As "American Idol" celebrates its 500th episode & Season 13 comes to a close, here's our 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.”
Over 12 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.
The success of “Idol” is even bigger than Clarkson and Underwood. The franchise has produced over 375 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 celebrate the series' 500th show and the finale of season 13, 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.
"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 "American Idol" 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." Pickler will reprise the song as a duet with a member of the military on the CBS special "ACM Presents: An All-Star Salute to the Troops," airing May 20.
"And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going" - Jennifer Hudson
Hot 100 Peak: No. 60 (2007)
Producer Harvey Mason, Jr. had already recorded most of the "Dreamgirls" soundtrack when Jennifer Hudson was cast as Effie White, a role played by Jennifer Holliday on the Broadway stage. "We wanted to stand apart from the Jennifer Holliday version," Mason says. "We took great care to be similar but we wanted to do our own version of the song." Hudson came to the studio and performed the song perfectly in one take. "One woman sitting in the studio started crying after Jennifer’s performance," Mason recalls. "I looked over at the director, Bill Condon, and said, ‘What are we going to do now?’"
"Baby Mama" – Fantasia
Hot 100 Peak: No. 60 (2005)
This was a very personal song for Fantasia, who was 17 when she became pregnant with her daughter. Some found the lyrics controversial but Fantasia pointed out it was not about encouraging teen motherhood. The writing credits included the team of Barbara Acklin and Eugene Record because the track samples their 1974 composition, "There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table)," No. 63 on the Hot 100 for Record’s group, the Chi-Lites.
"Waiting for Superman" – Daughtry
Hot 100 Peak: No. 66 (2014)
A rock song with a taste of EDM, "Waiting for Superman" was the first single from Daughtry’s fourth album, "Baptized." Long-time comic book fan Chris Daughtry, known to dress as Batman at the San Diego Comic-Con, wrote the song with bandmates Martin Johnson and Sam Hollander. While the single has peaked on the Hot 100, it is still in the top 20 of the Adult Contemporary tally.
"Heartless" - Kris Allen
Hot 100 Peak: No. 16 (2009)
Asked why he chose to sing this song on "Idol," Allen explains, "Adam [Lambert] and I would always run ideas by each other and I asked him, ‘What if I did "Heartless" by Kanye?’ and he said, ‘I think it would be genius.’ That gave me the confidence to run with it. And seriously, once I got into it, it was one of the easiest things that I’ve done. I just played it my way and sang it my way."
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.