The 15 Greatest ‘American Idol’ Performances Season by Season
Ready or not, here comes American Idol Sunday, March 11, retooled with a new network in ABC and fresh trio of judges in Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie. The only mainstay, longtime host Ryan Seacrest, is currently awash in controversy surrounding claims of sexual harassment from a former stylist.
Luckily, Idol has always ultimately been about the singers: the thousands of unknown amateurs who show up to cattle calls in hope of ensnaring our voting favor and launching their musical careers. Before Idol signed off on FOX in 2016, it birthed 15 winners and produced dozens of truly memorable moments.
So as Idol prepares to embark on Act II (for better or worse), let's celebrate some of the best cover songs this ratings juggernaut of old has bestowed upon us. Here are the greatest performances from all 15 American Idol years, beginning with the most recent season.
The fifteenth final season Idol on Fox aired in 2016 and actually featured the best talent pool in years, despite a steady decline in ratings. But the one truly viral and incredible moment for the last season was when OG Idol Kelly Clarkson returned as a guest judge and sang her poignant and exceedingly emotional ballad “Piece By Piece.” She was crying, Keith Urban was crying, the contestants were crying, We were crying.
The penultimate season was perhaps the least impressive batch of singers the show ever rolled out, but Tennessee soul singer Clark Beckham was the lone shining light. In “Kelly Clarkson Week” he broke out this throwback ballad and really put a hot, gritty charge into it. He fizzled near the end and lost in the finale to boring Nick Fradiani (who?) but Beckham had some fun moments on Idol.
From wire-to-wire, the bombastic North Carolina classic rocker Caleb Johnson — who went on to win Season 13 — was the frontrunner, but always inserting herself was runner-up Jena Irene, who made huge strides near the end of the season and was great as a balladier/pianist hybrid. This pop-ballad cover of a classic Elvis song was Idol 2013’s most stellar moment.
Some will remember this as the season tainted by judges’ feuding — Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey really didn’t get along. But winner Candice Glover, the pop-soul singer from South Carolina, was dynamic and slayed all season long. Her best was this basically flawless rendition of “I (Who Have Nothing)” — that run near the end of the song is amazing.
In our Idol super-nerd opinion, 2012 was the last truly great season, with at least a half-dozen all-time great contestants (Joshua Ledet, Hollie Cavanagh, Colton Dixon) and the season-long battle between eventually — and deserving — winner Phillip Phillips and teen phenom Jessica Sanchez, who was pound-for-pound one of the best Idol contestants ever. Her mammoth finale rendition of “And I Am TellIng You,” with original Dreamgirl Jennifer Holliday, is a performance we still go back and regularly watch. So, so good.
Top-to-bottom this was a strong rebound season for Idol with a handful of worthy and interesting contenders (Casey Abrams, Jacob Lusk, and Pia Toscano — who was eliminated waaay too early) plus the teen country duel between winner Scotty McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina. But third-place finisher Haley Reinhart was terrific as a Janis-Joplin-lovin’ soul-rock singer and she shined brightest in this memorable take on “House Of The Rising Sun.” Gotta love that rasp.
2010 was as unmemorable as Idol ever was, with a lackluster crop of singers and a brutally boring winner in Lee DeWyze. Oh yeah, and Ellen was a judge. Most of us assumed old-school and dreadlocked Ohio wailer Crystal Bowersox would walk away with the crown, and this very good rendition of Patty Griffin’s classic ballad was one of the season’s few knockout performances.
How did Adam Lambert lose American Idol? Put little clap emojis between all those words because the fact that Lambert — a total ringer and maybe the strongest male vocalist Idol ever saw — lost to good-but-not-great Kris Allen still keeps me up at night. Anyway, his most memorable showstopper was his insanely good and nuanced take on “Mad World.”
Back in 2008, it seemed like wholesome little balladier David Archuleta was made for Idol. The kid was beloved all season and even though he wore out his white-bread welcome at the end and rocker David Cook swooped in for the win, Archuleta delivered a moving cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” earlier in the season.
Season 6 victor Jordin Sparks was great and all, but we'll always remember this one as the year of beatboxer and runner-up Blake Lewis and his unforgettable revamps of classic songs. His vocal trickery to mimic a record dropping and needle scratching on this Bon Jovi hit — plus the big beatbox and drum breakdown in the middle — have always stuck out, even though he wasn’t the strongest singer.
I’m a firm believer that Chris Daughtry’s shocking early exit and Taylor Hicks’ upset win over Katharine McPhee in Season 5 sparked the long Idol decline, and while Daughtry turned in a long list of killer, gritty vocals in 2006, I’d say his calling card was his pumped up Johnny Cash tune and I’d also say I still have a copy of Daughtry the band’s debut CD somewhere.
Oh, to return to the days of Idol’s pop-culture phenomenon status, where all anyone could talk about was who they were voting for, Carrie Underwood or Bo Bice. Those were simpler times and Underwood was Oklahoma dynamite on that stage. As one of the program’s golden children she maintains a handful of major memories, but her bounding take on “Alone,” plus that gloriously moussed hair, established her as a force — this was the performance where Simon Cowell correctly proclaimed she’d win and sell more records than any other Idol winner.
You can look at Season 3 of Idol two ways: you can view it as the year that Jennifer Hudson was unjustly eliminated in the Top 7 — in retrospect, this is easily the most jarring upset in Idol history. Or you can see it as star-making moment for Fantasia Barrino, who was near-perfect sitting on the stage and singing Gershwin here. Judge Randy Jackson said for years afterward that this was his favorite Idol performance of all time.
Be honest: were you Team Ruben or Team Clay? Both were enjoyable back in 2003, but felt Aiken was the superior pure singer, even if he was far from pop star material. Simon and Garfunkel was right in Clay’s wheelhouse and with a whole gospel choir in tow, he sang this classic tune beautifully.
It’s been so long since American Idol’s maiden voyage, you forget just how freaking amazing Kelly Clarkson was on this show. She was a 20-year-old unknown waitress from Texas who in a few months became a household name, launched a primetime juggernaut and was as good as any female singer has ever been in 15 years of Idol. But let’s look at her least perfect performance, sang moments after she was announced as winner, fighting back tears and unveiling a new chapter in television and, of course, her own life.