. (#NotThatTheresAnythingWrongWithThat #IGuess) Yet while Chris’ debut single probably won’t be something you sing along to with your favorite aunt over the holidays, there’s no doubt the guy fully committed to the seduction he started – as two mirrors highlighted his non-vocal assets in the back and in the front (as Fergie puts it). I know, I know… the fit of Chris’ jeans should not be germane to the end result of a show that’s supposed to be about the voice, but don’t blame me — blame Adam’s staging choices. And no amount of bootyliciousness would’ve been worth a damn had Chris not excelled at gliding over the slinky, R&B groove and nailing both the husky lower range and the soaring falsettos. Perhaps moreso than any bit of coaches’ hyperbole this week, Pharrell’s “a star was born on this television show with you” critique rang true.
Matt McAndrew (Team Adam): “Wasted Love” — Grade: A | Matt’s “Wasted Love” may wind up being to The Voice what Phillip Phillips’ “Home” was to American Idol: A game-changing, earwormy gem perfectly suited to the singer — and capable of launching him from reality star to viable recording artist. This portrait of a guy who’s lost at love and can’t quite figure out where it all went wrong showcased the little breaks and rough edges in Matt’s instrument — and proved that, with the right material, he’s as good a storyteller as he is a vocal technician. I got so lost in the song itself, I barely took notice of the bizarre “9-year-old boy’s HotWheels fantasy come to life” look of the stage (complete with a massive ramp flanked on either side by FIRE). Here’s hoping the intriguing lyrics — “like smoked cigarettes, I inhale these regrets, I can’t change what I’ve become” — don’t cause the robots who program Top 40 radio to CTRL+ALT+DEL, yes? Because I could seriously envision this tune giving Matt access to the gated community currently housing the Taylor Swifts and Hoziers and Rihannas of the world.
Damien (Team Adam): “Soldier” — Grade: B | I appreciated the chance to hear Damien deliver something other than a treacly ballad, and while he seemed more relaxed and confident than ever, the unnecessary melodrama and the general lack of dynamics he brought to uberproducer Max Martin’s thunderclapping, midtempo jam left me feeling wiped out by the time he was done. I mean, can you imagine a whole album full of Damien’s full-throttle-24/7 vocal stylings? As my husband grumbled while listening to the performance and reading his comic-books on the iPad, “This sounds like the kind of artist I’d have heard on the radio in the ’90s — and changed the station.”
Craig Wayne Boyd & Blake Shelton: Randy Houser’s “Boots On” — Grade: A- | On a night where the mood was mostly “serious,” “sexy” or “seriously sexy,” Craig and Blake brought a real sense of fun — and the episode’s guitar-blastiest arrangement — to their duet. The more I try to handicap the Season 7 race in my mind, the more I wonder if Craig’s ability to simultaneously court country and rock voters (along with the “Blake bump”) could lead to a Jermaine Paul-style upset. Worse things have happened! (Like Jermaine Paul’s Season 2 win, for example.)
Chris Jamison (Team Adam): Robin Thicke’s “Lost Without You” — Grade: A- | The fellas’ sweet falsettos went together like chocolate and peanut butter, Victoria’s Secret ads and British lady voice overs, Idris Elba and spontaneous swooning. I loved how Chris managed to get his groove on even while the pair remained glued to their stools — and the way he managed to make the dubious Robin Thicke’s lyrics come across as more romantic than sleazy. In fact, if Adam’s not careful, it could be Chris who’s in a rotating chair wearing $5,000 bowling shirts a decade from now.
Matt McAndrew (Team Adam): Adam Levine’s “Lost Stars” — Grade: A- | I’ll admit I’d never before heard “Lost Stars,” but so what? Good tunes are good tunes even at first listen, and while Matt’s falsetto didn’t come across quite as effortless as Chris’, dude showed a willingness to stretch his voice into dangerous territory without ever losing his way.
Damien (Team Adam): Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” — Grade: B | I’m sorry, Adam and Damien, but I just don’t want to hear “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” on reality singing competitions anymore. It’s played out — like that time Adam tried to go peroxide blonde. It didn’t help, of course, that Damien delivered the ballad with such tiresome flourishes as outstretched arms on the line “wander free” and the patented vocal quaver he unleashes every time he’s trying to convey “EMOTION!” But it was mostly in tune, and certainly good enough for fourth place as long as I can’t suddenly cast votes for DaNica Shirey, Sugar Joans, Toia Jones, Brittany Butler and Troy Ritchie.
Should Be the Order of Finish: Chris (winner), Matt (2nd), Craig (3rd), Damien (4th)
Will Be the Order of Finish: Matt (winner), Chris (2nd), Craig (3rd), Damien (4th) — but it wouldn’t shock me if Craig won, either
What did you think of The Voice performance finale? What were your favorite performances this episode? And who should win it all? Take our polls below, then expand on your thoughts in the comments! And for all your reality singing competition recaps, news, photo galleries and exclusives, please do follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!