Review Summary: The past and the future of the greatest pop star in America today.
Back when Christina Aguilera released "Genie in a Bottle" and "What A Girl Wants", amidst the wave of teen pop that was so successful at the time, the more astute music critics among us talked about what a great talent she could become. When she began wailing like Mariah Carey (check My Kind of Christmas
for the very definition of over-singing), we began to write about how she was misusing the great talent she had. When she threw herself whole-heartedly into the knicker-flashing, Redman-featuring, downright filthy Xtina personality, the easily shocked quarters of the tabloid press began talking about 'a great talent wasted'.
Are you noticing a theme yet?
In her own way, Christina Aguilera has maneuvered to a point where she is an artist in the same tradition as pop music's greatest auteurs - David Bowie, Madonna, and Kate Bush all act as precedents for the way she allows her charisma and ability to guide her through a series of different personalities and genres, all while remaining essentially Christina. By this point, she's done swing, she's done stark, skyscraping ballads, she's done hip-hop, she's done teen pop, she's done hard rock, she's been sexually aggressive, she's been empowering, she's been defiant, she's been tender, and she's almost always managed to maintain quality control. And she only really has three major albums under her belt. It's time we started recognizing and respecting that, and started realizing that, for all the times she's been compared to the likes of Britney Spears and Mariah Carey, there is simply nobody in music right now that you could seriously place alongside her.
Which makes it quite handy that her first greatest hits album has arrived right now. Obviously, this album has arrived at this point largely because Aguilera's career is currently on sabbatical, to allow her to enjoy motherhood and spend quality time with her new-born son; one suspects that somebody like Aguilera, who is so ambitious and obviously wants to be a long-term concern, ideally wouldn't have wanted this to come out now. Still, in defence of Keeps Getting Better
, one thing it isn't is rushed - there are two new tracks, and her two biggest hits have been re-made for this album. Not re-recorded, re-made; "You Are What You Are (Beautiful)" is practically unrecognizable from the original, its robotic vocal and pristine electronic production calling to mind The Knife. It would be baffling to attempt to choose one over the other, so radically different are the two versions. "Genie 2.0" is given a similar electronic makeover, placing it in a similar territory to The Eurythmic's "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)", but in this instance, the qualitative comparison is easy - this new version is awesome. Place these two songs next to the two new tracks - the retro-futurism of "Dynamite" and the Xenomania-esque "Keeps Gettin' Better" - and you realize that Keeps Getting Better: A Decade of Hits
actually tells two very different stories at once - Christina the pop singer is dead, long live Electro Christina. She couldn't signpost her new direction any more clearly if she announced the title of the next album as 'HAI GUYS KRAFTWERK WERE PRETTY COOL LOL I KNOW RITE?'. At any rate, these four tracks are more than enough to build anticipation for what could be a very, very good album.
Which leaves the retrospective part of the album. Like most greatest hits records, it's essentially a lap of honour, which the amusing sub-plot that the title Keeps Getting Better
is a perfect summary of how the album plays, chronologically. While the early pure pop stuff still sounds okay - even if the shine is taken off the original "Genie In A Bottle" by the remake - and there are a couple of mis-steps immediately following them (why in God's name is Ricky Martin anywhere near this compilation when she did a far better duet with Nelly?), the quality steadily increases from that point on, as it moves from the good ("Dirrty"), to the great ("Fighter"), to the excellent ("Ain't No Other Man", "Candyman"), to the breathtaking ("Hurt"). There are two notable absentee I can think of, in "Can't Hold Us Down" and the aforementioned Nelly duet, "Tilt Ya Head Back"; one assumes both are missing because of licensing difficulties involving the featured artists. "The Spirit Within" isn't included on the US version either, but seeing as it's her most boring single, it's not exactly a big loss. Otherwise it's as expected, and that means it's very good.
Another Christina Aguilera greatest hits album will no doubt arrive in the future that does a better job of summarizing her career and defining her as an artist. Surely, she has a lot more in her that we haven't seen yet, and it might take a two-disc monolith like Best of Bowie
to capture for future generations just who she was. For now this is just about as good a stop-gap as you could imagine; more than that, it's the best thing to bear the Aguilera name so far.