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Diva Madness Round 2: Classic Divas

All the first round polls have been closed and 32 Divas now remain.  For the rest of the week, I’ll be posing a a quadrant of 4 polls every day, so get your vote on, but don’t forget to come back and check on the rest of the brackets!  We’ll move chronologically through the eras this time, starting with the classic divas, who had the fewest upsets of Diva Madness so far.  Here are the updated (and embellished) brackets for those following along:

bracket (4)

Barbra Streisand (1) vs. Linda Ronstadt (9)

I doubt that anyone is shocked to see Babs continuing to hold her #1 seeded spot, although her competition with Gloria Gaynor did get pretty close at times.  We’re going to see this musical queen go up against the folk-country-rock goddess, Linda Ronstadt, who squeaked out the tightest win in this category against Dionne Warwick (a fact I haven’t yet made peace with personally).  The style of these two videos could not be more different, but I think they respectively represent the two divas’ strengths as performers.  Will you keep the country rocker or the musical songstress?

Aretha Franklin (5) vs. Tina Turner (4)

Well, that got real, and fast!  It was clear that both of these divas would make it to the second round, beating their competition with more than 70% of the votes.  But now we have a situation where both of these divas are favoured to win the whole competition, but only one can make it to the sweet 16.  Either way, this poll will break some hearts.  Since Dionne Warwick has already been eliminated, I feel better about sharing Aretha’s version of “I Say A Little Prayer,” because it is so wonderful.  As for Tina, this seems as good a time as any for some “Proud Mary”.  Oh yes, it is ON.

Cher (3) vs. Ella Fitzgerald (6)

Cher had a few close calls against Debbie Harry from Blondie, but here she is, ready to defend her diva-title as long as you’ll let her.  She certainly has the confidence and attitude to take her to the end, and she’s had to, having regularly carved out space for women in the male-dominated entertainment industry.  Meanwhile, shy Ella seems to transform into an extrovert every time she starts swinging, and “Mack the Knife” is easily one of my favourite performances of hers, showing off her ability to not only produce the beautiful clear tone she’s known for, but also produce a near perfect imitation of Louis Armstrong’s growl.

Janis Joplin (10) vs. Diana Ross (2)

Janis Joplin was the only real upset of the category, beating out disco queen Donna Summer with relative ease.  She has on her side raw emotional pain, and an early death.  She may not have any dance tracks, per se, but she could rock a stage like no one else.  Now she goes up against Diana Ross, who is hardly a lightweight in this competition, having the second most #1 billboard singles after Mariah Carey – that’s more than Madonna, Whitney, or Beyonce.  Can we also take a minute to appreciate the purple one-piece paired with a bright red boa in the video below?


Round 2 polls are now all open!  Go vote (links are below), and check back March 16th for Sweet 16!

Diva Madness Round 2: 1980s (Until midnight, Sun., March 13th)

Diva Madness Round 2: 1990s (Until midnight, Mon., March 14th)

Diva Madness Round 2: Modern Divas (Until midnight, Tues., March 15th)




Diva Madness: The 90’s!

The final group of first round match ups is from a kind of golden era for divas. Even the great divas of previous decades spent the 90s showing up on VH1 Specials or award shows to have an ultimate Alpha-Diva sing-off. It could be argued that before this decade, we had seen massive female superstars who could sing, but in the 90s, at the birth of the pop era, we had women of legendary status with control of their voices as well as over everything around them. In that golden 90s era, these 16 divas emerged as the young divas ready to take the baton from their older role models in their midst.

Mariah Carey (1) vs. Faith Evans (16)

Regardless of her era, Mariah has more #1 Billboard singles than any of these potential competitors – in fact she has more than any solo artist ever. She may be turning out fewer hits than in her earlier years, but this extraordinary voice has an ongoing show in Vegas, and a yearly Christmas special in NYC. And that 5 octave range is no joke.  Faith Evans is probably most known for singing hooks on Puff Daddy tracks or being married to Notorious B.I.G., but this gospel singer has a set of pipes and an attitude that are hard to beat.

