The Voice Top 12 Recap: This Is It! (Make No Mistakes or Get Gone)

Wheat, meet chaff — but don’t worry about learning their names.

That was the unspoken theme of The Voice‘s Top 12 performance night — where, when contestants were good, they were very very good, but when they were bad, they were horrid (or at least horrid-adjacent).

Oh, sure, only one contestant will lay his or her head on the chopping block come Tuesday night, but you needn’t have a crystal ball — only functioning ears — to know that Braiden, Korin, Zach, Mark, Amy and probably Barrett are essentially destined to be footnotes in one of the other six singers’ journey to music superstardom the Season 9 title.

A controversial stance? Sure. Premature? Maybe. (You never know when a contestant will suffer Death by Song Choice, of course). But I’m standing by my working theory. With that in mind, let’s get to my letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Team Gwen: Braiden Sunshine, Styx’s “Renegade” — Grade: C- | To be honest, there was cacophonous discord before Braiden got a note out of his mouth — seeing how the doe-eyed high school sophomore had no business delivering lyrics about a hardened criminal faced with a hanging in the public square.  Oh Gwen, you can’t call it coaching when you allow one of your three remaining artists to plunge headlong into the abyss! Braiden hit a higher percentage of notes this week than he did seven days ago, but still, there were moments where he ran out of breath and became inaudible. And what can be said about that “glory note,” other than to ask you all to brainstorm the antonym for glory?

Team Adam: Amy Vachal, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” — Grade: C+ | Amy’s wincing face at the end of her ambitious Drake cover said it all: On paper, she had the night’s coolest idea — taking a current R&B radio jam and turning it into an ethereal jazz number — but from the botched opening cue to the dozens of instances where she found herself underneath the melody, this was her worst performance of the season. At this point, I think it’s safe to say she simply doesn’t have the vocal technique to survive into the upper echelons of Season 9.

Team Pharrell: Mark Hood, Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” — Grade: C+ | I would think any contestant or coach with even the slightest interest in winning the season would studiously avoid the most overdone ballad in reality-singing competition history. But… nope. Seems like every year, someone face-plants into the quagmire of Phil Collins’ gloppiest composition, then fails to bring anything fresh to a lyric that reduces the narrator to nothing more than an “empty space.” I appreciated Mark’s restraint in the opening half, but once he waded into the audience, the performance became more about peacock-y embellishment than emotional connection, leaving me wondering what happened to the dude who slayed in the Blinds with “Use Me.”

Team Blake: Emily Ann Roberts, Patty Loveless’ “Blame It on Your Heart” — Grade: B | Emily’s got a lovely, light tone that effortlessly spreads cheer like a Glade air spray — and “Blame It on Your Heart” was the perfect uptempo vehicle to underscore the teenager’s attributes. To the ears, Emily Ann kept up the pedal-to-the-floor tempo with only a minor glitch or two, but to the eyes… crikey, the kid looked stiffer than a Wall Street exec’s dress shirt coming out of a dry cleaner’s. Granted, Carrie Underwood wasn’t winning any stage-presence awards during her Idol tenure, either, but it’s 2015, and Emily Ann will have to be a quicker study in charisma if she wants to inherit Sawyer Fredericks’ throne.

Team Gwen: Korin Bukowski, David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium” — Grade: C | I applaud Gwen for understanding that sometimes a singer has gotta shake up his or her look in order to recapture the voting audience’s attention, but no amount of Extreme Makeover: Contestant Edition is going to work if the person who’s holding the mic keeps veering away from the melody so consistently that you’re left wondering, “is she deliberately going this way, or is she simply out of tune?” Also, if you’re going to shout to the world that you’re literally made of titanium, then you’d better do it with conviction, not the intermittent trepidation that colored Korin’s delivery and facial expression, no?

Team Blake: Barrett Baber, Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” — Grade: B- | Barrett’s got a powerfully gruff instrument, but there’s something about his delivery — the ham-handed earnestness and curious pronunciations of common words — that keeps me at an emotional arm’s length. Even worse, though, there’s no real build to his performances — everything’s set at histrionic. Sure, Adam Levine gave seemingly glowing feedback — but his note that whatever tune Barrett is covering, “you just attack it,” could also be taken as very accurate criticism.

