Ranked: American Idol Seasons 1-9

May 25: The album chart at the bottom of this page has been updated to correct for an inadvertent omission.

Comparing Idol's nine years

ImageThe best of a bad season

After nine seasons, five judges, hundreds of contestants and thousands of auditions, Fox’s American Idol has cemented its position as one of the most successful shows in television history. It’s the seminal rags-to-riches story, making overnight stars out of its musical hopefuls whose fates are determined by a voting public.

Perhaps it’s this accessibility that makes Idol so universally appealing, as fans have a say in the outcome and can vote for their hometown heroes. Sprinkle in some taciturn judges, celebrity musical guests and plenty of “pitchy” performances and you have the recipe for the #1 show in the nation. But, like any long-running series, Idol has had its hits and misses, which we examine below in our ranking of American Idol’s nine seasons.

All American Idol Seasons, From Best to Worst
Rank / Season Year Winner Runner-Up
1 Season One 2002 Kelly Clarkson Justin Guarini
In the same way that the first seasons of MTV’s Real World, CBS’ Survivor and ABC’s The Bachelor were the best, the debut of American Idol had all that fumbling, bubbly and charming innocence of new love, where we knew we had stumbled upon something great even though we didn’t yet know how it would play out. Even though the viewership was (relatively) low, the contestants performed on a smaller stage and two hosts (remember Brian Dunkleman?) awkwardly vied for attention, the inaugural season had an air of intimacy that’s missing from today’s amphitheater-powered, fan-obsessed show. Plus, it produced a winner with staying power in the fickle music industry, a proof of concept that legitimized Idol as more than just another reality show. Just forget that this ever happened.
Season Highlight: Kelly Clarkson performing “Natural Woman,” which locked in her win, with Justin Guarini making Paula Abdul cry with his rendition of “Get Here” a close second.
2 Season Eight 2009 Kris Allen Adam Lambert
Arguably American Idol’s greatest find in its nine years on the air, Adam Lambert dominated Season 8 from start to finish. His unusual song arrangements, amazing vocals, theatrical performances and rock legend-like stage presence left all the other contestants in his shadow, including winner Kris what’s-his name. This season also saw the addition of Kara DiaGuardi at the judging panel and the new Judge’s Save feature that rescues a voted-off contestant from the jaws of elimination.
Season Highlight: Pretty much any moment the mesmerizing Lambert was on stage, with his performance of “Mad World” being among the best.
3 Season Five 2006 Taylor Hicks Katherine McPhee
No other season felt quite as thrillingly competitive as Season 5. Its talent-packed final four — Chris Daughtry, Elliot Yamin, Katherine McPhee and Taylor “Soul Patrol” Hicks — delivered standout performances that made each contestant as likely as the other to be crowned winner. In addition to the four semifinalists, country crooners Bucky Covington and Kellie Pickler enjoyed a modicum of commercial success after their eliminations, with gospel contestant Mandisa even scoring a Grammy nomination. This competitive edge made Season 5 the highest-rated season in the show’s history, in addition to being the first one shown in high-definition.
Season Highlight: When, during auditions, Simon refused to allow Hicks through to the next round, saying he would never win the competition.
4 Season Four 2004 Carrie Underwood Bo Bice
Season 4 pinned country music against rock ‘n’ roll in the finale, with former farm girl Carrie Underwood taking the crown and going on to become one of Idol’s most successful recording artists. Her win opened the door for more country contestants to appear on the show, which up until that point had showcased pop and R&B music almost exclusively. Bice’s place in the finals did the same for rock music, aided by fellow contestant Constantine Maroulis, who finished in sixth place. Thanks to Idol’s decision to raise the age limit to 28 this season, both rockers were allowed to compete and shake their aging moneymakers in front of fans.
Season Highlight: When, during the semifinals, Simon told Underwood she would win the competition and become the highest-selling artist American Idol ever produced, a much more prescient prediction than his fortune-telling gaffe about Taylor Hicks’ future in the subsequent season.
5 Season Seven 2008 David Cook David Archuleta
The battle between the dueling Davids was hardly an epic one, but it did provide a modicum of intrigue in what was otherwise a sleeper season. Perhaps most intriguing was Idol’s decision to allow contestants to play musical instruments on stage in Season 7, a move that turned the singing competition into a real talent show. Guitar-strumming winner David Cook probably benefited most from the change, as did semifinalist Jason Castro, who played the ukulele while singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Season Highlight: Ryan Seacrest prolonging the suspense during the season finale by announcing, “The winner is David …………… Cook.” He’s clever like that.
6 Season Six 2007 Jordin Sparks Blake Lewis
Sadly, Season 6 may go down in Idol’s history as the only one that did not produce a single contestant with a measure of notable commercial success, including its forgettable winner Jordin Sparks and beat-boxing first runner-up Blake Lewis. It did, however, produce 15 minutes of nonsensical fame for Sanjaya Malakar, whose unusual hairstyles performed far better than he ever did on stage. Season 6 also produced the charitable episode “Idol Gives Back,” which raises money for the impoverished and has since become a star-studded event that showcases established musical performers in addition to the Idol hopefuls.
Season Highlight: The unexplained phenomenon of the Crying Girl, who appeared bawling uncontrollably (and laughably) during Sanjaya’s performances. We cried too, but for very different reasons.
7 Season Three 2004 Fantasia Barrino Diana DeGarmo
Arguably the most polarizing performer in Idol’s nine seasons, winner Fantasia Barrino had almost as many detractors as she did fans, winning over first runner-up Diana DeGarmo by a margin of 2%. Season 3 also produced future Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, whose early elimination proved that Idol fans don’t always get it right.
Season Highlight: Auditioner William Hung’s off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs,” which was ridiculous enough to land him a record deal and cult following, no doubt inspiring countless others to let their freak flags fly high during future auditions.
8 Season Two 2003 Ruben Studdard Clay Aiken
Idol fell into a sophomore slump with its second season yawnfest despite an increase in its viewership, budget and total episodes. The season did, however, demonstrate that winning the competition doesn’t guarantee success in the music world, as evidenced by Ruben Studdard’s album flops and first runner-up Clay Aiken’s unexpected popularity among the Wal-Mart crowd. So take heart, Adam Lambert: There is hope for you yet.
Season Highlight: Studdard won over Aiken by a mere 134,000 votes, stirring a boatload of controversy of the “hanging chad” variety. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court did not need to intervene.
9 Season Nine 2010 Finalists: Crystal Bowersox & Lee DeWyze
The latest season of Idol seems to be suffering a post-Adam Lambert depression, with its forgettable talent pool and largely disappointing performances. Even the addition of comic Ellen Degeneres as judge couldn’t liven up the season and only served to highlight the vacancy left by Paula Abdul. Sure, there were a few decent contestants, but the duds dominated, never allowing the competition to really catch fire. When combined with lackluster ratings, Season 9 has had critics ringing the death knell for Idol, whose contract is up for review in 2011.
Season Highlight: When it finally ends on Wednesday night and puts us out of our misery.

