When it comes to American Idol, the runners-up tend to become just as successful as the winners – and in some cases, more so. From platinum records to Broadway stints to one that became a lead vocalist for Queen, for some contestants, second place is the place to be.
While some runners-up expectedly fell short of the title, others placing second were complete shockers to America, but each and every second place contestant became an idol in their own right after that one, defining performance.
20. Arthur Gunn – “Kiss The Girl” – Season 18
Season 18 turned into a strange one when it never made it to actual live shows due to the pandemic, switching to virtual performances in the contestants’ homes for the remainder of the season until it crowned Just Sam as the winner beside runner-up Arthur Gunn, who would later place seventh in Season 19 thanks to that season’s “Comeback Twist.”
Gunn was known for his unique, gravelly voice that he lent to the reggae genre, most memorably during Disney Week with “Kiss The Girl” from The Little Mermaid, which he performed on guitar against a beachy backdrop in his home.
19. Clark Beckham – “Superstition” – Season 14
Aside from ending its memorable partnership with Coca-Cola, Season 14 of American Idol didn’t have a whole lot going on, but it did give a platform to winner Nick Fradiani and a slow-rising music career to runner-up Clark Beckham.
During the Top 6, it started out with just Beckhham’s falsetto and some electric guitar strings before he killed a jazzed-up “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, which judge Harry Connick Jr. admitted the singer “couldn’t have done any better.”
18. Blake Lewis – “This Love” – Season 6
Blake Lewis became a breath of fresh air for a show full of singers when he auditioned for Season 6 as not only a singer, but a talented beatboxer and arranger. His beatboxing landed him in the competition of his life against Jordin Sparks, who he ultimately came in second to.
Lewis memorably added beatbox breaks into every performance, turning him into a standout of his season, with his best performance coming during the finale when he took on “This Love” by Maroon 5, a song perfect for his tone that he broke in the middle of with some beatboxing.
17. Justin Guarini – “Get Here” – Season 1
Known for his big afro and sultry voice, Justin Guarini was the show’s first-ever runner-up, coming in second to future megastar Kelly Clarkson during the seemingly short, 25-episode Season 1 that launched a two-decades-and-counting-long reality show.
Guarini always seemed to choose a mix of notable Idol songs like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John and powerhouse ballads like “Ribbon in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder, but his best performance happened during a Hollywood Week round. The singer performed “Get Here” by Brenda Russell, and although the vocals weren’t one hundred percent perfect, the beautiful, tender notes remain some of Guarini’s best.
16. Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “Gettin’ You Home” – Season 16
Caleb Lee Hutchinson sang each week with a smile on his face and a deep, country twang in his voice as he battled his girlfriend and fellow contestant Maddie Poppe for the win, landing in the second place spot behind her come finale night.
Hutchinson is remembered for adding a country tweak to each non-country song he sang, and ultimately nailing the country tunes, most memorably “Gettin’ You Home” by Chris Young, which he performed in front of big car headlights as he hit simple but powerful notes.
15. Alejandro Aranda – “Poison” – Season 17
It’s uncommon for a contestant who doesn’t consider themselves a singer to make it all the way to second place, but that’s exactly what happened to Season 17 contestant Alejandro Aranda, runner-up to Laine Hardy.
Known for his intricate guitar strumming, Aranda took the B stage during the Top 6 week with his acoustic guitar, surrounded by the phone lights of audience members as he performed his original song “Poison,” displaying a tender tone and moments of a memorable falsetto.
14. Kree Harrison – “Stronger” – Season 12
The Carly Smithson vibes were strong with this one, but make it country. Kree Harrison belted out a good combination of country rock songs and ballads up until the finale when she placed second to Candice Glover.
Harrison’s Top 20 song choice “Stronger” by Faith Hill best showed the singer’s vocals, especially with the notable final note. It’s an absolute wonder how she hasn’t had more chart-toppers in her career with a voice like this.
13. HunterGirl – “Red Bird” – Season 20
The Season 20 finale came down to two country singers, a typical trope in Idol history, first done in Season 4 with Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood and again in Season 10 with Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery. Similarly to Season 10, it was the male finalist Noah Thompson who went home with the win, leaving the contestant known as HunterGirl in second place.
HunterGirl impressed viewers week after week, but she gave it her all during the finale with a performance of her original song “Red Bird” – a future number one single – which left judge Luke Bryan in tears.
12. Crystal Bowersox – “Up To The Mountain” – Season 9
As one of the very few runners-up to never land in the Bottom 3 or Bottom 2, Crystal Bowersox was known for their country-rock vibes all the way up until the finale when they came up short to Lee DeWyze in Season 9.
While Bowersox’s rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin gained critical acclaim, their best was their final song of the finale. With just them and their guitar surrounded by a choir on the Idol finale stage, the singer earned praise from judge Simon Cowell for their performance of “Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin.
11. La’Porsha Renae – “No More Drama” – Season 15
As forgettable as Season 15 was, it did have some memorable performances, including winner Trent Harmon’s rendition of “Chandelier” by Sia and runner-up La’Porsha Renae’s performance of “No More Drama” by Mary J. Blige.
The singer was known for belting out hits throughout the season, but “No More Drama” showcased not only Renae’s vocals, but her emotion toward the song’s subject was what made this performance a standout.
