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All 11 ‘American Idol’ judges, ranked

From left, "American Idol" judges Randy Jackson, Paula

From left, "American Idol" judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell during the season 3 finale. Credit: Getty Images / Frank Micelotta

The end is near.

The 15th and final season of “American Idol” is set to start Jan. 6 on Fox, launching months of looking back at a reality series that changed both television and the music industry by, theoretically, putting star-making in the hands of the people.

Of course, as “Idol” fans well know, that only happens after the judges get their say. And, over the years, they have all had plenty to say. It’s about time that the judges get judged for a change. Here’s how they stack up:

1. SIMON COWELL (Seasons 1-9)

Simply the best. Cowell’s snarky, call-them-as-he-sees-them style struck a chord with America and was responsible for snarky foreigners on any number of talent shows. (You really should apologize for inflicting Piers Morgan on us, though.) What made Cowell’s barbs worth heeding, though, was his music industry savvy, which led to the creation of One Direction and Fifth Harmony.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Cowell certainly had his share of zingers, but that just made his apologies stand out more. His apology to David Cook for “verging on disrespectful” during the Season 7 finale was shocking to many — almost as shocking as Cook’s (deserved) win over young David Archuleta.

2. JENNIFER LOPEZ (Seasons 10-11, 13-15)

Don’t be fooled. Jenny From the Block knows what she’s talking about when it comes to presentation and performance. Her connection to the contestants always seems genuine and she is always quick to point out how difficult it is to perform under those pressure-packed conditions.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Lopez gets so many compliments from contestants that it gets to be a running gag, but when Casey Abrams planted a kiss on her cheek during Season 10, she knew just how to play it. “Casey’s got soft lips,” she said, to Abrams’ and the audience’s delight.

3. RANDY JACKSON (Seasons 1-13)

Look, The Dawg stayed too long at the party. So long that his catchphrases (“in it to win it”) and descriptions (“pitchy”) became jokes, as did name-dropping Journey and Mariah Carey. But the noted session musician and producer generally knew his stuff and, unlike so many of the judges, rarely made the moment about himself.

MEMORABLE MOMENT When James Lewis delivered a truly terrible audition of “Go Down Moses” in Season 7, Jackson and Paula Abdul couldn’t stop laughing, but in true Jackson style, he asks forgiveness from Lewis and tells him, “This is not your thing, dawg.”

4. PAULA ABDUL (Seasons 1-8)

Straight up, Paula Abdul was always unpredictable as an “Idol” judge. That made her fun to watch, especially when she was clearheaded and duking it out with Cowell. Her sweetness didn’t lead to much constructive advice, but her role as Cowell’s conscience made her indispensable.

MEMORABLE MOMENT She was openly weeping after Fantasia Barrino’s gorgeous version of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” in Season 3 and she owned it, thanking the contestants for their talents. Her emotional bond with the contestants made her the stand-in for the audience.

5. KEITH URBAN (Seasons 12-15)

As the only artist in his prime who lasted more than a season on the show, Urban has plenty of current experience on hit-making. His advice isn’t always exact, but his ideas for the contestants are usually on target.

MEMORABLE MOMENT He backed up Season 12 runner-up Kree Harrison admirably when she tackled his hit “Where the Blacktop Ends,” showing his ability to share the spotlight.

6. HARRY CONNICK JR. (Seasons 13-15)

“Harsh Harry” prides himself on being the most knowledgeable about music of any judge, seeing the show as one big music theory class. He’s almost always right in his music critiques, but he has a hard time recognizing that some performances can still be good without being technically perfect.

MEMORABLE MOMENT After Season 14’s Quentin Alexander complained that watching his friend Joey Cook get sent home was “wack,” Connick angrily took exception and called him “disrespectful” even though Alexander wasn’t referring to “Idol.” Connick told him, “You can always go home.” Alexander was eliminated the next week.

7. STEVEN TYLER (Seasons 10-11)

The Aerosmith singer now turned solo country artist lived up to his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reputation as wildly unpredictable, in both his advice and his actions.

MEMORABLE MOMENT Excited about what he saw at the Milwaukee auditions in Season 10, he famously declared, “Slap that baby on the ass and call me Christmas!”

8. NICKI MINAJ (Season 12)

This was a bad fit from the start. The rapper from Jamaica, Queens, turned out to be a pretty good judge of talent, but she was hamstrung by the idea that she had to somehow battle Mariah Carey, rather than simply helping the contestants. She also thought that doing a British accent was a good idea.

MEMORABLE MOMENT When one of her favorites, Curtis Finch Jr., faced elimination, Minaj threatened to leave the show with him, a sign of how much she had bonded with some of the contestants.


She calls joining “Idol” as a judge one of the worst decisions that she’s ever made and, well, she’s right. It’s not so much that she has no musical background that made her bad. It was that she was so against saying anything negative about the contestants that she didn’t help them.

MEMORABLE MOMENT After a dicey duet of “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” from Michael Lynche and Casey James, she dryly replied, “Well, as a matter of fact I have loved a woman” to break the tension.

10. MARIAH CAREY (Season 12)

It is a testament to the strength of the Greenlawn native’s career that her disastrous stint as a judge didn’t cause any long-term damage. So much of her time on the show was spent on throwing shade at Minaj and describing her own awesomeness that there wasn’t time for anything constructive.

MEMORABLE MOMENT After Candice Glover, who ended up winning the season, sang a remarkable version of The Cure’s “Love Song,” Carey walked up to her in the middle of the crowd’s wild response and sprinkled glitter on her. Carey meant it as a compliment, but may not have realized how it took the spotlight away from the contestant.

11. KARA DIOGUARDI (Seasons 8-9)

Though she has serious songwriting chops, DioGuardi wasn’t as skilled as a performer and sometimes found herself trying to prove herself to contestants. Never a good idea.

MEMORABLE MOMENT She took on Katrina Darrell, aka Bikini Girl, during the audition process of Season 8 and began trying to out-sing her. Then, during that season’s finale, she sang with Bikini Girl again and then opened her dress momentarily to flash her own bikini body. It felt truly sad.

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