American Idol has produced better talent compared to its competitor shows by a mile. Sure, I rant about all the issues with the aging juggernaut (there are plenty), but it has been much more effective in charting artists than The Voice or X Factor. Where is Melanie Amaro’s debut album? How well did that Tate Stevens sell? What about the chart impact of Javier Conlon? Exactly. Even if Idol has a lot of issues, it seems to be able to help young, burgeoning artists at least taste their dream more than other karaoke… I mean, err, singing competition shows.
One criticism (or praise) for me has always been the big ‘single’ to be released by the winner. Some have been good, others, particularly in recent times, have fallen flat as a pancake where quality is concerned. Including the recent season with winner Candice Glover and runner-up Kree Harrison, I’m going to examine the ‘winning’ singles.
Season 1: Kelly Clarkson & Justin Guarini (“A Moment Like This”)
The first season of American Idol was special. Most would support the assertion that Kelly Clarkson was the best, though there is definitely an argument that Tamyra Gray’s final four exit was premature. Regardless, “A Moment Like This” was the big song, sung by both finalists. Let’s face it, Clarkson had this one locked up. The song itself has been one of the more memorable winner anthems: “A moment like this, some people wait a life time…”
Season 2: Ruben Studdard (“Flying Without Wings”) & Clay Aiken (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”)
Season two might have been the most competitive season of Idol as the final two was easily the tightest race ever. Ruben Studdard ended up the victor off of single “Flying Without Wings”, an inspiring, beautiful cover from Westlife (Westlife, 1999) penned by Wayne Hector and Steve Mac. It didn’t matter that it was a cover, as most people were unaware of the song and the urban/gospel interpretation truly made it special. Upon release, it peaked at no. 2. Clay Aiken was as highly touted (if not more so than Studdard), running through the competition effortlessly with his big, adult contemporary pop voice. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a his cover song, another stirring rendition, penned by the legendary Paul Simon and popularized by Simon & Garfunkel. Both singles were superbly performed and suited the respective finalist.
Season 3: Fantasia & Diana DeGarmo (“I Believe”)
Arguably the best original single, “I Believe” was an inspirational number that carried more weight than schmaltz. Runner-up Diana DeGarmo did well enough with it, but Fantasia truly gave it the raw emotion and power, making it her own. Not only was Fantasia’s performance exceptional and moving, it was one of the greatest performances to grace the show, hands down. To be honest, DeGarmo was lucky that there wasn’t a larger gap separating her and Fantasia in the vote (I believe it was only one percent). Gospel choir backing and Fantasia’s soulful ad libs, it’s a classic ever cemented in history; it launched at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is Fantasia’s sole no. 1 to date.
Season 4: Carrie Underwood & Bo Bice (“Inside Your Heaven”)
Before “Jesus Takes the Wheel”, there was “Inside Your Heaven”. This is where things begin to get hairy for Idol winning singles. “Inside Your Heaven” was okay, but it couldn’t touch the greatness of the previous three season’s winning singles. Many expected that Underwood be the victor judging throughout the season, as well as Simon Cowell’s high regard for her. That said, both finalists handled the somewhat underwhelming number well. For Underwood, she would do better for herself, with the aforementioned “Jesus Takes the Wheel” and later gems including “Before He Cheats”, “Last Name”, “Undo It”, “Blown Away”, and a personal favorite, “Two Black Cadillacs”. Bo Bice wouldn’t be as lucky…
Season 5: Taylor Hicks (“Do I Make You Proud”) & Katherine McPhee (“My Destiny”)
Okay, maybe I should repent about my qualms with “Inside Your Heaven”; it was more memorable than either of season five’s singles. As they say in sports, this was a ‘down year’ for sure. Soul Patrol took on the trained Cali starlet in the finals after soulful R&B artist Elliott Yamin was narrowly eliminated (yeah I still have some sour grapes). Anyways, Taylor Hicks easily had the better single of the two, even if that may not be saying that much. “Do I Make You Proud” was schmaltzy and bland, but McPhee’s “My Destiny” was blander. Furthermore, McPhee didn’t help herself with “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”. A reprisal of her valedictory “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” just wasn’t enough to propel her to the winner circle. Taylor Hicks, meanwhile never graced the bottom three or two during the entire season. It could be argued that McPhee rebounded better after underwhelming album sales by both artists with her role on television show Smash, though now it has been cancelled. Not Idol’s best season.