Faith Hill (9) vs. Toni Braxton (8)

If you want an idea of the kind of power and popularity Faith Hill as a country singer had in the 90’s, think Carrie Underwood. She could sing, she was gorgeous, and yet had this sense of relateability about her.  Meanwhile Toni Braxton‘s life has had so much drama that they made a lifetime TV special based on her story.  Plus, no era is complete without a lower-than-average alto vocal that commands any audience with her regal presence, and without a doubt it was Toni in the 90s.  I’m not entirely sure what she’s up to now – maybe doing the casino tours – but I would be completely fine with a comeback album.

Mary J. Blige (5) vs. Erykah Badu (12)

This is one tough competition.  On the one hand, when we’re talking about the stage presence of a diva, Mary J. Blige is a textbook example.  From the moment she entered the realm of pop music, it felt like she had always been there; from the time she was brand new it felt like she was influencing everyone around her.  Meanwhile, nobody can touch the level of artistry that Erykah continues to bring to her performance.  She is a diva with attitude and the kind of unique voice that doesn’t need to be loud to express power.  As I am writing this, I have no idea who I will vote for.  So good luck to the rest of you.

Missy Elliott (13) vs. Jennifer Lopez (4)

Missy may be a rapper, but there is hardly any doubt that she has reached diva status in every other category, and really was the original rapping diva that made room for Nicki Minaj to occupy the the diva category.  In a lot of ways I see this as an incredibly fair match up, since both Missy and J.Lo began their careers as entertainers (J.Lo as a dancer or “fly girl” on “In Living Color”) though not necessarily vocalists.  Which makes it kind of cruel to have them compete with slower melodies live, but at least it’s not a strength for either of them.

Britney Spears (3) vs. Nelly Furtado (14)

Britney Spears might as well have ruled the 90s.  She may be only seeded third, but my bet is that when we think of this era, for better or worse, Britney is a bit of a summarization of 90s pop music.  She became the model for pop princesses: get a childhood gig, be sexualized way too early, crash and burn, and make your way slowly back into the music business.  Nellie Furtado has made some news with her recent butchering of the Canadian national anthem, but they say no publicity is bad publicity, and maybe it was just enough to remember how much we liked Nellie’s unique voice and blend of folk, pop and eventually hip hop.

Lauryn Hill (11) vs. Shania Twain (6)

So yes, this is an odd match up.  Lauryn Hill dominated with her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, after making a name for herself as the female third of The Fugees.  She has always been a diva with her mix of immaculate rap flow and soulful gospel vocal tone, but eventually she also took on the attitude and drama associated with the title.  Shania Twain has had some drama, but has been out of the spotlight for some time now.  In her golden era, Shania put Canada on the country music map, and continues to be one of the most international symbols of Canadian music and culture.  Seriously, she’s right up there with Bryan Adams.

Christina Aguilera (7) vs. Aaliyah (10)

With her regular gig on The Voice, Christina Aguilera has found a way to remain in our consciousness years after significant billboard success.  From the very beginning of her popularity, it was always her powerful vocal range and style that was singled out, usually in comparison to contemporaries like Britney Spears.  As crass as this sounds, Aaliyah has tragic death on her side.  We can only imagine what success Aaliyah might have seen if she had made it to her 23rd birthday, but considering that in her short 22 years she was named the Princess of R&B, I think we can guess a lot.  For the record, the Aaliyah video below should read 1997… it’s not some crazy post-humous hologram or anything.

Jill Scott (15) vs. Celine Dion (2)

Jill Scott still does not get enough press.  She may not have as much drama or flashy performance as some of the others on our list, but Jill Scott’s voice is one of pure tonality and power.  She is also a poet and a writer who puts 100% of her very soul into the songs she sings.  She likely ranks low because she tends to get billed as a jazz singer, a genre which has not gotten much commercial love in the past several decades.  Still, here she is, representing, though she is up against one of the biggest most dynamic and dramatic voices of the 90’s, Celine Dion.  This French Canadian is a highly technical singer who also manages to add flair and personality to everything she sings.  She is holding a residency at Vegas now, as many of the great divas have done, giving those prepared to make a pilgrimage a chance to hear her talent live.

That’s it for our 90s divas!  Watch out for round 2 early next week, where the remaining divas will be featured by up-tempo party-starting tracks.

