Why Carrie Underwood is No. 1 among ‘Idol’ winners

Steve Knopper, Newsday (MCT)

After Carrie Underwood finished belting Heart’s power ballad “Alone” in the 2005 season of “American Idol,” judge Simon Cowell declared she’d be the show’s best-selling artist ever. And she hadn’t even won the contest yet.

Today, that prediction seems anticlimactic — Underwood is not only the best-selling but the most consistent “Idol” winner, a savvy career woman with a strong connection to her country-music audience and a flair for tamping down drama. Despite her somewhat stormy history with celebrity boyfriends (remember NFL star Tony Romo and Chace Crawford of “Gossip Girl”?) and a third album, 2009’s “Play On,” which didn’t have quite the same energy of her previous two, Underwood is steady where her fellow “Idol” winners flame out (Fantasia), bounce between highs and lows (Kelly Clarkson) or fade away (Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks).

Here’s a snapshot of the 27-year-old’s career, and how it ranks among “Idol” winners.

ALBUM SALES:

Underwood’s “Some Hearts” album from 2005 has sold 7 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, a record for “American Idol” debuts that is unlikely to be surpassed, given the dramatic drop in overall music sales over the past five years. By contrast, Clarkson’s 2003 album, “Thankful,” sold 2.7 million and Fantasia’s “Free Yourself” in 2004 and Studdard’s “Soulful” in 2003 sold 1.8 million apiece. Clarkson’s second album, “Breakaway” — the one with “Since U Been Gone,” the best post-“Idol” song ever — is at more than 6 million. (Oh, and Daughtry’s debut is at more than 4.5 million, but we’re not counting that because he didn’t actually win “Idol” and his rock band is so boring it makes Bo Bice look likeBono.)

RANK: First

HIT SONGS:

Beginning with 2005’s “Inside Your Heaven,” Underwood’s run of hits is not only unprecedented for “Idol” alumni, it’s a record on the country charts as well. She’s tied with Reba McEntire with 10 No. 1 singles for most ever. And her quality control is unmatched, especially on her first album. “Some Hearts” is power pop disguised in an Oklahoma twang, happily borrowing half a line (“some hearts just get lucky sometime”) from Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers”; with a hint of nastiness in her voice, Underwood relishes the great little details in “Before He Cheats,” from the temptress singing “some white trash version of Shania karaoke” to the jilted lover taking a Louisville Slugger to the creep’s headlights; and “Jesus, Take the Wheel” is a rare new, nontreacly gospel classic, complete with a great story (about a desperate mom driving with a baby in the backseat).

RANK: First. Although nobody beats Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.”

CONSISTENCY:

Underwood followed up “Some Hearts” with 2007’s “Carnival Ride,” a step forward in power and sophistication, especially the soaring rocker “Last Name,” in which she roars her embarrassment about a Cuervo-fueled night with a guy who drives a Pinto(!). On last year’s “Play On,” for which she co-wrote seven songs, compared to three on the last album and just one on her debut, she sings with more confidence than ever, and rocks out with conviction on the stomping opening track “Cowboy Cassanova” and the done-me-wrong clap-along “Songs Like This.” But she leans way too hard on slick tearjerkers, like the fiddle-and-piano “Someday When I Stop Loving You” and “Temporary Home.” Still, the only other “Idol” veteran with more than one good album is Clarkson, who has two (her 2007 “art” album, “My December,” should have stayed in the vault).

RANK: First

SINGING ABILITY:

“American Idol” judges have never picked a bad singer, technically speaking, and Underwood’s voice, feathery on ballads like “I Told You So” and leathery on such rockers as “We’re Young and Beautiful,” is especially impressive because it fits perfectly in the context of country music. She regularly hits the high notes, of course, but on record it never turns into Mariah Carey-style cooing — although critics have complained about some vocal excess in concert, particularly on the show offy power ballad “I Know You Won’t.” Clarkson’s underrated voice fits pop songs in the same way Underwood fits country, and while Fantasia and Studdard can do more things with their voices, they haven’t shown it yet on record.

RANK: Fourth, unless non-winners count, in which case Jennifer Hudson’s mind-blowing, Oscar-winning “Dreamgirls” performance trumps everybody.

PUBLIC IMAGE:

The very private Underwood has a beauty-next-door quality, telling interviewers homey little details like a fondness for grocery shopping, keeping a food diary to lose weight and struggling with panic attacks. Her recent marriage to Mike Fisher, of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, is similarly low-key. “We had a day, then Mike had to go to Canada,” she recently told People. “It was like, ‘Well, we’re back to normal.'” She seems to have left her stormy celebrity relationships behind, after fans intimated that her ex-boyfriend, Dallas Cowboysquarterback Tony Romo, fumbled in the 2007 playoffs because he was over-obsessed with her. Underwood handled the breakup just right, insisting to Esquire that her song “Cowboy Cassanova” is not about him: “I would never immortalize a guy that did me wrong. I would never give him that much credit.”

RANK: First. Although we’re suckers for Glambert, another non-winner.

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Carrie Underwood