‘American Idol’s’ top 13: Jessica Sanchez’s big risk, enormous payoff

The biggest risk went to…

American Idol” celebrated its 400th episode Wednesday night, and with that there was some hope that the top 13 was going to put on some party hats and allow everyone to have a great time.

Luckily, we mostly did celebrate as the show chose to honor the late Whitney Houston and the fantastic Stevie Wonder. Have we already heard these songs a million times on other reality shows? Yes, but that’s a little bit besides the point. There were luckily only a few party poopers thrown in here, but there were also countless party people — including Skylar Laine plopping a vocal chair down in the middle of stage as if to say that she is staying a while, and Heejun Han reminding everyone that his voice is up there with his humor.

Of course, we knew that Jessica Sanchez would be dominating the night the moment we heard she would be singing “I Will Always Love You.”

Joshua Ledet – Someone got our memo about the party! With his performance of “I Wish,” we (forgive the corny line) really do wish that voters end up casting some votes in his direction. There was electricity in every move, vocal runs that nearly made us faint, and a performance style that saved a song that could have been karaoke from being so.

The more we see out of Joshua, the more we love him. He has avoided every trap of gospel singers in “Idol” history (such as singing all over the place and using the phrase “taking them to church”). We wish we had something in the way of advice for him, but we really don’t. He was that good.

An off night, sadly.

Elise Testone – We really feel for Elise, just as we do for every singer who has to come out on a theme night and do their best to stretch themselves. Whitney Houston is just not the sort of music that Elise sings, and it didn’t help that her song was switched up at the last minute to something she really didn’t know.

The biggest issue with Elise? She just didn’t look comfortable. Wearing a dress that looks like it was crafted in Rapture from “Bioshock,” Elise felt like she was stuck at a crossroads with a song that she would clearly never sing in real life. As rough as it was to listen to, Randy Jackson thankfully gave Elise (gasp!) an actual critique.

Jermaine Jones – “Gentle Giant” Jermaine has a falsetto! Last week, he really should be thanking his lucky stars he stuck around thanks to his placement in the show — however, he did step it up with a number that had more range, and it also didn’t feel so much like a shard of paper in a windstorm.

Was it perfect? Far from it. Jermaine needs to realize that he can go upbeat and be all right, and he also has to realize that he can perform on stage rather than just stand in one place. Right now, he seems too much like a nervous (giant) fifth-grader trying to impress people at a science fair.

Erika Van Pelt – We’ll be honest — this performance almost made us shed a tear. “I Believe in You and Me” is a beautiful (yes, we said Steven Tyler’s favorite word) song on its own, and Erika made it even better.

It really wasn’t the notes (as great as they were) that ended up making this performance something special so much as it was the vulnerability. Unlike the two performers who went before her, Miss Mobile DJ understand that there was power and emotion in the lyrics that she was singing.

Colton Dixon – The biggest issue with Colton is that “Lately” was absolutely slayed by Stefano Langone last year, and it’s hard to live up to that. This is why we are of two minds about this performance.

At first, Colton nearly put us to sleep with the lack of a vocal range here — but as soon as he was done with “time to say goodbye” line the first time, he picked it up. The ending here was truly fantastic, as he actually seemed to settle down and realize what he was doing. It wasn’t rock, but he still rocked it out.

Shannon Magrane – Is it too late for us to lower Shannon down on the rankings a little bit? There’s no way to be nice here — this performance was more or less the vocal equivalent of a man walking down the street only to get his by a bus out of nowhere.

Shannon started fairly strong here with “I Have Nothing,” but we winced the moment that she botched a high note during the chorus … and she unfortunately never really recovered from it. How rough was this? Jennifer Lopez added a “sweet” before her standard “that wasn’t good” opening line of “baby…”.

A step in the right direction.

DeAndre Brackensick – First and foremost, someone needs to teach DeAndre not to dance around like he is in aerobics class. Moving back and forth does not equal performing!

We actually liked the Naima Adedapo reference by Steven, and there are some similarities. This performance was completely different than anything else we have heard, as there were some moments of scatting coupled with the crazy high voice. Are we convinced yet that he really knows how to control himself on stage? No, but this was a big step in the right direction.

Skylar Laine – During rehearsals with Jimmy Iovine and Mary J. Blige, someone finally gave Skylar the one note she really needed to take this to the next level — subtlety is a good thing!

Out of all the ladies that performed at this point in the night, Skylar’s was easily the most impressive vocally. Did she nail the vulnerability as much as Erika? Maybe not, but she is really the first singer on the night to really hit some of the same notes that Whitney would have during her career. It was also a nice 180 from the crazy-good hoedown that she threw last week.

Heejun Han – Yes, Heejun did bring the funny this week. He gave Jimmy Iovine a signed photo of himself, and then he gave Mary J. Blige an even nicer photo of himself. He also hugged Ryan Seacrest when our intrepid host was going in for a handshake.

Thankfully, Heejun followed this up with a voice that does justify him still being in this competition. His “All in Love is Fair” started out sluggish and a bit nervous, but about midway through (in a recurring theme this week) the nerves went away and we started to see a legitimate performer — one who wanted to be taken seriously thanks to a voice begging for some love.

Hollie Cavanagh – Is there such a thing as being so good you become predictable? We’re starting to worry about Hollie for that very reason. Every not in this performance was spot-on, but yet there was something missing.

Really, what we’re worrying about here is the same thing that we worried about with Pia Toscano last year — so many performances from her consist of her standing in one place and singing big notes. Is America connecting? We were at times, but we also felt ourselves drifting away.

Jeremy Rosado – Do we really have to call him Jer-Bear? Corny nickname aside, the guy is still so warm and friendly we understand why J.Lo wants to just give the guy a gigantic hug.

Unfortunately, this “Written in the Sky” showed off why exactly Jeremy is a performer who still needs to work on a few things. He’s stuck in the “I’m singing for a show rather than giving a performance” mindset, and his passion isn’t translating. As much as we want to root for him, this is why we are having trouble seeing him make it to the tour.

Jessica Sanchez – Let’s be real about this — we knew Jessica was going to be good. But this good? We’ve been hard on her in the past, but let’s just take a step back and take in just what this teenager did on stage.

Singing what may be one of the most iconic songs in music history, Jessica did not shy away from any note — and she hit just about all of them perfectly. There was confidence, emotion, and a voice that did cause a few hankies to come out (though someone should tell Steven that he’s overestimating the ratings in saying that “40 million” were crying).

Phillip Phillips – After this emotional performance, Phillip managed to pick up the pace and end on a pretty solid note. The only thing we’re sad about is that a few of these notes thrown in there were growls mixed with funny faces.

Phillip’s performance was not his best, mostly because there was a bit too much shouting and not enough actual singing. We’re also wondering why the judges pretended like this was not a song that the guy auditioned with earlier this season.

While Jessica, Joshua, and Skylar were our highlights overall for the night, we’re currently predicting a bottom two of Elise (though it should be Shannon based on this week) and Jeremy, with everyone’s favorite “Jer-Bear” going home.

Who did you love this week? Be sure to take our poll and share your thoughts!

Photo: Fox

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