It's been It's been three and a half years since Christina Aguilera's well-received four-times platinum Grammy-winning sophomore album Stripped. It's a much longer gap in records than most fans of pop music are used to. But as Christina's been saying for quite a while – the album is worth the wait.
So often, in popular music, the records are single-driven. There are four to five good songs at most, and the rest, though decent maybe, are mere filler material. Double-disc Back to Basics is one of those albums where even if certain songs may not necessarily tickle your fancy – there is something for everyone. And even the ones that aren't for you, you must still admit, are great.
For this album, Christina drafted hip-hop producer DJ Premier who did most of the first disc, and former 4 Non-Blondes member Linda Perry, who produced a lot of Aguilera's second CD. It's hard to say which of the two discs is better; they both have a different feel. The first is sample-heavy – yet it's hard to know it. Premier does such an excellent job of blending the old sounds with the new songs and Christina's instincts and newfound maturity both lyrically and vocally are flawless.
One problem with the album however — though it's not really the album's fault, more Christina's — is that it was said to be a throwback to the 20s, 30s, and 40s. If you listen to the record, there are at most four songs that really accomplish that: the authentic-sounding "I Got Trouble" (recorded with a cloth over the mic and Christina's whiskey-layered voice), the super-fast and funky "Ain't No Other Man", the fun "Candyman" (confirmed second single), and the racy "Nasty Naughty Boy". The rest of the tracks, though many may be throwbacks – are not throwbacks to the 20s, 30s and 40s.
Maybe she's confused about the musical eras, who knows. But what's more important is that people shouldn't hold this against the album. Because despite the misinformation Christina's given about the tracks, it does not detract from the fact that this album is golden. There are points in this CD where I get chills from just how good the songs are. The 90s Hip-Hop/R&B vibes are all over this CD and it makes tracks like "Slow Down Baby", "Back in the Day", and "Still Dirrty" so incredibly listenable while nostalgic all the same.
The Linda Perry-penned track "Hurt" and the low-key "Save Me From Myself" (which is one of Aguilera's best songs and vocal performances to date) take the sexy diva's music to a new emotional level. There are times on the latter track where it's so incredibly personal I literally feel like Christina is sitting right in front of me with a guitar singing the song in my face. With a quiet and vulnerable voice, Christina nearly whispers, "Don't ask me why I'm crying/'Cause when I start to crumble/You know how to keep me smiling". Linda Perry has stripped down Christina's vocals to the hushed, intimate singing we hear on the record – wiping away the ultra-melisma divalicious over singing we're used to from Miss Aguilera.
And on the former she and Linda tear jerk like a good Shirley Maclaine movie. "Seems like it was just yesterday when I saw your face/You told me how proud you were then you walked away/If only I knew what I knew today" Christina sings on top of a haunting yet heartbreaking piano melody — making the song a surefire number one hit on radio a la "Beautiful" success.
Some may try to criticize Aguilera for "trying to be" Etta James, Aretha Franklin, etc. — but if you listen to the CD, what makes it great is that she's not trying to re-create old school artists' work — she's looking to them as inspiration and fusing their style with her new lyrics, melodies, and attitude. On one of the album's best tracks "Back in the Day" pays tribute to some of these artists (incidentally many of them aren't from the 20, 30s, and 40s).
So break out the Marvin Gaye and Etta James/Your Lady Day, and Coltrane/Turn up your 45's, bring back to life/The sound and vibe of yesterday/Open your mind, enjoy the ride,
Live out tonight and grab that Soul Train.
Marvin Gaye — 60s, John Coltrane — 50s, Etta James — 50s and 60s … Christina, you're confusing me. Most of the people she names in the song are not from the eras she claims the album is influenced by. But once again, this is irrelevant. If someone just handed this CD to me today and I had no knowledge of how Christina had been promoting it – this criticism wouldn't even exist.
The album's strongest material comes from both the first and second discs. There are songs like the gospel-influenced "Makes Me Wanna Pray", single-bound "Slow Down Baby", "Still Dirrty" – a continuation of her controversial "Dirrty" with one of the best beats on the album, Grammy-worthy "Hurt", "Save Me From Myself, and the dance-y "Candyman" (which includes a mind-blowing high note in full voice at the bridge). But I have to emphasize that it's ridiculously difficult to pick standouts in an album of standouts.
In a market where her contemporaries (Britney, Jessica, Mandy) are either washed up or making crap, Christina has shown with the release of this album that she is the only one who really is "Here To Stay" (another track from the record). Beyonce had better pull out whatever tricks from her glittery little bag (probably gaudily designed by Tina Knowles) this fall if she wants to survive because three-time Grammy winner Christina Aguilera has just delivered the pop album of 2006, and come Grammy time, I can't see her losing any awards she gets nominated for. There are just too many diamonds here for anyone to settle for gold.