This week, American Idol began the actual business of finding its 15th winner. The departing reality competition kicked off its final Hollywood Week, the post-audition boot camp where contestants are deprived of sleep and forced to work with each other and generally subjected to other horrible conditions. If they stick it out, and keep their energy up through some semifinal rounds, contestants can reach the finals, where they’re guaranteed airtime, glammed-up makeovers, more pointed critiques, and the promise of mugging for a major sponsor or two.
Only 168 people in the world can currently claim to be American Idol finalists; at the end of February, that number will rise to 178. (Thanks to the variance of talent pools and Fox’s faith in Idol’s ability to pump up its ratings, the number of finalists has varied from season to season; the final run’s finalist-tally of ten matches that of its first year.) As a warm-up for this final run through the Idol choreography, we’ve decided to rank those singers who have reached the almost-winner’s circle.
Idol’s finalist slate, and the songs they sang to rising-then-falling ratings, doubles as a vague map of how “pop” shifted its boundaries in the early 21st century. In its early years, Idol stridently looked back, with only the occasional sop to present-day music and a laser focus on vocals above all. Carrie Underwood’s season-four victory allowed Idol to mark some territory in Nashville, while Chris Daughtry’s fifth-season deployment of Shinedown and Live helped nudge open the door to performers bearing instruments, who were finally allowed inside the Idol sanctum in season seven. As time went on, leading ladies with voices that could cut through Top 40 radio’s clutter gave way to easygoing strummers operating in the vein of Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw. R&B became more of a way to spice up folk-pop than a genre with its own solid footing in pop, or at least in the Idol top two. During the series’ second half, the hegemony of white guys with guitars — WGWGs — held on to the top, with one key exception; those artists who played a little more fast and loose with the show’s themes were dispatched after adding sizzle to the finals’ early weeks.
But even with the vagaries of genre and style, certain aspects of being a pop star — an idol — remain intact and heavily informed our rankings, which only focuses on the work these singers offered up during their Idol runs. Charm. Song-choice savvy. Stage presence. The willingness to stand up for artistic choices, even if doing so results in some British acidity being flung back. And, of course, vocals. “It’s a singing competition,” Simon Cowell would drone again and again when he found someone’s performance not quite up to par. He was lying, but he meant well, and anyway, the audience knew what he meant: “You can’t win if you sound like that.”
(An important note: As in the Idol world, sometimes the terrible can actually be the best for the purposes of each individual season’s dramatic arc. Think of the contestants near the list’s very bottom as the most likely contestants for an All-Idol rebirth of Vote for the Worst, the now-mothballed site that encouraged chicanery through democracy and buoyed the Idol stays of more than a few less-than-deserving individuals. Being, say, No. 87 is much more damning than landing at No. 165. (Sorry, [REDACTED].)
168. Danny Gokey (Season 8, Placed 3rd)
Season eight was perhaps Idol’s pinnacle; it also had a contestant who might have been the closest villain analogue Idol has ever had to offer: Danny Gokey, an early-odds favorite whose wife had passed away shortly before he auditioned with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He stuck around for a long time, vanquishing contestants with okay-enough performances that would sometimes tip over into horror (recall the Gokey Scream) and sometimes be just really boring (the anodyne “What Hurts the Most”) and too often be capped with that heart-hands gesture and never, ever result in his being in the show’s bottom three. His snide comments about “loving” his fellow contestants in a strictly “Godly way,” which came before season-eight runner-up Adam Lambert came out on the cover of Rolling Stone, played both to his fanbase and to those who were looking for reasons to vote him off. Which they did, setting the stage for a finale with two singers (Lambert and Kris Allen) who had honed their talent on-air — and become nail-polish-matching friends in the process.
167. Lee DeWyze (Season 9, Winner)
The suspicion that Idol’s voting mechanisms were fundamentally broken kicked into overdrive at the end of season nine, when one of the two finalists put the opening line of “With a Little Help From My Friends” to the test. The singer who sang that line out of tune — who just happened to be a white guy bearing a guitar — wound up winning the competition over earth-mother (and better singer) Crystal Bowersox. Sure, the paint salesman from Illinois was marketable in the sense that he appealed directly to the Idol demographic of aging ladies. But there was something off about his rise to the top, especially when that final showdown came to pass. More on that later.
166. Sanjaya Malakar (Season 6, Placed 7th)
Idol first became dangerously self-aware when this Seattle-born 17-year-old garnered the attention of talent-show-obsessive Howard Stern, as well as Vote for the Worst, whose gleeful trolling of the Idol voting apparatus was as overblown as it was sorta funny. Sanjaya, a Stevie Wonder devotee, debuted on the show with a sweet rendition of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” but over the coming weeks he would run straight off the rails, debuting a hairstyle dubbed the “ponyhawk” (note the camera’s focus on it at the ten-second mark of that clip) and turning in increasingly manic performances. He capped his run off with a tweak of Bonnie Raitt’s “Something to Talk About,” replacing the chorus’s “How about love” with a sly “Other than hair.”
165. Lazaro Arbos (Season 12, Placed 6th)
Season 12 was designed to break the white-guy-with-guitars logjam that had plagued the Idol winner’s circle since David Cook’s 2008 victory; the male finalists that year were all fine, if flawed. But Lazaro, a Floridian with a speech impediment who sailed into that year’s finals through the admittedly baller move of singing a song by just-installed judge Keith Urban, hung on long enough that year to make Idol obsessives wonder if his Vote for the Worst endorsement was the equivalent of a Teflon suit. He wound up being that year’s Last Man Standing, going out (ironically?) on a wobbly performance of “(They Long to Be) Close to You.”
164. Corey Clark (Season 2, Placed 9th)
The first Idol scandal to result in a contestant leaving the show during the season centered on this California-born soul singer, who was booted not because of his coffeehouse-worthy version of “Drift Away” during that season’s Country Rock night, but because he’d been charged with battery and resisting arrest in Kansas. (Years later, he fired back at the show on Primetime Live, saying that he’d been enmeshed in a sexual relationship with Paula Abdul — an interview that was parodied during the season-four finale, when Simon Cowell claimed to be involved in an affair with himself.)
163. Kristy Lee Cook (Season 7, Placed 7th)
A rare female villain thanks to her cunning song choice, particularly when she followed up weeks of just escaping elimination with a drippingly sincere version of “God Bless the U.S.A.” during Inspirational Week. Like Fox would have let that be someone’s swan song!
162. Tim Urban (Season 9, Placed 7th)
Season nine’s teen-idol hope entered the finals on a technicality and was embraced by Vote for the Worst from the jump. He had a nice smile, although, that didn’t really help the way his singing sounded.
161. Sarina-Joi Crowe (Season 14, Placed 12th)
Singing first on the season’s inaugural finalist showcase is tough. Giving yourself a OneRepublic song to wow the audience off the bat? It’s like 13 seasons of lectures about song choices never existed.
160. Lindsey Cardinale (Season 4, Placed 12th)
“I think 30 million TV sets in America had their volume turned down simultaneously,” Cowell deadpanned after this Louisiana-born hopeful’s version of “Knock on Wood.”
159. Maddie Walker (Season 14, Placed 10th–11th)
A peppy version of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” couldn’t save this Iowan from one of the most unceremonious double-elimination ceremonies undertaken on the Idol stage.
