A countdown of "American Idol" alums' biggest Hot 100 hits ever - and the untold stories behind the songs.
When “American Idol” premiered on Fox-TV on June 11, 2002, it was far from certain that the “Search for a Superstar” (the show’s subtitle) was going to produce one. Music critics didn’t give the series much credibility and radio did not go out of its way to play songs by “Idol” finalists. The industry should have known better, based on the success of “Pop Idol” in the United Kingdom. The first of that show’s two seasons did produce two superstars, in Will Young and Gareth Gates. Young’s first record, “Anything Is Possible” / “Evergreen,” became the fastest-selling single in U.K. history and is the best-selling single of the 21st century. Gates’ first release, a remake of “Unchained Melody,” debuted at No. 1 on the official U.K. singles chart and was certified double platinum. The stage was set for similar success in America but there was no guarantee.
Then along came Kelly Clarkson, though the singer from Burleson, Texas, was not an obvious winner in the early days of season one of “American Idol.” Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe says, “Justin Guarini and Tamyra Gray, we all said right from the beginning, those two. Tamyra was going to win. Kelly didn’t come through. The only thing that stood out was her humor. It was only when we got into the top 10 that all of a sudden, [when Kelly sang] people would stand there open-mouthed.”
Clarkson demonstrated her sense of humor by switching places with Randy Jackson during her audition, but later, when she walked out on the set for the first time, Jackson leaned over to Paula Abdul and said “Who is that? Who is she??” Debra Byrd, vocal coach on “Idol” from season one to the beginning of season 11, explains, “They didn’t remember her. Kelly later said that was her fault. She had changed her look and her hair. But she just wasn’t on their radar.”
Eleven years later, Clarkson is still very much on the radar, dominating the list of “Idol’s” top 100 songs on the Hot 100. She has 18 songs in the top 100, including six in the top 10, two of which rank No. 1 and No. 2.
Clarkson isn’t the only “Idol” to become a superstar. When the top 11 of season four were assigned the theme, “Billboard’s number one hits,” Carrie Underwood sang Heart’s “Alone.” After her performance, Simon Cowell made a bold prediction: “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.” Turns out, he was right. (“I’m sure he must love that,” Underwood laughs). Underwood is the best-selling Idol in the U.S. (Clarkson is tops internationally) and has more songs on the Idol 100 than anyone, with 20.
The success of “Idol” is even bigger than Clarkson and Underwood. The franchise has produced 379 No. 1s to date, counting all national and domestic charts compiled by Billboard. So far, 68 finalists from the first 11 seasons have appeared on the Billboard charts.
To coincide with the first live shows of season 12, here are the top 100 songs by Idols based on chart performance on the Hot 100, with the stories behind the songs, many of them being told for the first time.
"I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For" - David Cook
Hot 100 Peak: No. 22 (2008)
"They sent us to Clive Davis’ bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel," Cook recalls. “They videotaped him telling us his choices [for the top three finalists] to sing.” The music executive told Cook he would be performing this U2 song. “I remember saying, ‘Oh no! That’s a high bar!’ It was the first song I was going to do in the finale. I didn’t want to come out of the gate and drop the ball. It was the most stressful of all the finale songs.”
"Like My Mother Does" - Lauren Alaina
Hot 100 Peak: No. 20 (2011)
In an emotional moment, Alaina sang this song to her mother on the season 10 finale. But Alaina wasn't the first Idol to perform the tune. Season seven's Kristy Lee Cook recorded it on her 19/Arista album, "Why Wait," in 2008.
"Bittersweet" - Fantasia
Hot 100 Peak: No. 74 (2010)
"'Bittersweet' is a true story," says Fantasia. "I told [songwriter] Claude Kelly, 'I'm broken hearted. I can't believe this is happening to me. So let's put it in a song, because there's a hundred more girls feeling this same way. Not only women, but there are guys who fall in love and they feel like, "This one's the one," and it doesn't quite happen like you thought it would.'" The single was Fantasia's third No. 1 on the Adult R&B chart, where it ruled for five weeks.
