Whether she's praising Jesus or slashing tires, Carrie Underwood has an uncanny knack for conveying emotion through intense lyrics and insanely powerful pipes. Since winning the fourth season of American Idol in 2005, the country superstar has sold 65 million records, charted 20 Number One singles and won seven Grammy awards, among a lofty list of other accolades. To celebrate the Checotah, Oklahoma, native's 32nd birthday today (March 10th), Rolling Stone Country asked its readers to vote on the best Carrie Underwood songs of her remarkable, decade-long career. Here's your list, which pits the angel on her girl-next-door shoulder against the devil on her clever songwriting pen.
Even though this tune was released after "Before He Cheats," it's a prequel to its fellow chart-topper, chronicling the tequila-fueled Vegas romp that results in Underwood eloping with a guy she just met. The singer shares writing credit with veteran hitmakers Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey, and channels Miranda Lambert-like sass with such lyrics as, "It started off, 'Hey cutie, where you from?'/And it turned into, 'Oh no, what have I done?'/And I don't even know my last name." Fortunately, the 2008 Grammy she won for "Last Name" has "Underwood" engraved on it.
One of the most sonically pop-leaning songs of Underwood's career plants country roots with its lyrics, which teach a crucial lesson in parenting. "Little Toy Guns" is told from the perspective of a young girl devastated by her parents' constant fighting — which, while only verbal, leaves major scars on the whole family. She likens words to ammunition, wishing blanks over bullets: "No sting, no hurt no one/Just a 'bang bang' rolling off your tongue." It's a poignant reminder that tongue-lashings are detrimental to everyone in ear shot.
Five months after being crowned American Idol, the 22-year-old songstress released the first single off her 2005 debut album, Some Hearts. "Jesus, Take the Wheel" was a powerful tale of lost faith and 11th hour salvation. As Underwood's vocals soared into the stratosphere during the track's final chorus, so did her career. The power ballad spent six weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, crossed over onto the mainstream Hot 100 (where it peaked at number 20) and earned a pair of Grammys.
Proving she can hang with the guys, Underwood took this girl-power anthem to Number One in 2008, wedged between male-centric chart-toppers by Rodney Atkins ("Cleaning This Gun [Come on In, Boy]") and Alan Jackson ("Small Town Southern Man"). The song provided her with another career high — in it she reaches the highest note she had ever sung on record to that point (E, an octave above middle E). The youngest of three siblings, Underwood had her father in mind when she co-wrote "All-American Girl," as his sports-centric parenting dreams took a turn "when the nurse came in with a little pink blanket" — three times.
Underwood once again sets her abiding faith to music with the fourth single from 2012's Blown Away, this time denouncing the notion of death's finality: "This is not where it ends," she sings. But for all its emotional heft, "See You Again" is more than just a heavenward-soaring power ballad; it's a reminder to hold on to precious memories that are a comfort when life's harsh realities get in the way. Nowhere is that message clearer than in the song's poignant and powerful music video, which beautifully captures moments of birth, death, tragedy, redemption and reunion.
One thing's for sure: on planet Carrie, ain't no man gonna mess with his lady and live to tell the tale. On this third single from Blown Away, Underwood shows what happens when not one but two women find themselves cheated and mistreated by the same roving eye. "Bye bye, bye bye," she belts, the vocals as electric as lightning and anchored by instrumental solos that do as much talking as the lyrics themselves. For the video, Underwood took the horror show one step further, taking inspiration from Stephen King's Christine with haunting, murderous visuals that prove she's not afraid to push limits or be a little shocking along the way.
Daddy was a "mean old mister," so the fact that he passed out drunk before a tornado plummeted through town was serendipitous timing for the protagonist of this 2012 chart-topper. "She locked herself in the cellar/Listened to the screaming of the wind/Some people call it taking shelter/She called it sweet revenge," Underwood sings of the victim-turned-victor. Mother Nature provides the destructively dark storyline, but it's Underwood's towering voice that proves the real force of nature. The vocal elevation of the chorus alone is enough to blow the roof off — even on a sunny day.
Just as the paint was drying on Underwood's good girl image, she took a Louisville Slugger and smashed it to smithereens — like the headlights on her man's beloved four-wheel drive after she catches him mackin' on a barroom floozy. In this rock-inflected gem from 2006, Underwood is deliciously vengeful, strutting and snarling about how she keyed his custom paint job, carved her name into his leather seats and slashed all four tires while he's "dabbing on three dollars worth of that bathroom Polo." "Before He Cheats" reached the upper regions of both the country and pop charts and somewhere along the line also morphed into a cautionary public service announcement, encouraging cowboy casanovas to keep it in their pants.
For all her sweetness and charm, Underwood's always been arguably most brilliant when tackling the darker corners of life — and "Wasted," off of her debut LP, Some Hearts, is a story of the black veil of addiction and temptation, and how we reconcile (or succumb to) both. It's songs like these that show what an adept storyteller Underwood truly is, using both her delicate, narrative-leaning tones and powerful, fully-unleashed runs to accent the highs and lows of getting high. When she delivers "I ain't spending no more time wasted," with the passion of someone who's flushed dreams down the drain, it's apparent she can inhabit just about any walk of life in her music.
For someone who got her start with faith-based ballads such as "Jesus, Take the Wheel," it's perfect kismet that our top reader-voted Underwood song brings it back thematically to where she began — but bigger and more confident than ever. Featured on her recent compilation, Greatest Hits: Decade #1, "Something in the Water" is inspirational without being exclusive, and rings true to country with just enough progressive instrumentation to turn it uniquely modern. "Now I'm stronger," she sings in an effortlessly held note, making every other vocalist wondering if they, too, can drink from that same fruitful fountain.