The first half of the Top 24 delivers everything from a killer take on a Dolly Parton classic to rocking the The Beatles, dancing to Dua Lipa, and a gut-wrenching Shawn Mendes cover.
For the first round of the Top 24 in Hawaii this season, “American Idol” pulled in an “Idol” alum who had to find his own path to stardom — and boy did he — with Jimmie Allen as the group mentor.
That proved a huge shocker for one contestant, who not only looked up to Jimmie as one of a select few pioneers continuing the push for diversity in country music but also picked one of his songs to perform this week. So no pressure there, then.
Of these 12 singers, two of them won’t survive the week, with another two leaving from the other dozen that hit the stage during Monday’s broadcast. As it turns out, though, it’s not quite as easy to predict those two as we might have thought.
At the same time, we can definitely say two contestants that it won’t be. It was as if they were competing at a different level than any of the other singers on this show. We also saw some fresh faces emerge who’d gotten very little time, with one of them really standing out and making us wonder why she’d been kept from us so long?
Jimmy Allen also performed his latest track, “Down Home.” A song written in memory of his late father, it was achingly beautiful and heartbreaking. It was also the perfect opportunity for the competitors to see what a real artist and real connection brings to a performance. It’s next level.
Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.
And just for fun, I’m going to rank the performances from worst to first to see who my favorites are. That way I can see who’s the best and then see if you get it right with your votes — i.e., agree with me.
(“Down Home,” Jimmie Allen) Jimmy preaches throughout the night connection and really feeling the message of your song. He co-wrote this song for his late father, and boy could we feel every bit of it. There wasn’t a dry eye in this house as this one progressed. Jimmy was so authentic in this performance, filled with heart and yet still offering beautiful vocal nuance. When he stripped it back for the final chorus, it was a stunning vocal performance — and he already had us. This is the level of pro everyone aspires to achieve.
(“Heaven,” Bryan Adams – 24, Chesapeake, VA) He was overly cautious when with the guitar during rehearsals with Jimmie, but his nerves seemed to be getting the best of him through much of his stage performance without it. A few times he looked out at his girlfriend and we felt some connection, but when he was scanning the crowd or looking over to the judges (which he did too much), it was lacking. The overall performance was pleasant enough, if a little flat in places, but not nearly what a show like this calls for.
(“Levitating,” Dua Lipa – 18, Hartford, CT) Not the best song choice to try and show off what she can do in a competition, but we appreciated that she was giving the right kind of body and face for the dance energy. There was a playfun energy that was infectious, but the runs she dominated the back half of the song with seemed to prove that it wasn’t right. She basically had to throw away the lyrics to try and give herself a chance to show some range and power. Some songs are a bop, but they’re not necessarily worthy of showing what you’ve got. The result for us was that she sounded a little desperate in the back half trying to stand out on what was an otherwise somewhat dull performance.
(“Best Shot,” Jimmie Allen – 27, Warrenton, VA) Mike’s take on Jimmie’s song injected it with a bit of soul and R&B — and it kind of worked in places. He’s clearly still trying to understand the type of artist he wants to be. Not every choice he made here worked for the song or for this moment. We think he was going for a more intimate opening verse, but it came across nervous and tepid and almost under the music; which is underwhelming to say the least. There were pieces in this that were interesting and seemed to offer glimpses of where Mike could go. It’s getting there, but it’s not fully cooked yet.
(“Your Song,” Elton John – 17, Los Angeles, CA) Despite putting her power in the latter middle of the song, Danielle was actually far more compelling at the top and bottom of this cover. We really enjoyed her tweaks to the original song — though we’re not a fan of the delayed lyric behind the note as an “artistic” choice, it’s played out — and the playfulness of her voice. She has a very cool breathiness in her delivery that’s very compelling, and makes what she’s singing feel even weightier. It was a great choice for her and a solid showcase of what she can do and who she wants to be.
(“Everywhere,” Fleetwood Mac – 19, Nashville, TN) She didn’t need the runs midway through a line; they were so effective in the chorus; and she did miss a few notes along the way. This was an interpretation just to be delivered like she was in the most intimate setting. A few times we could hear her pushing herself vocally, but this wasn’t about that. With her gentle, ethereal delivery, she was luring the audience in to join her on this planet of chill where she was vibing. There’s a lovely little break in her voice, and she uses her falsetto beautifully. It was a stunningly simple and heartfelt performance.
