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16 Albums of 2016 Part 2 (#8-1)

Time for the rest of the list – here are my top 8 albums of 2016! If you haven’t yet seen my choices for #16-9, you can find Part 1 of my albums list here.

For the most part, you’ll have to find your own way to listen to the albums – most of them are available on all the major streaming services – but in case you’re new to the artist, I’ll post at least one video link from a track on the album. Enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or on twitter @DaniceCarlson. Happy Holidays!

#8  Telefone – NoName

telefoneMany of us Chance the Rapper fans have been following this long-time Chicago collaborator (formerly NoName Gypsy) for a while now, so when news came of her debut LP, it took me exactly zero minutes to download Telefone. And it’s even better than I imagined it could be. Not only does she show up with what she does best – a gentle flow of honest and poetic wordplay – but she brings in other Chicagoan artists, like Saba and Eryn Allen Kane, for some help with hooks. This album feels like a graceful and deeply mature version of adolescence, still holding on to childhood but constantly hit with daily doses of tragic reality, all in the localized context of her unsafe yet “happy” city of Chicago. My only complaint is that at 33 minutes Telefone is entirely too short, but I usually just end up listening to it twice in a row. It’s hard for me to pick a highlight, but if I had to I would say the tracks “Yesterday,” “Reality Check,” and “Shadow Man.” You can listen to the whole thing for free below via Soundcloud.

#7  ANTI – Rihanna

antiReleased in late January, this whole album was my jam for the first quarter of 2016. You could find me spouting comparisons to Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope over a beer on the regular. Rih Rih sets up her Anti-expectations album (her first for label, Roc Nation) with the very first chorus: “I got to do things my own way darling, will you ever let me, will you ever respect me? No.” And so she does things her own way, and it is as glorious as it is, at times, surprising. While she’s been showing her badassery for some time, ANTI expresses the whole gamut of emotions, including some Amy Winehouse-style vulnerability on “Love on the Brain.” As much as I still love watching what the Drake-featured song “Work” does to a Toronto dance party, my highlights from this record are “Needed Me,” and “Goodnight Gotham,” and the first track that I quoted above, the SZA assisted “Consideration.”

#6  22, A Million – Bon Iver

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Having fallen deeply in love with Bon Iver’s first two albums, I was nervous about 22, A Million – especially when they released the tracklist that featured a little more math than I feel comfortable with. It strays sonically from what I’ve come to expect from the band, but since my very first listen I’ve been absolutely mesmerized. Like Radiohead, what manages to remain in Bon Iver’s ever shifting and evolving music is an atmosphere that accesses emotional language beyond words. It seems that as Justin Vernon experiments more and more with heavily filtered and produced sounds, his own voice ironically becomes clearer and more easily understood. So although this album is more electronic and even, at times, robotic, the songs themselves never lose a sense of human intimacy… which is exactly why I would like to make another comparison to Radiohead, but I’ll let you make that connection on your own. The opening/title-ish track “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” seems especially relevant at the moment, and with a perfectly fitting sample taken from Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over,” it holds on to some hope at the beginning of the record. My other choice tracks include “8 (Circle),” – which sounds a bit more like something from their self-titled album – and “33 “God”,” which is embedded below in a video of the live release.

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Before moving on to the top 5, I just want to say that this is the most ridiculous top 5 I can ever remember. #5-2 were some of the hardest spots to settle on, and for a while I considered making a 4-way tie. Seriously, so good. Ok, now that you’re a bit more prepared for how great I think these albums are… on with the list!

#5  A Seat at the Table – Solange

seat-at-the-tableMusically, conceptually, and as a package, A Seat at the Table is flawless. The scaled back production leaves room for the light piano and nearly counter-melodic bass lines, creating what sounds like conversation between the instrumentation and Solange’s soft yet powerful vocals. I have trouble remembering a time when I so loved the use of interludes, in which she uses personal and generational voices (such as her parents, and No Limit label founder, Master P) to delve deeper into a broader experience of being black in America. Each interlude has echoes and hints of songs to come, allowing for smooth transitions between dialogue and melodies. Without question,  “Cranes in they Sky” and “Where Do We Go” are two of my favourite songs of not only the album, but the year. Solange sings of strategies and questions that are both timeless and particularly pertinent, and offers songs as signs of healing and possibility without an ounce of naiveté, making ASATT one of the most hopeful collections of the year.

