If it wasn't already patently obvious that this season of "The Voice" has brought us the best crop of singers yet, it certainly was on Monday night, when the Top 8 took the stage in hopes of making it through to the semifinals. Only five singers will advance, and three (count 'em!) singers will go home this week. With several singers setting the bar higher than ever, it's going to be one heck of a brutal cut.
The evening brought news that the show had passed the 20-million download mark on iTunes overall; Nick Jonas singing "Jealous" and generously sharing the spotlight with "The Voice" Top 8 and a gospel choir; a swaggery, self-promotional video message from Usher that seemed out of step with this season's kinder, gentler mood; and Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams lighting up the stage (kinda literally) with an outlandish production of their new collaboration "Spark the Fire," featuring flying emojis, splashy animation, sparklers and no shortage of cut-outs of the rookie coaches' faces.
It also brought us these Top 8 performances:
Ryan Sill (Team Gwen): Repeatedly rescued from the bottom three by the Twitter instant save, Sill is probably a goner no matter what happens this week. If he does go home, he'll do it on a high note. His performance of Journey's "Open Arms" – with faux trees and fog machines setting a misty mood -- was definitely his best to date, showing his power and range as well as a new commitment to lyric. Adam Levine said he'd "killed it." Blake Shelton marveled at the emotion. Williams noted his progress. Stefani gushed about how far Sill had come, saying she'd had tears in her eyes. And no, she presumably didn't just mean from the stage smoke.
Craig Wayne Boyd (Team Blake): Shelton told Boyd that, after a series of strong performances, it was his game to lose. Was he right? Boyd has a lot of stellar competition, but as the only country singer still in the running, he certainly has a pretty solid shot at it. Tackling the Eagles' "Take It Easy," which has brought crossover appeal, certainly seemed like a canny move. And while Shelton worried that Boyd, who said he'd performed the song "10,000 times … in every roadside honkeytonk across America," wouldn't make the song sound fresh and interesting, he needn't have been concerned. Boyd looked like he was having more fun than ever on that stage, singing under a string of "barn-dance" lights, showing a greater lightness of spirit than he has in the past. Williams called it "amazing." Stefani said she felt like she was "at the Country Music Awards." Levine dubbed Boyd's sense of fun and irreverence "cool." And Shelton said he felt like Boyd had taken us all to a honky tonk.
DaNica Shirey (Team Pharrell): Williams hoped to showcase Shirey's insanely potent vocals by assigning her Heart's "These Dreams," a song she approached with some trepidation, saying it was outside her "wheelhouse." As Levine has repeatedly noted, Shirey is so good she could sing the phone book and give an ovation-worthy performance, and that may be what she proved here. Her clear voice rose above an overly elaborate production that included an all-female string section (that part was cool) and marooned her halfway up (or down) a gilded staircase with flowing hair and a long train that made her look like a Disney princess. Stefani said the song choice showed off how "acrobatic" her voice is. Levine admired her ability to sing while perched up high, noting that he himself is "afraid of heights." Shelton noted that, while Shirey herself is "little," her "voice is enormous" with "so much strength and accuracy." Williams said the performance "could not have been any better."
Damien (Team Adam): The emotional TSA agent sought to prove that it is not always a bad idea for contestants on singing shows to tackle Adele songs, lending his glittery voice and eyes and crystal-clear diction to the megahit "Someone Like You." I was a little distracted by the blinking lampshades behind him (Why? Was there a metaphor there?), but the coaches were right there with him. They rose in unison to give him a standing ovation. Shelton, reiterating his assertion that this season's singers were the best ever, told Damien, "I would swear you were a machine if you didn't have so much passion and soul to go along with how perfect that performance was." Williams said it was Damien "just so crazy … how effortlessly" Damien painted "the air with those notes." Stefani called it "beautiful" and Levine contended it was Damien's "best, best, best performance."
Chris Jamison (Team Adam): Having this cute, fresh-faced college kid tackle Marvin Gaye's super-steamy, ultra-explicit "Sexual Healing" might not have seemed like a good idea initially, but by the end – Gwen Stefani's alarmed face notwithstanding – it seemed like kind of a genius move on Levine's part. Jamison just owned his youthfully smooth sex appeal, and showcased his confident, lithe vocals as well. Williams said it was "hands down" Jamison's best performance. Stefani was left still stammering about the "outrageous" lyrics. Levine compared Jamison to Luke Skywalker and himself to a "younger" Obi-Wan Kenobi. "My friend, that is one of the hardest tasks," he told Jamison. "Marvin Gaye is not something you play around with. And you did it with so much love and so much respect and you just crushed this entire audience."
Luke Wade (Team Pharrell): Wade survived a flubbed performance a couple of weeks ago and subsequently bounced back, seeming strong as ever. This week, though, may have spelled his doom. His rendition of Simply Red's "Holding Back the Years" lacked urgency, passion and didn't do much to showcase Wade's wonderfully gritty tone. The singer seemed to be holding back. When he asked the audience to sing along with him, it seemed less like a way to pump them up as an appeal for help. Levine found the performance lacking in "fire." Shelton called it "a lot of sparse singing," adding that Wade hadn't really sunk his teeth into it and cut loose. Williams tried to give it a positive spin, saying that Wade was great even when he wasn't doing his best, then expressing a wan hope that he'd be able to continue to work with Wade. "We have so much more we can do," he said.
Taylor John Williams (Team Gwen): Stefani's hat-wearing pop-folk singer again showed his artistic determination, slinky vibe and seriousness of purpose, remaking Lorde's "Royals" into his own brand of social commentary about the haves and have-nots. It worked. Shelton said he respected Williams for making songs his own and being "150% pure artist." Pharrell called Williams a hippy with an "old soul" and declared himself to be a "superfan." And Stefani said she was "just gliding" on Williams' "vision for himself," declaring the performance to have been "amazing."
Matt McAndrew (Team Adam): Levine told McAndrew that getting the rights to Damien Rice's "The Blower's Daughter" was "the win of all wins" because it "makes everyone want to cry." McAndrew's stripped-down performance of the song was – especially after all the stage-production pageantry of the performances that preceded him – riveting, and really rather exquisite. Shelton called it "freaking brilliant." Levine got lyrical: "Love is this crazy thing and it's beautiful and blissful and happy and wonderful, but it's also brutal and painful and excruciating at times," he said in the show's last seconds. "And when you can embody and exude that as an artist and show people that, that, to me, is the most valuable thing, and I am so proud that you are doing that on this show."