Every season of American Idol brings the same breathless, “this is our best-ever group!” hype. This season, much of that hype is real. For the first time in years, we have a Top 14 that is truly top-loaded with remarkable voices. Not all of them, of course, but several—enough to keep things interesting, entertaining, and drama-filled as the season’s first results night unfolds.

As host Ryan Seacrest goes down the list of 14, seven are guaranteed a “safe” spot in the Top 10 thanks to the nationwide vote. The other seven will sweat it out in the “danger” zone. Three will be saved after each judge selects his or her favorite, leaving four to pack it up and go home. Each contestant performs and (with one curious exception) the “safe” ones will not receive judges’ remarks.

Incidentally, all of the contestants’ voices are mixed too low (and some appear to be having difficulties with their in-ear monitors, which might account for some of the unsteadiness heard from normally reliable performers).

Madison Vandenberg – Safe – “You and I” (Lady Gaga)

No big surprise that Madison has done well enough to secure a Top 10 spot. She sounds like she’s drowning a bit in an unnecessarily busy arrangement. This performance doesn’t technically matter, but it’s unlikely to win new fans. Grade: C

Evelyn Cormier – Danger Zone – “Dust In The Wind” (Kansas) The judges’ take – Lionel – “I’m in shock. I’m a fan. This is not
the end by any chance. It’s the beginning of your long career.” Katy – “You are such a pro. I’m a huge fan of you. You’re on your way to becoming a spectacular artist.” Luke – “I think what America may be doing – some people like your style and other people, It’s not their thing. That has never stopped any artist.”

In shock, really Lionel? Evelyn is one of the weakest voices in this group and no matter how high (and how many times) she kicks her leg up, this ouster was only a matter of time. Sing for your life with this hackneyed choice? Sayonara, sweetheart. Grade: D+

Walker Burroughs – Safe – “Lovebug” (Jonas Brothers)

Walker’s wardrobe tonight suggests he might be auditioning for a Huck Finn reboot. On top of that, his normally crystal clear, strong delivery sounds muted (this likely isn’t his fault as low vocal levels seems to be pretty consistent tonight). Grade: C

Riley Thompson – Danger Zone – “It Must Be Love” (Don Williams) – Luke – “Great song choice. We could see where your confidence was shaken. You’ve picked some great songs. Hang in there.” Katy – “I was reading the comments on Twitter and everyone was so in love with you. You’ve accomplished so much in this competition.” Lionel – “I’ve watched you grow. It’s so personal. Let me give you a little bit of advice – right now you have a shot at the game of the music business. You’ll be back.”

The pageant for Idol‘s resident teen Country & Western princess apparently is coming to an end. Unless Luke decides to save her, which seems unlikely based on his none-too-pleased reaction to her rendition of a Don Williams song. Truth is, Riley has always been a minnow in a tank dominated by whales. Start packing, toots, because (contrary to what Lionel states) you probably won’t be back. Grade: D+

Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon – Safe – “Almost Heaven” (original)

Maybe just a tad bit indulgent doing an original tune. But it’s a pretty strong original, but like a lot of contestants he seems to be straining to hear himself over the band. While this isn’t as good as his Elton reading the night before, Jeremiah remains easily in the upper echelon. Grade: B-

Alyssa Raghu – Danger Zone – “The One That Got Away” (Katy Perry) The judges’ take – Luke – “I want to applaud you for what you went through last year and coming back…you came back with the voice.” Katy – “How dare you come out here and sing that song 100 times better than me. This has been a really important masterclass. You’ve learned so much and you have so much time. It’s going to happen if you keep applying yourself.” Lionel – “It’s your heart and your drive. You have done it all. The sky is the limit for you.”

Savvy song choice that might just pay off later on. Out-singing Katy Perry on her own song? Pretty bold move. Grade: B

Wade Cota – Safe – “Simple Man” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Wade seems like a great guy. And when he’s on-point and connects with his song, he’s an emotive vocalist. After his “Trouble” debacle, I wondered how firmly implanted within the voters’ minds he would remain. This Skynyrd classic is an easy choice for him as it presents almost no melody for him to sing. He repeats the same basic phrasing over and over with his customary rasp. It’s okay, but not on par with the best in the contest. Grade: C-

Dimitrius Graham – Danger Zone – “When the Party’s Over” (Billie Eilish) The judges’ take – Luke – “Great choice of song and maybe the most you’ve ever had me emotionally connected. Way to fight. That’s a big fight you just put up.” Katy – “You can sing any note in the world, but I wanted to hear that heart come through.” Lionel – “Tonight was your performance that told us that there is more to you. If I can get you to believe in you.”

