The Voice Recap: School of Hard Knockouts

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Forgive me for stealing Carson Daly’s hyperactive terrier refrain — “WE’VE GOT A STEAL!” — and twisting it into a battle cry for The Voice‘s Season 11 Knockout Rounds.

Just when this cycle of NBC’s reality singing competition was starting to look sleepier than Christina Aguilera during an Adam Levine monologue, tonight’s two-hour extravaganza delivered not one, not two, but five or six potential contenders to Alisan Porter’s iron(-throated) throne.

Oh, yes, ladies and gentlemen… “WE’VE GOT A SEASON!”

Knockouts mentors/upsettingly attractive duo Faith Hill and Tim McGraw deserve a little credit — they listened carefully and dispensed specific, actionable advice. But seeing how this is the one round where artists choose (and advance or faceplant on the strength of) their own material, let’s offer a resounding “hip-hip, hurrah!” to Wé, Kylie, Jason, Ali, Simone and Sundance. (OK, OK, maybe it’s cruel to omit just two advancing singers from the party, but wouldn’t it be far more heartless to celebrate their newfound status as Live Playoffs cannon fodder?)

With that in mind, allow me to rank tonight’s Knockout showdowns from least- to most-promising winner — bearing in mind I’ll be back overnight to update this URL with more detailed performance reviews (Update: Full reviews of every performance now added to the recap below!):

6. Team Adam: Riley Elmore – Michael Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet” defeats Jason Warrior – Luke James’ “I Want You” (Jason stolen by Blake) | When the definitive book of The Voice history is published in 2028 (when the show is finally cancelled after 34 seasons), Riley-over-Jason is a mortal lock to crack the list of Top 5 Most Boneheaded Decisions by a Coach. I mean, is Adam actively trying to build a team of singers destined for early elimination? Does he have some music or movie project in the works that’ll pull the bulk of his focus between now and the holidays? And if not, can someone throw out some other plausible theory for why the Maroon 5 frontman would choose Riley’s tepid, timid, tremulous performance over Jason’s deeply felt, undeniably ambitious, technically dazzling cover? Yeah, yeah, Adam can declare that Riley’s “unlike anything we’ve had on this show before” — if, of course, you forget the half-dozen or so out-of-their-depths teenage crooners who’ve come before him — but I’ll let Blake have the last word on Mr. Levine’s decision. “WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?” Jason, meanwhile, has the chops to be a Top 10 contender, and let’s thank Gwen Stefani’s main squeeze for recognizing it.

5. Team Blake: Sundance Head – Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” defeats Josh Gallagher – Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria” (Josh stolen by Adam) | Just a paragraph ago, I wondered if Adam might be on a path of deliberate self-sabotage, and that conspiracy theory was underscored by his use of a steal on the competent but utterly unoriginal Josh. Even from the standpoint of technique, Josh’s flimsy falsetta* (*the country term for falsetto) and aimless phrasing made him a clear second place behind Sundance. The latter singer, an erstwhile American Idol front-runner early in Season 6, may have hit a couple sharp notes at the end, but his gutsy decision to forego the house band and stick with sparse, acoustic self-accompaniment highlighted his sincerity and an achy-breaky tone as complex and silky as his Game of Thrones-ready beard.

4. Team Adam: Simone Gundy – Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” defeats Dave Moisan – Sam Smith’s “Like I Can” | “If you think, ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ then maybe you shouldn’t,” noted guest mentor Faith, after hearing Dave mangle the highest notes of his cover like a barn cat tearing into a chipmunk. And while I hoped the Blind Audition standout would emerge stronger, suaver and more in tune once he hit the main stage, the end result was hotter and messier than a fondue pot falling off a counter top. That left a wide open path to the playoffs for Simone, and what her rendition of “Midnight Train” lacked in originality, it made up for with heart, soul and intonation. Aside from Jason-over-Riley (which, granted, didn’t actually work out that way), this was the easiest decision of the Monday-night episode.

3. Team Miley: Ali Caldwell – Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” defeats Lauren Diaz — Andra Day’s “Rise Up” | Don’t get me wrong: The sweeping glory notes at the end of Lauren’s cover had that boom-boom-pow the Black Eyed Peas once advertised. Unfortunately, though, the rushed tempo of the arrangement made Lauren sound slightly gaspy on the verses, and that misstep wasn’t going to cut it against Ali, a singer who took every vocal plank in the back of her pickup truck, nailed each one together with ferocious passion and a will to win, and built a bridge straight into the live voting rounds. Ali (who was my favorite coming out of Blinds/Battles) definitely needs a crash course in Less Is More When It Comes to Voter Preferences/Overall Listenability, but I’m oddly confident Miley is the right professor for the job.

2. Team Alicia: Kylie Rothfield – Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” defeats Whitney & Shannon — Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” | Maybe Alicia went a tad overboard in describing Whitney & Shannon as their generation’s “brown goddesses” of rootsy folk, but I suspect her over-the-top praise was meant as a consolation prize to a pair of sweet sisters who didn’t do anything wrong with their Jason Mraz jam, but didn’t do anything especially exciting with it, either. Kylie, on the other hand, went all soft and breathy on the verse, executed some divine high notes on the chorus and then finished with a gruff stankness that was nothing short of revelatory. In the process, the Season 11 dark horse breathed sexual, empowered fire into a 64-year-old classic — and made it sound not a day over 21.

1. Team Alicia: Wé McDonald — Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” defeats Courtnie Ramirez — Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” | I giggled a little when Alicia pointed out Wé’s name as one of her many competitive advantages — but in all seriousness, would you really be shocked to be downloading The Wé, The Truth and The Light next year, Where There’s a Will There’s a Wé in 2019 and the multiple Grammy-winning The Wé of the Master in 2020? The 17-year-old has a voice so deep and rich, it conjures up memories of Toni Childs and Abbey Lincoln, with just a touch of Macy Gray off-kilterness (though maybe it’s her squeaky speaking voice that’s causing that last comparison). I worried the demon-banishing “No More Drama” would be too tall a task for one so young, but as Wé ripped through the verse, her tone resonating like a brass section of an especially tight jazz ensemble, my doubts disappated. Sure, she didn’t really know where to end the performance, but that’s where Alicia can help. When Courtnie’s opening verse went askew — she’s one of those divas who struggles when she’s not belting full blast — the TKO was a foregone conclusion.

Individual Rankings Based on Knockout Round Performances
8. Riley Elmore – Michael Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet”
7. Josh Gallagher – Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria”
6. Sundance Head – Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb”
5. Simone Gundy – Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia”
4. Ali Caldwell – Sade’s “No Ordinary Love”
3. Jason Warrior – Luke James’ “I Want You”
2. Kylie Rothfield – Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”
1. We McDonald — Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama”

What did you think of Night 1 of The Voice Season 11 Knockouts? Who did you like best? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!

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