The 14th season of American Idol comes to an end this week, though you'd be forgiven for not knowing. Ratings for the once-mammoth reality show have been on the decline for years, hitting a new low this season. Monday morning, Fox sounded the alarm: Idol is being canceled, and next year will be its last.
Yet in its darkest hour yet, it's best not to remember Idol as it is, but as it once was. It's been an incredible run, including eight years spent as America's most-watched program. It was once so huge that other networks scheduled their promising new shows as far away from it as possible. More than that, American Idol will forever be the show that launched Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert and original Idol Kelly Clarkson. That's certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Of those past contestants, however, which ones stand out? As Idol's reduced audience waits to hear which of the final three — Jax Cole, Nick Fradiani or Clark Beckham — will be the next American Idol, we've ranked each American Idol finalist from the past 14 years. This includes anyone who made it to the finale of their season, as well as Cole, Fradiani and Beckham. Who's on top? It's not hard to guess.
1. Kelly Clarkson
Season 1 winner
Naturally, the original Idol takes the top spot. Part of Kelly Clarkson's strength as an Idol alum is how she can boast an impressive post-show resume — the most successful of any contestant in the pop lane — as well as strong work during the competition itself. The note she hits in her cover of "A Natural Woman"? Sublime. Clarkson's given us treasures like "Since U Been Gone" and "My Life Would Suck Without You" since, but there's a reason she keeps returning to covering songs on her tour. She's got a special place in America's collective heart as our first Idol, and she constantly reminds us we made the right choice.
2. Carrie Underwood
Season 4 winner
In a world without Clarkson, Carrie Underwood reigns supreme. The country sensation firmly planted herself in her chosen genre post-Idol, enjoying major success both with sales and on the radio. She even managed a crossover hit or two, like the cathartic blast "Before He Cheats." Her performance on the show was a bit weaker, though her cover of Heart's "Alone" stands out as a strong moment. Underwood's supremacy comes almost solely for what she did after the show — she took her chance as the Idol and turned it into an incredible career.
3. Jordin Sparks
Season 6 winner
Jordin Sparks will likely never enjoy the financial success of her predecessors. Despite total jams like 2009's "Battlefield," which ranks among the best Idol singles ever, sales have been disappointing. She did have an incredible hit in her Chris Brown collaboration "No Air," but the ickiness of her duet partner sours that victory a bit. Yet what she lacks in chart success she makes up for with great pop music, a wide range of projects (like the movie musical Sparkle) and a staggeringly strong body of work on the show. Her version of the standard "I Who Have Nothing" haunts to this day.
4. Candice Glover
Season 12 winner
Candice Glover's debut, upon its release, sold the worst of any winners' album ever. It should speak to Glover's show performances that her poor commercial performance doesn't matter. Throughout season 12, she put on a clinic of what a great American Idol run looks like. Her cover of the Cure's "Lovesong" was called one of the greatest performances in series history, and rightfully so. It was masterful, as was Glover.
5. Adam Lambert
Season 8 runner-up
Adam Lambert was the first openly gay Idol contestant, though he's been joined in the years since by other queer performers who came out both before and after the show. His theatrical performance style earned him a devoted legion of fans, and rightfully so. Lambert is by far Idol's best male contestant ever. The image of his performance of Gary Jules' "Mad World" while bathed in blue light remains one of the show's most iconic moments.
6. Phillip Phillips
Season 11 winner
In direct contrast to Glover, Phillip Phillips conducted an almost-embarrassing run on Idol. He refused help from everyone, including from legendary designer Tommy Hilfiger, and brazenly forged his own way. If his performances were always great, his obstinance would be understandable. They weren't, and better performers went home in the wake of his utter dominance. Credit Americans for knowing what they were doing: Phillips became the most successful Idol since Sparks. His song "Home" became an inescapable Olympic anthem. His follow-up singles haven't been quite as big, but they're often very good. He's earned his place as Idol's best male winner.
7. Jena Irene
Season 13 runner-up
She may have competed in one of Idol's lamest seasons and lost to a far less deserving winner, but Jena Irene's show performance was as good as the legends'. The 17-year-old singer stunned with stripped-down piano covers of songs like "Can't Help Falling in Love with You" and Radiohead's "Creep." Irene also showed proficiency as a singer-songwriter, performing her original "Unbreakable Me" with aplomb. Had she been old enough to compete in the show's halcyon days, she'd have been in the same league as the biggest names of all.
