The 15 best ‘American Idol’ contestants of all time, ranked NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour asked listeners to vote on their favorite American Idol contestants of all time.
Clockwise from top left: David Archuleta, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks, Adam Lambert, Jennifer Hudson.
It’s been 20 years since the beginning of American Idol.
Since the show debuted in 2002, judges and formats have come and gone. After a hiatus, it moved from Fox to ABC in 2018, where it has been mostly ignored ever since. (On May 22, the show, now judged by Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan — along with all the people who still vote — crowned Noah Thompson, a country singer from Kentucky, as its 20th winner.)
But there was a time when you couldn’t get away from it — and it made people stars.
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast asked listeners to vote for the top American Idol contestants ever. Here are the top 15.
15. Elliott Yamin
3rd place, Season 5, 2006
Elliott Yamin performs during the American Idol Season 5 finale on May 24, 2006.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Yamin was not somebody who slid into an easy category the way a country singer or a pop diva might. His strong vocals were beautiful and heartfelt, a little bit retro, a little bit soulful. It wasn’t obvious exactly what kind of star he might be. But he remains a guy whose Idol performances are a pleasure to watch again. If you could only watch one of the many moments when bloated Idol finales united singers with people they admired to perform duets, you could do a lot worse than Elliott’s appearance with Mary J. Blige, which he quite understandably treated as the most exciting thing happening in the world at that moment.
14. Kris Allen
Winner, Season 8, 2009
Kris Allen speaks to a crowd of fans while performing in Little Rock, Ark., while he was an American Idol finalist in 2009.
You know the feeling you have when you go into a coffee shop, and it’s familiar, and you know you’re not going to get anything particularly exciting, but you’re probably going to get what you want and it will probably be solid and you’ll feel a little bit better and then you’ll leave and in 15 minutes you’ll forget the name of the coffee place even though you’ll feel willing to recommend it to somebody who asks if there’s a coffee place nearby? Kris Allen is that feeling, but a person.
13. Melinda Doolittle
Third place, Season 6, 2007
Melinda Doolittle performs during the season finale of American Idol in May 2007.
Matt Sayles/AP Images for FOX
One of the wonderful things about Idol fandom is that there are people who have remained in the hearts of a lot of their original voters, even if their time in the sun hasn’t been as consistent or as lasting as, say, Carrie Underwood’s. Melinda Doolittle is, and always was, a very talented vocalist who came in third in the sixth season behind Jordin Sparks and the “beatboxing”(-ish) Blake Lewis. She’s kept working, and although she didn’t go on to have a string of hits like some, she’s got a beautiful voice that has every reason to be remembered years later.
12. Jordin Sparks
Winner, Season 6, 2007
Jordin Sparks performs moments after she is named the American Idol in 2007.
Matt Sayles/AP Images for FOX
After winning Idol, Jordin Sparks has had some big successes, including the single “No Air,” which she performed with Chris Brown. (Sigh.) She’s also done some acting, both on Broadway and in films including Sparkle. A great talent and just 17 when she took the crown, Sparks was Idol’s youngest winner ever. It’s a credit to her and the people around her that she’s done so well having gotten into such a pressure cooker so young. She returned to Idol recently to duet with Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard to perform “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” and you know what? They were terrific.
11. Katharine McPhee
Runner-up, Season 5, 2006
American Idol finalist Katharine McPhee and host Ryan Seacrest during the Season 5 final performances in 2006.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
McPhee was the runner-up in Season 5, losing to dad-rocker Taylor Hicks. She flourished nonetheless, acting in The Bunny House before co-starring in the TV cult hit Smash, in which she played an up-and-coming Broadway star. In real life, she also ended up on Broadway for a while, in Waitress. Now married to super-producer David Foster, it’s safe to say Kat has done pretty well, win or no win.
10. David Archuleta
Runner-up, Season 7, 2008
American Idol 2008 runner-up David Archuleta during MTV’s TRL in May 2008.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Archuleta was a pretty powerful singer who lost to David Cook in the finals after spending most of the season being marketed to viewers as a very sweet little bunny rabbit. He went on to have a recording career including the single “Crush,” and he’s part of the honorable society of people who came in second in their seasons and made that supposed loss into a decent career nonetheless.
9. Haley Reinhart
Third place, Season 10, 2011
Haley Reinhart performs during the homecoming for American Idol Season 10 in Arlington Heights, Ill.
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images
Here’s an interesting statistic: Haley, who comes from Season 10, is the most recent contestant to make our top 15. And once you’ve heard her slightly gravelly voice, you don’t have to know that she actually sang “Rolling in the Deep” to guess that she was hot on Idol around the same time Adele was gaining prominence and becoming a star. Her bluesy rasp didn’t quite get her to the top, but she continues to appear on lists of people’s favorite Idol performers and performances.
