American Idol — and, for that matter, America — is a funky, fickle thing to figure out. In May, the people's champion was the amply chinned, phenomenally average Kris Allen from Arkansas. But since the confetti fell on Season 8, the overwhelming pop-culture star has been the second-place dude, San Diego's sexually puckish Adam Lambert, the hottest topic in music after his crotch-grabbin', dude-mackin' appearance on Sunday's AMA Music Awards. Allen's disappearing act, however, has been nothing compared to fourth-placer Allison Iraheta, an L.A. teen who maintained all the post-Idol buzz of Jorge Nunez. Now, in a holiday-happy barrage of debut albums, Allen, Lambert and Iraheta are once again vying for your affections. Or, in some cases, hoping you remember them at all. It almost seems cruel in a way. Without the soft bosom of Ryan Seacrest there for the nuzzling, the name of the game isn't so much Idol as it is Survivor. Herewith, reviews of their discs, plus soothsaying about whether we'll be talking about 'em next Turkey Time.
Album: Kris Allen (19/Jive).
In stores: Now.
The good: If you're still trying to figure out how the Chin beat Glambert — and you don't want to consider the messy scourge of small-mindedness in the US of A — then consider this cozier alternative: Allen, along with David Cook and Jordin Sparks, was one of the coolest, calmest cats in Idol history. It went a long way with amped-up viewers when the cutie on the TV screen was more laid back than they were. On this 13-tracker of heart-heavy songs, the 24-year-old Allen excels at the slower, swoonier cuts, including the downright lovely Red Guitar, which he penned all by his lonesome. Also great is a bonus cover of Kanye West's Heartless, the best song he performed on Idol.
The bad: Anytime Allen gets giddier than that midrange hammock croon, he starts sounding like a bad Maroon 5 impression — or a good Rascal Flatts impression (no, not a compliment, folks). There's all sorts of writing and producing help here (Train's Pat Monahan on The Truth, Eminem pal Mike Elizondo on Can't Stay Away, the Bird and the Bee's Greg Kurstin on Before We Come Undone). But the generic faux-rock gloss is a terrible fit, as if Chris Daughtry grew his hair back and dated Avril Lavigne. In the end, no one is better at helping Allen than Allen. Too bad there wasn't more of him.
The prediction: As happens with myriad Idolists on their first albums, a plethora of hot pop producers all but bleach any wink of personality. It becomes not about the artist, but about the beat-making knob-twiddlers who once charted with Britney. It's a lousy way of doing business. It also destroys people like Allen, who didn't have gobs of panache to begin with. I hate to say it, but Kris might want to start pricing lofts in Branson, Mizzou.
Download these: Red Guitar and Heartless.
Album: For Your Entertainment (RCA).
In stores: Now.
The good: I'm totally down with Lambert wanting to be a 21st century Queen. Freddie Mercury is a heck of a life goal, and if you have the rockets-red-glare pipes that he does, I say go for it. And he does: Opening cut Music Again, written by Darkness hairball Justin Hawkins, is gloriously stoopid in its Bowie for Beginners glamosity. Co-written by Pink, Whataya Want From Me balances sneer and vulnerability. And the album's best track — and one of the best ballads of 2009 period — is the James Bondesque beauty Soaked, written by Muse's Matthew Bellamy and produced by Green Day fave Rob Cavallo (who also helmed David Cook's debut). Soaked is a spectacular vocal workout, and yet the octave-spanning derring-do totally serves the song. Try keeping up when he sings: "And you've had enough / Searching for love / But you miss the touch / Of someone new."
The bad: Despite being a unique performer, Lambert, like Allen and Iraheta, gets pushed around too often by producers who want him to sound like Justin Timberlake, albeit in L'Oreal guyliner and fingerless drummer gloves. The title track is a dull, catchless synth splatter that is not nearly as no-you-didn't as he thinks. Lady Gaga pens the stalking New Wave wiggle of Fever, but the song would have been better off with its nutter owner. And I always thought it was all but impossible to take the fun out of a Rivers Cuomo tune, but the Weezer frontman's Pick U Up, a seemingly good-time song, is a brutal quasi-power-pop disaster.
The prediction: People love Lambert — or love to lambaste him. But you know what? This guy is capable of stirring up the gooseflesh at any second. Once he gets past the dance-pop crud and spends A Night at the Opera — um, that's a Queen reference, not a Marx Brothers one — things could really get interesting.
Download these: Soaked (go buy this song!), Music Again and Whataya Want From Me.
Album: Just Like You (19/Jive).
In stores: Tuesday.
The good: What the world needs now is a new Joan Jett, someone to put punch back into grrl-fueled rock. And there are times on Iraheta's spunky, tomboy debut when she comes close to genuine I Love Rock N Roll grit. Even though Iraheta isn't even 20, she sounds as if she's been hoovering Marlboro Reds for the past 35 years — and it works! Iraheta relaxes on the album's second half, and the result is genuine swagger and presence. D Is for Dangerous and Holiday are good, toothy rock songs. The album's best track, No One Else, penned by Pink and Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, plays like a leathery Heart ballad, tender but empowering.
The bad: Alas, the first half of Just Like You is where all the supposed hits reside, including go-nowhere club bouncer Friday I'll Be Over U, produced by Swedish It Producers Max Martin and Shellback. If that song is the desperate Kelly Clarkson attempt, the awkward Britney song is next: the lazily titled Robot Love. It's not until the fourth track, Don't Waste the Pretty, when you start to remember just how good Iraheta could be on Idol.
The prediction: Call me crazy, but Iraheta might wind up selling some records. Maybe not now, and maybe not with these producers. But strip down her sound. Let her live a little. Maybe even let her date a member of Motley Crue. (But not Mick Mars. That's just sick.)
Download these: D Is for Dangerous and No One Else.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.