8. Fantasia Barrino
Season 3 winner
Fantasia Barrino's career is perhaps one of the most upsetting to recap. Her potential never quite came together despite positively tearing through the show, up to and including her magnum opus "Summertime." She found a home on Broadway in the musical adaptation of The Color Purple, but didn't take up permanent residence. More recently, she's been erratic on social media, saying homophobic things she later blamed on bloggers sharing without context. She's destined to best be remembered as the woman who beat Jennifer Hudson. What a shame, because what a voice. Even all the post-Idol nonsense couldn't derail her from top 10 — she's that good.
9. Crystal Bowersox
Season 9 runner-up
The dreadlocked, free-spirited second-placer from season 9 took part in one of Idol's worst seasons, lost to its worst winner and failed to convert what limited buzz she had into a big career. It's hard to blame Bowersox for that, though; her performances on the show ranged from sublime to stellar. Her version of "People Get Ready" was a knockout, perfectly balancing waves of emotion with a gorgeous vocal. She was supposed to join the Broadway production of Always... Patsy Cline, but those plans never came to fruition. It's a shame: She's clearly a star.
10. Jessica Sanchez
Season 11 runner-up
Jessica Sanchez will probably always be remembered as the girl whose face Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday nearly ate during the season 11 finale. Just watch that GIF — positively hypnotizing. Sanchez had one hell of a season, though, including a dynamite cover of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You." Her career post-show has been disappointing, but she was clearly overshadowed by Phillips.
11. Katharine McPhee
Season 5 runner-up
Katharine McPhee gave us a gorgeous, quiet cover of "Over the Rainbow," a kicky rendition of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and more during her time on American Idol. But she is perhaps the one contestant on this list who will be better remembered for another TV show — and not for Scorpion, her current CBS hit, either. McPhee's iconic role, unfortunately for her, was as Karen Cartwright on Smash, in all its hate-watchable glory. Good news: Despite McPhee's mediocre performance on the show, she still brought the pipes. "Let Me Be Your Star" still stuns.
12. Scotty McCreery
Season 10 winner
Good ol' boy Scotty McCreery made weird faces when he performed, held his microphone bizarrely and performed what seemed like the same country song every week. He also has enjoyed some of the most success of an Idol post-win, albeit without breaking out in the same way Underwood did. Firmly a middle-ground entrant, but watch his high-octane version of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone" to see why McCreery was a worthy winner.
13. Kris Allen
Season 8 winner
Kris Allen was part of the beloved season 8 crew "Kradison" — named for himself, Lambert and fourth-placer Allison Iraheta. Technically, he was the clear third of that crew. What he lacked in vocal polish, however, Allen made up for with musical inventiveness. His acoustic cover of Kanye West's "Heartless" was particularly electric. His post-show career didn't set the world on fire, but he had a decent hit in the unbelievably catchy "Live Like We're Dying."
14. David Cook
Season 7 winner
David Cook is a reverse-Phillips: He made his own path during the show to great effect — "Always Be My Baby" and "Billie Jean" were highlights — but never broke out post-Idol. He also started the chain of white guys playing guitars winning the show for five straight years, a sad trend that really wore the show down in later seasons.
15. Clay Aiken
Season 2 runner-up
Remember when Clay Aiken was one of America's greatest stars? Remember what an injustice it was when he lost to Ruben Studdard? Season 2 was beloved back in the day, but its highly traditional performers who prefer standards to new songs have made both its winner and runner-up feel a bit stale now. That said, Aiken's voice remains superb, as it was on his best performance, "Solitaire." He's made a bit of a career of being a runner-up, though: first on Idol, then on Celebrity Apprentice, then when running for Congress. It's a living.
16. Bo Bice
Season 4 runner-up
Bo Bice is pretty unmemorable, which is too bad: His place in Idol history is important. He was one of the show's first true rockers, leading to a renaissance for non-belters in the show's best years (seasons 4 through 6). His a cappella version of "In a Dream" was incredibly powerful. Bice's career post-show, however, is nothing to write home about.
17. Kree Harrison
Season 12 runner-up
The fun and sweet Kree Harrison was never going to be able to outshine the big-voiced Glover. She instead went with a subtler approach to country. Her voice lacked a certain grit, particularly on songs like Susan Tedeschi's "Evidence," but her tone was lovely. She's not the type to be remembered, but she was a perfectly fine runner-up.
18. Blake Lewis
Season 6 runner-up
Much like Bice, Blake Lewis' impact on Idol is far beyond his individual performance. Among his final four, he was the clear fourth, outlasting powerhouses Lakisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle (Idol's greatest contestant ever). Yet his musical inventiveness, giving Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" a whole new spin, would allow artists like Cook, Lambert and Allen to come in and bring highly unusual arrangements of hits. He changed the Idol game — one wishes Lewis had made a name as a producer post-show, but alas, his solo albums didn't break out.
