'American Idol' Best Performances, Ranked

Who hasn’t dreamed of packing a 55,000 person stadium, grabbing a microphone and singing “Dream On” in a perfect Steven Tyler pitch that has everyone screaming and adoring fans crying? Singing competition series “American Idol” has given young talent that opportunity for 18 seasons so far.

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Since first debuting on Fox in 2002 with Kelly Clarkson became the nation’s darling, other major successes have followed in her footsteps, including Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Jordin Sparks and Ruben Studdard. Even when contestants didn’t win, they could go on to fruitful careers (see: Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson).

Although show ended its 15-season run on Fox in 2016, it re-emerged on ABC just two years later. Now, “Idol” is entering into its 19th season overall (fourth on ABC) on Feb. 14.

Looking ahead to that upcoming season and the next wave of musical talent (including perhaps Claudia Conway?) hoping to make an impression in this cutthroat business, Variety reflects on and ranks the Top 20 best performances in “Idol” history so far.

Honorable mentions: David Archuleta (“Imagine” by John Lennon), Janelle Arthur (“You Keep Me Hanging On” by The Supremes), Jason Castro (“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen), Casey James (“Jealous Guy” by John Lennon), Siobhan Magnus (“Paint it Black” by The Rolling Stones), Jordin Sparks (“I, Who Have Nothing” by Tom Jones), Ruben Studdard (“A Whole New World” from “Aladdin”), Pia Toscano (“I’ll Stand By You” by The Pretenders)

20. Stefano Langone – ‘I Need You Now’

Season: 10
Episode: Wild Card
Place Finished: 7th

Original Music Artist: Smokie Norful

The Italian Washington native may not have had the most memorable or successful “Idol” run, and will always be synonymous with standing next to Toscano the week she was shockingly eliminated in ninth place. Langone had a very moving performance before all of that, though, when he failed to make the Top 5 men after an uneven vocal on “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars. He came out swinging with a very unexpected and unknown track from Smokie Norful, “I Need You Now.” When your spot on a show depends on the next 90 seconds, the Lord can move through you.

19. Michael J. Woodard – ‘Titanium’

Season: 16
Episode: Top 14 (Contestant’s Choice)
Place Finished: 5th

Original Music Artist: David Guetta and Sia

I have always had a soft spot for the contestants who stand out from the others with their quirks and eccentric performing methods. The Philadelphia native took the stage in his janitor outfits, tweaking his neck right after a beautiful note, and I loved him even more for it. “Titanium” is one of those songs that is very tied to the original artist and has difficulty being “reinterpreted” for a different sound. Our young Woodard found the way, though. With all the love for the season winner Maddie Poppe, the two would have been an interesting matchup.

18. Melinda Doolittle – ‘There Will Come a Day’

Season: 6
Episode: Top 6 (Life Anthems-Idol Gives Back)
Place Finished: 3rd

Original Music Artist: Faith Hill

In the fast-paced, week-to-week grind of the competition series, I’m not sure you can find a more consistent contestant during the show’s run than former backup singer Doolittle. Taking on “message” songs to raise funds for charity can often make someone seem like they’re trying too hard. Instead, the Tennessee native made it all effortless with Hill’s powerful song, which probably wasn’t as well-known by audience members who were not already fans of the country genre. They were now. Take a moment and go through her “Idol” weeks overall for more gems; her Doolittle’s third-place finish was criminal.

17. Carrie Underwood – ‘Alone’

Season: 4
Episode: Final 11 (Billboard #1 Hits)
Place Finished: 1st (Winner)

Original Music Artist: Heart

We can have a vigorous debate about who the best “Idol” winner of all-time is, as there is clearly a Clarkson camp and an Underwood camp in the “Idol”-sphere. But Underwood’s teased out hair, ’80s look and power vocal chops gave Heart’s signature number new life, introducing it to a new generation of music lovers.

16. Crystal Bowersox – ‘Long as I Can See the Light’

Season: 9
Episode: Final 20 (Billboard Charts Week)
Place Finished: 2nd

Original Music Artist: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Ohio’s charismatic vocalist that would go on to be affectionately called “Mama Sox” almost had to drop out of the competition the day she delivered this outstanding performance. (She ended up in the emergency room due to complications with diabetes.) Not holding anything back, there was nothing that could stop her pathway to the finale stage, though she would eventually lose to Lee DeWyze (not our finest moment, America).

15. Nadia Turner – ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’

Season: 4
Episode: Top 12 (the 1960s)
Place Finished: 8th

Original Music Artist: Dusty Springfield

Turner may not very well known to many. Still, during the Underwood and Bo Bice battle for America’s hearts, a native Florida woman had the flavor of India Arie and an infusion of a rock goddess. On a trajectory that made it seem she was destined for a finale spot, she would misstep for the next four weeks before exiting tragically early. We’ll always have the immaculate phrasing and chills from her taking a 1960s song and bringing it to the modern-day. You can still find the studio version on Spotify and it has those same flavors.

