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''American Idol'': We judge who had the best season

Based on the last ”American Idol” performance show, Bo should finish ahead of Carrie. But is he a shoo-in when you compare their performances from every week?

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Carrie Underwood, American Idol

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

”American Idol”: We judge who had the best season

”I think you’ve done enough to win this competition.”

Those nine cryptic words from the typically straightforward Simon Cowell concluded the final week of performances on season 4 of American Idol. But before you interpret that as a ringing endorsement of Carrie Underwood from the show’s most cantankerous judge, allow me to take a crack at translating his comments from their original broadcast-speak:

”We’re up against a two-hour Lost tomorrow night, so instead of stating the obvious — that Bo wrapped up this competition last week with his a cappella version of ”In a Dream” — let me earn a fat Christmas bonus from the folks at Fox by creating a false sense of suspense in the competition, thus ensuring 30 million-plus viewers for our all-important season finale.”

(For a translation of Paula’s comments, try this site. Seriously, those rainbow-colored dudes are speaking her language, and they’ve got some wickedly Abdullian dance moves, to boot.)

Getting back to Simon, though, you can call me a cynic, but he’s a sharp guy with a consistently good ear; after all, this is the man who told EW a couple weeks back that Fantasia is his favorite Idol of all time. (Mine, too.) So surely Simon didn’t fail to notice that Carrie’s vocals on ”Inside Your Heaven” were about as steady as Britney Spears’ camcorder work. Or worse still, that at times, her take on ”Angels Brought Me Here” made her sound like an asthma patient at the end of a marathon — gasping, exhausted, and, frankly, a little bit scared. Carrie might’ve been better off passing the mike out into the audience and letting Mikalah Gordon pinch hit for her.

Now before I’m accused of being Bo-biased, I’ll admit my favorite contestant didn’t strut his best stuff during the finals, either. After all, the highlight of his ”Long, Long Road” was a cameo appearance in the audience from Jennifer Hudson. (Why doesn’t she have a major-label record coming out already?) But you have to admit, while Bo’s version of ”Vehicle” was a little bit low-key, it still served as a defibrillator to the sleepy heart of tonight’s program. And while Bo, too, missed a few notes on ”Inside Your Heaven,” his inherent soulfulness lit up the drippy ballad from the core, escalating it to something surprisingly listenable.

So while Randy gave Carrie a standing ovation — albeit the most unenthusiastic standing O I’ve ever witnessed — and Paula’s new hair color looked jazzy, as far as I’m concerned, the night belonged to the Alabamian with the silky brown mane and a penchant for mike-stand twirling.

That said, no Idol contestant deserves to win based on just one performance. So let’s get all America’s Next Top Model and review the contestants’ portfolios side by side, shall we?

Semifinals week 1 Making Tiffany’s ”Could’ve Been” sound relevant trumped a lazy version of a song you could catch any weekend at your local roadside bar (”Drift Away”). Advantage: Carrie.

Semifinals week 2 Okay, everyone who can recall Bo’s scintillating rendition of the Allman Brothers’ ”Whipping Post,” raise your hand. Now how about Carrie’s smiling, cipher-like take on ”Piece of My Heart”? Okay, yeah, the latter one was memorable, too, but only for conjuring up the image of Janis bursting forth from the grave in a rage. Advantage: Bo.

Semifinals week 3 What happened to that kid with the hats anyway? You know if he’d stuck around, Scott Savol never would’ve made the final five. Advantage: Mario Vasquez.

Finals week 1 Only a fembot would smile her way through a song about being cheated, mistreated, put down, and pushed round. But when the Bice Man declared ”what goes up must come down,” I was sold! Advantage: Bo.

Finals week 2 Yes, I’ll say it: It’s good when guys act sensitive. But maybe not so much by sitting on the stage with an acoustic-guitar-playing buddy and delivering a quaky take on ”Time in a Bottle.” Much better, Carrie’s bombastic, watch-me-hit-every-note rendition of Heart’s awesome power ballad ”Alone.” Bonus points for rocking some big ’80s locks, sister. Advantage: Carrie.

Finals week 3 I’m not convinced Robovox 8.0 is the next Martina McBride, and its version of ”Independence Day” didn’t quite do the trick, but watching Bo place his floppy hat on Paula’s head during ”Remedy” was an emotional — if not vocal — low point for me. Advantage: Carrie.

Finals week 4 We now conclude the part of our story in which our talented young contestants audition for their high-school musicals. Advantage: Nobody.

Finals week 5 Sure, Carrie hit her first off note of the competition howling her way through ”Love Is a Battlefield,” but it was better than Bo’s low point of the entire season: a shockingly uninspired take on the Southern rock anthem ”Free Bird.” Advantage: Carrie.

Finals week 6 He may have cheated on the ’70s-dance-music theme, but Bo’s sexy, growling ”Vehicle” still made me want to get up and shake my booty. Carrie, meanwhile, admitted she didn’t understand the metaphorical lyrics to ”MacArthur Park,” raising the question ”So why the heck did you choose to sing it?” Advantage: Bo.

Finals week 7 My favorite WB theme song of all time is Felicity‘s ”New Version of You,” but a close runner-up is ”I Don’t Want to Be” from One Tree Hill. Damn, that Bice kid’s got good taste. Advantage: Bo.

Finals week 8 Carrie kicked over a mike stand. Bo put his own stamp on ”Stand by Me.” Carrie got quiet and moody on ”Bless the Broken Road.” Bo went the laid-back-dude route on ”Heaven.” How come I had no urge to vote? Advantage: neither.

Finals week 9 Believe me when I tell you that ”For the Love of Money” was not written for the Donald’s reality show. And methinks it’s going to get another run up the pop charts, courtesy of Mr. Bice. Meanwhile, Carrie failed to convince me she had even a cursory understanding of the lyrics to ”Sin Wagon,” and she got outsung by A-Fed on ”If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” Gah! Advantage: Bo.

Finals week 10 Two words: A cappella. Advantage: Bo.

So there you have it: Counting the season-finale win by Bo, he outdueled Carrie by a score of 7 to 4. And I’ve got to say something that’s sure to send Underwood fans into a fury: Bo is going to be the next American Idol because he’s got better range.

Don’t curse me out on the message boards just yet. I’m not talking about vocal range: Though Carrie’s in need of a serious lower-register workout regimen, she can probably hit more notes than Bo. But when it comes to emotional range, she has a long way to go.

You see, in the end, I believe that what makes an Idol isn’t necessarily the ability to hold a note, or select the best song from the year you were born. Rather, it’s an ability to infuse even the most saccharine ballad with meaning. ”A Moment Like This” is a terrible, terrible song — except when it’s being delivered with a pulse-raising urgency by Kelly Clarkson. Diana DeGarmo’s ”I Believe” is like dreary background music for a long-distance ad, but Fantasia’s rendition moves me to tears every time.

Whether pop or rock, or country or R&B, this year’s Idol winner will likely be saddled with quite a bit of dreck on his or her debut disc. And while I cringe at the thought of Bo Bice releasing ”Inside Your Heaven,” I know deep down he can survive it — as long as his follow-up is something as rockin’ as ”Whipping Post” or ”Vehicle.”

Who do you think deserves to be the next American Idol? Do you think the runner-up will also conquer the charts? Who else from this season has a chance to be a hitmaker? And how does this season compare with the previous three?