Every decade has its idols, the ’00s was definitely the age of the American idol — as in the winners and sometimes runners up of the popular TV star search. Occasionally, several of them have gone on to produce excellent-if-not-exactly-earth-shattering post-American Idol singles (Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” Jordin Sparks’s “No Air”), but for the most part, they’ve peaked on the show. Here are my nine favorite Idol performances from 2002 to 2009. Note that two of them (Tamyra’s and Jennifer’s) resulted in the contestants getting the boot the following night.
- Kelly Clarkson “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Season 1)
- Tamyra Gray “Feel The Fire” (Season 1)
- Clay Aiken “Solitaire” (Season 2)
- Jennifer Hudson “Weekend In New England” (Season 3)
- Carrie Underwood “Could’ve Been” (Season 4)
- Jordin Sparks “I (Who Have Nothing)” (Season 6)
- David Cook “Always Be My Baby” (Season 7)
- Syesha Mercado “Vanishing” (Season 7)
- Kris Allen “Heartless” (Season 8)
And the countdown marches on….
40. Britney Spears “Piece Of Me” (2007)
For me, the late ’00s will always be when Britney Spears finally got good. Ironically, the album with which she allegedly was least involved, 2007’s Blackout, turned out to be her best. Was it live or was it Memorex? Who cares? Considering that Britney never got by on spectacular singing, all that matters is that the productions (yes, these are more productions than songs) sound incredible. But for all the production grandeur of “Piece Of Me” — at certain points of this, one of a quintet of stunning Blackout tracks that also includes “Gimme More,” “Get Naked (I Got A Plan),” “Toy Soldier” and “Perfect Lover,” she sounds like she’s being smothered (by the tabloid press?) — there is a certain sly knowingness in Britney’s distorted Auto-Tuned performance that suggests she might actually have been more coherent than anyone has dared to give her credit for.
39. The Killers “All These Things That I’ve Done” (2005)
If you met me in the mid ’00s, chances are at some point you probably heard me chanting, “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.” Thank you, Brandon Flowers, for my mid-decade mantra. In a three-album career that has spawned several, um, killer moments (“Andy, You’re A Star,” “Mr. Brightside” and “Read My Mind,” among them), this is the song for which the Killers will go down in my personal ’00s history.
38. Duffy “Mercy” (2008)
I worry about Duffy. How is she going to follow-up Rockferry, a near-perfect debut album that was my favorite of 2008? This song introduced most of the world to the Welsh singer, and what a first impression it made. It’s a lot more subversive than the conventional ’60s-ish musical trappings might suggest. The melody, the beat, couldn’t be sunnier, more uplifting, but the words are anything but. The song’s protagonist is full of heartache, desperate, dying to be no longer under love’s spell. She hurts, I dance. And after hearing it at least a trillion times, I still can’t stop dancing.
37. The White Stripes “Icky Thump” (2007)
The White Stripes and I have a peculiar relationship. Although they have produced a few great singles, and I like Jack White’s collaborations with other artists, I’ve never been able to listen to one of the duo’s albums the entire way through. In some ways, for me, they are the Smashing Pumpkins of the ’00s. I respect them more than I like them. But what I feel for “Icky Thump,” which actually hit No. 2 on the UK singles chart, is so much more than respect. I drop dead adore it. So it’s a little — okay, a lot — Led Zeppelin. To quote a far less legendary ’80s metal band, it still rocks me like a hurricane.
36. Madonna “Hung Up” (2005)
Madonna had her money moments this decade: “Music,” “Don’t Tell Me,” “Die Another Day,” “Jump,” “4 Minutes.” And those were just her stellar singles. But with a lot of help from an unexpected Abba sample, she kicked off the best album of her career (Confessions On A Dancefloor) and her best single of the decade. They’ll be playing this one in clubs right up to the very end.
35. Nelly Furtado “Say It Right”/”No Hay Igual” (2006)
Admit it, you’d written off Nelly Furtado, too, after her 2003 flop, Folklore. Then she came roaring back with a sensational one-two punch — “Promiscuous” and “Maneater” — that had nothing in common with anything she’d done before. In a sense, she had shed some of the personality that made people notice her in the first place and veered dangerously close to becoming the vocal puppet of producer Timbaland, but I’d always found quirky Nelly to be a little annoying. The two best moments on Loose — the dark, moody “Say It Right” (a surpise No. 1 single) and the percussive party jam “No Hay Igual” — soared primarily on the strength of Nelly herself. If I had to choose, I’d go with “Say It Right” in the No. 35 spot, but since this isn’t Sophie’s Choice, I’ll call it a draw and give Nelly two songs for the price of one spot.
34. Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Heads Will Roll” (2009)
How do I love Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Let me count the excellent songs: 1. “Maps.” 2. “Cheated Hearts.” 3. “Dudley.” 4. “Zero.” But “Heads Will Roll” takes Karen O and the boys to another creative level. Karen never sounded so sexy and in such full command of her performing gifts (which would include that white-hot sexuality). She’s Chrissie Hynde, PJ Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux all rolled into one. Be still my beating heart! As for the song, it’s arty, cinematic, thorougly addictive. If I listen to it once, I have to listen to it 12 times, and I just can’t get enough.
33. Sunshine Anderson “Heard It All Before” (2001)
The kiss-off of the decade from a Macy Gray protegeé — and yes, that’s her real first name, inspired, she once told me, by the weather conditions at the time of her birth. Beyonce’s overrated “Irreplaceable” had it’s minor charm, but her fury sounded too tame, like she was afraid of breaking a press-on nail. In Sunshine’s eviscerating of a cheating boyfriend, he gets exactly what’s coming to him, but without sloganeering. There’s no talk of material possessions to undercut the emotional drama (punctuated by the coolest organ riff ever), just one fed-up woman, simply and concisely kissing that thing goodbye.
32. Leona Naess “Ghosts In The Attic” (2007)
Poor Leona Naess. She’s been creating extraordinary music for four albums now, and hardly anybody seems to be listening. This, the first single from her most recent, Thirteens, is a beautiful hangover of a song, so raw, so emotionally naked that it would be hard to listen to if it weren’t so damn brilliant. There’s a lot more where this came from. If any undervalued artist in this countdown is worth checking out, it’s Leona. After eight years, I’m still partial to I Tried To Rock You But You Only Roll, but pick an album, any album, and just let the music play.
31. Nas “Made You Look” (2003)
The first time I realized how incredible this song is, I was in a slightly stuffy bar in New York City with my boyfriend at the time and some of his friends. When “Made You Look” came on, the place turned into a full-on dance-party zone. Egomaniacal rap has never really been my thing, but here Nas actually backs up his claims. The second time I realized how incredible this song is was when I first heard Amy Winehouse’s “In My Bed” (from her debut album Frank). In a sample-happy genre (that would be hip hop), you know you’ve created a modern rap masterpiece when a genius singer-songwriter (that would be Amy) is sampling you.