The show has made a fair number of on-air apologies for contestant nervousness in the early going, and the group of performers does seem raw. But I went back to look at my notes on the Top 36 from a year ago, and saw that not everyone sucked, and there was a lot more positive to talk about than there has been with this year's Top 24.
Early on, some performers were making a mark, even if some of that mark was made by the comedy stylings of Nick Mitchell/Norman Gentle. (On the other hand, Kris Allen was really uninteresting at this point.)
Allison Iraheta performed "Alone" that first go-round, the judges were euphoric, and I said: "Major goosebumps. A little screechy near the end, but she's a major singer." Adam Lambert, with "Satisfaction," had 3/4 of the judges ecstatic and Simon pegging it as a "love it or hate it" performance. Danny Gokey's "Hero" was strong in comparison to 11 weak performances, but it still stood out more than a lot of what we are hearing right now. Same thing with Lil Rounds, good on a not-great night then, and better than what we currently have.
So there was plenty to discuss then compared to now.