We've arrived at the Top 24 on "American Idol," and for the next couple of weeks, they'll get their last chance to impress the judges and fight for a spot in the Top 14, when the power shifts to the viewing audience.
To keep things manageable, we're splitting them in half with twelve performing this week and the other twelve next week. This week's batch saw a pair of female country powerhouses, as well as two strong rock-and-roll voices, though Katy Perry dramatically passed out over the wrong one in my opinion.
The judges kept their shenanigans to a minimum as there was a lot to get through, though we did get to see Lionel Richie and Ryan Seacrest perform "Hello" with Lionel Richie and a contestant who dared to sing it in front of its originator. Ryan's voice has really improved over the years ... dude can carry a tune! Even Lionel was surprised.
As for the contestants, they each get to perform twice this week to get the attention of the judges, as well as start building that key relationship with the viewers at home. Even better, they'll get to perform a duet with a bona fide singing star (or group), which could either elevate them even higher, or expose their weaknesses alongside a pro. Then, they get cut down to a Top 7 to make up half of that Top 14 that will sing for your votes.
With only three judges, you stand as the fourth, as your votes will certainly have a lot to say about who wins. I'll proudly stand beside you. "Who do I think I am?" you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer, even performing with the St. Louis Ballet Company. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I've spent the last sixteen years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I've got this.
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. For these next few episodes, I'll just keep ranking 'em worst to first and we'll see who winds up in my Top Seven each night.
Tomorrow night, we can look forward to duets with Aloe Blacc, Bishop Briggs, Luis Fonsi, Andy Grammer, Patrick Monahan, Allen Stone and Sugarland. But first, this group of twelve need to sing for their lives, because only seven of them will survive the week. Country radio star Bobby Bones joined this week as mentor to help groom these singers into bona fide stars, covering things from style to stage presence and even how to give a good interview.
Michelle Sussett (22) "If I Were a Boy," Beyoncé
Michelle has always felt more like a dancer than a singer to me, with her vocals underwhelming me over and over. Her low register was rough on this very slow song where there was no place to hide, and then when she got deeper into the song, I just didn't like it at all. Take away the dancing and Michelle proved as weak vocally as I've feared. This was just disappointing; she needs to stick to her signature style of uptempo dance music.
Jonny Brenns (18) "Georgia," Vance Joy
After getting the full support of his family finally in the last round, Jonny took on a big voice in Vance Joy. I was underwhelmed in him the last time I saw him, but he definitely sounded stronger this time. The problem is that he just sounded pleasant, rather than memorably amazing. Jonny has a nice instrument and showed a nice falsetto, and he's learning how to work a crowd, but is he growing into his own fast enough to move on? I'm not so sure.
Brandon Diaz (21) "Hello," Lionel Richie
This was an incredibly risky venture and an iconic song. He did throw a little flare on it, without straying very far from what Lionel did. Somehow, he lost the note when moving the mic stand and it took him a few beats to find it again. There was a cool smoothness to his voice that sat very well on the track, giving Brandon a very nice R&B tone to his voice.
Dennis Lorenzo (26) "Rude," Magic!
This is a very stylized song, which can make it difficult to stand out as a vocalist on it. He wanted to show his fun side, as he's already blown us away emotionally. Unfortunately, he did get swallowed up in the song a bit, and while I've no fear that his voice can't handle anything, this wasn't the best showcase of his abilities. He also didn't show that higher energy side he promised, so I was left feeling kind of flat.
Dominique (26) "Ain't Nobody," Rufus and Chaka Khan
Dominique has it, from the range of that voice to the confidence he brings to each vocal performance. He has a smooth throwback R&B vibe that is just effortless. But while he moves around confidently on stage, I need to see more engagement from him facially. At times, he was wearing his nerves and stress on his face, though luckily it never betrayed his voice.
Cade Foehner (21) "All Along the Watchtower," Jimi Hendrix
The resident rocker of the season has a niche all his own, but he still needs to bring it to prove himself worthy every time he's out there. He definitely picked a classic, with the Hendrix version of this Bob Dylan rock staple, and he absolutely put his own flare on it both vocally and with his impressive guitar skills. He sits in a similar wheelhouse vocally to Trevor McBane, and didn't show as much range as I might have liked, but he's definitely a unique talent in the competition. Katy Perry certainly thinks so, as she feigned passing out after his performance.
Catie Turner (17) "Call Me," Blondie
Seeking redemption after a Lady Gaga misfire, Catie was absolutely built for Debbie Harry's vocal approach. There is no one like her in the competition, and unique oddball artists are her people. Catie finding and embracing that side of herself with a nice rocker edge is just what we needed to see from her. But there were still a few moments where the voice wasn't quite what I wanted, but she's so danged likeable, it may not matter.
Trevor McBane (22) "Way Down We Go," Kaleo
There is no one in this competition who can elicit emotion out of a lyric better than Trevor, and he was in fine form again tonight on a perfectly chosen song. Kaleo sits right in his wheelhouse, and he performed that song as if he'd written it about his own life struggles. There were a few points where I wanted a little more polish on his notes, but he's still a dynamic performer who is not soon forgotten.
Gabby Barrett (17) "My Church," Maren Morris
The sultry kitten approach to the opening of this song didn't quite sit right with me, but once she got into it, Gabby proved that this is her wheelhouse and she feels very confident on songs like this. It was a confident performance and she had a great look and presence up on the stage. Gabby hasn't stood out as one of the strongest personalities or singers to this point, but she stood there and demanded to be noticed tonight.
Kay Kay (18) "Love on the Brain," Rihanna
After criticism that she was too polished, Kay Kay tried to let people inside her a little bit on this emotional song, but right off the bat she started missing a few notes. Maybe the polish was keeping her on key? She picked it up at the bridge and it improved tremendously. I felt a little rawness from her like we haven't seen before. Vulnerability is new to her, but are the missteps forgivable. The judges seem to think so.
Michael J. Woodard (20) "Golden Slumbers," The Beatles
Once again, Michael comes out of nowhere with his song choice. There was some odd enunciation at a few points, but this guy knows how to command an audience with a single note, and he can sell anything to me. I love how unassuming he is in a work jumpsuit before he belts out those epic notes and slays whatever oddball song he chooses each time.
Layla Spring (16) "A Broken Wing," Martina McBride
Layla decided to slow it down and show her softer side, I missed her fun side, but damn did Layla bring it vocally. She showed more dynamic, power and range than we've seen yet from her, so her goal of showing another side of herself absolutely worked. She shouldn't do this all the time, but I'm glad she showed us what she was capable of this way.
I don't like my own Top 7, so I'm really hoping some of those in the Bottom 5 step it up in a big way in the next round. It's also possible someone in the top could falter and blow their chance. As it stands, I'm disappointed that I didn't see more out of Dennis Lorenzo, who faltered due to a wonky song choice. This guy is one of the best the show has. Brandon Diaz and Dominique also had strong nights, but simply fell victim to the numbers as they laid out here. Meanwhile, Kay Kay really impressed me by giving more of herself to that performance than she has all season.
It's possible that the judges will think Gabby Barrett and Layla Spring effectively cancel each other out as two female country singers, but I think they're in different wheelhouses, and they were among the best of the night regardless of genre. The same goes for Cade Foehner and Trevor McBane, who have similar voices even if they sing drastically different songs. I'm hoping we don't go with trying to diversify styles and simply pick the best voices. We'll see what happens with the duets round tomorrow night and the first five eliminations.
"American Idol" airs twice weekly on Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.