American Idol: 25 Best Performances of All Time

The end of American Idol Season 11 is nigh, which means it’s time for the Idoloonie Nation to reflect on the always accessible “Top 25 Performances of All-Time” lists in their brains, then ask the question: “Who gets added from the latest crop of singers, and who gets cut?”

I limited my countdown to competitive performances on live shows — meaning semifinals, finals, and wild cards count; exit performances, auditions, and Hollywood Week do not — and still ended up with two or three dozen amazing moments left on the outside looking in. (Oh how “This Ain’t a Love Song,” “A House Is Not a Home,” and “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right” forced me to consider making this a Top 30 list!) I also decided on allowing only one performance per contestant in the Top 25 (because, really, I couldn’t justify a list that was all Fantasia-Kelly-Cookie-Haley-Kradison). But, hey, no one said this exercise would be easy, right?

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So check out my 25 Best Idol Performances list below, then hit the comments and tell me what I got right, what I got wrong, who got snubbed, and who never should’ve made my list in the first place. Then get to work and post your own Top 25!

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And for all my American Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV. (p.s. I’ll be live-blogging tonight’s Season 11 performance finale, so join me at TVLine for all the good fun!)

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Lisa (@KittyKay3) says:

    I knew what number 1 had to be before I pulled up the article. Summertime was the first big moment I remember on idol. I would have put Melinda higher, although I don’t know who I would bump.

    Will you do another list of duets and groups? Adam/Allison hug at the end of Slow Ride needs to be on a list somewhere.

    • Eric says:

      Its almost unfair then because nothing will compare to Slow Ride and Moanin. Everything else will be crushed in the ground :D. Two Best Duets EVER

  2. Danny says:

    Carly Smithson’s Jesus Christ Superstar is missing. Great list though. These are fun topics to discuss. “Heh heh heh, how come no Sanjaya on this list?”

  3. Stacey says:

    Carrie and David should have highter. Although the right song for Carrie. Alone was a masterpiece. And showed her vocal range outside of country. But David; his standout song was Billie Jean. That is the song people stood up to watch, and notice him after Hello by Lionel Richie. I love the Mariah Carey. But the way he did Billie Jean, and the passion he put into it. Was the song. And Jordin Sparks song is the right one, but too low. Come on, that was a standout.

    • Elise says:

      Totally agree! Billie Jean and Hello were my 2 favorite idol performances ever. Always be My Baby was great, but not as great.

  4. brandy says:

    I think this list would just work better as “Top 25 Finalists of All Time”. Each of them had way more than one standout performance.

    • noa says:

      that’s a good list. i’d like to know Slezak’s take. i don’t think this would be the same ranking. i’d expect to see Allison a little higher on such a list.

  5. Blake’s You Give Love a Bad Name was Idol’s best of all time. Seriously, there’s never ben anything more original. Everything else was just… everything else…

  6. Tiff says:

    Casey Abrams’ “Your Song” should have been on there. So should Brooke White’s “Let It Be”. Pia Toscano’s “I’ll Stand By You” was much better than “All is Fair in Love and War”

  7. Kaa says:

    I thought Jason Castro’s “If I Fell” was a lot better than the other one listed here.

    Also, #1 of the entire show for me? Lisa Leuschner’s “Sweet Thing,” and she didn’t even make it out of the wild cards.

  8. Kitty says:

    “Whole Lotta Love” should be way higher than 16.

    • noa says:

      actually, it should have been Vienna AND way higher on the list :)

    • FreeHaley says:

      +1 # 16 is ridiculous!!! and that was a super hard song, and some of those she did in it, just wild! But man he is still with his blind love for Skylar and yeah I just don’t get it how does the huge Haley champion only so slightly taken by Elise (or Jessica) and so insane for Skylar? I mean he even put Skylar above Underwood’s Alone!

  9. macy says:

    Great list Michael! While you’re on Idol withdrawal next week (boo hoo for all of us!!!), how about taking a stab at numbers 26 through 50, since as you mentioned there are so many great performances that just didn’t make the cut.
    That portion of the list could include, as you mentioned, “This Ain’t a Love Song (LaKisha?),” “A House Is Not a Home (Tamyra?),” and “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right (Michael Johns?)” but also Volcano by Phillip Phillips, and I’m sure that my favorites Siobhan Magnus and Paris Bennett would find their way onto the list too. And of course there’s a spot waiting for Brooke White and Carly Smithson…
    With talent so deep, we need a longer list. (Then I can spend the summer YouTubing them!!) Thank you Michael!!!

  10. Alex says:

    VERY good list. Somehow I knew when I clicked on the link that you would put Fantasia’s Summertime at #1…not my choice, but that’s alright. Glad to see that Kris Allen’s Heartless made it pretty high on the list, that’s my personal favorite Idol performance of all time.

