The "American Idol" audition rounds are usually the equivalent of waterboarding: painful, endless and often hard to watch, spiked with the occasional gasp of fresh air.
But this year producers kept them to an almost-manageable six episodes and, between the acres of shade thrown by new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj at each other, sprinkled in a few lively contestants that gave us hope for season 12.
Yes, there was the usual parade of jokey weirdos, from screamo loonies to national anthem-killing wackjobs, but there was also a handful of very promising talents that seem poised to make it far in the competition.
After reviewing the tapes and wearing out our TiVos, our resident "Idol" expert Adam Graham and I have picked our six favorites so far.
I will go out on a limb here and predict that a female country singer will win this year. Yes, I know that it's been forever since a girl took home the crown (where you been, Jordin Sparks?), but the ladies have really been bringing it so far.
Micah Johnson: I'm normally not a sucker for the hard-luck stories, but the 24-year-old Navy man just blew minds with his country-soul slaying of the Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried." The shock of hearing his story about how tonsil surgery caused nerve damage that led to a prominent speech impediment seemed like typical "Idol" heartstring manipulation, but when he opened his mouth ... wow. Not sure he can win, but Johnson deserves a shot.
Halie Hilburn: This started out looking like one of the show's signature trainwrecks. Horse trainer/ventriloquist Hilburn, 27, showed up to the Oklahoma auditions with her puppet Oscar, who's been her constant companion for 18 years. The judges were appropriately skeptical, but when Halie belted out "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" with Oscar, and then Gavin DeGraw's "More Than Anyone" without, there was no doubt. The Vernon, Texas beauty is the full package, with a sparkling personality to boot.
Summer Cunningham: Her special moment was almost torpedoed by The Fight, but Cunningham, 20, was another stunner whose fresh look and humble personality came through during her cover of "Lean on Me." Yes, maybe she already "did" country, but her mix of soul and down-home yodely charm was impressive.
Papa Peachez: First off, best name in "Idol" history, better than even Sundance Head (or Phillip Phillips, for that matter). And he's already admitted he hates singing cover songs, which should make his time on "Idol" very interesting, if extremely short-lived. "Papa Peachez don't lie," the 19-year-old from Jackson, Mississippi sang in his original audition song, reinforcing what was already quite obvious: Papa Peachez is the truth.
Lazaro Arbos: The 21-year-old with the severe stutter (one more and it's a trend) that melts away when he begins singing has the edge so far in this season's sentimental department. The ice cream scooper from Naples, Florida, wowed viewers and the judges with his version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which embodied the struggle he faces with his everyday speech. He's also already got a signature look, and could do more for bowties than any "Idol" to date.
Burnell Taylor: The New Orleans native lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, but he doesn't need a sob story to help him along in the competition. His audition of "I'm Here" from "The Color Purple" showed he has a huge voice, along with a real connection to the words he sings and a remarkable control over his instrument. In addition, he seems like a kind soul and a southern gentleman to boot. His future looks bright. Who was your favorite? Let us know in comments below.
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