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American Idol's Top 13 Perform

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Ray Mickshaw/FOX

In a two-hour episode that was pre-taped – a fact that doubtless displeased many fansAmerican Idol‘s top 13 performed songs by their personal idols. This time they were coached by Jimmy Iovine and other musical producers, theoretically to help them establish their groove.

The results, whether or not because of the producers, were better than the old star-mentor days. Jennifer Lopez observed, correctly, that it’ll be tough deciding who could go home when the quality of voices is so good. On the other hand, I wish sometimes the judges preserved some of Simon Cowell‘s air-clearing cruelty. But this was a good night.

RELATED: American Idol‘s Top 13: Our Live Blog Replayed

Lauren Alaina sang Shania Twain‘s “Any Man of Mine,” not always keeping up with what should be a bar-stomping beat. Steven Tyler used slightly more colorful language to make that point. Jennifer (who was wearing a gorgeous crimson lipstick) and Randy Jackson concurred – what the judges wanted, said Randy, was to see Lauren “shine beyond belief.”

Casey Abrams sang Joe Cocker’s famous “With a Little Help From My Friends.” (“He doesn’t look that hot, either,” said Casey, who at least has a nice sense of humor. “He’s inspired that look for me.”) Casey rode the lyrics in big waves of energy. “I’m watching somebody important,” said Crimson Lips. Steven called him “a rainbow of talent … a plethora of passion.”

Scotty McCreery performed Garth Brooks’s “The River,” drifting easily up and down the notes while standing in front of a “country” backdrop: a big body of water fringed by trees. (“It looks like your golf trip,” Ryan Seacrest said.) “If it ain’t broke, don’t even think about fixing it,” was Randy’s assessment. “Dude, this is exactly where you belong!” Jennifer liked the way he seemed finally to be embracing the audience.

Ryan Adams and his “Come Pick Me Up” were the inspiration for Paul McDonald and his velvet rasp. He has magnificent teeth, and he hops around happily, but sometimes he sounded like a bagpipe with only a few last wheezes of air. “A little pitchy,” warned Steven. “I love the character of who you are,” said Randy. “I hope America gets it” – which suggests maybe he doesn’t expect they will.

Pia Toscano took on Celine Dion’s soaring ballad “All By Myself” with what I would call a liquid warble – she has a fluid way of shifting from the soft passages to the big. I didn’t hear any heartbreak in it – shouldn’t there have been? Randy praised her “natural gift” and called it a “hot, dope, cool performance.” Said Steven: “You just slammed it.”

James Durbin performed Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” with more vulnerability than I expected, at least at the start and the conclusion. In between were those rocker high notes that he probably won’t relinquish unless compelled to by some obscure law. “James Durbin is dangerous, America!” Randy said. His voice has “everything,” Jennifer said, gesturing with such emphasis that I now noticed her lovely rings …

Haley Reinhart sang LeAnn Rimes‘s “Blue” (which she began performing at age 8) with a lot of alluring little yodels redolent of the timeless Patsy Cline. “Beautiful,” Steven said. “Really, really special,” was Jennifer’s take. Randy laughed, for some reason, and said it was “a little boring.”

Jacob Lusk’s idol is R. Kelly, so he sang “I Believe I Can Fly.” If I performed that song I would flap my arms, bird-like, but Jacob performed it – very big – with a gospel choir. “Pure passion, pure music – I can’t even judge you,” Steven said, in a disturbing abdication of authority. “You’re at the top,” said Jennifer.

Setback of the night: Thia Megia sang “Smile,” the old Charlie Chaplin ballad later covered by her hero, Michael Jackson. But the purity of her voice at the quiet, soft start ran up against an oddly slick pop-jazz arrangement. The beginning, at least, “was just golden,” said Randy, and the two other judges agreed. “It doesn’t matter, you sing like an angel,” Jennifer said. Wouldn’t it be a shame if she were voted off? (Yes!)

The weakest? Probably Karen Rodriguez. She sang Selena’s “I Could Fall in Love,” starting it uncomfortably and slowly getting a grip on the song. By that point, it was over. Jennifer kindly asked whether she’d had trouble hearing herself up on stage. Steven and Randy also thought she’d had a decidedly off night.

QUIZ: Are You an Idol All-Star?

As to the wild-carders:

Stefano Langone sang Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” with some dance moves and a lot more oomph than it probably needed – it was a bit hysterical – but the judges were pleased. Like “a volcano,” said Steven. “By the middle of the song you were soaring,” said Randy.

Perhaps inspired by Randy’s comparison of her to Diana Ross, Ashthon Jones chose Ross’s “When You Tell Me That You Love Me.” Mmmm, she still seems adequate to me and not much more. The judges seemed to like her without being blown away by the performance. “I have confidence in you,” said Steven.

Naima Adedapo ended the show with Rihanna‘s “Umbrella.” Of all the performers, she’s got the best, most assured way of moving around on stage – she knows what she’s doing. “You’re crazy good,” Steven said, also noting that she was a little pitchy. Jennifer’s take: “You got fire, girl.”

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