American Idol’s Top 13: The song by song grades

Tonight marks Idol’s 400th episode, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe noted in a tweet earlier today.

Congrats to the folks at Idol, but — more importantly — to all the contestants who made that longevity possible.

If those contestants had not struck a chord with viewers, I’m pretty sure Idol wouldn’t be around 11 years after its debut.

So, again, don’t you think Nigel and company should invite more of the former Idols back to perform on results shows this season?

Yes, I know Lauren Alaina will be on tomorrow night to sing “Georgia Peaches” and I know Haley Reinhart will be on a couple of weeks from now to sing her new single “Free.”   (Cover art revealed today if you haven’t seen it.)  And Daughtry is supposed to be on the March 15 show.

But Mary J. Blige will also take the stage tomorrow night in a slot that could have easily been filled by Kellie Pickler, who released an album in January, or Ruben Studdard, who will do so next week.

And just this week I’ve written about new or planned releases from Kris Allen, David Archuleta, Blake Lewis, Brooke White and Casey James.

Wouldn’t it be great to see them back on the Idol stage as well.  As I wrote a week ago, there’s no time like the present to celebrate Idol’s 10 years of success.

On to tonight’s first week of the Season 11 finals.  Here are my pre-show rankingsI’ll be grading each performance as it occurs, then posting a recap about an hour after the show.

Interesting twist.  Tomorrow night, we’ll learn the identity of the final guy and the final girl.

Then the judges will decide which contestant goes home.

I’ll have to chew on that for a while.

Joshua Ledet:  Forced to sing Stevie Wonder, Joshua picks “I Wish” and gives us a scat, a huge note at the end and all in all turns in a solid performance.  The song didn’t allow him to provide all the vocal pyrotechnics we got from him last week, but all in all it was an upbeat, thoroughly competent way to begin the night.  Hoping Joshua hangs around for a while. Grade: B

Elise Testone:  She’ll take on “I’m Your Baby Tonight” after ditching “The Greatest Love of All” at the advice of Jimmy Iovine.  I think I’ll dub Elise as the contestant most likely to growl in Season 11.  And she has a unique tone, but I’m not sure that tune was the best match for her voice.  Honestly, there were times when that bordered on shouting.  The best description of that performance comes from Randy, who says it came off as though Elise was “boxing the song.”  Grade: C+

Jermaine Jones:  The gentle giant at 6-foot-8 and1/2 takes the stage next.  No doubt he has  a smooth, deep voice, but that performance of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” was a little sleepy for me.  Jennifer calls him “so adorable,” but suggests Jermaine do a better job of connecting with the audience.  Well, he was waving at the crowd the moment the song ended. Look at this, folks, the judges are really judging.  And Jermaine gets mixed reviews, with Randy proving the most critical.  Grade: C+

Erika Van PeltThe “Edge of Glory” gal will sing “I Believe in You and Me.”  Well, this isn’t as much fun as the wild card round performance, perhaps not as impassioned.  But that was the best vocal we’ve heard so far tonight.  Pitch perfect from start to finish, a couple of nice glory notes thrown in.  Very nice job, Erika.  The judges chose wisely in the wild card round, folks.  Ryan decides she, too, needs a nickname, so she’s “EVP.” Grade: B+ 

 Colton Dixon:  Jimmy says this song — “Lately” — isn’t in his wheelhouse.  That might have been an understatement.  Talk about struggling against a song.  You can tell Colton is trying his hardest, but I get the impression this is a song he would never sing of his own choosing. The judges are giving him good feedback.  I didn’t get it, didn’t like it, thought it was the weakest performance of the night.  But with those smoldering eyes, Colton’s in no danger of going home.  Grade: C-

