Serving as the final batch of my favorite Idol contestants of all-time, the ten vocalists below represent the premium crop of raw talent that the franchise has brought to America’s hearts. Most of them can outsing your (or even my) favorite artists, and for that they deserve the most recognition. With the current season’s finalists being named this week, it’s time to look back at the best of the best finalists of all time, including (30-21, 20-11):
10. Vonzell Soloman (Season 4 – 3rd Place)
Arguably the best Black female to ever appear on Idol, Vonzell (nicknamed Baby V) wowed me each week – starting from her audition. After a major wardrobe and hair makeover, Baby V reached stardom as the only soul singer on the show’s fourth season. Baby V is also the only contestant who didn’t make the final two that had the highest number of votes a record six times, which goes to show that her vocals weren’t taking lightly. If it weren’t for the #countryoverhaul that plagued the fourth season, Baby V would’ve undoubtedly won her season by a landslide. After Idol, Baby V formed her own record label (Melodic Records), starred as Aunt Em in the international Broadway hit ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and placed first in Fox’s mini-Idol alum competition ‘America’s Favorite Finalists’. Currently, she is a lead spokesmodel for the United States Postal Service, where she worked for several years in Baltimore prior to appearing on the show.
Favorite Performance: Aretha Franklin’s “Chain Of Fools” (First Audition)
9. Crystal Bowersox (Season 9 – 2nd Place)
Crystal Bowersox was known for two things during her Idol stint – her beautiful dreadlocks and her Type-1 diabetes. While both may seem as obstacles for a single singing mother to overcome, Bowersox did it gracefully and won my heart over. Each week with Crystal was filled with moving performances of soul and country hits which has propelled her to become one of two females in American Idol history to have never appeared in the ‘Bottom’ 2 or 3. Simon Cowell was a particularly huge fan of Bowersox, and called her performance of “Up To The Mountain” the best performance in the history of Idol. While Cowell’s critique was the last of his for the history of the show, it remains true three seasons later. Bowersox released her debut album ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’ in 2010 to great acclaim by #thebigthree – Rolling Stone, Time, and Spin magazines. She’s currently working on her second album with the legendary Jakob Dylan.
Favorite Performance: The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” (Gospel Week)
8. Elliott Yamin (Season 5 – 3rd Place)
Richmond, Virginia’s own Elliott Yamin stands as the finalist who reached the furthest from my home state. I didn’t want to bias my approach to the contestants by “rooting for the home team”, but Elliott proved through his own talents that he deserved his spotlight on Idol. Like Bowersox, Yamin also suffered from Type-1 diabetes, but didn’t show it at all throughout his time on the show. Elliott was a fan favorite during his season (although losing to the underwhelming Taylor Hicks) and gained a huge Facebook following from Mary J. Blige and Whitney Houston publicly declaring him as one of the premier vocalists of our generation. After Idol, Yamin worked with Ne-Yo and Stargate on his self-titled debut album. The disc spawned “Wait For You”, one of the biggest post-Idol songs in the history of the show, peaking atop the R&B (top 5) and Hot 100 (top 20) Charts for three weeks upon its release in 2007. Since his debut, Elliott has released four additional studio discs as well as two Christmas releases, reaching gold and platinum in over ten countries worldwide.
Favorite Performance: Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” (Love Songs Week)
7. Siobhan Magnus (Season 9 – 6th Place)
The fiery Siobhan Magnus was like a unique hybrid of Christina Aguilera and Stevie Nicks with her vocal-shattering performances. Each week, she delivered a high note that earned her four standing ovations from the Idol judges, along with first-place voting rank three weeks in a row. While I was anxiously hoping for a Magnus-Bowersox finale during the ninth season, Siobhan was unexpectedly sent home the week following her first-place streak, shocking judges and fans alike. Siobhan’s departure was heralded throughout the media as one of the most shocking, causing feminists to cry in outrage at how the best competitors of her season (i.e. the females) were dropping like flies each week. After Idol, she spent weeks hearing the “I don’t know how you got eliminated” speech from every talk show host from Anderson Cooper to Wendy Williams. Siobhan’s debut album ‘Moonbaby’ was released in 2011, spawning the viral hit (and personal favorite) “Black Moon”.
Favorite Performance: The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” (The Rolling Stones Week)
6. Haley Reinhart (Season 10 – 3rd Place)
Haley Reinhart had a rough stint on Idol, but still reigns as one of the best female vocalists today. The Chicago-trained blues/jazz singer came from a musical family, as both of her parents are actively involved in the industry. Haley’s season saw her take on some of the biggest songs in music today (mainly Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” and Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”), but drew mixed reactions from the Idol voting audience. During the tenth season, Randy used the word “slay” to describe each of her 16 performances, while Jennifer and Randy always referred to her commanding vocals as her spike-back to her being in the Bottom 3 four times. Each time she reached the lowest group of votes, Haley picked herself back up and wowed the audience and judges with her outstanding vocal talents. Reinhart’s debut ‘Listen Up!’ has been seen as critics as the best debut from any Idol finalist (top three and below) from the show. Haley made national headlines again in 2012 by having a set on the extremely exclusive ‘Lollapalooza’ festival, another first for an Idol contestant.
