Congratulations! You’ve survived the first week of American Idol‘s ninth season audition episodes — from Boston and Atlanta– but before this week’s Chicago (UPDATE: My full recap of the Idol Chicago auditions is now live) and Orlando tryouts make it to your TV set, let’s rank the top 20 contendahs! (Oh, and you can vote for your favorite in the poll after the jump!)
20. Holly Hardin: “Guitar Girl” actually delivered a meaty vocal on ”You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man.” But will the judges (and the viewing public) be able to get past that cutesy/annoying first impression of her dressed in a gimmicky Halloween costume? If we’re to believe Mary J. Blige’s “I don’t get it” stare, the answer is probably not.
19. Antonio ”Skii Bo Ski” Wheeler: Much like “Guitar Girl,” this loopy cat has a fine singing voice that probably won’t be enough to make viewers forget his occasionally amusing audition, which included uncomfortable flirting with MJB, a heinous shirt-jacket emblazoned with his misspelled moniker, and tons of speaking in the third-person.
18. Benjamin Bright: Blink and you missed the few brief seconds of his audition — a barbershop-py spin on the Beatles’ “All My Lovin.” But at least the guy hit all his notes — and proved he’s not afraid to rearrange a ditty to help himself cut through the audition clutter.
17. Maddy Curtis: Charming 16-year-old warmed hearts and won fans thanks to a sweet package that highlighted her loving relationship with her four brothers with Down syndrome. But nerves and inexperience bubbled through her rendition of “Hallelujah.” Perhaps a better prospect for season 11?
16. Noel Reese: Braces-sporting cutie bulldozed her way through the done-to-death-on-Idol “I Have Nothing,” but six days after her very brief audition clip, I still haven’t forgotten it. Hey, that’s something!
15. Jennifer Hirsh: Scat-tastic “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead!” was hands-down the coolest audition song in the first week of Idol‘s ninth season (if not of all time). Still, the whole thing seemed a little more suited to a local cabaret lounge than the Kodak in May.
14. Mike Davis: Ruggedly handsome employee of Boston’s “Codzilla” speedboat bragged to his family that he scored a date with Kara, but we’re not sure that’s a done deal. Ditto for an engagement with the Top 24, as his “Yesterday” was in tune, but not particularly distinctive.
13. Leah Laurenti: Her jazzy take on “Blue Skies” was one of Week One’s most vocally ambitious auditions. And while she pretty much aced it, her awkward stance and “don’t hurt me!” posture will need massive infusions of confidence and star quality if she expects to connect with an impatient, speed-dialing public.
12. Jess Wolfe: Bespectacled blond rocked a “sexy librarian” look that made her smoky, soulful rendition of ”People Get Ready” all the more enjoyable. Still, major lack of screen time devoted to her audition makes us wonder if we’ll need to take out an ad on a milk carton if we want to hear her voice again.
11. Bryan Walker: Friendly Tennessee police officer served up the Carpenters’ “Superstar” with equal parts soul and twang, and could easily fill the ”everyman” role that Idol can’t seem to resist. Whether he’ll be the next Michael Sarver or the next Matt Breitzke (who? exactly.) remains to be seen.
10. Ashley Rodriguez: Stone-cold hottie prompted Kara to squawk the word “commercial” (j’ugh) but she delivered a strong, tuneful take on “If I Ain’t Got You” that earned her a well-deserved ticket to Hollywood. Now, she needs to do more than offer up pretty carbon copies of soul-diva anthems and prove she’s a unique artist worthy of the Idoltaurium (yes, I made up that word).
9. Keia Johnson: Former pageant competitor rocked fluorescent yellow jeans, a megawatt smile, and a powerhouse vocal in her Atlanta audition. But if you’re trying to get away from your Miss America roots, why make your first impression with Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” a track that practically comes with its own sash and tiara?
8. Luke Shaffer: Cap-clad waiter nailed Secondhand Serenade’s ‘”Fall for You” (and offered up bonus holding-room harmonies with aforementioned Benjamin Bright). Subsequent receipt of emails from not one but two friends about Luke’s “hotness”/”cuteness” probably bodes well for his ability to snag the Ace Young Semifinal Slot.
7. Vanessa Wolfe: Idol promised us more “real people” and fewer “semi-pros” in season 9 (as if it matters!), and Vanessa delivered bridge-jumping, dollar-store-shopping dividends. Her rendition of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” might’ve lacked polish and confidence, but she made up for it with passion and authenticity. We’ll be cheering her on…until her inevitable Hollywood Week self-immolation?
6. Justin Williams: He brought stubbly good looks and a mellifluous tone to his “Feeling Good” audition, but producers also saddled him with 100 pounds of backstory by focusing way too much time on his successful fight against cancer. Weirder still, how come no mention of the fact that Justin made it to Hollywood in season 8, where he performed as part of “White Chocolate” alongside eventual finalists Matt Giraud and Kris Allen? Conspiracy theorists, discuss!
5. Tisha Holland: Last season Idol tried to sneak Kris Allen past an unsuspecting public with a very brief (but pretty damn good) audition clip of “A Song for You.” My nominee for this season’s Contender Disguised as Cannon Fodder Trophy goes to Tisha, who displayed big range and ferocious energy on Christina Aguilera’s “Impossible,” rocked a pair of killer chunky-square earrings, and responded to her Golden Ticket with appealing air-leap/fist-pump choreography.
4. Katie Stevens: Sad story about grandmother’s fight with Alzheimer’s wasn’t enough to eclipse this 16-year-old’s wow-factor take on “At Last.” And while it’s true that nine out of 10 Idol youngsters prove to be 1-800-too-perky, Katie’s first impression was decidedly mature and down-to-earth. A legitimate contender from Episode 1?
3. Tyler Grady: Who’d have thunk an audition package that kicked off with wrist x-rays, goofy dancing, and an anecdote about falling out of a tree would end with a sexy rendition of “Let’s Get It On” and a ticket to Hollywood? But bell-bottom-clad Tyler upended our low expectations with a sweet, soulful voice and an easy laugh that makes him an early, unlikely front-runner.
2. Mallorie Haley: Sometimes you don’t need a tale of personal tragedy or violin-filled background music to get the Idol nation atwitter. Mallorie’s pitch-perfect, twang-ified “Piece of My Heart” stamped her as a vocal contender, and that whisp of a gladiatrix gown proved she won’t need a hair-to-heels makeover if she manages to crack the top 24.
1. Jermaine Sellers: Okay, so he caught a mild case of Wanya-itis while performing Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” for the judges. But if the charming church singer (and one-time BET Sunday Best performer) learns that restraint is just as important as innovative song selection, he could reverse Idol‘s abysmal track record over the past few seasons with regard to showcasing black male singers with a legitimate shot at the crown.
Hey now, one more thing: Follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!