The “American Idol” season begins in earnest tonight and we'll get to see how well the show's wholesale changes will actually play out.
So far, most of them have worked out pretty well. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have proven to be good additions, though sometimes they really are too nice to the contestants. (Anyone who saw them praise Ta-Tynisa's unfortunate “Only Girl in the World” last week had to be wondering if they heard the same thing the rest of us did.) Last week's sudden-death cut of 11 semifinalists made for great TV, even if Merrick's Robbie Rosen was robbed of a slot in the finals.
And now, we'll get to see how well all these music industry mentors will do their jobs, helping the Top 13 with song choice, arrangements and overall packaging. That help removes the advantage that previous contestants, including David Cook and Adam Lambert, who had arranging and strong musical backgrounds used to have, but it should make for a better-sounding TV show.
Here's a look at how the Top 13 stack up coming into the finals:
1. Jacob Lusk: He has a stunning R&B voice and a great way of connecting with a song emotionally, as he has shown with “God Bless the Child” and “A House Is Not a Home.” He looks like the one to beat, but, no matter what Randy Jackson likes to say, when it comes down to it “Idol” is a popularity contest, not a singing contest. Will he become yet another more-talented runner-up? Time will tell.
2. Casey Abrams: The 20-year-old has a great voice, mad musical skills and a winning personality. He seems to have gotten past his little health scare and his “I Put a Spell on You” was wildly entertaining last week. If I was a betting man, my money would be on him to win.
3. Scotty McCreery: I'd also put some down on young Scotty. He has the clearest run to a major-label contract of the entire field. Country labels must be salivating already to get their hands on the poised 17-year-old. Does that make him a winner too? Maybe.
4. Paul McDonald: His indie-rock-meets-R&B vibe is an attractive combo. He has overcome a lack of early screen time by coming on strong and showing he knows how to use his distinctive voice and work the crowd. If others stumble, his experience could pull him through. The dark horse, Blake Lewis-like pick.
5. Pia Toscano: The Howard Beach native is a Celine Dion-esque powerhouse, the kind of singer that would have been dominant 15 years ago. Her masterful “I'll Stand by You” showed that she can be crafty and hold her own. If all the other girls fall away, she could stick around Crystal Bowersox-style until the end as the only female in the field.
6. Thia Megia: Will tweens embrace this delightful 15-year-old the way they did Jordin Sparks? They probably should. Thia has a sweet, powerful voice that she uses skillfully, but she doesn't oversell. Her “Out Here on My Own” was clear and potent, letting the song shine through. The “Idol” marketing teams could build her into something very, very bankable.
7. Naima Adedapo: OK, Naima could go one of two ways – she could gain some confidence and use her great voice and musical instincts to become a contender or she could let the nerves get to her and bow out early. I'm hoping for the former, especially considering her great back story, but I'm not completely sold just yet.
8. Lauren Alaina: An early front-runner and clearly beloved by “Idol” producers, she has a nice voice and a memorable personality. However, Scotty has kind of stolen her country thunder and Thia is younger and sweeter. She seems like she could easily right herself, but she seems currently on a bid of a fade.
9. James Durbin: As the only rocker in the field, he could hang around for a long time. He has a chance of winning if he figures out how to sing without relying on that big scream every week and if he can distinguish himself as not Adam Lambert II. “You've Got Another Thing Comin'” was certainly an unexpected start.
10. Ashthon Jones: The diva is entertaining, but she does kind of have to pay more attention to the singing and the song choice. She could clearly be molded into some sort of current chart-topper and could be quite the surprise once the mentors get a hold of her.
11. Stefano Langone: He seems like a nice guy with a nice voice – not sure there's much more than that there.
12. Karen Rodriguez: Gotta give it up to the pride of the Boogie-Down Bronx. She's working the angles. She's playing up her J.Lo love, but K.Ro needs a bit more oomph and a bit less pandering. Also, in the end, aggressively pursuing the Latin vote is not going to help her gain a widespread vote. Just sayin'.
13. Haley Reinhart: Her version of “Fallin'” was annoying and ill-conceived, so I have no idea how she landed among America's Top 5 vote-getters. I don't think she'll be around long enough for us to find out what her voters saw in her.
MORE: Our pal Verne Gay ranks the Top 13 here.