Kelly Clarkson

"All I Ever Wanted" (RCA) -- 3.5 STARS

Turns out Kelly Clarkson is forever bound to pop after all. After her alt-rock detour on 2007’s “My December,” she returns to her crowd-pleasing ways, belting out the type of pop anthems she’s best known for. “All I Ever Wanted,” Clarkson’s fourth release, showcases her vocal strengths better than ever. Good pop comebacks are not a dime-a-dozen, but in spite of some minor setbacks, the singer manages to come out with yet another success.

Reclaiming her “Since U Been Gone”-era style, Clarkson screams her lungs out throughout the entire album, yet keeps her songs accessible and fun. She continues to crank out boy-bashing girl power tunes, like “I Do Not Hook Up,” in which she declares: “Oh, no, I do not hook up, up / I go slow / So if you want me, I don’t come cheap / Keep your hand in my hand / And your heart on your sleeve.” Clarkson’s dignified message is refreshing in contrast to the “I Kissed a Girl” pop landscape, which is especially ironic since Katy Perry co-wrote “I Do Not Hook Up.” This won’t be the first time she succeeds in making another singer’s composition her own: 2004’s “Breakaway” was written by Avril Lavigne. Ryan Tedder, of OneRepublic, appears as another co-songwriter, contributing “Already Gone,” ”Impossible,” and “If I Can’t Have You”—soothing tunes, generating some of the album’s more moving pieces and adding to the cheerful and energetic whole.

The album opener and lead single, “My Life Would Suck Without You,” despite the horrendous title, stands out with its catchy melody, electrifying chorus, and danceable beats. But oddly, “I Do Not Hook Up,” which follows, has the same exact beat. The two songs show off Clarkson’s versatile voice, but it doesn’t make up for their lack of creative rhythms.

Throughout the album Clarkson does little in the way of innovation, and a number of tracks sound like faceless, impersonal pop production numbers. Album closer “If No One Will Listen,” with its soft instrumentation and gentle verses that lead into a long climactic chorus, recalls Celine Dion. “Long Shot” with its youthful yet raspy sound, along with the leaping motion of the chorus, would sound more at home on a Miley Cyrus album. The tune is catchy, but fails to allow Clarkson’s voice to shine through.

But sometimes Clarkson’s own voice is the culprit, such as on “Don’t Let Me Stop You,” in which she strains herself trying to match her words to the music, resulting in strange inflections and awkward embellishments.

The occasional use of Auto-Tune and other vocal effects on tracks like “If I Can’t Have You” only adds to this impersonal feel. Successful enough to afford the best production and good enough to show off her bare voice she has no reason to cover her powerful vocals. It seems Clarkson tried too hard to keep up with pop trends.

Although her album is marked with minor blemishes, they will not overshadow her widely-anticipated and overall successful return to mainstream pop. Other than a few blunders, Kelly Clarkson proves to us once more that she’s still got what it takes to be a succesful pop artist. After her misguided detour with “My December,” she’s once again singing catchy, powerful songs, and the result is not half bad. She’s even given us a new “Since U Been Gone” with “My Life Would Suck Without U,” which will likely be played at every single party for the next month or so, accompanying raving teenagers yelling their praise of Clarkson’s return: “Cause we belong together now, yeah / Forever united here somehow, yeah / You got a piece of me / And honestly / My life would suck without you.”