We’ve reached #IdolFinale week, and as I write this post, 50+ Idol alumni are rehearsing in Los Angeles for the finale on Thursday. Here’s a pretty millennial sentence for you: American Idol’s Snapchat is taking us backstage of the finale rehearsals, and thanks to alumni shout-outs from Season 2’s Kimberly Locke, to Season 6’s Melinda Doolittle, and more, I am instantly nostalgic about these past 15 years. Looking back at Idol’s tenure and re-watching old clips on YouTube, it’s dawned on me just how much this show has been a part of my life.
I’ll miss the sense of community Idol formed, from the engaged viewership voting week to week, to music and TV critics and bloggers, to the contestants themselves. What makes this show so special is that we, the viewers, have a sense of ownership of these contestants. We’ve supported and invested in their artistic growth. We journeyed along with them from their obscurity to stardom. We fell in love with their stories and for a brief moment of confetti, the American Dream felt real.
For myself and my Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, we’ve lived and breathed Idol for half our lives. We’ve had lengthy Gchat debates after each episode. We’ve blogged and blogged and blogged about this show. We auditioned for Idol Season 10 together at AT&T Park. We’ve attended Idol tours and concerts. We participated in online Fantasy Leagues. I even won an iPod Nano in a Fantasy League once… which I traded in for cash to buy Idol concert tickets. Between the two of us, we’ve seen all the Idol winners perform live, excluding Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Phillip Phillips, and Nick Fradiani (sorry, boys!). So yes, we’re Idol geeks, and my heart belongs to this silly show.
So without further ado, here are our 30 favorite American Idol performances: 15 from me, 15 from the other Jonathan. You know, to celebrate Idol’s 15 seasons.
This isn’t a list of the 30 “Best” American Idol performances, mind you. These are the moments that have stayed with us all these years and will for years to come, until Idol is inevitably rebooted.
JONATHAN AMORES’ 15 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES
1. Kris Allen: “Heartless” (Season 8)
Seasons 7 and 8 were peak Idol. The show didn’t just find a great group of singers those years, but it showcased a diverse range of memorable musicians who delivered surprises in different styles each week. For me, Idol reached the apex at Season 8’s Top 3 night. Kris Allen was going up against the brilliant risk-taker Adam Lambert and the perpetually frustrating Danny Gokey. The week before, Danny performed an abysmal “Dream On” and miraculously survived elimination. If he managed to outlast the sublime Allison Iraheta with that train-wreck, he would certainly derail Kris. No pressure, Kris…
“Heartless” was the right song at the right time. Not only was it a killer acoustic performance, it was a seismic shift that rocked Idol viewers. Kris’ a cappella intro into soared through the air and he began to accompany himself on guitar. A few more bars in, and you realize, “Oh damn, this entire song is acoustic.” Kris was making a statement. “Heartless” grew in intensity from there, creating a beautiful arc, rising up to some killer high notes. When the song ended, a smile registered on Kris’ face. He did it. The game changed. Kris made it into the finale. In fact, this was moment he won the entire season. Never underestimate the underdog.
2. Haley Reinhart: “Bennie and the Jets” (Season 10)
I had to impose a limit on this list: only one performance per contestant. If I didn’t self-impose, I’d have listed Haley Reinhart’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” “House of the Rising Sun,” “What Is and What Will Never Be,” AND “Bennie and the Jets.” To put it bluntly, Haley is a magical siren and we are #blessed to have her in our lives.
Here’s a little truth-bomb for you, I HATED Haley’s performances up until this point in the competition. I just couldn’t wrap my ears around her slinky growl or her jazz-influenced style. That all changed with “Bennie and the Jets.” It was like watching a beautiful rocket ship blast off to the moon. There was so much joy emanating from her being as she bit into every “Benniiiiiiie!” She owned the stage with every confident step and arm wave and everything just clicked. Haley had arrived and “Bennie and the Jets” instantly became my ringtone.
3. David Cook: “Billie Jean” (Season 7)
David Cook is the most influential American Idol winner, not through his post-Idol career, but in the way he approached his performances on the show. He made theme nights work for him, rather than molding his songs around the often stodgy themes. David flipped songs on their heads, maintaining and strengthening his artistic integrity, while staying true to the songs’ lyrical content. His bold approach to Idol performances paved the way for artists like Kris Allen and Adam Lambert the following season, all the way to Season 15’s MacKenzie Bourg.
The judges love to use the phrase “Making the song your own,” and with “Billie Jean,” David did just that. He took Michael Jackson’s R&B dance-pop classic and transformed it into a commanding and haunting ballad. He imbued every lyric with swagger and amplified it with his vocal prowess. Each of his renditions were a surprise. David Cook bent the competition to his strengths and inspired contestants for years to come.
4. Carrie Underwood: “Alone” (Season 4)
As a contestant on the show, Carrie Underwood’s Idol performances were underwhelming. She had all the charisma of a farm girl who had never stepped onto an airplane before the show. After seeing two of her arena tours, I can attest that she’d definitely grown into her confident persona. Her songs on Idol were well-sung, yet wholly unremarkable. Well, all performances except one.