(“I Want You Back,” The Jackson 5 – 23, Salisbury, MD) We were hoping for more connection from Jay, a note he got from Katy, but this was instead a fun romp and vocally acrobatic piece. Yes, we know he has killer pipes and can deliver (almost) every note pitch perfect, but do these lyrics mean anything to him? We get that the original was uptempo, but even there we could hear young Michael Jackson pleading with the object of the song. Jay was just showing off a bit much — which is fine, but he needs to dig deeper to shift his talent toward artistry.
(“Banjo,“ Rascal Flatts – 23, Winchester, TN) She is effortless in her vocals, but HunterGirl is still a work in progress when it comes to stage presence. We even loved the little laugh she gave toward the end, as it lent itself perfectly to her authenticity as a singer. We never doubt that HunterGIrl is the real deal when she’s singing. We could hear her on a record right now, her voice is so pure and so real. This song is an uptempo jam and she brought the party to that stage. You could tell she was a little off her game without her guitar, but we appreciated seeing her stretch. She’s already such a natural talent, these types of decisions are how she’ll grow even better.
(“Jolene,” Dolly Parton – 20, Burbank, CA) Thanks to the edit, we’ve not seen much of Sage this season, but what a way to make an impression in a short span of time. She tweaked this stone cold classic just enough that we couldn’t take our eyes or ears off of this performance. We loved the little shimmy she did at the mic stand when a bit of funk slid into the groove. It was all just mesmerizing. She didn’t try to do too much with it vocally, but just let the character of the piece and her voice shine. It was a perfect choice, as more isn’t always better. There was so much intention and artistry on display, we’ll remember this one for sure.
(“Angels Like You,” Miley Cyrus – 16, Cleveland, OH) That was a tour de force vocal so resonant that we’ll forgive that missed note she reached for toward the end. There were hints of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo influence in her lower presentation, but overall this was a standout performance that felt authentically her from the top to the bottom. And wow does she have an impressive instrument and solid grasp of how to use it most effectively at such a tender age. She had everyone silent and hanging on her every note, which is a testament to her artistry and to her reaching that emotional connection Jimmie was pushing her toward.
(“With a Little Help from My Friends,” The Beatles [as performed by Joe Cocker] – 17, Pell City, AL) By a country mile this was Tristen’s best performance of the whole competition. All of the manic energy he brings to every moment he put into stage presence and we found ourselves loving every over-the-top moment he gave us. This was full-on rock star level showmanship. But more importantly, he backed up the preening with his best vocals yet. There was nuance, grace, grit, growth and he genuinely took us on a journey through the song. This was the diamond in all that rough we saw in his first audition. A very impressive transformation.
(“Elastic Heart,” Sia – 18, Toronto, ON) Come on now! That was all heart from top to bottom, easily the most emotionally connected performance of the night. Nicolina blows us away every time she performs. We’re not sure this was her strongest moment yet, but it still left us gasping for breath and drying our eyes. On the right song and with the right connection, she is an absolute force to be reckoned with on this show, and perhaps this industry after all is said and done. Rare is the artist who comes fully baked to this stage, but Nicolina knows exactly who she is and how to deliver. She just needed a chance. Is this it?
(“In My Blood,” Shawn Mendes – 28, Dansville, MI) Talk about taking the competition to another level. This wasn’t even close to anyone who’d come before him. Jacob’s upper end is absolutely ridiculous, but we already knew that. This time, he also broke our hearts in the early going with gentle, emotional connection. We felt that he knew everything about the journey that this song shares. The pain and struggle when life gets you down and then finding that inner strength to keep fighting. It was empowering, it was otherworldly, it just made him a contender to win this show.
If we go by our rankings, it’s bad news for Dan Marshall and Scarlet. Well, we’ll still stand by Dan not making the cut as two from this group will be eliminated next Sunday. But the judges were much more bullish on Scarlet than we were. It is also a more hip song she chose, so we’re going to buck our own rankings and predict that America breaks ranks and says goodbye to Dan and Danielle Finn next week.
“American Idol” airs Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.