Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Top Performances of American Idol: Season 8

This post will probably be as controversial a post as anything I've ever posted, but I've gotta say: I went over this list half a dozen times, moving things up and down, removing things, putting them back in, etc., and this list has to be pretty close to an absolute.

We've got one more week of performances, though there's no reason to assume that any of them will be unbelievably great, since the judges will be picking songs for the contestants again (yay.), so I think we're safe to put the list on ice before a (hopefully) Adam and Kris finale next week.

Rabid Glambert and Danny fans might pour flame mail down my throat, but you have to admit - while Adam has been more than solid the whole season long, always effortless, always energetic, his two really only show-stopping moments are given their due here, and solid-but-unremarkable (for him) performances like "Black Or White," "Feeling Good," and "Play That Funky Music" don't make the list. Danny fans - what can I say? He's been solid all season, never surprising (save for that one time), and while his vocals have been excellent, how many can you look back on and say "that was an unbelievable performance." The couple weeks that qualify are listed here.

As for Lil, Scott, Megan, Michael, and (God forbid) Jorge and Jasmine fans, and those vague hangers-on from the Semi-finals (Ricky Braddy, everybody!), I can only apologize. You were all memorable. Just not in the right way.

Links are provided.

25. Jesse Langseth – “Bette Davis Eyes"
The only one on this list who didn't make the finals, she never really had a chance - she sang in the same semi-final group that Alison did. How good was this song, though? The backbeat on it, and those smoking vocals over that snapping groove. And Jasmine beat her to the finals because the judges thought she might be a 'package artist.' Grr.

24. Matt Giraud - "Part Time Lover"

Matt was unfortunate to never really start to find a real comfort level until the end of the competition, but this was one of the performances where he remained completely in the zone, (mercifully) not killing the melody with riffing.

23. Anoop Desai - "True Colors"

Anoop hit a stretch early on where it was clear the only thing that was really working for him was slow, soulful ballads, something he fought endlessly and unsuccessfully. His best moments were always these quiet, understated vocals, and this was one his very best.

22. Kris Allen - "Heartless"
The only real standout from the top three's showdown tonight was Kris' attempt to get America's attention by covering Kanye West's "Heartless," a strong choice since it's a current and musically interesting song famously sung by a terrible singer, so the only place to go was up. Choosing to do it with just an acoustic and stretching his vocals to their limits, though, was a gutsy call.

21. Danny Gokey - "Get Ready"

We learned early on that if Gokey could get a chorus in his range that just needed him to slam the gas to the floor, that was a moment worth waiting for. Of all his faster moments, complete with gloriously awkward dancing and self-conscious glances at the camera, he never hit harder or more effectively than he did right here.

20. Alexis Grace - "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)"
The performance that swept Alexis into the finals (where she was immediately swept right out again) was so good that everyone believed that bogus news story floating around at the beginning of the season that the producers already had their top 4 picked out and Alexis was in it. Of course, her getting booted after her lovely but ill-advised version of "Jolene" the second week ended that conspiracy theory pretty quickly.

19. Matt Giraud - "So Small"
Nobody really made it through Country Week that well (except for Anoop, of course). It's somehow just not a good week for most singers, for some reason. Still, Matt did some interesting things to Carrie Underwood's hit and really made it sound like something that could be on an album he made. Not bad for a guy who is quite emphatically not a country artist.

18. Kris Allen - "She Works Hard For The Money"

Ah, Disco Week. Where everyone falls all over each other to try to "re-invent" disco (as if anyone invented it the first place. I maintain it was accidentally discovered, like how Marie Curie discovered uranium. I hope whoever it was suffered the same fate). Kris ended up the only person looking untouched at the end of the night with a stripped-down acoustic version of the Donna Summer classic.

17. Allison Iraheta - "Someone To Watch Over Me"
Trust me, this is the first of many Allison performances. How she managed to remain skating through in the bottom three each week despite so many jaw-dropping performances is beyond me, but this was one of my favorites. Imbued with all the desperation and trembling vulnerability the song requires, Allison connected with the song in such a way that it would've made Mr. Holland re-write his Opus all over again (Dreyfuss references!).

16. Matt Giraud - "Who's Loving You"
We'd gotten the impression that Matt was a good singer during Hollywood week, but his Semi-final performance of "Viva La Vida" (though not nearly as bad as everyone says it was) didn't give us much to go on. When he went back to his roots during Wild Card week, it was game over. Despite the judges very clear efforts to jam as many girls into the Top 12 as possible (Jasmine Murray!), it was clear that Matt had made a home for himself on the Idol stage.

15. Adam Lambert - "Born To Be Wild"

Adam has mercifully dialed down the endless showboat wailing that marred his early performances, though he hasn't exactly figured out how to bring the energy back up without alienating fans ("Cryin" was a good step forward this week), sometimes it's best when he lets it all good. "Wild" was every bit as good a vocal as Adam had all year, plus his crowd-pleasing head-banging made for a great show.

