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
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.
|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.)
|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|
|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|
|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.