Kelly Clarkson Proves She's Stronger Than Ever

Kelly Clarkson: Stronger
RCA, 19 Records

Kelly Clarkson has had one hell of a successful decade. It’s pretty much public knowledge that she was the very first winner of American Idol, in its debut season way back in 2002. She was a 19-year-old fresh-faced Texas girl with a voice and smile as wide as the Lone Star State itself. Since that time, she has racked up gold and platinum albums and singles.  Interestingly enough, Clarkson hit it big in the same period that other strong powerful women with big vocals started ruling the pop charts, following in the footsteps of Christina Aguilera, Avril Lavigne, Amy Lee (Evanescence), Beyoncé and P!nk.

Her latest single, “Mr. Know It All,” just dropped into the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100, making it her ninth visit to that prestigious setting. Previous Top Ten singles include two #1s – her 2002 “Idol” ballad “A Moment Like This” (which interestingly enough broke the Beatles’ record at the time for the biggest jump on the Billboard chart from 52 to 1) and 2009’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” (breaking her previous record by jumping 96 spots from 97 to 1 just two years ago). Her other Top Tens are 2003’s “Miss Independent,” 2004’s “Breakaway,” 2005’s “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Because Of You” and 2007’s “Never Again.”

With the launch of her fifth studio recording, Stronger, Clarkson displays the same confidence she had when I interviewed her in between her debut and sophomore albums, eight years ago. Since that time, only she and Season Four winner Carrie Underwood have achieved worldwide success as two of the leading recording artists in the music business, and clearly the most successful recording artists to be spawned from American Idol, America’s No. 1 Reality Show. Only Jennifer Hudson has achieved major success outside the music business by winning a 2006 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Effie in the Tony Award-winning Broadway Musical-turned-feature film Dreamgirls.

Stronger has been called by many in the music biz Kelly’s “Jewel-In-The-Crown.” It’s an awfully hard feat to beat the success of her 2004 multi-platinum album Breakaway, the disc that spawned four of her nine Top Ten hits, but listening to Stronger, it’s hard to argue that it’s Clarkson’s most commercial album in seven years. There are several songs that have the potential to make this her biggest and best-selling album to date.

The Deluxe Edition of this album (which I highly recommend) carries 18 tracks, twelve of which are in the same pop/rock vein as her most fervent up-tempo rockers, with six ballads, four of which are rock-power ballads. The exceptions are the country hit single with Jason Aldean, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” which was the most successful digitally downloaded song of 2011 (so far), and the final track, “Why Don’t You Try,” which is an R&B power ballad that is the bluest I have ever heard Clarkson sing.  Judging from her past material, one would think this song would be  miles out of her comfort zone, but it’s one of the best tracks on the album. Her vocals soar with an Ann Peebles-like raw intensity, putting it truly in a class of its own. It makes one yearn for a complete R&B album from Clarkson.

In addition to the ballads, the highlights of the pop/rockers include “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” ”I Forgive You,” “Don’t Be A Girl About It” (which is reminiscent of her streetwise no-nonsense tracks that she performs so convincingly well) and “Dark Side” a powerful mid-tempo rock song with a taste as sweet as candy. The flavored intensity of “You Love Me,” which Clarkson co-wrote, carries an intro that has a riff as infectious as The Police’s piece de resistance, “Every Breath You Take.” Clarkson co-wrote seven of the tracks on this album, furthering her artistic achievements.

Would Clarkson have made it without the platform of American Idol? I guess we’ll never know. What I do know is that I am grateful to that program for introducing us to one of the best female pop singers of the past 10 years.

In a footnote to this column, I struggled with whether or not to include this in the “Five Must-Have Albums of 2011.” This is a definite inclusion. The only reason I ruled it out of that section and gave it a column of its own was so that I could share the entire disc in-depth, and dwell on its many, many highlights, which in turn only makes it that much “Stronger.”

© 2011 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.