'American Idol': Jessica Sanchez's and Phillip Phillips' coronation singles

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Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

For years, American Idol has focused on the fish out of water, reveling in making the country girl sing Queen or the soul singer take on Bon Jovi.

But that’s changed for the better since Interscope took over the music on Idol in 2010. Label head Jimmy Iovine and the rest of the crew now wisely choose to use the show as a platform to develop the strengths and core identities of its contestants, rather than throwing them out of their comfort zones for ratings’ sake.

Not that it means confining them to their genre; it’s been more about creative adjustments, like taking Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and making it a viable country platform for Southern girl Skylar Laine, or giving Eminem and Rihanna’s domestic-violence account “Love the Way You Lie” a piano-pop twist for the God-fearing Colton Dixon.

Perhaps that’s why this year’s coronation songs, “Change Nothing” by Jessica Sanchez and “Home” by Phillip Phillips, are so many miles away from the one-size-fits-all schmaltz of former Idol anthems like “Inside Your Heaven,” “I Believe,” or “No Boundaries” (which, for the record, I never thought was all that bad: especially when performed reggae-style).

Interscope has sent its fledgling Idols out into the music world with viable singles that forgo mentions of a “magic rainbow on the horizon” or  “flying without wings” — you know, things that modern, non-Idol viewers might listen to.

Sanchez and Phillips unveiled their new tracks last night, and although both sounded much more current than any other Idol winners’ single,  judges made it clear that they felt that only one of them had produced a potential hit. Randy Jackson boldly told Jessica Sanchez that he “did not love the song” and wished she’d chosen something more urban in the style of Beyoncé. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler agreed. (Who knows how much Interscope pushed these singles on each finalist, but Sanchez did make it clear that “Change Nothing” was her single by choice.) Meanwhile, the judges gave Phillip Phillips a standing ovation for his performance of “Home.” “You were perfect tonight,” Tyler gushed.

But what did you think of the new Idol songs?

Give the studio versions of the two tracks a listen below, read my takes on each, and then sound off in the comments.

Jessica Sanchez – “Change Nothing”

Sanchez’s first single suffers from the same problem that plagued Scotty McCreery’s Clear As Day. It just feels too old for a 16-year-old to be singing. “There were times that we would kiss with bitter lips,” Sanchez remembers, her wistfulness ringing oddly false — what teens kiss with bitter lips? (Wait till you’re Adele’s age, kids!) This disconnect between content and personal experience reveals Sanchez’s biggest weakness — although she has some serious pipes, she’s clearly not sure what she wants to say (or if she has anything to say) musically just yet, and the generic drum-machine beat doesn’t help make the song feel any more organic. Sanchez has proved herself a convincing conduit on modern R&B tracks like Jennifer Hudson’s “Love You I Do” and Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams,” but there’s no actress good enough to pull off a production this earnest (and weirdly dated) without having actually lived the lyrics. Still, she gets points for all the stunning belting. Grade: C+

Phillip Phillips – “Home”

Strummy guitars, ethereal “ooohs,” and a thumping kick drum create a lovely vibe somewhere between Mumford & Sons and the Fleet Foxes, a folksy sound that serves the Georgia native — whose never fully played along with Idol‘s pop-ballad gimmickry — well. His raspy vocal sounds equal parts authoritative and sensitive as he comforts a discouraged someone (it could be a lover, a friend, a brother, really anyone — that’s part of the excellent craftsmanship of the song) who’s feeling displaced. “Don’t pay no mind to the demons that fill you with fear,” he sings. “Just know you’re not alone/I’m gonna make this place your home.” The triumphant track is easily the coolest, most relevant song ever used as a reality TV coronation song. American Idol? Maybe Americana Idol is more appropriate. Grade: A-

I’m sure some of you disagree with my take on Jessica’s song, so you tell me– which was your favorite? And what’s your choice for the best Idol coronation song ever?

More Idol reviews on EW.com:
Haley Reinhart’s Listen Up!
Kris Allen’s Thank You Camellia
Adam Lambert’s Trespassing
Carrie Underwood’s Blown Away

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