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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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16 Albums of 2016 Part 1 (#16-9)

Even before we knew 2016 would be the tragic and eventful year it was already one of pointed artistic and musical responses. Police brutality and racial injustice are nothing new, but our consciousness and ability to talk about it has both increased and escalated to a new level of conflict, especially in light of the campaign for the USA’s now president-elect. And as the whole world seems to be choosing hatred and discrimination over care for our planet, we’ve lost an especially high number of inspirational icons and artists. For many of us, the music of this year has produced the only visible (audible) glimmer of light in the midst of many seemingly hopeless unknowns.

A couple notes to get us started – this is the first year I’ve had such an early deadline for songs/albums I’m considering. While in years past I would include an album dropped in late December, this year I’m only considering complete LPs released between January 1st and December 1st. That way I can write this blog with a little less stress about giving enough of a listen to some hot LP dropped yesterday. I’ve also decided to break this list into two parts to make it a little more manageable. And with all of that out of the way, here are the first 8 of 16 albums that have helped lead me through the processes of grief, celebration, protest, and deep thinking in 2016.

#16  The Suffers – The Suffers

suffersEasily one of my favourite new bands this year, The Suffers’ debut LP is bright, energetic, soulful, and there’s not a single dud on it. Whether you have the chance to see them live, or just blast the album over speakers in your living room, every member and section commands your attention without competing for it. Their lead woman, Kam Franklin, has so much charisma and attitude, matched only by her blaring horn section. Nearly. Oh hey, and three of my stand-out tracks happen to be what they perform for their smile-inducing Tiny Desk Concert! …But also check out “Make Some Room” and the rest of the album while you’re at it.

#15  Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

moonshapedpoolAlthough I had a lot of anticipation around the release of Radiohead’s latest LP, it took a few listens for me to really fall in love. With every record they release, Radiohead manages to play with such different sounds and yet always create similar deeply moving melodies and soundscapes. Along with many electronic tools and effects, Moon Shaped Pool plays with a much richer orchestral instrumentation than their last several records. But ultimately what convinced me was Yorke’s own voice, consistently dripping with emotional honesty whether I understand his words or not. Album highlights are “Burn the Witch,” “Glass Eyes,” and the last two songs on the album, “Present Tense,” (which is embedded below) and “True Love Waits.”

#14  Love Letter For Fire – Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop

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A strong recommendation for anyone who loves The Civil Wars, since Love Letter for Fire is a collection of duets by two incredibly creative, talented, and often solo-performing songwriters. I’ve wanted Sam Beam of Iron & Wine to record more collaborations ever since first seeing him perform with his sister harmonizing at Sasquatch ten years ago, and this record is the answer to that prayer. Jesca Hoop is a new voice to me, but I especially enjoy her sense of humour and quirkiness when paired with often musically melancholic Beam. They balance each other out while adding layers of both harmony and depth to one another’s songwriting. As much as I like their work separately, this collaborative album seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. I particularly like “Know the Wild that Wants You,” “Soft Place to Land,” and the rather odd “Chalk it up to Chi.”

#13  Black America Again – Common

common-baaThere is rarely a Common record that I don’t love – I’m a sucker for his articulation and enunciation, not to mention his lyrical consciousness. But this is far from a favourite-rapper nod. The more I listen to Black America Again, the more I’m convinced it’s Common’s best work since the 90s, finding that perfect balance of sharp and smooth – angry as hell and calm as dawn – as he describes not only what is wrong with America, but also his hopeful imaginings for a way forward. On top of all of that, the list of features is stacked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bilal, Syd (from The Internet and Odd Future), BJ the Chicago Kid, and John Legend. My personal highlights are the title track, “Pyramids,” and the chilling closer, “Letter to the Free.”

#12  Chaleur Humaine – Christine and the Queens

chaleurhumaine

I was listening to this album all year without realizing it could be a contender for this list. Héloïse Letisser (aka Christine) re-released her 2014 album for the Anglophone world in February of this year and has been picking up some serious interest outside of France ever since. On one level, this is creative work around gender, sexuality, and identity, while on another, it’s a collection super poppy synth beats that manage to both excite and relax. The moments that especially stand out for me include her take on Kanye’s “Heartless” in “Paradis Perdus,” as well as “Tilted,” and “Night 52.”  Oh yes, and her music videos are almost as cool as her live performances.

#11  Love You To Death – Tegan and Sara

love-you-to-deathThe Canadian twin duo’s 8th album was never going to be the year’s most important album, but it might be the happiest, which is an impressive title given how much of it explores difficult confession, breakups, and regrets. I think Love You to Death is so satisfying for me because it sounds like the album I wanted in Heartthrob. Their journey into synth-pop feels right and complete, and yet they’ve managed to maintain the emotional honesty that made their earlier albums so effective. The whole record is super accessible, but my favourite moments include “That Girl,” “Dying to Know,” “100x” and “BWU.”

#10  We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service – A Tribe Called Quest

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The reunion album that no one knew whether they should hope for – especially in the wake of Phife Dawg’s death in March – was released in two perfect volumes and is exactly what our imaginations promised and more. It has everything we’d expect – jazzy hip hop, Q Tip’s classic lyrical flow and Phife’s playful energy, a mix of unexpected samples with live instrumentals, and deep exploration of racism and political corruption in America and worldwide. The timing of this record is creepy, having been primarily recorded early this year but seemingly tailor-made for the post-election experience. The featured verses on this album feel both nostalgic, with old friends such as Busta Rhymes and Consequence, and poetic, with new(er) heavy-hitting friends such as Kendrick Lamar, André 3000, and Kanye West. 18 years was a long time, but it was worth the wait. Literally every song is a highlight.

 #9  Blackstar – David Bowie

blackstarThe year of 2016 basically began with the bad news of Bowie’s liver cancer and death, which brought with it the release of his own personal epitaph. The entire collection is an appropriately dark and eerie prodding lament. There is a deep sense of importance – like we’ve been given this brief but valuable glimpse into the mortality of a legend. Actually, exactly like that. I wouldn’t call this record fun or even enjoyable, but there is mysterious beauty in the jazz inspired arrangements, and David’s own deeply exhausted voice. The title track and “Lazarus,” are the two songs that haunt me most from this album.

That’s it for the moment! Now it’s time to lean into the spirit of advent, and wait for a week to check back to see my top 8 albums of the year!

 

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: 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!

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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!

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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.