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. teatime says:

    Keeping to the rule of only 1 song per contestant, my top 9 would look something like:

    David Cook – Always Be My Baby
    Haley Reinhart – U and I
    Adam Lambert – Mad World
    Kris Allen – Heartless
    Bo Bice – In a Dream
    Jason Castro – Somewhere Over the Rainbow
    Elise Testone – Whole Lotta Love
    Allison Iraheta – Papa Was a Rolling Stone
    Blake Lewis – You give Love a Bad Name
    Casey James – Jealous Guy

    Things get very murky after that. There are so many great performances and so many more contestants I want to put on the list. I’d have to spend a lot of time debating how to order the next set of contestants I would want on my list.

    I had the most trouble with Allison. She’s one of my favorites. I loved her as a contestant. But I’m not sure she really had Idol moments. It was difficult to think of what individual performance really stands out among all performances of all seasons. Papa Was a Rolling Stone is her first performance that blew me away and made me notice her. So that’s her most memorable for me. But if I were to put together a collection of great Idol performances for, say, someone who had never seen the show, I’d have to seriously consider dropping her much further down the least no matter how much I like her overall as a contestant.

    There are a number of other contestants that were among my favorites during their season, but I have to admit they probably don’t have a single standout performance that I could fit into a list like this.

    I am also not sure what to do with Jordin Sparks. I Who Have Nothing was a great performance that won her the title even though she did not have a lot of standout performances. But then 2 other contestants in later seasons also had great performances with that same song and for them it was not even their best song. So while it was impactful at the time, I think if I were to play it in a list with other great Idol performances it would not even end up in the my top 20.

  2. efe says:

    phillip phillips is just too high

    • teatime says:

      Yet Phillip’s Home is the single best selling single ever from an Idol contestant either from the show or post-Idol.

  3. BBC says:

    LOL no. That performance was overrated.

  4. Amy says:

    Candice: “I Who Have Nothing” (Finale!)…I…..cannot even believe what I just heard.
    She is easily one of THE best singers this show has ever seen. Her power, control, phrasing and melody choices are impeccable. Wow. just Wow.

  5. Tim says:

    Love song was great, but her Bacharach-David cover on the same night may have been even better.

  6. bs’d
    I would have added Danny Gokey’s CROCS. IMHO :)

  7. Michael Slezak, I think you forgot Katherine McPhee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

  8. Beth says:

    While “Stuff Like that There” is what brought Kelly Clarkson to the front runner spot “Natural Woman” was her best performance in my opinion!

  9. Pavanne says:

    How about Kaitlyn Epperly’s performance of “The Scientist”?

  10. xx says:

    Stuff Like That There-Summertime 1-2, Mad World-Whole Lotta Love (Elise) 3-4. Snoozy Love Song is way too high- add My Funny Valentine to round out top 5.

  11. C says:

    What about Phillips Phillips singing Volcano (by Damien Rice)? I thought that was a hauntingly beautiful rendition of that song. I would also move up Adam Lambert’s Mad World but that’s just my opinion. Candace’s rendition of that song by the Cure should have also made this list. :)

  12. darcy the slutty twin says:

    Major, major eye roll at Candice getting the number one spot. In fact, my eyes just rolled right out of their sockets. And this list is laughable with the inclusion of Kendra Chantelle. Seriously?!!!!!

  13. gp says:

    One of my favorites, from a contestant who was not one of my favorites, was Casey James singing John Lennon’s Jealous Guy.

  14. RZT says:

    It’s Slezak’s opinion…that’s the point. There IS no greater Idol watcher…or fan. Recognize.

  15. mwyz says:

    David Cook’s “Billie Jean” and “Hello” (and maybe “The World I Know”?)
    Haley Reinhart’s “House of the Rising Sun”
    Kelly Clarkson’s “Natural Woman”
    Jessica Sanchez’s “You Are So Beautiful” and “Pray”
    Clay Aiken’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”
    Katharine McPhee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

    I think all of these performances should have been on here, most of them around the top 10.

  16. cassiopeia0tvxq says:

    You know what I’d be interested in? Rather than a list of top performances, a list of the top idols in terms of performances, originality, and stage presence. That would be awesome.

