1 Whitney Houston vs. 16 Rob Halford
Whitney came with her A game, demonstrating effortless range and never missing a note. Sometimes a big favorite comes out flat, but not here. Just over the top domination. Halford impressively stuck with his game, and executed it perfectly. But his game just doesn’t work for this song. Whitney advances easily.
4 Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles vs. 13 Phil Wickham
Here in this matchup, we have a severe contrast in styles. The Benedictines…wow. Pure, real, such a contrast to the often overproduced music today. It sounds almost as if someone put out a cheap tape recorder in a cathedral and pushed “record” while they sang. My good friend Laura Schmidt Roberts used to say, describing singers like this, that it’s as if “the sound is just coming out of the top of their heads.” Phil Wickham brings creative, beautiful musical additions to this classic. I really should have seeded him higher. But Phil’s voice is not my favorite, and he gets bested by the nuns.
8 Sufjan Stevens vs. 9 David Crowder Band
As my brain was being formed in my teenage years, it was exposed to copious amounts of hard rock and hair bands and even stuff bordering on (but not really true) metal. My older, more musically educated brain loved Sufjan…this arrangement is like a couple of Appalachians musicians go to a Renaissance Fair. Rich! I loved it. Even as I was listening to the first few minutes of David Crowder band, I was convinced Sufjan would have the win. But then Crowder brought in distortion, and like a Pavlovian dog, I reverted to my primitive brain. David Crowder Band for the minor upset.
5 The Civil Wars vs. 12 Sixpence None the Richer
You know what this reminded me of? Those epic battles between teacher and pupil, where the pupil definitively says, “I now define this genre.” The Civil Wars arrangement is simple, but engaging; haunting and beautiful. A statement win.
6 Steven Curtis Chapman vs. 11 Punch Brothers
It was 1995. Young parents, big glasses, Natalie almost 18 months old. We were spending the first Christmas in our first true house, and Steven Curtis Chapman released “The Music of Christmas”. That CD spun in our little black boom box endlessly, the soundtrack for that season…and each one since. It’s a bold move to change the melody of this song, but it largely works, and as I listened again today, I could see our 1995 Christmas tree in the bay window and my first baby girl in her little Christmas dress, and I thought it was over.
But then at the first sound of the cello on the Punch Brothers, I woke up. And they got me. Something always changes in their arrangement, keeping my interest. I ended up buying it on iTunes because I want this in my Christmas playlist. Punch Brothers gets the first significant upset of the bracket. Let me tell you, though, I gave a standing “O” and a long clap, with a tear streaming down my cheek, for good old SC2 as he left the court.
3 The Piano Guys vs. 14 Future of Forestry
The Piano Guys win because of the cello. Which honestly makes me wonder, given the inherent contradiction with their name, whether I should disqualify them. But they win.
7 Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Philharmonic vs. 10 Branches
I hadn’t realized until I listened in full to all these match ups how much I pitted drastically different styles against one another. This one pits classic, orchestral majesty against indie folk freshness. I honestly hated having to send one of these home. But that’s what the madness is all about, battling it out to find a winner. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Philharmonic survive and advance.
2 Pentatonix vs. 15 Peter, Paul and Mary
The biggest surprise for me in this whole endeavor has been the groundswell of support from all over the place for 15 seed Peter, Paul and Mary. In sports, we talk about the West Coast bias, that anyone east of the Mississippi really pays no attention at all to what goes on here in the west. Evidently I have a folk music bias. Never in my life have I heard this version of this song, yet for so many this was as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus. Or even Jesus.
I want you to know I did all I could to give the underdog the best possible chance to succeed. In a silent house, I got comfortable and turned it up loud. They got to go first. I listened attentively, trying to find the magic.
But come on, if I didn’t let my own nostalgia advance Steven Curtis Chapman, I certainly am not going to let others’ nostalgia win here.
Pentatonix does wonders with this song. They bring freshness, energy, movement…but they keep the haunting beauty of the original. The only misstep is the very high “oohs” at the end. In this first round, that’s just nitpicking a favorite. But in later rounds, this may come back to bite them…
So here we have the updated bracket after round 1:
I’d encourage you to go here to vote for the second round matchups. It’s just like real march madness. You know Duke is a way better team than Virginia Commonwealth, but Duke isn’t there anymore and you have to decide who you believe will win the match put before you.