Season 6: Jordin Sparks & Blake Lewis (“This Is My Now”)
This was a season where the final three results were troubling. Melinda Doolittle was the strongest singer throughout he competition yet found herself eliminated on her best night. Jordin Sparks was the ‘best available’ next, as Blake Lewis, although entertaining, didn’t have the same pipes of his competitor. Both sang yet another underwhelming original and clearly Sparks had the better voice and stronger execution. She’d rebound from a so-so single with a platinum debut album and über-popular, Grammy-nominated duet with Chris Brown, “No Air”. Blake Lewis wouldn’t find the same fortunes, but is making a rebound after rejoining a major label with single “Your Touch”.
Season 7: David Cook (“The Time Of My Life”) & David Archuleta (“In This Moment”)
The good news was that this wasn’t season five’s tepid set of singles. David Cook actually got ‘lucky’ on finale night as David Archuleta out-sung him. Cook had been consistent throughout the season changing songs and making them his own, so that was enough to easily win him the crown. “The Time of My Life” wasn’t bad, but nor was it nearly as electrifying as say his take on Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”. While Archuleta did out-sing older David, can’t say that I remember his new single “In This Moment”. Perhaps voters didn’t either, though I have other theories on Archuleta’s runner-up status, which was a much larger gap in the percentage of voting than should’ve been.
Season 8: Kris Allen & Adam Lambert (“No Boundaries”)
This was a season where the victor was a dark horse (Kris Allen) who play spoils to the favorites, Danny Gokey and Adam Lambert. Was it the right choice? … Anyways, “No Boundaries” was likely not the single that won him the crown. It was okay, but certainly not the second coming. Adam Lambert seemed to be losing ‘steam’ from voters in the past few weeks, but everyone knows who should’ve won…
Season 9: Lee DeWyze (“Beautiful Day”) & Crystal Bowersox (“Up To The Mountain”)
Many people are quick to cite the most recent season, season 12, as the worst season of the show. Season 9 is definitely in the running for that distinction. While it was another case of ‘the wrong person won’, and argument could’ve been made against both finalists and most of the other contestants. With that out of the system, the conservative choice of a winning-single was fine. Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with “Beautiful Day” or “Up to the Mountain”. That said, two runner-ups have now performed “Up to the Mountain” and failed to be victorious – sorry Crystal Bowersox and Kree Harrison. The problem with Lee DeWyze and “Beautiful Day” is, why not just listen to U2’s better, more distinct version? DeWyze has been the least successful victor of the show.
Season 10: Scotty McCreery (“I Love You This Big”) & Lauren Alaina (“Like My Mother Does”)
In an isolating country standoff, the season ten finale seemed too one dimensional. The finale songs were okay, but nothing outstanding. “I Love You This Big” was a bit more rousing from Scotty McCreery, but Lauren Alaina’s “Like My Mother Does” may have carried more weight. Neither sealed any sort of deal, but Scotty’s track record was more consistent; he never graced the bottom of the vote.
Season 11: Phillip Phillips (“Home”) & Jessica Sanchez (“Change Nothing”)
I won’t preach about the injustice done to Joshua Ledet, but he should’ve been in the finale, period. Honestly, here is the crazy thing. Jessica Sanchez was the better singer by a mile, but her single “Change Nothing” left much to be desired (the studio version was much stronger). Phillip Phillips struggled with melody throughout the season, but his single “Home” was an unique and exceptional record… can’t believe I’m saying that. Phillip Phillips had the competition locked up early on, much to urban music fans’ chagrin…
Season 12: Candice Glover (“I Am Beautiful”) & Kree Harrison (“All Cried Out”)
Arguably, the two best of American Idol season 12 arrived at the end. Both had fine voices, though lacked the personality of
more interesting finalists of the past. Candice Glover consistently raised the bar while Kree Harrison seemed to be fading a bit towards the end. Judging by the broadcast, Glover hit a home run with single “I Am Beautiful” while Harrison’s “All Cried Out” felt like it was playing for second place, not first. The studio versions are both compelling and Harrison redeems herself showcasing the voice that captivated most at the beginning of the season. How do the singles themselves stack up? “I Am Beautiful” won’t carry the weight of Phillip Phillip’s “Home”, but it is one of the better Idol originals of recent times. “All Cried Out” sort of falls into the Jessica Sanchez “Change Nothing” trap; the studio version is so much better.