Top audition, Hollywood, and live collaboration videos

Kelsey Madsen - the little red-haired girl
Kelsey Madsen


Before I get to the lists, I have an update on the little red haired girl. To refresh everyone’s memory, during the season 9 audition rounds Kara Dioguardi looked at a young girl with red hair and glasses and said, “You’re great” with such emphasis that I figured the kid was going to be one of the stars of the season. As the weeks went by, though, there was no sign of her. I didn’t have the first clue who she was, but I had dubbed her a standout. My sterling reputation as an Idol prognosticator was on the line.

Ok, maybe not – but I wanted to know who the hell she was.

What had the Idol producers done with her? Were they saving her for later? Did she get dumped in the first week of Hollywood? Hell, did she even exist, or had the producers mixed a couple of different videos together to make it look like Kara was looking at this little red haired girl when she was actually admiring Casey James’ pecs?

And then, on group night, there she was, singing beautifully – for about two seconds.  She forgot the words and she was gone. Just like that. Two seconds of airtime for the little red haired girl, not long enough to superimpose one of those graphics with her name, age and hometown on the screen. I felt like Charlie Brown, watching the bus drive away.

As I said in a later edit of that season’s Group Night post, the little red haired girl turned out to be Columbia College, Missouri student Kelsey Madsen, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I later found out that she graduated from Columbia College in 2012. Kara looked at her admiringly sometime in the summer of 2009, and she appeared on the show in 2010.

I found a video of Kelsey, singing “Ain’t no Sunshine” for a recital during her Senior year. I don’t want to oversell the video – she’s good, but she ain’t Kelly Clarkson, and this particular performance isn’t in front of a screaming crowd – but with this video we finally get to hear her sing for more than two seconds. Boy, is she skinny.

After some extensive sleuthing (that’s the polite word for stalking) I found enough information to figure out two things. First, Kelsey is currently working as a performer for the Carnival Cruise line. Second, I have to stop Googling “Kelsey Madsen” before the FBI comes after me, wondering what the hell is so fascinating about Kelsey Madsen.

The Little Red Haired Girl singing in concert at Columbia College, 2012

Wherever you are out there, little red haired girl, I wish you luck and happiness. And thanks for providing me and my blog several weeks of sleep depriving angst, trying to figure out if you were as good as Kara DioGuardi said you were, or just a random bump in the night. As it turned out, you were both.



Ok, let’s get to it.

Most of the best auditions were aired in the pimp slot at the end of each show, and those pimp slot auditioners finished in the top five for their respective seasons. Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey, Casey Abrams, Phil Phillips, Candice Glover, James Durbin … all of them were terrific in their auditions, but (1) we are going to see them in other videos, and (2) what’s the fun in picking the obvious?

After weeding out the obvious stud auditions, I came up with these five. They are either my favorites (Leah, Jairon, Vanessa), the most significant audition moments in hindsight (Lee and Crystal), or both (Didi).

5. Leah Laurenti

Leah Laurenti

Once in a while I like to troll around You Tube, looking for videos from people I haven’t seen in a while. Leah has quite a few videos on there, mostly jazzy stuff, and mostly really good. She wasn’t a great fit for Idol, with her jazz sensibilities, but she got her fifteen minutes of reality show fame with this beautiful rendition of the old standard “Blue Skies.”

Leah, originally from the Boston area, spends most of her time in New York these days, performing concerts and writing new music. She posts a lot of short videoettes on her Facebook page, playing her piano and singing. The very jazzy (and coming to Spokane this fall!) Post-Modern Jukebox uses former Idols a lot on their tours; Leah might be a good fit for that group.

4. Jairon Jackson

Jairon sang an original song at his audition, one of the first contestants to get an original composition aired. I remember trolling You Tube the next morning and finding almost an entire page – there are 25 videos per page – of other people covering Jairon’s song.

th (6)Jairon, like Candice Glover, was surprisingly ousted before the live shows. Unlike Candice, Jairon did not come back the next year to dominate. He did  appear at the Apollo (left), winning Amateur Night at the Apollo in February, 2014 – 3 years after his appearance on Idol.

