For the first time in the finals, a real potential winner emerged from the pack of “X Factor” contestants–over 30s participant Josh Krajcik.

Krajcik’s haunting, powerful rendition of “Wild Horses” ended the show on a glorious note, bringing back the kind of magic that made music competition series so limitlessly addictive. This was the kind of performance that makes a star on a show like “X Factor,” and Krajcik should have no problem sailing as far as the top 5 on the momentum.

Interestingly, though, the most memorable “moments” on the show belonged to a few other contestants. Melanie Amaro can claim the most powerful such moment.

Her “The World’s Greatest” was a great, if unspectacular performance. But the moment afterwards–in which Amaro broke down with thanks for getting a chance on the show and then slipped into her natural accent–made for compelling television that had the crowd and judges reeling.

Melanie has been a strong performer so far, but she has remained so “by the books” and distant. She has never come off as more than the typical “Idol” or “X Factor” standout. With this brief glimpse of uncontrollable, unhinged honesty, Melanie Amaro became a real person and someone for whom fans will like rooting.

Marcus Canty also had one of the night’s shining moments, emotionally breaking down as he dedicated a solid rendition of “A Song for Mama” to his hard-working single mother. She, too, uncontrollably succumbed to tears while watching from the first row–this was a powerful moment that blew the emotion of “Idol” contestant Lauren Alaina’s “Like My Mother Does” out of the water.

Sensing a pattern? By adhering to a Thanksgiving/Inspirational theme, “X Factor” allowed the contestants to share their emotional backstories without coming across as cheap stunts for votes. Of course some were tactical, but because everyone was on the same playing field, none came off as tacky or forced, as they so often do on “American Idol.”

In fact, the only acts to come up short on the “emotional meter” were Astro and Lakoda Rayne. Because Astro had to focus on apologizing for last week’s meltdown, he could not share any tear-jerking insight into his backstory (and, at the end of the day, the apology itself felt too forced, glossy and self-serving–he only really seemed to be apologizing to those who support him, not those who might have been angered by how he treated the competition).

Lakoda Rayne, meanwhile, really fell victim to the “group dilemma.” The four girls did not have a fair opportunity to get their individual stories across, and while Dani and her father and Cari and her grandmother seemed to have nice relationships worthy of exploration, everything just felt rushed and thin.

But how were the performances? Who emerged as the top performers? Rankings follow:

Josh Krajcik — Wild Horses — As noted, Krajcik’s sincere, powerful take on the song resonated in a way nothing really has thus far in the “X Factor” finals. This was an incredible performance, and as the second straight top-of-the-pack performance for Krajick, one which really pushes him over the edge as the frontrunner.

Leroy Bell – Angel – What a night for Nicole Scherzinger’s “Over 30s.” With the Stacy Francis deadweight gone, the over 30s soared this week. Bell was no Krajcik, but he still gave a strong, heartfelt performance that could not have felt more appropriate and honest for his voice. The rawness and sincerity embedded in his vocals was so appreciated, and such a testament to the power of not having an age limit.

True, there is always something a bit “boring” and distant about Leroy, but he did a lot to move away from that categorization this week.

Melanie Amaro – The World’s Greatest – Contrary to how the judges reacted, this was not a stunning, show-stopping performance. But coupled with her emotional sincerity following the performance, this VERY GOOD showing definitely resonated well with the audience. R. Kelly is a tremendous talent, but this song is not necessary his moment of vocal greatness–and the whole thing felt a bit too small for Amaro, who wanted to push way harder than needed. Still, talent is talent, and she has it.

(On the slightly-negative side, Melanie needs to work on the disconnect between shots that feature her in makeup and shots that do not. She looked absolutely gorgeous made-up on stage, but while she is not unattractive without makeup, she looks like a different person. It’s one of the biggest transformations ever seen on a show like this).

Marcus Canty – A Song for Mama – For whatever reason, contestants like Marcus have a tough time making it through to the end on these sorts of shows. Total package artists, particularly those who skew more towards a charismatic stage presence than powerhouse vocals, do not click the way diamond-in-the-rough “singers” do. Fans, it seems, would rather see a raw talent become a star over the course of the show than help make a polished act into a bigger star.

