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Britney Play

The title says it all -- that this third album is where it's all about Britney. Actually, the titles say it all: Britney is "Overprotected," she pleads "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," tries to let us all see "What It's Like to Be Me." All three songs are pivotal moments on Britney Spears' third album, the record where she strives to deepen her persona (not the same thing as her character, of course), making it more adult while still recognizably Britney. That much was evident from the selection of the first single, "I'm a Slave 4 U," a sultry Neptunes-produced salute to Prince that is so far removed from the big, glitzy Max Martin productions that are her signature that at first it sounds awkward, even wrong. As it grows, it sounds like one of her best singles -- a skittering, spare funk number that is a perfect next move for her teasing, unformed sexiness. Such a departure seems to signal a full album of surprises like that, especially when teamed with the aforementioned title, but Britney isn't that bold -- after it opens with the Neptunes' retro-future funk, it delves right back into Martin territory with "Overprotected." At first, that's a disappointment, but then the small, yet significant, changes become apparent. Rhythmically and melodically, the whole album is sharper, tougher than what came before. What used to be unabashedly frothy has some disco grit, underpinned by Spears' spunky self-determination that helps sell hooks that are already catchier, by and large, than those that populated her previous two albums. While there's no denying that this reinvention and statement of dogged individuality is no doubt a calculated move (and a brilliant, timely one at that), there's no denying that it's effective, in large part because Spears is committed to making this record work. She's co-written more songs than ever before, and these are strong selections, whether it's the hard-edged "Lonely," the sweet "That's Where You Take Me," or, especially, the neo-disco "Anticipating," one of the pure delights on this record. These are small steps forward -- really, the most overt steps forward are the collaborations with the Neptunes on "Slave" and "Boys," which are the sexiest sounding cuts she ever did -- but most of the Martin productions sound fuller (particularly the Dido-written ballad "I'm Not a Girl"), and Rodney Jerkins offers some welcome rhythmic invention on many of his contributions. This isn't a perfect record -- Martin stumbles on "Bombastic Love," Jerkins drops the ball on "I Love Rock N Roll" (this year's entry of the now obligatory cringe-inducing classic rock by Ms. Spears) -- but it does sound like the work of a star who has now found and refined her voice, resulting in her best record yet (and rivaling Mandy Moore's eponymous album as the best teen-pop record yet released). It's enough of a reinvention to suggest that Britney will know what to do when the teen-pop phenomenon of 1999-2001 passes for good. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

In the Zone Play

If 2001's Britney was a transitional album, capturing Spears at the point when she wasn't a girl and not yet a woman, its 2003 follow-up, In the Zone, is where she has finally completed that journey and turned into Britney, the Adult Woman. Like her peer Christina Aguilera, Britney equates maturity with transparent sexuality and the pounding sounds of nightclubs, but since she's not as dirty as Xtina, her spin is a little different. Where Christina comes across like a natural-born skank, Britney is the girl next door cutting loose at college, drinking and smoking and dancing and sexing just a little too recklessly, since this is the first time she can indulge herself. And that's what In the Zone is -- Britney indulging herself, desperate to prove that she's an adult. She has been freed from her musical parent, Max Martin, who is absent for the first time from a Spears album, choosing instead to play the field and work with a bunch of different collaborators, including Madonna, Moby, the Matrix, Trixster, Roy "Royalty" Hamilton, Bloodshy & Avant, and R. Kelly. Since she's so determined to be a woman, not a girl, she has completely shed the sugarcoated big hooks and sappy love songs that drove her stardom, concentrating on music that glides by on mellow grooves or hits hard with its hip-hop beats. It's all club-ready, but despite some hints of neo-electro and the Neptunes, it doesn't quite sound modern -- it sounds like cuts from 1993 or Madonna's Bedtime Stories and Ray of Light. Production-wise, these tracks are not only accomplished but much more varied than any of her previous albums -- in particular, Moby's "Early Mornin'" has a sleek feel, Mark Taylor's "Breathe on Me" is alluring, and the Bloodshy & Avant productions, "Showdown" and "Toxic," are irresistible ear candy in what is surely Britney's most ambitious, adventurous album to date. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

B in the Mix: The Remixes, Vol. 2 Play

The B-sides of Spears' singles have always been an arena where more aggressive, club-oriented interpretations of her work can get an airing. This follow-up to the original 2005 B in the Mix compilation primarily showcases versions of singles from her albums Blackout, Circus, and Femme Fatale, remixed by such august names from the worlds of trance and house as Kaskade, Tiësto, Benny Benassi, Linus Loves, and Gareth Emery., Rovi

