Tonight, American Idol will begin revealing its season 9 semifinalists as part of a two-night extravaganza of singing, stressing, and sobbing. But while I’m celebrating the fact that I only need to avoid all those hideously tempting “top 24 spoiler lists” for another 30 hours or so, I figured I’d do one final ranking of the contestants who’ve been singing their hearts out for our entertainment over the last five weeks. After you’ve finished reading, vote for your own pet contestant, then hit the comments section to share your reasons why. (Oh, and now that the voting portion of the competition is almost upon us, be sure to get up-to-the minute links to my coverage by following me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!)
20. Michael ‘Big Mike’ Lynche (New this week): Dial 1-800-TMI-Alert regarding that Hollywood Week segment focusing on his wife’s cervix! Still, while his group rendition of “Get Ready” wasn’t exactly riveting, likable everydoods often go a long way in this competition. (Just ask season 8 finalist Michael Sarver.)
19. Jeff Goldford (New this week): Admittedly, half of his total 30 seconds of screen time featured him getting dressed down for interrupting vocal coach Debra Byrd, but that snippet of “Carry On Wayward Son” (in a group performance with team “Phoenix”) showed off an interest-piquing rasp. Whether or not he cracks the top 24, here’s hoping we see his solo this week.
18. Jermaine Sellers (Last week No. 6): Maintained a top 10 presence on the Idol Power List for four straight weeks on the basis of his audition to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” But his peacock-showy vocal acrobatics during Phoenix’s group performance of “Carry On Wayward Son” not only seemed a little dated, it bordered on ridiculous.
17. Katelyn Epperly (Last week No. 19): Has maintained a strong following with EW.com Idol Power Poll voters on the strength of her audition to Duffy’s “Syrup and Honey”. (Either that or she’s got hundreds of ballot-stuffing kin.) But how come we didn’t hear her deliver a single note during the first week of Hollywood-round telecasts?
16. Lee Dewyze (Last week No. 20): Brief audition snippet to “Ain’t No Sunshine” was decidedly Kris Allen-esque, and he solidified the positive first impression by nailing “Get Ready” during an extremely pithy glimpse of his group-round performance.
15. Tasha Layton (Last week No. 7): Personal assistant by day, minister by night displayed radio-ready tone and phrasing on Joss Stone’s obscure “Baby Baby Baby,” but producers have thus far treated her Hollywood Week run as B-roll for a bunch of tragic Lady Gaga impersonators. What gives?
14. J.B. Ahfua (New this week): I’ve had sneezes last longer than the Hollywood Week footage of J.B. belting Alicia Keys’ “No One” as part of a group performance with Katie Stevens and Andrew Garcia. But just like a satisfying “ahh-choo!” J.B.’s soulful tone and lack of over-sing proved deeply satisfying. A budding season 9 dark horse, perhaps?
13. Aaron Kelly (Last week No. 11): Charming 16-year-old out “Climb”-ed Miley herself when he tackled the Disney star’s ubiquitous Hannah Montana: The Movie ballad. Total absence of Hollywood Week footage has us wondering if producers are holding off on showing any more of him till he deals with his “Lance Bass circa 1989” hair situaysh.
12. Katie Stevens (Last week No. 13): 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 both snippets from her Hell Week journey — a swinging “For Once in My Life,” and a surprisingly strain free “No One” — made it easy to see why the producers are lavishing her with copious airtime.
11. Haeley Vaughn (Last week No. 15): Adorable teenager’s decision to audition with a Carrie Underwood ditty showed an appealing confidence, and while we heard an iffy note or two in her “Last Name,” as well as her acoustic Hollywood cover of Taylor Swift’s “Fearless,” Haeley’s tangible sense of purpose every time she takes the stage makes her impossible to dismiss.
10. Casey James (New this week; pictured, center): A little hard to take seriously after his shirt removal trumped his actual singing during the Denver auditions, but a bluesy acoustic twist on Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor” during Hollywood Week got the message boards buzzing. Maybe Kara and Posh Spice knew what they were doing?
9. Tyler Grady (Last week No. 8 ): 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 Golden Ticket? Too bad the show’s producers made him harder to find than a drop of water in a glass of milk once he got to Hollywood!
8. Lacey Brown (Last week No. 5): 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. But much like Tyler Grady, she was shunted aside during the initial Hell Week telecasts in favor of trumped-up drama and bitchery.
7. Lilly Scott (New this week): Joined season 9’s acoustic army with a beautifully nuanced take on “Lullaby of Birdland” (complete with peacock-earring feathers) that impressed the judges and possibly reversed the curse of Simon hating songs about our feathered friends. Then again, if she doesn’t make the top 24, conspiracy theorists will now have a reason why!
6. Jermaine Purifoy (Last week No. 9): Handsome Orlando auditioner had guest judge Kristin Chenoweth grinning dreamily as he delivered an effortless-bordering-on-flawless version of “Smile,” then joined Casey James and Janell Wheeler for a sweetly sung version of Ne-Yo’s “Closer” at the end of group performance day. Can he do any wrong?
5. Crystal Bowersox (Last week No. 18; pictured, right): Crystal’s “Piece of My Heart” — which got smashed into the same brief package with No. 16 Lee Dewyze — brought a big smile to Simon’s face, but it was a winning interview package (where she got a tattoo of her son’s name) and her guitar-driven solo on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that turned her into a serious season 9 contender. All together now (slow clap included): “Bow-wer-sox! Bow-wer-sox!”
4. Janell Wheeler (Last week No. 4): Janell’s bluesy audition riff on “House of the Rising Sun” showcased a cut-through-the-clutter tone and an effortless vocal control that proved all the more impressive when she grabbed her guitar and gave “American Boy” a folksy twist in Hollywood. Add bonus points for rocking Ne-Yo’s “Closer” in the group round, and she remains a top-five presence.
3. 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” (AKA his toned bottom-end) had Shania Twain drooling, and while his voice was overlooked during Hollywood Week, perhaps that can work to his advantage. After all, on Idol, too much early hype can be dangerous!
2. Didi Benami (Last week No. 3; pictured, left): Caught viewers’ attention with a pitch-perfect, emotional audition to “Hey Jude” that was slightly reminiscent of season 8’s Megan Joy, but it was her powerfully shaded take on Kara DioGuardi’s “Terrified” that sealed the deal: If she can avoid registering anything higher than a four on the season 9 cry-o-meter, she’s about as good a bet as any to sail through to the top 12.
1. Andrew Garcia (Last week No. 2): Improved on Maroon 5’s original with a vocally dexterous “Sunday Morning,” then absolutely killed with a rhythmically adventurous take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Definitely season 9’s buzziest contestant so far, but he needs to be careful about oversinging, which he did slightly on Alicia Keys’ “No One” as part of the “Three Men and a Baby” group (with Katie Stevens and J.B. Ahfua).