There’s a reason Kelly Clarkson stole our hearts on the inaugural season of American Idol: that voice. With a string of undeniable hits like “Walk Away,” “Since U Been Gone” and “Stronger,” the wide-eyed, blue-jean-shirt-making talent from Burleson, Texas, quickly became one of the strongest forces in modern pop music.
Armed with three Grammys and countless other industry hardware, Clarkson is currently eyeing her first album for Atlantic Records in a brand-new long-term deal. The yet-untitled new disc is expected to be a soul/R&B-inspired collection and should drop in 2017. “We have already started creating a record that I have been wanting to make since I was a little girl, and a record that fans have been asking me to make for years,” she said when she signed. “Here’s to the future.”
Billboard has compiled 10 of Clarkson’s most powerful and undeniable performances through the years as we wait for what’s next. Read on for some of Kelly’s onstage moments that have stood the test of time:
“Sober,” Live From the Troubadour (2011)
“Sometimes, you gotta pick the people out of your life that are cancers for you,” she introduces one of her best co-writes, lifted from her most personal record to date, My December. Backed by a lone guitar, Clarkson certainly doesn’t “crash and burn,” so to speak; instead, she rips into the track until there’s nothing left but lyric and heart.
“Tennesse Waltz”/”Natural Woman,” 2013 Grammy Awards
Clarkson’s take on two truly iconic songs was a satisfying blend of two of her biggest influences, Patti Page and Carole King, and the poppy sheen of “Tennessee Waltz” proved an appropriate counterbalance to the rootsy soul of “Natural Woman.” She was made for this kind of music.
“Why Haven’t I Heard from You,” CMT Giants: Reba (2006)
The rollicking, honky-tonk vibe of this classic Reba hit fits Clarkson like a glove. The 1994 kiss-off may seem a bit dated — “now there’s one [a telephone] on every corner, in the back of every bar, you can carry one in your briefcase, on a plane or in your car,” reads the opening lyric — but it still carries the weight of every broken heart in the world, and who can’t relate to that?
“Creep,” Stronger Tour (2012)
This Radiohead song, something of a modern classic, packs a punch — but even without its prominent F-bomb, Clarkson’s heartfelt rendering is just as powerful. During the run of her worldwide Stronger Tour, she covered countless pop hits, but none have stood up quite as well as this special moment.
“Cryin’,” Lifetime’s Women Rock (2004)
Who would have thought this bubbly girl from Burleson could tackle Aerosmith with such ease? Even when she’s tearing our hearts out on that bridge, there is a specificity and alertness few others could deliver — when her voice cracks, it’s just icing on the proverbial cake.
“Up to the Mountain,” Idol Gives Back (2007)
You may want to stock up on tissues before this one — not only does the melody sit in Clarkson’s sweet spot, but the lyrics tap into her ability to cut right to the core of a story. Sure, the Patty Griffin original is the gold standard, but this Idol does a pretty bang-up job.
“Piece by Piece,” American Idol (2016)
When she made her grand return on the final season, no one could have anticipated such a tear-jerking moment. Stripping down the title cut from her latest studio album Piece by Piece, the pop titan was pushed to the brink — the song is incredibly personal, written about her father’s absence during her childhood. Unintentionally and unexpectedly, she schooled the entire franchise’s contestants on how to deliver a truly memorable performance.
“Because of You,” Grammy Awards (2006)
Here, Clarkson serves up her signature power ballad backed by lush orchestration, sending chills through the crowd shortly before picking up two statues: best pop vocal album for Breakaway and best female pop vocal performance for “Since U Been Gone.”
“You Don’t Know Me” (with John Legend), ABC’s Duets (2012)
Clarkson’s hilarious rambling on a TV screen every week? Check. Musical collaborations with her teammates and fellow judges? Double check. Duets had it all, including this cover: the smoothness of Legend’s inflection pushed Clarkson to explore a vastly different part of her voice. Much like any other genre of music, the slow-marching Ray Charles standard was right up Clarkson’s alley.
“Already Gone,” American Music Awards (2009)
No one does a ballad like KC — here, lush string-laden production and haunting harmonies help take her performance to the next level.