A high-stakes contest with no second chances got underway Monday night on "The Voice," and with the night's final pairing came a vocal duel two coaches agreed was the best knockout round yet.
Teams Adam and Shakira were slashed by half Monday night, with four of each team's members unceremoniously bid adieu. But among those sticking around were a few unexpected, and understated, dark horses in a tough race.
When Monday night began, with eight teammates on each team, both Adam and Shakira paired two of their teammates in a sudden-death face-off to determine who would stick around for next week's live performances.
The coaches matched their teammates, but the contestants themselves picked their songs. That made for a make-or-break choice for the singing hopefuls and, later, a make-or-break choice for the coaches.
Adam began his team's knockout round with a pairing of two very different artists — earnest country upstart Amber Carrington and quirky indie-pop duo Midas Whale.
Amber tackled the Avril Lavigne torch song "I'm with You," choosing it for what it meant to her in light of her mother's death. It was a tough song, but Adam believed she could handle it. "She just needs to stay calm," he said. He also praised Midas Whale's decision to sing Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," saying, "it's very different for them."
In the end, Midas Whale's brave decision to venture beyond their usual sound and go for a more serious song couldn't stack up with Amber's unstoppable, emotive vocals — and she won the round.
Next up were two very different members of Team Shakira: Garrett Gardner, the gravelly-voiced teen who returned triumphant after a letdown at blind auditions last season, paired with sassy country singer Tawnya Reynolds. He chose the Alex Clare song "Too Close," accompanying himself on guitar, and she chose "Hell on Heels" by the Pistol Annies (a band featuring one Miranda Lambert, aka Blake's wife).
After their performances, Shakira praised how far Garrett had progressed and how expressive his singing. She chose him as the winner and her remaining teammate.
Next up for Team Adam was a pairing that was, unbeknownst to him, a personal one: good friends Amy Whitcomb and coffeehouse singer Caroline Glaser. Amy had some pitch issues on "House of the Rising Sun" in rehearsals, while Caroline seemed hesitant when she performed the Of Monsters & Men song "Little Talks."
But Adam ultimately chose Caroline for her unique, silky voice and thanked his lucky stars that he had stolen her from Blake's team. Amy graciously and excitedly congratulated her friend on the win and vowed to keep rooting for Caroline.
On Team Shakira, Kris Thomas, with his uncanny vocal range, faced off with Mary Miranda, the young Latin pop singer whose rich voice belied her years.
Kris performed the Louis Armstrong standard "What a Wonderful World," which Shakira encouraged him not to over-embellish with R&B flourishes. Mary Miranda went out on a limb and sang "Every Breath You Take" by the Police — the first song she would sing on "The Voice" in English, and one of the songs she said helped her learn English originally.
Despite the risks Mary Miranda took, Shakira wound up siding with Kris in the performances, citing his comparative ease in mastering new material.
Adam then paired one of his team's most powerful vocalists, former Michael Jackson backup singer Judith Hill, with R&B hopeful Orlando Dixon. Orlando's take on K-Ci & JoJo's "All My Life" was heartfelt, but it was no match for Judith's soulful reinterpretation of the country classic "Always on My Mind."
Shakira's next match-up was one of two of her Latina team members with the biggest personalities: rocker Karina Iglesias, stolen from Team Adam, and former child star Monique Abbadie. "I want to see who has the most versatility and range," Shakira said.
Karina tackled Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" — a song right up her alley, but one that made Shakira suggest, "Try to bring some of that soulfulness that made me steal you." Monique took on the Celine Dion hit "The Power of Love," a tall task for any singer.
Monique had trouble staying on pitch, and although the coaches thought Karina's choice of song didn't show off her talents as much as it could have, Karina won the round to become one quarter of Shakira's team heading into the live shows.
Adam next pitted two of his team members with very different country backgrounds: Sarah Simmons, who had wowed all four judges at the blind auditions, and Warren Stone, a through-and-through country musician Adam had exulted at winning from Blake.
With his take on "(I Just) Died in Your Arms," Warren turned in a performance Blake called his best yet. "This song really let Warren's voice speak through," Shakira added.
But she and the other coaches reserved their most lavish praise for Sarah's rendition of the Rolling Stones' country-tinged ballad "Wild Horses." "What you did with your voice is remarkable," Usher said. "There were really wild horses galloping through your throat," Shakira added, by way of astonishment at Sarah's voice. Adam, too, chose Sarah as the winner of the round.
Even those compliments paled in comparison to the ones handed to Team Shakira's final pairing of the night: New York mom Sasha Allen and veteran Nashville country-rocker Shawna P.
Sasha had trouble with Etta James' "At Last" in rehearsals at first. "I can already tell she is too much in her head," Shakira said. On-stage was another story — and her performance managed to top even Shawna P's alternately tender and ferocious take on Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed."
"Sasha, that was truly, truly incredible," Adam told his former team member, stolen by Shakira after Adam ousted her in the battle rounds.
"This is the best knockout round that I've seen so far," Blake said. "Sasha, you have just positioned yourself as one of the frontrunners of the whole competition."
Shakira agreed with that assessment and chose Sasha as the winner. Her explanation? "The goosebump factor," she said. And she predicted some unexpected twists in the competition, thanks to her lucky acquisition of not one but two one-time Team Adam protégées.
"This is going to get interesting," she said. "Adam has been banging his head against that red chair ever since he heard Sasha sing that song."
The knockout rounds continue Tuesday, with more of the coaches' teams getting whittled down in another high-stakes series of face-offs.
"The Voice" airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8/7c on NBC.