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Country - Released November 14, 2005 | Arista

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Given the tightly controlled nature of American Idol, it's a wonder that the televised talent contest has never produced a winner who specialized in country music, since there's no segment of modern popular music that is controlled tighter than contemporary country. Maybe this thought was in the minds of Simon Fuller and the rest of AmIdol's 19 management when they went into their fourth season in 2005, since as soon as fresh-faced Oklahoma blonde Carrie Underwood showed up in the audition rounds, the judges -- alright, specifically Simon Cowell -- pigeonholed her as a country singer, even if there was nothing specifically country about her sweet, friendly voice. From that point on, she was not only the frontrunner, but anointed as the show's first country winner, which apparently proved more enticing to the voters and the producers than the prospect of the show's first rock & roll winner in the guise of the Southern-fried hippie throwback Bo Bice. Which makes sense: cute, guileless young girls have a broader appeal than hairy 30-somethings. They're easier to sell and mold too, and Underwood proved particularly ideal in this regard since she was a blank slate, possessing a very good voice and an unthreatening prettiness that would be equally marketable and likeable in either country or pop. So, the powers that be decided that Underwood would be a contemporary country singer in the vein of Faith Hill -- she'd sing anthemic country pop, ideal for either country or adult contemporary radio, with none of the delightful tackiness of Shania Twain -- and her debut album, Some Hearts, not only hits this mark exactly, it's better than either album Hill has released since Breathe in 1999. Which isn't to say that Carrie Underwood is as compelling or as distinctive as a personality or vocalist as Faith Hill: Underwood is still developing her own style and, for as good a singer as she is, she doesn't have much of a persona beyond that of the girl next door made good. But that's enough to make Some Hearts work, since she's surrounded by professionals, headed by producers Mark Bright and Dann Huff, who know how to exploit that persona effectively. While some of the songs drift a little bit toward the generic, especially in regard to the adult contemporary ballads, most of the material is slick, sturdy, and memorable, delivered with conviction by Underwood. She sounds equally convincing on such sentimental fare as "Jesus, Take the Wheel" as on the soaring pop "Some Hearts," and even if she doesn't exactly sound tough on the strutting "Before He Cheats," she does growl with a fair amount of passion. In fact, the worst thing here is her chart-topping post-American Idol hit "Inside Your Heaven," which is as formulaic as the mainstream country-pop that comprises the rest of Some Hearts, but with one crucial difference: the formula doesn't work, the song is too sappy and transparent, the arrangement too cold. On the rest of Some Hearts, everything clicks -- the production is warm, the tunes inoffensive but ingratiating, it straddles the country and pop worlds with ease, and most importantly, it's every bit as likeable as Carrie was on American Idol. Which means that even if she's not nearly as sassy or charismatic as Kelly Clarkson -- she's not as spunky as Nashville Star finalist Miranda Lambert, for that matter -- Carrie Underwood has delivered the best post-AmIdol record since Clarkson's debut. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Country - Released September 14, 2018 | Capitol Nashville

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Country - Released October 23, 2015 | 19 Recordings Limited - Arista Nashville

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"Something in the Water," the new single tacked onto Carrie Underwood's 2014 compilation Greatest Hits: Decade #1, was an operatic blowout on par with her 2012 smash "Blown Away" -- something grand and melodramatic, suggesting Vegas as much as it suggested inspirational music. Storyteller, her fifth album and first since her career recap, certainly contains cinematic elements -- Underwood has been proud to be a diva ever since she prowled the stages of American Idol a decade prior -- but the title isn't a feint; she spends a good chunk of the album reiterating, singing about heartbreak, hair triggers, red wine, dirty laundry, and smoke breaks, the mundane details that turn life so joyous and tragic. Subtlety isn't Underwood's strong suit so the songs tend to be a bit on the nose, whether she's pledging devotion to her newborn son on the sweet closer "What I Never Knew I Always Wanted" or streamlining Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe" via the stomping "Choctaw County Affair," but that directness is key to her appeal: there are no greys in Carrie's music, only blazing primary colors. Appropriately enough, Storyteller gleams with steely assurance, perhaps the toughest and boldest record yet but one that hardly soft-pedals her softer side. Carrie isn't an unapologetic spitfire like her "Something Bad" duet partner Miranda Lambert. She is, as she says in her album title, a Storyteller, and there's an unmistakable distance between her theatrics and the subjects of her tunes; she isn't living these songs, she's performing them. Like a skilled actor, Underwood chooses her roles wisely -- she's comfortable swaggering through the leadoff pair of "Renegade Runaway" and "Dirty Laundry," while she eases into the comforting melancholy of "The Girl You Think I Am" -- and she knows how to deliver the essence of each song, modulating her performances not only so they match the grand productions of Jay Joyce, Mark Bright, and Zach Crowell but so they always are the focal point. That's no small feat and Storyteller is no small album: it demands attention and it deserves it, too. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Country - Released December 9, 2014 | 19 Recordings Limited - Arista Nashville

