With 12 seasons under its belt, American Idol has not only made a huge impact on TV, but also in the music industry. And when we see the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and all the rest snapping up Grammys left and right, sometimes it’s easy to overlook the songs that introduced us to them in the first place. And every season, there’s usually always one performance that blows us away so much it can never be matched — what I would call The Moment of the season. Let’s take a look back and relive those performances.
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Season 1: Kelly Clarkson’s “Without You” (Top 3)
When you have Kelly Clarkson in the mix, how can you go wrong? She had multiple performances throughout her run in the inaugural season that are contenders for The Moment of season 1, including “Natural Woman” (watch that video and tell me you’re not blown away when she reaches an octave you almost never hear being done) and “Stuff Like That There.” I ultimately went with “Without You” — she starts off soft and intimate, and by the end is effortlessly belting out powerful notes with ease. Watching her perform this, you can’t help but take it all in and let the music envelop you.
Season 2: Clay Aiken’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Top 2)
There’s no question that not only did Clay Aiken provide The Moment of season 2 with his rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel hit, but “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is to this day considered one of the best performances in the history of American Idol. I still get chills whenever I rewatch this video, especially with that final note. This was the final song performed before America could vote for the winner, and after witnessing this moment, everyone thought Clay had it in the bag. While Ruben ultimately won the title the following night, we all know who came out as the true winner.
Season 3: Fantasia Barrino’s “Summertime” (Top 8)
When you look over the best performances we’ve ever seen on Idol, it’s a pretty unanimous decision that “Summertime” is at the very, very top. She sets the mood right from the start by singing the entire song sitting on the stage floor, bringing in a very intimate feel and tone. We all know Fantasia can really belt it with that raw and gritty voice of hers, but here the notes she sings are crystal-clear and so precise. It’s no wonder she went on to win season 3.
Season 4: Carrie Underwood‘s “Alone” (Top 11)
Season 4 was one of those seasons with extraordinary talent, with Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice at the very top. And Carrie Underwood, a country girl, taking on Heart, an ’80s rock band, could have easily been a mistake. But we all know she can sing pretty much anything.
And not only is her performance of “Alone” one of my person favorites out of any season, but this moment is in the American Idol history books for what Simon Cowell said afterwards: “Carrie, you’re not just the girl to beat, you’re the person to beat. I will make a prediction: not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.” Talk about putting a target on her back, but his prediction came true in more ways than anyone could have believed at the time.
Season 5: Katharine McPhee’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Top 3)
Katharine McPhee took a page out of Fantasia’s playbook by sitting down on the stage while performing. And she went even further by starting off the song a cappella — we knew right away we were witnessing something special. It’s no wonder she reprised it a week later at the finale. And get this, to show how much this has become her signature song, look no further than her starring role on NBC’s now-cancelled Smash: the first song we ever heard on the Broadway-infused musical drama, in the first moments of the pilot, no less, was Katharine as Karen Cartwright singing “Over the Rainbow” for an audition. Talk about coming full circle.
Season 6: Blake Lewis’ “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Top 6)
Blake Lewis may not have been the best singer, but he made it all the way to the finals because of how original he is. The beatboxer from Bothell, WA, went out on a very shaky limb by completely rearranging and restyling Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” with Jon Bovi Jovi as a witness. (He was that week’s mentor.) As the rock singer said, “to not sing on a show that’s supposed to highlight singing…” Blake started off by not singing the first 16 measures of the song, which instantly drew us in.
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Season 7: David Cook’s “Billie Jean” (Top 10)
David Cook is one of those unique artists who constantly breathed new life into a song whenever he performed on Idol. The contenders for best performance all came from this rocker, with “Billie Jean” and “Always Be My Baby” at the very top. I’m ultimately going with “Billie Jean” because of how different and unique it is from the original. To take on Michael Jackson is a big enough deal as it is, but to do the Chris Cornell version was a brilliant decision on his part. (“Always Be My Baby” is at the top as well — who knew it would work so well as a rock song?)
Season 8: Adam Lambert’s “Mad World” (Top 8)
Just as “Summertime” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” have become Fantasia and Katharine McPhee’s signature songs, respectively, the same can be said of Adam Lambert and “Mad World.” I still remember witnessing this moment of brilliance back in season 8 — we already knew he was a force to be reckoned with before then, but this performance solidified his frontrunner status. And even after the season ended, he continued performing it countless times.
Season 9: Andrew Garcia’s “Straight Up” (Hollywood Week)
I guess we should have known season 9 was going to be a pretty weak season when the best performance came not during the live shows when it really counts, but way back during Hollywood Week. Andrew Garcia got everyone’s attention after performing a stripped down arrangement of Paula Abdul‘s “Straight Up” — if only Paula had still been a judge to see it in person. Of course, Crystal Bowersox’s emotional “People Get Ready” takes top honors in the live shows (with “Me and Bobby McGee” in contention as well), but I will always remember that moment of brilliance during the always-grueling Hollywood Week.
Season 10: Haley Reinhart’s “Bennie and the Jets” (Top 11 Redux)
The two best performances from season 10 came from none other than the ultimate underdog and third-place finisher Haley Reinhart. Whereas winner Scotty McCreery sounded exactly the same each and every week, Haley always came out and laid everything she had for all to hear. I could easily have a two-way tie here. But since I’ve decided to only choose one from each season, I’m going with “Bennie and the Jets,” with “House of the Rising Sun” as the other top performance. Haley has a special quality to her voice, and it’s impeccably showcased here. There’s so much depth and soul and grit and feeling to her voice that is unmatched.
Season 11: Joshua Ledet’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (Top 4)
While Josh didn’t make the finals, he sure made his mark and will go down as one of the best performers to ever grace the American Idol stage, proving that even after 11 years, the show that started it all can still find some of the best undiscovered talent around. We all got “goosies,” to quote Jennifer Lopez, during his performance of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” There were a couple tense moments where he clenched his jaw, which made it all the more powerful. (Runners-up for Top Moment of season 11 include Joshua’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Jessica Sanchez’s “I Will Always Love You.”)
(For a clearer video, watch Joshua’s reprise after being voted out.)
Season 12: Candice Glover’s “Lovesong” (Top 6)
As soon as Candice finished “Lovesong,” we all knew we were witnessing not just any moment, but The Moment of season 12. No one has been able to match this performance since. And aside from the strange audio glitch halfway through (that sounded like the devil had taken over), Candice proved yet again she rarely if ever gives a bad performance. The tone and mood of this song, along with the slowed-down arrangement, allowed her beautiful and soulful voice to shine through. This wasn’t a song where she could potentially go overboard and wail, but neither was it too slow to make it boring. That middle ground was part of what made this work.
Would you place any of these on your list of favorite performances of all time? Should any of the runners-up I mentioned have taken the top spot instead? And were there any left off that should be here?
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(Images courtesy of FOX)