One of the best singers in the contest is also one of the hardest personalities to pin down. Reserved and serious-minded, Dimitrius probably isn’t connecting with the voters who prefer more outsize personalities. He also has a penchant for choosing challenging material that isn’t necessarily crowd-pleasing. But with vocal abilities like his, he needs to stay in this competition. Grade: B+

Laci Kaye Booth – Safe – “As Long As You Follow “ (Fleetwood Mac)

Apparently the country crowd voted for Laci over Riley. After hearing this limp Fleetwood Mac cover, they may be wondering why. At least it was a little more uptempo than what she usually does. Grade: C-

Eddie Island – Danger Zone – “Use Somebody” (Kings of Leon) The judges’ take – Luke – “We have loved your personality from day one. For some reason, vocally, the last couple of nights – I haven’t heard vocally. It’s important to pair your voice with the perfect song.” Katy – “It’s a singing competition, but no it’s not a singing competition, it’s an Idol competition.” Lionel – “Katy’s right about one thing, it’s a competition. Take your rightful place in the top 15.”

With any luck, this will be the end of a very long, annoying road. Why the judges saw fit to put Island in the Top 14 is still really anybody’s guess. Apparently Katy really likes him, as evidenced by her outrage on the announcement that he’s not safe. His Kings of Leon is better than last night’s Elton John, but that’s like saying undercooked chicken is preferable to undercooked pork. They’ll both make you sick. Grade: D-

Ashley Hess – Danger Zone – “Sir Duke” (Stevie Wonder) The judges’ take – Luke – “You give your most comfortable, natural performance without your piano.” Katy – “That was the best performance from you I’ve ever seen.” Lionel – “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

She should’ve done this last night. Heretofore we have seen Ashley behind a piano singing ballads. Exclusively. She’s a good singer, but hasn’t displayed much versatility. Grooving a bit to this Stevie classic, she seems looser and more agreeable than ever. Grade: B

Laine Hardy – Safe – “Hurricane” (The Band of Heathens) The judges’ take — Katy – “You’re smokin’ hot. You touched the sky and you brought the color back to your suit.” Lionel – “You took us back home to make it.”

Wonder if Laine being the only “safe” contestant to receive judges’ feedback indicates they are grooming him as a probable winner? Seems to be the case. Laine eschewed good-time bar band classics in favor of a much lesser-known tune and it was the right choice at the right time. Grade: B+

Alejandro Aranda – Safe – “Cholo Love”

Out with the DJ booth, in with the piano for tuneful, jazz-inflected playing. But it’s the same old thin falsetto we hear literally every single time this dude opens his mouth. This isn’t a musicianship contest, otherwise he’d probably be favored to win (it’s also not a songwriting competition; if it was, Jeremiah would’ve had him beat tonight). Too many far better vocalists are in this game for Alejandro to hang on week after week. Let’s hope the voting populace catches on sooner than later. Grade: C-

Uché – Danger Zone – “Diamonds” (Rihanna) The judges’ take – Luke – “I don’t understand how America can’t feel the electricity this young man puts out.” Katy – “I just think you are a man of many different hats. You are learning the art of entertaining so well.” Lionel – (gets up and hugs Uché) – “We are not in the singing business. We’re in the entertainment business. You’ll never touch as many people as you’ve touched. You’re an entertainer.” —- Uché is safe.

Lionel made the right call. While Uche’s vocals, like so many tonight, are buried in a poor mix, the emotion is clearly there in a tightly-focused, serious-minded performance that puts quality vocals above theatrics, which is exactly what he needed to do tonight. Great call, Lionel. Grade: B

Also safe – Luke picks Dimitrius. Katy picks Alyssa.

Really great calls by all three judges tonight.

Going home – Ashley, Eddie, Evelyn, Riley.

Not going to miss any of the above. Solid Top 10 moving forward.

Cinema Lowdown

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