  17. PAL says:

    Top 11 according to “What not to sing”. They use statistical analysis from many sites that grade performances (such as this) and they have:

    1) Candice “Love song” 96
    2) Kelly “Stuff like that there” 95
    2) David Cook “Billie Jean” 95
    4) Fantasia “Summertime” 94
    4) Bo Bice “In a Dream” 94
    4) Adam “Mad World” 94
    4) Halley “HOTRS” 94
    8) Aiken “Build Me up Buttercup” 93
    8) Archuleta “Imagine” 93
    8) Pia “I’ll Stand by you” 93
    8) Elise “Whole Lotta Love” 93

    It is amazing to me that the best to of Halley and David are not included in the list…

  18. Deena says:

    Oh how I missed Michael Johns. That performance was amazing and his album is among my favorite post-Idol debuts.

  19. Angel says:

    Michael I agree with most of your choices. I would have swapped Adam Lambert’s Whole Lotta Love in for Elise’s and It’s A Man’s Man’s World needed to move up at least 5 spots. As much as I love Kris Allen’s Heartless I would have stuck his Finale performance of Ain’t No Sunshine in there somewhere. Candice as of right now is correct for me especially since she performed the first ever exorcist on stage during that performance. Still the scariest thing ever was that voice that appeared out of no where.

  20. PAL says:

    Top 10 Idols (on terms of average grading of all their performances, according to Whatnottosing, minimum 10 performances):
    Melinda Doolittle, 77.0
    LaToya London, 76.6
    Kelly Clarkson, 75.6
    Crystal Bowersox, 74.9
    Allison Irahieta 72.8
    Candice Glover, 72.6
    Bo Bice, 70.9
    Adam Lambert, 69.8
    Clay Aiken, 68.2
    James Durbin, 67.4

    Some surprises there, but top 3 are excellent vocalists. James Durbin is a surprise, Adam Lamber not higher is a surprise (too polemic perhaps?)…
    Thoughts?

    • teatime says:

      This list high lights some of the issues with their ranking system. For one thing they tend to under-rate songs that are done on the show for the first time. Or maybe it is that they just over-rate songs that were done well on the show previously so they give the the song a high rating. Also, they rate on a bit of a curve for a season. If a season has a small number of standout performances then they get rated particularly high. If a season has a very high number of standout performances then there is not as much buzz about each one.

    • teatime says:

      There is not a single person on the list from season 7. That is because between David Cook, David Archuleta, Syesha, Jason Castro, Carly Smithson, Michael Johns, and even Brooke White, every episode of that season was full of remarkable performances. The presumed front-runners changed throughout the season and each of them had people in their corner singing their praises.
      On the other hand, Melinda Doolittle was the critical darling throughout season 6, Crystal was the critical favorite for all of season 9, and Candice is one of the few standouts from this season.
      I have no idea how Allison scored higher than Adam. As much as I love Allison, Adam had more memorable performances and was a standout from his very first appearance.

  21. Kevin says:

    My Top 10

    1) Summertime- Fantasia
    2) It’s a Man’s World – Josh Ledet
    3) Mad World- (although basically anything he sang could go here- tracks of my tears was my personal favorite looking back now)
    4) My Funny Valentine- Melinda
    5) Weekend in New England- JHud
    6) Stuff LIke That There/Without You (can’t choose) – Kelly
    7) Imagine- David Archuleta
    8) All by Myself- Latoya London
    9) Superstar- Ruben Studdard
    10) Alone- Carrie Underwood

    Honorable Mentions- Kim Locke- Where the Boys Are

    Note: 8 and 9 technically don’t count on Slezaks List bc they were in top 32/groups

  22. Sieves says:

    Personally, I thought Candice’s Don’t Make Me Over was more emotionally gripping, and therefore better.

    I’m confused why Jessica Sanchez’s And I Am Telling You is at like 23 when Joshua Ledet’s Its A Man’s Man’s is like 11. Sorry Micheal, but Jessica’s And I Am Telling You came AFTER Joshua’s and surpassed his performance in every way. It literally gave me chills. Everywhere. Continuously. For practically the whole song. I thought my body was going numb it tingled so much. I mean the passion Jessica crammed into that song, coupled with the way she knocked the vocals out of the park? Way better than Joshua’s. Leagues ahead, in fact. (Which is saying something since Joshua’s was also spectacular.) Basically Joshua Ledet’s Man’s Man’s should switch places with Jessica’s And I Am Telling You.

