American Idol: The 35 Best Performances of All Time (Ever!)

Almost all the buzz surrounding American Idol this week has centered on Fox’s decision to hit CTRL+ALT+DEL after Season 15 wraps next spring.

But why gaze so deep into the future when the granddaddy of reality singing competitions has a rich history that’s oh so fun to revisit?

To that end, I’ve spent half a day perusing YouTube — and engaging in painful internal debate — to compile a list of the show’s 35 Best Performances of All Time (Ever!). Who made the cut? Well, Kelly, Carrie, Fantasia, Kris, Adam and Melinda, of course, but also some less-lauded (but no less-talented) folks who never quite got the respect to which they were entitled.

Click through the gallery below for my full countdown – or click here for direct access — then hit the comments and tell me where I got it right, where I went awry and which standouts I inevitably snubbed.

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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180 Comments
  1. Alienate says:

    Great list. My ordering would be quite different, but you covered it well.

    • Some Dude says:

      Agreed. Any list like this is going to be hotly contested, but I admire the attempt. I appreciated having the opportunity to go back and re-watch some of these. For example, I really enjoyed Kris Allen’s performance of Heartless even though I wasn’t rooting for him that season, and I’ve been quietly maligning him ever since just because of whom he beat.

      If I’m being honest, as much as I loved Clark this season, Quentin’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You” probably was one of the real stand-out performances from this season. Honestly, I’m also totally okay with seeing Joey’s rendition of “Fancy” on there. Probably just those two, though.

      I agree with others–Michael could have cut, say, Jax, to give props to David Archuleta doing “Imagine”. That seems like an oversight.

    • Karen O says:

      I almost completely agree, except you missed Siobhan Magnus’ Paint It Black. :)

    • There is another different list at American idol Ryan Seacrest and its the top 25 best performances. There are some similarities, and some differences to Michaels list. I like both lists. The 2 of them covered just all the best!

    • Jill Moy says:

      I can’t find the comment on here, someone saying Candice Glovers #1 song on the list was “jaw dropping!”

      The only thing I find jaw drooping about Glover is the fact she broke the all-time pie eating record of 16 pies in 12 hours at the IPEA (International Pie Eating Association)!

    • LAPR says:

      If you want an unbiased opinion go to what not to sing and they list the performances by rating. No performance from this season makes it to top 35. Top 13 are:
      1. Love Song, 96 (Candice Glover)
      2. Stuff Like That There, 95 (Kelly Clarkson)
      2. Billy Jean, 95 (David Cook)
      4. Summertime, 94 (Fantasia)
      4. In a Dream, 94 (Bo Bice)
      4. Mad World, 94 (Adam Lambert)
      4. House of the Rising Sun, 94 (Haley Reinhart)
      8. 6 tied with 93 including Imagine…

  2. Kelly says:

    No Kimberley Locke “If You Asked Me To”, “Over the Rainbow”, or “Band of Gold”?
    Boo to this list!

    • Nan says:

      Ditto! Not to mention David Cook’s Music of the Night, Clay’s Bridge over Troubled Water, Siobhan Magnus’ Across The Universe. And Adam’s Mad World should be #1.

    • Matty says:

      Amen! Kim Locke put herself in contention with New York State Of Mind and If You Asked Me To. She should be on this list for sure.

  3. kalyn says:

    Beautiful Life? Please it wasn’t that good. It sounded the same as Nicks other performances. And Bang Bang wasn’t even Jax best performance. You couldn’t find one for Clark? Several of his performances are better than some on your list. Come on now.

    • kalyn says:

      Oh and Kelly’s Stuff Like That There is the best of all time. Don’t be so biased.

    • sg54 says:

      His bias is absolutely ridiculous this season. Clark’s House of Blues’ Georgia on my Mind, Sunday Morning, Every Breath You Take, and Superstition are all better than Beautiful Life. He hates that man for no good reason! He has an amazing voice with amazing vocal control! Just ridiculous.

    • Timmah says:

      It’s pretty laughable to have Nick and Jax up there when the likes of McPhee, Kim Locke, Carly Smithson, etc. are completely missing. Try again.