3. Vanessa Wolfe

Vanessa’s audition was a tremendous illustration of the lottery ticket aspect of Idol. She was a raw kid from a town so small that you had to work your way up 3 or 4 towns larger to find one of them on a map. She had no formal musical experience. Based on her audition, I doubt she had a lot of informal experience, either. Her accent was so thick, and her persona so Dogpatchy, that the producers passed her through to the judges, probably thinking she would be a funny audition, sort of a redneck version of William Hung.

Hick Chick Vanessa Wolfe
Hick Chick Vanessa Wolfe

Instead, Vanessa sang juuuuust good enough, and begged juuuust long enough to score a Golden Ticket – as long as she and her mother played up the Hillbilly persona juuuuust a little bit more. Based on my research, Vanessa really is a small-town hick – but she knows what an aero-plane is and she can tell the difference between a butterfly and a frog. I’m not sure about her mother, though – she looks too much like Honey Boo-Boo’s mother to assume anything.

I found Vanessa’s Facebook page – she calls herself “Nessa Jo” – and she’s alive and well, living in the booming metropolis of Madisonville, Tennessee, population 4,510 (about 3 times the size of Vonore, her hometown). It doesn’t look like she’s gotten the ball rolling on her future grand-kids yet (“Lemmee tell you little shits about the time when Grammaw was on the Tee Vee!”), but according to her Facebook page she is in a relationship. As long as she still plays her guitar, the American Dream is alive and well, out there with the fireflies.

2. Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox

A pair of unknowns, waiting to audition for American Idol in Chicago

We’ll be seeing these two in the video countdowns, don’t freak out. I added this video because Idol aired them back-to-back, months before anyone knew that they would face off for the season nine title. At the time I liked both of their voices, but I was skeptical about Lee because he sang a perfect vehicle and Crystal because her phrasing was sloppy. I called Lee a standout anyway – the only time in seven years of writing about Idol that I called the eventual winner a standout.

Lessee…. I didn’t watch David Cook’s audition, and I don’t remember Kris Allen’s audition. I liked Scotty, but I thought he should have just moved to Nashville and left pop music to the pop singers. I didn’t hate Phil-Phil so much as I didn’t understand what the hell he was doing in a singing competition. I wouldn’t like Willie Nelson or Bruce Springsteen in a singing competition, either. Candice, in season 12, was an obvious standout. That’s right… Ok, I picked two of them.

1. Didi Benami

Didi Benami, desperately hoping her waterproof makeup doesn't fail her
Didi Benami, desperately hoping her waterproof makeup doesn’t fail her

Didi’s audition had it all: a heart-string tugging backstory, a tremendous performance, lots of obvious nervous tension, and – of course – a little bit of Simon drama.

  • Didi dedicated the audition to her college roommate, best friend and song writing partner Rebecca Joy Lear, who was killed in a traffic accident driving to her Kansas home for Christmas, 2006.
  • Didi’s performance of “Hey Jude” was terrific – in tune and powerful – and Didi showed off the quirky pronunciations that became her signature.
  • She got the pimp slot for the show that aired her audition, so it was obvious she was going to get her ticket, but she was so nervous that the judges hesitated for a minute. The tension, at the time, was palpable. In hindsight there was no doubt, but at the time…
  • Simon, possibly because of the nerves but more likely because he was mentally checked out, actually voted “no.” He also voted “no” on Casey James, who finished 3rd, so Simon tried to dump two of the top ten contestants from his final season.

Didi and her college roomate, Rebecca Joy Lear
Didi and Rebecca at Belmont College, 2006

Didi went on to finish 10th in season 9, and she worked for Idol as a host and the reality show version of a sideline reporter in seasons 10-15.




After weeks of exhaustive research, these were the first 12 videos I remembered.

Ok, I gave it a little more thought than that, but just a little. These are the Hollywood Week videos that I loved the most, and that I am most likely to return to, again and again. I’ve gone back and played them all many times; I’ll explain why in the comments.