#4  Coloring Book – Chance the Rapper

coloringbookIf you are not yet a Chance fan, I simply don’t know what to say to you. It seems like every time he puts out a new single, I forget about everything else that’s out there. His rhymes are clever and playful and full of joyful energy. Chance has managed to do what only Kanye has come close to doing – he has married hip hop and gospel music in a believable way that stops just short of preaching. Praising, sure, but it’s hard to sound judgmental when you take a “Smoke Break.” The Kanye and Kirk Franklin featuring opener, “All We Got,” is like part 2 of The Life of Pablo’s “Ultralight Beam,” similarly bringing the choirs together, literally and metaphorically, to begin the album. Sometimes I imagine it’s like the start of a hip hop pageant – you can hear a delightful chaos of all the participants warming up their instruments and finding their way to their rightful places in the church. Then suddenly, the album is off with a bang, and while it takes some time for wistful reflection (on “Summer friends”), it’s an animated celebration of life and creativity, bringing in a whole team Chicago collaborators, BJ the Chicago Kid, Jamila Woods, NoName, Saba, and even the Chicago Children’s Choir. He released one of my favourite tracks, “Angels,” early, and it made my songs list of 2015, so that is obviously still a highlight, but I would add “Same Drugs,” with its extended Peter Pan imagery around growing up and apart, and the closer, “Finish Line/Drown.” “How Great,” and even “Blessings,” are nearly too much for this semi-post-evangelical, but both tracks have verses that are pure FIRE. Oh, and “All Night” has been my favourite non-Beyoncé track to spin at any and every party I’ve thrown this year.

#3  HEAVN – Jamila Woods

heavnJamila Woods’ debut solo LP is phenomenal. Lyrically she shows off her skills as a poet and a spoken word artist, but the music never sounds like an afterthought. Woods defies genre, playing with folk, hip hop, hymns, r&b and lullabies to create a sense of childhood and nostalgia for everyone, even quoting Paula Cole’s Dawson Creek theme song on “Lonely, Lonely.” Like Solange’s ASATTHEAVN makes use of the interlude/skit in really effective ways; they mostly consist of black women leaving voice recordings talking about their experiences. One of these interludes describes how black children playing outside is proof of the resilience of black people, and it’s hard not to hear that as the underlying theme and image of the entirety of HEAVN. It seems so fitting that Woods played a grandmotherly voice on Chance’s “Sunday Candy,” because on every track she says pointed and difficult wise words like only a grandmother can get away with. Also, like Chance and NoName, Jamila is deeply rooted in the city of Chicago, and regularly reflects on how her hometown has shaped her, not willing to give up any memories, no matter how painful. Speaking of memories, there is plenty of tribute on HEAVN to black women who have already gone ahead, paving a path of resistance, resilience, and healing. Every song on this record is pure art, so I hesitate to name specifics lest you only listen to only one piece of the puzzle. Especially since you can stream or download the whole album for free from Soundcloud.

#2  Blonde – Frank Ocean

blondeLike most of Twitter, I was anticipating this record HARD. Blonde (spelled with masculine on the album cover and feminine in your digital music player) was the second album released in a matter of days, breaking his 4 year streak of silence. For those in need of refresher on the timeline, the visual album, Endless was released only for Apple Music first. It was relieving and beautiful, but when he surprised us with this second album, Blonde, it felt like summertime Christmas. Yet, while I’m happy to loudly defend any album on this list, I’d rather not talk about Blonde much at all, but just experience it alone, loudly over headphones. The album feels laced with subtle knowing glances and inside jokes, along with tornados of feelings and regrets. Frank manages to weave so many real-life tensions right in the music, as songs regularly referencing recreational drug use surround a lecture-interlude about the danger of drugs and alcohol, and descriptions of booty calls are directly before homages to Trayvon Martin – one of many young black men shot and killed by a cop. It’s these uneven, and at times, stream-of-consciousness transitions that make this album sound so very beautifully human. So many moments stop me in my tracks – “Pink & White,” “Nights,” “Solo,” and “Godspeed” are all regular reminders to keep your eyes open to the beauty and life around you, even in the pain and heartache. “Nikes,” is the only video released from this album so far, and just as a warning this is NSFW.