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If the subtitle "Decade #1" seems too optimistic, consider this: back in 2004, few ever would've bet that the winner of the third season of American Idol would still be on the charts. A decade later, Carrie Underwood was a genuine superstar who left her television roots far behind. Greatest Hits: Decade #1 helps bury those early American Idol memories by sandwiching her coronation song "Inside Your Heaven" between two bombastic new songs ("Something in the Water," the better of the two, opens up the proceedings, followed by "Little Toy Guns") and "Jesus, Take the Wheel," the song that truly kicked off her streak at the top of the country charts. Between 2005 and 2012, every song she released went to either number one or two on the Billboard country charts ("Some Hearts," serviced to adult contemporary, went to 12 on the AC charts and isn't here). Every one of those songs is here, along with the songs that stopped the streak: 2012's "Two Black Cadillacs" and 2013's "See You Again," which peaked at four and seven respectively, positions that are hardly shabby. As the years progressed, Underwood embraced her divahood and the shift occurs with 2009's "Cowboy Casanova," a number one smash that opens the second disc of this double-disc hits disc. It's a neat division but the 21 singles -- which are supplemented by three demos that reveal Carrie works well in a stark setting, too -- are of a piece, expertly constructed post-Shania and Faith Hill country-pop proving that Underwood is the new-millennial heir to their throne. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Country - Released September 14, 2018 | Capitol Nashville

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Country - Released October 11, 2013 | 19 Recordings Limited - Arista Nashville

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Daisy in her hair aside, Carrie Underwood looks flat-out glamorous on the cover of Play On, which is a pretty fair indication of what awaits listeners on her third album. Carrie is still nominally a country artist and sometimes will sing supported by fiddles and steel guitar, but this is crossover pop pure and simple, whether it's the thundering rhythms on the Shania-styled strut "Cowboy Casanova" or the succession of maudlin melodies on the preponderance of power ballads. Many of these overwrought ballads are infused with a heavy-handed social consciousness -- Carrie decries hunger on "Change" and homelessness on "Temporary Home" -- unfortunately reminiscent of Idol Gives Back, and they're not the only AmIdol connection here, as fourth wheel Kara DioGuardi co-wrote the strained sassiness of "Undo It" and the sticky, tacky "Mama's Song" with Underwood herself. Carrie takes a much stronger presence as a writer here, co-authoring seven of the 13 songs, and she's attracted to hookless showstoppers designed to showcase her powerful voice, all glory notes with no glory. When she sticks to tunes written solely by the professionals, Play On does have some slick pleasures, particularly on the breezy "Quitter" and "This Time," songs built on solid melodies and delivered without flash, relying on craft and Carrie's considerable small-town charm -- a gift that remains intact despite the misguided attempt on the rest of Play On as if she's nothing but a diva. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Country - Released May 1, 2012 | 19 Recordings Limited - Arista Nashville