...Baby One More Time Play

At the beginning of the '90s, teen currency shifted from bubblegum'n'Tiger Beat to grunge'n'Maximum Rock & Roll. Although it may have been pushed from the spotlight, teen pop hadn't died -- it, in a way, went underground, spending time on the fringes of pop culture. One of the leading lights of the exiled teen brigade was The New Mickey Mouse Club. For several years, it toiled away on the Disney Network, earning a small fan base -- but, more importantly, providing a launchpad for several careers, including that of Britney Spears. Like her fellow NMMC alumni *N Sync, Spears shot to stardom in the late '90s, just as she was on the verge of late adolescence. By that time, everything old was new again. Albums like her debut, ...Baby One More Time, were topping the charts as if they were Hangin' Tough, which is only appropriate since it sounded as if it could have been cut in 1989, not 1999. ...Baby One More Time has the same blend of infectious, rap-inflected dance-pop and smooth balladry that propelled the New Kids and Debbie Gibson, due to the Backstreet Boys' producer, Max Martin, who is also the mastermind behind Spears' debut. He has a knack for catchy hooks, endearing melodies, and engaging Euro-dance rhythms, all of which are best heard on the hits: the ingenious title track, "Sometimes," "(You Drive Me) Crazy," and the utterly delightful, bubblegum-ragga album track "Soda Pop." Like many teen pop albums, ...Baby One More Time has its share of well-crafted filler, but the singles, combined with Britney's burgeoning charisma, make this a pretty great piece of fluff. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Oops!...I Did It Again Play

Given the phenomenal success of Britney Spears' debut, ...Baby One More Time, it should come as no surprise that its sequel offers more of the same. After all, she gives away the plot with the ingenious title of her second album, Oops!...I Did It Again, essentially admitting that the record is more of the same. It has the same combination of sweetly sentimental ballads and endearingly gaudy dance-pop that made One More Time. Fortunately, she and her production team not only have a stronger overall set of songs this time, but they also occasionally get carried away with the same bewildering magpie aesthetic that made the first album's "Sodapop" -- a combination of bubblegum, urban soul, and raga -- a gonzo teen pop classic. It doesn't happen all that often -- the clenched-funk revision of the Stones' deathless "Satisfaction" is the most obvious example -- but it helps give the album character apart from the well-crafted dance-pop and ballads that serve as its heart. In the end, it's what makes this an entertaining, satisfying listen. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Britney Jean Play

Britney Jean is the eighth studio album by pop legend Britney Spears. Enlisting the help of established artists such as will.i.am -- who serves as executive producer -- Spears crafts her most personal album to date. Packed with EDM-influenced pop tracks and potential chart hits, this is Britney at her best. ~ Aneet Nijjar, Rovi

Femme Fatale Play

Starting with Blackout, Britney Spears began to slip into the background on her own records, a progression that continued unabated on Circus and finds some kind of culmination on 2011’s Femme Fatale. Essentially a cleaner, classier remake of the gaudily dark Blackout, Femme Fatale is a producer’s paradise, each cut decked out with stretched vocals, glassy keyboards, and insistent beats, all coming together in hyperactive arrangements that shift every five seconds. It's a sonically stylish album, driven by sound and given shape by Britney's hypersexual lyrics. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Blackout Play