When Carrie tackled Heart’s classic anthem, she instantly lit up the screen. Powerful vocals aside, “Alone” was all about three things: the hair, the smoky eye, and the power stance. After her electrifying performance, Simon Cowell made his prophetic critique: “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.” He was right and the rest was history.
5. LaToya London: “All By Myself” (Season 3)
LaToya London was the first singer on American Idol that I claimed as my own. I voted for her each week, as she delivered flawless performance after flawless performance. I became defensive on her behalf when she was criticized for not having a dynamic enough personality. I was utterly heartbroken at her elimination, falling just short of the finals in fourth place, behind the over-her-head Jasmine Trias. LaToya was the least flashy of the Three Divas (LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino), and I loved her even more for that. She was my powerhouse singer.
LaToya broke onto the scene during the semi-finals with a jaw-dropping rendition “All By Myself.” Her astonishingly clear vocals, stunning grace, and profound emotional resonance aimed straight to my heart. Not to mention, she was from Oakland. Bay Area REPRESENT.
6. Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)
I can’t help falling in love with Jena Irene’s suave, stripped-down arrangement. The way she envelopes you with her voice while accompanying herself on the piano—it’s truly breathtaking. The Queen did the King proud.
7. Kelly Clarkson: “Natural Woman” (Season 1)
There’s a reason that Idol is the House That Clarkson Built. Her confidence and vocal prowess in “Natural Woman” are unmatched. And that whistle note. My God.
8. Allison Iraheta & Adam Lambert: “Slow Ride” (Season 8)
“Slow Ride” is the best duet that has ever been performed on American Idol. Granted, the bar was never very high, but this tag-team of two powerhouse rockers is pure perfection.
9. La’Porsha Renae: “Diamonds” (Season 15)
It’s such a thrill to watch La’Porsha Renae perform. Her runs and phrasing are insane and wonderfully unexpected, yet she is always in control of her powerful instrument.
10. Allison Iraheta: “Cry Baby” [Elimination] (Season 8)
Yes, picking this song is a cheat, but this performance is SO good it has to make my list. Allison fuels her send-off with the pain and heartbreak of her undeserved elimination. (GTFO Danny Gokey smirking!) Just look at the tears in her eyes. Allison just lets it go and leaves it ALL on the Idol stage.
11. Blake Lewis: “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Season 6)
Blake Lewis knocks it out of the park with his fresh, invigorating take on a Bon Jovi classic. His beatboxing tricks may come across as cheesy now, but they jolted life into the Season 6 finale.
12. David Archuleta: “Imagine” (Season 7)
Archie is just pure vocal honey. His voice is rich, creamy butter. He is all puppy metaphors wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket with a little red bow on top.
13. Avalon Young: “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” (Season 15)
This performance just puts a smile on my face. Avalon Young is a refreshing breeze of flirty R&B swag. She exudes a coolness unlike any other contestant in Idol‘s fifteen seasons.
14. Skylar Laine: “Stay with Me” (Season 11)
Skylar Laine is a firecracker, plain and simple. She feels the music so deeply, she just HAS to stomp her feet and shake her hands. Her unbridled energy needs to be released into the world.
15. Naima Adedapo: “Umbrella” (Season 10)
Fearlessness. Pure fearlessness. In one song, Naima dances. Naima raps a self-written rap. Naima shouts, “BOOM! FIYAH!” I mean, come ON. How can you not be entertained?!
JONATHAN YU’S 15 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES
1. Haley Reinhart: “House of the Rising Sun” (Season 10)
Everyone loves an underdog, and no one embodied that better on Idol than Haley. While I have liked her since her over-the-top but fantastic rendition of “God Bless the Child” in Hollywood, it was easy to see why she was not exactly a fan favorite in the first few weeks of live performances. Thankfully, she somehow managed to stick around until her tide-changing performance of “Bennie and the Jets.”
On Top 5 night she sang the bejesus out of an unreleased (at the time) Lady Gaga track, “You and I,” which earned only lukewarm comments from the judges (who would later go on to bus her harder than any other contestant). This made the revenge even sweeter when she came back in round two with one of the best performances on Idol ever – “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a comfort to know that she is gaining viral success thanks to her frequent collaborations post-Idol with Postmodern Jukebox and unlikely partnership with Extra Gum (and no thanks to revisionist JLo).
2. Jasmine Trias: “Inseparable” (Season 3)
Back before the age of YouTube, I used to frequent Idol forums to read up on the latest Idol news and get MP3 rips of performances (S/O to idolforums.com!). At the beginning of Season 3, there was a whisper of a Hawaiian girl who really wowed the judges at her first audition, but did not get any airtime before the semifinals. I was instantly drawn to her because here was someone getting buzz who looked like me. In an age where Asian American representation in the media boiled down to, ironically, William Hung from earlier in the same season, I just wanted her to be good so badly.