  1. Hollie Cavanagh, Naomi Gillies, and some other girl in Vegas
Naomi Gillies
Naomi Gillies
Hollie Cavanagh

My regular readers know how much I loved Hollie in season 11. This video didn’t air on the show itself; I found it on Idol’s website. Idol only aired Naomi Gillies twice: at her audition, and in the final judgment room, waiting to hear if she made the final 24. The third singer in this video – Marissa Pontecorvo – wasn’t a singer on the level of the other two, which is probably why the video didn’t air. Hollie and Naomi were as good as anyone in Vegas that season, and this was the video that announced that Hollie was ready to kick ass and take names on the live shows. It announced Naomi too, but for some reason Idol didn’t catch that part.

Naomi and Hollie are both busy performing, writing, and recording – Hollie as a former Idol, Naomi under the Idol radar.

  1. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” – Reed Grimm’s group in Vegas

thReed Grimm was season 11’s Casey, the best overall musician, but he wasn’t really a singer and he was sort of creepy – so he didn’t make it past the first round of the live show voting. He was a standout in Hollywood and Vegas, though, and he was the creative force behind the best group on Group night as well as this group, the strongest group in Vegas.

Grimm, Elise Testone, Haley Johnson, and Eben Frankowitz all made the final 24 based on this performance. Elise was the only one who made it to the tour.

  1. Jacob Lusk, “God Bless the Child”
th (7)
Jacob Lusk

This was the first time we got to see Jacob, and the first time we heard his rubbery three-octave range. He never really produced a moment in the finals, partly because he kept repeating the same tricks on every song instead of working out something unique, but mostly because holding those rubbery runs on pitch is like holding a live fire hose without getting the neighbors wet.

  1. Lilly Scott, “Lullaby of Birdland”
Lilly Scott

Lilly was the Pia of season nine, getting ousted in the semifinals even though the experts ranked her among the top 2-3 contestants. This performance, in the first round of Hollywood, was the first time we all got to see her. It only ranks this low because it came on what had to be the strongest single Hollywood performance show in my Idol watching experience. Lilly, who was a revelation, ranks below three other performances from the same show. They will be along a few spots up the list.

  1. Siobhan Magnus, “Living for the City”
SIobhan Magnus
SIobhan Magnus

This is a compromise. Purely by Idol importance, this video wouldn’t make the top 50 – but based on my personal opinion it would rank even higher than 8th. This was the first time we saw Siobhan, other than as part of one of the “Bad Romance” groups (the good one) for about two seconds.

Note the stark contrast between the bright, shiny face, the huge, sweeping high note on the stage, and the dork in the old prom dress and the granny glasses, sitting glumly by herself on a bench after getting bawled out by Ellen DeGeneres. Most of these kids, many of whom are now big, sexy stars, were dorks when they auditioned on the show. This video illustrates the constant, treacherous, ego sucking zip lines that the contestants, even the standouts, had to navigate in Hollywood. They were all one rejection from dejection, every time they walked on stage.

  1. “Forget You” – Lauren Turner on Group Night
"Other" Lauren, Lauren Turner
“Other” Lauren, Lauren Turner

The star-crossed “Other Lauren” from season ten shone bright on this little snippet, promising moments to come before being unceremoniously dumped, not even given a shot to sing for a wild card, in the semifinals. She was the female standout in Hollywood that year despite getting less than a minute of total airtime.

Her Vegas performance nearly made my top 12, too. If I could have found a good video, it would have. I’m still a little bitter about her early ouster; she was my odds-on favorite to win the Allie that season.

  1. “Jar of Hearts” – Joshua Ledet
Joshua Ledet
Joshua Ledet

Joshua’s over-the-top emoting got a little old towards the end, but the first time I heard him he was an explosive revelation.

And “Jar of Hearts” is an explosive song; it’s part of my walking mix.

  1. “Terrified” – Didi Benami
th (3)
Didi Benami

Terrified is right. Didi stood up on stage in front of Kara Dioguardi, holding a guitar she had learned how to play less than a year before, and sang one of Kara’s own songs. Sang is not strong enough. Didi owned Kara’s song; she didn’t miss a note on the guitar, either. Amazingly, this was only the third best performance of the day.

