American Idol: 30 Best Performances of All Time

American Idol wraps its twelfth season with a two-part finale (tonight and Thursday, 8/7c on Fox), and in the midst of the Candice-Vs.-Kree debate, a larger question looms: Is there room for either of these ladies (or any of their recently vanquished rivals) in a countdown of the show’s all-time greatest performances?

I tried to answer that question by taking a long hard look at the finest Season 12 moments alongside the greatest hits from years past. I’ve added, subtracted, rejiggered and reconfigured, till I finally had a list that didn’t make me actively loathe myself. (Hey, no one ever said it was easy being an Idoloonie.)

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For the record, 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 “Superstar,” “A House Is Not a Home,” and “The Scientist” forced me to consider making this a Top 35 list!) I also decided on allowing only one performance per contestant in the Top 25 — because spreading the wealth is fun. I weighed everything from vocal excellence to emotional connectedness to creativity and risk (with bonus points for competition-altering moves).

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So click through my picks below, then tell me where I got it right, where I royally messed up, who I unforgivably snubbed and for which contestants I chose the wrong performance. And for all my Idol news, recaps, commentary and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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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337 Comments
  1. Name That Tune says:

    Been waiting for this! Candice topping Fantasia & Kelly? Amazing.

  2. JKR says:

    *Side eye* Really? I love Candice, but #1 ever? Umm. No. Kelly still holds that crown. And Carrie at 16th? Please. No. Tamyra’s A House Is Not a Home could replace quite a few on this list…. that said, it’s not a bad list. The order just needs a little tweaking.

  3. Matt says:

    I’m a little confused. The last time you did this list, Joshua Ledet was #3. Now he’s #11??

  4. Abe Froman says:

    Carrie Underwood’s “Alone” should be #1. That was THE moment she won American Idol.

  5. Kelly B. says:

    Ok, Michael, you asked for it, haha. I adore David Cook’s Always Be My Baby, but I would have chosen Billie Jean for him, although maybe they are a tie. But either way, he should be #1, not #8 imo. No one comes close to the genius arrangements he did and he can sing the sh*t out of a glory note and still croon songs like Music of the Night and First Time Ever I saw Your Face showcasing his amazing vocals.

    I would have moved J. Castro’s Hallelujah up into the top 10 and M. Johns’ It’s All Wrong But It’s Alright also up into the top 10. Glad to see you had Haley R’s Benny And the Jets in the top 10 where it belonged. I would drop P. Phillips Home out of the top 30 completely (hate that song – not the kind of music I expected from him. What a waste of his Dave Matthews’ vibe/voice) and would have put Carly Simon’s “Superstar” in its place, if we’re going on performance as much as vocal excellence. I don’t know which song I would’ve picked for Carrie but any of her songs should be in a higher spot than #16. She’s amazing. Also Chikezie’s very cool arrangement/vocals of She’s a Woman should be in the top 30 imo just for arrangement alone, although his vocal on it was spot on too.

  6. Joe says:

    I agree that you spread the love too evenly here Slezak. Fantasia’s Summertime and I Believe should both be in the top 30. I’d even give Fantasia’s “Lets Give Them Something To Talk About” serious consideration. Kelly’s A Moment Like This should be there as well. I don’t understand you putting Blake Lewis even in this grouping at all. C’mon. David Cook’s signature moment was singing “Hello” which I’d put in the top 30. The rest of his run bleeds together for me. Iraheta sang “Alone” better than Underwood, although I would actually put both in the top 30 for the same song. I wouldn’t even put Lakisha in the top 30. Carly singing Come Together was one of the best performances I can remember. Kim Locke doing Home or It’s Raining Men are both huge moments. Bo Bice singing acapella in retrospect isn’t as great present day for me for you. That said, I can’t argue with Candice being #1 at the moment. My top 5 would be I Believe – Fantasia, Lovesong – Candice, Mad World – Adam, Circle of Life – Jhud & My Funny Valentine – Melinda Doolittle. That said I do love that you put Skyler’s Stay With Me in there as that is one of my favorite performances of all time on Idol.

  7. Pedro. says:

    OMG! Will the candice pimpage please stop.

    Michael is becaming way too biased.

    No way Candice gave the best Idol performance ever.

  8. Lue says:

    Wtf is Angie’s original song? Yeah. No. But I would argue that Haley’s “House of the Rising Sun” was batter than her “Bennie and the Jets.” And probably would have put it number two. But I’m pretty biased. Not sure about the number one pick… I would actually disagree all the way. Glad Jessica was on there, but I would have put it higher.

