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Some 'Idol' performances still reverberate today
List includes Constantine's 'Rhapsody'; Clay's 'Buttercup'
Fantasia Barrino's version of "Summertime" is still beloved by fans.
By Ellen A. Kim
Time will tell how this season's "American Idol" finalists rank with
past seasons. Is Anthony Federov really in Clay Aiken's league? Was
Mikalah Gordon as bad as Camile Velasco?
That depends on viewers' lingering memories of their performances.
Sometimes one can watch a contestant and literally feel them turn into a
real star (or an impostor). A bad performance doesn't always doom a
strong contender, and a great one can also go unnoticed. And guess what
- you don't have to be the best singer to turn in the best performance,
What's the difference between a good performance and a memorable one? A
good performance takes on a likeable, popular song that won't alienate
voters. A memorable performance squeezes something great out of a risky
choice, introducing that tune to a wider, younger audience than its
original. A good one is technically proficient; a great one makes Paula
Here are my picks for the 10 best performances (well, 11 - there was one
tie) over all four seasons I've limited each contestant to one song,
with one honorable mention. Remember, this is not a 10 best singers
list. (Scott Savol: Rest easy, you wouldn't be on that list either.
10. (tie) Constantine Maroulis, "Bohemian Rhapsody," season four
Maroulis' Steven Tyler-esque manner of hair-stroking and seducing his
microphone had a polarizing effect on viewers and judges alike. Even
Simon told him, "If this were Smoldering Idol, you'd win hands down."
Yet Maroulis' peak was the gutsiest song choice of any competition:
Queen's rock-operatic "Bohemian Rhapsody," which - come on - might be a
classic, but also is the kind of song you never try to take seriously.
Maroulis, 29, pulled off an electric performance - tongue-wagging and
all, inching toward the head of the pack by showing that showmanship
really does go a long way.
His close second: "My Funny Valentine"
10. (tie) George Huff, "Take Me to the Pilot," season three
Huff, a last-minute replacement for booted finalist Donnie Williams, was
best known for looking a decade older than his 22 years. But on an Elton
John-themed night, Huff leapt from his role as an also-ran to a serious
contender by singing the lesser-known "Take Me to the Pilot." Showing a
gospel flair and what would become his trademark calf-exercising bounce,
Huff's husky-voiced rendition not only revealed an old-school soul, but
a guy whose joy of singing was so infectious you couldn't help but
His close second: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"
9. Bo Bice, "Spinning Wheel," season four
"American Idol" hadn't seen a finalist like 29-year-old Bice, whose
early comparisons to fellow "rocker" Maroulis turned out to be premature
when he slunk onstage for Blood, Sweat & Tears' "Spinning Wheel." With
confidence, charisma and his ubiquitous leather pants, Bice raced across
the stage, barely gasping for breath and swinging his microphone stand
like a baseball bat. His funky rasp brought a "fearless" from Randy and
a standing ovation from Paula.
His close second: "Whipping Post"
8. Jennifer Hudson, "Circle of Life," season three
In the battle between ground-swelling orchestral power ballads, it was
hard to pick between season 2 finalist Kimberley Locke's "Somewhere Over
the Rainbow" and Hudson's "Circle of Life." The edge, however, goes to
Hudson for finally walking the diva talk she'd been splaying in the
weeks prior. Blowing the roof with a goosebump-inducing rendition of
Elton John's Disney hit, 22-year-old Hudson set out to prove she
deserved to be named with the likes of fellow "divas" Fantasia Barrino &
LaToya London. She succeeded.
Her close second: "I Have Nothing"
7. Christina Christian, "Ain't No Sunshine," season one
It's usually the girls with the big voices who make a splash on "Idol,"
but sultry 21-year-old Christian went the other direction, turning Bill
Withers' very mellow "Ain't No Sunshine" into a sexy serenade. Simon,
who admitted a little crush on the finalist, compared her performance to
Sade. Other male fans, meanwhile, bent to wipe their drool off the
Her close second: "Glory of Love"
6. Clay Aiken, "Build Me Up Buttercup," season two
If this list were about overall consistency, Aiken, 24, would have
ranked much higher. Save for an uber-cheesy rendition of "Grease," the
season two runner-up turned in one strong performance after another. The
Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup" was an unusual but welcome choice
for the balladeer, who hadn't loosened up until then. Oddly enough, the
song became a favorite of his many fans, who likely not only downloaded
the original but used it for new signs, such as: "CLAY YOU'RE MY
His close second: "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
5. Justin Guarini, "Get Here," season one
Sure, now he's a Trivial Pursuit punchline, but think hard and you'll
remember that Justin Guarini, 23, was once in hot pursuit of Kelly
Clarkson's season-one title. He first made his mark singing Oleta Adams'
"Get Here" during the final auditions, bringing Paula to tears. With a
romantic croon free of the Michael Jackson facial expressions that
haunted other performances, Guarini had the same mesmerizing effect when
he sang it in two more rounds of the finals. Randy called it the "best
performance in this whole competition." Just goes to show that if it
ain't broke, don't fix it.
His close second: "Let's Stay Together"
4. Tamyra Gray, "A House is Not a Home," season one
Would you rather have a flawless performance that leaves you cold or a
near-flawless performance that chokes you up? We pick the latter, and
23-year-old Gray delivered, with a raw, heart-wrenching rendition of
Dionne Warwick's "A House is Not a Home," sung on a Burt
Bacharach-themed night. Had she connected emotionally with the audience
more often, this technically gifted singer could have won the title.
Meanwhile, as Simon said, it's "one of the best performances on TV I
have ever seen."
Her close second: "A Fool in Love"
3. Ruben Studdard, "Superstar," season two
The 25-year-old "velvet teddy bear" with the 205 jerseys sang the
Carpenters' "Superstar" on his very first appearance, and the early
notes ("Long ago, and oh so far away.") seared right into the spot on
your body that makes you shiver. Though he sang with a dimpled smile,
the wistfulness in his buttery-rich tenor broke hearts. Studdard, the
eventual season-two winner, was greeted with a standing ovation from
both Randy and Paula. A champion was born.
His close second: "A Whole New World"
2. Kelly Clarkson, "Stuff Like That There," season one
It's really difficult to pick a "best" Clarkson performance, as nearly
every number earned raves. (Clarkson's also the only winner to have
never landed in the bottom three on her way to winning the first
season.) So why pick the jazz standard "Stuff Like That There," which
she sang for the Big Band-themed night? Because, in her little polka-dot
dress with the string of pearls, she mopped the floor with previous
front-runners Tamyra and Justin, who had preceded her that evening with
strong performances of their own. Clarkson was the true revelation of
the night, and she hasn't looked back since.
Her close second: "Natural Woman"
1. Fantasia Barrino, "Summertime," season three
Barrino, a 19-year-old single mom whose rasp reminded listeners of
Aretha Franklin, was starting to lose fans for being all swagger and no
softness. Then she sat down on a stage for a movie soundtrack-themed
show and belted "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess." The result was so
overwhelmingly emotional that Randy thought it was the best performance
in "Idol" history. The eventual season-three winner sang it again in the
finals, and Simon summed it up by saying, "You are without question the
best contestant we've had in any competition." Now that's memorable.
Her close second: "Something to Talk About"