Favorite Performance: The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” (Songs From Now And Then Week)
5. Jacob Lusk (Season 10 – 5th Place)
Dubbed the ‘new generation of Luther Vandross’, Compton’s own Jacob Lusk really blew me away with his vocals, giving him a second nickname of mine – #thechurchvoice. Lusk took notes to higher ground, stirred them up, and brought them right back around each week. The judges also noted his vocal ability constantly, even referring to his notes as “scripture”. While Jacob did have an arrest record prior to appearing on the show, he was completely honest about his past and was thankfully still allowed a place on the show. To date, Jacob has not released any post-Idol music, but has signed to Gladys Knight’s Many Roads Records label. He has announced through his Twitter that he is working on an album, but sadly there’s no release date in sight. Lusk’s tenure on the show will undoubtedly lead to a very successful career for him over the next few years.
Favorite Performance: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By” (Motown Week)
4. Adam Lambert (Season 8 – 2nd Place)
Glam rocker Adam Lambert is one of the best Idols of all-time for two simple reasons – 1) he’s the highest ranking LGBT member on the show, and 2) the groundbreaking performance below. While he should’ve rightfully won season eight, the media was quick to blame his sexuality on not winning over Idol voters. Gay or not, there’s no denying that Adam is probably the most powerful male vocalist to EVER appear on Idol. Look up each of his performances, and I’m sure you’re just like me in thinking “I’ve never heard a vocal like this before”. About a year after the show, Adam released his debut album ‘For Your Entertainment’ which spawned the massive Pink-written single “Whataya Want From Me” and was Grammy-nominated for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. Lambert’s second album ‘Tresspassing’ stands in music history as the first openly gay singer to “top” the Billboard 200 charts.
Favorite Performance: Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” (Rock Week)
3. Joshua Ledet (Season 11 – 3rd Place)
Joshua Ledet’s reign on Idol is probably the most historic of any contestant in the show’s history. As the first Idol contestant to receive a record nine standing ovations from the panel judges, there must have been something unique and great about Ledet’s vocal ability. Each week, Josh literally brought me to tears with his performances. Not the regular tear or two, but straight up #waterworks. I’ve never been moved by any Idol performer like I was with Josh, and apparently America agreed with me consistently each week. His performance of James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” (seen below) was referred to by current judge Randy Jackson and former judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as the single best ‘American Idol’ performance of all-time. The fact that Cowell, who hosts his own competition ‘The X-Factor’ knew about Josh’s talents is a validating source for the power of his vocal abilities. Currently, Ledet is working on his debut studio album with indie producers. While this move is risky, any recording with Josh’s voice on it – despite the overall quality – is enough to satisfy his die-hard fans.
James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” (Songs They Wish They Written Week)
Jennifer Hudson’s “You Pulled Me Through” (Semi-Finals Men’s Week)
Elton John’s “Take Me To The Pilot” (duet with Fantasia) (Finale)
2. Clay Aiken (Season 2 – 2nd Place)
Because the main component of ‘Idol’ revolves around technical singing, Clay Aiken is the best male singer to have graced the show’s stage – ever. I wanted him to win over Ruben Studdard just like the rest of America, but his second-place ranking shocked the entire world. As the first contestant to place first a #record nine weeks in a row, the statistics seemed to show that Clay was the season’s favorite. You would never think that such a smooth, powerful voice would come out of the petite Aiken, but it did – and with utmost grace and poise. Aiken’s voice is undeniable and timeless, and his stint on ‘Idol proved just that. After the show, his first album (and my favorite) ‘Measure Of A Man’ sold over three million copies worldwide. The album’s success was propelled by his massive would-be coronation single “This Is The Night” and its second single “Invisible” single which placed him among the greatest pop stars of our generations. Aiken has released four original albums and one Christmas disc since ‘Measure Of A Man’, the latter also reaching multi-platinum status. While Clay was popular for his music, his philanthropic efforts with UNICEF have made him a pop icon in the eyes of America.
Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Finale Week)
Coronation Song: “This Is The Night” (Finale Week)
Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” (Audition Week)
1. Melinda Doolittle (Season 6 – 3rd Place)
Many vocalists (over 225 to be exact) have graced the live Idol stages, but none will ever come close to season six finalist Melinda Doolittle. There’s just too much talent into the 27-year-old Doolittle, who never graced the Bottom 2 or 3 during her entire stint on the show. Melinda earned consistent, weekly praise from all of the judges after each performance, and became Simon Cowell’s favorite just after her initial audition. Her flawless vocals brought about a large fan following, one which spanned a variety of ethic backgrounds, gender, and age groups. With Doolittle, there wasn’t one demographic that loved her – it was all of them. Placing third on her season has gone down as the biggest shock in the history of the ‘American Idol’ show, and even Cowell was infuriated with America’s voting. Despite her early departure, Melinda showed America with each performance that she was indeed a premiere vocalist of our generation. Post-Idol, she released an EP of songs performed on the show followed by an album of new covers in 2009. The former reached Gold status and while the album did not fare as well commercially, she received worldwide acclaim for her timeless voice through numerous talk show and White House appearances.
Ike and Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits” (Judges Choice Week)
Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” (Audition Week)
Chaka Khan’s “My Funny Valentine” (Semifinals Week)