    • donewiththevoice says:

      Beatch !!! bang bang was her best

    • Joe says:

      Oh Beautiful Life is good…but over Jessica Sanchez and Pia Toscano? I can figuratively projectile vomit on this list right now.

    • Beautiful Life? No Not that good!

    • Nancy says:

      I don’t think any of the contestants from this season had stand-out performances. They were ok — but there was a reason why no one got a standing O. I love Joey Cook but, no. Even she did not have a top 35 performance. As for Jax and Nick — just shaking my head. They’re both goooodddd … but compared to Adam and Bo and Haley and Candice and Melinda and Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia and Joshua Ledet and the Davids and …. well. There is just no comparison.

      • whitelancer says:

        “Fancy” is the one performance from this season that deserves to make the list IMO. Obviously the numbers are thrown off due to the one performance per contestant restriction (so I could buy an argument for “White Flag”), but there’s no way Nick and probably Sarina should have been anywhere near this list (I was on Melinda’s side re: Quentin, but he does have his fans so I understand the inclusion).

        “Fancy” for me was the clear best performance of the season by an underappreciated contestant, much like “Blue-Eyed Lie” and “Whole Lotta Love.”

  4. Lorena says:

    WHat? no David Archuleta and “Imagine”

    • flutiefan says:

      When i hadn’t seen it by the time I reached the last couple, I though for sure it was in its rightful place as #1 or #2. But not even on the list?? Patently absurd.

  5. Gerhard says:

    It feels like it has lost some of it’s soul this year my wife and I thought that it was time before it was announced. We watched it for 14 years and YES IT WAS TIME. Still feels like we lost a friend though.

  6. Amber says:

    IMO, there were too many from this season. This has not been that great of a season. There were plenty more from the other seasons that could have been included

    • tealeaves says:

      I don’t think I would have put any from this season. Or maybe just Quentin.

    • Mytake says:

      The only one from this year even remotely close to deserving to be on this list is Quentin’s “I put a spell on you”. This year other than that song, was dreary and without any real “moments”. I can’t remember any season being so boring vanilla more than this one.

  7. LJ says:

    How did Kat McPhee’s “Over the Rainbow” not make the list???

  8. Wes says:

    SLEZAK WHAT THE HELL I get we want to always put in performances from every season but Clark Beckham this season had many better performances than Quentin (!?!?!), JAX, and Nick!! I get why Joey is on there but geez you couldn’t put Tyanna in anywhere? Sorry but this list should obviously be called “Slezak’s favorite 35 performances ever” because your bias actually put the pitchy as all can be Quentin on this list and not perfect pitch performances from Clark, Rayvon or Tyanna. You could’ve even put Jax’s White Flag but you put Bang Bang?

    • Terry says:

      Well duh, of course it’s his opinion! Why don’t you make your own list and join in the fun instead of being such a downer.

    • Jill Moy says:

      WES,

      You are 100% correct! Plus, he has A- performances on list , omitting A and A+ performances (somebody pointed that out)!

      THERE ARE MANY PERFORMANCES THAT ARE JOKES! Our #3 finisher this year is the second worst singer ever on AI; THAT HONOR GOES TO BRISTON MARONEY, TOP 15 BOYS LAST YEAR, “THE WORLDS WORST SINGER!”

  9. Love your list Michael – totes right on! However, as I’m a major Adam fan, for me Mad World is #1. Otherwise your list is perfect.

    • Kayk says:

      Yes to Adam and Mad World at number one!

    • Granny C says:

      Agreed with “Mad World” as the best ever. Did I miss “Imagine” by David A or is it in there?

      • Jill Moy says:

        GRANNY,

        NO DAVID A, only crap from David Cook who was wiped out by the kid when they both sang their final 3 songs! A crime, an average singer and 2nd rate musician winning AI! What does america know, JAX A$$ finishes third, a singer who can’t sing…period!

