American Idol: Big Mike the Guy To Beat?

Last night's American Idol, in which the top eight guys performed, felt a lot like the girls' episode from Tuesday in the way it clearly defined who should stay and who should go, with one singer standing above the rest as the one to beat. Just as Crystal Bowersox is the best and most interesting female contestant this season, so is Big Mike the guy to beat. His cover of "This Woman's Work" (originally by Kate Bush, then Maxwell) was epic, swelling, and vocally light years beyond what the rest of the guys brought. Last week, he'd abandoned his poorly chosen Jason Mraz vibe of the first week for a powerhouse James Brown cover, and this week he looked even more confident and sounded fantastic. He and Crystal aren't just the leaders because of their vocal talent. It's because they know more than the rest what kind of performer they now want to be, with Crystal going for earthy/rootsy/Americana and Mike opting for modern-day R&B crooner. Plus they're both instrumentalists, which is clearly a big factor this year. I say the whole season comes down to these two.

The rest of the guys last night all fell behind Mike with varying degrees of success. Tim Urban's cover of Jeff Buckley's take on "Hallelujah" wasn't great, but it was his strongest vocal and best job to date. Similarly, Casey's performance of Keith Urban's "You'll Think of Me" was decent, but he was hamstrung by the way he held back on the vocals and the fact that he'd picked a terrible song. It just wasn't a good fit, but he's talented and good-looking enough that he won't have to worry.

Some of the guys hit the wall, though, notably the underfed Aaron, who did Lonestar's atrocious power ballad "I'm Already There." Simon said it was the right type of song but a bad vocal, but I actually agreed with Kara, who called shenanigans on a 16-year-old trying (and failing) to sell the emotion behind a father being far from his kids. He's a nice kid, but his voice just isn't there yet, and it certainly can't stack up against Mike or Casey. I'd be surprised if he sticks around.

Andrew seemed to run out of steam, too, with a cover of "Genie in a Bottle" that was fun in concept but fell flat in its delivery. The judges rightly pegged him as trying to recapture the spark of his "Straight Up" from Hollywood Week. Doing acoustic covers of cheesy pop songs isn't a bad gimmick, but it is a gimmick, and if this guy can't figure out what he wants to do aside from those, he won't be on the show long. Also trailing behind were Lee, whose rock growl was horribly ill-suited for Owl City's Postal Service knockoff "Fireflies," and Alex, that slow-looking kid with the Carol Brady mullet, whose version of Ray LaMontagne's "Trouble" was flat and unengaging.

That's another thing the leaders have: good song choice. Ray LaMontagne has cut some fantastic songs, and even if Alex is bound to leave, he'd at least make a better showing by singing "Hold You in My Arms" or "You Are the Best Thing" than the guy's biggest hit. Mike's song was outside the box, and delivered well. At this stage in the game, that's what it takes.

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