Best and Worst 'Idol' Finales

Counting them down, from worst to first.

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    #7 is... Season 5 (2006): Taylor Hicks beats Katharine McPhee. Taylor was the kind of enthusiastic if eccentric performer you'd be happy to see turn up at your local nightclub or karaoke bar. Katharine was an attractive girl with a good voice whose performances, while far more professional than Taylor's, came off as a bit calculated. But would you want to see Taylor in concert or buy a single by him? Was Katharine's personality so appealing that you were willing to vote repeatedly for her? By the season finale, the answer to both questions was no. Probably figuring that Taylor was enjoying his last hurrah in show business and that Katharine could always make a nice living as an actress or TV host, viewers gave Taylor their sympathy votes, but it's hard to believe anyone really cared.

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    #6 is... Season 6 (2007): Jordin Sparks beats Blake Lewis. This was a showdown between performance and voice, and between consistency and progress. Blake was a confident performer from day one, mixing things up by showcasing his decent beatboxing skills. Jordin had gradually come out of her shell and revealed a big pop-diva voice that belied her young age of 17. As Simon Cowell often points out, this is a singing competition, and Jordin had the edge there. The outcome remained uncertain to the end, but the emotional involvement with either contestant just wasn't quite there.

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    #5 is... Season 4 (2005): Carrie Underwood beats Bo Bice. Bo was the first truly convincing rocker to get this far on "Idol" (and probably the most convincing rocker ever on the show until Chris Daughtry appeared the next season). Even though Carrie, like many blonde women who make it to the final 12, had benefited from inordinate support from Simon Cowell, she had yet to blossom into the confident superstar she is now, and she was rightly criticized for failing to connect emotionally to her songs. But Bo had perhaps too much rocker integrity to pull off "Inside Your Heaven," the cheesy ballad both finalists had to perform on the last performance show; his listless rendition signaled to "Idol" fanatics that he and they were not a good match. Though her victory was unsurprising, Carrie at least left you eager to hear more from her.

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    #4 is... Season 2 (2003): Ruben Studdard beats Clay Aiken. The first finale to feature two male contestants was also the first to inspire almost immediate controversy over the winner, as some technical difficulties may have affected the tallying of the phone-in vote. But that didn't affect how viewers felt as it unrolled. Ruben had been all about consistency in his easy-listening soul vocals and cuddly look. Clay had been far more adventurous in his performances and had gradually made himself over from a glee-club geek to a presentable visual approximation of a mainstream pop vocalist. Ruben's likability made it hard for even die-hard Claymates to begrudge him his victory, but Clay would have been a more emotionally satisfying winner. Give this one points for suspense, as it was impossible to call till the very end.

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    #3 is... Season 7 (2008): David Cook beats David Archuleta. In many ways, this was a foreshadowing of this season's final two. Like Kris Allen, David Cook was a credible mainstream pop-rock artist who looked good behind a guitar. Like Adam Lambert, David Archuleta could wow you with superior vocal skills. Both seemed to have huge potential in their genres. David C. was generally preferred by critics and bloggers covering the show, while David A. seemed to have the teenage vote locked up, and it was generally agreed that he had outsung Cook in the penultimate show. This matchup was a rare case in which you could root for both and believe till the last minute that either one could win.

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    #2 is... Season 3 (2004): Fantasia Barrino beats Diana DeGarmo. A cute 16-year-old with a big voice, Diana apparently appealed to those speed-dialing teenage girls who may have an inordinate amount of power in the voting. But Fantasia had not only a touching backstory — she was a single mother and high school dropout — but also a voice that was rich with sorrow, joy and pain. The shadow of those fast-fingered teens kept the suspense going even after Fantasia reprised her star-making performance of "Summertime" on the penultimate show, but the real payoff this time was watching the most deserving and the most appealing contestant win.

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    #1 is... Season 1 (2002): Kelly Clarkson beats Justin Guarini. You never forget your first time. Justin, a versatile pop-soul singer, had been the front-runner almost from the start, but he had gradually revealed a smarmy side onstage. Kelly had come out of nowhere, with her voice and personality seeming to get bigger every week. She proved she deserved to win with her rendition of the custom-made single "A Moment Like This," which pretty much summed up the emotional power of the result. As a bonus, at a time when it was still uncertain whether "Idol" would have any mojo in the marketplace, Kelly turned out to be huge pop star in her own right. (On a sadder note, this was co-host Brian Dunkleman's last appearance on the show.)