14. Michael Johns – ‘It’s All Wrong But It’s Alright’

Season: 7
Episode: Final 9 (Dolly Parton Week)
Place Finished: 8th

Original Music Artist: Dolly Parton

There are so many things wrapped into this performance that had a profound effect on the show. After the Australian native’s showstopping vocal on this song of Parton’s, there was the feeling that he was destined for a top-three-run. Unfortunately, Johns would be eliminated just one week later after giving an only OK version of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” during “Idol Gives Back.” His elimination would give birth to the “Idol save,” the one time per season the judges would get to undo an oversight by the voting public. That’s how greats like Matt Giraud, Casey Abrams and Jessica Sanchez were able to stay around for a few more weeks. Johns passed away Aug. 1 at the age of 35 of dilated cardiomyopathy.

13. Bo Bice – ‘In a Dream’

Season: 4
Episode: Final 3 (Idol’s Choice / Clive’s Choice / Judge’s Choice)
Place Finished: 2nd (Runner-up)

Original Music Artist: Badlands

The machine of “Idol” often tries to control the artistry of the musicians that compete on the show that would determine whether Bice, Vonzell Solomon and Underwood would advance to the finale, the judges chose a predictable “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones while Clive Barker selected Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” which is one of the most overused songs on singing shows. Leave to Bice to know who he was as an artist and sing the acapella version of Badlands’ “In a Dream” under a white light. Too perfect.

12. LaToya London – ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’

Season: 5
Episode: Final 5 (Big Band)
Place Finished: 4th

Original Music Artist: Barbra Streisand

I love Fantasia, and her career has been exciting and inspirational to watch, but back in 2004 I was rooting for the heavenly London to take the third season title. Never having an “off week,” despite what the three bottom three appearances told you, she had all the goods to win the title. That thought was cemented even further when she gave a back-to-back vocal masterclass during Big Band Week, wherein the middle of the lineup gave us “Too Close for Comfort” by Sammy Davis Jr and the boisterous sounds of Streisand’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” (The very next week, America did rain on it. Sometimes we don’t deserve nice things.)

11. Elliott Yamin – ‘A Song for You’

Season: 5
Episode: Final 6 (Love Songs)
Place Finished: 3rd

Original Music Artist: Leon Russell (most notably inspired by Donny Hathaway for Yamin)

There may be many male performances from the “Idol” machine ranked higher, but I believe the Virginia native Yamin might be the single best male vocalist of the show’s history. There were a few of his performances that heavily contended for a spot, such as his “Moody’s Mood for Love” during the Top 20 or “Trouble” during Elvis Presley week. However, Hathaway is one of the greatest musical artists of all-time and Yamin came very close to capturing that signature sound, utterly making it his own.


10. Kris Allen – ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ (Reprise)

Season: 8
Episode: Top 2 (Finale)
Place Finished: 1st (WINNER)

Original Music Artist: Bill Withers

The guy who beat Lambert got some flack in the internet world as one of the biggest upsets in the show’s history but his body of work on the show was equally as impressive to the glam rocker. With moments that included “She Works Hard for the Money” during Disco Night and “Falling Slowly” from the film “Once” during Songs from the Cinema, Allen’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Reprise), is one of the few performances that slightly outdid his previous Top 9 turn during “Top iTunes Downloads” week. I recall downloading the studio version and listening to it on repeat commuting back and forth to work.

9. Trent Harmon – ‘Chandelier’

Season: 15
Episode: Final 5 (Rock and Sia Week)
Place Finished: 1st (WINNER)

Original Music Artist: Sia

Before Sia was trying her hand at directing the Golden Globe nominated “Music,” she mentored the Top 5 of Season 15. One of them was the eventual winner Harmon — a title that was likely sewed up on this night, when he delivered a haunting interpretation of her signature number “Chandelier.” He would do it again against La’Porsha Renae at the finale, reminding the world why he was there in the first place. Well played.

8. Allison Iraheta – ‘Alone’

Season: 8
Episode: Semi-Finals Group 2 (Billboard Top 100)
Place Finished: 4th

Original Music Artist: Heart

Two performances of “Alone” on this list? Yes, and they couldn’t be more different from one another. The California Latina came guns blazing in her first performance on the Idol stage, where 12 contestants were vying for the Top 3 highest vote-getters to advance to the Top 12, later becoming the Top 13. She earned that spot and more with this vocal, sensationally executed, and proof that America was robbed of a Lambert-Iraheta finale that would have rocked the planet.

7. Jena Irene – ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’

Season: 13
Episode: Final Four (Breakups and Makeups)
Place Finished: 2nd

Original Music Artist: Elvis Prestley (UB40 version)

To think that Irene had to be a wildcard spot to advance in the competition! The singer-songwriter was young in age but not in her vocal interpretation of songs decades older than her: she understood an old soul’s subject matter. Her piano playing only elevated her buttery chords, leaving an indelible impression on America and the judges. We should all be lucky to have Irene’s original songs playing on our radios today.

