Various Artists

American Idol Season 4: The Showstoppers

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The American Idol cast album for season four arrived about a month later than it did for season two and season three. Instead of appearing during the thick of competition, as it did in 2003 and 2004, it was released the week before the final episode in May, when it was pretty clear that, barring some earth-shaking upset, either Carrie Underwood or Bo Bice was going to be our next "American Idol." Because of this, American Idol Season 4 winds up as a stroll down memory lane, or perhaps a chance to see if Lindsey Cardinale or Mikalah Gordon should have stuck around a little bit longer than they did. The album almost forces a listener to reminisce about the season past, because unlike the theme-based sets for seasons two and three, this is a collection of songs the 12 contestants performed on the show. While the Showstoppers subtitle suggests that this is the best of the best for each of the contestants, it's hard to believe that the lead-footed "Knock on Wood" was the best that Lindsey Cardinale had to offer (that said, it did stop the show dead in its tracks). In any case, this is a good representation of what the show was all about in 2005, and listening to it, it's hard not to think that this was indeed the best batch of singers American Idol had ever had, as Randy Jackson proclaims every year of the show. In the past, many of the contestants were more impressive on TV than they were on record, sounding thin and faceless, but here, only a handful of the singers seem diminished in the recording studio. Among these is poor Cardinale, of course, who sounds as ill at ease as ever, and she's joined by Mikalah Gordon, who confirms that, at her best, she sounds like Fran Drescher singing torch songs. Good guy Anwar Robinson seems even more mannered on record than he did on the stage, and everybody's favorite Midwestern farm thug, Scott Savol -- we all better pray that there aren't a million of him walking around Ohio -- sounds thin and weak here, even though he's drowning in reverb. Vonzell Solomon, whose irrepressible bouncy spirit makes her an endearing presence on the show, is pleasant but forgettable here; the rest of the crew, however, do make a memorable impression on record. Nikko Smith is more forceful here than he was on the show, Anthony Fedorov has more charisma than Clay Aiken, Constantine Maroulis vamps up "My Funny Valentine" as effectively on record as he did on the show, while Jessica Sierra's powerful "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is so good, it's hard not to wish that she stayed around until the "final three." But even if she did, Bice's and Cardinale's contributions suggest that she wouldn't have stood a ghost of a chance against them. While Bo Bice was much, much better when singing the Allman Brothers on the show, his reading of Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Want to Be" is closer to what he'll wind up singing on his debut record, and he's every bit as memorable as DeGraw himself here. But it's Carrie Underwood who's the real shocker here. She'd always been good on the show, but at times she could seem a little mechanical in her delivery. Here, singing Martina McBride's "Independence Day," she sounds alive and engaged, and it makes for the best performance here, and a good indication that she could make a pretty good album. So, all in all, a pretty good season for American Idol, then. At the very least, it made for one of the better cast albums from the series.

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