"Home Sweet Home" - Carrie Underwood
Hot 100 Peak: No. 21 (2009)
Nikki Sixx, Vince Neil and Tommy Lee wrote this song for their group, Mötley Crüe. The original single peaked at No. 89 on the Hot 100 in 1985. A re-recorded track went to No. 37 in 1992. But Underwood had the highest-ranking version when she recorded the power ballad as the "Idol" kiss-off tune for season eight. Her single peaked at No. 21 in 2009.
"Crawling Back to You" - Daughtry
Hot 100 Peak: No. 41 (2011)
Chris Daughtry and Marti Frederiksen wrote "Crawling Back to You" for the "Leave This Town" album. "The chorus was dark," says Chris. "Something wasn't right. We changed the melody and it wasn't better. Finally, we gave up." But there was something interesting about the tune that prevented them from abandoning it forever. Ultimately Daughtry and Frederiksen got back together at Chris' house and found the right chord for the chorus, rewriting it in just three minutes. "We turned it in to [producer] Howard [Benson] that night." "Crawling Back to You" was the second single released from Daughtry's third album, "Break the Spell."
"Dream Big" - David Cook
Hot 100 Peak: No. 15 (2008)
There were 10 finalists in the season seven songwriting contest. In addition to performing the winning song, "The Time of My Life," on the second night of the two-part finale, Cook was to select a song from the remaining nine to sing during the first night. "I was also singing U2 and Collective Soul and I wanted to find something that fell between those two," he explains. "A lot of songs submitted for the finale were grandiose. 'Dream Big' had more drive to it. The lyrics by Emily Shackelton were written from the viewpoint of a girl. I asked if she would allow me to change 'girl' to 'boy' without screwing with her rhyme sequences. She said yes, absolutely. It was fun to strap on the guitar, turn it up to 10 and go."
"When You Tell Me That You Love Me" - American Idol Finalists 4
Hot 100 Peak: No. 39 (2005)
When Diana Ross released this song in 1991, it failed to chart on the Hot 100 but was a hit in the U.K., where it peaked at No. 2. The song went to No. 2 again in 2005, when Westlife recorded it, with guest vocalist Ross. That same year, the song finally charted in America (for the first and only time), by the season four "Idol" finalists.
"Mad World" - Adam Lambert
Hot 100 Peak: No. 19 (2009)
"The theme was year of birth," Lambert says when asked why he performed Tears for Fears' "Mad World" on "American Idol." "They gave us a list and that song popped out at me and I remembered the Gary Jules version from the movie, 'Donnie Darko.' It's haunting and beautiful and it gets in your head and the words are amazing and I wanted to do it because I knew it would be different and very non-'Idol' and not showy. I wanted to pull back and sound really vulnerable and just do the song justice and they came up with a great arrangement of it, kind of this ambient, acoustic thing."
"If This Isn't Love" - Jennifer Hudson
Hot 100 Peak: No. 63 (2009)
Brian Kennedy had a meeting with Clive Davis to find out the direction he was taking Hudson on her debut album. "I got home at two or three in the morning and started putting ideas down," says Kennedy. "No one knows this, but the original track was deleted by accident. It took me 20 minutes to make it and then six hours to recreate it." Lyrics were written by Planet VI (brothers Timothy and Theron Thomas) and Kennedy produced the recording.
"Red High Heels" - Kellie Pickler
Hot 100 Peak: No. 64 (2007)
Billboard gave Pickler’s first single a favorable review in October 2006. Deborah Evans Price called the song, "a frisky anthem" and said Pickler, "has an engaging voice and loads of personality, and both shine on this single." Citing her "abundance of spark and charisma," Price predicted, "she very well could follow in her heroes’ footsteps."
The ranking of this list of the Top 100 'American Idol' Songs of all Time is based on actual performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart. Songs are ranked based on an inverse point system, with weeks at No. 1 earning the greatest value and weeks at No. 100 earning the least. To ensure equitable representation of the biggest hits from each era, certain time frames were weighted to account for the difference between turnover rates from those years.