  11. Chris says:

    I would have very easily added Joshua Ledet’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” to this list in addition to his “This is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. He deserves two spots in the top 25

    • deedee says:

      If I had to choose just one Josh song to make the list, I’d have a rough time picking between these two. “When A Man Loves A Woman” was such a revelation for me, so I might have to go with that one.
      Interesting aside: after he was booted, Josh told an interviewer that WAMLAW is his favourite moment on the show because up until then he didn’t know he could sing like that. Seriously? Not sure I believe him!

    • Judy says:

      Both of these songs that Joshua sang should at least be in the top 3.

  12. letafan4ever says:

    Great List!! David Archuleta’s Imagine was Number 1 for me!! Love Melinda Doolittle’s Funny Valentine for sure!! Many other favorites on there too!!
    What I loved on The Billboard Show this week as the best performances were Jordan, Kelly and Carrie!! Yea for American Idol. No Lip synching for the win.

  13. Sandi says:

    Mad World and In a Dream should be one and two (in either order). At least they are in my book.

    I also loved Katherine McPhee’s Over the Rainbow which didn’t make your list.

  14. Brian Nord says:

    I will never get over Fantasia and “Summertime;” I skimmed threw the list thinking “it better be there.” I also want to note that one of my favorite performances ever was in the final 3 of season 3; Diana DeGarmo belting out “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” I must have watched that 10 times after. She really came out of nowhere and she missed being IDOL by 1 million votes at age 16! Oh the memories.

  15. R-Dub says:

    How could Siobhan Magnus Respect not make this list? That scream was epic. I also think you could have used her House of the Rising Sun in place of Haley (Benny and the Jets instead there)or better still Paint it black. She rocked that season and certainly deserves top 25! And dude, nothing on Idol has ever been better than Mad World!

  16. Kay says:

    Songs still on my iPod not on this list: Siobhan’s Paint It Black; and Didi Benami’s Play with Fire.
    Interestingly there are 4 winners who don’t make the list: Ruben, Taylor, Lee and Scotty.

  17. Mauricio says:

    Where is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Katharine MCPhee? Though I hated that it made her win over Elliott Yamin, we can’t deny that was a “moment-moment” (LOL) in AI.

  18. deedee says:

    How could Sklezak not include Mishavonna Henson in this list! :)

  19. Linderella says:

    I realized three winners of American Idol did not make the list – Taylor Hicks, Lee Dewyze and Ruben Studdard. I guess it’s true – once the singer makes the top 10, it’s anyone’s guess where the career will go. My favorite AI contestants who did not win are Clay Aiken, Katherine McPhee, Haley Rinehart, Chris Daughtry, Siobhan Magnus, Jennifer Hudson, Crystal Bowersox, and Elliiot Yamin. I’ve only watched a few times this year because he quality of the talent is just not there. Maybe next year.

  20. whoami says:

    As there will be more and more seasons of AI (we hope), it will be harder and harder to make a Top 25. Plus many of the 25 you chose are the defining moments of the artist in their AI trajectory, not necessarily their best moment.

    So I propose that next year you change this to a list of Top 2 Performances of Each Season. So next year that’d make it 24 performances.

    Here’s how your list stacks up –
    s1 – Kelly
    s2 – Clay
    s3 – JHud, Fantasia
    s4 – Carrie, Bo
    s5 – Chris, Elliot
    s6 – Jordin, Melinda, Blake
    s7 – Jason, Archie, Cook
    s8 – Allison, Kris, Adam
    s9 – Crystal
    s10 – Pia, Kendra, Haley
    s11 – Jessica, Elise, Skylar, Joshua

    Kendra’s a huge WTF choice because she didn’t even make the finals. I love that performance too, but there are many awesome semifinal performances – these often are better than the live performances. I’d trade out Kendra for either Ruben, Tamyra (House is Not a Home), Kat (Rainbow), or Siobhan (Paint it Black). Though I like Skylar better, I’d trade her out for P2’s Volcano.

    It’s funny how absolutely no one in this thread is fighting for putting Lee in the Top 25 haha.

