Critic's Picks: Top 10 'American Idol' Finalists

10:47 AM 4/6/2016

by Daniel Fienberg

As the countdown to the finale begins, THR TV critic Daniel J. Fienberg ranks his 10 favorite 'Idol' finalists through the years (shocker: no Carrie Underwood).

FOX/Photofest (2); FOX/Getty Images

On Thursday (April 7), American Idol will crown its 15th and final winner, or at least its final winner until the inevitable reboot. I don't expect La'Porsha Renae to win, but she's been the star of the season for me. She's probably had the five best vocals of this season and she's put a big gap between her performances and the ones turned in by Dalton and Trent. Still, I doubt I'd put her among my 20 favorite contestants out of the show's 170+ finalists.

So which Idol singers would make my Top 10? Funny you and my editors should ask!

I've based this list mostly on Idol performance, as in how folks did on the TV show that helped launch their careers. I know that sounds like a no-brainer, but I'm going to have left off some folks who are regulars on compilations of this sort. It's also a really subjective list. I know that also sounds like a no-brainer, but it's why somebody like Clay Aiken maybe comes in at 12 or 13 for me, rather than somewhere in the Top 10. Clay's great. But nobody requested my Top 15.

The biggest and most shocking exclusion here is likely to be Carrie Underwood, unquestionably one of the three most successful Idol contestants. As fine as Carrie was, she was essentially handled the Idol crown in commercials before the season started and she delivered one classic performance ("Alone") and a slew of so-so, robotic performances. Week-to-week, Carrie was steadily outperformed on the Idol stage by Bo Bice and he's not in my Top 10, so I didn't put Carrie there.

I also didn't include Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, whose Idol tenure was sheer potential, but often nuance-free in its execution on the way to an early exit that really wasn't as surprising as we now pretend it was. I regret leaving Phillip Phillips, owner of the best Idol winning name and the best Idol coronation song, out of my Top 10. And Candice Glover's "Love Song" is one of my five favorite Idol performances of all-time, but she's just on the outside. And boy was I a fan of Crystal Bowersox, but her relative disinterest (or the impression of relative disinterest) allowed Lee Dewyze to win and that's inexcusable.

Read more: American Idol: All 14 Winners (So Far) and What They're Doing Now | Simon Cowell on Why America's Got Talent Beats Idol, the Downside of "Way Too Many Reality Shows"

  1. 10

    Katharine McPhee

    Season 5, 2nd place

    Jason Merritt/FilmMagic/Getty Images

    I've seen every episode of Smash and every episode of Scorpion and I even watched House Bunny, so you can definitely say that I contracted a serious case of the McPheever back in 2006 and it has yet to clear up. With "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Kat had a pair of signature Idol performances and she melted hearts — a primary symptom of the McPheever — even in lesser performances.

    But I'm not too blinded to realize that although she always looked the part of a superstar, Kat unleashed several clunkers, including "Against All Odds," and she went through long patches where she seemed to want to oversing everything, even songs like "Hound Dog," which really didn't benefit from that treatment. Probably in my heart, Kat is closer to Top 5, but my head knows I can't place her any higher than this.

  2. 9

    Joshua Ledet

    Season 11, 3rd place

    Mark Davis/Getty Images

    No demographic struggled harder to find its place in the Idol firmament than African-American males. The judges took a couple stabs at finding an Usher or a [non-horrible] Chris Brown, but kept failing. They also kept trying to find somebody they could compare to Luther Vandross, somebody Randy Jackson could accuse of "taking us to church." But voters kept resisting.

    That Joshua Ledet managed to make it to a 3rd place finish is a tribute to both how remarkable he was and how strange the eleventh season of Idol was Josh's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" was spectacular, but he also showed ridiculous range and emotion with covers of "When a Man Loves a Woman," "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" and perhaps the show's only rendition of "A Change Is Gonna Come" not to offend me. Josh may be the great, underrated Idol Finalist.

  3. 8

    Chris Daughtry

    Season 5, 4th place

    Ray Mickshaw/WireImage/Getty Images

    Yes, it was a shocker and a crime that Chris Daughtry finished fourth in his season, but let's get some perspective: Chris lost to Elliott Yamin, who was a talented and honorable third place contestant, Kat McPhee, who was so lovable she had a virulent disease named after her, and Taylor Hicks, effectively the Charles Manson of Idol. How could Chris have done any better against that competition?

    Daughtry gave the show a jolt of real intensity each and every week, validated the idea of contemporary rock on Idol and positioned himself for the sort of post-Idol career that had seemed inconceivable for the first four seasons. Daughtry's slightly premature elimination and influence contributed to the birth of the Idol Save, which saved contestants who were generally far worse than Chris far earlier in the competition than he was eliminated, and he also opened the doors for contestants to play instruments, a musical embellishment that probably would have helped him win.

  4. 7

    Haley Reinhart

    Season 10, 3rd place

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    Initially miscast as her season's Token Rock Chick, Haley always had the slinky, jazzy, esoteric interests that have made her post-Idol career so frequently intriguing. The show's voting demo pushed Scotty and Lauren to the finals, but Haley's "What Is and What Should Never Be," "House of the Rising Sun" and "I Who Have Nothing" were probably the season's signature vocals and with Casey Abrams, Haley found the unlikely partner capable of making Idol duets unobjectionable. Haley also earns ephemeral bonus points for successfully voicing the main character, an 11-year-old boy, in Netflix's underrated F is for Family.

