You can say this for “American Idol”: 20 years in, it’s still worth arguing about.
Should Kris Allen have prevailed over Adam Lambert? Queen would like a word.
Carrie Underwood over Bo Bice? We loved the hair, Bo, but sorry, Carrie was the rightful empress.
Lee DeWyze instead of Crystal Bowersox? Our blood pressure spikes just recalling that travesty.
And there are no words for the travesty that was ousting Jennifer Hudson in seventh place during the show’s third season. But the “Idol” spotlight still allowed for the discovery of Hudson’s talent and eventual mega-stardom.
Though the “Idol” hitmaking machine now creaks rather than churns out superstars, the platform is still unparalleled when compared to its singing competition peers.
We’ve ranked the 20 “American Idol” winners based primarily on sheer talent, but with an obvious nod toward their success after the show (new winner Noah Thompson excepted from that criteria).
Please, continue arguing.
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20. Lee DeWyze (2010)
Despite his affable personality and gruff coffeehouse croon, DeWyze lacked the undeniable spark and grit of Crystal Bowersox, the Janis Joplin incarnate who outrageously only placed second that season. – Patrick Ryan
19. Chayce Beckham (2021)
The current holder of the “Idol” crown impressed on the show with his passionate rendition of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” but his gravelly voice often conjured memories of Creed. And no, that’s not a good thing. But Beckham’s career plans reside in country – his coronation song, “23,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard country digital chart – and he just released his EP, “Doin’ It Right,” in April. – Melissa Ruggieri
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18. Laine Hardy (2019)
The Louisiana native, who was recently arrested and charged with secretly recording an ex-girlfriend, rose through the “Idol” ranks with his Elvis Presley-style croon and stage persona. But outside the throwback shtick, the husky-voiced Hardy has struggled to stand out from other past winners who have charted similar country/bluegrass terrain. – Ryan
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17. Noah Thompson (2022)
Between his casual style and bashful demeanor – and, of course, the reality that “Idol” voters tend to favor young white men who can be presented as harmless heartthrobs – Thompson was the natural choice as victor this season. The judges praised his performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” during the finale, a toothless rendition that nonetheless achieved its goal: squealing girls in the audience. – Ruggieri
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16. Nick Fradiani (2015)
It felt like the buff singer was the next breakout star after his victory song, the catchy singalong “Beautiful Life,” dented the charts. But his 2016 debut album, “Hurricane,” fared poorly and an independently released EP in 2017, “Where We Left Off,” also failed to produce liftoff. Still, Fradiani continues to make music and dabbled in acting with a turn in the national tour of “A Bronx Tale” (2019-2020). – Ruggieri
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15. Taylor Hicks (2006)
Given the top three talent pool of Season 5 – which also included Katharine McPhee and Elliott Yamin – it’s still a bit stunning that the overwrought Alabamian prevailed. But the “Soul Patrol” proved a mighty engine and Hicks successfully parlayed his win into a platinum-selling self-titled debut album in 2006, a Broadway stint and tour (playing the Teen Angel in “Grease”) and a modest residency in Las Vegas. – Ruggieri
14. Kris Allen (2009)
Some were shocked when the innocuous Allen triumphed over the bold flamboyance of Adam Lambert during Season 8 of “Idol” – not that it hindered Lambert’s future. But more than Allen’s couple of hits (“No Boundaries,” “Live Like We’re Dying”), his win ushered in the era of nondescript male singer-songwriters armed with guitars and crooked grins. – Ruggieri
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13. Trent Harmon (2016)
Harmon’s boyish face and soft-spoken demeanor masked a deceptively brawny set of pipes, which were put to best use on an enchanting cover of Sia’s “Chandelier.” Harmon signed to Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift’s former label) post-“Idol,” finding minor success on the country charts with singles “Falling” and “There’s a Girl.” – Ryan
12. Just Sam (2020)
A former subway busker, New York-bred Samantha Diaz stormed the (virtual) “Idol” stage with her unfiltered persona and pure singing talent. Her pandemic-season performance of Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” as well as a stunning duet with Lauren Daigle on “You Say” solidified her deserved victory. The realities of the record business derailed her post-show album release, but she’s recently independently released the songs “Africando” and “Change.” – Ruggieri
11. Caleb Johnson (2014)
