‘American Idol’ season 20 top 20 performance recap

Credit: ABC

Credit: ABC

“American Idol” pulled a marathon three-hour top 20 performance night on ABC Sunday night and while that is by and large way too long, many of the contestants made it worthwhile.

The judges found some truly talented singers this season. My favorites were HunterGirl for an impressive original song and Leah Marlene for evocative heartache.

And to fill out the time, a few alums performed live. Season 17 runner up Alejandro Aranda (ScaryPoolParty), season 11 winner Phillip Phillips and season 19 winner Chase Beckham. All acquitted themselves well.

The two performers cut from the top 24 night one were pop singer Scarlet Ayliz, who did a somewhat messy “Levitating” last week, and Danielle Finn, who offered a passable cover of “Your Song.” Pop singers like Scarlet have fared poorly in the past on the show and Danielle faced similar, more memorable competitors who siphoned off votes.

The third performer gone from round two was no surprise: Sir Blayke, who was decidedly boring covering the Script’s “Breakeven” last week. There was no fourth departure because one of the top 24 singers Kenedi Anderson dropped out after the pre-taped top 24 performances in Hawaii.

On Monday night during a live show, the top 10 vote getters will get through. The judges will pick the other four. In recent years, this enables Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan to diversify the finalist pool in case the voting public does not. (This has happened before though their picks often go home soon after anyway.)

Here are my predictions of which six singers will get cut Monday: Mike Parker, Cadence Baker, Tristen Gressett, Nicolina Bozzo, Jacob Moran and Ava Maybee.


Emyrson Flora (”Tell Me You Love Me” Demi Lovato) - It’s easy to see this 16 year old winning the entire competition. She has a wonderfully bracing voice. It’s hard to believe she has so little experience given how much confidence she exudes on stage. Lionel says her stage presence is “out of control” in a good way, lauding her “strut and walk.” Katy says she is one of the top 20′s most talented. “I am really rooting for you,” she says, while noting her use of dynamics. Luke says she is a “superstar in the making... You have that magic thing.” Grade: A/A-minus

Mike Parker (”Chasing After You” Ryan Hurd and Maren Morris) - He has a really dynamic voice and a decent stage presence. This was a very clean performance. Katy noted how the room reacted when he took the mic off the stand 45 seconds in and kicked it into another gear. “It’s silky and smooth and I believe it,” she says. Luke says the time is right for him. Lionel says he has a storyteller’s voice and then explode calmly. “You’re on fire, my friend,” he says. Unfortunately, given the competition and the fact he performed so early in the night, he might be forgotten in the mix. Grade: A-minus/B-plus

Tristen Gressett (”Sacrifice” The Weeknd) - He is like a combo of Constantine Maroulis and Adam Lambert and dresses the part as the resident “rocker” dude. He has a strong stage presence but his voice lacks that necessary edge that would make him a real star like Lambert. Luke gets booed when he says the song “boxed him in vocally.” Lionel says he is acting like an artist and “I can’t keep my eyes off of you.” Katy says she was scared of him at first but likes how he uses the energy in the room. Grade: B

Sage (”Rhiannon” Fleetwood Mac) - Her hippyish vibe is transcendent so this is an idyllic song pick. She isn’t aping Stevie Nicks but provides a comparable 1970s rock vibe. She hits a few bad notes but her lower range is never dull. Katy says she carved that song out like a Halloween pumpkin with a “dash of Janis Joplin.” Luke says she delivers amazing vocals. Grade: A-minus

Jay Copeland (”You Know I’m No Good” Amy Winehouse) - He hopes to use previous critiques by Katy to better find his artistry and not worry so much about vocal perfection. He brings his all to this performance in a cool gold suit. While I can’t say his vocals are particularly unique, they are clean and he can hit some serious big notes. As Katy notes, he built it up and gave it proper momentum until his big final note. “This was just a ride,” she says. Luke says that performance solidifies why they gave him the platinum ticket after the initial audition. Lionel says he lived up to his potential. Grade: A-minus/B-plus

