photo: Michael Becker/FoxSeason 11's "American Idol" finale is coming up, and while the top two finalists, Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, have both had their amazing moments this year, some of the finest performances of this season came from contestants who've already been voted off. "American Idol" often works out that way, sadly. But the good news is, the top 12 will return to the "Idol" stage for the finale next Wednesday. And hopefully on Tuesday's final competitive show, Phillip and Jessica will deliver performances as fantastic as the ones listed below!
Here are my picks for the 10 best performances of "Idol" Season 11. Who is on your top 10 list?
10) Elise Testone & Phillip Phillips - "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"
Elise took on the Stevie Nicks role she was born to play, and Phillip was her Petty-esque foil, in THE best duet of Season 11. (And one with certainly much more chemistry than that awkward "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" Phillip/Joshua duet!) After this cool pairing, I started hoping that this "Idol" power couple would become a real-life couple and make lots of rad rock 'n' roll babies. That probably isn't going to happen (Phillip is spoken for) ...but I would certainly love it if these two made an album together one day.
9) Jessica Sanchez - "I Will Always Love You"
This stunning performance from the top 13 week was arguably the first big MOMENT of Season 11, one that rendered Jennifer Lopez "speechless" and "made 40 million people cry," according to Steven Tyler. With this, Jessica easily established herself as the girl to beat--and maybe the overall contestant to beat. It was a massive risk for Jessica to sing Whitney Houston's signature song--which former "Idol" diva Jennifer Hudson had so memorably nailed on the Grammys not long before, and which Randy Jackson called "one of the hardest songs in the world"--but she completely pulled it off, and she made it look easy.
8) Jessica Sanchez - "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going"
In the top four week, Jessica took on this Dreamgirls behemoth, which Randy ALSO called "one of the hardest songs in the world to sing." It's also a song that in recent years has become closely associated in people's minds with one of the greatest "Idol" divas, the aforementioned Jennifer Hudson. But Jessica NAILED this too. Inspired by the Judges' Save night when she almost went home a few weeks earlier, Jessica made it clear that she had no intention of ever coming that close to being voted off again.
7) Phillip Phillips - "U Got It Bad"
Ripping a page straight from the Kris Allen/David Cook Playbook, during the top seven redux week, P-Squared took this R&B hit and rocked it up. And it was brilliant. I swear, if I had never heard the original before, I would have never guessed it was an Usher song. This was just enough of a departure from Phillip's past few soundalike performances, yet it was still very him, and he still "Phillip Phillips'd" the song to the max. The judges all gave him a standing ovation, and J.Lo purred, "That was so sexy! That was sexy, baby!" Maybe Casper Smart should be jealous?
6) Joshua Ledet - "When A Man Loves A Woman"
This season's top 11 episode started out being all about Jermaine Jones's controversial disqualification, but by the end of the night, all anyone was talking about was Joshua Ledet. The man had soul (and sweat) oozing out of his pores during this watershed performance, and the judges gave him his first of a record SIXTEEN standing ovations. J.Lo even declared this "the best thing I've ever seen on 'American Idol.'" Of course, Mr. Mantasia eventually topped even this tour de force...but I'll get to that later.
5) Phillip Phillips - "Volcano"
P-Squared had had a couple of really rough weeks prior to making the top four, but with this gorgeous cover of a gem by Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, he totally redeemed himself. It may have been a risk for him to do such a relatively obscure tune at such a crucial point in the season, and I was bracing myself to hear J.Lo slam him for being too "artsy" (as she had when Phillip performed the Dave Matthews Band's "The Stone" during the top six week). But even Jennifer had to admit that this was "one of the most beautiful, poignant moments a contestant has ever had." Eschewing his usual jam-band shtick and fratty DMB copycattiness, and playing on a hushed, darkened stage with just a cellist and a female backup singer (who was no slouch herself), Phillip generated some real magic here.