  23. I’m totally with Slezak on “Always Be My Baby” being Cook’s defining moment. He took a very happy-go-lucky pop song and turned it into a haunting power ballad. His version of “Billie Jean” was too similar to other renditions (like Cornell’s) and “The World I Know” was too much like the original version. Although I loved all these performances, “Always Be My Baby” was a Cook original. The lyrics may be Mariah’s, but that arrangement was ALL Cook.

  24. Bob says:

    Anything Melinda Doolittle sang on the show–including her audition– could be in the Top Ten. I am not exaggerating. Special shout-out, though, to “I Got Rhythm,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” Heaven Knows,” “Trouble is a Woman,” “I’m a Woman,” and, of course, “My Funny Valentine.”

  25. FoX1NOuT says:

    I think it really does boil down to preference … Some people dont know anything about music and make ignorant comments because of there inability to think outside the box .. I happen to know a little about music in general not just one genre and came into the season impartial and with that being said so does and did every judge on the panel especially Maria Carey … She even stated Candice Glover has one of the best voices she heard in her lifetime(do you know what that is) I would say the best …..she has range and power she can be gentle and break hearts or she can blow away and electrify a audience any song that she has done she has made her own to include love song which touched my soul and made her unforgettable to many including myself this was the best and that’s why its number one however its just our opinion your welcome to yours

  26. Adam Lambert should be #1 as the BEST Idol contestant of all time! Simon gave him a standing ovation. Simon. Katharine McPhee should be in the top 5, for either “Over the Rainbow” or “Black Horse & a Cherry Tree.” Siobhan Magnus needs to be on the list for “Paint It Black.” The superstar Carrie Underwood should be in the top 5 with Kelly Clarkson. How about we be fair and give them their status based on the year, that is to say, the greats in order of the year, as in Kelly Clarkson #1 (she has proven herself to be a star), then Carrie Underwood #2,*who as Simon predicted would become the biggerst star ever to be launched from Idol and then Adam Lambert #3 (not that he isn’t #1 but just being fair to who was on the show first-of the very best that is) then Katharine McPhee #4, and Siobhan Magnus #5. Then Jennifer Hudson, Daughtry, Bo Bice, and be done with it,, let the chips fall where they may. . Just thank you for not including Taylor Hicks. & I don’t think Candice deserves #1 either.

    • islandgirl says:

      I agree with you about Siobhan Magnus.. Paint it Black and others she sang. That girl knew how to entertain!

      • violetflamemusic says:

        Absolutely!!!! Siobhan Magnus is amazing. “Paint It Black”, or “Think” should definitely be on this list

  27. Bjo says:

    Adam Lambert’s “Feeling Good” has to be the #1 vocal performance, although “Mad World” had that magical quality that was completely electrifying. It was a transcendent moment.

  28. Adam Fachry says:

    I’ve been explaining this many times before but Candice DID NOT entirely USE the Adele’s arrangement. She (or the bandleader, Ray something), chose piano to be the most prominent instrument whereas Adele chose guitar. Candice’s is straight-up jazz while Adele’s has a more bossa nova vibe to it.

    I can see why so many of you dislike it, due to the amount of runs, but I personally found the runs actually necessary, if Curtis Finch were to perform that song, the melisma and runs would be far more problematic. And personally, I think Candice gave the song a different perspective. The angst-ridden sensibility exhibited by her vocals, to me, actually projects a feeling of bleak infatuation more than straightforward romance. It’s like a stalker in Haley Reinhart’s rendition of I (Who Have Nothing) has developed even more severe feelings toward her unrequited love. After several times watching the performance, I sort of pictured Candice as this character from a David Lynch’s surreal film who performs this song in a morbid scene. You guys remember the unexpected noise shouted by a fan during the middle parts of it? That scream actually adds a creepiness to the song.

    • teatime says:

      If Candice is going to compete with the boys, she’s going to face the same criteria for rearrangement credit. She (or the bandleader) did not go from The Cure’s version to the version she sang. She went from Adele’s version to the version she sang. It’s still an awesome, creative, original, thing to do. There is just a distinction that is always made between performing or rearranging a lesser known version vs completely doing something out of the box with an original.

