American Idol, Cream of the Crop

For a while there, I was getting really sick of all the hype about this being the best group of

target="_blank">American Idol contestants ever. But now I'm starting to think it might be true.

After this week's performances, I honestly had a difficult time picking the winners and losers. Everyone was... well... pretty dang good.

I mean, usually at this stage of the competition, there's still an Anthony Fedorov or Chris Richardson type still hanging around. Someone who you just know shouldn't be there, but has squeaked by a few weeks.

This year I think the public has done a pretty good job whittling away the worst, with the one notable exception of Asia'h Epperson. She should still be here.

You could argue that Chikezie Eze and Amanda Overmyer both got the boot sooner than they deserved, but I don't think they were destined for the finals anyway, so what's the diff?

Personally, I think at least six of the nine remaining contestants have a legitimate shot at being the last Idol standing.

This week, the Idol-ites were mentored by Dolly Parton. Which meant that, unless someone sang "Islands in the Stream" or "Nine to Five," I was probably not going to know a single song. Sorry, I am just not a very big Dolly fan.

A quick side note: the entire show felt rushed this week. Trying to cram nine singers into an hour isn't easy, I guess. After each performance, the judges had about five seconds each to give their opinions. On the plus side, it kept the inane banter between Ryan and Simon to a minimum.

The judges were pretty even-keeled throughout the night. Randy, Paula and Simon all seemed relatively nonplussed at the performances. Randy only handed out a couple of "hots." Paula, as usual, thought everyone's beautiful spirit shined through. And Simon, while honest, wasn't quite so brutal.

So how'd everyone do? Here's my take.

TOP TWO:

Michael Johns: I have to give top honors to Michael for the second week in a row. He sang "It's All Wrong, but It's Alright" giving it a rock/bluesy edge. The arrangement showcased his voice and he really powered it. Randy called it blazing hot. Paula practically jumped him on the stage. Simon

said it's the best he's ever heard Michael sing.

Syesha Mercado: Second place in my book goes to Syesha for taking on "I Will Always Love You." Dolly wrote it, but the world will always think of Whitney Houston's amazing version. Syesha tried to do a half-Dolly, half-Whitney rendition. At first I thought it was kind of a cop-out, but she started slow

and picked up the pace, and by the end I was sold. And she just killed the last note. Randy said she took on a big tiger and did alright. Paula said she was growing. Simon said the first part (the Dolly part) was good, but that the second part (the Whitney part) was not.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK:

Brooke White: Brooke really shined in the first few weeks, but hasn't been on fire lately. She sang "Jolene," playing guitar with a backing fiddle and drummer. I really liked her vocals, but honestly I thought the music outshined the actual singing. I give the performance an A+, but not the singing alone. Randy called it alright. Paula said she was consistent. Simon felt like she was lacking emotion.

David Cook: David has been on fire lately, but not tonight. He also played guitar and performed "Little Sparrow," telling us before-hand that he came up with his own arrangement. That's great, but since I didn't know the song, I couldn't tell. David had great confidence though, and the vocals and playing were solid. THANK GOODNESS HE CUT HIS HAIR! Man, I was getting sick of that ugly mop. Randy thought it was great. Paula (who also liked his

haircut) thought he showed his strength. Simon thought he wasn't as good as last week, but that he made the song sound good.

Jason Castro: Jason has his work cut out for him. The last few weeks he's been accused of not being focused, not caring about the competition, and some have implied he was stoned on stage last week. But he stepped it up this week, singing "Travellin' Through." Great vocals, and he really put his heart into it. Randy said he "worked it out" this week. Paula said it was one of his strongest performances yet. Simon said he didn't like it at all.

Carly Smithson: Carly wisely chose a relatively well-known Parton song, "Here You Come Again." The arrangement let her show off her power and range by alternating between soft, melodic verses and the up-tempo chorus. But I kept waiting for the song to pick up, or crescendo... and it just didn't. She did nail the ending note. Randy said it was one of the better performances of the night. Paula called it glorious. Simon said it was good but not great, and that she needs to look at her clothing. But Simon, don't you know she's trying to hide the fact that she's pregnant?

David Archuleta: David's father chose... er... I mean David chose another well-known Dolly diddy with "Smoky Mountain Memories." He went with a slower arrangement than I remember, but it really showcased his voice. Man, does this kid have pipes or what? David could have been in my top two, but I felt

like Michael and Syesha edged him out slightly. Randy called it best of the night. Paula praised his beautiful aura. Simon said it was on the money.

BOTTOM TWO:

Kristy Lee Cook: This was a tough call for me. I am really rooting for Kristy Lee, especially after last week's comeback of sorts. But compared to everyone else, her rendition of "The Coat of Many Colors" fell a little flat. She sang it in a very traditional country style, with a very traditional country arrangement, in a very traditional country ensemble. (She was even barefoot.) Country definitely suits her, but I would like to have seen her try something different with the song. Randy said country was her "wheelhouse." Paula thought it was her best so far. Simon said her best was last week. He called it pleasant but forgettable.

Ramiele Malubay: Little Ramiele seems to ping-pong between fantastic performances and less-than-stellar karaoke acts. Tonight's was the latter in my book. She sang "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind." Her vocals were fine, but the performance was straightforward, which is a kind way of saying plain and boring. Randy gave it six-and-a-half out of ten. Paula avoided saying anything mean by telling Ramiele she connected with the audience. Simon said it was cute, but forgettable.

America has some tough choices. Ramiele might be the no-brainer to send home, but she has a lot of fan support. And sending anyone else packing at this point seems like a shame. We'll see.

Ethan Morris: "Not always right, but never in doubt." Go ahead and write me.