Released the day Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee battled it out for the title of American Idol, American Idol Season 5: Encores offers a recap of season five, which may well be remembered as the season where the final 12 contestants were the most evenly matched. That doesn't necessarily mean that all of the 12 were standouts: this collection of studio-recorded encores of songs that the contestants sang early in the season proves that the final five of Taylor, Katharine, Elliott, Chris, and Paris were indeed five of the most deserving contestants, and they all acquit themselves pretty well on record. Taylor remains the most distinctive, partially because guys who sound like a cross between Michael McDonald and Joe Cocker do indeed stand apart from the pack, as his "Takin' It to the Streets" proves, but Katharine does have some personality on record, even if "Think" might not have been her best moment ("Someone to Watch Over Me" probably should have been revived). As the judges were saying all season, Chris does prove to have a voice that's well suited for recording, but as dependable as he sounds on this version of "Wanted Dead or Alive," he doesn't sound all that different from any of the post-grunge rockers that cluttered the airwaves in 1996. Paris, however, fares better on record than she did on the program, since it's easy to appreciate how rich her voice is on its own terms. Sadly, the always likeable Elliott Yamin is a bit underwhelming on record, where his rasp doesn't sound soulful; it sounds a little too smoky. But he's far from the worst thing here -- that title belongs to Ace, whose anemic reading of "Father Figure" sounds wimpier than he ever did on the show. On the other hand, Bucky's growling "Superstition" actually sounds bolder and better than it did on the program, as does Melissa McGhee's "What About Love" -- she may already be forgotten by the time this album is released, but this recording suggests she had a more interesting voice than either Lisa, whose "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" is perfunctory, or Kellie, whose "Walkin' After Midnight" is clueless. That leaves Mandisa and Kevin, who are exactly on record as they are on the show: Mandisa is powerful, but a little generic, while Kevin is just lucky he got on TV. So that all adds up to a pretty high batting average -- maybe no home runs (although some may argue that Taylor squeaks by and hits home plate), but only one strike-out, and a lot of it isn't bad at all, even with AmIdol's relentlessly cheap karaoke backing tracks for the singers. Which means this may indeed be the best American Idol yet, at least as far as the souvenir records go.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine