There’s this weird part of the week — from Friday morning till Monday evening — when not a single major TV network airs a reality singing competition. It’s terrible, I know, but it also gives me a lot of time to ponder American Idol history. (Everyone does this in their free time, yes?) And my latest flight of Idol fancy got me mulling this question: Was Season 11’s Top 10 the strongest — top to bottom — in show history? Let’s examine:
For starters, I’d automatically rule out the five seasons with three or more Top 10 contestants who probably wouldn’t have outlasted Season 11’s No. 13 and No. 11 finishers, Jeremy Rosado and Shannon Magrane, and certainly shouldn’t have beaten 10th place Erika Van Pelt:
Season 1: EJay Day, Jim Verraros, Ryan Starr, and Nikki McKibbin
Season 2: Julia DeMato, Corey Clark, Rickey Smith, and Carmen Rasmusen
Season 3: Amy Adams, Camile Velasco, John Stevens, and Jasmine Trias
Season 6: Chris Sligh, Haley Scarnato, and Sanjaya Malakar
Season 9: Andrew Garcia, Katie Stevens, Tim Urban, and Aaron Kelly
Sure, the aforementioned seasons may have included a number of outstanding singers, but we’re not debating which year had the strongest Top 8, or Top 5 or Top 3, and the weak links in question drag down their seasons’ overall averages.
From where I sit, I’d say the Season 11 Top 10 also trumps those from Seasons 4 and 8. Now before you yell “blasphemy!” think about this: Sure, the former group had Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice (amazing), but the folks who rounded out the Top 5 — Vonzell Solomon, Anthony Fedorov, and Scott Savol — expose the lack of true depth from that group. Season 8, meanwhile, might win the award for strongest Top 6 of all time, but you can’t convince me that there is any combination of four singers in the Season 11 Top 10 who wouldn’t triumph in a faceoff against Lil Rounds, Scott MacIntyre, Megan Joy, and Michael Sarver.
This leaves me with Seasons 5, 7, 10*, and 11 duking it out for strongest Top 10 ever. (Technically Season 10 had a Top 11, due to the Judges’ Save, so yes, it’ll need an asterisk from this point forward).
The other thing to bear in mind is that Season 11 is still a work in progress; we’ve only gotten four weeks of live performances from the show’s current crop, whereas the singers who made it deep into Seasons 5, 7, and 10 had plenty more opportunities to wow us, to work their Idol magic, to create their Idol moments. But at a bare minimum, I’ve got to narrow things down by at least one more group, so I’m going to go out on a limb and rank Season 11 ahead of Season 10, too. Here’s why: There’s no denying that Season 10 was packed with talent — not when you consider folks like Pia Toscano, Paul McDonald, Stefano Langone, and Casey Abrams all fell short of the Top 5 — but many of that year’s key players were either wildly inconsistent (Stefano, Paul, Casey) or were consistently solid but failed to deliver a defining Idol moment during the live shows (Lauren and Scotty). Plus, the long and arduous journey of Jacob Lusk lowers the season average considerably — and not even Haley Reinhart’s “You and I” can undo that kind of damage. [Tangent break: Did Haley’s rendition end up runing Gaga’s version for anyone other than me? Discuss!]
Okay, so for argument’s sake, let’s say Season 11’s “weak” links are Erika Van Pelt (only because she’s been eliminated), Heejun Han, and (even though I loved his “Master Blaster”) DeAndre Brackensick. As a trio, I’d give them the edge over Season 7’s weakest links (Chikezie, Ramiele Malubay, and Kristy Lee Cook). But then it’s a pretty tight race — and it might just come down to personal/stylistic preferences. I’d argue David Cook scores a point for Season 7 over Colton Dixon. David Archuleta scores a point over Jessica Sanchez. And Carly Smithson earns one more for Team 7 over fellow across-the-pond-er Hollie Cavanagh. And with that, we’re tied at 3-3. One more point for Season 11 if you rank Joshua Ledet over Syesha Mercado, but how do you score the trio of Michael Johns, Brooke White, and Jason Castro against Skylar Laine, Elise Testone, and Phillip Phillips? Forcing myself to forget that Michael and Brooke have released some pretty terrific post-Idol music, and remembering that some of their respective best moments (“It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right,” “I Am…I Said”) occurred after Top 10 week (when they had more experience under their belts than the Season 11 crew has to this point), then I’ve got to give Season 11 the win by a 6-4 margin. Yowza, that was painful!
And with that we come to the final showdown: Season 11 vs. Season 5. The latter wasn’t perfect — not with Lisa Tucker, Bucky Covington, and Ace Young — but even if you concede Erika had a stronger run than any of that trio, you’d still be left with two folks whose body of Idol work is probably better than that of either DeAndre or Heejun. How do you square away the others? Joshua over Mandisa? Skylar over Kellie (great post-Idol career, but a ton of pitch problems on the show)? Daughtry over Colton? Paris over Hollie? (That puts us at 4-3 in favor of Season 5.) If you’re willing to give Phillip and Jessica points over Taylor and Katharine — and I have to admit, I am — then it’s 5-4 for the new kids, and leaves us with one very disparate showdown — Elise vs. Elliott — to either tie things up or give us a solo winner. And as much as I’ve loved Elise’s “One and Only” and “Vienna,” I can’t rank her above Elliott. So it looks like a deadlock. Approaching this matchup a different way — if you put Katharine over Hollie, then you’d have Jessica over Paris; and if you put Daughtry over Phillip, you’d still have Colton over Taylor. Any way I slice it, it looks like Season 5 vs. Season 11 ends in an inconclusive draw.
So that’s my super (un)scientific conclusion. Seasons 5 and 11 tie for the strongest Top 10s — top to bottom — in Idol history, with Season 7 finishing a close third, and Seasons 11 and 8 rounding out the top five.
But that’s just one Idoloonie’s opinion! I’ve included the full Top 10 roster for all 11 seasons below to help refresh your memories. Give ’em a once over, then take our poll and tell us which season’s Top 10 you think was strongest. Perhaps as a group you can break the tie I created — or maybe you’ll vote a different Top 10 into first place. Whatever the case, after you take the poll, hit the comments and explain your vote. Let the debate begin!
A. J. Gil
R. J. Helton
Jon Peter Lewis
Kristy Lee Cook
Season 10* (featured a Top 11 due to Judges’ Save)
Erika Van Pelt