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Image: Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry
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"American Idol" has certainly  had some very talented contestants, including, clockwise from top left, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry. But are all seasons equally good?
TODAY contributor
updated 3/29/2011 11:05:28 PM ET 2011-03-30T03:05:28

The message from “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest and the judges is clear: This is the most talented group of finalists ever.

That’s the big theme of this year ... and if it sounds familiar, it’s because it was also the theme of the nine previous seasons. Rarely has there even been a hint of acknowledgement that the field in a particular year may not be as strong as those who came before.

But is it accurate? Time will tell, but here’s one man’s opinion of how each season’s field of finalists ranks.

10. Season six
Jordin Sparks
has had a sneaky good career, sticking on the pop charts just like a tattoo sticks to skin. Beyond that ... um ... Melinda Doolittle is in an upcoming "Veggie Tales" DVD! And of course, Sanjaya Malakar was on "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here," which probably ranks him as the second most-prominent alum in the class. Which is not saying much.

9. Season nine
It's way too early to make a judgment on this class, but it's also hard to find a superstar here. Champion Lee DeWyze certainly hasn't turned the post-"Idol" buzz into great success. And though runner-up Crystal Bowersox has potential, the star of this group may wind up being Casey James, who opened for Sugarland on eight tour dates in March.

8. Season seven
Winner David Cook has done well for himself as an artist. Carly Smithson went straight from the "Idol" stage to become the lead singer of We Are the Fallen, which looks and sounds much like the former Evanescence since it has most of the group's old members. And Kristy Lee Cook hosts "Goin' Country" on the Versus network.

But it's been a surprisingly weak class outside of that. The biggest surprise in the group is runner-up David Archuleta, who was perhaps the most talented teenager ever to audition for the show. He built up a huge fan base and had some early success, but has fizzled since.

7. Season three
Jennifer Hudson's
the obvious star. She's won an Oscar, a Grammy and a role as the spokeswoman for Weight Watchers. She finished in seventh place, so you might think the six ahead of her became superstars.

But while winner Fantasia Barrino has enjoyed success on Broadway and has a Grammy of her own, and Jasmine Trias is apparently huge in the Philippines, has anyone heard from the likes of John Stevens and Jon Peter Lewis lately? The most prominent of the also-rans now — besides Hudson — may be 11th-place finisher Matt Rogers, who hosts "Coming Home" on Lifetime.

Slideshow: ‘American Idol’ alums (on this page)

6. Season eight
Adam Lambert
has had the most success so far and doesn’t appear to be done yet. Winner Kris Allen has had a rockier path, but at least has a hit single to his credit in "Live Like We're Dying."

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In addition, this group has some potential for future success. Danny Gokey and Allison Iraheta have both had their moments. While Matt Giraud is unlikely to ever be a music superstar, he's shown the talent to have a long career in the business.

5. Season one
The voters sure got the first season’s results right. Kelly Clarkson has become perhaps the biggest star the show has produced and is still relevant on the music scene eight years later. By herself, she makes this class one of the five most talented.

Beyond that … well, there wasn’t as much hype surrounding the auditions as there were for future years, which may explain why nobody else really made it. (But Nikki McKibbin resurfaced a couple of years ago when she was on “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.”)

4. Season two
Ruben Studdard
and Clay Aiken finished the season with the most compelling finale ever, and the third and fourth place finishers — Kimberley Locke and Josh Gracin — have each enjoyed some degree of post-"Idol" recording success.

Beyond that, the post-show results fall off in a hurry. Trenyce, Carmen Rasmusen, Rickey Smith … all of those are names that only the most dedicated "Idol" fans remembered a few years after the show. And of course, there’s also Corey Clark, the disqualified contestant who tried to bring then-judge Paula Abdul down via scandal.

3. Season 10
This really might be among the most talented classes ever, probably because it’s a less cookie-cutter bunch than previous seasons. The men all excel in different genres, while Lauren Alaina and Pia Toscano are both favorites with clear career paths ahead of them. Even someone like Naima Adedapo, who’s a big long shot to win, does what she does very well and shouldn’t have to go back to her day job anytime soon.

It’s likely that at least a few of these final 11 performers will be able to carve out a strong career in the business. Also, don’t underestimate how much it helps their development to have Jimmy Iovine and his crew mentoring them, rather than dealing with the idiosyncrasies and banal compliments of a new guest mentor every week, as has been the case in the past.

I can't rank this class any higher this early in the season, but I would not collapse onstage like Casey Abrams did a week ago if this winds up really being the best of them all.

2. Season four
Similar to the first season, this produced one superstar in Carrie Underwood and not much else. That superstar, however, has been the best thing that has ever happened to the show, as Underwood always seems ready to come back when called upon to perform.

Runner-up Bo Bice has enjoyed some success and is now seen on TV promoting Moe's Southwestern Grill, and Constantine Maroulis is big on Broadway. Both benefited from the decision that season to increase the age limit for auditioners to 28, designed expressly to increase the talent base.

The "what-might-have-been" here is Mario Vasquez, who dropped out between the semifinals and the finals and is a good test case that regardless of what singers may feel about the contract the winner has to sign, it beats the alternative of trying to do it yourself.

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1. Season five
Ironically, the season with the worst champion may have had the deepest pool of candidates to choose from. The obvious star here was Chris Daughtry, who emerged from his surprising elimination to form his own band and become one of the fixtures of pop radio.

But country singers have also had a big impact on the charts, as Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington can attest. Elliott Yamin has maintained his fan base, and runner-up Katharine McPhee has had her moments. Which begs the question: What were we thinking as "American Idol" voters when we made Taylor Hicks the winner?

Craig Berman is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com. Follow him on Twitter @CraigBermanas he live tweets each episode.

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Photos: ‘American Idol’ alums

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  1. M-I-C, K-E-Y, I-D-O-L

    All seven winners of "American Idol" gather around Mickey Mouse for the opening of The American Idol Experience at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort in 2009. Clockwise, from front left, they are: Taylor Hicks, Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Clarkson, Mickey Mouse, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks and David Cook. The American Idol Experience attraction, inspired by the hit TV show, lets Disney park guests audition with a chance to appear onstage, or vote on their favorite singing performances from the audience. (Garth Vaughan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. She started it all

    Kelly Clarkson won the first season of "American Idol" in 2002, and has sold more than 20 million records worldwide since then. As of April 2009, she is the highest-selling "Idol" winner. She's also appeared on numerous television shows, including "Saturday Night Live," "One Tree Hill," Smallville" and "Six Feet Under." (Sergio Dionisio / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. First season, first runner-up

    Justin Guarini was the runner-up on "American Idol's" first-ever season, losing the title to Kelly Clarkson. The two later co-starred in an embarrassing, and badly reviewed, comedy film, "From Justin to Kelly." The film won the Golden Raspberry Award in 2005, noting that it was the worst musical of the first 25 years of the infamous "Razzies" film awards. Guarini has released several albums, but musically, has all but dropped off the radar of most "Idol" music fans. (Angela Weiss / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Maybe you've seen me on TV

    Kimberly Caldwell finished in seventh place on the second season of "American Idol," but turned her loss into an entertainment career. She has worked as a correspondent for an extreme sports program and as a host for TV Guide Network. For a time, Caldwell dated season-seven "Idol" winner David Cook. They reportedly broke up in early 2009. Before the breakup, Cook had to publicly debunk a Star magazine report that he purchased a $54,000 diamond engagement ring for Caldwell. (Chris Pizzello / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The big man

    Ruben Studdard won the second season of "American Idol," and since then has released multiple albums and received a Grammy Award nomination. While on the show, he was dubbed "The Velvet Teddy Bear" for his rich, soulful voice. Studdard was also noted for wearing shirts reading "205," the area code of his hometown, Birmingham, Ala. He has repeatedly struggled with his weight. (Kevin Winter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Clay by Clay

    Clay Aiken, seen here in his role as Sir Robin in the Broadway production of Monty Python's "Spamalot," had some of the most ardent fans of any "American Idol" alum. Aiken came in second to Ruben Studdard on the show's second season, but his fans, known as Claymates, were incredibly supportive and loyal even after the ouster. Although his sexuality was speculated upon in the press for years, Aiken would not comment on it until 2008, when he confirmed he was gay to People magazine. He has a son, Parker Foster Aiken, whose mother is Jaymes Foster, who has been the executive producer of three of Aiken's albums. (Joan Marcus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Fame, fortune and tragedy

    Jennifer Hudson didn't win the third season of "American Idol," but she has gone on to have one of the most successful careers of any "Idol" alum. Sadly, her life has also been touched by tragedy. After "Idol," Hudson went on to star in the movie "Dreamgirls," for which she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. She has also won a Grammy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and numerous other honors. But in 2008, her mother, brother and young nephew were murdered, sending the singer into temporary seclusion. The estranged husband of Hudson's sister has been charged with the crimes. (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An 'Idol' and a mom

    Fantasia Barrino, who often just goes by Fantasia, won the third season of "American Idol." She was the first single parent to win the show's top title, and some fans were concerned that her young parenthood was setting a bad example for viewers. She was just 16 when she became pregnant and 17 when she gave birth to her daughter, Zion Quari Barrino. She has said she broke up with the girl's father because he was physically abusive. After "Idol," she earned raves for her Broadway performance as Celie in the musical "The Color Purple." (Chris Pizzello / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Taking the stage

    Constantine Maroulis is seen here performing in the Broadway musical, "Rock of Ages," a show packed with 1980s hair-band hits. Maroulis finished in sixth place on "American Idol's" fourth season, and has found plenty of musical and dramatic opportunities since then. In the fall of 2005, it was announced that he would star in "Brooklyn," a sitcom loosely based on his life growing up in a Greek-American New York family, but ABC eventually passed on the project. (Joan Marcus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hot lava

    Carrie Underwood, seen during the 2009 Academy Of Country Music Awards in a gown she said reminded her of lava, is the winner of "American Idol's" fourth season. By far one of, if not the most, successful "Idol" alums, Underwood has won multiple Grammy Awards and is a multi-platinum selling artist. Her hits include "Before He Cheats," "Last Name" and "Jesus, Take the Wheel." She became only the seventh woman to win the Acadamy of Country Music Awards prestigious Entertainer of the Year honor in April 2009. (Ethan Miller / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Pass the sall-mon

    Kellie Pickler endeared herself to many fans of "American Idol's" fifth season with her country twang and ways, once mispronouncing "salmon" as "sall-mon." She also earned praise for surviving a tough childhood. Her father served time in prison for aggravated assault and battery, and was released just a week after his daughter's elimination on "Idol." (Mark J. Terrill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Fourth place doesn't feel so bad

    Chris Daughtry's fifth-season elimination is one of the most controversial in the history of "American Idol." He was the fourth-place finalist, and when he was voted off, many fans were shocked and refused to believe the votes were fairly counted. The elimination didn't hurt Daughtry much, however. His band's debut album sold more than a million copies after just five weeks, becoming the fastest-selling debut rock album in history. (Matt Sayles / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Many shades of gray

    Taylor Hicks earned plenty of attention for his prematurely gray hair, but he was only 29 when he won the fifth season of "American Idol." Later that year, he was also named People Magazine's Hottest Bachelor. His fans are known as the Soul Patrol, and Hicks would frequently call out the group's name during "Idol" episodes. He reportedly received $750,000 for a memoir of his life, released by Random House in 2007. (Charley Gallay / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The winner who should have been

    Melinda Doolittle finished third behind Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis on the sixth season of "American Idol." Two days after that show's season finale, judge Simon Cowell appeared on "Good Morning America" and said that the title should rightfully have gone to Doolittle. Since then, in addition to releasing music, Doolittle has sought out charity work. She is a supporter of the Malaria No More campaign, which distributes life-saving bed nets to protect African children from being infected by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. (Jeff Christensen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Hair today, gone tomorrow

    Sanjaya Malakar may not have been the best singer to ever grace the "American Idol" stage, but he garnered more press attention than some of the winners have earned. He and Jordin Sparks were both just 16 when they began the sixth season of the show. While Sparks would go on to win, Malakar would go on to be almost-mercilessly pilloried in the press. His voice was not as strong as other competitors, but he made up for it by grabbing the spotlight with attention-getting hairdos, including an infamous fauxhawk made up of multiple ponytails. He released an autobiography in 2009. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Sparks still fly

    Jordin Sparks was just 17 when she won the sixth season of "American Idol." Her debut album was certified platinum in 2008. Sparks is an evangelical Christian who wears a purity ring to signify that she plans to remain a virgin until marriage. In all her weeks on "Idol," she was never in the bottom two or three. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Still cooking

    David Cook won "American Idol's" seventh season, beating out another David, David Archuleta. Cook originally did not intend to try out for the show, instead accompanying his brother, Andrew, to the auditions. However, Cook had been pursuing a musical career for years before the tryout, reportedly telling his family "I just want to give myself until I'm 26 years old to get a job." He was 25 when he won the title. (M Becker/american Idol 2009 / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Everything's Archie

    David Archuleta went up against David Cook in "Idol's" seventh-season finale. Archuleta was just 17 when the show ended, and had been one of the show's youngest finalists ever. "Idol" wasn't Archuleta's first brush with TV contests -- he was the junior vocal champion on "Star Search 2" when he was just 12. (Ronen Zilberman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. She bangs, she bangs!

    Most "American Idol" wannabes have to at least make it on the show to earn their fame. Not so for William Hung, who became nationally known after an extremely off-key audition featuring the Ricky Martin song "She Bangs" on the show's third season. Hung's odd singing and dancing befuddled and entertained both the judges and the viewers, and his positive attitude seemed at odds with his performance. "I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all," Hung said to the judges. He was able to parlay the audition into a variety of entertainment opportunities, including appearances in commercials and films. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Garth Vaughan / AP
    Above: Slideshow (19) ‘American Idol’ alums
  2. Image: Lauren Alaina, Scotty McCreery
    Michael Becker / FOX
    Slideshow (71) 'American Idol' Season 10 - Top 13
  3. FOX
    Slideshow (25) 'American Idol' Season 10 - Top 24

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