Nicolina Bozzo (”Edge of Seventeen” Stevie Nicks) - This is definitely a case where the one minute and 50 second time slots the singers are given is too short to give this particular arrangement justice. She begins breathy and slow and it takes forever to get to the big notes. Then, whoosh, it’s over. (The radio cut of “Edge of Seventeen” is 4:10 and the studio version is 5:28.) Luke says she knows what she’s doing and she leaves the audience wanting more. Katy says she’s a Ferrari and knows how to level up. The judges may have to save her if they want her around because I doubt she will be in the top 10 for votes. Grade: B-plus

Jacob Moran (”Don’t Worry ‘Bout a Thing” Stevie Wonder) - His vocal style is not my taste but he takes a super challenging song and makes it work for himself. His final notes are super impressive. Lionel says he had hoped for more melody but says he nailed the ending. Katy says he’s the best technical singer in the competition and needs to step into himself as an artist. Luke says he now needs to connect with the cameras and make the people at home buy into him. I suspect those votes won’t be there for him. Grade: B/B-plus

Huntergirl (”Heartbreak Down” Huntergirl) - A lot of her family is military and she does music for vets with PTSD. Holy cow! She wrote an incredibly radio friendly country song that has hit embossed all over it. She is top 5 material at this point and has the potential to win the entire competition. Katy says she is an artist. Luke says she has that magic sound and writes songs to back it up. Lionel sums her up: “A natural.” Grade: A

Elli Rowe (”Somewhere Only We Know” Keane) - She was only two years old when this song came out in 2004. Yikes! This isn’t quite as good as her performance last week with “Everywhere” but she makes some bold vocal choices in this arrangement and it’s effective. The band overpowers her at points. Luke says her voice is pure and angelic and makes people feels things. Lionel says lean into who she is. Katy says she is small but mighty and picks great songs and reinterprets them. Grade: B-plus/A-minus

Dan Marshall (”Friends in Low Places” Garth Brooks) - The former football player knew his top 24 performance was subpar but is naturally competitive. He picked a Garth classic that is a natural crowd pleaser and even gets the crowd to sing along. He rides on his own natural charm. Lionel says he could go straight on the road immediately because “it’s as good as it gets.” Katy says she didn’t get it at first but it was super fun, noting that he felt super authentic. Luke says in previous rounds, he missed the mark on song choice but picked the right one this time. Grade: B-plus


Ava Maybee (”Anyone” Demi Lovato) - Her mom used to take her to “American Idol” tapings. Now it’s the other way around! This song takes too long to reach the money notes given how little time the artists have on stage. This was not a great song pick. But she has wonderful vocal control and didn’t miss a note. Katy says she has a soulful, raspy voice and reinvented that song. Luke says she showed a different side of herself on a very tough song. Lionel says she took a chance and went outside her comfort zone. Grade: A-minus/B-plus

Allegra Miles (”Free Fallin’” Tom Petty) - She has had to overcome OCD and music has been able to get her out of her darkest places. This cover should be a slam-dunk for her but for some reason, I’m not buying this version. It feels overly stylized and lacks authenticity. But the judges love her and give her a standing ovation. Luke says that was his favorite performance of the night and called the opening “breathtaking.” Lionel says she told a story and made a Tom Petty song a love song. Katy says she leveled up and has become a “freaking pro who is here to play.” Grade: B/B-minus

Noah Thompson (”Falling” Harry Styles) - The construction worker with a young son is the most country of the country artists left. He has distracting facial hair which I guess he’s wearing to look older but it isn’t helping me focus on his okay vocals. He emotes pretty well here but looks uncomfortable on stage. Lionel says he was “just a little shy.” Katy says he is a great human being and so humble and beautiful. (Not sure what that has to do with his performance but...) Luke says he will “aw shucks” his way to the top. Grade: B

Leah Marlene (”Heal” Tom Odell) - She is known as the goofy quirky one. So she decides to flip the script and tackle a vulnerable ballad. She commands every nuance and every note. The pain, the angst, it’s all there in a virtuoso performance. Katy looks utterly stunned: “I felt every ounce of your pain and your journey in that song. You’re just growing into this most beautiful woman before my eyes.” Luke says this feels like a finale night. Lionel says it was spiritual and “crazy good.” I almost never give this grade but here you go: A-plus!

