'American Idol': Season 9's Greatest Hits!
Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze
Songs of the Cinema Week
Crystal brought just a hint of lilting flirtatiousness to this duet from Once, which provided a lovely counterpoint to Lee's gruff tone. And while their amped-up arrangement lacked the quiet intimacy of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová's original, it made up for it with passion and originality — qualities that were badly needed on an otherwise lackluster performance night with guest mentor Jamie Foxx.
Semifinals (Top 20)
Yes, Alex mumbled his way through the ends of phrases and delivered a wonky final falsetto note. And yet all technical issues aside, the kid's vocal tone on this John Legend ballad was impossibly lovely — like listening to Joe Cocker, only smoothed out with a sheet of superfine sandpaper, decades of venue-related grit and life experience brushed away to something smoother and decidedly more innocent. Plus, as Kara noted, it was impossible not to root for the mullet-sporting dude, particularly after hearing him admit to having vomited from nerves before his Top 24 performance. Alas, America sent Alex packing the following week, but his cocoon-to-butterfly transformation continues on the Hulu-hosted Web series If I Can Dream.
''PAINT IT BLACK''
Rolling Stones Week
Simon was right that people would either love or hate this performance, but it's hard not to admire the theatrical audacity Siobhan displayed. Clad in a flared, layered black minidress and combat boots, mouth wide open like an Edvard Munch muse, the Glassblower dared to take vocal risks, dared to go right over the edge of the roller-coaster ride. From the haunting music-box intro (Siobhan later told us in her Idolatry interview that it was inspired by scary circus clowns) to that howler monkey of a note near the end of the song, this was a performance we won't soon forget.
The sparse arrangement of Casey's acoustic guitar paired with a single cello created an aura of intimacy unmatched by any other contestant during Lennon-McCartney Week. And his vulnerable, Bob Seger-esque vocal was exactly what he needed to shake off a preperformance package that focused on his hair and his soap-opera nicknames (Fabio, Trevor) and remind folks that he had the potential to be a legitimate recording artist.
''TREAT HER LIKE A LADY''
For his first few weeks on the show, Lee performed with the pitch and conviction of a typical sixth-place finisher. But on the relentlessly propulsive ''Treat Her Like a Lady,'' he shook off his nerves and started looking like a serious threat to take home the season 9 crown (all while possibly battling walking pneumonia, as Ryan seemed to suggest). When the song shifted lyrical gears from romantic instruction manual to overt warning — ''if you fail to do this/Don't blame her if she looks my way'' — there was a threat in Lee's voice that resonated more passionately than even the Cornelius Brothers' original managed to do. Simon was right when he told the paint-shop salesman ''this may be the night your life changed forever.''
''ME AND BOBBY MCGEE''
Billboard No. 1s Week
It's not a stretch to say that Crystal's exquisite take on ''Me and Bobby McGee'' was the single perfect lifeboat on a grim, Titanic-esque evening of bizarre song choices and middling performances. By contrast, MamaSox was quiet perfection, from the intro package where she allowed mentor Miley Cyrus to autograph her guitar all the way to the seated critiques on her ''soft and pretty'' stage rug. And, oh, let us not forget that soaring, ethereal vocal! All together now: ''Hey, hey, hey...Bobby McGee!!!''
''THIS WOMAN'S WORK''
Semifinals (Top 16)
No doubt about it: Big Mike surged to an early leadership position by singing in tune and positioning himself as the burly guy who understands the hearts and minds of the fairer sex. Musically and emotionally, his cover of Kate Bush's ''This Woman's Work'' provided the perfect bookend to ''It's a Man's Man's Man's World,'' and from a technical perspective, it helped prove Michael had the raw material to make it far into the Idol season. To me, the visual aspect of the performance — a dramatically raised hand, the side-to-side shimmy, the parallel fists held out in front of the torso — had all the subtlety of an Applebee's commercial where a tidal wave of melted cheese splashes dramatically over a promotional entrée, but what do I know? The performance left Kara in tears, and the studio audience in standing-ovation rapture.
