Playlist: Ranking the best American Idol alumni, and their best songs

Vincent Anthony
7 Min Read

This week we learned that, after 13 long years, American Idol will finally come to an end. Undoubtedly, it had a great run for the first 5-7 years or so, but following that it became a bit redundant, and, well, boring. Not even our beloved Mariah Carey could save the show in its 12th season – nor could the slew of other big-name judges they brought on board (Ellen Degeneres, Steven Tyler, and Jennifer Lopez – to name a few). Nothing seemed to work quite as well as the trio of Simon, Randy and Paula.

To Idol‘s credit, it was indeed the most successful TV singing competition. Nothing that came before or since can quite compare to the level of success that the Idol alum have garnered. While there were shows like Star Search before it, on which superstars like Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake and others competed, and shows to follow like the X-Factor and the Voice… none delivered true superstars like American Idol has.

We’ve put together a short, 10 song playlist featuring one song from each of our 10 favorite Idol alums. While the current season hasn’t ended, and the next one hasn’t even begun, we doubt we’ll miss much by doing this a bit prematurely. Enjoy!

10. “Sorry 2004” by Ruben Studdard (Season 2) was a single from Ruben’s debut studio album, Soulful. By far his most radio-friendly song to-date, it fit right in with the sound of male R&B in 2003/4. He hasn’t done much of note as of late, but for “Sorry 2004” and his cover of “Superstar,” we hold a special place for Ruben, America’s 2nd Idol.

9. “Wait For You” by Elliott Yamin (Season 5) became a hit in 2007, peaking at #13 on the Hot 100 and is by far Yamin’s most memorable moment. The R&B/Pop crossover was the perfect combination for the singer.

8. “Light On” by David Cook (Season 7) was the winner’s first big hit following his coronation. Unfortunately, he’s not found much success since, but we’ll always appreciate him for this great track and his even better cover of Mariah Carey’s classic “Always Be My Baby.”

7. “Whataya Want From Me” by Adam Lambert (Season 8) was actually written by Pop superstar P!nk, and it definitely shows. The song is angsty, catchy and full of raw, gritty emotion. As one of Idol’s first out-gay contestants, Lambert made a name for himself with this hit single despite the odds.

6. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” by Jennifer Hudson (Season 3) is the song largely responsible for garnering the diva an Academy Award win in the Best Supporting Actress category, for her role as Effie White in Dreamgirls. Unfortunately, while she certainly has (often-abused) pipes, her music career yielded little else of note.

5. “Home” by (Chris) Daughtry (Season 5) is no doubt the band’s signature song, and a great one at that. The frontman and namesake, Chris Daughtry, was a finalist in Season 5 – stealing all the spotlight from whoever actually won that year. Daughtry went on to be the third most successful Idol alum, behind our #1 and #2 picks.

4. “No Air” by Jordin Sparks (Season 6) features Chris Brown (when he was still lovable) and was perhaps the closest our generation has come to that sort of male-female R&B ballad duet (a la “Endless Love”). Not to mention, Sparks’ fantastic voice shines on the track. Lets hope she gets her life together and serves up a slay with her next project.

3. “Free Yourself” by Fantasia Barrino (Season 3) was helmed by Missy Elliott, so naturally is R&B mid tempo perfection in every way. Fantasia is one of the few R&B acts to come from Idol who actually went beyond the Idol stigma to make credible, quality R&B music and sustain a healthy career.

2. “Wasted” by Carrie Underwood (Season 4) is a favorite among Carrie’s fans and for good reason. The ballad finds Carrie showcasing those famed pipes that won her the Idol title in Season 4. While perhaps her most well-known single is “Before He Cheats,” that crossover track was an anomaly while “Wasted” showcases her true colors. As the most successful American Idol – in America – Carrie is well deserving of all the praise and acclaim she receives.

1. “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson (Season 1) is indeed perfect representation of the inaugural American Idol as an artist. The song, written by a teenage Kelly, is from her most successful album, Breakaway and is one she fought for – a fight she continued throughout her career: for more creative control as an artist. The song has the honest and relatable lyrics that fans have come to love her for, and an impeccable vocal showcase that proves why she won over the heart of America. However, Kelly remains the only American Idol album to truly transcend her title – becoming not only an American idol, but a worldwide superstar. With 7 studio albums and 1 greatest hits set under her belt, she is (by default) the longest standing Idol alum, but she hardly rests on her laurels. Clarkson has indeed cemented herself as an icon and superstar, and that’s something no Idol to follow has been able to take away from her – and, with the show coming to an end, it seems none ever will. American Idol may have come to an end, but Kelly Clarkson’s career shows no signs of stopping – she has transcended the show, probably more so than the show’s producers could’ve ever hoped.

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Vincent is the founder of the magazine and has had a strong passion for popular music since, well, 1997! If it's not obvious, his favorite artists include Destiny's Child, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, P!nk, and many more. Vincent lives in New York, where he is a high school English teacher, and currently he is pursuing a Master's in Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.