In a thousand year’s time when archaeologists are sorting through the relics of our generation’s culture, the same names are destined to crop up again and again. Pop music of the last few decades has been dominated by a handful of iconic artists whose names will go down in history. But for every immaculate album that will be immortalised in pop’s history books, there are those that will be forgotten, buried beneath a ton of dust and unsold copies of Britney Jean. But some of these albums, though outshone by their multi-platinum siblings, deserve to be remembered. Here are four underrated gems from our time’s biggest pop stars that never quite got the acclaim they deserved.

Madonna – American Life (2003)

American_Life_(single)I’ve written before about the merits of American Life, a commercial failure by Madonna’s standards that also failed to garner the critical acclaim of her previous efforts. Having reinvented herself as an Earth mother for the hugely successful Ray Of Light (1997) and then as a modern-day cowgirl for 2000’s Music, American Life saw Madge go political. Several songs on the album, including the title track, are a damning critique of modern consumerist attitudes. Though some critics saw Madonna’s take on the situation rather glib, especially on that rap, the album was nevertheless a courageous move for a musician who had originally established herself with lighter pop hits. But isn’t that bravery exactly what makes Madonna so special? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, expressing sentiments that could be described as anti-American was a risky decision, and some have cited this as the reason for the album’s relatively poor performance on the charts. Political statements aside, however, the album also shows Madonna at her rawest. Mother and Father sees her referencing the death of her mother when Madonna was just a child, while Nothing Fails is one of several stripped-back, acoustic love songs for her then husband Guy Ritchie. American Life is Madonna at her most confrontational but also at her most vulnerable. A beautiful album full of sincerity, disillusionment and love.

Kylie – X (2007)

220px-KylieXCoverwas Kylie’s first studio album in four years and marked her return to music after battling breast cancer. With so much hype surrounding the return of pop’s princess, some critics felt fell a little flat. Writers from the likes of The Guardian and The Observer criticised the album for its inconsistent style and for containing too much filler. While the albums does feature an eclectic clash of genres from dance to R’n’B, any claims that the album is packed with filler are entirely unfounded. From the addictive techno beat of The One to the seductive, Janet Jackson-esque All I See, X is packed with excellent pop tracks that showcase Kylie’s ability to shine in a range of pop subgenres. The album’s lead single, 2 Hearts, sees Kylie play the part of a sultry lounge singer, draped over a piano, while Speakerphone is a slice of cosmic dance-pop that would come to be frequent radio-fodder peddled by the likes of Lady Gaga in the following years. Though even Kylie herself has expressed some disappointment with the album (“In retrospect we could definitely have bettered it, I’ll say that straight up” she told The Sun), is a quirky, fun, and at times experimental album, packed with shimmering pop tunes that have lit up dance floors all over the world. Though it may not be Fever, X is by no means a failure, and still sounds as fresh today as it did seven years ago.

Britney Spears – Circus (2009)

circus britney…Baby One More Time is the début album that spring-boarded a Mississippi teen to worldwide fame, Oops…I Did It Again is the album that broke records and cemented her reputation as a global icon and Blackout is the edgy fan favourite, packed full of racy anthems lacquered with an electro-pop sheen. Standing alongside such iconic pop records, Circus feels like an album just waiting to be forgotten. Though it was well-received by critics and spawned the US chart-topper Womanizer, by 2009, the world was no longer revolving around Britney Spears. Having gone through, and seemingly recovered from, a slew of personal struggles that overshadowed the release of 2007’s Blackout, Britney found herself in the undesirable position of having to convince the world that she was sane, healthy and happy. Circus largely shies away from mentioning any of Britney’s well documented personal problems however, instead serving up an album packed full of catchy, upbeat tracks, designed to be performed as part of a spectacular live show. Shattered Glass, Kill The Lights and If You Seek Amy hark back to the slick production of Blackout, maintaining Britney’s signature style while losing some of the darker themes to produce a less intense listen. Out From Under is surely Britney’s second-best ballad of all time (second only to 2004’s Everytime) while the album’s other slow track, My Baby, despite its clichéd, saccharine lyrics, is one of only two tracks that credit Britney as a writer. Though a little too sickly-sweet for some tastes, Spears’ obvious heavy inclusion in the writing of the track (written about her son), shows an emotionally naked side to the star that had previously been absent in much of her previous output, and proved that she was more than a clueless puppet of a highly-skilled marketing team.