158. Paige Miles (Season 9, Placed 11th)
Cowell claimed that this Floridian had the most potential at the outset of season nine, but she was struck by terrible choices during her brief run on the big stage. Her swan song, a walking-nightmare take on Phil Collins’s “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” that was somehow simultaneously yawn-inducing and overdone, was so disappointing that Cowell told her to not even bother trying for the judges’ save.
157. Leah LaBelle (Season 3, Placed 12th)
Getting the finalist nod from Paula Abdul despite a shaky performance of “Let’s Stay Together” caused the then-nascent Idol internet to turn on this 17-year-old from Seattle, and she was told point-blank by Cowell, “Pack your suitcase; you’re going home,” after a rough performance of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”
156. Lacey Brown (Season 9, Placed 12th)
Season nine was a time of bold experiments for Idol. One of the more unfortunate forays into the unknown was a night devoted to the catalog of the Rolling Stones, which resulted in this spunky Texan giving “Ruby Tuesday” a perky yet listless makeover. Good-bye, indeed.
155. Ashthon Jones (Season 10, Placed 13th)
Season ten introduced its finalists by having them perform songs made famous by their personal idols, but this Tennessee singer’s limp tribute to Diana Jones would have nobody calling her Miss Ross anytime soon.
154. Jasmine Murray (Season 8, Placed 12th–13th)
Kara DioGuardi loved the “package artist” potential of this Mississippi-born pageant queen, but her vocals had a hard time staying on point, and her p-popping, meandering version of “I’ll Be There” led to her getting the hook early.
153. Michael Sarver (Season 8, Placed 10th)
A roughneck (how American!) who sang Boyz II Men in his audition (how incongruous!) but who fell apart once the competition started (how … unsurprising). Not to mention that he was the recipient of Danny Gokey’s unfortunate outburst regarding “Godly love.”
152. Melissa McGhee (Season 5, Placed 12th)
Perhaps preceding her performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” with a video package featuring her messing up a lyric in front of the singer himself (he mentored the singers during the week spotlighting his catalog’s highlights) spooked this Tampa singer, because she did the same thing live.
151. Ben Briley (Season 13, Placed 11th)
Raise your hand if you associate “Bennie and the Jets” with the rom-com 27 Dresses, which was this Tennessee-born singer’s excuse for picking a song that just happened to remind the audience of his name. (It was Songs From the Cinema week, you see.) Well, you can’t fault him for trying on the “personal branding” front.
150. Shannon Magrane (Season 11, Placed 11th)
A member of Idol’s “spawn of famous sports people” in-group, the daughter of 1988 National League ERA champ Joe Magrane went big, taking on Mariah Carey’s Boyz II Men collab “One Sweet Day,” and went home, thanks to her able but hardly Mariah-sized voice nearly being swallowed by the song’s grandeur.
149. Karen Rodriguez (Season 10, Placed 12th)
A finalist thanks to a collaboration with MySpace (oh, 2012!), this Miami singer was given the equivalent of the Idol kiss-of-death when she was told by Jennifer Lopez, “If you are nervous about certain notes, don’t go there.” She was given the boot the next night. (The more, uh, limited vocal ranges of this era’s pop stars have suited Rodriguez much better, it seems.)
148. Thia Megia (Season 10, Placed 10th–11th)
This America’s Got Talent castoff was mostly notable for her incredibly tone-deaf interpretations of old songs, among them a version of “Smile,” during which she couldn’t stop grinning. At the very least, she led people to believe that Pia Toscano was a diva worth saving.
147. Lisa Tucker (Season 5, Placed 10th)
Singing a song made famous by a former Idol contestant might be one of the show’s biggest risks during the live portion of the season — especially if that song is the property of inaugural Idol Kelly Clarkson. “I just wanted to do a big, belty song,” the then-16-year-old Tucker said in defense of her choice to sing “Because of You.” Sure, Clarkson penned it when she was Tucker’s age, but at the time, the track was still a lite-FM staple, and the comparisons where she fell short came up too easily.
146. Adanna Duru (Season 14, Placed 10th–11th)
Duru’s performance of the Dreamgirls devotional “Love You I Do” gained steam after a too-breathy start, but it wasn’t enough to save her from the early ax.
145. Kristen O’Connor (Season 13, Placed 13th)
Performed Kelly Clarkson’s “Beautiful Disaster.” Was neither beautiful nor a disaster, just a worst-case scenario.
144. Amanda Overmyer (Season 7, Placed 11th)
The “rock-and-roll nurse” at least gets points for honesty. In what would be her final competitive performance — a yarling version of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” that was torpedoed even further by its lead-off position in the episode — she told Simon Cowell that she was using Idol to preview her live show for her fans, whether they would be catching her on the series’ accompanying tour or at a bar in her hometown. (Her 11th-place finish, alas, removed the former scenario from possibility.)
143. Jim Verraros (Season 1, Placed 9th–10th)
“If you win this competition, we will have failed,” Simon Cowell told this Illinois-born singer after his version of “When I Fall in Love,” which the tart-tongued Brit deemed “ordinary.” His subsequent loss in a coin toss to eventual winner Kelly Clarkson led to him meandering through the big-voice-requiring “Easy” during Motown Week, instead of the more peppy “Get Ready,” and eventually being cut. We’re not saying it was necessarily fixed, but …
142. A. J. Gil (Season 1, Placed 8th)
How are you going to turn down someone who auditions for American Idol with “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Especially when he lets the high note show off his falsetto? Alas, he was boxed in by themes in the later weeks, and while his rework of “My Cherie Amour” gave the chorus’s French a slight Latin spin, his fluttery voice was ill-served by “How Sweet It Is,” which led to him being bounced.
141. Amy Adams (Season 3, Placed 10th)
The best thing you can say about Amy Adams as a performer is that she isn’t nearly as bland as Jay Leno, whom Simon Cowell claimed held a familial resemblance to this pink-haired pop wannabe.
140. Jorge Núñez (Season 8, Placed 12th–13th)
Getting voted off after week one of the finals is always tough. Being snapped at by Simon Cowell after taking on a difficult-in-many-ways Michael Jackson song (“Never Can Say Goodbye,” which is tough to distill in less than two minutes) only adds insult to injury.
139. David Hernandez (Season 7, Placed 12th)
Cute and sexy, but his overeager version of “I Saw Her Standing There” could have used a couple of tips from Magic Mike.
138. Kevin Covais (Season 5, Placed 11th)
Chipmunk-cheeked and bespectacled, this Long Island teen’s performances of “Part Time Lover” and “When I Fall in Love” were more enthusiastic than technically proficient. He garnered what Cowell called “the grandma vote,” but his good humor and ability to clap-back at the tart-tongued Brit garnered him “Covies” from other corners.
137. Mikalah Gordon (Season 4, Placed 11th)
This low-voiced Las Vegan’s potential was torpedoed by song choices that were too big — from Billie Holiday’s heavy “God Bless the Child” to Taylor Dayne’s feat of breath control, “Love Will Lead You Back.”
136. Vanessa Olivarez (Season 2, Placed 12th)
A sassy yet breathy performance of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” during the second season’s salute to Motown led to … well, you can finish the joke.
135. Daniel Seavey (Season 14, Placed 9th)
Forever an Idol footnote after he came up short in the show’s inaugural live-tweeted vote, this musical polymath leaned heavily on Ed Sheeran in the come-up rounds and ripped off Andrew Garcia’s strummy cover of “Straight Up” in the first week of the finals. His downfall, however, would prove to be Hall & Oates, whose “You Make My Dreams” gave him the chance to flub a lyric and blow an octave leap. “You look so good on camera, so that’s a huge plus for you,” the always-generous Keith Urban said to open his critique.