#1  Lemonade – Beyoncé

lemonadecoverTo some extent I feel sorry for every other album released this year, because Lemonade is so much more than album of the year. It has been nothing less than iconic. For the third time now, Beyoncé has made what I was certain was the defining album of career; first with 4, then in 2011 with her self-titled visual/audial masterpiece, and yet somehow she managed to outdo her only real competition – herself! – with this beautiful masterpiece. With Lemonade we have stories within stories. At surface level, it continues the ongoing drama of Bey’s personal life with husband Jay Z. “Is he cheating on me?” is the question posed early on, and the guiding emotion of the first half of the record. While on one level this is a story of reconciliation between two people, every song seems to beckon more characters in to the narrative using both lyrics and genre. By time time we reach “Daddy Lessons,” we’ve heard the expected pop and R&B with some hip-hop nods, as well as straight up rock-and-roll in “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” when all of a sudden we get a deep-fried, New Orleans style, country song that asks us to consider not only Bey’s relationship with her husband, but also her relationship with her father. Suddenly it’s no longer just about a celebrity power couple, but reaches beyond them to the socio-political importance of all relationships within every community. It’s about the hard emotional work that all mothers and wives inevitably do, and particularly the burden that black women carry for the people they love. It’s about listening to one another’s stories and holding each other up. It’s about doing the personal inner work in order to “get in formation” and stay ready for whatever comes your way. It’s about taking whatever random tart fruit you’re given and making the absolute best damn summer beverage you possibly can. Even more than that, it’s about not taking some white fangirl’s word for it and paying attention for yourself.

As many of you probably know (or could guess), I’ve been hosting mini “screenings” of Lemonade at my house about once a month since its release in May. I might get in trouble for making even a light comparison to The Holy Bible, but I think our reading of media like Lemonade is only made richer when we watch it with others. Each and every person I’ve watched the film with has provided new insights and questions. While I prefer to experience Blonde in private, it’s my belief that Lemonade is best when shared.

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As happy as I am with this list, I was forced to leave out some truly fantastic collections. Honourable mentions go to Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled, Unmastered, Anderson Paak’s Malibu, and Nao’s For All We Know. I’ve been also working on a list of 2016 songs that will purposely look at those not already featured on albums here, so check that out in about a week’s time. This year doesn’t seem to be getting any better, but I hope our collective reflecting and listening will prepare us for all the work left to do as we approach 2017.

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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:

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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?

*UPDATE:

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: The 80’s Era, Round 1

You still have a couple of days to submit your own final four predictions for the Diva Madness Tournament!  Just print the brackets below, fill out the winners, and post a photo of the filled in brackets to twitter @djwhysoserious #DivaBrackets.  Or you can also fill in this handy google doc.  Any brackets shared before March 1st that correctly predict the final four will be entered to win some TBD diva-related prize!

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Continuing the theme of a classic ballad, I should warn you that since we’re looking at the 80’s era, you are in for a healthy dose of synthesizer and sax solos.  Truth be told, quite a few of these divas continued to make names for themselves in the 90’s, but for the sake of this round we’ll attempt to remain in and experience the decade that brought them into the spotlight.

Madonna (1) vs. Grace Jones (16)

Although Madonna has the top spot in her era, some would argue whether she deserves the diva title.  Though she began her career relying heavily on her dance ability and stage presence, her role in Evita caused her to take her vocals seriously.  Now, three whole decades later, she has proven herself neither fraud nor fad, and is often crowned the Queen of Pop.  Keep in mind that the video below  is taken from her 1987 tour, but something tells me you’ll have no problem considering more of her career.  Grace Jones may not have the same level of recognition as her competition, but has been equally influential over more recent artists.  Her concerts and music videos read as performance art, and though they didn’t always translate to commercial popularity, there is no question that her voice is powerful, and her artistry was ahead of her time.

Paula Abdul (9) vs. Chaka Khan (8)

It is a little odd posting ballads from both of these women who are known for their pop and funk dance tracks.  I suppose you’ll have to vote for whoever you’d like to see compete with more upbeat music in the next round.  Many now know Paula Abdul by her judge responsibilities on American Idol, X Factor and SYTYCD, but her qualifications for those gigs are based on her incredible performing career. Though Chaka Khan’s musical career began as the front-woman for the funk band Rufus, she went solo in the 80’s, showing off her powerful and sultry voice and stretching the bounds of what could be popular in music.  Did you know that her 1984 hit, “I Feel For You,” is the first ever pop song to feature a rapper?  Groundbreaker.

