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Jessica Sanchez vs. Phillip Phillips in 'American Idol' finale

The final two contestants with the judges after

The final two contestants with the judges after contestant Joshua Ledet was eliminated. Judge Jennifer Lopez with contestants Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez, and fellow judges Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson. (May 17, 2012) Credit: Fox

The end of the 11th season of "American Idol" arrives Tuesday night (Fox/5 at 8) as Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez vie for the crown. The season wasn't perfect -- how could Joshua Ledet not make it to the final two? But it was solid -- with such memorable contestants as Hollie Cavanagh, Flushing's Heejun Han (who made Jennifer Lopez cry), Elise Testone and Colton Dixon.

The winner will be revealed Wednesday night. Newsday TV critic Verne Gay and pop music critic Glenn Gamboa offer their assessments of the two finalists:

Phillip Phillips

Phillip Phillips has "front-runner" status, which -- if I'm interpreting some of the negative vibes correctly -- is either a scarlet letter or a miscarriage of justice. How dare this Dave Matthews wannabe get this far! Another case of voter bias based on geographic, ethnic or "cuteness" factors as opposed to pure, raw, indisputable talent!

To which I'd say: Get over it. Phillips deserves to win. His vocals were and are better than anyone seems to recall, while his musicianship was and is superior to that of the other contestants. The latter is maybe a subtler advantage, though not to members of "Idol's" band crew, who knew how good he was and consistently gave him the sonic support to overcome even the weaker performances.

Phillips isn't the sort of singer who nails the audience (or judges) to the back of their seats, though balladeers with Southern bluesy roots usually aren't. One of his best moments -- Damien Rice's "Volcano" -- was delivered like a breath exhaled, while another -- Matchbox Twenty's "Disease" -- like a breath drawn. And, of course, he could kick it up when he needed to, like his top nine performance of Jonny Lang's "Still Rainin'" or Otis Redding's "Hard to Handle" early in the season.

And beats me why Phillips' ties, however deep or superficial, to Matthews should be a demerit. Why not comparisons to Blues Traveler, or Adam Duritz, or Jack Johnson, too? There's a hint of all in Phillips, whose prime allegiance, it seems to me, is quality music. His fan base knows that and has rewarded him accordingly.

--VERNE GAY

Jessica Sanchez

Jessica Sanchez won't win "American Idol" for a variety of factors outside her control -- the makeup of the "Idol" voting electorate and her age, her gender, her hometown, her ethnicity -- regardless of how well she performs tonight.

That's OK. Like Adam Lambert, Katharine McPhee and Clay Aiken, the 16-year-old from San Diego seems like yet another "Idol" runner-up who eventually will outshine the show's winner.

Sanchez has a stunningly powerful voice and a clear talent for matching the work of any singer. Her triumphant take on "I Will Always Love You" matched Whitney Houston, note for note. Her thunderous version of "And I Am Telling You" could go up against both Jennifer Holliday and Jennifer Hudson. Her only real stumble came as she tried to match the complicated maze of notes and breath control in Mariah Carey's "My All," and it seemed pretty clear that she would have mastered it if she'd been given more than a week.

Sanchez is savvy about finding music that suits her voice, picking lesser-known songs like Jazmine Sullivan's "Stuttering" or Etta James' "Steal Away," and bold enough to believe she can handle it.

What she lacks is her own sense of style, a comprehensive idea of what she (or her alter ego, BB Chez) wants to sound like and what she wants to say. But what 16-year-old has ever known that?

Given the right support team, Sanchez is destined for stardom. Unlike so many of the female singers who soon will become her competition, Sanchez has the vocal skills to back up whatever style she wants to pursue.

--GLENN GAMBOA

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