Diva Madness: Modern Era, Round 1

Before you get down to business voting your favourite modern divas into the second round, please take a minute to download or print the brackets below and share your predictions for the final four (on twitter or Google Form)  by March 1st, 2016 for a chance to win a prize!


If you haven’t yet voted for the first round of Classic Era Divas, they are up and ready for you now.  And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s an intro to the March Diva Madness tournament!  Now that those details are out of the way, let’s make some hard choices about the best and most beloved divas.  Since these are divas who’ve made their success during the first era of social media, we’ll try to keep the ballad examples as intimate as possible, showing off the vocals more than other performance elements.  Let’s get to it!

Beyoncé (1) vs. Amy Winehouse (16)

Those of you who know that I devoted this tournament entirely to Beyoncé two years ago may assume this seed is biased.  However, Bey is tied with Diana Ross and Mariah Carey for second most top-10 billboard singles of all time, though she has only been charting since 1998 (with Destiny’s Child).  With every single or album she releases (with some of the most brilliant marketing plans seen in music), she continues to prove her diva status with both her increasing vocal abilities and the way she attracts or drama and controversy.  Speaking of drama, her rival is the only deceased diva on this particular bracket.  For her all-too-short career, Amy Winehouse in concert was often like Whitney or Lauryn at their worst.  But when she was on, it was clear that Amy had not only a unique sound, but also a deep connection with the soul she grew up on.

Carrie Underwood (9) vs. Kelly Clarkson (8)

Herein lies the battle of the idols.  After Kelly Clarkson was the first ever winner of American Idol, it was quite sometime before anyone challenged her success.  Even after Carrie Underwood started making albums, Clarkson was considered to have sold more records worldwide than all the other Idol contestants combined.  However, since Underwood’s most recent album, Storyteller, the two divas’ sales are pretty competitive, estimated in the 60-70 million range.  When Ryan Seacrest (host of American Idol) was asked only last month whom he considered to be the most successful idol of all time, without hesitation his answer was Carrie, who has also broken nearly every possible record in her category of female country artist.  Meanwhile, Clarkson has continued to out-chart Underwood in the top 40 category, giving her a higher seed by a fraction of a score.

Katy Perry (5) vs. Nicki Minaj (12)

Katy Perry is a single-making machine.  Although she doesn’t have as many top 10’s as the top seeded divas in this bracket, she is tied with Beyoncé for 8 #1’s on Billboard’s 100.  She is known for her over-the-top live shows, including her 2015 Superbowl Halftime performance when she rode in on gigantic animatronic horse.  Nicki Minaj is known for her over-the-top performances too, but she tends to rely more on her massive Barbie-influenced persona than tricks and technology.  Although there are not many other rappers in this competition, I’ve found few disputes when it comes to Nicki’s inclusion.  Recently I asked an 11-year-old whom she thought was a prime example of a diva, and without thinking she answered “Nicki.”  Proof.

Florence Welch (13) vs. Lady Gaga (4)

The lead singer of Florence and the Machine is known for her unique and characteristic vibrato, and songs that allow her to build dynamically until she belts from her mid-range with all the power and soul of the greatest rock singers of the past.  While she may not receive royal status (yet), there does tend to be an other-worldliness about her stage presence.  Speaking of other-worldliness, Lady Gaga has been the standard by which we measure all pop gimmick.  However, don’t let Gaga’s antics distract you from the fact that Stephani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) can sing.  At 17, she was one of few select students to gain early admission to the renowned musical theater program CAP21, and more recently she has been showing off her ability to perform jazz standards with Tony Bennett.

Shakira (3) vs. Jennifer Hudson (14)

While Shakira hasn’t found nearly as much success on Billboard’s Hot 100 as many of the divas from her era, this Columbian belly dancer is especially known for her international acclaim.  She has broken nearly every record for a Latin recording artist to break on American charts, making her arguably the most successful Latin artist of all time.  In English she is mostly known for her hip-shaking dance tracks, so for a ballad example, it’s best to hear her in Spanish.  Jennifer Hudson made a name for herself as a vocalist to take seriously shortly after her run on American Idol, when she starred in Dream Girls as “the one who out-sang Beyoncé.”  She has been through the ringer but refuses to give up.  Although she has had limited success in pop radio, I am predicting this to be JHUD’s time to really shine.