    • Brenda Russekk says:

      Although Lee won in what was called the weakest season which I have to say I think the last 2 years the show has gone way down hill with the everybody is great judges- he did had some good performances- The Boxer, Halluejah, A Little Less Conversation, Tret her like a Lady, Simple Man. His studio recordings of Simple Man and Halleujah and Falling Slowly with Crystal are really good. Do you just jump on the bandwagon with everyone else who bashes him?. I saw him live and he was very good and also a very nice person. He is just as good as David Cook and better than Kris Allen- Michael’s Favorite wgwg and Phillip You seem mean spirited to me- and he is a hell of a better singer than Mr Blake Lewis. He is in Branson now performing at the same venue with Blake making Blake look lame. At least the judge didn’t overpraise everything the contestants sang and Lee took his critiques and got better and better every week. Some people just go along with what the majority thinks. Are you one of these people or can you think for yourself? It is easy to make digs at people- I really don’t- if I don’t care for their music I just don’t listen to it. I think Scotty is very mediocre and if his genre wasn’t country he would be in the same situation as Lee- David Cook just got dropped from RCA as well because it’s all about how much you sell and money of course. And Cook and DeWyze are very good-best male winners as Carrie and Kelly are the best female winners,

  21. Hoodathunk says:

    Taylor Hicks was snubbed. many show-stopping performances by Taylor to choose from including “Try A Little Tenderness”, “In The Ghetto”, “You Send Me”, and “Something”

  22. Alexandra says:

    I would definitely put Kelly’s Stuff Like that There as number one, by a landslide. I preferred Lakisha’s And I’m Telling you, I thought Jessica’s was horrifyingly overwrought and screamy. I think Carly belongs on that list for numerous songs, my favorites being Blackbird, Here You Come again or JCS. I think McPhee, although I am not a fan, belongs there above Blake. For Crystal it should be People Get Ready or Up to the Mountain. And I preferred Allison’s Crybaby. And, if anyone could have two songs, it should be Melinda.

  23. Krystal says:

    Definitely think Vonzell Solomon’s performance of “I Have Nothing” should be on the list. She did Whitney Houston justice and then some.

  24. 0101jyj says:

    Joshua!! That epic-ness of the song and performance just multiplied when he sang it as his swan song! personally i thought it was the best sing-out ever!

  25. PFitzDC says:

    Great list and extra bonus points for picking the right Kelly Clarkson performance. “Stuff Like That There” was her standout in my mind, too. Your choices for Cookie and Mamasox are a bit more questionable–all fine, but I’d have picked The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Long as I can See the Light, respectively.

    And sure wish you could have gotten LaToya Jackson onto that list!

    And can’t fault you for Heartless, but I would have gone with Ain’t No Sunshine for Kris.

  26. Juan says:

    Adam Lambert would not be on my list.
    I never found him to be believable for one second.
    Same goes for Jordin.

    • J. May says:

      What do you mean “believable”? Maybe you mean he didn’t impress you with his musical style, but AI isn’t an acting class, at least for the most part.

  27. Joanna says:

    Why no Siobhan Magnus? Her “Paint it Black” cover was really phenomenal. It is one of the few songs I remembered from her season (and no, when she was voted-out, I did not watch the rest of the season, cause the left ones were not my cup of tea..) and one that is still talked about out there..

    You should just have expanded it to Top 30.. :D

    • VioletFlameMusic says:

      Just like you, a lot of us stopped watching Idol after Siobhan left. To the count of 2.5 million people. After that, Idol had the lowest amount of viewers that it EVER had.

  28. EMurph says:

    Huh?? Ummmm, BILLIE JEAN!!!!!!!!

  29. Kitty says:

    You know, it would probably be easier if you did a top 25 finalists, then listed their top 3 performances. That way some performances could get the placing they deserve.

  30. Chelsea says:

    Man’s world is def #1!! and I know only one song per contestant but I think ‘When A Man Loves a Women’ ‘To Love Somebody’ & “No More Drama” (since there was a baptism & exorcism going on in that one ;) ..I don’t see a trend in my choices at all ;)

  31. Roma Kong says:

    I think these are great. I don’t agree with the order, but oh! well… For example, I would’ve put Adam’s “Mad World” in the number 1 spot. Yes, there are a lot of great performances missing and because of that this should’ve been a 40 Best Performances of All-Time. However, if you’re gonna do a Top 25 only, then Katharine McPhee’s “Over The Rainbow” SHOULD’VE been there. ;)

  32. Mark says:

    Tamyra Gray – A House Is Not A Home ……………Best ever…

  33. JMason says:

    I just don’t get all the Fantasia “love”…in my humble opinion she is one of the WORST winners ever, and that song Summertime made my ears bleed. Come to think of it, every song she sang made my ears bleed. David Cook should have been higher on the list, and for Billie Jean…David Archuletta should have been higher too (at least the right song was listed).

  34. Ranking artists is a fool’s errand. Just cite your preferences and some learned reasoning, and leave it at that!

  35. Matt Alex says:

    Umm why isn’t David Cook on there for Billy Jean? That performance was incredible!!

