by Aprille Hanson
When Carrie Underwood stepped into the “American Idol” audition room in the summer of 2004, the country music genre would never be the same. Not only did her clear, strong voice make her an early favorite to win the competition, she even got the cynical Brit Simon Cowell, a famed early judge on the show, to predict she’d win and outsell all previous show winners.
A bold prediction? Perhaps, as there were still 11 contestants competing for the title when he said it, but ultimately, he was right. She is the biggest earner out of all the ‘Idol’ winners.
Underwood has been on the music scene now for 10 years and when you think of her as a performer, her ‘Idol’ past is likely not even a passing thought. What speaks volumes are her honors -- her seven Grammy awards, 17 Billboard Music Awards, 11 Academy of Country Music Awards, her 2008 induction into the Grand Ole Opry, etc., etc., etc.
She is one of the most successful female country artists to ever grace the genre and bring in a new wave of pop-country sound, while also making great songs. As of now, her vocal talent is unmatched in country music. One of her greatest strengths as an artist is to add hope to so many of her songs without making them hokey. Here is a list of what I believe to be the greatest and most influential hits of her career thus far:
10. “Temporary Home” (Play On, 2009)
Carrie Underwood co-wrote “Temporary Home” after being inspired by Pastor Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” which talked about how this life is just our temporary home. But rather than just keeping it about our next life, Underwood shares three stories: a foster boy being shuffled around; a mom and her daughter trying to get back on their feet and leave their halfway house; and then the most poignant, the man surrounded by friends and family on his deathbed. It’s a song that lists despairing situations, but at the same time is filled with so much hope that there is a better tomorrow and life waiting for us. While Underwood might be known for religious-based songs, this was her first real message song.
9. “All-American Girl” (Carnival Ride, 2007)
Going from a farm girl in Checotah, Okla., to a country music superstar, Underwood is living the American dream. In “All-American Girl” she tells the story about a father who prayed for a baby boy, someone “he could take fishing,” but of course, God had other plans. His little girl soon became wrapped around his finger and then one day, captured the heart of the high school football star. They later marry and all the boy wants is a “sweet little beautiful … all-American girl.” It’s a sweet story without being overly girl-powery or patriotic. It’s a perfect mix from country music’s all-American girl.
8. “Wasted” (Some Hearts, 2005)
Despite reaching No. 1 on the country Billboard charts, “Wasted” always seemed like a song that fell under the radar for Underwood. It’s a shame because the song is one of her best, tackling the heavy topic of addiction with this ray of hope. It’s centered on a couple who each have a burden – the woman finally leaves their relationship, which has become an addiction. The man finally pours his alcohol down the drain. Both come to the conclusion that they don’t want to spend their life wasted. It’s a song about endings and beginnings. The best lyrics (though not written by Underwood) are, “For one split second she almost turned around / but that would be like pouring rain drops back into a cloud.” Lyrically, it’s one of the best songs in Underwood’s repertoire.
7. “Last Name” (Carnival Ride, 2007)
“Last Name” is billed in the music video as the prequel to her smash hit “Before He Cheats.” It’s a pretty bold statement because ‘Cheats’ just changed the game for Underwood’s career, meaning ‘Last’ better be an awesome song … and it is. It’s about a girl who is partying in Vegas and a man catches her eye. One thing leads to another and she wakes up thinking about Elvis and Vegas and realizes there’s a ring on her left hand. So here’s the kicker – she doesn’t even know her last name.
6. “Blown Away” (Blown Away, 2012)
Underwood had two pretty dark singles right in a row in “Two Black Cadillacs” and then “Blown Away.” The first is about a man who has been seeing two women for years and when they find out, they kill him. But “Blown Away” makes this list for combining both the revenge and awesome symbolism of a storm. A daughter decides to end her father’s abuse once and for all as a tornado fast approaches their home while her father is passed out on the couch. She locks herself in the cellar and leaves her father there to die. Every brick, every board, every slammin’ door will be blown away. It’s dark but the pain and anguish that Underwood sings about is eerie and powerful. This song could easily be lame or far-fetched but in the hands of Underwood, it’s downright scary.
5. “Something in the Water” (Greatest Hits: Decade #1, 2014)
It’s been nine years since “Jesus Take the Wheel” and while “Something in the Water” isn’t her only religious song, it’s one that shows she could have wild success as a Christian artist. It’s really a pop song that is fast-paced, about a person who is all out of fight, and realizes to turn their life toward God and gets baptized. It’s at this point that the chorus slows as Underwood sings, “I am changed / now I am stronger / it must be something in the water.” Later in the song, “Amazing Grace” is sung in a round between the lyrics of ‘Water.’ Her voice makes this song magical, powerful and an instant classic in her discography. It’s already a crossover hit on the Hot Christian Songs charts as well as the country charts.
4. “Just a Dream” (Carnival Ride, 2007)
“Just a Dream” has become Underwood’s most heart-wrenching song. At the beginning, we believe this young girl is off to her wedding, which is how it was supposed to be. We soon learn, she’s in a black dress and veil, heading off to her fiancé’s funeral. He was a soldier killed in action. The girl is living a nightmare and there’s not a better artist out there to convey the kind of heartbreak needed for this song. The creativity of the song alone – going from the happiness of a wedding to the sadness of a funeral – alone makes it a hit, but add Underwood’s voice and it’s becomes one of the genre’s best.
3. “I Told You So” (Carnival Ride, 2007)
You can’t get much more country than Randy Travis. So, when Underwood decided to cover his hit “I Told You So,” one of her favorites, it quickly became Underwood’s most country-sounding single ever released. It remains that way, as her style has always incorporated a bit of pop. The song is about, in Underwood’s case, a woman who leaves her man, but decides she made a mistake. Well, it’s likely too late. While the song is pure and amazing with Underwood, it’s better when she and Travis released a duet version in 2009.
2. “Before He Cheats” (Some Hearts, 2005)
It’s hard to believe that “Before He Cheats” was the fifth single released from her debut album “Some Hearts.” This song about a woman who takes out her revenge on her cheating boyfriend’s truck is the most important song of Underwood’s career. She was willing to push the limits and be a badass in her songs and it was wholeheartedly believable. To go from ‘Idol’ winner who released the wimpy/pretty “Inside Your Heaven” to “Before He Cheats,” which has become one of the genre’s greatest revenge songs, right off the bat in her career was remarkable. In three minutes and 19 seconds, she became a superstar.
1. “Jesus Take the Wheel” (Some Hearts, 2005)
For as much as “Before He Cheats” launched her superstar status, “Jesus Take the Wheel” became her song – her first song, her best song, the one she’ll forever be known for and the one that won over country listeners. It was the perfect first release from her debut album. It chronicles a woman who is traveling to see her family and accidentally slides on a sheet of black ice, with her baby nestled in the back seat of her car. She pleads for Jesus to take the wheel and later acknowledges he needs to take the wheel in her life. For Christians, you can’t get much more powerful than this song, because we need Jesus to take control of our lives when we’re spinning out of control. It’s the basis of our faith. For her to release such a powerful and important song right out of the gate was truly remarkable. It is not only her classic song; it’s a classic for the entire country genre.