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Kelly Clarkson was the first singer crowned "American Idol"
© Kelly Clarkson/RCA
American Idolatry

The recording careers of 'American Idol' winners and losers

By Nate Lippens

Since its June 2002 debut, "American Idol" has grown from a TV talent show to a phenomenon to an institution. Initially added to Fox's lineup as a summer replacement, the American adaptation of the popular British series "Pop Idol" gained attention immediately. Over five seasons, what began as a popularity contest has transformed into a radio hit factory whose participants regularly land on the charts and earn gold records. Strings of hits, relentless touring, TV appearances and (most surprisingly) critical acclaim have put the lie to speculation that these contestants would be flashes-in-the-pan.

Watch exclusive video from "Idol" runner-up Chris Daughtry

The legions of avid fans who drive the show's success have proven to be loyal listeners who land their favorite idols on the charts as well. It's not only the winners that have carved out successful careers, but also many of the runners-up and even those cut from the ranks earlier in each season. "Idol" alumni have consistently delivered hit songs, and many have established careers with multiple albums to their names -- including several that have come out recently or will do so in the weeks to come.

The first singer crowned American Idol was Kelly Clarkson, whose debut album, "Thankful," went double-platinum. Her 2004 follow-up, "Breakaway," garnered two Grammy awards, including best pop album.

2004 winner Fantasia Barrino's tentatively titled new album, "Young Girl, Old Soul," is scheduled for a Dec. 5 release. Details of the album are being kept secret, but it promises to build on her 2004 debut, "Free Yourself," which was chock full of guest vocalists and producers from Missy Elliott to Jazze Pha. Word is that it will be in a similar vein, with a mix of old school R&B and ballads which display the vocal gusto that helped her win the competition.

Ruben Studdard's aptly titled "The Return" came out on Oct. 17. The 2003 winner takes a secular departure from the gospel of "I Need an Angel" on his latest. His club-friendly R&B suggests a Luther Vandross influence, suggesting that he's flexible enough to work in many genres.

The second season's runner-up and megastar chart-topper Clay Aiken doesn't have as many stylistic surprises on his latest, "A Thousand Different Ways" (Sept. 19), but he does add his stamp to a host of covers. The album consists of his trademark soaring vocals and the emotive inflection that gained him a huge fan base during 2003's episodes. As of this writing it has reached No. 20 on the Top 200 and the single "Without You" has landed at 28 on the Adult Contemporary charts. The follow-up to his debut album, "Measure of a Man," features Aiken's version of Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting," Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me" and Paul Young's '80s classic "Everytime You Go Away."

Chris Daughtry, the 2006 finalist, is releasing his self-titled debut Nov. 21. His rock performances generated rabid fans and an invitation to join the band Fuel as its lead singer. Daughtry declined in favor of recording and releasing his solo album, which he has said will not be pop but rather stick to the rock and roll formula that he worked on the show.

Katharine McPhee, a 2006 finalist, became a sensation with her fleet-voiced performances. Her hotly anticipated new album comes out Dec. 19 and promises to keep the buzz going. Her double A-side single hit over the summer features the original "Idol" composition "My Destiny" and her blockbuster version of "Over the Rainbow."

2003 finalist (and former U.S. Marine) Josh Gracin has released his first single from his upcoming new album. The new single, "Favorite State of Mind," is the first new music from Gracin in nearly a year. Written by Marcel and Blair Daly, "Favorite State of Mind" is the follow-up to the No. 1 smash "Nothin' To Lose" and the Top 5 hits "Stay With Me (Brass Bed)" and "I Want To Live."

Kellie Pickler, the season five finalist, releases her debut, "Small Town Girl," on Oct. 31. The country album promises more of the hits and vocal conviction that the singer displayed on "Red High Heels," her paean to female strength and survival. The song cast her in the mold of country tough-girl with a sweet side, and the album delivers on it with some heartfelt balladry balancing the upbeat spunkiness.

Dec. 5 is the delivery date for Taylor Hicks' as-yet-untitled new album. The cornerstone of the debut of season five's winner is his hit song, "Do I Make You Proud," which he sang during the final round of voting and again during the finale. The single also includes his soulful rendition of the Doobie Brothers classic, "Takin' It to the Streets," which is something of a career anthem for the man who won the hearts of millions on TV.

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