The iconic “American Idol” returns to television tonight on a new network and new night. ABC adopted the talent show from FOX, after its ending in 2016. While many on the critical side agree that the wait should have been much longer before its return, the competition show is one of the best that ever graced our screens and paved the way for a plethora of talent in the music industry.
We’re going to use this opportunity to rank all fifteen winners and their best performances during their Idol run.
“American Idol” premieres Sunday, March 11 at 8:00 pm Eastern Time on ABC. Ryan Seacrest is back hosting with new judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Ritchie.
Check out the full rankings below:
15. Taylor Hicks, Season 5 (2006)
The grey-haired blues singer was a cute gimmick for a little while but in what is arguably the most talented season of the show’s history, it becomes even more baffling that he outlasted people like Mandisa, Chris Daughtry, Elliot Yamin, and runner-up Katharine McPhee. Since then, he’s been playing in bars and the occasional concert venues across America with a very dedicated fan base but never going beyond that. His moment of the show was during the Top 7 when he brought a nice rendition of “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke to the Idol stage. That night, Ace Young was sent packing.
14. Caleb Johnson, Season 13 (2014)
The “rocker” angle had been attempted many times and successfully captured by the likes of Chris Daughtry, David Cook, and others. When it came to Season 13 champ Caleb Johnson, he always struggled to show that he could do anything on the current music charts. Great at covering rock classics like “Pressure and Time” and “Faithfully” showed a nice vocal range but little else. In the end, he edged out one of the most talented voices in Idol history (Jena Irene) before releasing a debut album titled “Testify” that sold just 28,000 copies. Caleb’s defining moment on the show likely lands with his rendition of the Oscar-winning “Skyfall” by Adele.
13. Lee DeWyze, Season 9 (2010)
The final season in which the great and diabolical Simon Cowell graced the judges’ panel, Lee DeWyze was weirdly given such a push by the producers and by Cowell himself despite struggling to find a key in almost every number. While he managed to gain his footing in the middle of the season, he was the benefactor of a season that struggled to find credible artists (i.e. Tim Urban, Tyler Grady among them). Even contestants that didn’t make the Top 12 have found more of a career in the industry than the alternative DeWyze (look at Todrick Hall on Broadway). There are actually quite a bit of options to choose from for his defining moment of the show as “The Boxer” and his partnership with runner-up Crystal Bowersox on “Falling Slowly” were definitely in the running but it’s hard to not choose his Top 10 performance of “Treat Her Like a Lady” by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose for his breakout.
12. Trent Harmon, Season 15 (2016)
In all fairness, Trent Harmon is the final Idol winner when the show was on a downward spiral. Clearly not lacking in the vocal department, his post-Idol career has been aggressively muted. The now 27-year-old had a decent enough single post-Idol called “Falling” but only managed a Top 27 placement on the US Country charts. His time on the show was a coasting one in which his only competition LaPorsha Renae failed to close when it mattered but we’ll wait to see what he delivers in the future. Proving his worth on the show, you can’t look to anything else other than his rendition of “Chandelier” by Sia as one of the most iconic moments in the show’s history.
11. Nick Fradiani, Season 14 (2015)
This is a double-edged sword since Nick represents the 25+ club of winners when pitted against the younger, tween talents. Nick’s subdued personality was a struggle on the show and he delivered competent, consistent performances but never had the “WOW” moment that most Idol winners have on the show. Even most Idol-loonies like myself struggle to remember what he did on the show but his “Thinking Out Loud” remains one of his best moments. It’s also sad since that’s the week we lost the way more talented Quentin Alexander. Damn.
10. Scotty McCreery, Season 10 (2011)
This is the season I knew that the Idol I had grown to love for years was changing. It wasn’t just about the voices anymore. That much was clear as we saw the likes of Pia Toscano, Haley Reinhart, James Durbin, Casey Abrams, and runner-up Lauren Alaina fail to make it far enough on the show. McCreery’s deep, country vocals were a solid entry yet he never really got to show “artistry” in the way some musical talents to exhibit on shows like this. In fairness to Scotty, he’s one of the best selling Idol alums, especially on the winner’s side. He even has another studio album set to drop on March 16, just following the Season 16 premiere. Good timing. For a good Scotty-American Idol moment, I look at his work during the Top 9-Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Week when he took on “That’s All Right.”
9. Candice Glover, Season 12 (2013)
In the thirteen season of “American Idol,” the producers were determined to get another female winner since they had failed to do so since Season 6’s Jordin Sparks. So what they decided to do is litter the entire male side with hacks and boring wannabe singers. That’s what sours Candice Glover’s win so much as she could have truly delivered a truly captivating win against competent talent. What happened post-Idol is even more tragic as her debut album didn’t drop until 9 months following the finale. Why? Still trying to figure it out. Her run on the show though is one of the best of any winner and you can look down the line to things like “Ordinary People,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” and “Straight Up.” But if you’re looking for an indisputable Top 3 vocal work during the entire life of “American Idol,” zero in on the captivating work in “Love Song” during Love Songs week.