Lady Gaga – ARTPOP (2013)

artpopIn 2009, after the release of The Fame Monster, Lady Gaga was the biggest pop star on the planet. Her unique brand of innovative, creative pop tracks combined with a compelling personality propelled her to worldwide fame. The release of much-anticipated second album Born This Way in 2011 gave Gaga a couple more hits, but failed to live up to the hype of its predecessor. ARTPOP, Gaga’s third album proper, was considered by some critics as a make-or-break moment in Gaga’s career. Though the album did feature two chart hits, Applause and Do What U Want, the album sold significantly less than Gaga’s previous albums and was met with mixed reviews. While ARTPOP does feature one or two exceptionally ill-advised tracks (Jewels n’ Drugs and Fashion! to name just two), this is more than made up for by the remaining songs which are just as good as much of Gaga’s previous work. Manicure features one of Gaga’s catchiest choruses to date, while Swine packs all the pain of an abusive relationship into an unsettling blast of electro-pop. Like so many albums before it, ARTPOP suffered the fatal flaw of choosing some of its weakest tracks as singles. G.U.Y. is an unremarkable pop-by-numbers whereas the likes of Aura, Venus and Sexxx Dreams are for more original, interesting tracks. If only Gaga had made wiser choices when picking her singles, ARTPOP could have been every bit the behemoth of The Fame Monster.   

ched evansKids will always have idols. I admired and adored a whole plethora of pop stars and famous faces while I was growing up, and each of them undoubtedly influenced me in some way, for better or worse. Kids today are no different – with the ever-increasing amount of celebrities the tabloids are willing to force down our collective throats, today’s children have a bigger selection than ever of people to consider role models. More often than not, however, these celebrities have no desire to be role models, yet they find themselves stuck with the label nonetheless.

When I was fifteen years old, I adored Amy Winehouse. My bedroom walls were plastered with her posters, I would listen to her music religiously and would buy the red-tops if they contained a few snaps of her doing her shopping. She was, in some ways, my role model. For my sixteenth birthday, I got to see her in concert. Now, anyone who knew anything about Amy Winehouse could have told you that the woman liked to swear, and she was no different that evening. Despite battling her own demons at the time (her husband had been arrested just a few days earlier), she put on a spectacular, albeit rather sweary, show. It was everything you would have expected from an Amy Winehouse concert.

On the way home, in my dad’s car, we listened to the local radio station. The concert was the main topic of conversation that night, and the presenter was taking calls from various dullards who moaned about everything from her inebriation during the last few tracks to her swearing. Parents said that they had taken their children to the concert and had been horrified by the bad language. They said this as though this was somehow Amy’s fault, as though she should have modified not only her concert, but her personality, to suit the offspring of middle England.

Amy Winehouse never once claimed to be a role model, yet so many people and publications insist that anyone who is even remotely famous act in an exemplary way for the sake of the children who admire them. This logic is entirely flawed. Amy Winehouse (just like Britney Spears, Madonna, Lily Allen and a million others) was a musician. If people considered her a role model, as perhaps I did, this was their choice and not the fault of Winehouse herself. Why is it that whenever someone famous acts in such a way that goes against conventional, accepted behaviour, there are mountains of sensitive souls climbing over each other to splutter: “Won’t someone think of the children?”

It’s curious that, more often than not, it is women who are accused of being bad role models. Lindsay Lohan, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga are just some famous names who are often deemed unsuitable role models for children thanks to their revealing outfits, drunken antics and frequent swearing. If a man were to exhibit the same behaviour (provided he was straight and white), it would most likely be shrugged off as nothing more than laddish fun, as after all, boys will be boys. When women dare to transgress social norms, however, they are deemed bad role models, despite never having expressed an interest in this title at any point.

As I write this, there is an ongoing debate in the UK regarding shamed footballer Ched Evans. Evans was convicted of rape in 2012 and served two and a half years in prison. Upon his release, he expressed his desire to return to professional football, to the ire of thousands, who considered it offensive and inappropriate that a convicted rapist should be allowed to resume his privileged position as though nothing had happened. There are a number of factors that complicate the moral implications of Evans’ return to football, such as the fact that he has remained defiant since his release, refusing to apologise and maintaining that he is innocent. As well as this, the name of his victim was twice revealed on Twitter, causing her unimaginable levels of distress years after the attack occurred.

Some argue that as a footballer, Evans is a role model to young football fans, and allowing him to return to professional football would have a negative effect on the children he influences. Though there are many reasons one could use to argue in favour of banning Evans from football, his supposed position of role model is not one of them. This is a label that has been thrust upon him rather than one he actively encouraged. His behaviour was undoubtedly abhorrent and inexcusable, but being a footballer should not automatically entail being a role model.

Instead of clutching their pearls and wailing in horror when a celebrity exhibits such awful behaviour, parents would do better to raise their children to look for role models elsewhere. If a child who idolises Ched Evans grows up to be a rapist, this is an indictment of their inability to control their sexual urges and non-existent morals. It is not, however, the result of an adoration of a footballer who was convicted for rape. The kids who look up to Evans today (if they do indeed exist), surely admire him for his sporting skills rather than his status of convicted rapist.  And so just as Amy Winehouse did not turn me into a drug addict, Ched Evans will not turn a generation of impressionable children into rapists. His actions were despicable, but the man is not, and has never claimed to be, a role model.

If anything positive can come from this situation, perhaps impressionable children will learn that their idols are not worth idolising at all, and look closer to home for people to admire. And perhaps once their children learn this harsh lesson, parents will stop blaming footballers and pop stars for their children’s perceived shortcomings and look closer to home too.