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)
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)
X was 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 X 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), X 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)
…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)
In 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.