''A CHANGE IS GONNA COME''
Semifinals (Top 20)
Hands down, Lilly won the awards for best Top 20-week outfit (navy dress with red embroidered details!) and best music-related revelation (an undying devotion to the Moog!). And her quirky, acoustic-jazz twist on ''A Change Is Gonna Come'' was pretty impressive, too, especially considering that the chrome-haired songbird was tackling a song that Adam Lambert redefined in the Idolverse just nine months prior. In fact, the Sam Cooke classic has been sung by dozens of Idol hopefuls (either in competition or audition rounds), but in Lilly's capable hands, it didn't sound old or fusty or played-out in the least.
''CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE''
Elvis Presley Week
Look, it would be farcical to accuse Tim Urban of being a fantastic vocalist, but in a season where plenty of contenders seemed to have no artistic self-awareness, it was refreshing the way the perpetually positive Texan learned to understand his musical limitations and play to his modest strengths. ''Can't Help Falling in Love'' found Tim singing in tune, playing the guitar nicely, and delivering the lyrics in a sweet sing-speak that affirmed his understanding of the lyrics. As a reward, Simon trotted out his annual ''zero to hero'' critique, while Kara offered damning praise: ''My favorite Tim performance ever.'' Too bad Ryan had to go and distract from Tim's moment by dancing with one of Lee DeWyze's buddies at the edge of the Idol stage. Look it up on Twitter under the hashtag #HostFail.
Semifinals (Top 20)
Katelyn may have been clad in a white, one-shoulder blouse and seated at a giant white piano, but her performance was dark and sparse and bordering on funereal — plus, it was breathtakingly beautiful. Naturally, the judges gave her grief, but when your song's refrain is ''Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be this hard,'' I think a little deceleration is not only appropriate, it's actually inspired, And in the post-Blake Lewis, post-David Cook era where the judges not only want but demand ''artistry,'' where was the credit for the way the moptopped blonde switched up the melody to showcase the strongest aspects of her instrument? The bottom line: Katelyn got up on that stage and told a story with her music — which is exactly what Idol contestants are supposed to do when they exit the show and compete for airtime and shelf space with the Pinks and Jay Seans and Justin Biebers of the world.
''PLAY WITH FIRE''
Rolling Stones Week
Clad in a purple-and-black bustier, Didi stalked the stage with a surprisingly convincing snarl, later explaining how years of living in L.A. have given her a hard, protective shell over that gooey Cadbury Creme Egg center of hers. The good news for Didi was that she came across as a credible artist during the performance — without relying on her acoustic guitar — and the fact that her iTunes studio recording was an absolute necessity for the discerning Idol fan.
''YOU'VE GOT A WAY''
Shania Twain Week
Coming on the heels of Aaron's ''I Believe I Can Fly'' debacle, the introduction of this season's first country(esque) theme had to feel as welcome as a mother's embrace. And sure enough, Aaron declared that he was dedicating his performance to his mom (awww), until Kara had to go and remind us the original lyrics are really a tender ode to lovemaking (ewww). Either way, though, this was the most believable, tuneful performance in the fifth-place finisher's season 9 repertoire, and the one for which he'll most likely be remembered.
Granted, this was not her strongest vocal of the season (especially with a botched lyric), but in retrospect, MamaSox + Didgeridoo Player = Kinda Unforgettable. Oh, and the iTunes studio version is one of the season's finest.
Frank Sinatra Week
Paired with an organ-heavy arrangement that was pure hipster throwback, Lee delivered the best performance of Sinatra Week by imbuing this tale of hardscrabble scrapping with a bluster that bordered on (intentionally?) boozy. Bonus points for working in the line ''Some people get their kicks stomping on a dream'' and for finally delivering the swagger required of a potential Idol champ.
''HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN''
Semifinals (Top 16)
Simon may not have loved it, but I'd rate Siobhan's cover of the Animals' greatest hit as one of the best pure vocals I've ever heard in an Idol semifinal — especially that achingly gorgeous a capella intro. In fact, I could listen to a whole concert's worth of Siobhan's achingly lovely lilt, the way it rises and falls as she loses herself in the lyric, the way her upper register seems to inherently convey an innate sense of angst and pain and loss. If Siobhan's emotional commitment and pitch perfection is ''a bit weird,'' as Simon described it, then let's hope the Glassblower is extra-super-weird during the season 9 summer tour.