134. Stephanie Edwards (Season 6, Placed 11th)
Her feisty performance of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” helped her soar into the finals, but a similarly daring song choice — Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” during British Invasion week — and the inexorable rise of Sanjaya knocked her out early.
133. Sam Woolf (Season 13, Placed 5th)
Season 13’s designated Cute Dude was all but given a constant halo effect by the show’s producers, who desperately wanted him to ride the teen-dream wave to the winner’s circle. Alas, his nervous energy led to him getting the boot during an incredibly awkward elimination episode that was clearly supposed to keep up the good-time energy while having him stick around an extra week, and instead wound up being the closest Idol’s live episodes would ever get to Lord of the Flies.
132. Brandon Rogers (Season 6, Placed 12th)
Who dares to disrespect Miss Ross by bungling the words to “You Can’t Hurry Love” during her week of honor? Not even the memory of his tender dedication of “Time After Time” to his grandmother a couple of weeks earlier could have saved him.
131. Jeremy Rosado (Season 11, Placed 13th)
His wild-card version of Carrie Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t” put forth the intriguing question, “What would this song sound like if sung by Matt Bellamy from Muse?” But his first performance in the finals came off as too tentative to inspire voters.
130. Ramiele Malubay (Season 7, Placed 9th)
The huzzahs received by Ramiele often focused on her “classy” and “professional” performances; in context, those compliments often sounded like nice ways to call her singing “dull” and “robotic.” She did get excited when Dolly Parton showed up to mentor the season-seven crew, though those feelings manifested themselves in flailing form.
129. Julia DeMato (Season 2, Placed 10th)
Better at showing you she really meant what she was singing than she was at actually singing.
128. Camile Velasco (Season 3, placed 9th)
Wildly erratic, but deserves props for trying to salvage Country Week with a “Desperado” that was more Brian McKnight than Don Henley.
127. Jermaine Jones (Season 11, Placed 12th/DQ’d)
Failing to disclose two previous arrests led to this deep-voiced New Jersey native being disqualified before he could sing “Somewhere Out There” during Year They Were Born Week — even though the local police said the charges, which included driving with a suspended license, weren’t worth the hoopla.
126. MK Nobilette (Season 13, Placed 10th)
If only American Idol had a separate competition for aspiring old-style crooners, this punchy San Franciscan would have been a clear winner. She shone on big, showy ballads — even singing something from a Harry Connick Jr. flick while he was sitting at the judges’ table — but her faltering on anything resembling current hits (even Pink’s pleading “Perfect”) led to her getting the hook.
125. Katie Stevens (Season 9, Placed 8th–9th)
Compare her wooden, pageant-ready performances to her subsequent comic turn on MTV’s Faking It, and you almost might be convinced that Idol’s tendency towards elevating wooden, pageant-ready teens might be hindering their artistic growth.
124. Aaron Kelly (Season 9, Placed 5th)
Sometimes you wonder what would have happened if people were born in different eras, even if those eras are only separated by a couple of years. This season-nine country-pop hopeful’s run on the Idol stage had the blandly adorable, vaguely accessible charm of dudes around his age (17) who have hit the big time through covers posted to Vine … which launched three years after his elimination.
123. Paul Jolley (Season 12, Placed 9th)
The “designated hot guy” during Idol’s most misandrist year claimed he wanted to be country, but his vocal mannerisms were Broadway fabulous.
122. Devin Velez (Season 12, Placed 8th)
One of the few Idol hopefuls to incur the Twitter wrath of former judge (and constant social-media presence) Nicki Minaj, this teen was clearly out of his depth on big songs like Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”
121. Pia Toscano (Season 10, Placed 9th)
Somewhere along the way, the people running Idol realized that the belters who had comprised its early winners were being muscled out by dudes bearing grins and guitars. This singer from Queens represented a return to form — in a way, anyway. She could bust out big notes like Celine and act as kittenish as Nicole Scherzinger, but the package those moves were in was deadly dull. It wasn’t much of a mystery when she was eliminated, though the hue and cry that accompanied her exit would make you think that Idol had passed up on the next Mariah.
120. DeAndre Brackensick (Season 11, Placed 8th)
It’s wonderful to be blessed with a falsetto, as this young Californian showed early and often during season 11. But it’s even better to know how to employ it strategically, even in the hypercompressed, glory-note-obsessed world of Idol. Perhaps he started working on restraint as soon as his disjointed version of DeBarge’s “I Like It” led to his exit.
119. Haley Scarnato (Season 6, Placed 8th)
Had legs; briefly knew how to use them.
118. Charles Grigsby (Season 2, Placed 11th)
Oh, the predictable pain that ensues when you decide to make your grand Idol statement with a song called “You Can’t Win.”
117. Emily Piriz (Season 13, Placed 12th)
Not colossally bad enough to have Vote for the Worst back her, not super-great enough to have people storm the phone (and app!) brigades. Her joyous, if muted, performance of judge Jennifer Lopez’s stormy “Let’s Get Loud” did get J. Lo confusedly excited, but she got sent home after it anyway. (If only technology could have allowed her to cover individual viewers’ signature songs! Maybe that’ll happen in the 2035 Idol reboot.)
116. Scott MacIntyre (Season 8, Placed 8th)
A prodigiously talented piano player who would sometimes run aground in Cruise Ship City thanks to lousy song choices (seriously, “The Search Is Over”?), Scott was charming even in the face of a rare Ryan Seacrest etiquette slip.
115. Carmen Rasmusen (Season 2, Placed 6th)
Declaring that you think you’re going to win is a no-no for the humility-adoring Idol, and no contestant learned this more quickly than this big-voiced (and sometimes yodel-y) country hopeful. After a turn on Taylor Dayne’s “Love Will Lead You Back” that inspired niceties from the normally grousing Simon Cowell, Seacrest asked her if she thought she could win; she replied yes, and was given the boot almost instantly.
114. Erika Van Pelt (Season 11, Placed 10th)
Hair is more important to American Idol’s narratives than the phrase “singing competition” might let on, and when this Rhode Island wedding singer chopped her blonde locks and dyed them black (on the advice of Tommy Hilfiger!), everyone noticed. What got lost in the shuffle was her elimination-resulting version of “New York State of Mind,” which was more Gaga than Billy … in the Artpop way, not the fun way.
113. Jon Peter Lewis (Season 3, Placed 8th)
“You look like a pen salesman,” Simon Cowell told this Nebraskan when he turned up at the auditions. His strident take on blue-eyed soul won a lot of fans, but lacked oomph — especially when compared to his competition that season, which included Fantasia Barrino, LaToya London, and Jennifer Hudson (who would be knocked out a week after his elimination).
112. Jessica Sierra (Season 4, Placed 10th)
A belter who paled in comparison to Carrie Underwood, but whose take on Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing” set the template for that eventual Idol standard.
111. Heejun Han (Season 11, Placed 9th)
“Your head’s big?” Ryan Seacrest asked this Flushing-via-Korea hopeful at the outset of his audition. His gravelly voice (and Michael Bolton–worthy pipes) wowed the judges, though, even if Jimmy Iovine likened his outsized performance of “My Life” to “four minutes of an Adam Sandler movie that goes straight to DVD,” his elimination, after throwing himself into Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” seemed kind of unjust.