Public image is vital to pop stars, but few stars have been so inextricably tied to their image as Britney Spears. Think back to "...Baby One More Time" -- it has an indelible hook but what leaps to mind is not the sound of the single, but how Britney looked in the video as she pouted and preened in a schoolgirls' uniform, an image as iconic as Madonna's exposed navel. Every one of Britney's hits had an accompanying image, as she relied on her carefully sculpted sexpot-next-door persona as much as she did on her records, but what happens when the image turns sour, as it certainly did for Britney in the years following the release of In the Zone? When that album hit the stores in 2003, Britney had yet to marry, had yet to give birth, had yet to even meet professional layabout Kevin Federline -- she had yet to trash her girl-next-door fantasy by turning into white trash. Some blamed Federline for her rapid downward spiral, but she continued to descend after splitting with K-Fed in the fall of 2006, as each month brought a new tabloid sensation from Britney, a situation that became all the more alarming when contrasted to how tightly controlled her public image used to be. The shift in her persona came into sharp relief at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, as she sleepwalked through a disastrous lip-synch of her comeback single "Gimme More," a disaster by any measure, but when it was compared to such previous meticulously staged VMA appearances as her make-out with Madonna in 2003, it made Britney seem like a lost cause and fallen star.
All this toil and turmoil set the stage for her 2007 comeback Blackout to be a flat-out train wreck, which it decidedly is not -- but that doesn't mean it's a triumph, either. Blackout is an easy album to overpraise based on the lowered expectations Britney's behavior has set for her audience, as none of her antics suggested that she'd be able to deliver something coherent and entertaining, two things that Blackout is. As an album, it holds together better than any of her other records, echoing the sleek club-centric feel of In the Zone but it's heavier on hedonism than its predecessor, stripped of any ballads or sensitivity, and just reveling in dirty good times. So Blackout acts as a soundtrack for Britney's hazy, drunken days, reflecting the excess that's splashed all over the tabloids, but it has a coherence that the public Britney lacks. This may initially seem like an odd dissociation but, in a way, it makes sense: how responsible is Britney for her music, anyway? At the peak of her popularity, she never seemed to be dictating the direction of her music, so it only stands to reason that when her personal life has gotten too hectic, she's simply decided to let the professional producers create their tracks and then she'll just drop in the vocals at her convenience. Even the one song that plays like autobiography -- "Piece of Me," where she calls herself "Miss American dream since I was 17" and "I'm miss bad media karma/another day another drama," complaining "they stick all the pictures of my derriere in the magazines," as if she wasn't posing provocatively for Rolling Stone as soon as "Baby" broke big -- was outsourced to "Toxic" producer/writers Bloodshy & Avant, who try desperately to craft a defiant anthem for this tabloid fixture, as she couldn't be bothered to write one on her own. Instead, she busies herself with writing the album's two strip-club anthems, "Freakshow" and the brilliantly titled "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" (surely the successor to such trash-classics as Soundmaster T's "2 Much Booty (In Da Pants)" and Samantha Fox's timeless pair of "Touch Me (I Want Your Body)" and "(Hurt Me! Hurt Me!) But the Pants Stay On"). Every piece of gossip in the four years separating In the Zone and Blackout suggests that her head is in the clubs, yet it's still a bit disarming to realize that this is all that she has to say.
Britney may not have much on her mind but at least she pockets so deep she can buy the best producers, hiring Bloodshy & Avant, the Clutch and the Neptunes, among others, to help craft an album that cribs from Rhianna's sleek, sexy Good Girl Gone Bad and the chilly robo-R&B of Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds. Emotionally, this isn't a progression from In the Zone, but it is a cannily contemporary dance album, sounding nearly as fresh as Rhianna and JT, even if it's hardly as trendsetting as either. Then again, Britney hasn't set the pace for the sound of dance-pop since her first two Max Martin-driven productions, and her skill -- conscious or not, it doesn't really matter -- has always been to get the right producers at the right moment, which she surely does here. Those producers turn Blackout into a sleek, shiny collection of 12 guiltily addictive dance tracks where the only weak link is Britney herself. Never the greatest vocalist, her thin squawk could be dismissed early in her career as an adolescent learning the ropes, but nearly a decade later her singing hasn't gotten any better, even if the studio tools to masquerade her weaknesses have. Strangely enough, the computer corrections either emphasize her irritating, strangled delivery -- nowhere more so than on "Piece of Me," where she's sharp, flattened, and clipped, the vocoder stabbing at the ears like a pick -- or she disappears into the track entirely, just another part of the electronic tapestry. Naturally, the latter cuts are more appealing, as they really show off the skills of the producers, particularly the Clutch's lead single "Gimme More," Bloodshy & Avant's relentless "Radar," the new wave shimmer of "Heaven on Earth," the stuttering electro-clip of "Break the Ice," or the spare, silly chant of "Hot as Ice." When Britney is pushed to the forefront, she garners too much attention, as she tries too hard to be sexy -- a move she could pull off before, when carefully controlled pictures of her in schoolgirl uniforms, cat suits, and tight jeans filled in the blanks her voice left behind. Now, those images are replaced by images of Britney beating cars up with umbrellas, wiping her greasy fingers on designer dresses, and nodding off on-stage, each new disaster stripping away any residual sexiness in her public image, so when she tries to purr and tease on Blackout she repels instead of seduces. That's the new Britney, and as she's always been an artist who relies on image, her tarnished persona does taint the ultimate effect of her music, as knowledge of her ceaseless partying turns these anthems a bit weary and sad. But if you block that image out -- always hard to do with Britney, but easier to do here since the tracks sound so good -- Blackout is state-of-the-art dance-pop, a testament to skills of the producers and perhaps even Britney being somehow cognizant enough to realize she should hire the best, even if she's not at her best. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Circus Play