  9. bringbackrocky says:

    Thank you for including Elliott Yamin on this list. Not only was he one of the great performers ever on AI, he went out of his way to mention that the reason he chose A Song For You was that Donny Hathaway had done the best version ever and one of Hathaway’s daughters was an AI back-up singer that season. Very classy.

  10. boods farkleface says:

    whatevs. i’d put candice at #1, melinda at #2, fantasia at #3, and lakiesha at #4, and i’d replace home with volcano, or even that entirely too short clip of nice & slow. and i’d probably bump kris allen in favor of tamyra grey’s a house is not a home, and put her at #5. other than that, i agree.

    and i think lovesong is NOT too ‘young’ to be in the number 1 slot. i mean, chances are, same as summertime and my funny valentine, it’s only going to get more awesome as you go back and listen to it, and it’s ALREADY friggin sublime. and i say this as someone who thinks ‘you’ve changed’ was candice’s actual best performance. but in terms of IDOL specifically? lovesong was a game changer. it’s become rote to see WGWGs make risky artistic choices (look how many of you nodded to david cook and his fascinating interpretations of billie jean, and so on.) but it’s rare to see the “r&b diva” make any large deviation from the beaten path. the melodic runs might be placed differently, or whatever, but the massive deviation from the norm has been largely reserved for the WGWGs. so for her sheer intestinal fortitude alone, i give her props. was lovesong her most inventive risk? no, not really. that honor goes to straight up. but it’s a useful metric when measuring not only her vocal abilities, (which, holy crow, she can wail) but also her artistic vision (which is brilliant) and her melodic nuance (i’m comfortable in saying it’s pretty close to genius.)

    in conclusion, i’d like to finish by ending, #teamcandice!

  11. mygreatkid says:

    Constantine Maroulis doing A House Is Not A Home should be on this list instead of some of the more suspect picks.

    • Joe says:

      Constatine was awful. Seriously awful. I get it that women get all hot and bothered for him, but he was really a terrible singer on AI and his elimination was overdue. It’s a case of hormones over hearing.

    • deedee says:

      Constantine never did “A House Is Not A Home”.

  12. noa says:

    wow, this list isn’t not the same as last year (in addition to Kree and Candice’s entries). Josh was at #3 and Elise was lower than Skylar i think. Slezak keeps changing his mind. which i get- my favorite songs change a lot and he makes the list according to his current preferences. i remember him having House of The Rising Sun as THE best performance of S10. so now Bennie and The Jets is better? this might have been his way of including a sing off here since the 2nd time she sang it was even better IMO.

    anyway, my Idol list doesn’t change so much in terms of which performances are on it, but i have a problem putting it in order. so here’s my list (with Selzak’s rules- only performance night, only one per contestant). the first 4 are in order, the rest are tied:

    1. Vienna- Elise Testone.
    2. Moody’s Mood For Love- Elliott Yamin
    3. My Funny Valentine- Melinda Doolittle
    4. Mad World- Adam Lambert
    5. Bennie And The Jets- Haley Reinhart
    6. In A Dream- Bo Bice
    7. I Can’t Make You Love Me- Allison Iraheta
    8. Summertime- Fantasia Barrino
    9. Crazy on You- Carly Smithson
    10. Me and Bobby McGee- Crystal Bowersox
    11. Heartless- Kris Allen
    12. You Give Love a Bad Name- Blake Lewis
    13. Alone- Carrie Underwood
    14. I (Who Have Nothing)- Jordin Sparks
    15. You Send Me- Taylor Hicks
    16. Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?- Chris Daughtry
    17. Billie Jean- David Cook
    18. Imagine- David Archuleta
    19. Circle of Life- Jennifer Hudson
    20. Hallelujah- Jason Castro
    21. All I Do- Paris Bennett
    22. Sweet Thing- Lisa Leuschner (weird choice, i know. but i just remember this being the first Idol performance i’ve seen and really liked.)
    23. Over the Rainbow- Katharine McPhee
    24. So Small- Matt Giraud
    25. Volcano- Phillip Phillips
    26. Lovesong- Candice Glover
    27. Don’t Play That Song- Kree Harrison
    28. Stuttering- Jessica Sanchez
    29. Don’t Cry Out Loud- Diana Degarmo
    30. Bold As Love- Elise Testone (aaahhhh i can’t NOT mention it. i know it’s against the rules, but Elise gets 2 spots on my list. that’s just how it is)

    i should mention that i started watching in S3 so no season 1 and 2 on the list.

