'American Idol': The 20 Best Performances Ever
20. CARLY SMITHSON, ''Superstar'' (Season 7)
She'd been knocked around for weeks by Simon Cowell, but Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber turned that all around, insisting the Irish songbird switch from what he described as the ''girly'' ballad ''All I Ask of You'' to the raucous, rousing title track from Jesus Christ Superstar. ''You've got to go for a song you can inhabit!'' the guest mentor exclaimed, and indeed, Carly did exactly that, detonating her nerves and delivering a blistering vocal that had Simon smiling, Paula on her feet, and Carly's fan base finally getting the performance they'd been expecting all season long.
19. 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 Idol'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.
18. TRENYCE, ''Proud Mary'' (Season 2)
''Sing like it's the last time you'll be on this stage,'' Paula Abdul often told 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, discofied 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.
17. 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.
16. 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.
15. 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.''
14. 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.
13. CARRIE UNDERWOOD, ''Alone'' (Season 4)
Note to all future Idol wannabes (except Allison Iraheta): 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 subsequent 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 multiplatinum graduate. In other words, don't try this at home, kids!
12. ALLISON IRAHETA, ''Cry Baby,'' Exit Performance (Season 8)
Like Mommie Dearest, Allison never got the respect she was entitled to — at least not from Simon, Randy, Paula, and Kara. So it was fitting, then, that she gave her most breathtaking performance just moments after she was eliminated from the competition — and was finally freed from the ridiculousness of the judges' season-long griping about her clothing, her personality, and blah blah blah. Tears streaming down her face, The Rocker attacked Janis Joplin's legendary ballad with a ferocity that belied her tender age. The awesome wail that closed her performance was pure and satisfying catharsis — not just for herself, but for her shell-shocked, adoring fan base. Epic on every possible level.
11. 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?
10. 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.
9. CHRIS DAUGHTRY, ''Hemorrhage (In My Hands)'' (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.
8. 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 master class,'' 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.
7. 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.
6. KRIS ALLEN, ''Heartless'' (Season 8)
It was the final week before the season 8 finale, and Kris found himself in the position of plucky upstart, trying to thwart the judges' dream of a Danny Gokey vs. Adam Lambert matchup. He needed to be vocally flawless. He needed to be artistically inventive. But nobody would've said he needed to cover Kanye West. That, however, is exactly what the Arkansas native did; clad in a sparkly black Henley, Kris took an R&B ditty that had been performed on the Idol stage by the original artist only a couple months prior, stripped it down to its acoustic bones, and made the lyrics come to life in a way they never could have through the cold filter of a vocoder. You could tell from Kris' sly grin going into the final chorus that he achieved exactly what he set out to do: Prove to Simon (and the Idol audience) that he possessed the killer instinct, the creativity, and yes, the vocal firepower to make it to the Nokia. And that's exactly what he ended up doing.
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 multiplatinum 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.
4. BLAKE LEWIS, ''You Give Love a Bad Name'' (Season 6)
So what if Blake's pipes were the least powerful 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 supercool electronica and much-needed fun. Not only that, ''Bad Name'' set the template for subsequent Idol innovators like David Cook, Kris Allen, and Adam Lambert — and turned the Idol knob decisively away from ''karaoke'' and firmly toward ''artistry.''
3. ADAM LAMBERT, ''Mad World'' (Season 8)
Sure, Adam's interpretation of Gary Jules' cover of a minor Tears for Fears hit was vocally flawless. But that was pretty much par for the course during the season 8 runner-up's Idol run. What made ''Mad World'' so absolutely electrifying was the way Adam connected emotionally with the material. As he delivered the lines ''I went to school and I was very nervous/No one knew me, no one knew me,'' Adam, bathed in blue light, managed to tap into that wellspring of pain and insecurity that pretty much every person on the planet has felt at one time or another: The kid at school who can't find anyone to sit with in the cafeteria. The panic-stricken worker in the first week at a new job. The guest who shows up at a party and realizes, ''Oh, crap! I don't know anyone here but the host.'' There's something really special about a musical performance that can transport you to any number of places or scenarios. In the end, I think the British judge's standing ovation said it all.
2. KELLY CLARKSON, ''Stuff Like That There'' (Season 1)
Some folks rail against the show's theme weeks, which often force Idol contestants into new and unfamiliar musical genres, but they forget that Big Band Week 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.
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.