10. Jena Irene – “Can’t Help Falling In Love” – Season 13
Season 13 saw a whole new set of judges when Harry Connick Jr. made his Idol debut and Jennifer Lopez returned to the judges’ table after a one-season absence, joining previous judge Keith Urban. It was during the Top 4 week these judges praised that season’s runner-up Jena Irene for her performance, including a standing ovation from Lopez.
Irene was known for her unique take on songs, but it was her piano rendition of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by Elvis Presley that secured her place in the competition and became her most memorable performance.
9. Bo Bice – “In A Dream” – Season 4
No matter which contestant wound up in the finale next to Carrie Underwood, they would always come up short, and Season 4 saw its runner-up as rocker Bo Bice.
During the Top 3 week, Bice went back to his Idol roots and performed the same song he sang for his audition: “In A Dream” by Badlands. Keeping to the theme of his audition, the singer made the admittedly bold move by choosing not to perform the song with the live band and instead sing it entirely acapella, which proved to be the right move.
8. Clay Aiken – “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Season 2
Despite Ruben Studdard taking home the title, Clay Aiken was the one to beat throughout Season 2, causing a notable upset when the balladeer came in second place.
With a deep and powerful voice that matched his looks that made viewers swoon, Aiken seemed to nail each week of the competition, but is best remembered for his finale performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel, accompanied by a choir.
7. Willie Spence – “Yellow” – Season 19
The late Willie Spence tragically passed away in 2022 – the fifth contestant to pass away in the show’s 20 seasons, with the sixth coming this year with Season 13 contestant C.J. Harris’ death – but left a legacy on American Idol when he became the Season 19 runner-up next to winner Chayce Beckham.
As memorable as it was to watch past runner-up Katharine McPhee belt out “The Prayer” by Celine Dion and Andre Bocelli with future runner-up Spence, the singer’s best performance came during the Top 7 week when he turned alt-pop song “Yellow” by Coldplay into a moving ballad.
6. Lauren Alaina – “Unchained Melody” – Season 10
Lauren Alaina became Season 10’s Carrie Underwood, with everything except the title when she came in second to another country music singer, Scotty McCreery. Alaina was known for belting out the country hits with her southern twang, but one stands out from them all.
It was during the Top 5 week that Alaina lent her voice to a ballad with a country undertone, “Unchained Melody” by The Righteous Brothers. Alaina looked and sounded stunning during the performance which she threw in some signature growls near the end for.
5. Jessica Sanchez – “I Will Always Love You” – Season 11
Arguably the last notable season until the show’s revival on ABC in 2018, Season 11 produced a few notable names like Phillip Phillips, Colton Dixon, and runner-up Jessica Sanchez.
Sanchez tackled a song only some can succeed with during the Top 13 week, and successfully and beautifully nailed it beneath striking spotlights. “I Will Always Love You” by Witney Houston earned Sanchez the praise of being dubbed “one of the best singers in the whole country” by judge Randy Jackson.
4. Diana DeGarmo – “Don’t Cry Out Loud” – Season 3
Diana DeGarmo may have placed second to Fantasia Barrino in Season 3, but that didn’t stop the star’s successful career in music, television and Broadway.
DeGarmo was known for powerhouse ballads by the likes of Celine Dion and Martina McBride, but her best came during the Top 3 week when she performed “Don’t Cry Out Loud” by The Moments, which she reprise the next week during the finale. The ending alone places her high on this list, just sayin.
3. Adam Lambert – “Mad World” – Season 8
While it never affected his rockin’ career full of musical success and performing with Queen, Adam Lambert was yet another victim of the ongoing Idol finale shocker when the expected winner comes in second place.
With a season-long popularity that has turned into a dedicated fanbase to this day, Lambert earned his place on the Idol stage week after week, but it’s an image ingrained in every viewer’s mind when he memorably remained seated on the dark stage and sang “Mad World” by Tears for Fears.
2. David Archuleta – “Imagine” – Season 7
After a seventh season full of talented contestants, it was a then-17-year-old David Archuleta who everyone and their grandmother believed would be the next American Idol. And after one of the most nail-biting finales in the show’s history, it reduced 13-year-olds everywhere to tears when he lost to David Cook (I would know, I was one of them).
Archuleta brought stunning vocals for his young age to every performance, but the most remembered has to be “Imagine” by John Lennon, a song he concluded the Top 20 week with. The slow, acoustic melody paired with the teen’s flawless voice earned him worldwide praise, and Paula Abdul admitting she wanted to dangle the crooner from her rearview mirror.
1. Katharine McPhee – “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” – Season 5
It’s still a wonder 17 years later that Katharine McPhee lost to Taylor Hicks in one of those finale shockers Idol fans know all too well. While Season 5 spawned plenty of memorable Idols – from rocker Chris Daughtry to the ever-memorable “Chicken Little” – McPhee arguably came out the most successful with several albums, starring roles in TV shows, Broadway runs and a jewelry line.
Unforgettably sat in the middle of the Idol stage, McPhee all but earned the win with her finale performance of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” by Judy Garland, where she showcased a beautiful falsetto paired with silky smooth vocals.