But Marcus really delivered again this week. The vocals were competent and unspectacular (sorry, LA Reid, but Marcus has not proven he is on the same level as Babyface and Boyz II Men), but the emotion was so palpable–moreso than any contestant, Marcus made the tear-jerking love he has for his mother evident in his delivery of the song’s words. This was a real moment, and Marcus really deserves to continue in this competition.

Astro – Show Me What You Got – Astro, as always, was great, but the performance underwhelmed given what he had to prove coming off last week’s showing. Nothing about this felt overly connected to his message, and the lyrics, moreso than before, seemed repetitive. So while his rapping was great, and his performance was fun, the emotional honesty seemed absent. There is no way he can wholeheartedly believe THIS was how to articulate his reaction to last week’s showing.

Lakoda Rayne – You Belong with Me – This group is in a weird spot. All four girls are young and seem really sweet, but as the token “hot chicks” of the group, it is hard to see them as innocent cutesy little girls (certainly not with the seductive eye poses Dani often throws into her performances). And that’s why their performances always seem off. Their take on “You Belong With Me” was vocally solid and really, really fun–far better than any live version by original artist Taylor Swift–but it seemed to lack the kind of maturity, sophistication and “oomph” one would expect from a major girl group. It was a teeny-bopper performance. Someone as young as Rachel or Drew would seem honest with this kind of performance, but while the members of Lakoda Rayne really are not that much older, it does feel like their harmonies, movements and facials should be applied to something more “adult.”

That could all spell disaster for the group–a shame, since it was still one of Lakoda’s strongest performances (though the choreography remains disappointing–since this is a TV show, it never looks right when the girls go to separate corners of the stage, and the camera cannot capture them all in the same shot).

There could, however, be a saving grace–this was the night’s most fun and energetic performance, and that may serve as a welcome counter to the emotional heaviness of most performances (something the group, due to the aforementioned disadvantage, could not replicate anyway). If teenage girls do see Lakoda Rayne as relatable, young women who also like Taylor Swift, perhaps this can compensate for the “anti-hot-girl-bias” that sometimes exists on these shows.

Rachel Crow – I Believe – For the second straight week, Rachel was good–good, that is, for a young teenager. The performance was never bad, actually featuring some great moments in the process, but it still didn’t feel like the work of a true artist. This was a talented kid singing along with something. Her attempt to play with the final note really underscored the extent to which she has not yet reached “prodigy” status–it was a goofy, forced effort that felt better suited for “American Juniors” than “X Factor.” Overall, though, Rachel has a nice mix of charm and talent and remains a welcome part of the show.

Chris Rene – Let it Be/Young Homie – Rene looked the part and seemed more charismatic and confident than ever, but he was far from sensational on his mash-up. The “Young Homie” part, a reprise of the original song that produced his amazing audition, was great, though it actually exposed Rene as a potential one-trick pony. He never sounds as talented and honest as he does when singing that one song.

The hip-hop version of “Let it Be,” however, sounded painful at times. It was a nice, artistic attempt at wrapping his style around the Beatles classic, but it just did not sound very good.

After the performance, Simon interestingly pleaded for voters to keep Rene (one of LA Reid’s contestants) around, arguing that Rene’s recovery from his drug problem is an inspiration that could save thousands of lives.

Drew – Skyscraper – I really want to side with Drew, if for no other reason than Antonio “LA” Reid’s embarrassingly-clueless commentary. How one can be in the music business and not know this CURRENT song is performed by 19-year-old Demi Lovato and not a 40-year-old woman is shocking.

But, based on the vocals, siding with Drew is a tall order. Though her tone sounded beautiful on the verse, even that part felt strained and taxing on Drew’s breath. And when we got to the chorus and the bridge–forget about it. Drew didn’t stand a chance of hitting the notes (which are already a strain for the ridiculously-powerful voice of Lovato). Drew made it clear she and her friend Shelby love this song, but that is not always a reason to perform something in front of millions. This was just not right for her voice.

In terms of the likely elimination, it is impossibly hard this week–most were at least reasonably-good (and Drew, the only one who wasn’t, is very popular and charming), and the double elimination makes forecasting especially difficult. Three acts will be in danger (the lowest vote-getters go home, and then the two next-lowest sing for survival), and so few are truly immune from falling into that bottom group.

Josh and Melanie would seem definitely safe, and the gut feeling is that Astro, though clearly not a frontrunner based on last week’s results, will probably survive as well. Everyone else is fair game.

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