110. Amber Holcomb (Season 12, Placed 4th)
The most old-school Idol contestant during the odd-in-many-respects 12th season, Amber Holcomb had a towering voice and youthful pleasantness on her side, but her lyrical interpretations were lacking, particularly when contrasted with those of eventual winner Candice Glover. When she took on big songs like “MacArthur Park” and “My Funny Valentine,” her limitations became all too apparent.
109. Lil Rounds (Season 8, Placed 6th–7th)
“Ego” as it relates to American Idol is a touchy subject, with message-board denizens quick to seize on those who they deem too big for their britches even though they might just be exuding confidence. And the way the judges — particularly the original recipe of Simon, Paula, and Randy — tried to place certain singers into boxes must have been frustrating. Still, this potential-packed Memphis native was, too often, more sizzle than steak, from her meandering “The Rose” to the weirdly choreographed “I’m Every Woman” that sent her packing.
108. Chikezie (Season 7, Placed 10th)
Kicking off the finals with a chicken-fried “She’s a Woman” set the bar high for Chikezie, but when he switched things up with a warm take on Luther Vandross, the judges predictably turned on him for being “very old school, kind of just … I don’t know, man,” (Randy) and “cheesy” (Simon). And that was that.
107. Matthew Rogers (Season 3, Placed 11th)
Dedicating a sing-out performance of Lonestar’s Über-sappy “Amazed” to Simon Cowell is a power move that only someone with football-field playing time would think to make.
106. John Stevens (Season 3, Placed 6th)
Anyone with the nickname “Teen Martin” will probably have problems when faced with songs as contemporary as “Crocodile Rock.”
105. Ryan Starr (Season 1, Placed 7th)
American Idol was finding its demographic footing during its inaugural year, but the viewers learned one thing quickly enough: This California strutter’s rock-and-roll dreams were a bad fit for the show’s pop-conqueror aspirations.
104. Curtis Finch Jr. (Season 12, placed 10th)
As a male finalist in season 12, there was no way this gospel singer from St. Louis — who had tried out twice before — was going to get past the top five. Singing Fantasia’s “I Believe” punched his ticket home almost as soon as Ryan Seacrest introduced him.
103. Rickey Smith (Season 2, Placed 8th)
He didn’t take the Idol hoopla too seriously, as evidenced by the Afro wig he wore in honor of Disco Night. (Oh, Idol.) But even though he redeemed himself in front of Lionel Richie when doing a one-person version of “Endless Love” — which Paula Abdul claimed made her forget that Diana Ross was part of the song (!) — the audience didn’t agree, and sent him packing.
102. Dexter Roberts (Season 13, Placed 7th)
He managed to pull off the Georgia Satellites’ campy “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” and score charm points early on, but his aw-shucks act eventually resulted in his more subdued performances treading that line between “simple” and “boring.”
101. Scott Savol (Season 4, Placed 5th)
A robust voice, a thing for Brian McKnight songs, a keenly deployed falsetto, and a tendency to give post-performance shout-outs to God didn’t add up to enough to stop season four’s Carrie-Bo finale.
100. James Durbin (Season 10, Placed 4th)
His obvious clawing for the support of any “rock-friendly” Adam Lambert fans who were still watching Idol two years later led to him singing solo Sammy Hagar, Thirty Seconds to Mars, and Muse, and his “I miss my wife and kid” spiel probably kept him around longer than he should have been. On the bright side, who ever thought Judas Priest would make it to Idol? PMRC to prime-time on Fox, baby!
99. Didi Benami (Season 9, Placed 10th)
A Linda Ronstadt in a Katy Perry era. It’s almost admirable that she hung in as long as she did.
98. Naima Adedapo (Season 10, Placed 10th–11th)
Still hoping that she and Jacob Lusk can at least cut an EP of duets, because their “Solid” was one of the highlights from the extremely erratic tenth season.
97. Janelle Arthur (Season 12, Placed 5th)
Season 12’s “other” country lady was consistently condescended to by the judges, perhaps (probably?) because she was blonde and from the South and read as “young.” Her choice of Dolly Parton’s “Dumb Blonde” during what wound up being her final performance was a delicious kiss-off to the panel, although they were probably too busy fighting amongst themselves to notice.
96. Josh Gracin (Season 2, Placed 4th)
America loved this Marine enough to keep him around longer than he deserved — even during those weeks when he couldn’t go country, when he was clearly out of his depth. Playing to his base paid off in the long run — after being honorably discharged, he went full-on country without the help of the Idol record-making machine — though it completely baffled Simon Cowell at the time.
95. Michael Johns (Season 7, Placed 8th)
The closest thing American Idol had to a Michael Hutchence–type (take that, Rock Star: INXS!), this Aussie had his ups and downs, but his chemistry with fellow expat Carly Smithson was electric, and his charisma was enough to make you think he’d have won a less talent-stacked year in a walk.
94. EJay Day (Season 1, Placed 9th–10th)
One of those singers who probably would have fared better in Idol’s later years, when genre shifts by Edwin McCain types — and, really, Edwin McCain types at all — were more welcomed by the voting public.
93. Burnell Taylor (Season 12, Placed 7th)
He auditioned with a barn-burner take on “I’m Here” from The Color Purple, and his crash course in the Beatles led to him giving “Let It Be” a reverent turn. He was so charming, in fact, that I suspected Make a Woman Win for Once–related conspiracy theories when his season hit Rock Week and he picked — and flubbed — “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Sadly, his slinky duet with eventual season-12 winner Candice Jones on “The Letter,” later that night, didn’t save him from doom.
92. Nikko Smith (Season 4, Placed 9th)
A last-second replacement after Mario Vazquez left the show for unspecified family reasons, this son of the wiry Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith brought New Jack flavor to the Idol stage and was unfortunately (and unfairly) given the boot after switching up West Side Story’s “One Hand, One Heart” so that it sounded like a Ne-Yo album track, complete with deeply felt outro.
91. Andrew Garcia (Season 9, placed 8th–9th)
The risk a hopeful took when choosing a judge’s own song was even higher during Idol’s earlier seasons, since Paula Abdul was the only member of the panel whose material could get reworked. (Take your Journey covers to American Session Bass Player.) But Andrew Garcia’s slick solo-guitar rework of Abdul’s “Straight Up” got him noticed during Hollywood Week, though it wound up backfiring on him in a different way. He got boxed in by expectations of “originality,” and flamed out early.
90. Chris Sligh (Season 6, placed 10th)
The loser of the season-six Sting-off — thanks to a speedy rendition of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” — made things even worse when he admitted during the judges’ postmortem that he botched the performance.
89. Majesty Rose (Season 13, placed 9th)
The potential she showed with her delightful finals-opening take on “Tightrope” slowly drained from her performances week after week. She was eliminated after a version of Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out” that, perhaps appropriately, displayed just how frayed her nerves had become. Despite Majesty’s increasing weariness, though, her hints at pop hybridization and gravitation toward current material (her songs’ age averaged out at 3.2 years old, which was extremely low, even for the relatively current season 13) make her one of the recent Idol talents most worth watching.
88. Anthony Fedorov (Season 4, placed 4th)
A talented young balladeer whose blue-eyed soul could have used a little more grit.
87. Megan Joy (Season 8, placed 9th)
Perhaps the most erratic contestant Idol has ever seen, and not just because of her bird-call-heavy take on “Rockin’ Robin.”