  10. girl_3 says:

    I just got through saying you never gave Casey James his due, so while I’m not surprised you left Jealous Guy off your list, I am disappointed nonetheless. That was as vocally and as emotionally perfect a performance ever seen on the Idol stage. It was, to quote the “great Mariah Carey” (sorry, Randy) a “moment-moment.” And ITA with those who said there was too many performances from this year. I’ll give you Sarina-Joi, but I’m betting you won’t remember any of the others (except maybe Quentin, well, darn it, because the eyes) by this time next year. I also second Kat’s Over the Rainbow be included. Otherwise, keep on keepin’ on, Michael :-)

  11. flutiefan says:

    this list is simply laughable. not even including David Archuleta’s “Imagine” renders it invalid. try again, sir.

  12. wrttn.in says:

    Dla tego też w lesie marek, firm i towarów trwa nieustanna walka klienta, a
    głównym jej orężem jest właśnie reklama.

  13. JMay says:

    Well, opinions are like…Anyway, my list would be different. My number one would probably be the duet between Jessica Sanchez and Jennifer Holiday. Not technically a competition performance, sure, but cray amazing. Lambert’s Ring of Fire, Crystal’s Long as I can see the Light would a sentimental favorite, Elise’s One and Only, Crow & the Butterfly by Jessica Meuse, It’s a Man’s World by Joshua, Billie Jean by David Cook, Kris Allen’s Heartless. Lots of others, but you get the point.

    • Scott says:

      Adam’s Ring of Fire was “indulgent rubbish!” Lol

      • karenb says:

        Scott I thought I was the only one who could quote the judges from way back! “so here’s the thing,”-it’s nice to know I’m not alone lol

    • Jessamine says:

      Oh yes! That duet between Jessica Sanchez and Ms. Holliday was unbelievable. I shrieked when it came on and watched it dozens of times on YouTube. Amazing.

      • Joe says:

        Practically shats on every song on this list, that duet. My gosh if you weren’t transformed after that Jessica-Jennifer Holliday showdown, you don’t have a pulse.

  14. Riana says:

    Candice Glover had the best idol performance ever? Good luck finding one person who agrees with you on that.

  15. Hayder B. Hayden says:

    I have problems with this list. Where’s Siobhan Magnus “Paint It Black”? “Ring of Fire”?

  16. Kerry Kolsch says:

    Candice Glover? Really? Adam Lambert is the best singer to take the Idol stage. All of his performances are better than anything Glover ever sang. Anything Kelly sang is better as well. I have never been a fan of yours since the times when you defended Kris Allen’s cheating win. See what happened in the end? American Idol went belly up for allowing the cheating and Adam is becoming a very big international star. It is poetic justice.

    • tealeaves says:

      There wasn’t any “cheating” because people in his home state power voted. I am sure there were plenty of power voters for the other guy. And even if it was “cheating” that there was a large power-voting event in his state, it did not matter because even if they threw out all the votes from Arkansas Kris Allen still would have won,.

    • stormsurger says:

      Not Ring of Fire. That was a disaster for Adam.

    • Susan says:

      Adam is not angry that Kris won. Enough said there,but I would exchange Adam’s Mad World for A Change is Gonna Come and Billie Jean for David Cook. I would give a tie to Candace Glover and Fantasia. I am a huge Adam Lambert fan,but I think his voice is more textured now (‘Ghost Town”) than some of his Idol performances. However, the
      Bowie medley on Idol tour is unrivaled. Good list Michael;-)

    • karenb says:

      Oh god not this again. Adam has moved on. Maybe you should try doing the same.

  17. tealeaves says:

    Maybe half of these would be on my list.

  18. Emma says:

    Between Creep and Can’t Help Falling in Love, Jena Irene should definitely be higher than #19.

  19. ceebee says:

    Way too many songs from this season – no where near the TOP 35 of ALL time…I think some distance to this season would add some perspective to your list…I agree with another poster who remarked that there are so many people you left out – Kim Locke, LaToya London, David Archuleta…although I do think that Candice Glover is one of the more under-appreciated winners…

  20. A. Prefera says:

    I disagree with many of these, but the two that bothered me the most were that you put Jessica Sanchez and Pia Toscano after Joey Cook and Quentin Alexander. I think you should watch those performances again. Also where is Clark? You pick Nick after Pia and Jessica as well. I don’t think so.

  21. stormsurger says:

    Good list. Haley Reinhart also did a phenomenal job on “I who have Nothing”.

  22. TV Gord says:

    Brian Dunkleman.

