Fifteen years after Kelly Clarkson won Season 1 of American Idol, delivered a ubiquitous coronation ballad to a weepy studio audience and waded through ballooning confetti-clouds, she's ready to release her eighth studio album, a decidedly more soul-heavy affair that'll signal her official severance from an origin 2002 RCA contract. But before she tests her sea legs at Atlantic, and sets forth into her career's next chapter, PopCrush is taking a look back.
Since the release of 2003 debut LP Thankful, a pop-Frankenstein that included soul balladeering ("The Trouble With Love Is"), pop-rock chirping ("Low") and early-aughts Aguilera-grit ("Miss Independent"), Kelly's gone rock with 2004's Breakaway, assumed the role of recalcitrant renegade with 2007's My December and gone full-throttle '80s sleek with 2011's Stronger. But between falsetto softness and big band, singer-songwriter restraint and arena-ready roaring, her voice has endured and served as a common thread: Kelly can sing (and has sung) anything. After all, when you kick off your career singing Burt Bacharach one night and Badfinger the next, the capacity to adapt becomes second nature.
By the end of 2017, Kelly Clarkson as we know her will have likely changed — but to understand where she's going, we've gotta remember where she's been. Below, we've strung together her 10 best deep cuts that placate, enrage and, above all else, entertain. Check 'em out, tell us what we missed and sound off on your hopes for KC8 in the comments.
(And before you all shout out in in protest, please remember that, yes, "Sober" was technically a single.)
'Bad Reputation,' Piece by Piece
The horns-conducted song is on the precipice of cheesy, but there's massive redemption: "Bad Reputation" includes some of the most breathtaking and stratosphere-piercing studio vocals of Kelly's career. A bonus track standout from 2015's Piece by Piece, the song's sexy, bluesy and an audio assault, sending you tumbling head over feet just when you've managed to find your footing. That a track as good as this can be buried in an album (and land at No. 10 on this list) is simply proof of a solid artist's pedigree.
In case you weren't privy to the dissent and controversy surrounding the release of 2007's My December, which amounted to a battle between the eager-to-experiment Kelly and a stubborn, traditionalist RCA, allow "Maybe" to serve as your crash-course. It's as singer-songwriter as Kelly's ventured to get, and ignores pop convention while recklessly spitting out verses and callbacks, sometimes at seeming random. It's a bit slapdash, unclean and you'll think it's about to end about three times before it does, but you'll find something worth sticking around for.
'If No One Will Listen,' All I Ever Wanted
Even longtime Kelly fans might have forgotten about the All I Ever Wanted ballad, a remake of Keri Noble's 2004 origin track. But it's worth the revisit: "If No One Will Listen," the first song that features an exclusive Clarkson production credit, plays like her most prized possession, and mixes bits of shaky, untouched falsetto with bold, sweeping admonitions against self-harm. "If you find you've been settling for a world of gray / So you wouldn't have to face down your own hate" she gently supposes across some of the starkest and most sincere recording sessions of her career. All I Ever Wanted's "Whyyawannabringmedown" might be twice as loud, but this speaks miles more clearly.
'Some Kind of Miracle,' Thankful
Yes, it's tailor-made for stolen moments at sun-drenched weddings, but "Some Kind of Miracle" is more the first-dance benchmark than mere observer of the formula. The Diane Warren-penned track, straight from Clarkson's 2003 debut album, oozes sentiment, but not at the expense of its value or power — on Thankful, it shines, and if Kelly's indeed going soul with album No. 8, she'd be wise to remember this one.
In the 2004-ish era of Kelly-gone-rock, "Hear Me" hit hardest, pairing pretty piano-painted verses with relentless, speaker-busting chorus-wallops a la Amy Lee. Like sister track "Addicted," the Breakaway standout tested the limits of Kelly's shouty upper register, and the last 30 seconds will have you sure she's ready to split blood.
'Don't Let Me Stop You,' All I Ever Wanted
If ever there was an unreleased track in Kelly's catalog that begged to be a single, "Don't Let Me Stop You" maintains the distinction. With the help of Quiz & Larossi, the electric guitar-fueled tell-off soars, and sets free the same cleaned-up nerve and grit that made "Since U Been Gone" a radio cornerstone. Eclipsed by "Already Gone" as the the 2009 album's natural choice for third single, the song suffered for the era's you've-gotta-release-a-ballad-at-some-point reflex.
Rarely is Kelly's voice the second best part of a song, but "You Love Me," a 2011 collaboration with Josh Abraham and Oliver Goldstein, is peak pop production. Sleek verses give way to punchy, quietly urgent chorus loops that demand attention without setting out to prove too much. Moreover, it's Kelly at her lyrical best, insisting that if you intend to condescend, you better hastily reconsider. "You Love Me" featured a superstar having finally relaxed and settled into her skill.
'The War Is Over,' Stronger
Early reports of pre-release Stronger listens included a trend among fans: crying upon hearing "The War Is Over" for the first time ("tears were rolling down my face," one magazine editor told The New York Times). Easily the most cinematic song of Kelly's career, the Toby Gad-produced track is a slowly inching crescendo that swells in a way that demands the lump in your throat follows suit. It's a dismissal of that guy, those demons, these insecurities and any absolute or abstraction that the listener feels compelled to confront. Catharsis, thy name is pop-percussion cannonades.
'Why Don't You Try,' Stronger
Exclusive to Japanese markets and iTunes complete-album sales, "Why Don't You Try," a nearly scrapped 18th track written by Eric Hutchinson, is consummate Kelly Clarkson Soul before the official Kelly Clarkson soul album. On the otherwise '80s-leaning Stronger, the song is a standout for its timeless yearn. It burns. It broods. It paves a path for some of Kelly's best Kelly-wailing. It's just damn good.
Oh, and the last minute? Jesus.
Yes, buried in the back half of the final song on Clarkson's most forgotten album is her career's greatest triumph as a songwriter. "Chivas," a master class in coffee shop crooning, is soufflé-delicate, but as cutting as a pastry chef's precision cutter. Where power is concerned, it's about a tenth as loud as she can get, but somehow more arresting for its restraint — it's Simone Biles earning a Perfect 10 for the world's most faultless somersault. And, as far as booze metaphorizing goes, this one is tops — take it neat, dream along with the phonograph's static, and enjoy.
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