Team Pharrell: Madi Davis, Jewel’s “Who Will Save Your Soul” — Grade: A- | In all honesty, Madi’s Jewel cover probably would’ve charted higher on iTunes if she’d sung it straight, rather than following Pharrell’s advice to add a reggae groove behind it. But real risk is an inherent part of the process of becoming a true artist, and so while Madi’s face occasionally betrayed the discomfort she’d discussed in her intro package about going uptempo, she still turned in one of the night’s better vocals. She managed to capture the humor in the lyrics, come off as sly (not ridiculous) on the spoken-word interludes and dang, that final songbird run was delicious.

Team Gwen: Jeffery Austin, James Bay’s “Let It Go” — Grade: A+ | There’s no use in pretending I didn’t jump on Jeffery’s bandwagon right from the Blind Auditions, but this week’s perfect performance means that vehicle is about to get a lot more crowded. Starting on a plaintive falsetto note, Jeffery came across raw and vulnerable telling the story of a relationship careening toward its end — the sparse arrangement only serving to highlight the power of his voice alone. Is there a reason Mark Burnett & Co. keep denying him the end-of-episode pimp slot? Is it a conspiracy to keep chosen one Jordan Smith out front? I’m not sure. But for the second week running, a competing coach (Blake this time, Adam last week) declared Gwen’s sole true contender could “definitely win this thing.”

Team Adam: Shelby Brown, Jamey Johnson’s “In Color” — Grade: B+ | I’d have been happy about Blake pointing out Shelby noticably rushing the tempo in the final third of her ballad — and running afoul of the band’s arrangement — if he hadn’t ignored far worse missteps from several other singers throughout the night. Methinks he’s still stung the country kid chose Adam, and not him. But despite the glitch, Shelby exhibited vast improvement this week in building her song to a meaningful crescendo, all while reminding viewers of the stunning power and tone she’s got in her inexperienced pocket. And while it wasn’t the subject of her pre-performance package, her hair and wardrobe upgrade gave her an added touch of star quality.

Team Pharrell: Evan McKeel, Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” — Grade: B+ | Paging Mulder and Scully, because everything about Evan’s performance this week could be filed under “unexplained phenomena.” The choice of a tragically-stuck-in-1979 Kenny Loggins tune — and the utter failure to update the arrangement (not even the wee-wahh-wee synth line at the top). The so-ugly-Evan-must-have-lost-a-bet-with-the-show’s-stylist sweater. The uncomfortable hip sway, the skipping and other assorted “dance” moves. And yet, as Evan barreled his way through the tune — he hit pretty much every note and delivered the lyrics with a purposefulness that I’m not sure they deserved. OK, he lost a bit of steam in the final 20 seconds or so, but vocally speaking, you can’t say the dude didn’t deliver.

Team Adam: Jordan Smith, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” — Grade: A | Even more so than Jeffery before him, Jordan opted for a seriously sparse arrangement – a cappella intro, followed by nothing more than his own piano accompaniment – and perhaps just slightly less so than Jeffery, reaped huge benefits. The guy has more control over his gargantuan pipes than Capt. Sully piloting an Airbus over the Hudson River, and it was clear he felt every word of the hymn he’d chosen. I still wish Adam would work with Jordan to stamp out the shriekiness that creeps into the top part of his register, but it’s pretty clear that as long as Jordan doesn’t go all Ozzy Osbourne and bite the head off a bat, he’s pretty much a lock for the finale.

Team Blake: Zach Seabaugh, Little Texas’ “My Love” — Grade: D+ | Critique suffered another stinging blow after the panel went bonkers for Zach’s ragtag vocals — capped by Blake’s declaration that his country heartthrob is ready to hop on a tour bus and get to work. (As what? A roadie?!) Don’t get me wrong — I thought Zach was terrific last week with his raucous, animated “Brand New Girlfriend,” but this week’s choice of ballad exposed a host of technical failings — flat notes abounded, Zach’s voice got completely swallowed up by the band on several occasions and he had all the fire and energy of a Kardashian who’s been cut off from social-media. Hands down, the final performance of the night was the worst — though I’m hoping that he’ll survive into next week… since his overall body of work in the live shows is stronger than Braiden or Korin’s.

Will Be Bottom 3: Braiden, Mark, Korin (Korin going home)
Should Be Bottom 3: Braiden, Zach, Korin (Braiden going home)

What did you think of the Top 12? Who were your faves? Who’s in trouble? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!

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