  23. Liz says:

    Michael you nailed it! Can’t argue with any of them. There are a lot more that could be added to make the list longer but this is a great primer for anyone to start with. I would add Kat McFees Black Horse in a Cherry Tree or Over the Rainbow as #36.

  24. Sha says:

    Haley Reinhart’s rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” was way better than “Bennie and the Jets!”

  25. Scott says:

    Guys, this is just his opinion. All of our lists would look different for each other’s. Jeez calm down everyone, it’s all subjective. One thing we can agree on is Idol has had a lot of fantastic performances over the years. And this would not be my list, but I respect his opinion.

  26. Sha says:

    I think more time should have been spent perusing YouTube.

  27. Clay Aiken: Bridge Over Troubled Water….. but you had David Cook on the list so it wasn’t all bad.

  28. I haven’t been watching, but no “Moment like This” by Kelly? I expected it to be #1 or at least somewhere in the top 10. Also, love that Chris Daughtry was on here. One of my favorite artists. His rendition of “Walk the Line” was fantastic as well.

  29. Angie says:

    I’m glad you remembered Elliot Yamin. In my opinion, he was the best male voice this show ever produced.

  30. Emma says:

    Haley Reinhart doesn’t even make the top 5?!? Who even are you?!?

  31. Matty says:

    What about Latoya London??? Her vocals are way better than anyone from the past three seasons. Her shock elimination performance of Don’t Rain On My Parade was fantastic. And though I’m not her biggest fan, Kat McPhee had a couple memorable performances (Over The Rainbow, Someone To Watch Over Me). I didn’t see David Archuleta either. Where’s the love for the contestants who were on the show when it was in it’s prime? Way too many from the recent snoozefest seasons are represented.

    • whitelancer says:

      LaToya London not being on the list is clearly insane, especially when Nick (the king of the ‘competent but unexciting’ performance) made it. I have plenty of other issues with the list (and I always roll my eyes seeing Kendra Chantelle here–it was a good wildcard performance but nowhere near an AI classic), but leaving one of the show’s best technical singers of all time off the list is a disaster.

      Also, My Funny Valentine is too low even at 7. The performances above it were great AI performances, but MFV was just a masterclass. Just my opinion, of course, but I think really only Billie Jean and maybe Summertime and Lovesong would compete with it for me.

  32. Chris says:

    Have you been watching American Idol from the first season?

  33. Karen says:

    Some of those were head scratchers. I would have to include Crystal Bowersox and Lee deWyze’s duet of Falling Slowly.

    • Puchinsmom says:

      Karen, I loved that too! No one ever mentions that. Ever. I know I am alone in the universe, and I KNOW Lee DeWyze was inconsistent and had intonation issues galore, BUT his Hallelujah was one of my favorites of all time . Even Simon loved that.

  34. MP says:

    I would have said David Cook’s version of Hello, originally sung by Lionel Richie. He did such a fantastic and unique job with that song.

  35. mamamitzvah says:

    Don’t kill me. I know you have a thing about Danny Gokey because of the “Dream On” debacle & rightly so, but his “Come Rain or Come Shine” was amazing & gets played a lot on my playlist.

    • ROL says:

      Big Band Night on Season 8 was possibly the best single episode of AI ever. All the performances, even Gokey’s, were stellar. All could go on this list.

    • whitelancer says:

      Gokey gets way more crap than he deserves. Yes, “Dream On” was dreadful, but he had plenty of good performances before that and I think they’ve just been overshadowed. He really only finished one place higher than he should have that season (though it was rough seeing Allison go) and was not an embarrassing 3rd place, that one performance aside.

  36. karenb says:

    Kris looks great in that picture. I loved his idol run. No one says him coming! Great performance-have it on my phone. I wish idol still sold the performances. And hallelujah was superb

  37. CAM says:

    Confused. Strange order for many of these. Candace Glover #1? What about Bridge Over Troubled Water (Clay), Falling Slowly (Kris, or even Krystal and Lee), Billy Jean (David Cook) and Imagine (David Archuletta)? Kat McPhee (Over the Rainbow or even Black Horse and the Cherry Tree)?