While her initial outing during semifinals week did not elicit a “Wow” as much as a “This girl has potential,” her second live performance, on the Top 12 episode, made me so incredibly happy. I had my doubts about her choice of “Inseparable” by Natalie Cole (RIP), since I loved Kimberly Locke’s rendition of it from the previous season. However, as soon as she opened her mouth, I shut mine, and then opened again as my jaw hit the floor during the chorus. This is probably the most excited I have ever been about an Idol performance in my life. #Representation. It’s a pity she went on a steady decline after and overstayed her welcome, but INSEPARABLE, y’all!
3. Allison Iraheta & Adam Lambert: “Slow Ride” (Season 8)
Duets on Idol can be a really hit or miss sort of affair. And on the first night they were introduced, we saw both sides of that. On one hand, a duet can bring out the worst in the contestants, turning a performance into a shouting match (see: “Renegade”). On the other hand, when the two contestants are in sync, it’s one of the most joyous things to witness.
Case in point, when Adam and Allison teamed up for “Slow Ride,” they produced something greater than the sum of its already great parts. While duets are more often duds than not, I am just thankful that this performance opened up the doors for the Jessica/Joshua and Caleb/Jena duets that followed in its footstep. Let’s just forget this ever happened.
4. Fantasia Barrino: “I Believe” (Season 3)
I’ll be the first to admit that, while I appreciated her talents, Fantasia was not my go to diva of Season 3 initially (go JHud!). Heck, she wasn’t even my second go to diva of the season (Go LaToya!). Her distinctly rough yet nasally tone peeved me, along with many others, if internet comments are to be believed.
Somewhere along the way, though, I started to understand the appeal in her raw and passionate vocals. “Summertime” remains the best Idol performance of all time, in my opinion, but it’s her coronation song that made me cry (but not out loud!). Idol winner singles are usually trite and corny affairs, but she made it a soulful and uplifting anthem. American Idol trades in inspirational stories, and hers is one most hopeful.
5. David Cook: “The World I Know” (Season 7)
Season 7 was a pivotal season for Idol. It was the last season before Kara DioGuardi would introduce the word “artistry” into the her critiques (read: every critique). In an era where the norm was essentially vocalists singing karaoke (granted, VERY good vocalists singing VERY good karaoke), David came in and broke the mold.
With a string of innovative performances (“Hello,” Billie Jean,” and “Always Be My Baby” come to mind), he forever changed the game. His mic-drop moment, for me, came in the finale when he chose to end with “The World I Know” instead of a reprise, much to the chagrin of Simon. The haunting and beautiful choice was the perfect ending for an Idol run that defied expectations.
6. Sonika Vaid: “Bring Me to Life” (Season 15)
One of the prettiest voices to grace the Idol stage. This performance lived up to its name and BROUGHT. ME. LIFE. It’s a shame that she went the way of Jasmine Trias afterwards though.
7. Jennifer Hudson: “Weekend in New England” (Season 3)
It seemed like she was finally on track to go far after her spectacular performance of “Circle of Life,” but alas, it was not to be. Her final Idol performance gave me goosebumps for days. Still the best pure belting voices on Idol ever.
8. Tamyra Gray: “A House Is Not A Home” (Season 1)
While I did not watch Season 1 when it was on, I went back and re-watched most of Tamyra’s clips before Season 2 started. This was a perfect performance, and her boot was the controversy that put Idol on the map for many people, including myself.
9. Kelly Clarkson: “Stuff Like That There” (Season 1)
After proving she can sing pretty much any Aretha Franklin song, it was unexpected to hear her sing this song, and sing it flawlessly. It goes to show that Kelly Clarkson can, in fact, sing ANYTHING.
10. Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)
When it comes to piano ballads, Jena is the queen. This was moving and so perfectly suited for her unique and powerful voice.
11. LaToya London: “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (Season 3)
As far as I know, this was the one and only time Idol let a contestant do two songs back to back. Following “Too Close For Comfort,” which could be career best for any other contestant, she proceeded to take it home with “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” which remains one of the most perfect vocal performances on Idol ever.
12. Elliott Yamin: “Moody’s Mood For Love” (Season 5)
Jazz is a bit underrepresented on Idol, but thank goodness for Elliott, who managed to completely nail this incredibly difficult song. Boy’s got SOUL.
13. Sarina-Joi Crowe: “Mama Knows Best” (Season 14)
The entire performance was like a vocal high-kick, and then she finishes it off with an actual high-kick. *Mic-drop*
14. Carrie Underwood: “Alone” (Season 4)
The only Idol performance of Carrie’s that a normal person would remember. This performance sealed the already-sealed deal for her, and inspired too many pale imitations to this performance on later seasons (save Allison Iraheta’s also-fantastic rendition).
15. Kris Allen: “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Season 8)
This performance propelled him from “great contestant” to “contender.” The finale reprise was somehow even better than the first show-stopping performance.