Alicia Keys (11) vs. Adele (6)

I don’t know what Alicia Keys has been up to lately, but every diva has her own rhythm of popularity, and although her last album was not as successful, she’s charted most recently with The Hunger Games’ big theme, “Girl On Fire”.  Now that she’s a mom, it might just be the norm for her to take a few more years between each project, but that hardly takes away from her repeated appearance on pop, r&b, and hip hop charts.  Adele would have made this list before 25 and her huge ballad of 2015, “Hello,” pushed her over the 100 million sales mark, but she certainly would not have been seeded quite so high.  This year she embarks on her first tour since 2011 which will certainly continue to solidify her superstar diva status.

P!nk (7) vs. Miley Cyrus (10)

Although P!nk hasn’t had the same level of success on the pop charts, she not only has a powerful diva-worthy voice with an edge of attitude, but she’s a performer who has no physical boundaries with what she’s willing to do.  Whether she is swinging on fabric from the roofs of stadium venues, or whether she is mastering powerful and violent choreography to dance while singing at the top of her lungs, P!nk has made it look effortless.  I have no doubt that some will call into question Miley Cyrus’ presence on this list, but regardless of what you think of her personality or performance style, this girl was born and raised as a phenomenal power country vocalist.  She is the youngest person on this list for a reason, and whether they pay for her voice or to see what she’ll do next, she sells a heck of a lot of concert tickets.

Sia (15) vs. Rihanna (2)

In some ways, Sia is an anti-diva.  She has said that her wigs and other strategies of hiding her face are intended to keep some level of mystery and privacy for herself.  Though she has had success as a songwriter writing songs for many other artists (including the diva she is up against in this round), there are few singers who can perform her songs with the technical ability they require.  Meanwhile, Rihanna has the most #1 songs of any other woman from this era, and has been incredibly prolific in both recording and performing.  Her most recent album, ANTI, is a departure from her dance floor anthems, but seems to be a statement about making the music she wants to make right now, reminding me of Janet’s The Velvet Rope – no small comparison from this unabashedly massive Janet fan.

Don’t forget to vote for the Classic Era Divas, and watch out for more brackets at the end of the week!

Diva Madness: Classic Era Round 1

The time has come for voicing your opinions in another epic bracket tournament, this time between the beloved Divas of our pop music world.  For a longer description of how these particular 64 divas were chosen and seeded, check this out.  A link for the printable brackets is in the image below – make sure to download a copy and play along at home.  If you send me your final four selections (either filling out this nifty Google Form or by tweeting a pic of your brackets to me @djwhysoserious before March 1st), correct predictions will be entered to win a TBD gift-prize!


Ok, now with those details aside, let’s get this tournament happening already!  It’s time to make our hard choices about which Classic Era Divas get to progress to the next round – and to help us decide, I’ll pick a ballad for each diva to show off their chops for us.

Barbra Streisand (1) vs. Gloria Gaynor (16)

First up we have our top seed of the classic era, Barbra Streisand (henceforth known as Babs) going up against disco sensation Gloria Gaynor.  In terms of Diva status, both of these ladies did their share in defining the term, one in the world of musical theatre, the other in the clubs.  Babs’ career has spanned 6 decades (!), and she is one of only 16 performers to have won an EGOT.  Gloria’s career may only span 4 decades, but she has arguably the most timeless breakup song ever, “I Will Survive”.  For comparison purposes, we’ll hear Babs sing the iconic “People,” (from Funny Girl), and Gloria on one of her few ballads, “I Never Knew” from 2004.

Of course your votes do not need to be restricted to these two performances, but instead should take in to account all that you know and love about these women, their music, and their diva-like attributes.  Who will survive?