    • The Beach says:

      So glad you included Elliot’s Moody’s Mood for Love…..perfection!

      • noa says:

        after all these years i still remember how excited i was while hearing it for the first time. such a great performance. only Elise was able to knock it out of first place…

        • The Beach says:

          I can’t argue with you since I have Elise’s “Vienna” on rotation and listen to it quite often.

  13. heelarryous says:

    If Candice deserves the #1 spot, it’s certainly not for that song. Shame on you for leaving off Ruben Studdard’s Superstar! I’m sure i could make some other substitutions as well.

  14. DT says:

    James Durbin’s rendition of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” deserves at least a top 30 appearance, sheesh.

  15. sumwhut says:

    One of the Idol performances I fondly remember, is Nikki McKibben’s Always Something There to Remind Me. It was fun and I liked the way she sang it. It was the first time Idol seemed cool and current. Other favorite’s were Blake Lewis, Daughtry, Cook and Adam Lambert. I do not care for the lounge singers, ie Candice Glover and the blasphemous performance that you deemed number one. Blech!!!

  16. bridget says:

    Definitely agree that PP’s ‘Volcano’ should be on here instead of ‘Home’. Also Archuleta’s ‘Imagine’ aaaall the way up at #15 is questionable.

  17. J. May says:

    Oh, it’s list time again, how wonderful and frustrating. I can count on a week long argument with my fellow Idoloonies. My favorite performance is probably Man’s World by Joshua/Whole Lotta Love by Elise/Long as I can See the Light by Crystal/Ring of Fire by Adam/In a Dream by Bo/Summertime by Fantasia/and lots of others that were able to make me believe that we at a concert and not watching a television program. My favorite season was probably season 11 for its depth of talent, season 8 for Kradison (best top 3 ever, right? Right?), and season 9 for Crystal.

  18. JM says:

    I’d cut a couple and put others like bleeding love by Hollie cavanagh and we got tonight and u got it bad by Phillip

  19. Lyn says:

    Happy to see Bo Bice in the top 10, but IMHO his stellar performance was “The Whipping Post”!

  20. Anne says:

    How in the world is Kelly’s “Stuff Like That There” not number 1? Kat Mcphee didn’t even make the list? Bennie over HOTS for Haley? Very interesting

  21. Lynn says:

    I would have put Haley’s House of the Rising Sun above Heartless and Mad World, and I wouldn’t have put Bennie on there.

    • Elena says:

      I laughed when I saw that Bennie and the Jets was what was chosen for her after she had numerous incredible performances!

  22. April says:

    Glad to see Blake Lewis on the list. I still feel cheated that contestants weren’t allowed to play instruments in his season. He could have done some amazing stuff.

  23. Mari says:

    LOL Candice number 1…

  24. John says:

    Major fail that you did not include anything from Latoya London in my opinion. You’re free to your opinion though.

  25. Robin says:

    I’m pretty sure season 8 was the last season I watched fully. Though I saw a few performances of season 9…(i think) The show isn’t the same anymore and hasn’t been for awhile.
    But my all time favorite performance and will be Kelly’s performance of “A Moment Like This” right after she won….the emotion was so real – lyrics were so true. There have been some really awesome performances and Stuff Like That There sure was great but I that winning moment remains my favorite.

  26. Craig Hansen says:

    How quickly people forget.

    Way too many performances cited from the last three or four seasons, all of which have been among the worst in IDOL history.

    Nowhere near enough performances cited from the show in its prime, which was the first five seasons.

    I mean, Carrie Underwood not only won, but she has become the biggest-selling IDOL winner of all time, outpacing even Kelly Clarkson who had a four year head start… but she’s way down on the list, barely even in the Top 20? As if…

    No mention of Kelly Pickler. No mention of Katherine McPhee. Pretty sure there was also no mention of Chris Daughtry, even.

    What a joke… very dumb list.

    • Craig Hansen says:

      Okay, double-checked. Daughtry was there.

      Still a dumb list, though. Underwood at 16? Bice at 9? Ugh…. If Bice had saved “In a Dream” for the final week, he’d probably have won… Although I don’t think winning or losing would have changed Underwood’s career at all.

