American Idol heads to Hollywood this week, where all the contestants who made it through the first round of auditions — nearly 300 of them — will vie for a spot in the Top 40.
The hopefuls will be grouped by gender, with the guys going head-to-head this week and the girls competing next week. First, contestants will sing a cappella in front of judges Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Keith Urban and Randy Jackson. Those who survive will be paired up for the group performances. And the top performers from that day will move on to another round of solo competition. At the end of it all, 20 guys and 20 girls will advance to the semifinals.
Got all that?
Who's the best American Idol contestant of all time?
So, ahead of Wednesday's show, we decided to break down our favorite guys who will be competing, based on the early auditions. (Next week we'll highlight our favorite ladies.) Keep in mind — only a fraction of the 276 contestants who made it to Hollywood were featured in the audition shows, so the best ones are perhaps yet to be seen. But, of those we've been introduced to so far, here are our picks for the most promising:
Nate Tao, 24: Having grown up with two deaf parents, the American Sign Language teacher from Virginia quipped before his audition that at least his folks would have no idea if he sucked. He doesn't have anything to worry about. While he may not have the deepest, most soulful sound, Tao still managed to make Stevie Wonder's "For Once in My Life" seem effortless.
Papa Peachez, 19: "I'm really just a big black woman trapped in a little boy's body," the singer/dancer from Mississippi says. Peachez chose to audition with one of his own songs, a semi-autobiographical soul number that proved he might not be kidding with that description.
Lazaro Arbos, 21: One of the more heartwarming stories to come out of Idol this season, Arbos already had our support when he talked about the severe stutter he's struggled with his whole life. But then he really wowed us (and the judges!) with a smooth-as-butter rendition of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Karl Skinner, 26: The red-headed pizza chef from Missouri promised during his audition that he would "prove gingers have soul" — and that he did, shuffling around during a performance of James Brown's "I Feel Good," complete with screams and foot stomps, that both impressed the judges and left them in stitches. Plus: He plays the guitar and writes his own music!
Matheus Fernandes, 21: The extremely likable Fernandes tugged at our heartstrings with stories of being bullied his whole life because he's so short. But one thing that's definitely not small or deserving of any sympathy is his voice.
Gabe Brown, 21: He had us at baked goods. The throaty rocker dude of this year's competition presented the judges with sweet treats from his bakery during his audition, before blowing their hair back with a scream-y, '80s hair-metal version of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." But don't be quick to pigeonhole him. At Mariah's behest, Brown switched into soul mode to perform "We All Die Young" from the movie Rock Star. Sold — and pass the doughnuts!
Rodney Barber, 27: The once-homeless "Voice of Charlotte," as he's known, has entertained passersby by singing on the streets of downtown Charlotte every day for two years. Suffice to say, his audience is about to get a lot bigger.
Do you agree with our picks? Who are some of your favorites? Weigh in below!
American Idol kicks off the Hollywood round Wednesday at 8/7c on Fox.