I remember the first time I watched American Idol all the way back in the summer of 2002. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The contestants seemed larger than life and the judges were all people I had never heard of. That was the year that I fell in love with Kelly Clarkson. Almost 16 years later, she’s still my forever Idol. Of course, throughout the years, Idol has produced many accomplished legitimate superstars, but as the show progressed, it became more about the judges. The original formula of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson changed and eventually they were all replaced. While some judges were complete flops (Kara DioGuardi) and some were attention grabbers (Mariah Carey & Nicki Minaj) there were some great judges along the way.
I’m going to break down ALL fourteen (14) judges that have and will be judging American Idol, in honor of the new season (series) premiere of Idol back on our television. My rankings are strictly based on my own subjective opinion but also because I’m a diehard Idol fan and I deserve to pass judgement on these unique and over the top characters.
14) Kara DioGuardi (Seasons 8 & 9)
To be honest, I didn’t even realize that she was a judge for more than one season until I had to fact check to write about how awful she was. I don’t know if it was because she was the first new judge to interrupt the harmony of the Holy Trinity (Paula, Simon & Randy) or because her personality was both grating and felt more like a nuisance. I don’t feel as if she had any memorable moments or any relevant critiques that improved or brought value to the singing competition.
13) Harry Connick Jr. (Seasons 13-15)
While I do appreciate that the Idol judges varied across music genres, to be honest, I didn’t know much about Harry Connick Jr. except that he was the jazz guy and he played Leo on Will & Grace. Outside of that, I honestly don’t consider him all that good. While at times he did provide helpful tips to the contestants, it came across abrasive and he tried too hard to be the “bad cop.” The truth of the matter is that he was simply no Simon Cowell.
12) Steven Tyler (Seasons 10-11)
Steven Tyler was the case of someone who had so much talent and had an illustrious career, but it was like watching a trainwreck each week. He’s such a zany and eccentric human being, that it was hard to watch all season (although to be honest, I don’t think I gave these seasons much attention). Steven did his best but it wasn’t enough to get him higher on the list.
11) Randy Jackson (Seasons 1-12)
Listen, Randy Jackson is one of those people that knew that he had a gig that was too good not to give up. However, his schtick got old really quick. His catchphrases became less and less cool and more ironic as the seasons progressed, and in my opinion. I felt he was a bit out of touch (with reality). He often played the voice of reason (especially in Season 12) but I believe he stayed on too long and it tarnished his contributions to the modern day singing competition.
10) Lionel Richie (Season 16)
Okay, okay here me out. While we have yet to see Lionel Richie truly in action aside from brief glimpses on commercials and press, I do believe that he will surpass the judges listed below him. My take of Mr. Richie is that he’s still kicking and partying like it’s the 70s, he’s Nicole Richie’s dad, and he’ll be a mix of Randy, Steven, and Harry, but be able to relate to the contestants. Here’s to you Lionel!
9) Ellen DeGeneres (Season 9)
Normally Ellen would be ranked number one on ANY list, but her measly one season appearance only propelled her to number nine. Her effervescent personality and charm certainly was a refreshing to an honest to God DUD of a season, but she didn’t know much about music. While she had been in the entertainment industry for a couple of decades, her casting as a judge was honestly a grab for ratings if anything. I love you Ellen, but you could have done better.
8) Nicki Minaj (Season 12)
I know the Nicki Minaj fans will probably come after me on social media after this but I feel as if she let her attitude and her personal beef with Mariah get in the way of her able to truly help the contestants. The constant bickering took away from the season (although I can honestly tell you I don’t even remember who won this season) and she needed the spotlight to keep people talking about her. While she did bring her own flavor to the judging panel, if she could have only been the more mature of the two divas, she could have made a more favorable impression.
7) Mariah Carey (Season 12)
Mariah Carey is a legend. Let’s get that out of the way. She’s the “Elusive Chanteuse.” and the definition of “Diva.” However, her behavior and sour attitude on Idol did her no favors. While I will say that she redeemed herself a few years later on her own reality adventure, her inability to make true connections with the contestants and offer anything more than surface level feedback held her back from being one of the best judges on Idol.
6) Luke Bryan (Season 16)
Again, this is subjective and we haven’t seen the range of what Luke Bryan can do on Idol, but I can say that as a HUGE Luke Bryan fan, I know this man cares about the craft. He’s been a mentor on The Voice and he’s a musician through and through. While many may not be a fan of his newest releases and turning his brand of country into “bro-country” I do believe that he has a lot to offer the contestants in this new iteration of a one-time behemoth of a competition.
5) Katy Perry (Season 16)
I’m #TeamKaty through and through. There is no denying that. The reason that I believe Katy will be a top 5 judge on Idol is because she’s been through the roughest and worst situations in the music industry and she’s also been at the top of the game for years. Knowing her background and having people not understand the music she was trying to make, or trying to pigeonhole into a specific genre, she has overcome and continues to persevere. From the few clips that I have seen of her at judges panel, her genuine ability to connect with the contestants, she’s fighting for them as future artists and wants them to be their true authentic selves.
4) Paula Abdul (Seasons 1 – 8)
Paula Abdul is an icon. Every week and every season she found a way to entertain the audience at home, while at the same time ensuring that she was doing her job. Yes, her bickering and banter with Simon was a subplot of Idol for her entire tenure, it was her passion and her resilience that made her so lovable. She didn’t always say the right thing, but her intentions were true. She fought tooth and nail to make sure the best singers stayed in the competition and believe in the contestants. She served as the matriarch of Idol for eight seasons and I’m grateful for her.
3) Keith Urban (Seasons 12 – 15)
Keith Urban increased his popularity tenfold (in my opinion of course) by joining the judge’s panel on Idol. His feedback and critiques to the contestants were always given in a positive manner and he found his groove early on. He knew that those contestants were just like him, looking for an opportunity, and his goal was to give them the guidance and knowledge he didn’t have when he was in their shoes and help them go all the way. He was especially awe-inspiring when he legitimately couldn’t keep it together on the last season of Idol when Kelly Clarkson came back to perform (3:06 mark)
2) Jennifer Lopez (Seasons 10-11, 13-15)
Jennifer Lopez aka Jenny from the Block aka JLO was a godsend when she joined American Idol. Her brand of realness and her ability to both serve as a mentor and judge, but also at times a friend to the contestants showed her versatility. Jennifer had two stints on Idol, but it was her second stint when she truly got her groove and understood her job as a judge. Her rapport with her fellow judges as well as her willingness to be VULNERABLE week in and week out are what endeared her to the audiences at home.
1) Simon Cowell (Seasons 1-9)
I think at this point it was inevitable that Simon Cowell would be remembered as the best judge on American Idol. He brought Idol to the states and he made himself a household name here in America. While the first few seasons he played up his character of being brutally honest, it was his British mannerism and charm that made Idol worth watching. It also forced the contestants to step up their game each and every week. He pushed them to their limits and he was never afraid to say how he felt. The contestants knew that they needed to not only impress America, but they needed to impress Simon. Simon’s opinion carried a lot of weight, no matter who was the fan favorite. The farewell to Simon Cowell was truly an emotional one.
Featured image via ABC American Idol