8. Kris Allen, Season 8 (2009)
If there was ever an underdog story during the show, Kris Allen has to be the one that comes to mind. In a season where the producers decided that Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert were going to be the final two, Allen fought his way through each week, delivering great performance after great performance. While his post-Idol career only has “Live Like We’re Dying,” “The Vision of Love,” and the underknown “The Truth,” Allen continues to shell out music and be an inspirational philanthropist. In regards to his time on the show, you have plenty of good stuff to choose from as “Remember the Time,” “Man in the Mirror,” “Falling Slowly,” and “Heartless” are truly masterful performances. I have a soft spot however for his work during the Top 9 Popular iTunes week when he worked out an amazing rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers.
7. Phillip Phillips, Season 11 (2012)
The likes of P² were well liked during the eleventh season but he was surrounded by some of the most unique talent and voices that the show ever discovered. It’s interesting to see Phillips go head-to-head with the angelic Jessica Sanchez and all the other talents that followed like Joshua Ledet, Erika Van Pelt, Skylar Laine, and Hollie Cavanagh. While he found moderate success following Idol, with a solid debut album (“The World from the Side of the Moon”), but his sophomore (“Behind the Light”) and recently released third (“Collateral”) outings didn’t capture the zeitgeist he way he had hoped. If only he had more vocals like he did on “Volcano,” his hands down best work on the show, then he would be the best selling person on the planet.
6. Ruben Studdard, Season 2 (2003)
This is one of those Idol winners that many may feel are ranked too low and while I enjoyed the hell out of Ruben Studdard post-Idol, his beating of runner-up Clay Aiken and a few inarguable duds during his Idol run places him in the middle of the pack. Studdard cemented his spot in the running when “Superstar” was his opening to the show (and even found a Grammy nomination later on). As we weave through the show’s history we walk through “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” and the epic “Flying Without Wings” and it’s hard to not be smitten by big Ru! Personally, I’ve always been most in love with his take on “A Whole New World” during Top 11-Movie Soundtracks week. A truly beautiful moment.
5. Jordin Sparks, Season 6 (2006)
For many early Idol fans, Season 6 marked the beginning of the end. Sites like DialIdol and Vote for the Worst were getting contestants like Sanjaya Malakar to a Top 7 finish despite being one of the worst singers in the competition (and the show’s history). For me, it was the first time I was truly invested in getting a person to the finish line. Jordin Sparks generated excitement, even when standing next to a vocal master like Melinda Doolittle. After Idol, she’s hit the airwaves with hits like “Battlefield” and “No Air.” She’s been dipping into film with “Sparkle” and Broadway with “In the Heights.” While she’s maneuvering through the industry, and continuing to find her niche, Sparks will also be remembered for her soulful, beautiful tone during “I (Who Have Nothing)” during British invasion week.
4. David Cook, Season 7 (2008)
“The Battle of the Davids™” was something the producers played until they were blue in the face. David Cook was able to do what Chris Daughtry and Bo Bice failed to do, have a rocker win “American Idol.” What’s great about Cook achieving it, is that he did it against the adorable-ness of David Archuleta and the dreadlocks of Jason Castro. After showing that he had vocal and artistry chops for days like in “Hello,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Always Be My Baby,” it all came to a head when Cook took on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” delivering for me, the single best performance in Idol history. It doesn’t get much better than that.
3. Fantasia Barrino, Season 3 (2004)
What’s beautiful about Fantasia’s historic win is that she fought her way all the way to the end. Never has a winner won the show with so many Bottom 3 or Bottom 2 appearances. During her year, we saw The Divas in the Bottom 3 together that consisted of Jennifer Hudson, LaToya London, and Fantasia herself, three contestants that were predicted to be the Top 3. It brought about questions of race and gender on the show for the very first time. It happened again later that season when LaToya London was sent packing with Barrino in the Bottom 2 with her despite an abysmal showing by Top 3 finisher Jasmine Trias. With 12 Grammy Nominations later, and one win, Barrino has proved to be an unstoppable force and should be around for years to come. You don’t believe me? Watch “Summertime,” a performance Simon Cowell himself called the best in the show’s history, and tell me you don’t believe she’s one of those special singers delivered only once in a while.
2. Carrie Underwood, Season 4 (2005)
Country artist, singer, songwriter, and actress, Carrie Underwood is beauty and brains all thrown into one. You wouldn’t have known it on Idol though. Simon Cowell saw her potential, honed it, and brought it for all Americans to see and love. She’s won 3 Grammys since then including Best New Artist and continues to be a force in the industry and someone that all future Idol contestants should aspire to be. On Idol, she was consistent albeit not necessarily “amazing” on every outing. When contestants like Bo Bice and Nadia Turner failed to capitalize on their audience, we had no choice but go with Idol’s first country winner. Listen, it’s not all bad though. Go back and look at her Top 11 performance “Alone” and hear Simon Cowell’s prediction and see how it came true.
- Kelly Clarkson, Season 1 (2002)
The summer after I graduated high school, Idol premiered. There’s nothing like the original. Kelly Clarkson is and remains the quintessential singing contestant on any singing competition show in the history of television. 14 Grammy nominations later with 3 wins under her belt, Clarkson is an undisputed force in the music industry and we’re just lucky to have her. Her best work on Idol? You can fight it out with “A Natural Woman,” “Without You,” and “I Surrender,” but I have a true appreciation for “Stuff Like That There” during Big Bands week.