American Idol Pits Its Two Frontrunners Against Each Other as Half the Top 24 Hits the Stage

These 12 singers are battling for eight slots in next week’s Top 16 — with a little help from Jimmie Allen, Ryan Tedder, Katharine McPhee, Ben Rector, Brian McKnight and Joss Stone.

“American Idol” introduced a new format for the first live performances, and it’s a much cleaner, more streamlined viewing and judging experience.

Rather than have them come out twice for two separate performances, each contestant hits the stage for back-to-back songs so that we get a fuller sense of who they are and what they’re about in one solid punch of music.

First up, they hit us with a solo performance of whatever song moves them, followed by celebrity duets we suspect they had less say in what they sang. And yet, singing alongside the likes of Jimmie Allen, Ryan Tedder, Katharine McPhee, Ben Rector, Brian McKnight and Joss Stone served to elevate almost all of the “Idol” hopefuls.

The contestants are not only being split in half for this week’s competition shows, but they’ll be split the same way for the results, meaning the top eight vote-getters from each individual night will advance, giving us our Top 16.

That means it may not be a perfect result if one night is stacked heavier than the other. Here’s hoping it’s a little more balanced so we won’t have to deal with any more –ahem– Murphy-level heartbreak!

You know, like putting frontrunners Willie Spence and Grace Kinstler on the same night! You know the Monday contestants were breathing a sigh of relief when they saw who they didn’t have to go up against this week. For this week’s batch … well, there’s six other available slots.

As the official “American Idol” YouTube channel combined the solo and duet performances for each of the contestants into a single video, I’ll be doing the same in my rankings below. In other words, how did they do across the whole night?

Fair warning, since I’m safe at home, I’m probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe.

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Cecil Ray (w/ Jimmie Allen)

(“Paint Me a Birmingham,” Tracy Lawrence – 20, Cameron, TX) Last week, we were positive that Cecil wasn’t ready for this while Drake McCain (who had returned after a few years to grow) absolutely was. We said the judges got it wrong … and we stand by that. This was nasally in all the wrong ways, fell flat, felt forced and anxious. Cecil sang like he was overwhelmed by the lights, the production and everyone else. “Idol” got it wrong on this one. He’s not ready.

(“Freedom Was a Highway,” Jimmie Allen & Brad Paisley – with Jimmie Allen) The hand in the pocket, the walk, nothing felt authentic in this performance from Cecil, though we’ll at least credit him with a much stronger vocal than on his solo performance. There were hints of what an artist he could become, but he was still a little hesitant throughout. This was a better Cecil than the first song, but we’re not sure this was enough.

Alana (w/ Brian McKnight)

(“Blow Your Mind (Mwah),” Dua Lipa – 23, Lakewood Ranch, FL) We definitely dug the varying energies Alana brought to this up-tempo piece, with a little bit of rap flow mixed in with her solid vocals. There could have been a little more sharpness in her staccato to really punch some of the faster lines, but she had a lovely tone on display and great, confident stage presence, making her fun to watch.

(“Back at One,” Brian McKnight – with Brian McKnight) Adding to Alana’s pressure, Brian told her he’d never before performed this as a duet — and this song is iconic! Unfortunately, Alana got a little too in her head on this one, and did not come close to rising to Brian’s incredibly high standard. Maybe it was too much to ask. She fell flat at a few points, but managed to improve in confidence and command as the performance progressed.

Alanis Sophia (w/ Jimmie Allen)

(“Alive,” Sia – 19, Dade City, FL) She had a nice build throughout this, but it was definitely stronger in the closing moments than the earlier ones. That’s where the emotional beat is supposed to be established so we feel the pain of that big chorus. She wasn’t quite fully connected to it, but she’s still one of the show’s more exciting singers.

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(“Shallow,” Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper – with Jimmie Allen) There was a real sweetness to this performance though Alanis did let Jimmie overshadow her a bit vocally throughout this piece … and she’s the one who needs to stand out. This time, it was her gentler side that stood out as stronger and a little more connected. You could see the moment she relaxed was when she looked over at Jimmie. Duets need that connection of energy to feel authentic, and they did finally get there.

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Alyssa Wray (w/ Katharine McPhee)

(“Something in the Water,” Carrie Underwood – 18, Perryville, KY) Alyssa took this a little too far to church because those opening lines were classic country storytelling and she did not deliver them that way at all. Instead, she was just powering through to get to the chorus so she could sing it like a church choir, which she did great. But it’s a note to consider that every nuance of a song matters in its delivery.

