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'Idol': 16 best performances ever

As season 8 begins, we revisit the great performances newcomers will try to measure up to — see how many of your favorites make the cut

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16. JASON CASTRO, ”Hallelujah” (Season 7)

Whether you loved or hated season 7’s most polarizing contestant, it was hard not to be moved by his gorgeous, heartfelt semifinal cover of Leonard Cohen’s ”Hallelujah.” True, the performance was marked by a couple of vocal glitches — Jason admitted as much by offering a goofy hint of a smile as he botched the closing note — but with his gentle wisp of a voice, the dreadlocked dude presented a radical alternative to the howling bombast that had been the hallmark of Fox’s reality juggernaut for six previous seasons, and in less than two minutes, changed the Idol game forever.

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15. RUBEN STUDDARD, ”Superstar” (Season 2)

There will always be fans who believe Ruben should have played runner-up to Clay, and certainly the Velvet Teddy Bear’s post-victory recordings (”Sorry 2004” — just sorry) haven’t won him any converts. But in today’s world of histrionic pop ballads, there’s something to be said for a beautiful song delivered with straightforward simplicity. With his soulful semifinal rendition of this classic Carpenters’ tune, Ruuuuben began his own journey to stardom that took him right to the Idol finals and beyond.

14. TRENYCE, ”Proud Mary” (Season 2)

”Sing like it’s the last time you’ll be on this stage,” Paula Abdul often tells the Idol finalists. And stylish, sultry Trenyce — who pretty much lost all chance of winning the Idol crown when her shoplifting mug shot popped up on The Smoking Gun website midway through season 2 — did exactly that with her final-week performance: a scorching, disco-fied take on ”Proud Mary.” As that big, growling voice connected with lyrics about a hardscrabble life on the river, Trenyce sounded every bit a winner.

13. DAVID COOK, ”Billie Jean” (Season 7)

Yeah, his slowed-down, guitar-edged take on Michael Jackson’s iconic pop-soul classic was inspired by Chris Cornell’s 2007 cover. But Cook’s pitch perfection, his explosive, tortured delivery, and yes, his savvy selection of a little-known arrangement that fit the week’s musical theme instantly turned him into season 7’s midterm front-runner. As for the haters and their silly indignation: Who’s got time when you’re busy giving a standing ”O”?

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12. CLAY AIKEN, ”Solitaire” (Season 2)

Quite possibly the most polarizing contestant in Idol history, Clay represents either the pinnacle of modern balladeering or the ultimate low in lite-pop affectation, depending on whom you ask. That said, his take on Neil Sedaka’s angsty ballad — moodily backlit for maximum impact — was as heartfelt as it was riveting, with not a single wonky note in the mix. As Sedaka himself sighed, ”I have lost my song forever to you; it will always be a Clay Aiken song.”

11. CARRIE UNDERWOOD, ”Alone” (Season 4)

Note to all future Idol wannabes: As far as the show is concerned, ”Alone” is property of Carrie Underwood. And if you’re flirting with the idea of tackling Heart’s booming anthem (like recent contestants Gina Glocksen and Ramiele Malubay), a trip to YouTube to check out Underwood’s season 4 rendition should be enough change your mind. Carrie’s brute-force power, her total vocal control, even her hair (teased to ’80s-era perfection) all combined to create a rousing coming-out party for the show’s most successful graduate. In other words, don’t try this at home, kids!

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10. JORDIN SPARKS, ”I (Who Have Nothing)” (Season 6)

Idol takes a lot of heat every season for saddling its young contestants with fusty old numbers written decades before they were born. But Jordin’s gut-wrenching rendition of the fortysomething ballad ”I (Who Have Nothing)” during British invasion week was downright revelatory, transforming the bubbly teen from a mid-pack player to a serious threat for the season 6 crown. With one incredible, anguished glory note, Jordin broke hearts and won fans across the nation, and in the process, silenced the deafening buzz about a presumed Melinda-LaKisha finale.

9. DAVID ARCHULETA, ”Imagine” (Season 7)

Cynics, grab your Kleenex. You know Paula Abdul wasn’t the only one with water in her eyes after the adorable Utah teen delivered a measured, powerful, and emotionally gripping take on John Lennon’s classic. Now wipe those tears, hit the replay button on this performance, and repeat.

