After the last couple of years of uninspiring winners and runners-up (Adam Lambert excepted), American Idol has begun its 10th season with a bang, showcasing 13 very talented young people. Watching the winnowing down of 24 to 13 was tough, however, as all 24 had talent. When the proverbial smoke cleared, the show was left with 10 of the 24, plus two wild card choices from the judges–except the judges decided to shake things up by adding a 13th, Naima Adedapo. Based on Naima’s first two performances–an appropriately referred to “lounge version” of “Summertime” and a Donny Hathaway tune–one might think the judges were drinking from former judge Paula’s cup. Naima put that notion to rest on Wednesday night. A quick recap, from my perspective, is how we’ll get things started.

First up on Wednesday, 16-year-old Lauren Alaina sang Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine.” While the judges were lukewarm to Lauren’s performance, all I could think of was: “She’s 16? Really? Really?” Lauren has a lot of talent balled up in that 16-year-old body, and I think we’ve only seen a bit of what she has to offer.

Casey Abrams is a man I’ve yet to understand. He chose Joe Cocker as his personal Idol and sang “With A Little Help From My Friends.” I don’t get Casey or the attraction to him. I’m trying, folks, I’m trying. He doesn’t suck, and that’s about the best I can say about him at this stage.

I so wanted Ashthon Jones to do well, but I should have shelled peas (you know, wish in one hand, shell peas in the other). Ashthon chose Diana Ross’ “When You Tell Me That You Love Me” as her song for the evening. My problem with this song choice is that just last week, Jennifer and Randy said that they see Ashthon more as Diana Ross than Monica. So, what does Ashthon do? She chooses Diana Ross. I think the object of this experiment is for the artists to show us who they are, not who the judges want them to be. That choice does not bode well for Ashthon, as it leads one to believe she has no idea who she is as an artist. Do I hear the death knell?

Paul McDonald is the other contestant I completely don’t get (yes, even more than Casey). Paul chose Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up.” I know Ryan Adams, but I don’t know that song, leaving me with no comparison to make. I doubt the comparison would have mattered. I personally thought Paul rather off-key on the opening, but that could be a product of me not “getting” him.

Pia Toscano appears to be the “judge’s favorite” this time around. To them, she can do no wrong; to me, she’s all right. Pia chose “All By Myself,” made famous by Celine Dion. From my perspective, Pia is just loud. Don’t get me wrong: Pia can sing, but so far, Ive only been bored by her. Hopefully, she will lend that big voice to something less “sleepy” (to borrow from Randy) the next time around, as I doubt very seriously that Pia is going anywhere this week.

Following Pia was one of my personal favorites, James Durbin. Yes, I’m allowed to have favorites, folks. James chose a surprise of sorts, “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney. After hearing James scream out the Judas Priest number, both his choice and his performance were pleasant surprises. As a friend of mine at Facebook said, “The boy not only can scream, he can really sing!” Yes, he can. James has one of the back stories that fans of Idol sometimes link up with, but I don’t think James is going to need it.

Like Randy, I did not like Haley Reinhart channeling Alicia Keys. “Growling” is not attractive, and it does not a good singer make. This week, she made a better choice with LeeAnn Rime’s “Blue,” which is actually a song rejected by Patsy Cline. One of the things I didn’t like about Haley during the top 24 was her tendency to “talk back” to the judges when they gave constructive criticism. If I could speak to Haley, I would explain to her that the judges are supposed to do that; they’re there to help you, honey. She sort of blew me away with her response to them last night that she chose a song “like you guys wanted.” Wrong. The judges and America want you to be yourself. Find out who that is, and bring her out next week.

Jacob, Jacob, Jacob (Lusk, that is). This young man seriously has the most ridiculous vocal range I have ever heard in my life. He chose R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Prepared to be bored because this song has been done so many times, Jacob showed me a thing or two. At times, he has the bass of Melvin Franklin and, at others, the falsetto of Eddie Kendrick (both of the Temptations for you youngsters). In essence, this man could be a one-man group. Jacob is, without a doubt, the best pure vocalist in this competition. I mean, he can hold a note for 10 freaking minutes. Unbelievable.

Thia Megia¬†(what was her mother thinking with the rhyming name) is the competition’s only 15-year-old. I think they should have raised the age on the other end. Don’t get me wrong: Thia is a good singer, but she’s not ready for this. She is another who does not yet know who she is. I suspect she chose Michael Jackson’s version of “Smile” because Randy likened her tone to Michael’s. That’s fine, but could you have chosen another one of his thousands of songs? Like the judges, I was put off by the “lounge” (they said jazz, I say lounge) ending to the song. Thia has, so far, given us ballads. She should mix it up, lest she be left in the dust.

Another beneficiary of the wild card picks, Stefano Langone sang Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” I have heard comments on both sides about the pumped up version, but I personally enjoyed Stefano’s performance. He has mad vocal skills, and he knows how to lend emotion to the lyric. America, Stefano’s a keeper; don’t let him be eliminated (again) too early. I’m anxious to see what else he can do.

Karen Rodriguez continues her attempts to impress Jennifer Lopez by channeling Selena with her choice of “I Could Fall In Love.” It wasn’t good. She did a much better job with “No Me Queda Mas” in Hollywood week. Personally, I love Spanish language singers. You want to talk emotion in a song? That’s the place where you will find it. Karen sounded like a completely different artist. She got into the Top 10 by singing “Hero” in both English and Spanish. Here’s a hint for you, Karen: Stick with what worked to get you there.

Scotty McCreery is likely the biggest dichotomy to ever grace the Idol stage. He chose Garth Brooks’ “The River” and did a better than fine job with it. At the risk of sounding like the judges, he had some “pitchy” moments, but overall, Scotty is the real deal. The dichotomy comes in that uber baritone of his and that “all American” 17-year old face. If this kid is this good at 17, I shudder to think what he’s going to sound like in a couple of years. At least he won’t have the problem with his voice changing, right? A writer in USA Today once made a comment that he is not a country music fan, but Scotty is changing his mind. I’m right there with him. I love the “throw back” sound of Scotty’s voice, and he definitely knows who he is musically. Some of the others can learn from him

Finally, Naima Adedapo channeled Rhianna with “Umbrella.” I was floored. As I said earlier, Naima pretty much bored me with her earlier performances, even though I wanted to like her. Her performance wasn’t perfect, but it was very, very good (and entertaining). No, “Umbrella” is not a song that shows off a big vocal range, but when you mix it up like Naima did, who cares? She had a bit of Reggae rap and managed to do a bit of crumping while performing, two firsts for Idol. I don’t know about anyone else, but I was impressed as hell. Is this who Naima is? Time will tell–if she stays on long enough. She is another who had to be added by the judges.

So, who goes home tonight? I think at least three are in danger: Ashthon, Karen, and Paul. Die-hard Idol fans are going to understand what I’m about to say: Paul is the Vote for the Worst pick, which means he’ll get help from the people over there who think he sucks. I don’t think any of this group sucks. While I don’t yet “get” Paul and Casey, I believe they are talented nonetheless. No matter how you look at this crop of kids, I think we’re in for one hell of a ride this season. It should more than make up for the Lee DeWyze/Crystal Bowersox finale, which was just sad. I’m sorry if I insult fans of those two, but hey, to each his own. Get your own column and espouse their virtues there. I ain’t buying it.