American Idol has gone through highs and lows over the years, both in terms of talent, ratings, and the musical notes themselves. In 2018, the show rebooted onto a new network, but the promise and hope of its contestants haven’t wavered a bit. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve gotten so many standout performances and magical moments over the years, and all of them still stand on their own two feet today. Let’s take a look back at the best American Idol moments over the years, both in the show’s early days and the seasons we’re watching now.
Kelly Clarkson Wins With “A Moment Like This”
If you don’t sing this in the car at every chance you get, you aren’t living life properly. There’s a studio version of the song Kelly Clarkson sang just after she won the very first season of Idol — and it’s super beautiful, too — but the best version is definitely the footage of her belting it out for the first time, right after she was shocked with the news of her win. You can tell how genuinely excited she is, and how she’s drowning in happiness and disbelief. The voice-breaking and the fumbled lyrics are part of why it’s so endearing, and the powerhouse that Clarkson’s become in the years since proves that America definitely made the right decision.
David Cook Sings “Music Of The Night”
Any musical theater fan worth their salt knows this hauntingly beautiful ballad from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, and will never forget when David Cook sang it. Oh my god. With this performance, Cook solidified his place as one of the dreamiest dreamboats that ever graced the Idol stage, and pretty much everyone everywhere swooned. The judges loved it, and the audience’s screams were blaring. If there was anyone who miraculously still doubted him at that moment, they were proven wrong. Cook went on to win the whole shebang, and he’s put out some seriously catchy albums since then. We’ll always love you, David.
Carrie Underwood Takes On Heart’s “Alone”
Carrie Underwood is no doubt one of the biggest stars that’s ever come out of American Idol, right up there with Kelly Clarkson. The two of them have become huge superstars, and Underwood has the country music genre on lock. That’s why it was so surprising and brave when she took on a daunting song that was a bit out of her comfort zone. Heart is an iconic rock band, and “Alone” is one of their biggest hits, so that’s enough to make anyone nervous. But Underwood strutted out in big ’80s hair and put a country spin on the song while still paying homage to its rock roots, and it made for one of the best performances of the season – and of all time.
Chris Daughtry Rocks Fuel’s “Hemorrhage”
Chris Daughtry was taken from the competition way too soon, but perhaps it just wasn’t his market. Idol is a show that tends to thrive on poppy renditions and country stars, not necessarily on those looking to deliver hard rock performances. But Daughtry stuck to his vision with all his songs during his time on the show, including with Fuel’s “Hemorrhage,” a song that anyone who’s listened to a rock & roll radio station in the past 15 years would know. He killed it, and even though he didn’t end up being at the top of the competition, he also became one of the show’s most successful alums, front manning the rock band Daughtry and putting out hit after hit.
Phillip Phillips Wins
Phillip Phillips wasn’t just another dude with a guitar — his gravelly voice was rough but perfect and lent itself wonderfully to songs both old and new. “Home” was a huge hit on the radio following his win, but the first time he sang it after his win was in a league of its own. What made it even more poignant is that Phillips broke down about halfway through the song, continuing to strum the guitar but stepping away from the microphone as he fought back tears of happiness. Phillips went on to further success, as winners hopefully do, with other songs like “Gone, Gone, Gone,” and his debut album following Idol in 2012 was super solid.
Jennifer Hudson’s “Circle Of Life”
Jennifer Hudson was always going to be a star. I mean, the woman went on to win an Oscar and became one of the most powerful voices in the music industry as a whole, so it’s not altogether surprising that she unleashed some fierce performances during her time on American Idol. Elton John himself praised her rendition of the famous Lion King ballad “Circle Of Life,” and that’s about the biggest compliment you can get. The song showcased Hudson’s pipes beautifully and proved that she has no problem taking on a giant song, and that would only be further proven through her role on Dreamgirls years later.
Michael Johns Performs “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Michael Johns was an Australian heartthrob during his time on the show, and his timeless, old-soul vibe really resonated with viewers and judges. So when he took on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a song that virtually everyone knows and loves, he had a lot to live up to. He sang this song in the freakin’ Hollywood week, not even on a top ten mainstage episode, making it all the more impressive. He came in big and wasn’t afraid to show what he was made of. The performance, of course, sent him to the next round. Johns had some great songs after his time on Idol was over, but he tragically passed away of a heart problem at the age of 35.