8. MELINDA DOOLITTLE, ”My Funny Valentine” (Season 6)

Is it possible to perform too well on Idol? In the case of Melinda’s luscious semifinal cover of the timeless jazz standard, the answer is, quite possibly, yes. Indeed, with her flawless phrasing and modulation, the way she caressed and finessed every word and note of Rodgers and Hart’s gorgeous composition, Mindy Doo set the bar almost impossibly high for herself, and wound up as the season’s second runner-up. That said, now that you can download Melinda’s 2008 ”Funny” cover on iTunes, each day can once again be Valentine’s Day.

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7. CHRIS DAUGHTRY, ”Hemorrhage” (Season 5)

Fourth place, shmourth place! Daughtry’s rock-star destiny was as obvious as a Ryan Seacrest punch line by the second week of Idol‘s fifth-season semifinals, when the bald-headed dude dug into this Fuel song with the kind of polish and charisma usually exhibited only by headline acts at massive stadium shows. In a word, awesome.

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6. JENNIFER HUDSON, ”Circle of Life” (Season 3)

If only every week of Idol featured a display of manic commitment to the music, the way wild-eyed, big-voiced, eventual Oscar winner J. Hud did throughout her season 3 run. Watching her seize upon Elton John’s Lion King hymn like a lioness catching an impala made for a truly remarkable viewing experience. The Gospel inflection. The raised hand. The near swallowing of the microphone. All these things put Jennifer’s interpretation on a slippery slope, but she felt every word of the song so truly, madly, and deeply that resisting her became an exercise in futility.

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5. BO BICE, ”In a Dream” (Season 4)

Talk about cojones! Late in Idol‘s fourth season, when viewers knew things were coming down to a photo finish between country gal Carrie Underwood and Bice, the shaggy Alabama rocker set down the mic stand and delivered a searing a capella rendition of ”In a Dream,” a little-known ballad by Badlands. Sure, Bice ultimately took home the silver — and his sales haven’t come close to Underwood’s multi-platinum heights — but it’s impossible to forget (and it’d be criminal not to applaud) his bold artistic choice, which doubled as a nod to Idol‘s accompaniment-free audition rounds.

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4. BLAKE LEWIS, ”You Give Love a Bad Name” (Season 6)

So what if Blake’s vocals were the weakest of any top 2 contestant in Idol history? His audacious, thrilling, and wholly original reinvention of a cherished hair-metal anthem — complete with beatboxing and ”needle-on-the-record” pantomime — injected sleepy season 6 with a jolt of super-cool electronica and much-needed fun. For that alone, the guy really should have scored at least one hit from his underappreciated Audio Day Dream disc.

3. ELLIOTT YAMIN, ”A Song for You” (Season 5)

Okay, so it’s not all that hard to move Paula Abdul to tears — but getting Simon Cowell to compare your performance to ”a vocal masterclass,” that takes something beyond special, which is exactly how we’d describe Yamin’s flawless rendition of Donnie Hathaway’s classic. With his crooked smile and aw-shucks demeanor, Yamin was dogged by doubters throughout his Idol run, but for one night in the show’s terrific fifth season, ”A Song for You” made him a superstar — and very solid sales for his 2007 indie-label debut have kept the flame alive.

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2. KELLY CLARKSON, ”Stuff Like That There” (Season 1)

Some folks rail against the theme nights, which often force Idol contestants into new and unfamiliar musical genres, but they forget that big-band night helped make a star of the very first American Idol. Decked out in her black-and-white polka-dot dress and pearls, Kelly broke out a monster range that proved more than equal to the brassy, sassy ”Stuff Like That There,” making the dusty gem sound fresh and modern. And indeed, her ability to raise even the sleepiest numbers (”A Moment Like This,” ”Miss Independent”) to pop relevance helped Kelly make the early transition from TV-show novelty act to formidable ”Since U Been Gone” chart-topper.

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1. FANTASIA BARRINO, ”Summertime” (Season 3)

On a soundtrack-themed night filled with covers of Whitney, Celine, and Phil Collins, Fantasia took a completely different path, choosing the haunting lullaby ”Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess, a song she said she’d never heard prior to the competition. Yet, crouched on the stage and singing with a raw emotion that drew comparisons to a young Aretha, Fantasia moved not only herself to tears but a large chunk of the viewing audience as well. If you were lucky enough to catch her performance, then you know you witnessed a moment of true musical magic, one that future Idol finalists can only hope to match.