  38. danin says:

    Dude, you missed Elliott’s epic masterclass singing Stevie Wonder’s If You Really Love Me.

  39. OhMy says:

    Gosh, no.

  40. Sue says:

    Biggest disappointment since adam lambert ended up in second place. Jax was the BEST without question and then Clark but he lost to nick freakin’ JOKE!! Not wasting time on the last season, got better things to do.

  41. Zane Brooks says:

    What about david archuleta imagine

  42. Woodmeister says:

    What…no Scotty McCreery?! Shocking….absolutely shocking😀

  43. donewiththevoice says:

    Uhhhhh where is Bang Bang??? By Jax??!!

  44. trickster88 says:

    I’m so embarrassed for you, Slezak. For you to think Quentin is better a singer than Elise, Jenna, Carrie, etc, is insane!

    • SG says:

      Keep in mind this isn’t a list of the best SINGERS but rather a list of best performances. There’s a difference.

  45. donewiththevoice says:

    What da hell where’s Angie Miller’s You set me free???! huuuuh you cannot not have that and put quentin in here

  46. Wiredream says:

    Slezak is a joke – a thief who stole his whole rating shtick from Yahoo years ago. This post’s inclusion of anyone from this season is testament to this. And the #1? Idiot.

  47. Emily says:

    I feel like a lot of the people commenting don’t realize he was trying to limit it to one song per contestant, hence the absence of other good performances.

  48. Evan says:

    15 from the first seven seasons and 20 from the most recent seven seasons? No. Just no. It should be even more skewed in the opposite direction!

    Ones from Seasons 1-7 I’d have included: Kelly Clarkson’s “Natural Woman,” LaToya London’s “All by Myself,” David Cook’s “Billie Jean,” Diana DeGarmo’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” Melinda Doolittle’s “Have a Nice Day,” Melissa McGhee’s “What About Love,” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Respect.”

    Also- Bon Jovi night from Season 6 is the single greatest night of Idol ever. We had “Have a Nice Day,” “This Ain’t a Love Song,” AND “You Give Love A Bad Name” all in the same day. I’d dream for one more Idol night like that.

  49. Joe says:

    Nick Fradiani’s Beautiful Day OVER Jessica Sanchez’s “And I Am Telling You”???? Get out of here Slezak….

  50. Wow Michael Yours is different than American Idols top 25 best performances! Caleb is the only one to have 2 in the top 25 at American Idols top 25. He got Dream On, and Maybe Im Amazed on there! But some are the same like Mad World,Love Song, Hello by David Cook and others have matched what you have!

    • Wait , Oh Mistake they have Lamberts Whole Lotta Love, instead of Mad World and Kathryn Mcphee Somewhere over the Rainbow. Its at the Ryan Seacrest American idol top 25 performances. There are some similarities with your list! They have David Archuletta’s Halleluyah over there. I dont really remember that being performed by Archuletta!

      • Jill Moy says:

        BECCA,

        Is this list supposed to be in order? If so, Pie Eating Champion Glover BEST PERFORMANCE OF ALL TIME????? I’m bustin’ a gut! Maybe Caleb is worthy of one??????? This list is comical! No Amber Holcumb but MUMBLES????? WHATDO YOU EXPECT, JAX A$$, the worst singer of anyone ever is on this list! They would boo her at ROSELAND! EXCUSE ME, THEY WOULD NEVER BOOK HER!

        • Jill there is another list at American Idol, Ryan Seacrest. Its the best 25 and Jax is not included! Caleb is the only one the got in there for 2 songs! Maybe Im amazed and Dream On! The list is quite different than Michaels. McPhee for Over the Rainbow is on Ai’s List but not Michaels! I cant wait for tonight. Sawyer is doing Old Man by Neil Young, Summer Breeze by Seals and Crofts, And Please, by Ray Lamontagne! Spelled right??? I love Neil Young, so cant wait to hear that!

          • Jill Moy says:

            BECCA,

            I’m glad Caleb had songs on other list! I liked David A’s Imagine a lot! Anyway, Glover has #1 song! A joke! But she is THE QUEEN OF THE BUFFETS AND WORLD CHAMPION PIE EATER! She can clear a dining room table like a hurdler!