Here's a slow, underhanded softball pitch to this week's "American Idol" contestants: Lennon & McCartney Week! The Beatles' primary songwriters wrote some of pop and rock 'n' roll's most memorable songs and melodies, so it'd take a lot of flubbing to have a truly awful performance. Luckily for most of the remaining Top 9 (sorry, Aaron and Andrew), they delivered in a consistent way the season has sadly lacked. I actually turned my TV off feeling optimistic about the rest of the competition, like, "OK, maybe this isn't so bad." At the very least, there were noticeable strides toward artistry that weren't apparent in previous weeks. Abridged version: This was the best week of Season 9 thus far. No sense in waiting any longer: Here are the top performances, ranked from best to last.
1. Michael Lynche. My favorite vocal of the night, Lynche's rendition of "Eleanor Rigby" had just enough dramatic flair and gusto to feel like Mike's own song, while still upholding a necessary respect of the original. Really, it was Lynche's excellent pitch and drive-it-home chorus that sold the performance. My main issue remains with Mike: He's too much of a ham, jumping up and down at the end of the song like he's Bret Michaels during an encore. His vocals were a strong enough statement, so he shouldn't have to play up his goofy side. (And please, the less said about his size and muscles, the better.)
2. Casey James. I'm a known Casey hater, but props to the long-haired heartthrob for making the right decisions this week. While everyone picked the standards, he went into John Lennon's solo catalog for "Jealous Guy." It was a classy performance, only featuring Casey (on acoustic!) and an understated cello. Best of all, there was an honesty in Casey's vocals that are non-existent when he's mugging for the camera during a soloing shredfest. It felt sleepy at first, but it was a real winner by the end. Finally!
3. Crystal Bowersox. Another smart selection: "Come Together." The arrangement worked in Crystal's favor, feeling earthy and soulful, with enough of a kick. And Crystal did the rest, like she's done all season, with a vocal performance that showed off her talent but never felt oversung. Also, this was the most natural she appeared on stage, unafraid to stare the swooping camera in the eye as she sang.
4. Lee DeWyze. It almost seems unfair to allow contestants to perform "Hey Jude," an instant get-out-your-seat-and-clap, feel-great anthem. But that's not a rule, so Lee went in, working the "kitchen-sink" angle by bringing out a bagpiper (in full attire) during the singalong. It was a bit distracting, especially compared to the other performances, but overall it worked for me. His "Hey Jude" vocals wouldn't win a singing competition (they were just OK) but there was a looseness in Lee's performing style that felt welcoming.
5. Siobhan Magnus. (right) The good: Toned down, sophisticated, controlled, great song selection, good overall vocal, understood a HUGE note would have killed the entire thing. The bad: I had higher expectations for Siobhan. It was solid yet stagnant (perhaps having to do with the arrangement). While Casey conveyed raw emotion during a quiet song, Siobhan merely floated along, never fully connecting with the viewer. Honestly, I was going back and forth with Siobhan and Katie for the fifth spot, but after listening back to the vocals, Siobhan's were superior. Still, Siobhan is good, but once the peasants get voted off, she's going to have to be great.
6. Katie Stevens. For disclosure purposes, I must say I'm a huge sucker for "Let It Be," one of my favorite Beatles songs ever (one of those songs where the verse melody is as strong as the chorus). I've been waiting all season for Katie to completely own a performance, without the flat notes (OK, there were some during this). This was the closest she's come. She's been in the bottom 3 consistently, but this should save her the embarrassment this week. Extra points for finally commanding the stage.
7. Tim Urban. His take on "All My Loving" was pure karaoke, but a tick above-average karaoke. The real problem is Tim's strengths are in his smile and boyish good looks, not his voice. He'd do well in a high school production, but for "Idol"? It seems like a waste. There's no meat to his notes, no vibrato. All of his notes hit the ear the same way — bland. The judges complimented Tim on taking their verbal lashings each week "like a man," and they're right, but it doesn't mean he should stay in the competition much longer.
8. Andrew Garcia. Andrew, what happened? There was a flicker of hope in last week's cover of Chris Brown's "Forever," but any goodwill you earned went D.O.A. after this week. "Can't Buy Me Love," one of the Beatles' more simple melodies, would allow talented singers an opportunity to belt some strong notes. Yet Andrew was completely overtaken by the horns and backup singers. I'm getting tired of typing this sentence about Andrew but it's true each week: His voice isn't strong enough to be a real player in this game.
9. Aaron Kelly. I fell asleep during his performance of "The Long and Winding Road." I listened back and remembered why: this was the most forgettable performance of the season. The vocals were barely there mist, leaving me wondering if the performance had even really happened. Although Aaron had won me over with "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing" two weeks ago, at this point there could be a coin toss to decide who leaves this week, Aaron or Tim, and I'd still be disappointed that one has to stick around. Andrew earned one more week because of "Forever."