  29. Maria says:

    I don’t think you even got the best performances from some of the contestants you chose. Jennifer Hudson’s best was “Weekend In New England”. Haley Reinhart’s best was “House of the Rising Sun”. David Cook’s best was “Billie Jean”. You left off LaToya London who was one of the best.

    Kris Allen giving the 5th best performance in Idol history is absolutely hysterical.

  30. Where is Vonzell Solomon??? Nobody sang “I have nothing” like her.

  31. efe says:

    I really liked the list. And I’m gonna write my own personal even though nobody cares.

    25. Siobhan Magnus “Paint It, Black”
    24. LaToya London “Somewhere”
    23. Phillip Phillips “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”
    22. Carrie Underwood “Alone”
    21. Jennifer Hudson “The Circle of Life”
    20. David Archuleta “Imagine”
    19. Blake Lewis “You Give Love a Bad Name”
    18. Elise Testone “Whole Lotta Love”
    17. Candice Glover “Lovesong”
    16. Joshua Ledet “To Love Somebody”
    15. Bo Bice “In a Dream”
    14. Chris Daughtry “Hemorrage (In My Hands)”
    13. Skylar Laine “The Show Must Go On”
    12. Allison Iraheta “Cry Baby”
    11. Janelle Arthur “I Will”
    10. Pia Toscano “All in Love is Fair”
    9. Kelly Clarkson “Stuff Like That There”
    8. Jessica Sanchez “And I’m Telling You”
    7. Adam Lambert “Ring of Fire”
    6. Melinda Doolittle “My Funny Valentine”
    5. Crystal Bowersox “Me & Bobby McGee”
    4. David Cook “Always Be My Baby”
    3. Kris Allen “She Works Hard for the Money”
    2. Haley Reinhart “Bennie and the Jets”
    1. Fantasia Barrino “Summertime”

    • Emma says:

      Anyone who has Kris Allen on a list surly does not have an ear for music. He is a very ordinary singer and a poor musician.

      • teatime says:

        Kris is often underrated as a singer. Probably because he was on the same season as Adam. Kris has an interesting and unique tone, a considerable range, and he always had good performances and was in tune and on key. He is also a very talented musician on multiple instruments.

  32. dani n. says:

    Amber My Funny Valentine& What Are You Doing For The Rest Of Your Life. Maybe ya’ll don’t like her but that sh.. was good. Oh right talking live performances. I reiterate What Are You Foing that shxx was good. Haley’s Led was her best cause it was unexpected. Adam Mad World Tracks Of My Tears Lakisha Carly there are too many great performances to whittle them down to 30 or even 35

    • Emma says:

      Last night’s top 2 showdown was sorely missing a ‘lil Haley Reinhart magic a la “What Is And What Should Never Be” Led freakin Zeppelin man! We got six ballads in a row where the contestants stood in one spot and didn’t move an inch. Mind numbingly dull final.

  33. Mário says:

    Katharine McPhee – Somewhere Over The Rainbow should be on TOP 05

  34. Jean says:

    I agree with most of your choices. I may quibble with the order here and there, but all the great performances that I love are there. But I don’t agree with Candice Glover as number 1, and here’s why. I just re-watched her performance. Musically, it is magnificent. Candice has a beautiful instrument, incredible mastery of that instrument, and it was a fantastic performance of a great version of a great song. But I didn’t find it electrifying in the same way that I found Fantasia’s Summertime, or Adam Lambert’s Mad World, or Kelly Clarkson’s “Something LIke That There,” or even Blake Lewis’ “You Give Love a Bad Name.” In each of those performances, I felt like I’d somehow seen inside the performer’s soul, that they showed exactly who they are, and what made them who they are not only as a singer, but as a person. A think Candice’s performance was like Elliott Yamin’s, a singing Master Class, as Simon said, but not necessarily an emotional punch in the gut the way those were. Even though Kelly’s performance was a fun, sunny performance, and not emotionally gut-wrenching like Adam’s or Fantasia’s, I felt like Kelly’s charisma and personality took over the whole theater. As fantastic as Candice’s performance was, I didn’t feel it the same way.

