By now, you’ve surely heard the surprising news that, two years after it was canceled by Fox, American Idol is returning to the airwaves on Sunday, March 11, courtesy of ABC. It remains to be seen if a new network can revive the show (though I have hope!), but it’s undeniable that over Idol’s 15 previous seasons, many contestants delivered some truly fantastic performances. And I got to witness — and write about — all of them.
So now seems like the right time to look back at the best Idol performances of all time, as chosen by … me! Please note that, in order to keep this list contestant-focused, I didn’t include any all-star duets (sorry, Queen, KISS, er, Meat Loaf). Also, for the sake of variety and semi-brevity, I did not load up this list with multiple performances by the same singers. But I enthusiastically encourage you to hit up YouTube or Hulu and binge-watch anything and everything by Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, David Cook, Allison Iraheta, Fantasia, et al. All of those contestants could have filled best-of lists all by themselves.
40. Heejun Han — “My Life” (Season 11)
Say what you will about Heejun, but I’ll say he was one of the best things to happen to American Idol’s 11th season. Bringing the comic relief I always knew he was capable of bringing, Heejun finally let it all hang out during an otherwise dull top 10 week — ripping off his button-down suit, sing-shouting the Bosom Buddies-popularized “My Life,” and basically embodying Jon Peter Lewis, Taylor Hicks, Casey Abrams, Magic Cyclops, and Norman Gentle all at once. AMAZING. I still secretly suspect that Heejun was planning to do this all along, and that his time on Idol leading up to this breakthrough had been one long genius act of performance art. Judge Steven Tyler was NOT amused, surprisingly, but I sure was. Why didn’t Fox ever give Heejun his own sitcom?
39. Melinda Doolittle — “My Funny Valentine” (Season 6)
Melinda is without a doubt one of the greatest divas ever to grace the Idol stage. This exquisite, tasteful performance is a vocal master class. Simon Cowell later even said that Melinda, who placed third, should have won her season.
38. Taylor Hicks — “Trouble” (Season 5)
A lot people thought Taylor and his Soul Patrol were just one big joke. Then, in a week when the contestants could pick any (cleared) song of the 2000s, Taylor went with Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” — which was not very well-known at that time — declaring it one of his favorite songs. This display of taste and artistry put him in an entirely new light for me. Years later, I will say: Yes, Taylor, you do make me proud.
37. Alex Preston — “Always on My Mind” (Season 13)
Alex, my personal favorite contestant of Idol Season 13, had many great moments that year, but Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” allowed him to showcase what he always did best: “a sensitive interpretation with a beautiful tone,” as Harry Connick Jr. put it. This gave me some J.Lo-style goosies — especially when Alex broke out that falsetto at the end. He changed up the song just enough to make it his own, while staying respectful to the classic original. Alex is still on my mind.
36. Constantine Maroulis — “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Season 4)
Sure, this was cheesier than a Costco-sized box of Cheetos, but it was basically Constantine’s sex-eyed audition for Broadway’s Rock of Ages. And he later received a very deserved Tony nomination for that!
35. Crystal Bowersox — “I’m Alright” (Season 9)
Mamasox was usually such a stoic presence on Idol, but on Season 9’s Movie Night, she proved that she had a sense of humor … and covered the Caddyshack theme. Simply brilliant.
34. Colton Dixon — “Piano Man” (Season 11)
Billy Joel Night was a mostly dreary affair, but Season 11’s resident piano man closed the show in style, going back to his roots after a few weeks of mostly just using his piano as a prop to jump upon. (He also stayed true to his literal roots, refusing to heed short-term in-house “style expert” Tommy Hilfiger’s lame advice to change his trademark skunky hairstyle.) This performance was simply magnificent. I still haven’t quite gotten over Colton’s shocking seventh-place elimination. I’d always hoped Colton and his awesome hair would make it to the very end.
33. Dalton Rapattoni — “Bird Set Free” (Season 15)
After connecting in rehearsal with Sia as they talked about living with bipolar disorder, during the season’s top four week, this former boy band singer seemed energized and inspired — and he gave a thrillingly unhinged, refreshingly raw performance of Sia’s “Bird Set Free.” When he belted, “And I don’t care if I sing off-key/I find myself in my melodies/I sing for love, I sing for me,” he really meant it, man. He was totally connected, totally in the moment, giving it his all, and by the end, he was spent and sobbing. And so was everyone else.
32. Chikezie Eze — “She’s a Woman” (Season 7)
Chikezie only made it to 10th place, and the next time he was in the news, it was because he was busted on felony theft charges. But he had one moment of glory, and it was this amazing, chicken-fried, O Brother-style revamp of a Beatles classic (a highlight of a mostly disastrous Lennon & McCartney Night featuring Kristy Lee Cook’s scarring-for-life “Eight Days a Week” debacle). O Chikezie, where art thou now? This performance totally holds up, seven years later.
31. Carrie Underwood — “Alone” (Season 4)
Carrie may be one of the most successful Idols, but she’s low on this list because back in Season 4, the young and green singer exhibited very little charisma. (She herself has admitted this.) However, this dynamic Heart cover was the first sign that she had the potential to be America’s next superstar.
30. Skylar Laine — “Stay With Me” (Season 11)
Skylar came stomping out of the gate right at the start of the season, with a top 25 week performance that was nothing short of a raucous revelation. From the ballsy Faces song choice to the sassy delivery to the fun table-turning of Rod Stewart’s original misogynistic lyrics, there was a lot to enjoy about Skylar’s vivacious performance. It was just the cowgirl-boot-kick up the bum that this show needed.
29. Quentin Alexander — “I Put a Spell on You” (Season 14)
I was ready to vote for this superfly guy the instant he strutted out wearing parachute pantaloons, stacks of tribal jewelry, a chubby fun-fur rave coat, and the fiercest, most fearless sex-eyed camera stare since, well, Constantine’s. And then Quentin did a crazysexycool version of “I Put a Spell on You.” This was theater. This was a performance. And it put a spell on me, for sure. OK, so maybe this wasn’t quite at the level of Annie Lennox’s phenomenal rendition of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic at the Grammys. But it was pretty freakin’ awesome. (And George Clinton agreed! Why wasn’t George ever a mentor on this show?)
28. Jennifer Hudson — “Circle of Life” (Season 3)
Somehow J.Hud ended up in the bottom three (with Fantasia and LaToya London, on one of the most controversial elimination nights ever) a couple of weeks after performing this tour de force. But this powerful performance was just a sign of the greatness to come in her career.
27. Paul McDonald — “Maggie May” (Season 10)
More of a Paste magazine cover boy than a typical pop star, Paul brought alt-country (and a really awesome Nudie suit) to the national stage. His risky cover of Ryan Adams’s “Come Pick Me Up” was another Season 10 standout, but his unique rasp suited this Rod Stewart classic perfectly, so this has to be my Paul pick.
26. Joey Cook — “Mad World” (Season 14)
Joey did the Donnie Darko version of “Mad World,” and while it wasn’t quite at the same level as Adam Lambert’s rendition from Season 8, it actually came really close. Eschewing her usual goofiness — no accordion, no ukulele, no wacky dancing or Postmodern Jukebox hyperstylization — Joey gave a simple and stripped performance, totally connected to the audience and the song. And she thrilled without even getting up out of her chair. I really enjoyed seeing this once-gimmicky girl blossom into such a fascinating and multifaceted performer over the course of her season. Joey Cook is the real deal.
25. Michael Johns — “It’s All Wrong, but It’s Alright” (Season 7)
Who would have thought the Aussie alt-rocker would have such a wow moment on Dolly Parton Night? This performance is a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. The talented crooner was shockingly eliminated in eighth place, and he even more shockingly died suddenly in 2014, at age 35.
24. Elise Testone — “Whole Lotta Love” (Season 11)
I’m only just now beginning to realize what a great year Season 11 was, seeing that so many performances on this list came from that cycle. It was arguably the last truly great Idol season, and this was another highlight. Elise took a HUGE risk by covering Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (“the hardest song in the world to sing,” according to Randy Jackson), but she rose to the occasion. “I wasn’t sure if you could pull that off, because nobody can pull that song off,” began Steven Tyler (who apparently didn’t watch Idol Season 8, when Adam Lambert murdered this tune), “but you made Robert Plant proud tonight!” I’ve still got a whole lotta love for this rad rock goddess.
23. Brooke White — “Love Is a Battlefield” (Season 7)
David Cook and Chikezie weren’t the only contestants changing things up in Season 7, the first Idol season on which contestants were allowed to play instruments. The season featured a slew of creative and adventurous musicians the likes of which the show had never seen, and the Carole King-like Brooke was one of the best. Her reimagining of Pat Benatar’s early-MTV pop-rock anthem as a bittersweet folk ballad was inspired.
22. La’Porsha Renae — “No More Drama” (Season 15)
This final season was such an emotional one. Along with Dalton’s “Bird Set Free” and guest performer Kelly Clarkson’s tearjerking “Piece by Piece,” La’Porsha had a major moment (in a season filled with great moments) when she sang this Mary J. Blige empowerment anthem. As a domestic abuse survivor, she clearly connected with the song, and she poured all of her pain and sorrow into her triumphant performance. Despite the song’s title, this was incredibly dramatic. And it was magical.
21. Lilly Scott — “Fixing a Hole” (Season 9)
Everything went wrong for Season 9 on the night that Lilly (along with Todrick Hall, Katelyn Epperly, and Alex Lambert) went home, right before making the top 12. Watch this delightful ukulele romp (a definite precursor to Season 14’s Joey Cook) and imagine what might have been if Lilly had gone further.
20. Allison Iraheta — “Cry Baby” (Season 8)
A rocker chick has, sadly, never won American Idol. But this flame-haired badass gave the boys a run for their rock ’n’ roll money in Season 8 and made it to the top four during the most male-dominated Idol season ever. I cried like a baby when she was voted off the show.
19. James Durbin — “You Got Another Thing Comin’” (Season 10)
The headbanger begged America to “give metal a chance,” and viewers listened, voting James through to the top four. This was the first, and last, time that a Judas Priest song got covered on Idol (aside from the Season 10 finale, when James jammed with Judas themselves). Crank this up to 11 and enjoy!
18. Phillip Phillips — “Volcano” (Season 11)
P-Squared had had a couple of really rough weeks prior to making the top four, but with this gorgeous cover of a gem by Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, he totally redeemed himself. It may have been a risk for him to do such a relatively obscure tune at such a crucial point in the season, and I was bracing myself to hear Jennifer Lopez slam him for being too “artsy” (as she had when Phillip performed the Dave Matthews Band’s “The Stone” during the top six week). But even J.Lo had to admit that this was “one of the most beautiful, poignant moments a contestant has ever had.” Eschewing his usual jam-band shtick and fratty DMB copycattiness, and playing on a hushed, darkened stage with just a cellist and a female backup singer (who was no slouch herself), Phillip generated some real magic here.
17. Norman Gentle — “And I Am Telling You” (Season 8)
Yes, this is another joke contestant, à la Heejun Han. And yes, I did actually rank Norman higher than an Oscar-winner who is famous for what most people would argue is a much better version of this Dreamgirls anthem. So I must be insane, right? Maybe, but I say Norman was the funniest and most fearless Idol contestant ever, and the fact that he actually made it to the live semifinals is pretty remarkable. Norman gave THE best exit performance ever. He will never be forgotten. And he’d better be invited to the Season 15 finale this year!
16. Siobhan Magnus — “Paint It Black” (Season 9)
Siobhan, one of the quirkiest quirky girls that ever quirked on Idol, served up riot grrl realness on Rolling Stones Night, with this dark and stormy performance. Imagine Courtney Love with Ann Wilson pipes, and you’ll get an idea of how fantastic this was.
