By Steve Knopper
With the exception of perhaps pop singer Kelly Clarkson, no “American Idol” graduate has had as much career quality control and album-making vision as 29-year-old Carrie Underwood.
She knew she was a country star since before her 2005 season on the show, and this has allowed her to focus — on her image, as an elegant, beautiful Faith Hill successor; on her songwriting, which relies on subtle detail and classy metaphors; and, most of all, on her singing, which can both hammer a high note and draw out a nuance.
Here are five of Underwood’s best songs, including some from this year’s “Blown Away” album.
1. “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” The centerpiece of the “Idol” winner’s 2005 debut “Some Hearts,” “Jesus, Take the Wheel” is a rarity — a new gospel classic, in which the narrator simultaneously surrenders herself to a higher power and takes control of her life.
2. “Before He Cheats.” Judging from Underwood’s tone of nasty revenge, the dude in “Before He Cheats” better not show up for dinner.
She starts off soft and steady, but quickly ramps up to a gleeful chorus about scratching a key into his beloved truck and taking a Louisville Slugger to his headlights.
3. “Two Black Cadillacs.” Underwood co-wrote this superb 2012 vignette, about a funeral for a man whose widow and “the woman who loved him at night” show up in separate Cadillacs, and she belts it as if it were a Nirvana anthem.
4. “Last Name.” One of Underwood’s most joyful songs, from 2007’s “Carnival Ride,” this over-the-top rocker is a one-woman “The Hangover” — complete with Cuervo and Las Vegas.
By the end, the blotto narrator has switched from “I don’t even know his last name” to “I don’t even know my last name,” a small but important lyrical distinction.
5. “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun.” In this track from “Blown Away,” Cupid modernizes his arsenal. Unfortunately for him, the singer is prepared with weapons of her own, and we’re not just talking about the rockabilly guitar solo.
“Little does he know I strapped on my Kevlar vest,” she sings. “I pulled out my Remington, and I loaded up these shells/ He’s about to find out I’m a dang good shot myself.”