American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time – No. 1, Adam Lambert, “Tracks of My Tears
Any greatest American Idol performance list that doesn’t have an Adam Lambert song ranked No. 1 is wrong.
That’s really it.
With plenty of ranked lists and clickbait slideshows coming for the final season – shhhhhh – if anyone puts out a “best ever” list that doesn’t have a Lambert performance ranked first they’re trolling for clicks and care more about their own reputation than doing credible work.
There’s so much more than singing in a great Idol performance and this Top 30 list – which should have been done long ago but whoops, I’m lazy. Still got 30K-plus words on Idol. Anyone else with that on their resume? – wanted to take everything the show stands for into account.
The best American Idol performance of all time has to be one that is a vocal masterpiece, came under pressure, provided a competitive edge and transformed how the show is watched.
Lord Lambert’s “Tracks of My Tears?” Yes, yes, yes and yes.
It’s the easy No. 1 choice.
THE SITUATION: Heading to Motown Week of Season 8, we didn’t really have a grasp on Adam Lambert. All we knew is he could sing loud, he could screech and there was a really good chance he wasn’t going to try to hook up with any of the female contestants.
He proved his talent in the semifinals by crushing The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction)” and when he got to the Top 13, his version of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” reinforced the idea that a) his stage presence was perfect; b) he was always going to have that “Adam” moment where he screamed out a note; and c) he was playing a different game than everyone else.
And then came Grand Ole Opry Week.
How you feel about Lambert’s “Ring of Fire” really depends on how much of a fan you are of Lambert. I’m not a Glambert by any means, but I’m not exactly Randy Travis when it comes to my feeling of the performance.
It’s tough to find a more controversial performance than Lambert’s take on the Johnny Cash song. You get the music snobs who say it was fantastic, the country fans who think it was heresy and you get everyone else. It’s been almost seven years and I still can’t tell if I actually liked the the version.
There was significant backlash and while Idol doesn’t release vote totals, I’d be willing to be Lambert was closer to the Bottom 3 than he was to the Top 3. Strange doesn’t fly on American Idol, especially when you’re a dude caked in makeup wearing black nail polish.
So now we head to Motown Week, the best theme of the show every season, and you have an idea what everyone is going to do except for the goth theater guy.
And then he delivers the best performance American Idol had ever seen and one that’s gone unmatched as we approach the final season.
HIGHLIGHTS: Motown Week is difficult because the classic hits are all perfect. It’s really a chance to show off your vocals more than who you are as an artist. Lambert simply did both.
First off, there’s the interaction between Lambert and Smokey Robinson, who wrote the damn song. Lambert is so polite it makes you want to throw up but you can tell from the conversation how much he respects Robinson and at the same time, tell how impressed Robinson is with Lambert’s version. It’s strikingly similar to Mariah Carey’s impressions of David Cook except with less crazy.
When Ryan Seacrest says Lambert is going unplugged, you’re intrigued. The guitar kicks in, the camera kicks out and see Lambert, dressed decidingly different than the Lambert we’ve grown accustomed to.
The glam-rock look is out, replaced by a suave grey suit and a black button-up with matching pocket square.
And then the voice kicks in.
Up to this point we had seen Lambert keep his voice controlled as it got louder, but this was even more impressive. His voice doesn’t flinch even as he sings barely above a whisper. The intimateness of the performance – with the band members playing an acoustic guitar, a stand-up bass and what looks like a wooden box – makes you forget this was the guy who had you so confused the week before.
This isn’t like a lot of the Top 30 performances where there are one or two huge notes that make you jump around like celebrities at the Slam Dunk contest. You just sit there and listen and realize this is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard and completely forget this is a song that’s 50 years old.
But if you want proof of what makes this performance so great it’s the faux-Lambert moment. When he hits the “my smile is my makeup/I wear since my breakup/with you,” holds the note, then transitions into the chorus it was proof positive that no one, and I mean no one was going to outsing Adam Lambert. Lesser talents would have gotten a little too loud at that portion, maybe a little pitchy as they got to the higher octave. Not Lambert. He just nailed the perfect note. NBD.
The finish was just as remarkable. He looks like he’s finally going to give everyone the big Lambert screech on the “I need you,” but it holds it. The performance wasn’t about power and Lambert wasn’t straying from the plan.
If you need any further evidence, it’s Smokey Robinson standing up to applaud. The song no longer belonged to Smokey and he knew it.
It was now Adam’s.
WHY IT’S HERE: This was the most complete performance we’ve ever seen on the show. You might be able to find better vocals, or a better performance, a more clutch performance or a better arrangement, but you’re not going to find a combination that would rank so high on its own if someone was making a list for each of those categories.
Lambert’s arrangement was the most mind-blowing part of the song. There have been plenty of covers on Idol that were original – Colton Dixon doing “September,” David Cook doing “Always Be My Baby,” Kris Allen’s “Breathless” and so on and so forth – but this wasn’t just any song. This was a Motown classic. This was one of the songs that is the building block to modern music. Adam Lambert took the song, made a minor change and completely changed it.
(My one gripe was Idol packaging it. You had to wait a day to buy the studio recording and there was no way in hell I wasn’t going to own a studio recording of that. Song hits iTunes and I don’t even preview the damn thing, just hand over my 99 cents and go about my day. I listen later and WTF, it’s a studio version of Lambert singing the original. I was so, so, so sad. To this day I have no idea why Idol did that. Common sense says it had something to do with licensing, but my heart wants to believe Lambert knew how good this was going to be and wanted to make it a one-time performance. PS: American Idol, you own me a buck.)
When people talk about Lambert’s Idol performances, it’s always “Mad World,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Ring of Fire,” etc. Everyone wants to credit the performance where he showed off a crazy vocal or did something so strange you had to respect or appreciate it.
But those performances don’t do what “Tracks” does. Those performances won’t stand the test of time. Those songs might stop a party out of confusion or curiosity, but they won’t be able to be played at your next wedding with nobody blinking an eye.
Plenty of artists changed how Idol songs were performed. No one did it as subtly as Adam Lambert did in this 118 seconds of brilliance.
It is, and will forever be, the best damn performance American Idol has ever had.