15. Trent Harmon — “Chandelier” (Season 15)
I think everyone thought La’Porsha Renae had a lock on the competition this year — until Trent showed up in top four week and did this. It’s not like Trent was ever an underdog to begin with, but this was his script-flipping, Kris Allen-does-“Heartless” sort of moment. It was seismic. And I think the other three must have known they were in danger after they saw him sing.
14. Jena Irene — “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)
I adored this performance, and not because it made J.Lo cry (and drop an F-bomb on live television, thus resulting in some very glitchy last-minute editing). Jena’s refreshingly cool and modern, Regina Spektorian interpretation of the 1961 Elvis Presley classic was gorgeous and — to borrow a more G-rated word from J.Lo’s vocabulary — simply goosies-inducing. How did Jena, who placed second that season, not get a major-label record deal of her own? That’s a real reason to curse … or cry.
13. Caleb Johnson — “Dazed and Confused” (Season 13)
Oh hell yes. On Idol’s Season 13 top nine show, future champion Caleb made rock history as only the fourth contestant granted permission to cover Led Zeppelin (following Season 8’s Adam Lambert, Season 10’s Haley Reinhart, and Season 11’s Elise Testone — so Caleb was in great company). He belted the Zep version of “Dazed and Confused,” and I was left amazed and enthused. This was rad! This felt authentic and awesome … and even “sexy,” as a hot-and-bothered J.Lo attested. Unfortunately, nothing on Caleb’s rushed-then-quickly-forgotten debut album rocked nearly as hard as this, aside from maybe his Justin Hawkins-penned coronation song. But Caleb is still responsible for one of the most headbanging Idol moments ever, and that totally rocks.
12. Casey Abrams & Haley Reinhart — “Moanin’” (Season 10)
Casey and Haley both had their great solo moments on the show, but here they have the honor of being the only duet to make this list. Casey and Haley likely instilled an appreciation for jazz in a whole new generation of young viewers with this sultry, electric performance of the Bobby Timmons 1950s standard. Nowadays, the two continue to make beautiful music together as part of the jazzy collective Postmodern Jukebox.
11. Jason Castro — “Hallelujah” (Season 7)
Many singing-show contestants have covered this Leonard Cohen classic, but Jason’s remains the definitive Idol version; the song really should have been retired from reality television after he did it. His performance was in fact so popular that iTunes downloads of the Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright versions skyrocketed the day after this aired.
10. Casey James — “Jealous Guy” (Season 9)
True “wow moments” were sadly few and far between on Season 9, what was arguably the most disappointing season in Idol history (at least until Season 12 came along). But on Lennon & McCartney Night, eventual third-place contestant Casey’s emotional rendition of John Lennon’s dark and desperate “Jealous Guy” was unexpectedly magical. His voice, possibly due to an authentic lump in his throat, took on a gruff, Eddie Vedder-esque quality during his raw performance, and he seemed genuinely choked up. And so were viewers, by the song’s end.
9. Bo Bice — “Whipping Post” (Season 4)
It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when viewers actually thought runner-up Bo had a chance of winning over future superstar Carrie Underwood, but watch the performance below and it’ll all make sense. Season 4 was the first season when the age limit on Idol was raised (from 25 to 28), and Bo made it clear that the big boys had come to play. His hair-whipping Allman Brothers cover (Willow Smith ain’t got nothin’ on Bo) was all grown-up, with the first hint of actual macho rock ’n’ roll danger ever seen on this squeaky-clean show. Bo even managed to steal the thunder of his fellow Season 4 rocker Constantine Maroulis with this gritty Southern rock tour de force.
8. Candice Glover — “Lovesong” (Season 12)
Things were looking pretty dire in Idol’s troubled 12th season, with all the hype centered on that stupid Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj feud. But when future champion Candice covered the Cure, all was right with Idol once more. Viewers remembered just how magical this show could really be. Candice’s exquisite performance, which owed more to Adele’s jazzy cover version than to the Cure’s gloomy 1989 original, even had Mariah paying the ultimate compliment: randomly sprinkling Candice with celebratory glitter. “On behalf of my fellow judges, let me say that was one of the greatest performances in the history of Idol, in all 12 years!” Randy Jackson added. Candice should really be a bigger star today.
