The top eight men took the stage on "American Idol" on Wednesday (March 10), a night when the front-runners staked a claim for their spots in the top 12, and the weaker members of the herd punched their tickets home. When the dust settled, Michael Lynche emerged emerged as the new one to beat with a performance so strong, it brought judge Kara DioGuardi to tears, and seeming also-ran Tim Urban possibly saved himself with his strongest performance to date.
Lee Dewyze made it clear that he intends to hang around, coming out strong with a Dave Matthews-like acoustic ramble through Owl City's "Fireflies." It wasn't always on key, but he made up for it with his infectious charm and barroom sandpaper drawl.
Randy Jackson thought it was too soft a song for Lee's voice, and a bit pitchy, but he liked how he made it his own, and Kara appreciated the confident vibe he brought to the tune. "There's nothing to rave about after that," said Simon Cowell, who didn't feel his favorite male semifinalist had "a moment" but still displayed solid progress.
As his star has steadily risen on the show, Alex Lambert nailed his song choice with Ray LaMontagne's weary ballad "Trouble," a tune that perfectly fit his dry-throated voice and sad-eyed, innocent demeanor.
"The only thing standing in the way of you winning is you right now," Kara said, praising his unique voice but counseling him to let it rip. Ellen busted out the ripening banana metaphor one more time and said Lambert is getting better and better every week, even as he maintains his innocence. Continuing with the inappropriate advice, Simon said Lambert needs to loosen up, perhaps by imagining Jackson in a bikini.
With two weeks of bad news behind him, Tim Urban went for it by tackling Leonard Cohen's iconic — and hard-to-sing — "Hallelujah." Strumming an acoustic guitar, Urban didn't try to reinvent the wheel but capably hung in there for his strongest effort to date.
Ellen, feeling bad about slagging Urban every week, ran up onstage and hugged him as a kind of apology, and Simon patted himself on the back for giving Urban back his confidence, calling it Tim's best performance to date. "You walked in some pretty big shoes, and I think you did a pretty good job, Tim," Randy said, as Kara predicted he might have sung his way back from the brink with his honest, emotional take on the song.
Needing to find his groove again, Andrew Garcia went back to the well for a cover of Christina Aguilera's breakthrough hit, "Genie in a Bottle." The Santana-like flamenco/soul take felt like another high point, with Garcia making the song his own.
Kara, though, sensed he was fighting with the melody and straining too hard to recapture his "Straight Up" glory, saying, "It just wasn't great." It was a good idea, but too pitchy and not dynamic enough for Randy, though Ellen loved the song choice and wished the genie had come out of the bottle earlier. "It was a little bit desperate," Simon said.
Casey James went with Keith Urban's "You'll Think of Me," a safe, straightforward acoustic country ballad that highlighted his soulful tone. That's exactly what Randy thought, encouraging Casey to go edgier and more rock. For Simon, it was James' second-best effort, one that made him seem sincere and sounded great, even if it was a bit forgettable. His former number-one fan, Kara said she was missing the spark, but was glad he wasn't trying to be a phony rock star anymore.
A singer seemingly on the bubble, Aaron Kelly, also chose a country tune — Lonestar's "I'm Already There" — which started out pitchy and tentative and didn't get much better as he rose from his stool and wiggled awkwardly back and forth, alternating between pure and off-key notes.
The singing wasn't great for Ellen, but she thought Aaron carried himself like a much older, more experienced singer than he is. "I love you, you come out onstage every week and you give it your all," said Kara, who then pointed out that the song is about a man calling home to talk to his kids, which just doesn't make any sense coming from a 16-year-old. Simon, however, totally disagreed, saying it was the right type of song for him and he had the right emotion, even if it wasn't a great vocal.
Todrick Hall's philosophy? If you might go home, go big. His unexpected take on Queen's "Somebody to Love" turned out to be a bold choice for the dancer, who turned the tune into a sanctified gospel showpiece.
"Todrick is back!" Randy announced, calling it one of the best male vocals he's heard in weeks. Cowell took it down a notch, dubbing the performance more fit for Broadway than an "Idol" recording artist while giving Hall props for performing and not just sitting on a stool and strumming a guitar.
Then Big Mike Lynche brought down the house. He also switched it up, singing British icon Kate Bush's classic ballad "This Woman's Work," evoking Maxwell with his silky, between-the-sheets R&B version.
The praise was unanimous. Simon said it was the best performance of all the live shows so far, Ellen declared the personal trainer the new one to beat, and DioGuardi literally burst into tears at the emotion the new dad put into the tune. All a dumbfounded Randy could say was "Really?"
Four more singers go home Thursday night as this year's top 12 is revealed.
What did you think of the men's performances? Who killed it? Who blew it? Who is definitely making it to the top 12? Let us know by leaving your comments below.
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.