Bonus rankings: Idol-related albums

How have American Idol contestants fared when they stepped off the stage and into the recording studio? Below are all of the Idol-related albums in Metacritic's database, ranked from best-reviewed to worst-reviewed. (Note that, for better or worse, many albums from Idol contestants are not available in our database.)

Albums from American Idol Contestants
  Artist Album Year Metascore Users
1 Melinda Doolittle Coming Back to You 2009 79 8.9
2 Carrie Underwood Carnival Ride 2007 72 7.4
  Jason Castro Jason Castro 2010 72 6.5
4 Adam Lambert For Your Entertainment 2009 71 8.6
5 Kelly Clarkson All I Ever Wanted 2009 70 9.1
6 Jordin Sparks Jordin Sparks 2007 67 6.2
7 Allison Iraheta Just Like You 2009 66 8.8
8 Kelly Clarkson My December 2007 64 7.5
9 Jordin Sparks Battlefield 2009 63 8.7
10 Kelly Clarkson Thankful 2003 62 8.3
11 David Cook David Cook 2008 61 8.0
12 Daughtry Leave This Town 2009 59 5.9
13 Jennifer Hudson Jennifer Hudson 2008 58 7.8
  David Archuleta David Archuleta 2008 58 8.7
  Katherine McPhee Unbroken 2010 58 7.4
16 Carrie Underwood Play On 2009 54 8.3
17 Kris Allen Kris Allen 2009 52 6.3
18 Kellie Pickler Kellie Pickler 2008 51 7.2

What do you think?