86. Phil Stacey (Season 6, placed 5th–6th)
It took a while for this Navy vet to find his country comfort-zone, but his last three performances wrote his ticket to country-music semi-stardom. If only he’d picked something with a less prophetic title than “Blaze of Glory” during Bon Jovi week…
85. Elise Testone (Season 11, placed 6th)
Jimmy Iovine thought this South Carolinian’s song choices — which included Billy Joel’s “Vienna” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love” — were a bit too obtuse, though they showed off her powerful voice. And hey, when you have Stevie Nicks wanting to hire you…
84. Joey Cook (Season 14, placed 7th)
This highly stylized, yowl-y alt-chick came off like a cross between Melanie Martinez and Adam Lambert, which might have suited her better on American Singing Star Clone.
83. Qaasim Middleton (Season 14, placed 8th)
Whipping out the Joker card during the appropriate line in “Come Together” was a nice touch, though too often you could just imagine Simon comparing this Brooklyn-born singer’s performances to over-egged pudding. (Oh, Simon.)
82. R. J. Helton (Season 1, placed 5th)
If only Idol’s early devotion to the “oldies” section of the American songbook had led to a Sha Na Na revival.
81. Paul McDonald (Season 10, placed 8th)
McDonald’s much “cooler” take on Americana than the one proffered by season ten winner Scotty McCreery even had Nudie suits to spare. But American Idol is rarely about cool, especially as the weeks wear on.
80. Nadia Turner (Season 4, placed 8th)
At the outset of Season 4, Simon Cowell pronounced this Miami belter “a steak” in ” a competition of hamburgers,” and her singular song choices bore out that declaration. But her decision to sing Crystal Gayle’s relatively minor hit “When I Dream” to salute her birth-year “perplexed” Randy Jackson, caused Paula to lead with appearance compliments, and forced Simon to downgrade her to “musical wallpaper.” She was dispatched shortly after.
79. Stefano Langone (Season 10, placed 7th)
This baby face was the clear sex symbol of the tenth season, as evidenced by his need to whip off his shirt during “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love” on that year’s Idols Live! tour. He also had the most commercial potential, though the judges were too busy falling over Pia Toscano’s Celine-isms to notice.
78. Trenyce (Season 2, placed 5th)
A little yell-y, a little pitch-y, a little guarded (although you might be, too, if the Smoking Gun was peeking into your past). Strong voice, though, and her song choices (“I’m Every Woman,” “Proud Mary”) certainly set a precedent for the divas who followed.
77. Kellie Pickler (Season 5, placed 6th)
About as good a catapult to Dancing With The Stars as you’ll see these days.
76. Matt Giraud (Season 8, placed 5th)
The first recipient of the judges’ save, this sweet, piano-playing Michigander made Paula Abdul’s and Kara DioGuardi’s hearts go pitter-pat behind their Coke cups, and stuck around long enough to channel, of all people, Elvis Costello during a somewhat labored “My Funny Valentine.”
75. Alexis Grace (Season 8, placed 11th)
She came out like gangbusters with a fierce version of “Dirty Diana” to open the finals, and she probably could have given Kris, Adam, and Allison a run for their rocker money if the reaction to her admittedly not-as-strong version of “Jolene” hadn’t been so virulent.
74. Anwar Robinson (Season 4, placed 7th)
Sometimes, great singers just don’t fit into the Idol box. That was the case with this New Jersey teacher, who tried to make songs like “What a Wonderful World” and “Moon River” fit his towering voice, and not the other way around.
73. Nikki McKibbin (Season 1, placed 3rd)
Despite slugging it out in the bottom three every week except one — when she decided to cover Janis Joplin — this Texan’s heart did not stray too far from Lilith-Fair fare, and she hung on almost all the way to the finish line.
72. Brooke White (Season 7, placed 5th)
An instrumentally adept ingénue whose charm shone most when she added just the right amount of spite to already-sour tracks like “You’re So Vain” and “Love Is a Battlefield,” she committed the Idol cardinal sin of requesting a do-over during Andrew Lloyd Webber week. Still, she didn’t get the axe until she laid down an “I’m a Believer” that came off like an ad for a cult.
71. Gina Glocksen (Season 6, placed 9th)
Life is unfair, as summed up by a reaction to this Chicagoland rocker’s untimely Idol exit: “American Idol Fans Blame Tongue Ring, Sanjaya, and Haley’s Legs for Gina Glocksen’s Elimination.”
70. CJ Harris (Season 13, placed 6th)
A country-soul singer whose off-pitch travels could juuuuuust reach the danger zone, Harris was a blast of charisma and unexpected song choices (hello, Marshall Tucker Band!) during a season that was shaking off its growing pains.
69. Hollie Cavanagh (Season 11, placed 4th)
She ably honored her home country with fiery performances of Adele and Leona Lewis, but this power-singing British expat stumbled — and inadvertently showcased the shifting mores in pop that Idol was trying to navigate in its later seasons — while trying to pour too much syrup on top of Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb.”
68. George Huff (Season 3, placed 5th)
The gruff voice and fiery demeanor of season three’s last-man-standing lit up tracks like Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot,” but he struggled with some of the more awkwardly fitting theme-weeks, which looked stubbornly back at Lite-FM staples of yore.
67. Siobhan Magnus (Season 9, placed 6th)
Turning a Beatles song into a goth lullaby, punctuating “Paint It Black” with a shriek, hailing from Massachusetts — Siobhan Magnus was a banshee who established a lot of Idol milestones, and she probably could have done more, were it not for those meddling voters who became seized with the urge to vote only for male contestants during a strange season nine.
66. Chris Richardson (Season 6, placed 5th)
His Timberlake-ian charm and easy smile made him a pleasure to watch, even when he sang the much-maligned “Smooth.” (It wasn’t a hot one for him; he landed in the bottom three that week.)
65. Tyanna Jones (Season 14, placed 5th)
This spirited 17-year-old with a stirring up-from-homelessness backstory exited the show with a spirited run through Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” which says a lot about her savvy take on how she wants the Idol-sphere to remember her.
64. Bucky Covington (Season 5, placed 8th)
Charming — you try pulling off a country rework of “Superstition” — but at times a bit lacking in enunciation, this blond North Carolinian basked in Idol’s post-Carrie Nashville-friendly glow and ensured himself a post-show fan base.
63. Jacob Lusk (Season 10, placed 5th)
One of the most transcendent performances of any recent Idol season was Jacob Lusk’s slow-build-to-stankface version of “You’re All I Need to Get By,” which caused Steven Tyler to leap up out of his chair and hug the singer. Lusk was wildly uneven during the rest of Season 10, though, and got the boot after violating the unspoken “Don’t sing songs by previous winners” rule, with a confusing take on Jordin Sparks’s “No Air.”
62. Paris Bennett (Season 5, placed 5th)
She might have come in fifth, but Prince thanked her for singing “Kiss.” Which is the bigger victory?
61. Casey James (Season 9, placed 3rd)
This shaggy blond’s country-rocker demeanor got a lift from his solid guitar skills, which he showcased amply — impressive, given Idol’s truncated song lengths. His final night of competition included a run through Eric Hutchinson’s “OK, It’s Alright With Me,” a comfy track that pretty much summed up the way he floated into season nine’s upper reaches.
60. Quentin Alexander (Season 14, placed 6th)
“I think you would be really clear on the record you would want to make,” Keith Urban told this New Orleans-born singer after he belted out “Shake It Off” while clad in a gold top and twirling tulle. Which, sadly, is probably why he wasn’t the best potential Idol winner, though his performances gave his run on the show quite the jolt.
59. Ace Young (Season 5, placed 7th)
Popped after his initially shaky, yet ultimately smoldering, read of George Michael’s “Father Figure;” left after he slicked back his shaggy mane, put on a suit, and lounged up Nat King Cole’s “That’s All.” A sort of perfect Idol arc, really.
