Idol Final Three
Credit: Michael Becker / FOX

Tomorrow night marks American Idol‘s Top 3 night, that time during which we wave goodbye to the unwelcome third wheel (see ya, Nikki McKibbin!) or the sentimental favorite we were hoping would miraculously end up in the finals (why’d you have to leave, Elliott Yamin?). Come Thursday night, we’ll learn which season 10 Idol joins the ranks of McKibbin and Yamin — and Locke, Trias, Solomon, Doolittle, Mercado, Gokey, and James — but, before then, why not see what previous Idols did right, and very very wrong, during Top 3 night? Which were the best and worst performances on Idol, and how can our season 10 Idols avoid pitfalls suffered by alums?

For one, if we’ve learned anything from past seasons, it’s to try to bury the producer’s pick as much as possible. Clive Davis has threatened to be kryptonite for even the most flawless and favorite contestants: Remember Clay Aiken’s “Vincent,” Bo Bice’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and David Cook’s “I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing”? Yeah, I’d prefer to forget them too. All producer picks. If performing a producer’s pick is necessary (season 8, however, spared its contestants from it), the Top 3 should perform the song to the best of their abilities, but focus on snagging a “moment” with their personal or judges’ choice. We feel your pain, Idols: If there’s ever a time to forgive you for a ho-hum rendition of a Diane Warren hit that begs images of animal crackers, it’s during the producer round of Top 3. Heck, even though I never cared for her during season 7, I still feel sympathy for Syesha Mercado, who was forced to sing an abysmal tune from Happy Feet. And that brings me to the worst Top 3 performance of them all: Mercado’s “Hit Me Up.” Poor, poor thing. She deserved better.

As for the best performance, I’d have to point to two Top 3 numbers. Though I’d give the edge to Bo Bice’s “In a Dream” for artistry and sheer bravery, Kris Allen’s “Heartless” also had a singular aim: To impress and (pleasantly) shock the audience enough to secure a spot in the finals over the aggressively-pimped Danny Gokey. And that’s the goal season 10’s Top 3 need to chase. Though Haley Reinhart, Scotty McCreery, and Lauren Alaina have all whipped out incredible performances on Idol, only one number — Reinhart’s “House of the Rising Sun” — has really fit that Idol “moment” mold. Safety is not an option when it comes to Top 3 night. They’re better off displaying their skills with risky songs (ex. Blake Lewis’ performance of the relatively under-the-radar “When I Get You Alone” by Robin Thicke during season 6), than bumbling to the stage to show off what we know they can already do (ex. Jasmine Trias’ blah rendition of “All By Myself”). If audiences feel like they’ve seen it before, they don’t want to see it again.

Agree, PopWatchers? What do you think the Idols can learn from previous Top 3 contestants? And which Top 3 performances were the best and worst?

Read more: