American Idol's Top 13 Sing Whitney Houston & Stevie Wonder
updated 03/08/2012 AT 11:30 AM EST
•originally published 03/07/2012 AT 11:00 PM EST
Now things are finally starting to get interesting!
After weeks of seemingly endless auditions and twists, American Idol's top 13 finalists took the stage Wednesday, offering the clearest picture yet of who might be crowned the next winner.
The male contestants faced off with the females – but it wasn't necessarily an even playing field. The guys were given Stevie Wonder's catalog, while the females had the towering task of singing songs by the late Whitney Houston.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the guys seemed to fare better among the judges and each contestant managed to bring their own flavor to the soul singer's songbook. Joshua Ledet, who lead off the night, brought a hot gospel swagger to "I Wish," while Phillip Phillips, during his show-closing performance, added rock 'n' roll heat to Wonder's most famous tune, "Superstition." Even Hejun Han, showing off his delicate voice on "All Is Fair in Love," won praise from judges Jennifer Lopez, Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler, with the latter noting (somewhat backhandedly) that there was "something really special about his voice."
Armed with Whitney's songbook, however, the females truly had their work cut out for them. It's no shock that many struggled matching the late singer's impressive, outsized voice – and some were unfamiliar with her work. Skylar Laine admitted to never listening to Houston's music growing up, while Elise Testone was unaware of Houston's inescapable "I'm Your Baby Tonight" when it was released in 1990 (she would've been 7-years-old at the time). Nevertheless, those two in particular delivered solid performances: Laine added her country flair to "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" while Testone's husky voice was well-suited to her rendition.
But it was Jessica Sanchez, an early favorite among the judges, who owned the night. Not surprisingly, she selected Houston's most well known song, "I Will Always Love You." She aced it – and earned a standing ovation. "I think you're not only one of the best singers of the night, I think you're one of the best singers in the whole competition," Jackson noted.
Aside from Sanchez, Mary J. Blige, returning as vocal coach with Jimmy Iovine, was the episode's clear highlight. If anyone knows about the art of singing, it's her. And not only was it a hoot to watch the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul sing bits of the songs while seated, she offered some of the most trenchant comments of the night. FOX should give her a judge's chair.