  36. kf says:

    Some things I noticed —
    1. Every season has at least one performance in this Top 25 list.
    2. The season with the most Top 25 performances is the current Season 11, with 4 performances. All other seasons have from 1 to 3 performances in this Top 25.
    3. The winners for 7 out of 11 seasons have a Top 25 performance. I won’t mention which of the 4 winners (all male, BTW) are not in this top 25 list.

  37. macy says:

    In all sincerity, thank you everyone for listing your favorites. Even though I have watched every season, there are some performances mentioned in the comments that I don’t remember, or maybe I just don’t remember how great they are. So, I know this is going to sound totally geeky (or maybe totally Idoloonie?), but I am going to make a comprehensive list of every performance that was mentioned, either by Michael or in the comments, and then in idle moments (idol moments), I will YouTube one or two here and there until I see them all again. Thank you all!

  38. Joe says:

    It’s interesting how we all have different moments for these contestants. I agree with Michael that JHud’s Circle of Life was her best as well as Lambert’s Mad World. I also think Daughtry doing Hemorrhage was what put him on the map of pop music. That being said, David Cook singing “Hello” was his moment as far as I’m concerned. Allison Iraheta singing “Alone” was her moment for me. Carly Smithson singing “Come Together” has always had a place in my head as a genuine moment on idol. Jordin singing “Reflection” was her moment for me on Idol. Haley doing “Bennie & the Jets” was definitely her moment. Some of Slezak’s rankings are a little wonky. Blake Lewis would’ve never been that high. I think my top 5 would’ve been 1. I Believe – Fantasia 2. Mad World – Adam Lambert 3. It’s A Man’s World – Josh Ledet 4. Circle of Life – Jennifer Hudson 5 – Alone – Allison Iraheta

    • Joe says:

      Actually, I’d drop Iraheta singing Alone out of the top 5 & into the top 10 for Melinda doing “My Funny Valentine” at my #5. That was definitely one of the best moments on Idol. I’d also make sure to find a place for Kimberly Locke singing “Home” from The Wiz in the top 25 all time.

  39. RD says:

    Okay,Adam Lambert’s ‘Mad World’ is a good performance in general but everyone seems to ignore the fact that’s it’s a virtual note-for-note rip off,just like PP’s ‘Volcano’ or ‘The Stone’. I’m not saying that AL shouldn’t be included,just not with that,if artistic integrity is to be considered,which in my book it should be.

  40. Lynn says:

    Haley’s “House of the Rising Sun” was #1 for me. And “Mad World” is #2.

    I also would have gotten rid of Skylar’s “Stay With Me” (Sorry) And Elise’s “Whole Lotta Love” (I don’t even think that’s her best performance) Diana Degarmo’s “Don’t Cry Outloud” should be on there. And perhaps replacing Allison’s with “Cry Baby” or “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

    And Jessica should be higher.

  41. Tommyo2000 says:

    jessica’s version gets on the list because of when she did it and what it meant … it was a clutch performance that sealed her spot into the top three and likely propelled her into the final after a down week …

  42. Lauren says:

    Would’ve changed:
    Pia’s song to “Stand by Me”
    Allison’s to “Hot Stuff”
    Skylar’s to “Show Must Go On”
    Haley’s to “I Who Have Nothing”

    Wish you added:
    Casey James – “Jealous Guy”
    Brooke White – “Let It Be”
    Michael Johns – “It’s All Wrong But It’s Alright”

    I agree with pretty much everything else but how the heck is Carrie’s “Alone” only #15?? That performance made her a star!

  43. Cat says:

    Yikes Bo Bice number 7, hell to the no, shouldnt even be on this list, sorry Michael

  44. Andy says:

    show must go on > stay with me

  45. Dave says:

    Only ones I can think of that are that should be on this list are

    Somewhere Over the Rainbow-Katharine McPhee (Season 5)
    Let It Be-Katie Stevens (Season 9)
    Paint It Black-Siobhan Magnus (Season 9)

  46. Jen says:

    I agree with most of the choices but every best of Idol list should include Katharine McPhee’s “Over the Rainbow.” Most of the time it’s in the top 5 let alone the top 25. It’s one of the most remembered performances from anyone who’s watched Idol and it propelled her into one of the two most watched Idol finales.

  47. annabelle says:

    It is ridiculous that Katharine McPhee isn’t on this list. Michael Slezak has always had an attitude about her for no reason.

  48. seattlejohn449 says:


  49. Yo' says:

    All Time Most Memorable Peerformances: Fantasia, “Summertime; Adam Lambert, “Mad World,” Elise Testone, “Whole Lotta Love;” Joshua Ledet, “It’s a Man’s World.”

  50. angelstorm says:

    Michael you’re KILLING me ! lol seriously. I can’t even comment on this !