58. Kimberly Caldwell (Season 2, placed 7th)
A “package artist” whose husky voice shone best on ballads like Travis Tritt’s “Anymore,” but who was torpedoed by not having enough pent-up spite to pull off Billy Joel’s acerbic “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”
57. Mandisa (Season 5, placed 9th)
A Whitney-worthy belter whose big notes would sometimes tip over into oversinging territory, this devout believer’s shortcomings came to the fore when she attempted Shania Twain’s manic “Any Man of Mine.” (What is it with that song and Idol?)
56. Rayvon Owen (Season 14, placed 4th)
Consistently in the bottom reaches of the competition, but saved by tweeting fans, this breathy Virginian operated in the emotive mode of Sam Smith. (Why would you sing Ellie Goulding’s gasping “Burn,” though?)
55. LaKisha Jones (Season 6, placed 4th)
Peaked early with a ferocious “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going;” managed to outlast the Sanjaya Express, despite a manic “Jesus, Take the Wheel” that had her joining him in the bottom two during his last week; eliminated after a kiss-of-death song pick (“Stayin’ Alive”).
54. Jasmine Trias (Season 3, placed 3rd)
She sometimes got overwhelmed by the bigger songs (oh, “It’s Raining Men”), and in the harsher light of 2016, her smooth vocals sound a tad dated.
53. Skylar Laine (Season 11, placed 5th)
Laine made up for what she lacked on the power-vocal side with a country charm that could narrow into a vengeful growl as easily as it could dissolve into sweetness.
52. Jessica Meuse (Season 13, placed 4th)
Sometimes it seemed like this bar-band-er derived more pleasure from telling people she was from Slapout (SLAPOUT!), Alabama, than she did from singing for the judges — but her discomfort would sometimes result in satisfying performances, like the country-punk version of Gaga’s “Yoü and I” that preceded her elimination.
51. Anoop Desai (Season 8, placed 6th–7th)
Simon Cowell referred to Anoop Desai as a “yo-yo,” because of the way Idol’s mélange of theme nights forced him all over the place. But when this North Carolinian was allowed to operate in his comfort zone — think Usher, Boyz II Men, and other R&B smoothies — he was sublime. If he’d competed in any season besides Idol’s talent-packed eighth run, he probably would have gone farther.
50. Colton Dixon (Season 11, placed 7th)
Beloved enough during the season-ten auditions that Ellen DeGeneres invited him on her other show post-elimination, this Tennessee native had the theatrics of Adam Lambert, the simmering stage presence of David Cook, and the boyish looks of Kris Allen. He might have finished seventh, but his love of the Lord helped him slide right into the gospel world.
49. Syesha Mercado (Season 7, placed 3rd)
This belter will always be looked upon kindly by Idol stalwarts for the way the producers treated her at the end of season seven: They were so intent on setting up a final between David Archuleta and Cook that they handed the versatile Floridian a song from Happy Feet for the top-three episode. “I was like, ‘That’s strange’… most of the song was backup singing,” Mercado said on a post-elimination conference call. “It was weird, because most of the song, I wasn’t supposed to sing.” Alas, that was the whole point.
48. Vonzell Solomon (Season 4, placed 3rd)
Her bell-clear voice and self-possession (her recovery after muffing a lyric on “How Do I Live” should be studied by anyone with stage fright) made her a consistent season-four highlight, but there was no stopping Carrie Underwood’s march to the winner’s circle.
47. Taylor Hicks (Season 5, Winner)
Did the silver-haired soul singer from Alabama “break the show” when he defeated Katharine McPhee in season five, as some of my colleagues have claimed? If we’re being honest, not really! Idol’s reliance on the old (Elvis! The ‘50s!) would have burst at the seams sometime in the late 2000s, whether because of Blake Lewis’s beatboxing or Adam Lambert’s Burning-Man fantasias. Hicks’s deeply felt performances of chestnuts like “You Are So Beautiful” and “Something” did exactly what the show demanded they do, and the Idol audience — which, at that point, was just beginning to age and more fiercely advocate for soulful young men (with or without guitars) — responded in kind.
46. Christina Christian (Season 1, placed 6th)
It’s easy to say that Idol contestants deserved better — most of them did during at least one point in their run on the show. But after a quite good performance of “The Glory of Love” during Big Band Week, this Brooklyn native (and crush of Simon Cowell) was eliminated in absentia; she’d been admitted to the hospital that morning because of dehydration.
45. Lauren Alaina (Season 10, Runner-up)
Not quite the next Kelly Clarkson, as she was hailed during the run-up to season ten, this Carrie Underwood-loving Georgia girl did ultimately prove herself to be a fine foil to that season’s eventual winner, Scotty “Babylockdemdoors” McCreery.
44. Jessica Sanchez (Season 11, Runner-up)
Having already run the competition-show gauntlet on America’s Got Talent, this San Diegan paid tribute to Idol’s Mariah-Whitney-Celine holy trinity during her last two weeks on the show — a risky move that didn’t quite pay off, thanks to Phillip Phillips’s cakewalk to the crown, but one worthy of applauding nonetheless.
43. Caleb Johnson (Season 13, Winner)
Some great things about season 13’s first-place finisher: He debuted Rush on the Idol stage and his yawp sounds exactly like that of Whitesnake’s David Coverdale. Some reasons why Idol’s return to giving white rockers the crown wasn’t going to mean a return to Phillip Phillips-level chart success: He debuted Rush on the Idol stage and his yawp sounds exactly like that of Whitesnake’s David Coverdale.
42. Casey Abrams (Season 10, placed 6th)
Gen-Xers will forever hold a grudge against Abrams for mauling “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and during “The Year You Were Born” week, no less), but I’ll always remember the way the shaggy-haired upright-bassist arranged his strident cover of Maroon 5’s shimmying “Harder to Breathe” so that he could plant a kiss on Jennifer Lopez right before the song’s end. Put that in your swivel chair, Adam Levine.
41. Jason Castro (Season 7, placed 4th)
Bringing “Hallelujah” and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s ukulele-heavy version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to Idol has to be worth points on this list. On the flip side, this dreadlocked and doe-eyed strummer should probably do some penance for making Simon Cowell realize that Leonard Cohen’s twisted hymn could be a cash cow for Cowell’s other talents.
40. Kree Harrison (Season 12, Runner-up)
When she went into maternal mode — “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” “Up to the Mountain” — this Texan’s velvety voice sounded like a hug, and the way she tore into The Band Perry’s death-won’t-part-us anthem “Better Dig Two” had a delicious bite.
39. Alex Preston (Season 13, placed 3rd)
Charming in a dude-with-acoustic sort of way, Preston faded into the background as the season wore on and his quirks got ironed out.
38. Kimberley Locke (Season 2, placed 3rd)
Rebounding after a gimmicky season-opening performance of “Heat Wave” that almost sent her home, this tart-voiced Tennessean filled the diva role during the show’s second season more than ably. Her fiery Freda Payne/Dionne Warwick/Natalie Cole triple play during top-three week was beloved by the judges, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Ruben–Clay finale.
37. Justin Guarini (Season 1, Runner-up)
Kelly Clarkson’s inaugural victory was all but a sure thing by season one’s midway point, but Justin Guarini’s runner-up run was full of verve and charm nonetheless. His voice had just the right amount of grit, and he knew how to work an audience well, even bypassing Simon Cowell’s tut-tutting by asking the crowd what they thought of him during Songs of the ’60s week.
