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'American Idol' recap: The top 7 perform songs from this decade

April 12, 2012 |  4:00 am

'American Idol'

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

The seven remaining contestants on "American Idol" performed songs from 2010, 2011 and 2012, in clusters as well as solo, on Wednesday night. It really did come as something of a relief to hear these young people do current hits, mostly of their own choosing.

As the judges noted at some point, this week's theme allowed us to see not only how the contestants might fit into today's music marketplace -– to put it crassly -– but also how far they've come and how much they've grown and developed in the "Idol" competition. Most of them have reached a comfort level onstage, learned to calibrate and control their performances, and relaxed into their personas in a way that makes them, if anything, better able to accept and integrate input from mentor Jimmy Iovine and his parade of luminary helpers.

This week's mentor was Akon, who apparently pegged Jessica Sanchez as a standout from back before the final 13 were selected. "She's gonna be a legend one day. I believe it. I really do," Akon said.

VOTE: Who did you think was the best singer of the week?

Sanchez seemed to prove Akon right with Jazmine Sullivan's "Stuttering." Seated atop a staircase with piano accompaniment nearby, Sanchez poured her powerful vocals into a poignant plea for the ability to express herself clearly and to be known.

It felt intimate, as if she were singing directly to us, and when she seemed to nearly miss the step she aimed to sit on, we may have found ourselves wanting to reach out and give her a hand. The judges loved it, naturally, but Jennifer Lopez's instructions to Sanchez to be more like fellow contestant Joshua Ledet, just when she's finally really growing into herself, might have left you -- sputtering.

Which is not to say Ledet didn't do well on Wednesday night. His performance of Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby" was a lot of fun; he ran around in a retro suit with a hot-pink shirt and matching socks and was backed by an energetic go-go dancer. Whether it deserved to earn the judges' sole standing ovation of the night is another matter and one that's open to debate. (Have at it in the comments section or in this week's "Idol"/"Voice" poll.)

Other highlight performances included Skylar Laine, who kicked off the show by playing guitar and belting the heck out of Kellie Pickler's "Didn't Know How Much I Loved You," which made me realize I didn't know how much I liked her. The song suited her in a way that none of her previous choices have, and the sparky campfire projections were right cozy.

Laine sure doesn't want us to think she loves frequent duet partner Colton Dixon, though -– at least not that way. Both before and after taking the stage to sing together again, as they had last week, Dixon and Laine emphatically denied rumors of romance, which I hadn't heard until they started denying them. (You can imagine how thrilled they were when Steven Tyler told them they'd "made love" to each other musically during their duet of Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson's "Don't You Wanna Stay.") "I can assure you we're not dating," Dixon said. "And that is because she owns a gun."

Dixon, who generally doesn't do much for me, also turned in one of his best performances, singing Skylar Grey's version of "I Love the Way You Lie," and accompanying himself on the piano, surrounded by smoke and string musicians. He may have felt he had something to prove after Iovine told him he might have been behind Phillip Phillips in the quest to lock up the teen girl vote and finish on top.

Dixon said he hated being compared to anyone, especially, for some reason, Phillips. But when Iovine tried the same trick on Phillips, the modest musician didn't bat an eye, allowing that Colton "is a good looking guy." Phillips didn't lose his equilibrium, either, when the judges offered him only tepid praise for his take on Maroon 5's "Give a Little More," which, while appealingly Phillip Phillipsy, wasn't his best performance. It's "all good" he said.

But lest voters think Phillip isn't "in it to win it," in retired Randy Jackson parlance, the producers made sure we saw him respond affirmatively when Iovine asked him whether he wanted to "win this thing." "Yeah," he said.

Phillips' duet with Elise Testone on Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," however, rivaled Sanchez's "Stuttering" for my favorite performance of the night. Testone ripped it, their voices intermingled wonderfully, and they seemed to have a playful chemistry similar to what Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart had last season. (They're just "really good friends," Testone said, when Ryan Seacrest inquired about their "comfort level.") Yes, Testone did out-sing Phillips, as he had predicted, but can she do that slow chicken dance he does across the stage, as if channeling a stuffed bird from his dad's pawn shop, when they duet? Didn't think so.

Seriously, I really like Testone, and I don't understand why the voters are so willing to turn their backs on her at the slightest misstep. On Wednesday night, she closed the show with Lady Gaga's "You and I," and was rightly cheered by the judges. "Yo, America, Elise is back," Jackson said, calling Testone's vocal prowess "very dope."

That leaves only Hollie Cavanagh to tell you about, in my deliberately "in no particular order" rundown of the performances. Cavanagh, who held her own singing a trio of Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" with her "bestie" Ledet and Sanchez, hit some solid notes singing Pink's "Perfect" during her solo turn, but you knew the judges were going to bash her again for not connecting emotionally.

They did.

Lopez and Tyler told her she looked beautiful, which is what they say when they don't have anything nice to say about the singing. Jackson, though, told her, "I think you were so much better than you were last week, so you gotta be proud of that."

Despite Jackson's measured praise, I think Cavanagh's number's probably up this week, unless there's a big Texan-Liverpudlian voting bloc phoning and texting on her behalf.

Who do you think is in danger this week?

"Idol" versus "The Voice": Times music and television writers, including Amy Reiter, are ranking the five best performers each week, regardless of venue. Readers are invited to cast their votes too. See who made the top five last week at Who do you think stood out? Use the poll below to make your picks. Check back to see if your favorites made the cut. The poll closes Monday at noon.


Full coverage: 'American Idol'

'American Idol': The top 8 take on the '80s

'American Idol': DeAndre Brackensick packs it in

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: Left to right, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez perform on "American Idol" on Wednesday. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox

[For the record, 9:25 a.m. April 12: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that "Stronger" is by Beyonce. It is a Kelly Clarkson song.]