Christian Guardino (”Imagine” John Lennon) - He had a retinal issue that made his vision poor but gene therapy helped save his vision as an early teen. This song is super tired and overplayed (and tortured by celebrities after the pandemic began.). Christian manages to make it work for himself with emotional agency. Luke says he slayed that. Lionel says he is the poster child of the power of the human spirit. Katy says he was put on this planet to do something super powerful: “God bless you Christian!” Grade: A-minus

Fritz Hager (“when the party’s over” Billie Eilish) - His family was skeptical of his dreams to be a singer until “Idol” came along. Now voila! They’re supportive! He may need some therapy down the road regarding that but for now, he gets to perform for millions. His use of his upper register is effective and not showy. And he has a natural emotive quality that connects with the viewer and should generate no shortage of votes. Lionel says it was “stellar.” Katy says this isn’t just a competition but an opportunity for people to be reborn: “You won’t ever be misunderstood again.” Luke gets teary along with the other two judges. He loves the falsetto. He is top 10 material for sure. Grade: A

Katyrah Love (”Dream” Bishop Briggs) - This felt a bit sloppy and the high note didn’t really work. This song didn’t work. I’m not sure she will get enough votes and will have to be saved by the judges if they choose. Katy says she looks beautiful and has an incredible voice. She wants longer notes and has some song suggestions for her. Luke likes her energy. Grade: B-minus

Cameron Whitcomb (”Changes” Black Sabbath) - His brother got an “American Idol” tattoo on his butt since he made the top 24 and Cameron paid for it. He will get one himself if he makes the top 10. The hyper child calmed down for the first time without sacrificing his charisma and vocal skills. Of course, he did do a backflip at the end. Luke says he delivered and showed he could be a serious artist. Katy lauds his song choice and says he is changing before their eyes. Grade: A-minus

Cadence Baker (”Train Wreck” James Arthur) - Her family was very successful in music and she felt like she was in their shadows. Tori Kelly gave her some good advice to deal with her nerves. She starts really shaky but gets better as she goes along. Still, it’s a little shouty and she lacks a stage personality that I think will get her much further. Katy says she really fought hard. Luke says she has had some shaky performances but that one was much better. Grade: B

Lady K (”Love on the Brain” Rihanna) - She is easily the best R&B voice left in the competition and has carved out a smart lane in terms of votes. This is a confident, lustrous version and an apropos way to end an excellent night of music. Katy says she shined like the goddess she has always been. Luke says he was impressed she didn’t oversing it. Grade: A-minus

Here are three performances by alums:

Chase Beckham (”Doin’ It Right”) - This is a solid country song that he co-wrote for a new EP. He will go on tour soon opening for last week’s mentor Jimmie Allen.

Alejandro Aranda AKA ScaryPoolParty (”The Darkness”) - He remains a singular artist with his breathy vocals and his crazy guitar licks. There is a reason he is has a large worldwide following and has the makings of a long career. As MJ over on MJ’s Big Blog noted, he is possibly the most unusual “Idol” contestant ever to become a star. His current album is “Act of Forgiveness.”

Phillip Phillips (”Love Like That”) - Phillips, the only Georgia winner of the show, kissed and made up with “Idol” after suing the production company. It’s nice to see him again. The song is quite good with some pretty melodic moments. He and Luke then bonded over their hometown Leesburg. Phillip made several self-deprecating jokes about how much he’s aged the past decade.