7. Joshua Ledet — “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (Season 11)
Joshua received more standing ovations than any other contestant in the history of American Idol. And deservedly so. Mantasia’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” was almost as brilliant as “Man’s World,” but this was a particularly outrageous performance, full of fire and ferocity and sweat and swagger, and he sang like one of the old-time greats. By the end, J.Lo wasn’t just on her feet, she was almost on her knees, bowing down to him. Steven Tyler was equally worshipful, raving, “No man or woman has ever sang that good with that much passion, ever. I can go home right now. I’ve never heard anything like that in my life!” Randy even called this “one of the best performances in the history of any singing show.” The fact that Joshua didn’t make the finale that year is one of Idol’s great tragedies.
6. Kris Allen — “Heartless” (Season 8)
This was perhaps the most game-changing performance in Idol history. Going into Season 8’s top three week, most people would have bet it was Danny Gokey who’d take a place in the following week’s finale alongside Adam Lambert. But after Kris’s acoustic-folk rendition of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” all bets were off. Suddenly, Kris was the man to beat. He made it to the finale over Danny after this, in what was a perfect example of an underdog Idol contestant peaking at just the right time.
5. Kelly Clarkson — “Natural Woman” (Season 1)
When Idol first launched, Kelly was far from the frontrunner. It was all about Tamyra Gray and Justin Guarini, and in fact, Kelly’s first audition didn’t even air! But then Kelly came out in her suit and tie and delivered this sultry, star-making performance with THAT NOTE. She’s been Idol’s No. 1 girl ever since.
4. David Cook — “Hello” (Season 7)
Before Cook came along, Idol was considered a glorified karaoke competition. Sure, many of the singers delivered fabulous vocals, but they rarely did anything new with their songs. And then there was David. He pretty much changed everything, proving there was a real art to cover songs, an art that went way beyond just singing the words as capably as the original artists had. Idol has been “Cookified” ever since.
3. Fantasia — “Summertime” (Season 3)
This was just pure magic. All of America held its breath as Ms. Barrino stunned with this nuanced, sophisticated rendition of the Porgy and Bess classic. Fantasia has been in the news in recent years more for her turbulent personal life, but watch her landmark performance below and get a welcome reminder that she is one of the greatest singers to ever grace the Idol stage. Even guest judge Quentin Tarantino was impressed.
2. Blake Lewis — “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Season 6)
Even before David Cook, beatboxing boy wonder Blake was the first contestant to do a cover on Idol that really turned a song up on its end and changed it entirely. His Bon Jovi cover is the stuff of legend, and if curmudgeonly Jon Bon Jovi seemed to hate it, that’s probably because he was just jealous that his own version was not nearly as awesome. Blake’s performance was just the shot through the heart, and in the arm, that this show needed.
1. Adam Lambert — “Ring of Fire” (Season 8)
This was probably the most polarizing performance on Idol, and definitely the most exciting. Love him or hate him, Adam knew how to get people’s attention, sometimes get people downright angry, and make those who were faint of heart and/or feeble of mind squirm in their support hose — all very good things in the world of rock and pop. On this fateful night, Adam took a strong stance, making it clear that he planned to stay true to himself, even if that meant freaking out Randy Travis with his Goth manicure or refusing to “go country” on Opry Night (though I think black-clad country maverick Johnny Cash would have appreciated this remake). Many Glambert performances — “Mad World,” “Tracks of My Tears,” “Whole Lotta Love” — could’ve made this list, but “Ring of Fire” is the one that really put Adam on the glittery map.
Will any of the new Idol hopefuls deliver performances worthy of being added to this list? We’ll find out when the rebooted American Idol premieres March 11.
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