Linda Ronstadt (9) vs. Dionne Warwick (8)

Although she was the most successful female artist of the 1970’s, Linda Ronstadt is rarely a name I come across anymore.  She is known for re-popularizing tunes with covers, breathing life and energy into songs that otherwise might have been forgotten, something that only a diva can truly get away with.  Dionne Warwick is another diva who rarely gets the recognition she deserves, even though she is the second (to Aretha Franklin) most charted women in billboard history.  Even into her seventies, she carries herself with an attitude and grace that proves her diva-worthiness over and over again.  She may be known for “That’s What Friends Are For,” and “Walk On By,” but I’ve chosen her original “I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” to show off her effortless vocal power.  For Linda, I’ve chosen “Long Long Time” to give some evidence of why Time Magazine described her as “Torch Rock”.

Remember, vote for the diva, not necessarily my song choice.  😉

Aretha Franklin (5) vs. Billie Holiday (12)

Yes, this tournament is going to get ugly right away.  I’ve already mentioned that Aretha is Billboard’s most charted female artist, which speaks to both her prolificacy and her longevity, having charted as early as 1961 and as recently as 2014 (with her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”).  On top of numerous awards, Rolling Stone Magazine has called her the Greatest Singer of All Time.  Then again, what do they know if they make such a list without including Billie Holiday, a force of expression who broke and rewrote every rule for jazz vocalists and performers?  It’s hardly any doubt that the majority of singers that did make the list took their cues and inspiration from this lady right here.  Billie may easily be the original diva, with attitude and drama dripping from every performance and recording.  To show off these matriarchs of soul, I’ve chosen a couple of their earliest, career-creating songs.

Judy Garland (13) vs. Tina Turner (4)

This is the oddest match up of this bracket, and because of very different fanbases, I have no idea how this one will end.  The similarities are there: both women seem most comfortable on stage, and are classic examples of what they do best, whether it’s singing like a Hollywood angel in Judy’s case, or infusing a performance with as much personality and energy as we’ve all come to expect from Tina.  Each of these divas has had to repeatedly overcome personal drama in many forms, refusing to let it define their careers.

Cher (3) vs. Debbie Harry (14)

Cher just may be the original pop chameleon, reinventing her image and style for each decade she went on to dominate.  Though she began her career primarily as an entertainer, Cher worked hard to improve and strengthen her vocals, and released some solid ballads along with her dance tunes to prove she could play the diva game and stand out, with her contralto range and personality for days.  Debbie Harry is not only a punk icon, as one of the most successful women in rock music, but she also stands as a symbol of female beauty, talent and badassery.

Neither of these ladies are known for their ballads, but that’s what you’re going to get for this round.

Dolly Parton (11) vs. Ella Fitzgerald (6)

These may be the two least drama-driven women in this bracket.  Dolly Parton is one of very few child stars to make it through adolescence without addiction or major crisis.  She is still with the same man she married in 1966, and has for decades seemed to be the one solid rock in a host of emotionally extreme divas.  However, this rock is also a star performer with a personality to match her ample bosom and massive hairdo, and she is the most awarded woman in the history of country music.  Ella Fitzgerald didn’t start her life drama free, having regularly been homeless after running away from an abusive stepfather and multiple orphanages.  But it seemed the First Lady of Song found her home in singing jazz standards with an unmatched clear tone and an ear for improvising.  Though she was reportedly quite shy in person, her stage presence was another story.

Donna Summer (7) vs. Janis Joplin (10)

These two divas have been regularly crowned “Queen” of their genres, disco and psychedelic rock respectively.  Donna Summer began her career in musical theatre, but rose in popularity with her hit “Love to Love You Baby,” a song so popular in clubs that she recorded a 17-minute version so they wouldn’t need to play it on repeat.  A live version of the sexy song is below, since even her ballad songs eventually turn into a full-on disco dance party anyway.  Janis Joplin has plenty of solid blues tracks perfect for feeling and grieving, although she isn’t so much showing off her voice as she is her very soul.  Unfortunately for all of us, her potential for longevity was cut short by a heroin overdose, which ended her life before she reached 30.

Patti LaBelle (15) vs. Diana Ross (2)

Nothing like the Godmother of Soul and the Queen of Motown facing off.  I doubt I need to say much in terms of justifying either of these women’s diva-status.  While Patti LaBelle is known for her powerful voice (which allegedly spans 5 octaves), Diana Ross has often been accused of her fame being more reliant on her performance (which probably says more about her stage presence than it does about her voice).  Whatever you see as Diana’s strengths, they’re strong enough for Billboard to call her the “Female Entertainer of the Century,” and for her to be arguably the best charted woman worldwide.

