The X Factor Recap: The Best and the Brightest [Updated]

panda jones x factorI’m going to come right out and say it: This Wednesday’s X Factor was the show’s best episode ever — and  partially because its stars included a pretty boy who spent what felt like 45 minutes debating whether or not to pop his collar, a trio of smokin’-hot sisters, a man who found a controversial (possibly deadly?) solution to male pattern baldness and a heavy-set black woman named Panda who got carried out on a stretcher. (Spoiler alert: All of ’em advanced to Boot Camp!)

I know, I know, you’re reading this and saying “The X Factor is barely out of diapers. Is ‘best episode ever’ really such effusive praise?”

Well, actually, yes. During the course of the 120-minute telecast, I laughed, I chair-danced, I cried, and the entire extravaganza may have become a part of me. Or at least it became a part of my internal iPod, finally (!) ending the repeat loop of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” that’s been rolling in the deep part of my cerebral cortex for a week now.

Yikes. That’s way too much personal information this early in a recap, this early in a season. (I only had a glass and a half of X Factor Juice tonight, just in case you’re judging.)

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In addition to a lineup packed with highly entertaining — and in some cases seriously talented — candidates trying to inherit Season 1 champ Melanie Amaro’s crown and sash, Wednesday’s show contained a few additional unexpected occurrences: British X Factor judge Louis Walsh pinch-hitting for Simon Cowell. (He was like a glass of weak soda-fountain lemonade compared to Cowell’s tart, homemade forumla). Britney Spears singing an a capella “Happy Birthday” to L.A. Reid. (Okay, she didn’t sound fantastic, but at least I didn’t have to put quotes around the word singing, yes?) And one of those “look at me, I’m on TV” auditions ending with the guy getting arrested for trying to steal his X Factor mic pack. (Wasn’t it payment enough to look like a total nincompoop on national television?)

Anyhow, without any further confessions on a dancefloor, let’s get down to the business of ranking the 13 latest singers headed to Boot Camp, and then placing them in a larger context alongside the other successful auditioners from the first two nights of X Factor Auditions:

13) Normani Hamilton: Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” | We only got a 15-second snippet, but the gorgeous teenager had things cranked up to 11 from start to finish. Needs a lesson in dynamics, perhaps?

12) Brandon Hassan: Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble” | The lesser of two “Troubles.”

11) Jeremiah & Josh: an original track called “Now Life Starts” | Britney’s “I wish you could wake me up in the morning” said it all. Granted, we only heard a snippet of singing, but I wondered if these dudes would be headed to boot camp if they had the same severe allergy to the gym with which I’m afflicted.

10) Vino Alan: Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble” | Whoever ends up coaching this 39-year-old dad will have to get past the fact that he’s replaced all of his hair with tattooed “flames,” a sight that prompted one of Britney’s hilarious/unfiltered “yeesh” faces. There’s an appealing world-weariness to Vino’s voice, though. (Also: Bonus points for the name “Vino.”)

9) CeCe Frey: Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” | Self-proclaimed button-pusher with leopard-print face paint stalked the cameras like a lioness tracking a baby impala — and tried to psych out her competitors with stare-downs and obnoxious asides. (Who else loved the irony of CeCe huffing to a fellow auditioner “wow, what a generic answer,” moments before dropping the most clichéd comment of the night (“I’m not in this thing to make friends”)? Still, The X Factor‘s editing team zigged where I expected them to zag: Instead of CeCe’s audition being a point-and-jeer experience, she actually performed with solid pitch and undeniable charisma — at least after Demi got her to switch from the ill-fitting “Unchained Melody” to “Ain’t No Other Man.” I’m not sure anyone in America is ready to speed-dial on CeCe’s behalf, but I’d also venture to guess that most of the postal worker’s bravado is simply a smokescreen to mask rampant insecurities.

8) Rizzloe Jones: Freestyle rap using the phrases “X Factor” and “marshmallow” | Rizzloe concocted a few sharp rhymes out of thin air, but I’m not convinced the “high-pack ADD animal” with a penchant for referring to himself in the third person has a particularly pleasing voice. As Britney put it (with unintentional hilarity): “You remind me of a young Vanilla Ice Ice Baby.”

7) Tate Stevens: Randy Houser’s “Anything Goes” | Burly, bearded country singer had a deep, rich singing voice, if not a surplus of charisma. Was there anything cuter than the way Tate tried to tousle his hair into some sort of viable style after removing his cowboy hat? And was there anything sweeter than his daughter declaring “To me, he’s already my superhero and my star.” I’d have wondered if someone at X Factor made the kid read that off a cue card, if it hadn’t been delivered with enough sincerity to bring a tear to my eye.