14. Danny Gokey - "What Hurts The Most"

There's a moment in this song where it gets big, and you need a big vocal to make it work, and as soon as it hit that part, everyone watching said 'oh, wow, yeah, that's why he picked this song.' Watch it back now. I still get goosebumps.

13. Allison Iraheta - "Papa Was A Rolling Stone"
No matter how big the song, no matter how fast the lyrics fly, no matter how old the material, if a song is rocking enough, Allison will destroy it. Every time.

12. Matt Giraud - "Let's Get It On"

The song that made everyone - even the judges! - snap to and say 'y'know, this guy's got a real chance at that thing.' The swipe of the mike off the piano stand and the subsequent stride to center stage just announced with every little motion an eye-catching, veteran performer. And speaking of eye-catching, it should be noted both how outrageously tight his jeans were, and how disturbingly excited Kara was at the end of the performance.

11. Adam Lambert & Allison Iraheta - "Slow Ride"
Everything about this performance makes me feel happy - the two of them trading lines, exchanging riffs, interacting and grinning at each other, plus the giant hug at the end that showed how genuinely thrilled for each other they were. I hope they actually do let them do it on the tour and not one of those awful group numbers that drag every results show into the ground.

10. Anoop Desai - "Always On My Mind"

I still remember the moment Anoop started singing this song and my jaw just dropped to the floor. Up to this point we'd seen Anoop perform at least four times, and there wasn't the slightest indication he had this sort of vocal. But the moment he opened his mouth for this song, it was like you could hear a pin drop in the Idol auditorium.

9. Allison Iraheta – “Alone”

At the time Allison performed this in the semi-finals, we had absolutely no idea who she was. She hadn't been seen in previous segments, we'd barely seen her face during Hollywood week, and so we knew she wasn't one of the go-to season favorites (which at that point were Danny, Matt, and Lil, I'm pretty sure). But once she started singing, she'd vaulted into the top 13 before the song was even done. Still one of her best vocals from the season.

8. Matt Giraud - "You Found Me"
This must be the year's most underrated performance. Maybe it was performing the song from the pit in front of the stage. Maybe it was being surrounded by 50 fans who could not clap on any of the beats. Maybe it was that awful Members Only jacket. I don't know. But Matt killed on this song, pouring grit into the melody and riffing off to give it a soulful edge. I'll point out that this is the only week during his last stretch where he didn't end up in the bottom three.

7. Allison Iraheta - "I Can't Make You Love Me"

How is it that such an adult sort of song about complex relationships sounded so natural when sung by a sixteen-year-old girl? She was so heart-breaking on this song, a selection, it should be pointed out, from "Songs From The Year You Were Born" week.

6. Danny Gokey - "Come Rain Or Come Shine"
As stellar as Danny's vocals have been (until recently), it wasn't until Rat Pack week that Danny really had that moment that made you say 'man, that's why this guy is here. No one else could've done that.' And all because that song has so many moments where it seems like it's about to get huge, and you brace for it, and Danny reigns it back in, keeping you waiting for the big finale that makes it all worth it.

5. Kris Allen - "Falling Slowly"

How lousy was Movie Music week? Out of seven performances, we had two (two!) Bryan Adams songs, Danny brought a harp player onto the stage, and even Allison was kinda mediocre. While Adam brought the show some energy on "Born To Be Wild," it was Kris' sweet, gentle take on "Falling Slowly" that reminded us of just how outstanding a singer Kris really is - and gives lie to Simon's endless insistence that Kris shouldn't be in the finals because he's not a good enough vocalist.

4. Allison Iraheta - "Cry Baby" (post-elimination)
Her Rock week vocal was a little rocky, though I think we can't blame bad vocals for sending her home that week (Oh, Danny, why?). But once she got eliminated, her farewell performance was pitch-perfect and emotionally stunning. Where most people halfheartedly stumble through the song that dropped them from competition, Allison gave us one more reason to remember that we'll be seeing her again soon.

3. Adam Lambert - "Mad World"
A lot of people assume that this should be number one, but at least for me, once I heard that Adam was doing "Mad World," I said 'oh, he'll do the Gary Jules version.' And of course he did. But that's nothing to take away from Adam's vocal, which is both haunting and impressive, and his tender, understated (!) performance.

2. Kris Allen - "Ain't No Sunshine"
Nobody else this season has had a moment quite like this - a melodic reinvention of a song so gripping that the judges had to admit that they could see the song being played on the radio right then. It's the only time this year I heard a performance and knew that I'd be buying that person's album when it came out, no matter what.

1. Adam Lambert - "Tracks Of My Tears"
Was there any doubt? Remember, up until this performances Adam was a sharply divisive candidate, as fans either deplored him and his persistent wailing, or found him to be the best contestant Idol had ever seen (I was in the former group, though I was starting to come around a little). But "Tracks Of My Tears" - slow, acoustic, and poignant - was unlike any performance we'd ever seen from him, and still let him show off his remarkable vocal range. Looking back, we'll almost certainly end up saying 'and that's the moment he won American Idol.'

Disagree with me? I'm not surprised. I'm not backing down on this list though.

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