Stevie Nicks (5) vs. Kylie Minogue (12)

Stevie Nicks is yet another example of someone who began their musical career in the 70’s singing in a group, but was included in the 80’s category based on her solo career.  Her success with Fleetwood Mac set the tone for her reception, having been heralded by Rolling Stone Magazine as the “Reigning Queen of Rock and Roll.”  Her deep contralto vocals and her fondness of white flowing fabric have caused some to wonder if she is a witch of some kind.  If she is, she certainly has a spell on me.  Australian diva Kylie Minogue disappeared for a long time after making it big with her 1987 hit, “The Locomotion.”  Actually, that’s not really true – for over a decade she was releasing singles in Australia and the UK that never seemed to make it to North America in significant ways.  But in 2001, when radios started “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” she suddenly flooded back into the American consciousness as a solid performer and diva.

Pat Benatar (13) vs. Gloria Estefan (4)

This may be the hardest decision for me in this bracket, because I love both of these women for such different reasons.  Pat Benatar still seems to me to be one of the most powerful woman in rock music history, for her sheer voice and persona.  Her songs continue to summon 80’s passion in a quintessential way, making her gritty yet classicly trained voice perfect for a retro film soundtrack.  Meanwhile, Gloria Estefan paved the way for Latin artists to cross over into American pop charts.  She became a staple at Superbowl and Olympic performances (before this year, she was the only woman to perform and multiple Superbowl halftime shows).  If Pat represents 80’s emotional rock, Gloria represents for me a joyful (and possibly naive) optimism.

Janet Jackson (3) vs. Sinead O’Connor (14)

I’m going to go ahead and be honest: I have no idea how to talk about the great Janet Jackson in a tiny paragraph such as this.  I will just point out that when it comes to dancing and singing at the same time, very few compare.  She is an absolute force to be reckoned with in this competition, and in pure reality.  Then again, so is Sinead.  Both of these 80’s superstars continue to make music today, and although they are not as popular, I get the feeling they are pleased with their art.  Sinead O’Connor is like Sia in the modern era bracket, more of an anti-diva, which makes her even cooler than your average diva.  She has risked and lost commercial success in order to stand up for her convictions, which in a backwards kind of way seems pretty freaking diva.  Not to mention that voice.

Annie Lennox (11) vs. Ann Wilson (6)

Annie Lennox made a name for herself as half of the synthpop duo Eurythmics, making her diva status known early on for having a rich, soulful alto voice, and pulling off amazing attitude with androgynous style.  Since moving on to a solo career, Annie has won the Brit award for Best female artist more than anyone else, and shows up in every list involving female vocalists I’ve ever seen.  Ann Wilson has also made a name for herself in a duo, as one half of the Wilson sisters in the huge 80’s band, Heart.  While Nancy played guitar and sang harmonies, it was Ann’s unique and dynamic lead vocals mixed with her phenomenal stage presence that thrust this Seattle band into massive commercial success.  And it doesn’t hurt that they continue to tour today with nearly as much energy as they had almost 40 years ago.

Cyndi Lauper (7) vs. Sade (10)

Cyndi Lauper started out as a mere pop star, but has grown to be so much more.  She is one Oscar away from having an EGOT, having received her Emmy from a guest appearance on the TV show, Mad About You, and a Tony for her score of the musical Kinky Boots.  She is known for her activism for the LGBT community, most recently with a focus on ending LGBT youth homelessness in the States.  When Sade first started releasing records, she’d print a clear pronunciation of her name on the cover, “Shar-day,” but that is hardly necessary now.  This London diva may only have a couple of Grammys, but along with her Brit award, she receives a ton of international acclaim, including a couple of Porin (Croatian music) awards.  Her breathy vocals are usually the sexiest thing on any playlist, and over the three decades of her career she’s been constantly touring, while regularly charting on UK and American billboards.

Debbie Gibson (15) vs. Whitney Houston (2)

It may have been a while since Debbie Gibson has had much of a spotlight, but in her day she dominated the charts and looked adorable doing it.  She paved the way for every young, cute pop star we’ve seen since, and you may think of that as a negative thing, but the truth is that Debbie could really sing – especially at age 16, when she got her first single, “Only In My Dreams,” a song she wrote herself.  Unfortunately however, she’s up against Whitney Houston, who in many ways embodies each and every possible definition of a diva.  The drama and addictions took her away from this world way too soon, and yet she still left us three solid decades of timeless music characterized by her powerful, clear, and effortless vocal quality.

Get yourselves prepared to vote on the 90’s bracket, although I can’t promise to have it up this weekend- check back early next week.  The Classic era is officially closed, but if you haven’t yet voted for the modern era divas, you still have a chance to make your opinions count.  May the best diva win!

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!

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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.