This season of American Idol marked the end of an era as Simon Cowell left the show. Cowell is the heart of American Idol, his mocking criticism of other's (often questionable) talents made the program a real trial-by-fire game show. Sing your song well or get hung out to dry in public, that's potent tv. Maybe it was fitting that season 9 of American Idol was the dullest piece of crap foisted on us, it was as if the show knew it was dying too. Ryan Seacrest's mental behavior, Ellen's repetitive "I liked it" and Randy Jackson's "Dawgs" could not make up the difference. Even a resurgent Kara who stumbled through her first season only to come back with strong constructive criticisms for contestants couldn't escape the looming doom.
Though it appears the show will continue, it will never be the same. So it is time to take stock and remember my Top 10 favorite contestants on the program (and a few that sucked). Given I fall outside of Idol's usual demographic of being a middle aged man with a love for Rock music watching this stuff, my opinions might vary from the established list of past Idol greats. But in this list my votes are the only ones that count. Because this...is...wait for it...American Idol! (Duh na na na na)
10. Latoya London (season 3)
As good as she is, I almost didn't include her in the Top 10 because I didn't remember her until I was nearly done with this post (she replaced fellow season 3'er George Huff). And maybe that's why she didn't win. London was a remarkable performer on the program though, her vocals were always what Jackson would call "on point" and she was very attractive. Watching her was like viewing a champion figure skater hit all the triple axles with perfect precision. Her performance of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" is one of my fondest memories of the program.
9. Carrie Underwood (season 4)
Not quite the glammed up wholesome sex bomb she is today, contestant Carrie Underwood was a slightly pudgy Southern gal who sang with a deer-in-the-headlights expression on her face. Nonetheless, she was incredibly consistent reeling off strong performances like "Independence Day" while staying true to her Country roots. Underwood's voice was emotive and tasteful, leading Cowell to rightly predict she would have mega success after Idol. Interestingly her high water mark on the show was not a Country song, blasting through Heart's power ballad "Alone" with dramatic fervor.
8. Crystal Bowersox (season 9)
Bowersox's run was the show's shot at artsy legitimacy. Here was someone who harkened back to the folk/roots rock ideals of writing songs and playing them with authenticity. At turns Joplineque blues mama or Dylanish busker, Bowersox was nigh uncompromising in Idol terms. Whether she peaked early, was a victim of incongruous theme weeks or ran out of steam in the middle will be a source of debate for the next week or so. For me, her run of "Long As I Can See The Light" / "Give Me One Good Reason" / "You Can't Always Get What You Want" / "Me And Bobby McGee" was one of the best in the show's history. I even enjoyed her light take on Shania Twain's "No One Needs To Know" which got dissed by judges. Enjoyed what I caught of her original song "Holy Toledo" too.
7. David Cook (season 7)
The mighty rearranger, Cook is the guy who changed the game from best karaoke to artistic reinterpretation even as he borrowed from other artists. Cook's retelling of Chris Cornell's haunted take of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" was one of those Oh Wow! moments. His take on Lionel Richie's "Hello" was an eye opener too. And in a real shocker, Cook took the crown from anticipated teen friendly front runner David Archuleta.
6. Sanjaya Malakar (season 6)
Yup, this guy. He sucked in a big way, couldn't sing worth crap. What he did though, was stay on the show and outlast much more talented singers by building hype. Vote For The Worst, crying girl, fauxhawk...it all made for a lot of fun even if it was short lived. Malakar completely upended the point of the program in a way that was subversive but innocuous. It was no accident that once he ran out of items in his bag of tricks, Sanjaya was voted off. At least his appeal was based on some modicum of charisma, unlike dull crooner John Stevens or I-got-a-whole-state-voting-for-me Jasmine Trias.
5. Kelly Clarkson (season 1)
The original Idol, the fresh faced youngster with golden pipes and "cool beans". My wife couldn't stand when Clarkson dug in to the "soul growl" mode (something Clarkson seems to have dropped post Idol). She was the perfect American Idol, a wholesome looking girl with a positive attitude and big voice. Her tearful delivery of the victory song "A Moment Like This" sealed the deal in making both Clarkson and the show America's sweethearts.
4. Adam Lambert (season 8)
Glambert! No one had ever done what Lambert did on this show, and that was plain take it over. With a powerful rangy voice, theatrical stage presence and a techno rock vibe Lambert owned the program. I liked that he brought an 80s hair band rock sensibility to his screaming renditions of "Whole Lotta Love" while displaying sensitivity on "The Tracks Of My Tears". And naturally "Mad World" was the height of Glambert, mystery and laser beams. Had social politics not been involved, I believe he would have won the title.
3. Allison Iraheta (season 8)
The class of season 8 was one of the best in the programs history which is why season 9's fall off was so shocking. When it comes to AI I like my rocker girls, 'cause outside of Glambert the guys aren't really allowed to rock on the show. But the girls are. And how could I not like someone with such strong power ballad sensibilities, running through Heart's "Alone" and Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" with raspy delight. Iraheta's take on Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" was a high point for me, though her duet with Glambert on Foghat's "Slow Ride" was phenomenal.
2. Bo Bice (season 4)
The original rocker of the American Idol bunch, Bice had a Southern rock edge that influenced everything he touched. From his emotional fury of The Allman Brother's"Whipping Post" to his likable run on BS&T's "Spinning Wheel", Bice exuded front man confidence. Even the Lynyrd Skynyrd connection seemed fresh which is saying a lot considering how much "Sweet Home Alabama" was used with Ruben Studdard. And choosing to do Badland's "In A Dream" a capella towards the end of the season? Priceless.
1. Melinda Doolittle (season 6)
Well, I ranked her numero uno so I guess it goes without saying that I consider Doolittle to be the best pure singer of any American Idol season. Her control, range, emotional connection as Kara likes to put it, power and story telling ability is unparalleled in this context. Doolittle more than lived up to her Gladys Knight comparisons. Her only failing was that she was too good a singer. People just got used to how good she was and without a tv story to tell the public like "I'm growing as an artist every week" or "I've got to do this for my kid" viewers lose interest. Probably the only contestant to make the Top 3 without a bad performance, I considered it a crime that she wasn't even in the finale. A crime I tell you!
So many great memories of American Idol, with the departure of Simon Cowell it seems time to close the book on this one. Even the misfires like Camille Velasco butchering "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", Haley Scarnato and her short shorts, Chris Sligh turning some random song into Coldplay for no reason, or that one girl who was more famous for provocative photos than singing gave plenty of entertainment. AI will probably limp through one more season and maybe I'll watch, maybe not. But to quote Chris Jericho it will never...eeevveerr...be the same...again.