— 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.
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."
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.
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?