American Idol

We’re headed into the final week of American Idol auditions — how quickly they’ve sped by, yet how tedious they’ve gotten, no? — but before we reconnect with Victoria Beckham in Denver tonight, let’s take the temperature of where things stand with the Golden Ticket-getters from Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Orlando, Los Angeles, and Dallas. Check out my Top 20 countdown (hotlinks to all auditions included for those of you with faulty memories/lives outside the Idolverse), then vote for your favorite in the poll (after the jump). And if you’re not already doin’ it (and doin’ it well), follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak.

20. Chick With a Whip (New this week): Okay, yeah, I ought to use her real name –for the record, it’s E**** R***** — but there’s only so much respect you can get by showing up to your audition dressed like a streetwalker, then (yuck!) bringing up your former life as a member of Barney‘s posse. Made more of an impression with her pleather costume and tepid “Free Your Mind” than most of this year’s auditioners, but then again, so did Bikini Girl back in season 8. And where is that trollop now?

19. Katelyn Epperly (Last week No. 20): 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. Jim Ranger (New this week): Avril Lavigne implied that having a spouse and children pretty much disqualifies a person from pursuing his or her dreams of music stardom (Rated W…for Whatever!). Fortunately for the bearded pastor — whose rendition of an original ditty called “Drive” wasn’t half bad — there are no such ridiculous criteria for inclusion on EW’s American Idol Power List.

17. Angela Martin (Last week No. 16): Brought enough heartache to her audition to pack a Lifetime movie (plus, it turns out her mother went missing over the holidays), and everyone likes a tale of Idol perseverance (Angela scored Golden Tickets in seasons 7 and 8). Still, her cover of Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine” possessed the sort of ho-hum competency that’s more the mark of a wedding singer than a musical superstar. And after Lil Rounds’ reign of mundane last year, is it too much to ask for a cutting-edge R&B diva this time around?

16. Justin Williams (Last week No. 14): 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!

15. Ashley Rodriguez (Last week No. 12): 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).

14. Charity Vance (Last week No. 11): Wide-eyed Arkansas teenager scored a rare upbeat interview package — she sings in her family’s salon! — and I can still hear her version of “Summertime” in my head two weeks after her audition aired. True, there were moments where her voice bordered on an unappealing squeak, but as Shania noted, if Charity can hone in on the better parts of her instrument, she could be a contender.

13. Luke Shaffer (Last week No. 8 ): Cap-clad waiter nailed Secondhand Serenade’s ‘”Fall for You” (and offered up bonus holding-room harmonies with fellow Golden Ticket earner 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.

12. Dave Pittman (New this week): 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.

11. Vanessa Wolfe (Last week No. 10): 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?

10. Matt Lawrence (Last week No. 9): 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 show’s 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.”

9. Mallorie Haley (Last week No. 6): 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.

8. Katie Stevens (Last week No. 7): 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?

7. Tyler Grady (Last week No. 4): 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.

6. Jermaine Purifoy (Last week No. 5): 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.

5. Tasha Layton (New this week): Personal assistant by day, minister by night, can add the title “season 9 soulstress to watch” to her list of duties. Indeed, Tasha displayed radi0-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?

4. Jermaine Sellers (Last week No. 2): 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.

3. 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.)

2. Andrew Garcia (New this week): 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?