Johnson was the typically staid competition’s closest answer to Whitesnake and AC/DC, with squalling vocals and head-banging dynamism that have made him a hit with the legacy rock crowd in the years since his victory, touring with Meat Loaf’s Neverland Express and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. – Ryan
10. Phillip Phillips (2012)
A soft-spoken guitar strummer who in his pre-“Idol” life worked at his family’s pawn shop in Leesburg, Georgia, Phillips earned a significant bona fide: His coronation song, the Dave Matthews Band-esque “Home,” is the bestselling single in the show’s history, with more than 5 million sold. A spate of other hits (“Raging Fire,” “Gone, Gone, Gone”) preserved his momentum, and last month Phillips returned to the “Idol” stage for his 10th anniversary to play his new release, “Love Like That.” – Ruggieri
9. Maddie Poppe (2018)
In a competition that favors blue-eyed crooners and power belters, Poppe was a refreshingly sophisticated pick: a raspy-voiced folk artist who could make you smile singing Disney’s “The Jungle Book” just as easily as she could rip your heart out with a Beach Boys cover. She’s one of the few recent “Idol” victors who you could legitimately call a “singular talent.” – Ryan
8. Scotty McCreery (2011)
The resident male country star to graduate from the “Idol” laboratory – like Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, at only 17 – the North Carolina native with a molasses-hued voice that belies his unassuming demeanor remains a prominent chart presence a decade after his Season 10 win. “Five More Minutes,” “This Is It” and “In Between” are among his recent country chart-toppers, while “Same Truck,” his fifth studio album released last year, spawned the George Strait tribute tune, “Damn Strait.” – Ruggieri
7. Candice Glover (2013)
Whether she was covering Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, or The Cure (on tearful standout “Lovesong”), the Beaufort, South Carolina, native brought unmatched vulnerability and powerhouse vocals to every single performance. Her recording career post-“Idol,” too, is filled with stirring ballads that have been sadly ignored by radio. – Ryan
6. David Cook (2008)
With his pleasantly raspy voice and a knack for melody and unearthing lesser-known versions of hits to cover on the show (e.g., Whitesnake’s “Day Tripper,” Chris Cornell’s “Billie Jean”), the Season 7 winner – over angelic David Archuleta – skyrocketed to success. His victory song, the inspirational pop-rock anthem “The Time of My Life,” and its follow-up, “Light On,” each sold more than a million copies and showcased his musical worldview (Collective Soul, Foo Fighters and the Goo Goo Dolls counted among his inspirations). In 2021, Cook’s music delved into his struggle with anxiety on the independently released EP, “The Looking Glass.” – Ruggieri
5. Ruben Studdard (2003)
Studdard’s smooth, velvety vocals were the perfect complement to runner-up Clay Aiken’s earnest pop theatrics, with standout performances of Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick classics, and a respectable career as a gospel/R&B hitmaker in years to follow. – Ryan
4. Jordin Sparks (2007)
The show’s youngest winner at 17 (by two months compared to McCreery), the sweet-smiling Sparks found immediate success a few months after her victory with a pair of Billboard top 10 hits: “Tattoo” and “No Air,” her duet with a pre-scandal Chris Brown. Broadway (“In the Heights”) and film (“Sparkle”) expanded Sparks’ reach, but in recent years she’s concentrated more on motherhood with a few career moves – the 2020 holiday album “Cider & Hennessey,” her 2021 participation in “The Masked Dancer” – sprinkled in. – Ruggieri
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3. Fantasia Barrino (2004)
Barrino’s sultry, soulful rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” might be the all-time greatest performance to ever hit the “Idol” stage. The R&B artist’s elastic vocals and deep well of emotion will continue to serve her well, as she reprises her role as Celie from the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” for next year’s star-studded movie adaptation. – Ryan
2. Carrie Underwood (2005)
It feels like 100 lifetimes ago that a pouffy-haired Underwood blasted us off our couches with her rendition of Heart’s “Alone” during her Season 4 run to the top. And remember her small-town country-girl proclamation that she’d never been on an airplane prior to her “Idol” audition? Six massive headlining tours, an aerial-filled Las Vegas residency, a lot of leg bronzer and 65 million-plus album sales later (she’s the top-selling artist in the “Idol” franchise), Underwood has earned a few frequent flier rewards. – Ruggieri
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1. Kelly Clarkson (2002)
There’s a reason Clarkson goes viral every other week with her adventurous and breathtaking “Kellyoke” covers on the daytime talk show “The Kelly Clarkson Show.” The Texas native is so effortlessly charming and in control of her instrument, with an outsized personality and even larger voice that bring all the ferocity and drama you want from a top 40 hit (of which she has nearly two dozen). Frankly, our lives would suck without Clarkson, who is the brightest star “Idol” has and will likely ever produce. – Ryan