And the Winner is… O Brother Where Art Thou, 2000

OBro Perform

Congratulations to all who voted for O Brother, Where Art Thou, making it OnRecords’ most favourite soundtrack ever!

Probably my favourite fun fact about this winning soundtrack is that its recording actually began before filming the motion picture.  This probably helps explain my decision to place it in the “Musicals” category, even though it was one of the few that haven’t been turned into a Broadway show (it’ll probably happen eventually though, right?).

So much more than a great soundtrack, O Brother has become like a curator, introducing many to early American folk music.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the film is credited with the rise in popularity of folk instruments in the past 15 years, as well as successful bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers and The Avett Brothers.  But I digress.

When we press play on this album, it begins with a loud crackling noise – the sound of a log being chopped – which becomes the downbeat for “Po’ Lazarus”, the work-song recorded by Mississippi prisoners in 1959.  This track accompanies one of the coolest stories behind this album: former inmate James Carter (who is credited as the lead vocal on the song) was presented with a cheque for $20,000 and when the soundtrack was nominated for a few Grammys, he attended the award ceremony in 2002, one year before his death.

The next track, Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain”, is the only other compiled and pre-recorded song on the album.  Since its recording in 1928 this song has been covered by many and even cleaned up for children a few times. But luckily we get the uncensored hobo’s paradise, complete with “lakes of Whiskey” and “cigarette trees”.  It really sets the tone, for the rest of this old-timey soundtrack..

The rest of the tracks are a collection of traditional folk tunes brilliantly chosen by T Bone Burnett and re-recorded by a variety of country, bluegrass, and blues musicians.  First up is Norman Blake’s rendition of the classic “You Are My Sunshine”, beginning with the saddest verse to temper the mostly light and sweet melody.

“Down to the River to Pray” is the first of a few to feature the crystal clear, angelic voice of Alison Krauss.  It also happens to accompany one of my favourite moments in the film, when Delmar gets himself baptized:

Next up is the radio version of the plot-central track, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, which will show up a few more times before the album is done.  This particular version (with lead vocals by Union Station’s own Dan Tyminski) is stripped down to vocals and acoustic guitar, reflecting how the recorded it in the film.  The country music is broken up a bit with “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” by ever-smooth bluesman Chris Thomas King before launching back into “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, this time as an instrumental acoustic guitar solo.

After the perky “Keep on the Sunny Side”, Alison Krauss returns, first with one other female bluegrass legend, and then with two: Gillian Welch joins her on the theologically-problematic but emotion-lifting funeral favourite, “I’ll Fly Away”, before Emmylou Harris joins both women to complete the country vocal trifecta on the dirge-like lullaby, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”.

Cutesy and chipmunk-y, “In The Highways”, is followed by what is possibly my favourite track on the album, from the Cox Family, “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)”.  Then, another instrumental of “Man of Constant Sorrow”, this time on violin, sets us up for Ralph Stanley’s haunting a cappella rendition of “O Death”.

The fictional singing group of the film, The Soggy Bottom Boys, return for an encore, and give us “In The Jailhouse Now,” as well as a full band version of our favourite theme song, which has an official music video that acts a bit like a film trailer/summary.  Good luck not watching the movie after this.

The album closes out with two traditional folk tunes, first an a cappella and bass-heavy “Lonesome Valley”, and second, the Stanley Brothers’ old-time-country, mandolin accompanied “Angel Band”.  There doesn’t seem to be a great way to finish off this throwback to old school American music, so the soundtrack ends there, not with a memorable moment from the film, but with a simple gospel folk tune about preparing for one’s death.

I think O Brother is such a clear favourite because it is not only a great collection of nostalgic tracks or a memorable keepsake from a great film, but because of the way the music transports us to a different time and place, covers a lifetime of emotional highs and lows, and if we’re lucky, we return to our own world with a new perspective.  With or without the visuals of the movie.

…But if you haven’t yet, you should probably still see the movie.