  27. Casey says:

    A lot of good choices and you hit most of my favorites but you continue to put Fantasia’s Summertime at the top of this list. I’m not a fan and really didn’t care for any of her performances. I would have chosen Heartless by Kris or Mad World by Adam to top this list

  28. dyarowm says:

    kath’s Somewhere over the Rainbow, Angie’s You Set me Free, Jessica’s Stuttering, Vonzell’s Best of my Love, Kris Allen’s She Works Hard for the Money, Jhud’s Weekend in New England, Katelyn Epperly’s The Scientist. I need them on the list Michael, please. Please. I’m begging you to include them. Also Melinda’s I’m a Woman.

  29. James A says:

    Really Slezak? Candice at number 1? You need to quit sipping all those mojito’s

  30. Timmah says:

    I would put Didi Benami’s Rhiannon on the list. One of the most original and exquisite arrangements of a song ever done on Idol. Also notably missing is Carly Smithson’s Here You Come Again. And no McPhee is a mystifying omission — SOTR easily a top ten performance of all time.

  31. Emma says:

    This was a fun stroll down memory lane.
    My personal top 5:
    1) Haley Reinhart – House of the Rising Sun
    2) Kris Allen – Ain’t No Sunshine
    3) David Cook – Billie Jean
    4) Carly Smithson – Blackbird
    5) Rueben Studdard – Superstar

    • Elena says:

      Loved Carly Smithson’s Blackbird!

    • Jason says:

      We have similar taste I would Include HOTRS, Blackbird and Billy Jean in my top 3. Probably round out a top 5 wit Elise WHole Lotta Love and Lily Scott – FIxing A Hole!!!

  32. I8A4RE says:

    How is William Hung’s ‘She Bangs’ not on this list? :)

  33. Holly says:

    Taylor Hicks’ “Levon” should be on the list.

  34. Elena says:

    I don’t agree with most of these! Clay’s Solitaire performance should be way higher! Adam’s Mad World should be number one! Carrie Underwood’s Alone should also be way higher! I also agree with David Cook’s Always Be My Baby and Kris Allen’s Heartless after that I think the wrong songs were chosen for some and some just plain don’t belong there. I haven’t watched this season but that girl you are saying seriously had a better performance than the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood? Really? I find that hard to believe. I am a huge Chris Daughtry fan and Hemorrhage was good but not his best I would have gone with Walk the Line. David Cook should have been on there twice because of Billie Jean. I still listen to the download of James Durbin’s Maybe I’m Amazed. Phil Phillips version of U Got it Bad was flawless! I’m ranting now so I will stop!

  35. Maura says:

    I hate your list and don’t agree with much on it! Have you been watching Idol with peanut butter in your ears?

  36. Nak8 says:

    I think it’s funny that everyone is talking crap about someones personal list. This is his opinion, doesn’t matter what you all like.

  37. KP says:

    Loved Carrie’s Broken Road.

  38. Lisa says:

    This list and all the comments prove how great this show can be when the concentration is on the contestants and not the judges. Every Season has had some great moments.

  39. Jason says:

    Wait A Second!! Where is Carly Freaking Smithson??? Blackbird, Come Together, and Crazy On You are all worthy of the top 25

  40. Candice Glover, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson,Joshua Ledet and Adam Lambert was cheated Melinda Doolittle looks better now than she did during idol.The wig and songs aged her top spot for a AI Judge .Down with Minaj fakeass

  41. Marsha says:

    Can’t believe Whole Lotta Love (Adam Lambert version) didn’t make the cut. Far better choice than Elise Testone version.

    • Emma says:

      Why would a women sing about giving you every inch of her big penis? Stupid! Robert Plant has often acknowledged what he was writing about. The lyrics are not meant for a women.

  42. Name That Tune says:

    So let’s expand the list to 50.
    Or the best song by anyone who made the top 7 during their Idol run.

  43. teatime says:

    Personally I agree with using Always Be My Baby for Cook, if we have to pick just one.
    Billie Jean got some mixed reviews solely because it was Chris Cornell’s version. Even though Ryan introduced it as “Chris Cornell’s version of Billie Jean” there were still complaints that he was getting rave reviews for doing unexpected versions of songs when it was someone else’s lesser known version. With Always Be My Baby it was his version and it was a huge hit. Also Always Be My Baby had high sustained notes while some of his other songs like Billie Jean or Hello did not have such high notes. So Always Be My Baby showcases his vocal range including sustained high notes, it was an original arrangement, it was a risky performance, and it was an Idol moment.
    Besides this, there is evidence at places like dialidol that Always Be My Baby is the performance that made Cook the front runner. He jumped up in the voting for Hello and is predicted to have been at the top of the votes for Billie Jean. But then he could still fall back to the middle of the pack the next week. Once he sang Always Be My Baby for top 7 week there was no looking back. He is predicted to have been the 1st or at least a close 2nd in the votes for the rest of the season after that.
    Cook is so versatile. I think a lot of his die hard fans got on board after Hello or Billie Jean, and those are still their favorites. Others prefer something like Music of the Night where he proved he could sing a very difficult classic song and hit every note. But Always Be My Baby is one of the performances that gained him widespread support among much of the audience (plus its my favorite) so I can see why that would be the one to make a list like this.