With its title, Circus nods knowingly at the madhouse that is Britney Spears' life, acknowledging that things got a little rough after the release of 2007's Blackout. It's no secret that Blackout's launch didn't go as planned: the furor surrounding her stumbling VMA lip-sync of "Gimme More" was eclipsed by her institutionalization -- a drama played out live on TV, as so much of her life is -- and the loss of custody of her two young boys to ex-husband Kevin Federline, all of which pushed Blackout far, far to the background. Britney herself didn't exactly seem engaged on Blackout -- it was a club album, a producer's showcase, so it didn't matter if Spears didn't give herself over completely as the behind-the-boards team carried her through. That distance combined with her troubles did give Britney the appearance of losing control completely, and the best way for a pop star to right herself is through image -- hence Circus, a friendly remake of the hedonistic Blackout that posits that all is better with Brit-Brit now, thank you. If Blackout was a producers' album, Circus is a handlers' album, intent on sweeping away any recent unpleasantness -- the only acknowledgement is that title -- and acting like nothing ever happened, imagining that this is still a world where Britney remains envied and desired, where she can be dolled up as a gauzy Farrah Fawcett pinup on her album cover, where she can sing a drippy ballad about "My Baby" and have nobody raise an eyebrow. She can get away with the former with a bit more ease than the latter if only because all the time, effort, and money is poured into the club tracks, such as the thumping, stuttering first single "Womanizer" and its better, the relentless "Kill the Lights," so sleek and sexy it winds up diminishing the rest of the record.
"Kill the Lights" may be exceptional, one of Britney's best-ever singles, but it also doesn't have much competition here: it's one of a handful of tracks that follow through on Blackout, while the rest of Circus plays it safe, never hitting the beats hard enough to alienate a pop audience but perhaps layering on a bit too much saccharine for dance fans. It's careful and considered, right down to the single-entendre "If U Seek Amy," a Katy Perry-styled exercise in crass commercial carnality that is at once the best and worst song here. Best because Max Martin once again works his undeniable pop magic, turning this into a trashy stomper that feels inevitable and eternal, working against any sense of taste or decorum, something that the lyrics work overtime to undercut as they insist that all the boys and all the girls still want to F, U...well, spell it and you'll get the picture, and if you don't, Britney's elocution will paint it for you. This sexy strut doesn't work not because Spears' desirability took a nosedive in the five years since In the Zone -- although it did -- but because Britney's sexiness never was this explicit; she teased and hinted, at least in her music, and it feels wrong to have her be so nakedly vulgar here. Still, it was a necessary move, a way to stir up headlines and perhaps snatch the tabloid tiara from Katy's head, but the rest of the record doesn't follow through as it resorts Spears' standard formula: a couple of great dance singles, a couple of pretty good chill-out cuts (best being Bloodshy & Avant's "Unusual You"), a couple of not-good-at-all ballads, and a whole bunch of stuff in the middle. If she feels marginally more connected here than she did on Blackout, it's a Pyrrhic victory, as Circus never feels as sleek or addictive as its predecessor. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Singles Collection [Box Set] Play

A companion to the tight, 17-track The Singles, this deluxe box set gathers up the 29 singles Britney Spears released between 1999 and 2009 -- including the new Max Martin-written single "3," the enticement for hardcore fans to buy The Singles -- presenting them as two-track CD-singles with one B-side per disc, adding a DVD containing almost all of the accompanying music videos. Naturally, this contains far more songs than the single-disc set, including lots of tracks from the start of the new millennium, an area that the 17-cut compilation downplays. Unlike that disc, this box isn't meant for casual listening -- it's an effort to listen to or rip all 29 discs -- but it's a collectors' item, one to be looked at as much as listened to. Those collectors may be irked that the singles contain just one B-side, instead of the legions of B-sides that appeared all over the world for each of these singles, but most of those flipsides were remixes anyway. What mattered were the A-sides, and they're presented here quite attractively in a nice collectors-oriented package. [Jive released a box set version of the collection.] ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Playlist: The Very Best of Britney Spears Play

The 2012 budget-line compilation Playlist: The Very Best of Britney Spears covers much of the same ground as 2009's The Singles Collection but does take into account 2011's Femme Fatale, adding "Till the World Ends" and "Hold It Against Me." What was cut from Singles is generally not missed, as the big songs are here -- "Baby One More Time," "You Drive Me Crazy," "Oops...I Did It Again," "I'm a Slave 4 U," "Toxic" -- making this arguably a preferable comp to its full-price predecessor. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

In the Zone/Circus Play

This 2013 two-pack pairs Britney Spears' 2003 hit album In the Zone (best known for its hit "Toxic" and the Madonna duet "Me Against the Music") and 2008's Circus (best known for its hit "Womanizer"). This skips 2007's Blackout, which is a stronger album than either record here, but this is still a good affordable way to get two of Britney's better dance-oriented albums. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi
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