36. Tamyra Gray (Season 1, placed 4th)
Her deeply felt performances led to her falling victim to the show’s first “shock elimination,” but she had the last laugh when she co-wrote season-three winner Fantasia’s coronation song “I Believe.”
35. Diana DeGarmo (Season 3, Runner-up)
More pop than Fantasia and more polished than Jasmine, this teen set the template for all the prodigously young singers who would follow her onto the Idol stage.
34. Carly Smithson (Season 7, placed 6th)
At first, Idol-watchers (including this one) looked at this Irish-born singer askance because of her major-label background, which had been the subject of a Wall Street Journal front-page story on the music business’s turn-of-the-millennium excesses. But Smithson turned in gritty, heartfelt performances week-in and week-out, and her dismissal after a rousing version of Jesus Christ Superstar’s “Superstar” was a genuine outrage during a season that wasn’t without controversy.
33. Angie Miller (Season 12, placed 3rd)
Hailing from outside Boston, this piano-pounding teen often overshot with her song interpretations during season 12. Take her over-the-top version of JT’s “Cry Me a River,” which amped up the song’s emotional levels enough to make one wonder if she wasn’t working to fill the Atlantic with her salty tears. She would have been well-suited to wait a couple of years and let her emotions smooth out. Her youth and her admittedly mesmerizing stage presence helped the producers think she was a “marketable female singer,” though, and that was what season 12 was all about.
32. Jena Irene (Season 13, Runner-up)
Very similar to Angie, only from Michigan and with a gulpier voice.
31. Michael Lynche (Season 9, placed 4th)
Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s spare, gorgeous “This Woman’s Work” is a towering achievement of cross-genre pollination, and this Floridian’s sterling vocal is one of Idol’s all-time great performances, while his elevation of Chad Kroeger’s “Hero” to a church-ready sing-along saved what could have been a truly disastrous song choice.
30. Blake Lewis (Season 6, Runner-up)
Over the course of its run, Idol’s winds have shifted in a way similar to adult-contemporary radio’s — big voices like Whitney, Mariah, and Celine have made way for grinning strummers like Jason, Ed, and, well, Philip. Taylor Hicks’s season-five win was a harbinger of that shift, and so was the run of Blake Lewis, whose loose-limbed charm and beatboxing — on Bon Jovi songs! — helped send him to second place. Lewis’s “there’s no way I’m going to win this thing” performance of the gloppy season-six coronation song “This Is My Now” was charming in its own right, particularly for those viewers who believed that the producers were so invested in a Jordin Sparks victory that they saddled both contestants with a victory song tailor-made for the teen queen.
29. Nick Fradiani (Season 14, Winner)
From his audition song (Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”) through the Andy Grammer double shot he served up during the finale, the most recently crowned winner strutted right down the middle of the road. His slowed-down misreading of “Only the Good Die Young” might be one of Idol’s greatest lyrical misreads, but it barely made a dent in his armor.
28. Malaya Watson (Season 13, placed 8th)
Declaring her allegiance to the tuba at season 13’s outset, this Michigander pushed herself hard and and charmed even the most teen-averse Idol-watcher with her youthful energy. Even when she screwed up (or was paired with the charisma-light Sam Woolf), Malaya was a joy to watch.
27. David Archuleta (Season 7, Runner-up)
Armed with a sweet smile and a super-innocent demeanor, this Mormon teen was a producers’ favorite from nearly the get-go of season 7. His youth would sometimes fail him (he decided to forego the “Imagine” line about “no religion,” and he’d also bobble a lyric here and there), and the producers’ being so in the tank for him grew wearying after a while, but, in hindsight, the double-David finale that year was lots of fun to watch, and his being the budding pop star in wait to David Cook’s relatively (and I mean relatively) grizzled rocker was a big reason for that.
26. Haley Reinhart (Season 10, placed 3rd)
Haley was one of the more convincing rocker-chicks to grace the Idol stage, in part because her performances were so wildly uneven, and in part because she wasn’t afraid to jaw back at the judges’ critiques. When she hit — as she did on Gaga’s “Yoü and I” and on, yes, Led freakin’ Zeppelin — the results were sublime.
25. JAX (Season 14, placed 3rd)
Whether the judges’ decision to have JAX sing Paramore’s octave-leaping “Misery Business” during the top-three episode was a put-up-or-shut-up gesture, or a way to gracefully set up Yet Another All-Dude Finale will be lost to history (or at least the Idol tell-all inevitably scheduled for 2022). Either way, her choice to switch it up with a softer take on the emo favorite ultimately gave her the bronze. Still, her all-caps rocker-girl run on season 13 punched up the season admirably.
24. Constantine Maroulis (Season 4, placed 6th)
How fitting that season four’s swaggering rocker-dude got the boot after performing Nickelback, one of the few rock acts of the 2000s to match his “weird, fascinating, kinda icky charisma” quotient.
23. Bo Bice (Season 4, Runner-up)
The Southern-fried rocker told Rolling Stone that his final thought before Ryan Seacrest announced who had won season four was… Please, God, don’t let me win this thing. Attempt to save face? Reach for Rolling Stone’s (perceived to be) too-cool-for-Idol rock demo, who might be lured in by talk of him handling the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers on the show’s stage? Actual moment of candor? The important thing is, it worked out like he wanted!
22. LaToya London (Season 3, placed 4th)
Season three had a logjam of extremely talented R&B belters — the “Three Divas” made up 25 percent of the top 12. Fantasia eventually won, but Jennifer Hudson and LaToya London were expected to accompany her in the top three. Neither did. LaToya’s prophetic final song, which she selected for the admittedly-mine-filled-on-that-front Disco Night? “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” She ripped through it, but her fate had already been sealed.
21. Clark Beckham (Season 14, Runner-up)
He was sunk in the finale with a sappy coronation song that was way, way far afield from his blue-eyed soul wheelhouse, but his versatility and cherubic charm were a consistent highlight of season 14.
20. Joshua Ledet (Season 11, placed 3rd)
The 20-year-old’s impassioned, leave-it-on-the-stage performance of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” was one of many that caused the season-11 panel to leap to its collective feet; the way he proved himself adept with any song that could stand a soul injection was inspiring. He even proved to be a class-act when he got voted off, managing to bring his mom into the spotlight.
19. Katharine McPhee (Season 5, Runner-up)
She registered as more pop than Taylor Hicks for reasons both superficial and not, but her “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” remains a gold-standard Idol reinvention. It’s a difficult song to make modern, let alone fully inhabit, but McPhee lived up to the judges’ “make it your own” mandate without really changing much of anything about the song itself.
18. Scotty McCreery (Season 10, Winner)
This teen’s Idol tenure will forever be associated with Josh Turner’s “Your Man” (“Babylockdemdoorsandturn the liiiiiiights down low”), but he had a preternatural ability to work a crowd, and his deep-at-any-age voice was perfect for a country boy — er, man.
17. Jordin Sparks (Season 6, Winner)
The highest-achieving member of Idol’s Children of Famous Sportspeople Club (her dad’s pro-footballer Phillippi Sparks), Jordin’s youthful enthusiasm at first torpedoed some of her more serious material. But her stormy performance of “I (Who Have Nothing)” proved to be a turning point, and her excitable 16-year-old demeanor and undeniable pop appeal (not to mention a coronation song that was made for her optimistic vibe) helped her cruise to the winner’s circle.