(“I’m Your Baby Tonight,” Whitney Houston – with Katharine McPhee) Kudos to Alyssa for keeping it together with Katharine messing up the lyrics at least twice. Considering she didn’t know this song, Alyssa absolutely nailed the attitude and tone of it. She’s so good in her chosen genre, if she were to stay in this lane we’d never see any weakness. She was absolutely incredible here (but we do applaud and encourage her to keep stretching and challenging herself).

Cassandra Coleman (w/ Ryan Tedder)

(“Find Me,” Sigma f/ Birdy – 24, Columbia, TN) We could almost hear her heart pounding in her throat, but she nevertheless brought that perfect indie pop vibe that reminds us more and more of Florence Welch in how she approaches a lyric. It was well-suited to this song, and she managed to deliver it with earnest heart and believability.

(“Apologize,” OneRepublic – with Ryan Tedder) The nerves were wrangled much better here and it really elevated this performance tremendously. There were beautiful harmonies throughout, and Cassandra sang it with Ryan as if it had always been intended to be a duet. Most importantly, she stepped up and owned her verses with equal authority, rising to his obvious command of his own song.

Graham DeFranco (w/ Ben Rector)

(“Raye,” John Splithoff – 27, Rockwall, TX) We absolutely love Graham’s low-key delivery and how real he always feels when he delivers these songs, but we worry that this one went so much nowhere vocally throughout — staying in the exact same limited range and tone — that it’s going to be forgettable on a night of 24 songs. He’s got such an individual vibe, but he still needs to stand out in his lane.

(“Love Like This,” Ben Rector – with Ben Rector) Ben pushed him to find his range with a song that stretched both sides of his voice, which is just what he needs. Graham has a lovely tone throughout his range, but he definitely needs to project more on the upper end of it. It’s just a muscle he needs to flex more, but we’re hoping that Ben’s influence will give him the courage to go there, because it really does expand how exciting he could be as an artist in his own right. There’s potential for days here.

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Anilee List (w/ Joss Stone)

(“my future,” Billie Eilish – 20, Los Angeles, CA) Anilee put a lot on a very subtle song, and it both worked and seemed more than necessary to tell the original story. Mostly, we thought the ending was overwrought and became a run showcase, rather than selling this particular song. But early on, her choices felt bold and exciting, so we’ll call it a mixed bag. At least the runs were impressive, so the singing was all good. We just didn’t love all of the artistic choices.

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(“Tell Me Something Good,” Rufus & Chaka Khan – with Joss Stone) This is what we wish Anilee had done in her first song, stay in the lane of the song and choose your moments wisely. It helps that she was up there next to an incredible powerhouse with so much soul and conviction in Joss Stone. What resulted was one of the night’s best single performances, as both women truly did support and lift one another as if they were both pros who’ve been doing this for years.

Andrea Valles (w/ Brian McKnight)

(“Lo Vas A Olvidar,” Billie Eilish & Rosalía – 23, Houston, TX) The power of music is such that you should feel the intent of the song even if you don’t understand the lyrics. Andrea delivered this bilingual single, offering both languages effortlessly and with equal emotional connection. More importantly, she delivered that emotion believably to the audience.

(“Careless Whisper,” George Michael – with Brian McKnight) By the time she hit the stage with Brian, who knows a lot about emoting, there was a beautiful ache in her voice that authentically delivered the pain of this classic. She showed range and power, with a lovely smoothness to her voice. The challenge of the song is to keep it moving, but still feel pain throughout, and they danced that balance perfectly.

Wyatt Pike (w/ Ben Rector)

(“rubberband,” Tate McRae – 20, Park City, UT) Wyatt perfectly captured the mood of the track, selling each line of the story like it was the most important line. In other words, he had us with him through every step of this journey, which is exactly the kind of performance this song needed. His voice had a gentle rasp that oozes some emotion, and if there was the slightest disconnect there, well, it was probably nerves.

(“Brand New,” Ben Rector – with Ben Rector) Wyatt was the first contestant on the night who sounded as polished and connected to his chosen song both in his solo and his duet. He was right there, matching Ben in attitude, approach and authenticity through every line of this song, making for a very cool performance. And the fact he challenged himself to lose the guitar? You couldn’t tell any discomfort, and he just looked like he was feeling the music, which in turn had us feeling him.