Simon Cowell, after Didi mentioned that she was a waitress, compared Didi to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood – two other waitresses who did pretty well on Idol.

  1. “Straight Up” – Andrew Garcia
Andrew Garcia
Andrew Garcia

This was the second best. Andrew’s audition was terrific, too, and after this performance he was considered the frontrunner to win season nine. He never really backed it up, though, and he petered out in 9th place.

As it turned out, the eventual standout from season nine gave us her own dominant performance – on the same stage – later that same day.

  1. “ Natural Woman” – Crystal Bowersox
Crystal Bowersox, leading a sing-along in Hollywood
Crystal Bowersox, leading a sing-along in Hollywood

This was the fourth moment from the same Hollywood show. The audience – other Idols, waiting to get up and sing themselves – started singing along with Crystal, echoing her as she blasted through the bridge.

Before this performance, Crystal was a longshot: a scruffy, chain-smoking hipster about five years ahead of her time. Afterward, she was a serious contender, along with Didi, Lilly, and Andrew.

  1. “Somebody to Love” – The Minors
th (6)
Their mothers celebrate after the Minors give the performance of their lives

This was my favorite Group Night performance, by a mile:

None of the teenagers in the group made the semifinals that season, but two of them came back and made the finals in later years: Deandre Brackensick finished 8th in season 11, and Sarina Joi Crow finished 12th in season 14. The five of them toured as The Minors in the summer of 2010.

  1. “Georgia on my Mind” – Casey Abrams
Casey Abrams with his "little friend"
Casey Abrams with his “little friend”

From Randy’s bassman reaction to Carson Higgins grooving in the crowd, Casey’s opening double bass salvo got the audience’s attention. When he growled his way up and over the top, in a jazzy cool scat, he put the audience into a frenzy. This performance was an easy choice for number one.

Casey Abrams is not a big star now, and he may never be as well-known as some of the other Idols, but – as this performance demonstrates – Casey always makes you happy that you took a moment from your busy life to check him out. In this way he is like an old school troubadour, a concert performer with the soul of a street musician.

We don’t appreciate street musicians these days, so most of them are reduced to singing in front of train stations or at the edges of parks, constantly being shooed away by rent-a-cops in cheap uniforms. Maybe I don’t appreciate rent-a-cops.




I chose the best collaboration video from each of seasons 8-12 and ranked them from 1-5. I don’t remember any of the season 7 collaborations, and I know better than to listen to the group numbers again. My ears still haven’t fully recovered from the K.C. and the Sunshine Band assault in season 9.

5. Elise Testone and Phil Phillips

“Somebody I used to know” (Goyte featuring Kimbra)

th (8)Phil held his own, but I chose this one mostly because Elise sang her part so well and the song itself was such a nice change of pace from the ballad-heavy middle rounds on Idol.

th (10)4. Candice Glover, Angie Miller, and Amber Holcomb

I’m gonna make you love me” (The Temptations)

Probably the most talented trio collaboration, these kids barely needed microphones. The girls on each side did some sort of synchronized dance move; I bet the producers suggested (demanded) it, but Candice was having none of it. It took the producers dammed near the whole year to get her to wear a dress.

3. Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox

“Falling Slowly” (The Frames)

th (11)Lee ultimately won the competition, but it was clear whenever the two of them sang together which one of them was the stronger singer. And Lee has a thick, heavy tree trunk of a voice himself.

2. Adam Lambert and Alison Iraheta

“Slow Ride” (Foghat)

th (12)

adamThis collaboration came in the midst of Alison’s exit week, and the whole world seemed to know that this was going to be their last time singing together on the show. Allie was a hugger anyway, but the hug she gave Adam at the end of their performance (right) was one for the ages.

1. Lauren Alaina and Haley Reinhart

“Gunpowder and Lead” (Miranda Lambert)

th (15)th (14)th (16)I’m a Miranda Lambert fan, so don’t throw rocks at me, but …. in my opinion, Haley and Lauren’s version is better than the original. This was Lauren Alaina’s best performance of the season, which should be a giant neon “pick me” sign to all those Nashville singers when they go looking for a duet partner.

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