Kelly Clarkson’s Triumphant Return
When American Idol had its farewell season (before the show made the decision to come back on another network), it had some big stars from its history return to the show, and one of them was obviously Kelly Clarkson herself. Everyone was in tears when she sang “Piece By Piece,” a song about her struggles with her father and her love for her husband. Former judge Keith Urban was a wreck (you know the meme), and we can’t really blame him. Clarkson herself had to step away from the mic for a line or two as she gathered herself for the emotional song, and it’s stuck in every AI fan’s mind forever.
Ada Vox & Lea Michele Sing “Defying Gravity”
“Defying Gravity” is such a huge song. I mean, the great Adele Dazeem Idina Menzel was the voice to bring it to Broadway, and her talent is incomparable. But when Ada Vox and Lea Michele took the stage on this most recent season of American Idol to belt out these seriously famous chords, it was magic. The judges loved it, and Vox’s voice was able to stand on its own two feet alongside Michele, who is a Broadway veteran in her own right.
Ruben Studdard’s Aladdin Cover
Ruben Studdard was another one of Idol’s early contestants that proved the show was capable of cultivating extremely talented stars. With “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, Studdard brought his trademark joy to the performance, making it a magical experience for everyone watching both in the audience and from home. He’s got a way of performing that lets you know it’s really what he’s meant to do, and apparently, everyone was able to see that. Studdard went on to win the entire season, and this performance was the perfect foreshadowing of the success that would continue to flow long after.
Adam Lambert’s “Ring Of Fire”
Adam Lambert came onto American Idol like a bat out of hell, in the best way possible. The show hadn’t seen a voice quite so unapologetic, quite so unique, and quite so fierce until Lambert took the stage. He might be known for songs in the spirit of big Lady Gaga ballads or club music, but he proved with this performance that he could take old, iconic songs and make them his own. Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” is such a staple of music history, and Lambert managed to respect its place in the industry while also putting his own spin on it. It worked flawlessly, even if it was a huge departure from the original.
Fantasia’s Original Audition
Fantasia Barrino’s original audition for American Idol is one of the most amazing instances of pure, unfiltered talent on the show. She had no music behind her, no accompanying backup singers, or anything other than her own snapping fingers. The judges were, rightfully, blown away by her incredibly unique voice, even when she wasn’t armed with so much as a microphone. They had constructive criticism for her, but nothing too severe. Even more endearing was the fact that Barrino talked about her contingency plan if American Idol happened to not work out for her, but obviously, she was destined to be a huge star.
Jordin Sparks Wins The Title
Jordin Sparks always had star power, and after she took home the grand prize for American Idol’s 2007 season, she proved it in a huge way. “This Is My Now” was already a whimsical and poignant song, but her pure happiness in that moment shined through, and the live rendition was fantastic. Sparks’s win was only the beginning of a long career filled with hits that permeated the radio — “No Air,” “Tattoo” and “Battlefield,” just to name a few, were impossible to escape, and no one would want to, anyway. This performance perfectly set the tone for the long and successful career that would follow.
Candice Glover Channels Adele
Another artist who ended up taking home Idol’s biggest prize was Candice Glover. She had tons of performances on Season 12 that stood out, but a big one was “Love Song” by The Cure. The song is a legendary hit that was also covered by Adele, and Glover absolutely nailed it – even compared to the queen. Though she said she didn’t have a boyfriend or anyone in particular in mind when she gave this performance, it could’ve fooled all of us. She drew upon whatever inspiration she had to showcase a flawless cover of the song and make everyone believe in love just a little bit more.
Kris Allen Takes On Kanye
Remember when we were talking about Kanye West because of Kris Allen’s super unique cover and not because of his Twitter tirades? Those were the days. You don’t really expect someone to cover Kanye with a guitar in hand, especially in a super risky American Idol performance, but that’s exactly what Allen did. It was a completely different take on “Heartless,” and it was so incredibly in character for Allen. He said it was a fun performance, and it was his last chance to wow the audiences before the finale. Apparently, it resonated, because he ended up taking home the crown.
Crystal Bowersox & Bobby McGee
It takes a lot of guts to take on a song by one of the biggest musical names of all time, but Crystal Bowersox did it. Singing “Me & Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin, Crystal showed off her bluesy, hippie roots, and channeled the true nature of Joplin’s vibe while also putting her own twist on the song. It was the perfect tribute to a hero the industry lost too soon, and Bowersox wowed the crowd. Her talent is undeniable, and though she didn’t end up winning the entire season, no one could ever say she didn’t take any risks during her run.