Idol‘s uncertain future and Clarkson’s rock-solid career (it’s all-but-assured to last a lifetime, unlike Idol) are in stark contrast these days. But that’s nothing new for the seesawing relationship between Idol and its stars.
From bona fide A-listers to dead-on-arrival artists, the 13 winners of American Idol are a remarkably varied bunch in terms of success.
In the graphic above (right-click it to view full-size in a new window), we’ve rounded up every album from Idol‘s 13 champs (including Christmas albums but not including indie albums released prior to their Idol stints) and bunched them together according to their performance on the Billboard 200.
The oldest release on this list is Clarkson’s No. 1 album Thankful and the most recent is her new No. 1 album Piece by Piece. While Clarkson’s releases have yet to dip beneath the No. 3 spot, the chart positions for her immediate successor, Ruben Studdard, are far more representative of a typical Idol victor.
Idol‘s season 2 champ reached No. 1 in 2003 with his debut album, Soulful. His next album, I Need an Angel, dropped to No. 20, and while he regained steam for The Return at No. 8, his next release — Love Is — peaked at No. 36. After that, Letters From Birmingham scraped by at No. 73, but Unconditional Love saw a slight return at No. 46.
Kris Allen‘s album sales have followed a similar sales-drop pattern. The season 8 winner’s self-titled album hit No. 11, while 2012’s Thank You Camellia peaked at No. 26. His latest, 2014’s Horizons, reached an inauspicious No. 80. In fact, his last big look was a starring role in a Ford commercial.
While the slow slide into niche territory seems typical of several Idol winners, it’s hardly the dominant narrative. Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks debuted at No. 10 with her 2007 self-titled bow and actually rose to No. 7 on her 2009 follow-up Battlefield. Fantasia Barrino, season 3 champ, also saw her chart positions improve over time: Her first album peaked at No. 8, and while her second LP dipped to No. 19, her third and fourth efforts both reached No. 2.
One lesson you can take from all this: While Idol‘s ratings may be a in a clear downward spiral over time, the rollercoaster success of its annual victors — and their continuing careers — hasn’t mirrored that.
Take, for example, Taylor Hicks, who won Idol during its glory years. He went from a No. 2-peaking first album to a No. 58-peaking second album, followed by… well, nothing much since then.
On the other hand, within the last four seasons, Idol has given the gift of chart life to half its winners despite the TV-ratings slide. Phillip Phillips‘ two albums debuted in the top 10, and he scored a genuine Billboard Hot 100 hit with his No. 6-peaking single “Home.”
Similarly successful is season 10 winner Scotty McCreery. He hit No. 1 with his 2011 debut album, Clear as Day, and his two follow-up efforts both debuted in the top 10. Furthermore, the deep-voiced country crooner brought four of his five official singles to the top 20 on the Hot Country Songs chart. And given the loyalty of country music listeners, he’s likely to enjoy similar success on upcoming releases.
Speaking of country, that brings us to Idol’s overall best-selling winner in America, Carrie Underwood. After debuting at No. 2 with Some Hearts after her season 4 victory, Underwood’s next four albums have occupied the No. 1 slot. Plus, she’s brought a whopping 14 singles to the No. 1 spot on Hot Country Songs. Despite a tepid reception to her Sound of Music Live performance, she’s still on top.
Of course, Queen Carrie’s future is on better footing than the last two Idol winners. Both Candice Glover (season 12) and Caleb Johnson (season 13) released albums in 2014, but neither cracked the top 10 on the Billboard 200 (Glover reached No. 14 with Music Speaks; Johnson hit No. 24 with Testify).
If 2015 is looking uncertain for Idol‘s most recent winners, they’re not the only ones. Despite its strong start, David Cook‘s career is similarly shaky. While his 2008 and 2011 albums reached the top 10, the season 7 winner parted ways with RCA in 2012 — and we’ve yet to see a third Cook album since then.
As for the unenviable honor of Worst-Charting Album From an American Idol Winner, Lee DeWyze nabs that crown. The season 9 victor reached No. 19 in 2010 with his post-Idol debut album Live It Up, but his 2013 follow-up fared far worst: Frames peaked at No. 116.
On the plus side, DeWyze’s “Blackbird Song” got some viral love in 2014 thanks to its inclusion in The Walking Dead. So perhaps like many reality show winners, the best future for certain Idol champions lies back on TV — whether that means starring in commercials, soundtracking popular shows or taking on hosting gigs of their own.