At last, we come to the part of American Idol‘s ninth season that we’ve all been waiting for! No, not Randy Jackson’s early retirement from the judging panel. Not the unexpected return of Jermaine Purifory and Leneshe Young, either. Nope, not a live performance by Allison Iraheta (you’ll have to wait for Thursday for that!) Tonight at 8 p.m. EDT, we kick off the season 9 semifinals with performances by the top 12 ladies! (I’ll be live-blogging the event right here at PopWatch.)
Until then, however, it’s time for me to count down the top 20 contenders based on the prior six weeks of performances — and for you to vote for your fave. An unlucky foursome — Katelyn Epperly, Haeley Vaughn, Alex Lambert, and Tim Urban — failed to make this week’s cut, but you can always show your support by voting “other” in the poll below. (Oh, and after you do that, be sure to get up-to-the minute links to my coverage by following me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!)
20. Joe Muñoz (New this week): Ken Warwick must have it out for the kid, seeing how he’s been denied any significant screen time over six weeks of season 9. (And no, that 10-second Hollywood Week snippet of “Man in the Mirror” cannot be counted as “significant.”) Still, Kris Allen was a virtual unknown going into season 8’s Top 24, and let’s be honest, no impression is better than a bad one (see Urban, Tim; Lambert, Alex).
19. Michelle Delamor (New this week): Was also largely overlooked during Idol‘s first six weeks — a five-second interlude on “Irreplaceable” during “group night” notwithstanding — and worse still, her official Top 24 portrait is a study in forced-smile discomfort. On the plus side, though, Michelle’s “Chain of Fools,” which was featured in Idol’s season 9 ad campaign, wasn’t half bad.
18. Todrick Hall (New this week): Out of the umpteen Hollywood Week performances of “I’m Yours,” Todrick’s rhythmically adventurous take was hands down the best. Too bad for him that the bulk of his b-roll footage has portrayed him as a slightly smarmy punk.
17. Aaron Kelly (Last week No. 13): Botched his lyrics on two separate occasions during Hollywood Week — yet still managed to outlast Jermaine Purifory, J.B. Ahfua, and other potent vocalists for a semifinal slot. Certainly fills the bill in Idol’s “aw-shucks” adorable teenager slot, but at this point, seems more Will Makar than David Archuleta.
16. Ashley Rodriguez (Returns this week): Has done little wrong during her season 9 run — that audition to Alicia Keys was rock-solid, and her “Irreplaceable” in Hollywood was tuneful and pretty — but she’ll need to drop the paint-by-numbers approach to diva ballads and prove her song-rearrangement skills if she wants to guarantee herself a spot in the top 12.
15. Jermaine Sellers (Last week No. 18 ): Maintained a top 10 presence on the Idol Power List for five straight weeks on the basis of his audition to Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” but insistence on peacock-showy vocal acrobatics during Hollywood Week could quickly become unwelcome stretched over an entire performance.
14. Paige Miles (New this week): Didn’t even get I.D.’d while performing backup duties on Neapolitan’s “Bad Romance,” but her “welcome to the semifinals!” reel found Simon praising her vocal abilities. And as Jason Castro and Allison Iraheta showed us the last two seasons, it only takes one powerhouse performance to overcome a dearth of early-season screentime. Will Paige fill that “whoa! who’s she?” role for season 9?
13. Michael ‘Big Mike’ Lynche (Last week No. 20): To date, discussion of his wife’s cervix has been more memorable than the burly personal trainer’s vocal performances, but likable everydoods often go a long way in this competition. (Just ask season 8 finalist Michael Sarver.)
12. Siobhan Magnus (New this week): It’s hard for an adult female singer to make a positive impression when she’s dressed as Punky Brewster, but Siobhan’s “Living for the City” during Hollywood Week showed off an impressive set of pipes. Plus, anyone who can survive “harmonizing” with uni-monikered Theri should be able to handle the pressures of the semifinal stage.
11. Katie Stevens (Last week No. 12): Has yet to hit a sour note during her season 9 run. “At Last” audition was top-notch. “For Once in My Life” was sultry and swinging. That group rendition of “No One” was effortless. So how come we’re not excited about the producers’ favorite teenage contestant?
10. Lee Dewyze (Last week No. 16): Brief audition snippet to “Ain’t No Sunshine” was decidedly Kris Allen-esque, as was that footage of Simon dissing his star power during Hollywood Week. Botched the intro to “You Found Me” on his final performance, but he’s made one of the stronger impressions among the season 9 men.
9. Janell Wheeler (Last week No. 4): Janell’s bluesy riff on “House of the Rising Sun” ranks among the best season 9 auditions, and her folksy “American Boy” on Day One of Hollywood was equally delightful. Which made it all the more shocking to see Janell admit to cracking under pressure for her final performance of “Love Story.” As one of four potentially vote-splitting blonde lady guitar-slingers, there’s little room for that kind of collapse.
8. Lacey Brown (Last week No. 8; 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. The fact that Idol producers chose to extend her “What a Wonderful World” cover over a montage of “you cracked the top 24!” contestants bodes well for her future in the competition.
7. Casey James (Last week No. 10): 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. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with his tentative take on “Bubbly” to close out Hollywood Week, but several of my friends and colleagues think my resistance is as daft as it is futile.
6. Lilly Scott (Last week No. 7): 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. And while her “Rich Girl” cover was oversung, at least Lilly admitted on camera that she wished she’d performed it better.
5. Tyler Grady (Last week No. 9): The show’s producers made him harder to find than a drop of water in a glass of milk during the first three Hollywood episodes, but that Day Three rendition of Daughtry’s “Home” and the retro-sexy-cool vibe he brought to the judges’ final judgment reminded us why his “Let’s Get It On” audition made him an early favorite.
4. John Park (Last week No. 3): 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, but producers showed him as much as Charlie on Charlie’s Angels during Hollywood Week. Needs to regain momentum during top 24 week, but at least he’s not burdened by 100 lbs of hype.
3. Didi Benami (Last week No. 2): Has gone from strength to strength to strength this season: A pitch-perfect, emotional audition to “Hey Jude,” a powerfully shaded take on Katharine McPhee”s “Terrified,” and a lilting cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” If she’d dial back on the weeping — and stop relying so heavily on that backstory about her young friend’s untimely death — she’d be a shoo-in for Idol’s 2010 tour.
2. Crystal Bowersox (Last week No. 5; pictured, center): Crystal’s “Piece of My Heart” — which got smashed into the same brief package with No. 1o Lee Dewyze — brought a big smile to Simon’s face, but it was her Hollywood renditions of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “If It Makes You Happy” (the latter featuring harmonica and guitar) that got us chanting “Bow-wer-sox! Bow-wer-sox!” Heck, this woman even got Randy to say something clever — he dubbed her “MamaSox” — is there anything she can’t do?
1. Andrew Garcia (Last week No. 1; pictured, left): Absolutely killed with a rhythmically adventurous take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” and while he needs to be careful about oversinging — which he did slightly on Alicia Keys’ “No One” — he more than redeemed himself with an excellent final set on Adele’s “Chasing Pavements.” Would have to club a baby seal on stage to miss the season 9 Top 12.
Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox (3)