  35. syb says:

    I’d have had many of the same artists on my list. I might have picked different songs for several. I do agree that the number 1 is the best of those listed, but I have two Candice Glover outings ahead of the brilliant Lovesong performance. (Last night’s IWHN, and You’ve Changed edged Lovesong out for me.) Still, the live audience reaction to Lovesong will always stay with me, so that’s worth some points.

  36. Jongirl says:

    I haven’t read the comments, so forgive me if I say what ten other people have already said. But NO ONE could top Adam’s “Mad World”. Actually, no one could top Adam. Week after week of Season 8, I’d be anticipating the show all day every Tuesday, wondering what Adam would come up with. And he never disappointed. I’d also put “Ring of Fire”, “Tracks of my Tears”, and “Feelin’ Good” on that top 30 list. Every season has been dull for me since then. (And NOTHING I’ve ever heard by Fantasia–fortunately I didn’t start watching till Season 4–has ever made it past my mute button after the first few notes.)

    • Jongirl says:

      I didn’t limit myself to one song per artist, because, if you do a bunch that are really good, why drop them by the wayside just to put something less deserving in its place?

  37. Leah Hoffman says:

    You Make me Feel (Like a Natural Woman) KC, season 1… WHY NOT ON THE LIST?!?! ((((that is all))))

  38. Emma says:

    Candice could not out sing Kelly Clarkson or Adam Lambert on the best day of her life. Your list is an insult to all American Idol viewers. Just because Candice was pimped by the producers this year so that a girl would win it does not mean that she has any real talent. The Idol tour will have the worst turnout ever with her as a winner. Idol insiders like you are never honest about identifying talent.

  39. *thinking* This list is pretty accurate so far
    *gets to 21* Michael. Freaking. Slezak.

  40. Horace says:

    I personally think (of this season) Amber’s “What Are You Doing With The Rest of Your Life” was better than Kree’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night”. I think Kree’s “Crying” was actually better than Help Me Make It Through The Night, also, but the list as a whole is pretty accurate. In any discrepancy one could mention, they would be simply going off of personal preference, especially with those top 4 songs.

  41. tewence says:

    why is joshua not toward the top? that performance was legendary!

  42. Siggy says:

    My favorite performances were Kimberley Locke’s “New York State Of Mind”, Clay Aiken’s “Somewhere Out There” and Ruben Studdard’s “A Whole New World”. To me, Season 2 is still the best and most memorable season of all.

  43. Taryn says:

    It’s almost criminal that you didn’t put Katherine McPhee on this list she had several truly amazing performances that I still remember fondly to this day

  44. sooka says:

    my top 5 all time
    1)track of my tears- adam
    2)heartless – kris
    3) you’re always be my baby – david cook
    4) summertime – fantasia
    5)you are still the one – lee dewayze

  45. fean says:

    Adam Lambert is the best all-around vocalist-performer ever to grace the dol stage. 4-5 of his songs could head this list. Loved “Summertime”,” Lovesong” and “Solitaire after Adam’s top songs.

  46. tony says:

    Hailey’s Earth Song #2, Phillip’s Home #1.

  47. dComment says:

    Candice is great, her lovesong cover was sublime! But is it worth the first spot? And did you forget about Jessica Sanchez’s duet with Jennifer Holiday on American Idol’s season 10 finale? Now that deserves the number one spot!

  48. M-E Marsh says:

    You put Elise’s Whole Lotta Love up here instead of Adam Lamberts???? Really anything Adam did could have been number one for creativity alone!

  49. Harmony says:

    Can you do another one for the best exit performance and or Hollywood week moments? Because there are actually a lot of really great moments from those.

    Also, I enjoyed all of Kree’s performances but the one you chose for her isn’t even in my top five for her. I’d put: Up to the Mountain, Cryin, See You Again, A Whiter Shade of Pale, Stars, All Cried Out, Here Comes Goodbye, and What The World Needs Now Is Love higher up. Otherwise, I liked your picks.

    Oh, one more thing, I’d put Candice’s version of When I was Your Man before her version of Love Song. Unexpected and really cool arrangement.

  50. Joy says:

    So many good choices…but come on so many good ones… Billie jean, somewhere over the rainbow, and whole lotta love by dc, Jason Castro, and Adam lambert…still some more great ones. The list can go on and on..

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