  5. 6

    Ruben Studdard

    Season 2, Winner


    Let's get this out of the way: Ruben's theme-cheating Country Week performance of "Sweet Home Alabama" is one of the worst Idol performances ever and I'm including anything by Lazaro Arbos or Tim Urban or John Stevens. And maybe it seemed like Ruben won the American Idol crown by singing "Superstar" over and over and over and over again.

    But that's underselling how smooth, warm and melodic The Velvet Teddybear made almost every song, as he and Clay Aiken lifted each other to the final round that took American Idol from smash hit to American phenomenon. Could Ruben have soared as high as he did without Clay deflecting the criticisms from still-venomous Simon Cowell? Perhaps not. Could Clay have soared as high as he did without Ruben as the clear favorite he could contrast his underdog story against? Perhaps not.

    Nobody would watch The Oscar Show or The Felix Show, but everybody loves The Odd Couple, though not the current Matthew Perry version.

  6. 5

    David Cook

    Season 7, Winner

    R Mickshaw/Getty Images

    Well before American Idol premiered its seventh season, the producers decided David Archuleta was going to be our winner and perhaps the Donny Osmond for a new generation. Then along came David Cook with a Top 16 rendition of Lionel Richie's "Hello" that was as close to a gamechanger as Idol has ever seen.

    Suddenly the show went into panic mode to give its newly minted dark horse a full makeover as Cookie Monster and his electric guitar went on an epic run with performances of "Eleanor Rigby," "Day Tripper," "Billie Jean" and "Little Sparrow."

    The David Archuleta Romp became The Two Davids, but by the time the finale approached, it was barely a contest at all. Yes, David Cook faced and withstood some minor controversy about proper crediting of song arrangements, but he also established the White Guy With Guitar template that would be followed by Kris, Lee and Phil-Phil, as well as dozens of less successful contenders.

  7. 4

    Melinda Doolittle

    Season 6, 3rd place

    Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

    Melinda Doolittle was never going to win American Idol. There was no chance that the show's format and voting structure were ever going to allow her to win. But if you ask me to identify the greatest pure voice in Idol history, the contestant who was the most sheer pleasure to get to listen to on a weekly basis in their Idol journey, Melinda would probably have to be near the top.

    The college-trained veteran back-up singer was pigeonholed as a quirky old soul and she shined in that niche, like when she nailed "My Funny Valentine" or "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone," but when the theme was freaking Bon Jovi, her version of "Have a Nice Day" was fantastic. Go rewatch Melinda's take on "I'm a Woman," please. It's possible I'm underrating Melinda Doolittle, just as Idol did.

  8. 3

    Adam Lambert

    Season 8, 2nd place

    M. Becker/Getty Images

    Unlike Melinda Doolittle, who was never really the favorite in her season and was just blessed every week she remained, Adam Lambert probably was an Idol favorite and the question became whether or not the right kind of alternative would rise up to conquer the innovative, flashy, vocally dexterous performer.

    Kris Allen was the right guy at the right time, doing many of the same ambitious things as Adam, only in a blander, more Middle America accessible package. And yes, that's probably all coded language. Kris Allen was good, but Adam Lambert was spectacular, as only a singer capable of adequately filling in for Freddie Mercury on a Queen world tour could be.

    Adam's cover of "Mad World" became his signature, but that was oddly among the least experimental of his glamified performances. Lambert's voice is on par with any of the Idol greats, but what set him apart is the totality of his Idol persona, as carefully curated and composed as any the show every produced, and utterly unique.

  9. 2

    Kelly Clarkson

    Season 1, Winner

    Kevin Winter/Getty Images

    I've always said this: Imagine if somebody else had won the first American Idol season. Imagine if a hair-driven "fun" performer like Justin Guarini had won. Or if a bland human jukebox like R.J. Helton had won. That first season was all about precedent and the precedent Idol and the Idol voters set was for a winner with true substance.

    Kelly's bubbly, girl-next-door humility made her spectacular voice accessible in a way it might not have been if a robotic bombshell had gone out there week after week nailing Aretha and Dionne Warwick hits. Even 15 seasons later, Kelly's "Stuff Like That There" is a landmark Idol performance and Kelly's post-Idol career has been marked by savvy choices and a total fulfillment of her potential.

    If Justin had won that first vote, I doubt we'd be talking about his career in the same way and I suspect our "End of Idol" obituaries would have been written many years ago and with a different tone.

  10. 1

    Fantasia Barrino

    Season 3, Winner

    Ray Mickshaw/WireImage/Getty Images

    American Idol was not designed to crown a "unique" anything, so the few people in my Top 10 who actually earn that qualifier — two, by my count — are the people who somehow gamed the system, because anybody unique is as likely to be hated as loved. Adam Lambert's uniqueness took him to second, which is great, but Fantasia Barrino managed to win American Idol despite being thoroughly despised by a daunting percentage of the audience.

    Fantasia's raspy, jazzy, emotional wailing wasn't for everybody and it isn't at all surprising that her career has been varied and at times excellent, but it hasn't necessarily hit the heights of her early season 3 Divas rival Jennifer Hudson. [Fantasia came close to landing J-Hud's Dreamgirls role. She would have been phenomenal.] I might be misremembering, but in my mind, Fantasia had nearly a perfect season, unblinkingly staring down every theme and offering one classic moment after another.

    Fantasia's "Chain of Fools" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" were great, but her "Summertime" may be the greatest performance ever on the Idol stage. She's always been the answer when I've been asked to pick my favorite Idol and that remains true.

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