19. Ruben Studdard
Season 2 winner
Sorry, 2015: Ruben Studdard is pretty irrelevant in modern culture. The most news he's made recently was when he was involved in a bit of a scandal during his run on The Biggest Loser. (He was brought back after being eliminated, and the insinuation was he only returned to boost ratings.) We'll always have his version of "A Whole New World," though.
20. Lauren Alaina
Season 10 runner-up
Lauren Alaina had a few great moments on her season of Idol, including a dreamy cover of Martina McBride's "Anyway." Unfortunately, she never showed much personality beyond "blond, young country singer," leading to a pretty mild post-show career. She's a bit of a milquetoast note in Idol history.
21. Jax Cole
Season 14 finalist
There were moments in this past season when Jax (preferring her first name as a performer) seemed like she could be one of the Idol greats. Then she butchered Taylor Swift's "Blank Space." That one move showed a mystifying lack of understanding of her own style and talent. She's had breathtaking moments, like her piano cover of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and she's still the best choice for a winner this season, but she needs time to develop as an artist.
22. David Archuleta
Season 7 runner-up
Something about David Archuleta just never seemed right. There's this deep voice, but it comes out of a meek boy. His musical choices were sophisticated, but his performances never quite sold the idea that he understood what he was singing about. Even his post-show hit single, "Crush," was a mess, contrasting his soulful voice with an immature song. There's a universe somewhere out there where Archuleta waited four years to audition and became Idol's biggest star ever. In this one, however, he remains pretty disappointing.
23. Diana DeGarmo
Season 3 runner-up
This is not meant disrespectfully to Diana DeGarmo, but she's become far better known for her marriage to season 5 finalist Ace Young than for anything she did on the show. She's a fine singer — her cover of "Don't Cry Out Loud" was memorable — but her post-show career has been very focused on the marriage. It's a sweet story, though.
24. Nick Fradiani
Season 14 finalist
Nick Fradiani is probably going to win this season of American Idol, becoming the sixth white guy who plays a guitar to do so. He's fine, though nothing special. It's just underwhelming that as the show gasps its last dying breaths, this is the kind of winner the program's now-limited audience wants.
25. Clark Beckham
Season 14 finalist
In fairness to Fradiani, he's positively stellar compared to the bland Clark Beckham. There's been a concerted effort the past couple of weeks to make sure Beckham doesn't win, mostly because Idol's current in-house producer Scott Borchetta isn't a fan. He still may, but he's easily the worst of a bad crop: Beckham's performances lack any sort of connection. Worse even, he's defended bad song choices and an unwillingness to compromise by essentially chalking it all up to God's will. His belief is great, but it's no excuse for not wanting to work with a team to become better.
26. Justin Guarini
Season 1 runner-up
Perhaps unfairly, Justin Guarini gets a lot of the blame for From Justin to Kelly, the awful Idol film tie-in released after he lost to Clarkson in the first season. On the other hand, Clarkson gave us more than a decade of great pop music. Guarini had fun hair.
27. Caleb Johnson
Season 13 winner
Caleb Johnson's performances on his season of Idol were decent, and that is the only reason he doesn't fall to the bottom of this list. His album sales have been disastrous, even more so than Glover's. But what really earns him his spot in the lower rungs of the list is his big mouth. When asked about his opinions of fans on social media, Johnson called his fans — literally the people voting for him — "retards." Need we remind Johnson when it's OK to say the r-word? Never. It's still stunning he beat Irene, even after his apology.
28. Taylor Hicks
Season 5 winner
Soul Patrol! Soul Patrol! Soul Patrol! Oh, poor Taylor Hicks. He's become the butt-monkey of Idol thanks to his dopey performance style and winning over at least three people who went on to vastly better post-show careers: McPhee, Chris Daughtry and Kellie Pickler. In his defense... nope, he was really bad. But hey, we all had fun, no?
29. Lee DeWyze
Season 9 winner
Hicks may be a bit bumbling. Phillips may have had rough performances. Johnson may be an insensitive idiot. Studdard may be culturally irrelevant today. Yet all these winners could sing in tune consistently. Lee DeWyze seemed like a tremendously nice guy throughout his time on the show, but his vocals were just never quite there. Idol is a singing competition, and he never really delivered as a singer. Luckily, Idol never featured such a mistake again, but among all the poor decisions America made, this one stands out.