6) Citizen: En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)” | “You’re 10 years out of date,” said Simon to this aggressively groomed, multi-ethnic, and undeniably handsome five-man throwback to the days when Nick Carter had the same-sized fan base as Justin Timberlake. And while he had a point that the guys’  choreography was a bit tragic, their song choice and harmonies were spot-on. And, really, Simon, how are they any less cool or modern than One Direction?

5) Ally Brooke: Jaci Velasquez’s “On My Knees” | Stunner in black leather shorts and a jaunty fedora looked like she dropped in from the set of 90210, and she somehow managed to seem more wide-eyed than obnoxious while rattling off a litany of her outsized ambitions (she’d like a clothing line, a perfume line, and a career as big as Beyoncé’s). Displayed an undeniably pretty tone, but it sounded to me like she was on the brink of tears right from the opening note. She’ll have to keep those emotions in check — and learn to stop singing when her mentor says “cut” — if she’s going to survive Boot Camp. Bottom line: The girl is ridiculous, but maybe not in a bad way.

4) Diamond White: James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” | The way Diamond talked about her hardscrabble background — “[My mom and I] have to share a bed, which is not cool” — set her up as Rachel Crow 2.0, only significantly less rehearsed. And while her James Brown cover wasn’t equal to what Joshua Ledet did on Idol — is anything equal to that, really? — she delivered it with a precision and soul that was almost jarring considering her tender age of 13.

3) Panda Ross: Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me” | I’ll admit that, based on the track record of reality singing competitions on Fox, I became instantly nervous when plus-sized Panda took to the screen with her “SINGLE” necklace and intentions of making Simon her “baby daddy.” But nope, nobody’s about to turn Panda into a joke. Her plain-spoken humor — that bit about her name being inspired, in part, by her mother’s white cell mate, had me howling — and quiet confidence (tweaking the lyrics to let Simon know she’d buy him jewelry if she won the $5 million prize) were second only to her deep, rumbling singing voice. “You sound like a legend,” declared the cranky British judge, which is all the more remarkable when you consider Panda had just sprung herself from the hospital with a case of pneumonia, and had to be taken from the arena gasping, hacking, and wheezing on a stretcher. Ever the entertainer, though, Panda scored one last laugh as she was hoisted into the ambulance: “I don’t want Simon to see me like this!” Indeed, let him see her in Boot Camp, where she belongs.

2) Jessica Espinoza: Pink’s “Nobody Knows” | I’ll admit Jessica had me hooked from the moment she said she knew what it was like to be hungry, then made a joke about looking “well-fed.” (“It’s from the dollar menu!”) But man, nothing could’ve prepared me for the depth of heartache and longing she brought to Pink’s “Nobody Knows.” As Simon put it, Jessica actually sang for her life, and in the process, delivered what might have been the most emotionally satisfying audition in X Factor‘s two-season history. If her future coach can sort out her unfortunate two-tone hair situation, this chick has a shot to become a major music star.

1) Sister C: Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Heels” | We only saw maybe 20 seconds of this sister act’s slow and sultry cover of Pistol Annies’ country hit, but those 20 seconds were absolutely stunning. Here’s hoping they get more airtime during Boot Camp, rather than disappearing completely (which will then force me to make random references to them in my X Factor recaps for the next six or seven years).

22) Quatrele Da’an Smith: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”
21) Normani Hamilton: Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”
20) Brandon Hassan: Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble”
19) Reed Deming: Bruno Mars’ “Grenade”
18) Jeremiah & Josh: an original track called “Now Life Starts”
17) Vino Alan: Ray Lamontagne’s “Trouble”
16) CeCe Frey: Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man”
15) Rizzloe Jones: Freestyle rap using the phrases “X Factor” and “marshmallow”
14) Johnny Maxwell: an original track called “Do It Big”
13) Paige Thomas: Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down”
12) Tate Stevens: Randy Houser’s “Anything Goes”
11) Citizen: En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)”
10) Ally Brooke: Jaci Velasquez’s “On My Knees”
9) Emblem3: an original track called “Sunset Boulevard”
8) Carly Rose Soneclar: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”
7) Jillian Jensen: Jessie J’s “Who You Are”
6) Diamond White: James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”
5) Panda Ross: Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me”
4) Jason Brock: Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”
3) Janell Garcia: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ “Paris (Ooh La La)”
2) Jessica Espinoza: Pink’s “Nobody Knows”
1) Sister C: Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Heels”

Who were your favorites from The X Factor‘s third episode of Season 2? Were there any moments that made you cringe? Was the misdemeanor arrest 1-800-Too-Much? Hit the comments with your thoughts!