Taylor Hicks by far received the most derision of any “American Idol” winner in the show’s existence. He wasn’t “young”, he wasn’t “cute”, he wasn’t “pop”, and there was the whole screaming “Soul Patrol!” thing that rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. But I’ll put my musical reputation on the line and say that Taylor was the most musically sound “American Idol” winner in the show’s history. With years of singing in smoky bars and clubs behind him, Hicks personified a musician’s musician. Which also explains why he butted heads with the major-label suits who didn’t know what to do with him and wound up releasing the worst-selling debut album by an “American Idol” winner in history (although with a not-too-shabby shiny Platinum record, we shouldn’t cry for Taylor too much).

Despite the relative lack of success of Taylor’s debut, it was still the first album by any “Idol” contestant that I ever bought with my own money, and I enjoyed it a good bit. Hicks would have been right at home on the charts with Steve Winwood, James Ingram and (the singer he most resembles) Michael McDonald, on the charts back in 1986, and since that’s an era of music I’m particularly fond of, his music sounded just fine for me. However-it didn’t sound just fine for his label, and Taylor and the folks at 19 Management and RCA Records agreed to part ways.

So now Taylor Hicks is an indie artist, which is probably right where he wants to be, making the album he wants to make. That album, “The Distance”, shouldn’t be much of a surprise to those who’ve been following the grey-haired crooner since his “Idol” days. The music is straight-ahead pop/rock, with no trendy bells and whistles. The production, helmed by British pop legend Simon Climie, is solid if a little too clean (and completely recorded on “live” instruments! Barely a synthesizer to be found!), and then there’s Taylor’s husky voice. While he’ll never be the soul singer he fancies himself, it’s fairly obvious that this man has the right set of influences and has listened to his share of Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles.

So, here’s the thing about Taylor, right? You know the guy’s going for the obvious, hokey cliché, but you go there with him anyway because he obviously believes what he’s singing. Take the track “Nineteen”, one of several songs on “The Distance” with a bit of a country flavor to it. You’ve heard songs like this a million times before-kid witnesses 9/11 and decides to enlist to serve his country. Despite the obviousness of the song concept (and here’s a spoiler-the kid doesn’t die), Taylor infuses the song with such a personal investment in the lyrics that you can’t be mad at him.

Ultimately, that’s “The Distance”’s saving grace. Taylor takes boilerplate lyrics about topics like racism (the well-intentioned but kinda cheesy title track) and the media’s celebrity obsession (the cheeky rave-up “Keeping it Real”) and, by virtue of his delivery (which nevertheless skates around Michael Bolton aneurysm territory a couple of times) makes them listenable. However, don’t let another soul singer get within sniffing distance. Fellow Season 5 finalist Elliott Yamin shows up for a cover of 2009 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Womack’s classic “Woman’s Gotta Have It”, and his warm, Stevie-inflected delivery leaves no doubt as to who should have really won “Idol” that year.

In a time when we have previous “Idol”s tucking their tails between their legs and kissing corporate butt for a hit (hi, Kelly Clarkson. I’m talking to you), I’m backing Taylor Hicks just on principle. The kid (and I can afford to say “kid” because he’s younger than me) came in with a plan to get himself heard, accomplished it and then went back to doing what he loved best, only with a bit more fame to carry his name. Something tells me he wouldn’t have it any other way.