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Deshawn Goncalves (w/ Ryan Tedder)

(“Forever Young,” Bob Dylan – 20, Cleveland, OH) Deshawn proves that you can take a song to gospel if you do it right, and he got every moment of this piece right, building beautifully from such a tender, sweet tone to a soaring power vocal that was filled with believable conviction. On top of that, he makes it look so easy.

(“I Lived,” OneRepublic – with Ryan Tedder) We loved seeing Deshawn’s little runs challenge Ryan to add a few into his lines. This was two confident singers playing off of one another. What surprised us, then, is that we know Deshawn has all this power, but he didn’t deliver as much as Ryan did even in places that called for it. But his tender vocal was filled with that hint of pain lived and that made all the difference in believing them equally. This was a great one-two punch for Deshawn.

Grace Kinstler (w/ Joss Stone)

(“Queen,” Jessie J – 20, Chicago, IL) We love Grace, we love the power of her voice, we love everything she does. We love the message of this song. We did not love her singing this song at this stage of the competition. It just didn’t feel like the right fit because we know she has the ability to move us and really connect with us. It was a great vocal on it, but not the best song choice.

(“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight & The Pips – with Joss Stone) On paper, this was the duet to watch out for. We know how much incredible soul Joss has in her voice and we’ve seen what Grace can deliver. If they bring out the best in one another, there’s no stopping them. And we love Joss giving her guidance to hold back the runs until they can be used with impact. We know you can do them, but make them special so they don’t overwhelm the emotion of the track. Joss delivered exactly what she advised and was incredible.

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If Grace can master how to put story first, she could be among the best who’ve ever hit any stage. Right now, she’s too tempted to use all of her tricks all the time. This was a great step in the right direction for her. By the end of this piece, though, they delivered all of the potential they had on that paper and it was just flawlessly incredible. Joss was the best possible mentor for Grace to learn to pull back her excesses.

Willie Spence (w/ Katharine McPhee)

(“Wind Beneath My Wings,” Bette Midler – 21, Douglas, GA) When they say a voice is “like butter,” this is the kind of voice they’re talking about. You don’t care what it’s singing, what it’s saying, you just enjoy hearing it. At the same time, he put his own inflections into an incredibly well-known song, adding a signature vibe to it more suited to his own singing style without losing any piece of what the song is about. On top of that, he doesn’t even have to move and he’s got stage presence for days. It’s in how he carries himself, uses his hands and his face to tell the story, on top of that velvety voice.

(“The Prayer,” Céline Dion & Andrea Bocelli – with Katharine McPhee) Talk about a lot to pick up, this is one of the most vocally impossible and impressive songs there is. We know Katharine has this in her from her time on the show, but after her first performance, it felt like Willie pushed her to new heights just as she did for him. This was a powerhouse duet, easily one of the strongest of the night. Willie is such a rare vocalist, he really can do it all — even take on a opera singer’s part, arrange it for what he does and own it.

PREDICTIONS

While we stand by our rankings, we don’t necessarily think that’s how America will vote. There are so many more things to factor in when trying to analyze why America votes the way they do, and sometimes the performances aren’t nearly as big of a factor.

That said, we do believe that Cecil Ray and Alana failed to really capture anyone’s attention in a memorable way, so we stand by both those rankings, and have a feeling their time might be through. The same will likely be the case for Alanis Sophia.

It’s in our ninth place finisher, Alyssa Wray, that we think things might go a little hinky. She’s a much better singer and bigger voice than that solo performance, which was a bit of a mess. So we suspect she might find a bigger following than this ranking would suggest.

Unless there’s a shocker and Andrea Valles suffers from not getting much screen time in the previous rounds — she surprised us with how incredible she was this week — we think it’ll come down to Graham DeFranco or one of Anilee List and Cassandra Coleman.

With the ladies, we just feel they’re going to kind of start to sabotage one another’s votes as viewers might start to conflate them, or think they’re too much in the same lane. As for Graham, he gave a singer’s night of performances, which would be great if that was the audience. It’s not. Was it dynamic enough to carry through?

So it could actually go a lot of ways — or America could get it way wrong and send home someone truly incredible — but if we had to predict, and we’ve decided we do, we’d go with: Cecil Ray, Alana, Alanis Sophia, and Cassandra Coleman. Men often do better in these earlier rounds and there were only five of them tonight.

”American Idol” airs Sundays and Mondays at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.