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Christina Aguilera - Topic
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Christina Aguilera - Topic

Lotus Play

Considering all the trials and tribulations surrounding her 2010 album Bionic, Phoenix may have been a more appropriate title for Christina Aguilera's fifth album than Lotus. Plagued by delays, Bionic underwhelmed upon its 2010 release, as did Xtina's silver screen debut Burlesque, and her career appeared on the brink of meltdown until she signed up to be a voice on the NBC singing competition The Voice. Soon, she was duetting with her co-star Adam Levine on Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," her star was hotter than ever, and she was determined to not have it dim with Lotus. Streamlined considerably from the confused but often gripping Bionic and the sprawling double-album Back to Basics, Lotus isn't without risks -- "Red Hot Kind of Love" is a giddy, delirious piece of pop produced by Lucas Secon of "Lucas with the Lid Off" fame, as bracingly different as anything on the radio in 2012 -- but Aguilera isn't attempting a robotic future-soul, she's sticking with the belting soul ballads, hard disco, and pop that made her a star. And she feels comfortable in this familiar, slightly freshened territory, riding the glitzy pulse of "Let There Be Love," seizing the solo spotlight on the spare piano-and-voice ballad "Blank Page," sneering at her haters on "Circles," and spitting at them on the bonus cut "Shut Up." Christina may not pushing at her limits here -- a safeness underscored by the presence of not one but two Voice co-stars -- Cee Lo Green comes in for the pulsating party "Make the World Move," Blake Shelton duets on the slow, bluesy closer "Just a Fool" -- but it's hard to blame her for playing it safe, particularly because she wound up with such a strong pop album, one that reconfirms her gifts as a singer and savviness as a pop star. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Bionic Play

Subtlety not being part of Christina Aguilera's vocabulary, she trades the retro-swing of Back to Basics for the future-pop of Bionic, receiving assists from a roster that reads like a who's who of progressive pop: M.I.A., Le Tigre, Peaches, and John Hill and Switch, known for their work with Santogold. But like the half-cyborg/half-diva illustration of the cover, this revamp is only partial. Aguilera hedges her bets by adding a ballad from old friend Linda Perry, gets Tricky Stewart to produce a trio of cuts, and drafts Polow da Don and Focus to produce some heavy and slow R&B, letting enough air into the machines to reassure hesitant fans that she hasn't abandoned her roots. All this hesitancy means that for as many risks as it takes, Bionic doesn't feel daring. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Back to Basics Play

When Christina Aguilera released her garish, sexually charged sophomore effort, Stripped, in 2002, it seemed that she pushed her obsessions with tweaking taboos just a little too far. Sure, she could still sing, but her music was now driven entirely by skeletal club grooves and explicit carnality. It was a bold break from the teenybopper persona she was desperate to shed, but it was overcorrective steering, taking her a little bit too far down the road toward a grotesque caricature, particularly in her ugly video for the album's lead single, "Dirrty." All this grandstanding provoked an intense reaction, not just among fans but among her collaborators, who also wondered if Christina was going a little too far, but she managed to keep from sinking largely on the strength of the ballad "Beautiful," an empowering statement of self-love that managed to dampen "Dirrty"'s impact even if it didn't erase it. It also set the stage for the next phase of her career: as an outright old-fashioned diva, much like Madonna or Cher. Smartly, she followed this path for her third album, the sprawling, deliriously entertaining double-disc Back to Basics.
The title alone on Back to Basics is an allusion that perhaps Christina herself thinks she might have gone a little too far with Stripped; she stops short of offering an apology -- she even has a song where she proclaims she's "Still Dirrty" -- but this album's emphasis on songs and singing, along with the fixation with the big-band era, does suggest that Aguilera is ready to be once again seen as a world-class vocalist. Nevertheless, Back to Basics also makes clear that Stripped, for as flawed as it is, was also a necessary artistic move for Christina: she needed to get that out of her system in order to create her own style, one that is self-consciously stylized, stylish, and sexy. As the endless series of pinup photos in the album's booklet illustrates, Christina is obsessed with earning credibility through association: she dresses up as a big-band vamp and drops allusions to Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin, all under the assumption that listeners will think of Ms. Aguilera as the heir to that throne. While she may have the vocal chops to pull it off to a certain extent, Back to Basics doesn't quite feel like it belongs to the classic soul and R&B tradition, even if the second disc is designed to be an old-fashioned jazzy R&B album, complete with bluesy torch songs and occasionally live instrumentation. Aguilera's instincts are too modern to make the album sound classic. She remains stubbornly autobiographical -- she disses departed producer Scott Storch on "F.U.S.S.," again addresses the abuse inflicted on her mother by her father, spends much of the album detailing her love for her new husband, Jordan, and always filters everything through a very personal filter that makes this seem like a journal entry à la Alanis Morissette (even "Thank You," subtitled as her dedication to her fans, isn't about the fans; it's about how Christina has inspired them, saved their life, or kept them going while stationed in Iraq -- all stories recounted in the voicemail that runs throughout the track). Her lyrics remain bluntly direct, particularly when she talks about sex: "Candyman" makes her cherry pop and her panties drop, while the "Nasty Naughty Boy" will receive "a little taste of the sugar below my waist." That combined with the slick, precise computerized production means that even when Christina tries to sound classic, she winds up sounding like the present.
But that's what's good about Back to Basics -- even though she strives hard to be a classic soul singer here, she can't help but sound like herself, and surely there is no other big-budget pop album in 2006 that bears the stamp of its auteur so clearly. As she did on Stripped, she has gotten to indulge herself here, but where she was more concerned with sound than structure last time around, on Back to Basics she spends just as much time on song and structure, often coming up with strong, memorable ballads and dance tunes on both the dance-oriented first disc and the slow-burning second. Of course, she reveals more than she intended through her indulgence. Try as she may to sound like a classic singer from the '40s, she really seems to have learned all of her moves from Madonna in Dick Tracy; whether she's shaking her hips to a canned brass section or breathing heavily into a microphone, every move seems to have been copped from Breathless Mahoney -- and that's not just on the campily retro "Candyman" (which sounds like a rewrite of "Hanky Panky"), but it's also true on the deliberately modern numbers like "Ain't No Other Man," whose stabs of sampled brass sound straight out of early-'90s jazz-rap. When Aguilera does stray from the Madonna template here, it's to wander into Fiona Apple territory on the second disc -- with its loping piano, "Mercy on Me" is a dead ringer for anything from When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King. There are hints of a couple other artists here -- some echoes of Norah Jones on the torch songs -- but the fusion of Madonna and Fiona Apple is so inspired and unexpected, it sounds original because nobody else would have thought of it, or put it together in such wildly weird ways as Christina does here. Sure, Back to Basics is way too long at two discs and some of it doesn't work quite as well as the rest, but it has far more hits than misses and it holds together as an artistic statement (certainly more so than any other album made by one of her teen pop peers). It may be all about style, it may be a little crass and self-centered, but it's also catchy, exciting, and unique. It's an album to build a career upon, which would be a remarkable achievement by any measure, but coming after the near career suicide of Stripped, it's all the more impressive. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Stripped Play

According to Christina Aguilera, the title of her second album, Stripped, refers to her emotions and not her body, but the topless photograph of her on the cover suggests otherwise. Most things about Stripped suggest sex, actually, since Xtina -- as she calls herself in a handful of interviews accompanying the release of the album -- never hesitates to put her body, her piercings, and recently liberated sexual beliefs on display throughout her hyper-sexual, convoluted sophomore effort. Like any diva, Christina believes her trials and tribulations are inherently more fascinating than anybody else's and, like any diva, she has an inflated sense of self-importance, defiantly strutting on the "Stripped Intro" that she's "sorry you can't define me/sorry I break the mold." What she's referring to is anybody's guess, since she hasn't exactly defied expectations since her last album -- releasing a Christmas album and a Spanish-language record of your debut ain't exactly breaking the mold: it is the mold. Plus, Stripped clearly has its origins in the sound of two of Christina's teen pop contemporaries -- the teasing sexiness of Britney Spears and the wonderful, gonzo dance-rock confessionals of Pink, who truly did break the mold with M!ssundaztood. Since Aguilera spent so much time working on the album, tearing through a seemingly countless number of producers, she seems desperate to not just catch-up with these two, but surpass them in the sex and confessions, breaking it down so they become the same thing, while adding a strong hip-hop undercurrent throughout all the songs. And the end result is utterly bizarre, surpassing Mariah Carey's Glitter as the modern-day standard for musical immolation while rivaling The Teaches of Peaches in its sheer carnality. Where Peaches always is in control of her sexuality, using it as a weapon and a joke in equal measures, Christina is overwhelmed by the reaction of others to her sexuality, putting it on equal ground with her voice, which remains a remarkably powerful instrument, especially since she's toned down the scale-running histrionics from her debut. If she's mastered her vocals, she's still desperately searching for her artistic voice, placing too much emphasis on club and street-level R&B, which fit her poorly (why was "Dirrty," a non-song that requires less range than the slinky sexiness of "I'm a Slave 4 U," the first single?), when she needs full-blown songs. There are some here, though, most notably the Linda Perry collaboration "Beautiful," which was rush-released as a second single, but the ceaseless 70-minute running time and seemingly endless 20 songs mean that individual moments are lost and the big picture remains. And that big picture is that of an artist who has grown up too fast, while the sound is that of an artist who's given too much freedom too early and hasn't yet figured out what to do with it. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