Shannon Magrane:  The impressive 16-year-old will sing “I Have Nothing.”  She started out a little weak.  You could barely hear her vocals over the music.  She seemed to gain her footing for a moment, but then seemed to start shouting rather than singing near the end of that song, and things turned a little pitchy.  I think she’s capable of far better.  You know it couldn’t have been good if Steven Tyler said she “crashed and burned.” Wow, criticism from Steven?  A new day on Idol for sure.  Grade: C-

Deandre Brackensick:  The guy who was the most questionable pick for the finals in my mind, sings “Master Blaster.” Deandre sounds better than last week because he’s not screeching through the entire song.  And he’s a fine performer.  And he’ll be a huge hit with the gals. But I’m not sure there was anything special about that vocal performance.  And I’m still not sure how two subpar vocal performances got him this far.  Grade: C.

Skylar Laine:  Whew, Whitney is a tall order for the gal who wants to put gritty country into her performances.  Talk about a mismatch of singer and theme.  She’ll sing “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and admits she’s never performed a Whitney song before. Wow, Skylar kicked butt on that bridge.  Valiant opening.  Superb ending.  Excellent performance by the gal who had to look at this theme and say: What?  Steven calls the performance “a thing of beauty.”  Grade: B+

Heejun Han:  He’ll sing “All Is Fair In Love.”  Heejun, the jokester, gives Jimmy, who criticized him last week, a signed photo — “I love you, Jimmy,” it reads.  Cute.  So are his tweet pics.  But now he has to sing.  You know what, that was better than I expected.  Heejun hit a huge glory note in the middle; he ended with a nice flourish.  He sounded pretty good throughout.  But, look, we don’t grade on a curve, so let’s keep it all in perspective.  Not the best of the night, far from the worst.  Grade: C+

Hollie Cavanagh:  The little gal with the big voice sings “All the Man I Need” because it has lots of emotion.  She’s one of the gals who seemed comfortable with the idea of singing Whitney in pre-show interviews.  Hey, she let her hair down, Steven.  And where in the heck does that big voice come from.  And how in the heck could Idol keep her in hiding throughout the early part of the season?  Wow, did you hear that huge note near the end of the song, followed by that soft ending.  A new best of the night.  Way to go, Hollie Cavanagh!  Grade: A-

 Jeremy Rosado:  The teen is out to prove himself after needing Jennifer’s help to make the finals.  He’s singing “Ribbons in the Sky.”  He’s trying hard, but he had the misfortune of following Skylar Laine and Hollie Cavanagh and the better than expected Heejun to the stage.  There wasn’t anything technically wrong with that, and it included the Idol-required glory note, but I’m not sure that’s the performance anyone will remember at the end of the night.  Randy says he wasn’t feeling it. Grade: C.

Jessica Sanchez:  Another reason I’m not crazy about this theme.  Only one girl gets to sing Whitney’s “I Will Always Love You.”  Check out this a cappella opening.  Hey, America, say hello to Jessica Sanchez, another gal Idol kept in hiding for way too long.  Very, very nice performance of a song.  That earned a standing ovation from the judges.  Dang, that’s a song the judges tell contestants not to sing, and she nailed it too.  Randy is beside himself with praise.  Jennifer calls it “just amazing.”  Steven says Jessica “just may be the one.”  Grade: A.

Phillip Phillips:  The guy I think is a favorite to win this thing gets the pimp spot.  Well, with tonight’s alternating format, one had to.  He’s singing “Superstition,” and says he’ll do it different than anyone else has done it on the show.  And Phillip’s back on guitar.  Looks like there won’t be restrictions on instruments this year.  Well, he changed up the song.  He made it fun.  Not sure that was my favorite vocal of the night, but it was easily one of the best performances tonight. Solid way to end the night for a guy who shouldn’t have anything to worry about for weeks.  Grade: B+

Recap from judges:

Randy dodges the tough question, says Joshua and Jessica were the best.

Jennifer predicts Shannon might be in trouble, and runs off a long list of solid performances.

Steven says he worries for Elise and Shannon; he says the standouts were Jessica Sanchez and Jessica Sanchez.

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