6. Adam Lambert – ‘Mad World’

Season: 8
Episode: Top 8 (Year You Were Born)
Place Finished: 2nd

Original Music Artist: Tears for Fears

There are a few reasons why Lambert’s melancholic and haunting version of “Mad World” is iconic. I’m fairly certain it was the very first performance that judge Simon Cowell gave a standing ovation up to that point. In the time of DVR not having the failsafe in place for when a LIVE broadcast ran over its allotted time, this was unfortunately a moment that was cut short for many viewers. The show replayed it during the results episode the next night, technology has advanced significantly since then and Lambert has gone onto be the star this performance proved was his destiny.

5. Haley Reinhart – ‘House of the Rising Sun’

Season: 10
Episode: Top 5 (Now And Then)
Place Finished: 3rd

Original Music Artist: The Animals

While “Idol” has found some of the most exciting artists in music, they have had issues with what has seemed like “favoritism” for many contestants over others. One of the stains on the “American Idol” legacy is how it would show in the early exposure during their audition process or certain contestants having prime slots in the performance lineup (look at any Top 12 and see who goes second or third). In addition, you can see judges heavily criticizing one contestant for “flaws” but ignoring others. Season 10’s Haley Reinhart’s time looked semi-promising, with some early stumbles in the first four weeks of the live shows. And then like a phoenix, emerged as one of the defining contestants in the show’s existence. Her interpretation and raspy vocals had never been put to better use than her rendition of The Animals’ classic. When done with this, go listen to her versions of “Bennie & the Jets” from Elton John, “Beautiful” from Carole King and “What Is and What Should Never Be” by Led Zepplin, too.

4. Candice Glover – ‘Love Song’

Season: 12
Episode: Top 6 (Burt Bacharach / Wish You Wrote)
Place Finished: 1st place (WINNER)

Original Music Artist: The Cure (Adele cover arrangement)

In Season 12, “Idol” producers seemed determined to have another female winner since the show had failed to garner one since Sparks in Season 6. Glover may not have capitalized on her “Idol” career to the best of her ability, with her debut album not dropping until nine months after the finale, but her sensational take on The Cure classic, most fondly remembered on the “50 First Dates” soundtrack, had judge Randy Jackson declaring “one of the best vocals in 12 seasons on ‘American Idol.’” The “dawg” was right.

3. Fantasia Barrino – ‘Summertime’

Season: 3
Episode: Top 8 (Movie Songs)
Place Finished: 1st place (WINNER)

Original Music Artist: Gershwin from “Porgy and Bess”

What’s beautiful about Barrino’s historic win is how she fought her way to the finale stage. Never has an “Idol” winner won the show with so many Bottom 3 or Bottom 2 appearances. (During her season, we saw “The Divas,” consisting of Barrino, Hudson and London, egregiously in the Bottom 3, sparking a public backlash and causing Sir Elton John to call the show “racist.”) These events came one week after Barrino delivered what Cowell called his “favorite performance of the entire history of the show.” “Summertime” is a classic in “Idol” cannon, and it kicked off a cool trend of performing big numbers from the floor of the stage, duplicated by Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”), another powerhouse vocal.

2. Kelly Clarkson – ‘A Natural Woman’

Season: 1
Episode: Top 8 (the 1960s)
Place Finished: 1st place (WINNER)

Original Music Artist: Aretha Franklin

Clarkson’s stunning post-“Idol” career has resulted in sold-out concerts, Grammys and now a hit talk show, but her signature moment on the inaugural season of this reality competition series was is hotly debated. If you throw out “Stuff Like That There” during Big Band night or her first performance of “Respect” that got her voted into the Top 10, you wouldn’t be wrong. Her take on another Franklin classic showed everything she could do vocally and that she wasn’t all personality and looks — that she was a force to be reckoned with — though. That high note on “alive” still makes me faint.

1. David Cook – ‘Billie Jean’

Season: 7
Episode: Top 10 (Year You Were Born)
Place Finished: 1st place (WINNER)

Original Music Artist: Michael Jackson (Chris Cornell cover arrangement)

“The Battle of the Davids™” was everywhere in the show’s seventh season. Still, Cook emerged victoriously, delivering showstopping arrangements on songs like “Hello” by Lionel Richie, “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles and “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey. In his rendition of “Billie Jean” by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, utilizing rocker Chris Cornell’s epic arrangement, Cook found the haunting and methodical nature of the lyrics, slowing it down considerably, and building to monumental high note that reached the stratosphere. His run on the show is damn near flawless in the Idolsphere, and it was in this moment when the entire narrative of season 7 that had preordained the young David Archuleta the next Idol had shifted. Finding a musically relevant artist on Idol is never easy. While Cook may not the topping the charts today, his authenticity to his genre has always been seen now and during his time on the competition series. “Billie Jean” is one of the few moments on television that defines an era, and in this, “American Idol” had reached its peak.

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