4) Skylar Laine - "Stay With Me"
Skylar came stomping out of the gate right at the start of the season, with a top 25 week performance that was nothing short of a raucous revelation. From the ballsy Faces song choice, to the sassy delivery, to the fun table-turning of Rod Stewart's original misogynist lyrics...there was a lot to enjoy about Skylar's vivacious performance, which was just the cowgirl-boot-kick up the bum that this show needed. With this, Skylar easily set herself apart from the cookie-cutter country of fellow contestants Cheslea Sorrell and Baylie Brown, who quickly fell by the wayside. "This is the first time we've had a rocker country singer on the show like this. It's like Reba mixed with Kelly Clarkson. It's wild, man!" howled Randy. "It's like Tina Turner went country! You're a natural born performer," said J.Lo. I'm still surprised Skylar only made it to fifth place. She is a Nashville STAR.
3) Elise Testone - "Whole Lotta Love"
Elise, my favorite female of Season 11, took a HUGE risk by covering Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" in the top nine week. Not only is it a tough song to sing under any circumstances ("the hardest song in the world to sing," according to Randy--wait, even harder than the Dreamgirls one? or the Whitney one???), but it was originated on "Idol" by the almighty Adam Lambert, the first "AI" contestant to ever be granted permission to cover Zep. However, on this fine evening, Elise joined the illustrious ranks of Adam and last season's Haley Reinhart (the only other "Idol" contestant to ever dare to sing Zep on the show). Stevie Nicks, the mentor that week, even told Elise she was a "kindred spirit" and said, "If I needed a singer, I'd hire her in second." Hopefully, though, Elise will develop her own awesome rock-goddess career in the future, and she won't have to accept Stevie's kind and flattering offer any time soon.
2) Joshua Ledet - "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World"
Mantasia slayed this soul classic so thoroughly, he gave Juliet Simms--whose performance of the same song was THE highlight of "The Voice" Season 2--a run for her money. He also managed to accomplish the impossible here: HE OUTPERFORMED HIMSELF. This was an outrageous performance, full of fire and ferocity and sweat and swagger, and he sang like one of the old-time greats. By the end, J.Lo wasn't just on her feet, she was almost on her knees, bowing down to him. Steven was equally worshipful, raving, "No man or woman has ever sang that good with that much passion, ever. I can go home right now. I've never heard anything like that in my life!" Randy even called this "one of the best performances in the history of any singing show." I often thought that the judges overpraised Joshua, but this time, I think they pretty much got it right.
1) Colton Dixon - "Piano Man"
Billy Joel Night was a mostly dreary affair, but Season 11's resident piano man closed the show in style, going back to his roots after a few weeks of mostly just using his piano as a prop to jump upon. (He also stayed true to his literal roots, refusing to heed short-term in-house "style expert" Tommy Hilfiger's lame advice to change his trademark skunky hairstyle.) This performance was simply magnificent, and it made me break out in what J.Lo annoyingly insists on calling "goosies" all over my body. Steven called Colton "stunning" and "outrageous." Randy said this was a "sensitive, touching, moving performance--and by the way, I love the hair!" I still haven't quite gotten over Colton's shocking seventh-place elimination. I'd always hoped Colton and his awesome hair would make it to the very end.
SUPERBONUS CLIP: Heejun Han, "My Life"
Say what you will about Heejun, but I'll say he was one of the best things to ever happen to "Idol." Bringing the comic relief I always knew he was capable of bringing, at a time when the show really needed it (the above-mentioned boring Billy Joel Night), Heejun finally let it all hang out during top 10 week. Starting off with one of his usual comatose cabaret ballads, he suddenly stopped the song, echoed what America had been thinking for weeks with "No, no, that is just much too slow!"--and then went nuts. He ripped off his button-down suit, started sing-shouting the "Bosom Buddies"-popularized "My Life," and basically became the embodiment of Jon Peter Lewis, Taylor Hicks, Casey Abrams, Magic Cyclops, and Norman Gentle combined, sweating mostly water all over the stage. At long last, the real Heejun revealed himself! And it was amazing. I still secretly suspect that Heejun was planning to do this all along, and that his time on "Idol" leading up to this breakthrough had been one long genius act of performance art (and that maybe he was waiting to make sure he secured a spot on the summer tour before he let his freak flag fully unfurl). Steven was NOT amused, surprisingly, but I sure was. When is Fox going to give Heejun his own sitcom, huh?
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