Deep Album Cuts Vol. 34: Kelly Clarkson

As the first winner of "American Idol," Kelly Clarkson is, for better or worse, an argument in favor of the idea that you can crowdsource a pop star. Not just that, but that you can give a record deal to the winner of a karaoke game show, and she can become one of the biggest and most respected pop singers of her generation, and make a song as critically celebrated as "Since U Been Gone," and a solid 'greatest hits' collection worth of other singles. And although "Idol" has spun off a handful of other decent careers, and Carrie Underwood eventually sold more albums, Clarkson's career now seems kind of a singular fluke, one time that they really picked someone great and they managed to grow artistically after getting into the spotlight.

Of course, Kelly Clarkson's career also could function as an argument against the system that made her a star. After the Idol machine groomed her in a Carey/Aguilera mold for her debut album, Thankful, she had to fight tooth and nail to make more rock-leaning music like "Since U Been Gone" on her second album, Breakaway. And even after finding enormous success with that record, she wound up in an ugly feud with music industry heavyweight Clive Davis, which helped doomed the follow-up My December before it was even released. Her career recovered slightly with the next two albums, but it seemed a little like the industry battles had broken her spirit -- after refusing to record songs previously recorded by Lindsay Lohan and other artists on My December, she was recording Katy Perry outtakes on her next album All I Ever Wanted, and you can't help but notice the irony of that title. To be fair, though, castoffs from other artists served Clarkson well earlier in her career -- she should be glad, and probably is, that Pink didn't want "Since U Been Gone," that Avril didn't use "Breakaway," that Xtina decided against "Miss Independent."

Kelly Clarkson is about to release her 7th studio album (6th non-Christmas album, but I tend to count the Christmas album in her discography, which I'll get into). But looking back on her albums, and the narrative of her career that I just outlined, I'm actually struck by how much of a piece her catalog is. I cherry-picked songs from Thankful that resembled the direction she took after that, but for the most part there's really not a huge difference in what most of the songs the blockbuster Breakaway and the 'dark' career downturn My December and the 'more accessible' All I Ever Wanted and Stronger sound like, in terms of production and songwriting. And that makes all the crazy industry conflicts just seem even sillier.

Kelly Clarkson Deep Album Cuts (Spotify playlist):

1. Can I Have A Kiss
2. Gone
3. Ready
4. Addicted
5. Honestly
6. Judas
7. Whyyawannabringmedown
8. You Can't Win
9. Beautiful Disaster
10. Where Is Your Heart
11. You Love Me
12. Be Still
13. Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)
14. 4 Carats
15. Hole
16. How I Feel
17. Don't Be A Girl About It
18. Just Missed The Train
19. Hear Me
20. Just For Now
21. Thankful
22. You Found Me

Tracks 9, 18 and 21 from Thankful (2003)
Tracks 2, 4, 10, 19 and 22 from Breakaway (2004)
Tracks 1, 6, 12, 15 and 16 from My December (2007)
Tracks 3 and 7 from All I Ever Wanted (2009)
Tracks 5, 8, 11 and 17 from Stronger (2011)
Tracks 13, 14 and 20 from Wrapped In Red (2013)

I've always thought Breakaway's status as far and away Clarkson's biggest album was well deserved. But when an album has 5 great hit singles, you're definitely going to lose something when you strip it down to the deep cuts, and I'm hard pressed to say any of the tracks here, good as they are, should've been released as singles instead of what was released. And My December, which I had mixed feelings about at the time but has aged pretty well, has some of her stronger deep cuts partly by virtue of it barely having any hits.

One of the odd little surprises when My December was released was that Mike Watt played bass on 3 songs. That seemed to be a product of one of Clarkson's guys happening to know him and hiring him for a session, and not Clarkson being a Minutemen fan or deliberately trying to increase her indie cred. But still, it was an interesting little footnote in both of their careers, and strangely appropriate given Watt's longtime love of Madonna that he was finally part of a big pop diva's album. Those three songs ("Can I Have A Kiss," "Hole," and "How I Feel") are all standouts on the album, although you can only really pick up on Watt's bass sound if you know it's there and are listening for it.

In general, Clarkson's albums do tend to be kind of sharply divided by the singles and the other tracks, and there are occasionally some pretty lousy ones (Stronger's "Einstein" features the refrain "dumb plus dumb equals you"). For the most part, though, she's been remarkably consistent. Even the originals on her Christmas album, Wrapped In Red, really stand up with some of her best work and didn't feel too difficult to mix in with other songs here.

Previous playlists in the Deep Album Cuts series:
Vol. 1: Brandy
Vol. 2: Whitney Houston
Vol. 3: Madonna
Vol. 4: My Chemical Romance
Vol. 5: Brad Paisley
Vol. 6: George Jones
Vol. 7: The Doors
Vol. 8: Jay-Z
Vol. 9: Robin Thicke
Vol. 10: R. Kelly
Vol. 11: Fall Out Boy
Vol. 12: TLC
Vol. 13: Pink
Vol. 14: Queen
Vol. 15: Steely Dan
Vol. 16: Trick Daddy
Vol. 17: Paramore
Vol. 18: Elton John
Vol. 19: Missy Elliott
Vol. 20: Mariah Carey
Vol. 21: The Pretenders
Vol. 22: "Weird Al" Yankovic
Vol. 23: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Vol. 24: Foo Fighters
Vol. 25: Counting Crows
Vol. 26: T.I.
Vol. 27: Jackson Browne
Vol. 28: Usher
Vol. 29: Mary J. Blige
Vol. 30: The Black Crowes
Vol. 31: Ne-Yo
Vol. 32: Blink-182
Vol. 33: One Direction
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