16. Allison Iraheta (Season 8, placed 4th)
The cherry-haired teen rocker from season eight’s all-too-stacked deck consistently annoyed the bejesus out of Simon Cowell, which only made her trajectory over the course of the season more enjoyable. Watching her settle into herself even in the face of poor song choices (“I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing,” c’mon) and nitpicky criticisms from the judges was deeply satisfying, even if she was removed from competition at least one week too soon.
15. Kris Allen (Season 8, Winner)
In retrospect, season eight was probably decided when Kanye showed up — in the form of Kris Allen’s cover of “Heartless.” He’d impressed the judges with his reworking of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “She Works Hard for the Money” already, and if a hastily sent publicist blast was to be believed, said the ’Ye cover was “inspired by” — of all people — Grey’s Anatomy pop-rockers The Fray. But Kris’s savvy reworking of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak ballad, which he casually dropped just as the field had been narrowed to three, pushed him ahead of his showier competitors in the eyes of the audience, and completed his “personal growth” narrative right on time for him to win the crown.
14. Elliott Yamin (Season 5, placed 3rd)
Dubbed “one funky white boy” by Paula — who eventually tapped him to sing Bobby Caldwell’s silky “What You Won’t Do for Love” — Yamin projected likability and charm, while casually schooling the Idol audience (and fellow contestants) on how to properly pay tribute to Leon Russell and Stevie Wonder.
(tie) 12. Ruben Studdard (Season 2, Winner) / Clay Aiken (Season 2, Runner-up)
Could one have ascended to the top-two without the other? Would season two have been as fun without the odd-but-not-that-odd couple — the velvet teddy bear and the King of the Claymates — at its close?
11. Phillip Phillips (Season 11, Winner)
Idol was merely a promotional vehicle for this radio-ready strummer, who might as well have been dubbed the winner when he auditioned. His victory-lap single “Home” was the epitome of WGWG tracks, and it went on to outsell even Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This.”
10. Candice Glover (Season 12, Winner)
Glover singlehandedly saved her season from being “the one with the judges arguing all the time” with her ability to pull the guts out of a song and fully inhabit the remaining space, from her restaging of The Cure’s “Lovesong” to her stirring finale performance of “I (Who Have Nothing).”
9. Crystal Bowersox (Season 9, Runner-up)
Starting off one’s Idol season strong can be a difficult proposition. Keeping up momentum isn’t just a personal thing; the construct of the show means that a singer has to, week after week, convince the audience that he or she might be in peril, that voter turnout is necessary in order for this person to stay in the competition. This, in a nutshell, was the problem with season nine’s Earth Mother, who turned in solid-to-spectacular performances during most weeks, yet was rewarded at the end with the second-place trophy. Maybe this is a metaphor about life and peaking early, or maybe it’s just a sign that the voters at this point were bending for dudes any way they could (even Lee DeWyze). Either way, her runner-up finish turned the end of season nine into one of Idol’s most dissatisfying finales.
8. David Cook (Season 7, Winner)
The “make it your own” space had been shape-shifted in previous seasons by Chris Daughtry and Blake Lewis, but David Cook was the first to really translate that arrangement-related dictum to the Idol stage. He studied covers of theme-week tracks (“Billie Jean,” “Day Tripper”) that more suited his grunge-lite style, then branched out into arranging tracks like Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” so that they’d better fit his overall thing. Even being saddled with Aerosmith’s leaden “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by the producers during top-three week couldn’t stop his ride to the top.
7. Chris Daughtry (Season 5, placed 4th)
In the realm of shock eliminations, Chris Daughtry’s fourth-place exit wasn’t too surprising; either his base got too comfortable or decided to throw their loyalties elsewhere. But his Idol run intrigued because of the way he subtly pushed the show out of its retro-obsessed funk — his moody version of the well-worn “I Walk the Line” was inspired by the alt-rock stalwarts Live, and when given more-free rein he covered rock tracks by Shinedown and Seether, both of whom were more radio-relevant than Aerosmith’s hoary Armageddon ballad. These shifts eventually led to Idol allowing contestants to play instruments in season seven, opening the door for winners like Kris Allen and Phillip Phillips.
6. Melinda Doolittle (Season 6, placed 3rd)
One of the best pure singers to appear on the Idol stage, Melinda Doolittle turned in powerhouse performances week after week — ranging from Faith Hill and Bon Jovi, to Donna Summer and Lieber and Stoller. The former backup singer operated in the tradition of Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, imbuing the truncated versions of her chosen songs with pathos and exquisite phrasing. She didn’t win, but she set a standard for those who would follow her.
5. Jennifer Hudson (Season 3, placed 7th)
Hudson was voted off after powering through the goopy “Welcome To New England” during Barry Manilow week — a theme that, perhaps predictably, saw all of season three’s “Three Divas” sent to the bottom. Hudson’s exit, which had been presaged by two trips to the bottom two, caused outrage not just from Idol observers, but from the normally even-keeled Ryan Seacrest. “America, don’t forget you have to vote for the talent … You cannot let talent like this slip through the cracks,” he said in the aftermath of Hudson’s ouster. On the bright side, Hudson seemed to have things work out, career-wise, and her departure probably helped along the season-eight establishment of the Judges’ Save.
4. Adam Lambert (Season 8, Runner-up)
He brought sitars, “Mad World,” glitter, and Burning-Man weirdness to the Idol stage, which says a lot. Even when his vocals wavered, he remained the compelling white-hot center of season eight, a completely unpredictable one-man carnival whose energy transformed that year of Idol into one still argued about today. It’s almost right that he didn’t win; he didn’t need the spotlight afforded by an Idol victory, and his performing background no doubt made him aware that the best performers are the ones who let their co-stars shine just as brightly.
3. Carrie Underwood (Season 4, Winner)
Oklahoma-born Carrie Underwood wowed Simon with an early-season cover of Tiffany (!), and quickly found her country-rock niche, belting out Heart’s “Alone” like a seasoned pro and proving herself able to hang with Roy Orbison, the Dixie Chicks, even purveyors-of-schmaltz Air Supply. Her smoothly confident performances and powerhouse voice helped Idol expand into the country space, and established her as a future Nashville hit-maker.
2. Fantasia Barrino (Season 3, Winner)
With a backstory worthy of a Lifetime movie and a voice that the word “unique” hardly does a millipart of justice to, Fantasia has taken a trip that ranks as one of the most potent Idol success stories. Her spine-tingling top-eight performance of “Summertime” still ranks as one of the show’s best, a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that she somehow managed to replicate for that year’s final episode, ensuring the crown and her place in Idol lore.
1. Kelly Clarkson (Season 1, Winner)
When American Idol launched, it had the subtitle The Search for a Superstar. If it had ended after Kelly Clarkson was crowned, in September 2002, it could have sat back with a sigh, content that it had fulfilled its mission. Clarkson’s run to the inaugural title wasn’t perfect; she could be pitchy and, sometimes, a bit too excited. But Idol’s viewership fell in love with her boisterous performances of “It’s Raining Men” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” and with good reason. She was, no joke, a cocktail waitress from Texas who had been goaded by her friends to try out on a lark, and she could sing her face off. Pop music is certainly better for her having won (just ask everyone who’s ripped off “Since U Been Gone” over the past decade-plus), and Idol couldn’t have had a better original victor. Clarkson was, and is, charming and bright, a true up-from-below success story made even sweeter by its protagonist’s effervescent charm and formidable pipes.
(Thanks to What Not To Sing for the Idol sabermetrics.)