What is your favorite season of American Idol? What do you think of the current season? Let us know in the comments section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (38)

  • Jason Dietz  

    @Greg Rice: Thanks! We have fixed the album chart, and Melinda is indeed at #1.

  • Greg Rice  

    You forgot the highest rate American Idol album of all time, Melinda Doolittle:


  • john t.  

    looks like Milla's an adam lambert fan....

    1. season 7
    2. season 5
    3. season 4
    4. season 8
    5. season 6
    6. season 2
    7. season 3
    8. season 1
    9. season 9

  • jenny  

    10. Andrew Garcia giving the performance of his life with Paula Abdul's "Straight Up Now Tell Me", and the completely botching every subsequent performance.

    9. Justin Guarini's weird jew fro / jehri curl

    8. The guy in the auditions of season 7 who hissed like a tiger and said he had the "fire of three men."

    7. The homeless kid who, during auditions, looked like he'd take home the gold, but who learned a very valuable lesson about hubris.

    6. The back-and-forth "you know how i know you're gay?" between Seacrest and Cowell.

    5. When Paula Abdul stared critiquing a performance that hadn't even happened yet.

    4. Sanjaya's hair and the crying chick. 3. The journey from hot punk rock chick from season one to bloated white trash junkie on VH1's "Sober House"

    2. Lee Dewyze and the bagpipe fiasco.

    1. Seacrest touching on David Achiluetta and saying things like, "you did a great job."

  • Al  

    I completely disagree with this list.
    Seasons 5 and 7 are by far the best two season with overall best talent and the truth is that they're the seasons with more successful idols.
    Those two seasons were the most diverse, with more kind of genres and the most competitive. I also disagree that the David battle wasn't an epic one. It was probably the most epic one, with Simon calling it a knock out for one of the Davids and the other one winning. And with all due respect, I can't take it serious a list that has S1 has #1 season. I love Kelly, I think Justin did quite well and was very charismatic, but it wasn't a very competitive season and the talent wasn't all that. The talent has actually become better. Season 8 had Adam but that isn't enough to make a season and the truth is the the finale had quite low ratings for a season finale and didn't even beat the votes from S7, it just wasn't as excting.

    My list?

    - Season 5
    - Season 7
    - Season 4
    - Season 8
    - Season 2
    - Season 1
    - Season 3
    - Season 6 - Season 9

  • Jesse Harman  

    I mostly agree with these rankings. Thank you for putting Season 9 at the bottom!!!! It's clear that the producers have decided to put matters into their own hands in terms of who will win. They've stopped giving out constructive criticism and immediately began catering to Lee Dewyze. I'm ashamed to continue watching, but it's only to see if Crystal wins. Because I will never watch another episode of American Idol if Lee wins. It just proves that we are being fed the winner from an early point.

  • Andrew Darwitan  

    I do prefer Idol more when the contestants seem to be competing, with good also-rans rising up to challenge the frontrunners on occasion. Predictability is boring, thus, several seasons (6, suffered from this string of competent-yet-yawning episodes.

    I'd rank them as such:
    1. Season 7
    2. Season 4
    3. Season 5
    4. Season 8
    5. Season 6
    6. Season 1
    7. Season 2
    8. Season 3
    9. Season 9

  • Ed  

    Wrong wrong wrong.
    1. Taylor Hicks was one of the worst winners of any talent show in the history of television.
    2. Jordin Sparks wasn't forgettable. She's sold 2 million albums and was the second person after Kelly to actually get international success (she was huge here in Australia, No Air was no.1 for a month here), she's also big in the UK.
    3. Season Three was the BEST season. How good was it? LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino. All in one season? Crazyness.
    4. S8 was a disappointment because Lambert did not WIN!

    Kudos though at putting season 2 near the bottom. That was horrifying and we'll all still trying to put that behind us. Jordin Sparks isn't special? well Rubin Studdard is packing boxes at the local 7-11 rather than making records.

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