    • Adam Fachry says:

      Not that it matters much, but Always Be My Baby’s Studio Version was also a huge hit in Asia. It’s even played by local radios here, I think the first and only time, a studio version of Idol contestant’s performance (that’s not a coronation song) ever gained massive airplays. I personally prefer the studio version to the performance.

  44. PFitzDC says:

    I question some of the song choices that made your list, but not the individuals. So many Mamasox songs I liked better than Bobby McGee, ditto David Cook’s pick (give me Billie Jean or Little Sparrow), Jessica Sanchez’s “And I’m Telling You…” solo was nowhere near as powerful as her duet with Jennifer Holliday; she had better performance numbers. Jason Castro’s Hallelujah was fine, but I liked other pieces better. I love “Home” but to overlook Phillip’s Volcano is a crime. Also not sure about putting Candice as number 1…wonder if you still will feel that way with a little objective distance. But you were absolutely on for the breakout numbers for Kelly, Fantasia, Elliott and Archuletta.

  45. Adrian Arciniega says:

    This is a perfect list, all you have to do is replace JHUD’s ‘Circle of Life’ with JHUD’s ‘Weekend in New England’.

  46. Deb says:

    Bo number one, Carrie number 2. Candice doesn’t even belong on there!!!

  47. Adam Fachry says:

    My own top 25 (not that any of you care anyway lol):

    1. Fantasia – Summertime
    2. Haley Reinhart – Bennie and the Jets
    3. Melinda Doolittle – My Funny Valentine
    4. Bo Bice – in a Dream
    5. Candice Glover – Lovesong
    6. Elise Testone – Whole Lotta Love
    7. Adam Lambert – Mad World
    8. Elliott Yamin – Mody’s Mood For Love
    9. Crystal Bowersox – Saved
    10. Kree Harrison – Crying
    11. Allison Iraheta – Cry Baby (Exit Performance)
    12. Jessica Sanchez, Deandre Brackensick, Candice Glover – It Doesn’t Matter Anymore
    13. David Cook – Billie Jean
    14. Katharine McPhee – Somewhere Over The Rainbow
    15. Kelly Clarkson – Stuff Like That There
    17. Kris Allen – Falling Slowly
    18. Melinda Doolittle – I’m a Woman (Top 16)
    19. Haley Reinhart – House of the Rising Sun
    20. Latoya London – (Ain’t Goin’ Down) Til The Sun Comes Up
    21. Skylar Laine – Stay With Me
    22. Fantasia – I heard It Through a Grapevine
    23. Elliott Yamin – A Song for You
    24. Jordin Sparks – I (Who Have Nothing)
    25. Ruben Studdard – Superstar

  48. GinnyB says:

    I’d move Hallelujah, Solitaire and I Can’t Make You Love Me up further. Hallelujah and Solitaire are far more worthy of the top. I’d also make Heartless probably in the Top 3. Since I’ve never watched this latest season, I can’t vouch for your number one choice, but in my book, Heartless should take top honors.

  49. Zee says:

    Hmmm I would have placed Ledet’s This is a Man’s World at about 4 or 5.. I still don’t think they’ve had a soul singer of his caliber ever on the show and the performance of that song was incredible. Actually his version of India Arie’s Ready for Love was also terrific. He’s my favorite male singer of Idol period – amazing amazing vocal ability and stage presence.

    Love song was awesome but #1 is pushin it. Tamyra Grey is missing, she was an amazing vocalist. I’m a big fan of all the stuff Cook did on Idol too, super original and way too cool for Idol IMO — weird how I don’t like any of his own work since.

    Not a big fan of Pia – she was pretty middle of the road as an artist – despite her big voice.

    Jessica Sanchez’s cover of J. Sullivan’s Stuttering was my favorite that she did. I actually thought her voice sounded stretched on And I’m telling you…

  50. Candice got this hands down but we got to wait on the people to vote and it can go any way look at what happen Candice was in the bottom 2 then next week had the 1st save we cant say i like both but Candice is better

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