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 … 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.
MY KIND OF CHRISTMAS
More 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.
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.
JUST BE FREE
‘Just Be Free’ was recorded when I was only 14 and 15 years old… did not intend that the recordings would be widely released, especially after I signed with a major record label. I have not updated or finished the versions recorded in my childhood and they are being released ‘as is,’ although I tried to prevent the release for several years. The recordings do not in any way reflect my current musical taste and where I am as an artist. The growth and vocal development I experienced as I matured into young adulthood is not reflected in the recordings. The album of new recordings that I intend to release this fall will be the album that truly reflects my artistry, my vision and my passion. The ‘Just Be Free’ recordings will hopefully be a footnote in a musical career that I dream will last for many years to come.” — Christina Aguilera, in the liner notes to Platinum Recording Group’s 2001 release, Just Be Free Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? Of course, the label buried these brutally honest comments within in the liner notes, so you’d have to purchase the album in order to read them (when it’s quite clear Christina was hoping that they’d be put on the cover or a sticker as a consumer advisory), but it’s enlightening to bring them to the forefront, since that’s what Just Be Free is – a collection of, to borrow Elvis Costello’s phrase, “pre-professional” recordings that Ms. Aguilera fought tooth and tail to suppress, all in vain. It’s easy to see why she’s not thrilled about these recordings, since they’re generic early ’90s dance-pop with a heavy house influence, all song earnestly by Christina. She’s actually not as miasmic or overwrought as she is on the recordings following her debut (it would be a nice sign of maturity if she tones it down a notch on the forthcoming album), but the songs so unmemorable, the production so bland and the performances so green – it’s not even amusing in its datedness, unlike Alanis Morissette’s early recordings — it really isn’t much more than a footnote in her career, even if it should happen to stop cold after her second album.
Unlike her alleged rival, Britney Spears, our Christina has done a pretty good job of shedding that innocent teen image. Of course, that might have something to do with the type of clothing, or lack it, Christina now sports – she may have even gone a little too far at times! As for her music, well, it’s always been a fair bit more grown up than the Spears’ and this album provides further evidence that Christina really has come of age. The rowdy but glistening, R&B-infused single, Dirrty, says it all, with Christina playing the foxy, empowered chick so much better than Britney did on I’m A Slave 4 U. In addition, an appearance by someone of Redman’s stature doesn’t hurt, either. The collaborative efforts don’t end there, as Ruff Riderz’ first lady, Eve, adds her slick rhyming to the girl power anthem Can’t Hold Us Down and Fighter boasts a heavy rock twist, thanks to alternative legend Dave Navarro’s guitar intervention. As if that wasn’t enuff, Grammy-winning babe Alicia Keys adds an authentic old skool soul vibe to Impossible, which is effectively a great excuse for two of the industry’s biggest voices to show off. The whole project has been seamlessly put together by Linda Perry (formerly of 4 Non Blondes), who also produced Pink’s all encompassing Mizundastood album. It’s Perry’s know-how that’s pulled into shape an album which could’ve easily been a contrived mish mash of styles.
BACK TO BASICS
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.