8. Chris Daughtry
Fourth place, Season 5, 2006
Chris Daughtry performs during the American Idol Season 5 finale in 2006.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Idol didn’t always know what to do with rock dudes. Even when they were good at it, like Daughtry was, they rarely got the kind of air under their wings with voters that accrued to country or acoustic pop artists like Kris Allen or Scotty McCreery. But it was a salable kind of music in the early aughts, this post-Creed kinda-grungy thing, and Daughtry has been quite a survivor for a guy who finished fourth. How much of a survivor? In 2019, he came in second on The Masked Singer, where he appeared as Rottweiler.
7. David Cook
Winner, Season 7, 2008
David Cook during a homecoming celebration at Blue Springs South High School in Blue Springs, Mo., in 2008, before he was crowned American Idol.
Cook was the first of the five consecutive “white guy with guitar” winners, but he leaned toward the rocker side rather than the folk/pop side. Gentle enough not to frighten the horses, but edgy enough to seem more interesting than some of his rivals, Cook beat out the very sweet stylings of young David Archuleta. He then went on to put out records and — as is the case with many of his fellow contestants — appear on Broadway, in his case playing the lead in Kinky Boots.
6. Clay Aiken
Runner-up, Season 2, 2003
Clay Aiken performs at the broadcast of the American Idol final competition in May 2003.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
A skilled vocalist whose following remains devoted to this day, Aiken released a bunch of albums, including a holiday record that did very well. On top of that, since his days bickering with Simon Cowell, he’s done everything from Spamalot on Broadway to The Celebrity Apprentice to politics (he ran for Congress twice!). There are a good number of Idol contestants who finished second but made fine careers for themselves, and he’s one of their leaders. Ruben Studdard beat Clay in the finals, but Clay is still out there singing his heart out now and then.
5. Fantasia Barrino
Winner, Season 3, 2004
Fantasia Barrino performs onstage at the American Idol finale in 2004.
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
Undoubtedly one of Idol’s most technically gifted winners, Fantasia has gone on to success on Broadway. She wrote a memoir and then starred in its screen adaptation! She may not have gotten the respect she deserved from the audience in some weeks — she was part of the shameful moment in Barry Manilow week (!!) when they revealed that America’s votes created an indefensible bottom three consisting of Fantasia, LaToya London and a woman you may have heard of named Jennifer Freaking Hudson. (Hudson was eliminated.) But she’s had plenty of chances to get sweet revenge on any doubters, and she’s reportedly set to reprise her Broadway role of Celie in the movie adaptation of the musical The Color Purple.
4. Carrie Underwood
Winner, Season 4, 2005
Carrie Underwood reacts after winning American Idol during the live finale in 2005.
A powerhouse singer whose only drawback seemed to be that she was maybe a little too polished, Carrie Underwood won the fourth season and has since grown into a country music superstar. She now has plenty of fans who likely don’t even know she came from Idol. With hits like “Before He Cheats,” she’s made a place for herself on top of the charts in a tough sector for women, and she’s still going strong.
3. Jennifer Hudson
Seventh place, Season 3, 2004
Jennifer Hudson accepts the award for best supporting actress for her work in Dreamgirls during the 2007 Critics’ Choice Awards.
Idol can point to some successes. But it also has made some embarrassing mistakes, including the seventh-place finish of future Oscar- and Grammy- (and Daytime Emmy-) winning artist Jennifer Hudson. It’s a whiff up there with the famous comment about Fred Astaire: “Can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little.”
Now that J.Hud has her Tony and is an EGOT, her victory over Simon Cowell and his catty comments about her appearance — and her smiting of everyone who didn’t vote for her — is complete.
2. Adam Lambert
Runner-up, Season 8, 2009
Adam Lambert (left) and Paul Stanley of the band Kiss perform during the season finale of American Idol in 2009.
Evans Vestal Ward/AP Images for Fox
Lambert was an acrobatic vocalist and a throwback to glam rock. After finishing second to Kris Allen — who was part of the string of winners who were so-called “white guys with guitars” — he wound up performing with Queen, a remarkable endorsement of his style from some of the guys who inspired it. Maybe he wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but he’s had genuine industry success and has clearly impressed a lot of the people who mattered to him the most. What’s not to like about that?
1. Kelly Clarkson
Winner, Season 1, 2002
Kelly Clarkson performs on American Idol in September 2002.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The original winner and our champ, Clarkson beat out Justin Guarini to win Idol’s first season. Sure, there were bumps like the movie From Justin To Kelly, but after the show, she turned out legitimately terrific pop hits like “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes.”
Now, she’s a daytime talk show host with a devoted following and a place she can still sing whenever she wants. She is what Idol originally said it would find: a pop star.