'American Idol': 15 Best Auditions Ever!
15. David Cook, ''Livin' on a Prayer'' (Season 7)
Okay, so the season 7 champ was sporting a goofy fauxhawk and unfortunate red highlights when he busted out some Bon Jovi in a nondescript conference room in Omaha, NE. But close your eyes and listen to the unexpected choices Cookie makes with the song's tempo and melody, and you'll get a glimpse of the distinctive, daring re-arranger who inspired a nation of speed-dialers and changed the Idol game forever, and for the better.
14. Megan Joy, ''Can't Help Loving 'Dat Man'' (Season 8)
The quirky, tattooed beauty got her moment in front of the judges on her twenty-third birthday — but it was Simon, Paula, Kara, and Randy who received a gift, in the form of Megan's jazzy, jaunty twist on a classic from the musical Show Boat. ''You're different. You are one of the few I'm gonna remember,'' Mr. Cowell declared. And almost a year since said audition aired, we still completely concur.
13. Sundance Head, ''Stormy Monday''/Chris Sligh, ''Kiss From a Rose'' (season 6)
Sundance and Chris made similar first impressions in American Idol season 6: They were burly, affable, and controversially groomed (hedgehog goatee and Sideshow Bob curls, respectively). But by the time each man was done, it was his voice that mattered most. Sundance's soulful ''Stormy Monday'' had fans predicting he'd crack the top 12 easily (alas, he got booted in the final week of semifinals), while eventual tenth-place finisher Chris boasted that his lovely ''Kiss From a Rose'' had Paula crumbling in his ''chubby little hands.''
12. Fantasia Barrino, ''Proud Mary'' (season 3)
You don't see too many Idol wannabes audition with up-tempo numbers, and with good reason: It's hard enough to stay on key before Simon, Paula, and Randy without having to worry about rhythm. That's why Fantasia's effortless cover of the CCR/Tina Turner show-stopper is so memorable. Accompanied only by the steady snap of her own fingers, the season-three winner proved she was a force to be reckoned with from the very first note of her Idol journey.
11. Kimberley Locke, ''Somewhere Over the Rainbow'' (season 2)
Idol's eight-season history is littered with big-voiced divas straining to hit their glory notes. But none have been showier — or more successful — than third-place finisher Kimberley's soaring yet controlled reinterpretation of the Wizard of Oz classic. Forget Simon's backhanded compliment about Kimberley championing ''vocals over image'' — any way you look at it, the woman's audition is a beauty.
10. Justin Guarini, ''Who's Lovin' You'' (season 1)
He's been reduced to an Idol punch line, thanks to his anemic record sales and a starring role in the wretched From Justin to Kelly, but watch the guy's seamless, self-assured audition again with fresh eyes. As Simon himself points out, it's a privilege to sit back and listen to undiscovered talent this terrific.
9. Taylor Hicks, ''A Change Is Gonna Come''/''Swanee River Rock'' (season 5)
It was all right there from the beginning: The soulful rasp, the signature gray locks, the spastic dancing. Randy and Paula loved it; Simon loathed it. But whether you're in the former camp and cheered Taylor on to his season-five crown, or the latter (Simon voted against sending Taylor to Hollywood and insisted he ''should be singing backgrounds''), it's impossible to forget exactly how ''Soul Patrol'' became a part of the Idol lexicon.
8. Leneshe Young, ''Nati'' (Season 8)
An overly long segment on Leneshe's family struggling with homelessness — combined with the young woman's declaration that she was planning to audition with a song she penned herself — gave us momentary train-wreck vibes. But the minute this teenager opened her mouth and sang — a jaunty, radio-ready number dealing with romance in her hometown of Cincinnati — we were blown away in the best way possible. A year later, we're still fuming: How come this gal didn't crack the top 36?
7. Brandon Rogers, ''Always on My Mind'' (season 6)
If Idol's sixth season was the one that never really got off the ground, then Brandon was its poster child. His ''Always on My Mind'' had luxurious tone and emotional depth — and his runway-ready good looks didn't hurt, either. Nope, the dude never fulfilled his early promise (not even close!), but his audition was a rare moment of perfection in a Sanjaya-led year of calamity.
6. Kelly Clarkson, ''Express Yourself'' (season 1)*
Interestingly enough, viewers of American Idol's first season never got to see eventual winner Kelly's fresh twist on Madonna's ode to female empowerment, not until after she'd advanced to the semifinals — hence, an asterisk on this one. But that doesn't mean the bubbly young Texan's audition wasn't championship material. Indeed, from her arrival in a shirt sewn out of a pair of jeans (how very Project Runway!) to her seat-swapping antics with Randy to her Simon-prompted diss of Ryan Seacrest's hair (''you have to fix your highlights!''), Kelly's first small steps toward her crown were among her most entertaining.
5. Tami Gosnell, ''Whipping Post'' (Season 6)
Tami's ferocious, fearless Allman Brothers cover was a shock of Earth-goddess realness on a show that can still veer toward pageant-esque horror. Sadly, the judges cut the affable pedicab driver from Colorado during the ''elevator of doom'' episode — immediately before passing the power to the voting public. Had they put Tami in the top 24, though, perhaps the woman Simon said had the vibe of ''someone who'd have been a big star in the '60s'' might've proven there's still an appetite for a modern-day Janis Joplin.
4. Carrie Underwood, ''I Can't Make You Love Me'' (season 4)
She was the fresh-faced farm girl who spent her days feeding cows and had never been on a plane. But when Carrie got in front of the judges and belted out Bonnie Raitt's most heartbreaking number, you didn't need a crystal ball to predict her multiplatinum future. Sure, Randy suggested that Carrie ''work a little bit more on the emotion and the stage presence,'' but even without stylists and vocal coaches and big-stage experience in her corner, the young lady from Oklahoma already had the competition in her denim pocket.
3. Josiah Leming, ''To Run''/''Chasing Cars'' (Season 7)
Yes, Josiah ended up having a full-scale meltdown during Hollywood Week, but there's no denying that the kid who lived in his car — and broke into a British accent to deliver a self-penned ditty as well as a ubiquitous Snow Patrol hit — gave us one of the show's most unforgettable auditions. His post-Idol deal with Warner Bros. Records yielded the 2010 album,Come On Kid.
2. Frenchie Davis, ''And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going'' (season 2)
Oh, what might have been had Frenchie not been DQ'd from the competition over those racy modeling photos that popped up on the Internet. Indeed, as the curvaceous songbird coyly told Ryan Seacrest before her audition: ''I can sing...and I'm cute!'' And what an understatement! Her Earth-shattering version of Dreamgirls' signature number was enough to score a round of applause even from crusty Simon. Which raises the question: How long must we wait till she scores a major-label deal?
1. Paris Bennett, ''Cowboy Take Me Away''/''Take Five'' (season 5)
If every night had been ''Jazz Standards Night'' on season five, Paris might've gone further than her fifth-place finish. As it was, though, the occasionally too-precious teenager hit her peak on her very first trip before the Idol cameras, delivering a one-two country-blues punch so nuanced and lovely, it left a stunned Simon asking, ''Where have you been hiding?'' Indeed, for once, we were making weird squealing noises right along with Paula.