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Prior to the release of her fourth album, Blown Away, in the spring of 2012, Carrie Underwood claimed that she was getting back to having "real things to write about and real things to sing about" -- a sentiment that's all well and good but has precisely nothing to do with the brassy blowout of the finished product. Dispensing with any pretense that Underwood remains a down-home country girl -- the kind who takes carnival rides and sticks a daisy in her hair -- Blown Away is an unabashed glossy pop album, positioning Carrie as the heir to Shania Twain and Faith Hill's country diva act, pushing the comparisons so far that she looks like a runway refugee on the album cover and she concludes the hourlong marathon with a song written by Twain's former husband, Mutt Lange. Naturally, this showstopping act suits a former American Idol winner but, better still, this exercise in turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia is executed with skill and savvy, offering the kind of larger-than-life power ballads and cheerful, clomping arena country that have fallen out of favor in the early days of the 2010s. Not that Underwood and team -- led by producer Mark Bright and also featuring songwriters Ashley Gorley, Chris DeStefano, Josh Kear, Hillary Lindsey, and Ryan Tedder -- are ignorant of the country and pop trends of 2012. They find room for light, sunny pop ("Do You Think About Me," "Nobody Ever Told You"), a bit of Caribbean breeze on "One Way Ticket," and a stomping chant-along hook on "Leave Love Alone," and they splice Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson together on the ludicrously fun "Cupid's Got a Shotgun," which is enough to make Blown Away not seem like a throwback even if its heart belongs to the days of diamond-certified albums. Sure, that diva worship makes it seem ever so slightly old-fashioned, yet this is Carrie's wheelhouse -- she's meant to sing these oversized ballads and hooks, she's meant to look as unattainable as she does on the cover. She's meant to be be a superstar and she's never seemed as comfortable with her calling as she does on Blown Away. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Blues/Country/Folk - Released February 10, 2010 | Arista

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The pivotal American Idol moment for Carrie Underwood was when she teased her hair to the heavens and sang Heart's "Alone," belting out the power ballad with sincerity and a natural flair for drama. It was the surest sign that Carrie wasn't merely the country star the show gladly pigeonholed her as, that she was a pop star by any measure. Of course, the great irony was that Carrie had little interest in being a pop star; she wanted to be a country singer, but the sheer magnitude of American Idol meant that she was already a pop star who needed to cross over to country, a reverse of the usual crossover move. Underwood pulled off that tricky maneuver with a deceptive ease on her 2005 debut, Some Hearts, which turned into a smash success, turning sextuple platinum at a time when many albums struggle to go gold, even surpassing the sales of the original Idol, Kelly Clarkson. Such success raised the bar for her 2007 follow-up, Carnival Ride. Traditionally, second albums are a place where artists consolidate their strengths or expand their reach, either with an eye toward artistic growth or commercial success, and Carrie chooses the former option, creating a record that is more purely country than her debut. She dials down the pageantry drama that peppered her debut -- there are no Diane Warren songs, for instance -- and plays up her humble, all-American persona, singing songs about small towns and big dreams, even attempting to kick up some dirt and grit on the one-night-stand anthem "Last Name," which is Miranda Lambert filtered through Shania Twain. And one of the striking things about Carnival Ride is how completely Carrie Underwood has stepped into the void that Shania and Faith Hill left behind: the small-town girl made good but who hasn't left her roots behind. In other words, she hasn't made the big pop diva move that Shania did with Up! or Faith with Cry; she's planted herself firmly within country. Now, Carrie's country is hardly traditionalist -- despite the lack of Diane Warren tunes, there are plenty of power ballads here, along with light drum loops that aren't commonly heard in Nashville -- but her approach is completely contemporary country, in how it blurs the borders between country and arena rock, something that's perfect for a girl who made her first big splash singing Heart. Sound and feel do mean a lot, but country records really survive on the strength of their songs, and the remarkable thing about Carnival Ride is that it's stronger song for song than Some Hearts, some of this due to Carrie herself, who bears four songwriting credits here, often in conjunction with some permutation of Steve McEwan and Hillary Lindsey, who pen a bunch of other tunes here. The songs may veer just a bit too close to the big power ballads, but they all work as strong pieces of commercial country, built on surging melodies (all the better for Carrie to belt) and lyrics that play into Underwood's small-town girl persona but are also open-ended enough to be relatable. All this very well may be more calculating than it appears, but the appealing thing about Carnival Ride is that it plays so smoothly and assuredly that you just go along for the ride, especially because Carrie sells these songs completely, making the clichés and cornball phrases believable. It's a gift that Shania had, but she always seemed larger than life. In contrast, Carrie Underwood only sounds larger than life, and she still comes across like the girl next door despite her massive success, and this lingering sense of innocence -- however constructed for stage it may be -- gives an album as big and shiny as Carnival Ride the appearance of a genuine heart, something that no other big country-pop album has had since the glory days of Come on Over. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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Pop - Released January 12, 2018 | UMG Nashville

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Country - Released April 11, 2018 | Capitol Nashville

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