Hollywood Week begins tonight on American Idol, and over the next two weeks, we’ll see 181 Golden Ticket recipients whittled down to 24 semifinalists. There’ll be tears. There’ll be fights. There’ll be Ellen DeGeneres in the Paula Abdul Memorial Chair! But before we get there, I’m going to count down the top 20 contestants from the last four weeks of auditions, and then ask you to vote for your fave in the handy poll that’s embedded after the jump. Just FYI, I had to leave off karaoke hostess Danelle Hayes, who reportedly ended up not going to Hollywood, and I took the liberty of adding links to all 20 performances for your convenience. (Oh, and for all my Idol ridiculata, follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!)
20. Lee Dewyze (New this week): Choice of “Ain’t No Sunshine” (plus srsly lustrous locks) got us thinking about Kris Allen, and much like last season’s champ, Lee scored only a few brief seconds of airtime with his audition. Still, while dude’s gruff, soulful voice piqued our interest, we could’ve lived without the “pants on the ground” moment when he raised his Golden Ticket in the air, and inadvertently showed off too much underwear.
19. Katelyn Epperly (Last week No. 19): Producers inexplicably played up her divorcing-parents backstory, and (don’t all clutch your pearls at once!) the shaggy-maned blonde admitted she’d long been “stand-offish” about auditioning for the show. Still, Katelyn’s choice of Duffy’s “Syrup and Honey” was refreshingly left-field, and as Shania Twain noted, girlfriend has the kind of voice one might hear on a hit record.
18. Crystal Bowersox (New this week): Crystal’s “Piece of My Heart” — which got smashed into the same brief package with No. 20 Lee Dewyze — brought a big smile to Simon’s face, and that’s no small accomplishment this early in the season. What’s more, the dreadlocked blonde had a guitar slung over her shoulder when she entered the audition room, meaning she’s got an extra weapon in her arsenal should she crack the season 9 finals.
17. Matt Lawrence (Last week No. 10): Back in season 2, Idol booted early fan favorite Frenchie Davis (currently residing in the top 10 of Billboard’s Dance/Club Play chart) over some revealing Internet photos. Now, the show is playing up the tale of a dude who spent four years in jail for robbing a bank. Regardless of the producers’ fluctuating standard of what constitutes an unacceptable scandal, though, Matt rightfully earned his way to Hollywood with a smoky, soulful “Trouble” that Simon called “brilliant.”
16. Ashley Rodriguez (Last week No. 15): 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.
15. Haeley Vaughn (New this week; pictured, center): Adorable teenager’s brassy decision to cover a Carrie Underwood ditty showed an appealing confidence, and while we heard an iffy note or two in her “Last Name,” it was nice to see Haeley has already decided what niche she’d like to fill in the musical marketplace (as the first “black pop-country mainstream” star).
14. Dave Pittman (Last week No. 12) Neil Patrick Harris quickly identified this contestant’s Tourette’s syndrome — NPH may not be a real doctor, after all, but he once played one on TV! — but this audition was a triumph of potent vocals over curious backstory. Indeed, Dave’s twang-tinged take on “Bring It on Home to Me” was sexy and self-assured, and the guy cut a not-too-shabby picture in his simple jeans-and-black T-shirt ensemble.
13. Katie Stevens (Last week No. 8.): 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?
12. Vanessa Wolfe (Last week No. 11): 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 version of Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” might’ve lacked polish and poise, but she made up for it with passion and authenticity. We’ll be cheering her on…until her inevitable Hollywood Week self-immolation?
11. Aaron Kelly (New this week): Charming 16-year-old out “Climb”-ed Miley herself when he tackled the Disney star’s ubiquitous Hannah Montana: The Movie ballad. Sure, the kid looked like he came off the Lou Pearlman Teen Star Factory assembly line (circa 1998), but that’s why Idol gives contestants access to a stylist once they take the big stage. I’ve got a suspicion he’s more David Archuleta than John Stevens, but the next few weeks should tell the true story.
10. Mallorie Haley (Last week No. 9): 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, country-edged “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.
9. Jermaine Purifoy (Last week No. 6): Handsome Orlando auditioner had guest judge Kristin Chenoweth grinning dreamily as he delivered an effortless-bordering-on-flawless version of “Smile.” Not even Randy’s battle cry of “two bazillion percent yes” could sour my excitement about seeing/hearing Jermaine’s Hollywood Week performances.
8. Tyler Grady (Last week No. 7): 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.
7. Tasha Layton (Last week No. 5): Personal assistant by day, minister by night, can add the title “season 9 soulstress to watch” to her list of duties. Indeed, Tasha displayed radio-ready tone and phrasing on Joss Stone’s obscure “Baby Baby Baby,” and her sparkling personality and easy smile didn’t hurt a bit either. Who says you need a bullwhip to make a strong first impression?
6. Jermaine Sellers (Last week No. 4): 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.
5. Lacey Brown (New this week; pictured, right): Cracked season 8’s top 50 contestants, and it was easy understand why after hearing her excellent, restrained “Over the Rainbow” during the “Road to Hollywood” episode. Oversized orange scarf and funky, spiky locks show she’s already got an appealing personal style, too, and better still, producers didn’t burden her with a ridiculous/sappy backstory.
4. Janell Wheeler (Last week No. 3): Janell’s audition got crammed alongside two other ladies in a “why so brief?” 57-second package, but no matter: Her bluesy riff on “House of the Rising Sun” showcased a cut-through-the-clutter tone and an effortless vocal control that should send her directly to the Top 24. Of course, my unnatural early attachment probably means we won’t hear another sound out of Janell till she’s sobbing in a Hollywood Week holding room, her face obscured by other mourning, eliminated contestants. (For the record, I avoid Idol spoilers like Randy avoids a thesaurus, so I don’t know anything for certain.)
3. Didi Benami (New this week): Her pitch-perfect, emotional “Hey Jude” showed a vocal tone that was slightly reminiscent of season 8’s Megan Joy (and yeah, I ranked the latter as one of Idol‘s 15 all-time best auditions). Will need to dial back the cry-o-meter if she’s planning to survive Hell Week and the season 9 semifinals, but if Didi’s got the psychological strength to endure the Idol machine, her distinctive voice (and ability to play the guitar) could take her far.
2. Andrew Garcia (Last week No. 2): How often can an amateur singer in a crummy little conference room improve upon a fully produced studio recording by a major-label hit machine? While I’m guessing the answer is “not very often,” the exception seemed to arrive via Andrew’s vocally dexterous “Sunday Morning,” which outshone Maroon 5’s slightly tinny original. Here’s hoping the Idol Powers-That-Be keep the focus on Andrew’s vocals, not on his parents’ early dalliances with gang culture.
1. John Park (Last week No. 1): The rich, buttery baritone he displayed on Blood Sweat & Tears’ “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” was perhaps the tastiest treat to come out of the first four audition episodes of season 9 (and didn’t cause heartburn, either!). Plus, his lips, teeth, and bottom end have Shania Twain’s stamp of approval. How can you not get behind the guy?