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'Cry Pretty' review: Carrie Underwood at the peak of her powers

Carrie Underwood's "Cry Pretty."  / Capitol Records Nashville

Carrie Underwood has always been a great singer, from the moment we met the Checotah, Oklahoma, native on “American Idol” in 2005.

But she hasn’t always had great songs to sing. For every “Jesus, Take the Wheel” or “So Small” on her albums, there was plenty of pleasant country filler. But not on “Cry Pretty” (Capitol Music Nashville).

Start to finish, Underwood’s sixth album is easily her best, filled with songs that make the most of her voice, both physical and lyrical. The title track may be more poignant following Underwood’s fall last year that resulted in 50 stitches in her face and an uncomfortable focus on how she looks. But when she belts out the song’s final third, she is undeniable.

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Maybe the biggest surprise on “Cry Pretty” are the numerous risks Underwood takes that all pay off. Musically, she offers her poppiest song in years with “That Song That We Used to Make Love To,” which leans more toward Aaliyah-era R&B instead of anything currently on country radio. Lyrically, Underwood takes on issues that she has previously sidestepped.

“The Bullet” is a wrenching ballad about those left behind by violence that Underwood included in part because of the shooting deaths at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. “You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns,” she sings with increasing intensity. “But mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons.”

On “Love Wins,” one of the nine songs she co-wrote on the album, Underwood creates a soaring anthem of inclusion after pointing out pitfalls like “politics and prejudice.”

Of course, Underwood shines brightest with a string of future country smashes, including the celebration of classic country heroes on “Ghosts on the Stereo” and her fiery defense of home life on “Kingdom.”

“Cry Pretty” finds Underwood at the peak of her powers and she’s determined to use them for good.