My Kind of Christmas Play

The second punch in a double whammy of stopgap releases in the fourth quarter of 2000, My Kind of Christmas appeared on the shelves two months after Mi Reflejo, Christina's Latin reworking of her debut album. My Kind of Christmas actually has more new material than Mi Reflejo, and Aguilera responds in kind, turning in passionate performances throughout the 11-song album. She can teeter on the edge of being too passionate, belting out when she should lay back, but the power of her voice, no matter how diva-esque she may be, remains remarkable; she needs to learn restraint, but she's clearly a better singer than her peers. Of course, My Kind of Christmas remains a holiday album, filled with covers of standards (from "Oh Holy Night" to "The Christmas Song" to "Merry Christmas, Baby") and a handful of obligatory new songs. None of the new songs are knockouts, but "Christmas Time" and "This Year" are pretty solid pieces of dance-pop, even if the marvelously titled "Xtina's Xmas" (easily the best name of any new holiday song of 2000) is a 90-second collage trifle that doesn't live up to its promise. But, hey -- filler is part of a holiday record, and there's actually not too much of it here. Instead, it's pretty tight, entertaining seasonal dance-pop. It may not add too much to Christina's catalog, but it does suggest that she may not be a mere one-album wonder. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Mi Reflejo Play

When Christina Aguilera's eponymous debut reached multi-platinum status in the summer of 1999, the charts were also ruled by the Latin pop explosion, headed by Ricky Martin. Since Aguilera had Ecuadoran heritage, recording a Latin pop album was appropriate, even if she didn't know how to speak the language. Besides, a Latin album was an easy way to buy time for an artist waiting to produce an eagerly awaited sequel to a blockbuster album. So, she knocked out the record that became Mi Reflejo in 1999 and 2000, between tours and video shoots. She learned the words phonetically, but she already knew most of the melodies, since the bulk of the album was Spanish-language versions of songs on the debut album. In other words, it was a mirror image of the debut -- her Spanish reflection, as it were. This results in an album that is just a little too familiar, even if it's classy and well-produced and spiked with a couple of new tunes that hold their own with the holdovers. Even so, it's hard to view Mi Reflejo as anything other than a bit of a pleasant holding pattern; it's enjoyable as it spins, but it doesn't add anything new to her music, since it's just the old music in new clothing. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Christina Aguilera Play

Since Christina Aguilera is the third and last of the New Mickey Mouse Club alumni to hit the charts in the mid-'90s -- following two members of 'N Sync and Britney Spears -- it's easy for cynical observers to assume that she was the lesser of the three talents since she arrived last after everyone scaled the charts. That's not the case at all. If anything, Aguilera is the best of the three, blessed with a rich voice that's given the material it deserves. Her eponymous debut remains firmly within the teen-oriented dance-pop genre, but unlike Spears' album, this is done right. The songwriting is strong -- the ballads are engaging, the dance numbers are catchy -- the production is clean and uncluttered, letting Aguilera's voice take the foreground. Most impressively, she not only has charisma, she can actually sing, bringing conviction to these love and heartbreak songs. So, Christina Aguilera may be lightweight, but it's lightweight in the best possible sense -- breezy, fun, engaging, and enjoyable on each repeated listen. Out of the deluge of teen-pop albums in 1999, this feels like the best of the lot. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits Play

When Christina Aguilera began her decade of hits back in 1999 she was instantly overshadowed by her fellow New Mickey Mouse Club alumni Britney Spears, who was first out of the gate with Baby One More Time and wound up outselling Christina and every other teen pop act this side of *NSync in the first years of the new millennium. As the 2000s rolled on, Aguilera slowly, surely began to eclipse Spears. Brit-Brit's downward spiral and arrested artistic development seemed all the stronger when compared to Xtina's restless risks and increasingly assured musical vision, a progression that's evident on Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits. Arranged chronologically from 1999's "Genie in a Bottle" to 2007's "Candyman," Keeps Gettin' Better has a narrative momentum: the squeaky-clean pop singer shatters her image via hyper-sexualized dance tracks which left her free to get crazier, campier, and better, turning into a pop diva that truly deserves that title. Keeps Gettin' Better hints at the future with two excellent new songs (the title track and "Dynamite") along with remakes of "Genie in a Bottle" and "Beautiful,"" all done in a chilly electro style that suggests a Blackout if Britney were in control and knew what she was doing, but what is remarkable about the collection is that Christina's past holds up, with the candy-pop of "Genie," "What a Girl Wants," and "Come on Over Baby (All I Want Is You)" still sounding sweet, "Beautiful" sounding richly melancholy, and "Ain't No Other Man" and "Candyman" wickedly funny, knowing blasts of retro-swing. She may have started out in Britney's shadow, but Keeps Gettin' Better proves that no other teen pop singer of her era has a better track record than Christina and if the new songs are any indication, the title of this hits comp is no lie either. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Christina Aguilera/Stripped Play

This reissue from Sony features a pair of LPs by Christina Aguilera, Christina Aguilera and Stripped, originally issued in 1999 and 2002. Highlights among the 32 tracks include "Genie in a Bottle," "What a Girl Wants," and "Beautiful." Casual listeners should pick up Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits on RCA before delving into these recordings. ~ Al Campbell, Rovi

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