Beyonce released her fourth album this week. appropriately titled 4. Critics generally seem to like it, but I haven't read anyone who claims it's a conventional album. Most say it's surprising--for its minimalism, it's lack of focus, it's blatant disregard for current pop trends (and therefore it's lack of an attempt to contain multiple hit singles, which it likely doesn't). It's a bold move for sure from an established female pop star who has managed to make it to album 4 with lots of goodwill and so far no stumble to speak of. What has the fourth album meant for other big female pop stars? Many different things apparently. Here's a look ordered subjectively from what I consider to be the most successful to the least among a crop of major female pop stars of the 25 or so years.
1. Janet Jackson - Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989). Jackson's third album, Control, was her breakthrough hit, after her first two albums largely failed. Album #4 pretty much road its coattails and upped the ante, delivery more and bigger hits (a record seven top 4 hits, including four #1s), as well as a less subtle social issues concept. Janet. may have sold more globally, but it wasn't as significant an artistic statement at this. Bottom line: Control made her a superstar; Rhythm Nation proved there was a lot more where that came from.
2. Celine Dion - Falling Into You (1996). Technically, this is like her 15th album, but it's her fourth album for the English-speaking world, who didn't really know Celine Dion until 1991's Unison. Already on an upward trajectory with her first three English albums, the fourth one sent her into the stratosphere, selling 32 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling pop albums of all time. In the US, it went diamond, spawned three big hits--including #1 single "Because You Loved Me"--and won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Bottom line: This was one of the '90s biggest pop artists at her commercial and creative peak.
3. Mariah Carey - Daydream (1995). Mariah Carey broke out big in 1990 and stayed that way through the mid-'90s. Her fourth album, Daydream, was a crossroads of sort, both reaching back to the pop-AC sound she'd cultivating while looking ahead to the pop-R&B sound she was moving toward. Given what was hot at the time, that meant pop music gold, as the album sent up three US #1 hits, including history's longest-running #1 hit, "One Sweet Day." The album sold 25 million copies globally, went diamond in the US and was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy Award. Bottom line: Daydream was Carey at her mid-90s peak, featuring three singles that combined spent 6 months atop the Hot 100.
Madonna - Like a Prayer (1989). Although it didn't match the sales of Like a Virgin or True Blue, Like a Prayer was still a big hit and arguably the more notable among those records in Madonna's discography. The album hailed a shift away from appealing but impersonal pop and dance pop toward a broader spectrum of sounds that made her music more experimental as well as more personal. Bottom line: Like a Prayer was Madonna's first true artistic statement and is widely regarded as her best album.
Shania Twain - Up! (2002). When her third album, Come On Over, became the best-selling album ever by woman or a country artist, it almost didn't matter what she followed it up with, but Twain's Up! was just as ambitious a release. It's uptempo country-pop was like a musical equivalent of Prozac (there are nine exclamation points among the songs' titles) and, aware of her multi-format appeal, Twain released the album in three versions, consisting of country, pop and Indian arrangements of the same 19 songs. Bottom line: It sold like crazy, but wasn't the massive crossover success that Come on Over was.
Whitney Houston - My Love Is Your Love (1998). Whitney Houston was one of the '90s biggest stars, but ironically released few albums during that period while she instead relied on a series of hit soundtracks to keep her music on the radio. My Love Is Your Love ended that 8-year period since she released I'm Your Baby Tonight with an exciting push toward more contemporary R&B, a surprising twist after she'd topped the charts with her AC-leaning pop. Although there were no #1 hits off this album, it scored three big top 10 singles, all of which when remixed were also massive dance club hits. Bottom line: An exciting album that sees a major star effectively explore new musical styles.
Britney Spears - In the Zone (2003). Britney's first two albums came straight from the jaws of the teen pop machine, so her venture into different musical territory for her third album yielded mixed results. This fourth set got her back on track though, pushing her back to solid pop territory but with a more cutting edge sound. Spears also co-wrote most of the album's songs, representing her biggest dip into songwriting among her albums. Bottom line: Spears' most experimental and satisfying album, which got her back on top the pop charts with "Toxic."
Rihanna - Rated R (2009). Good Girl Gone Bad was a massive pop album--three #1 hits (including "Umbrella," one of the decade's biggest pop hits), several other top 10s, lots of sales, a big re-release. Etc. Then came the Chris Brown incident, forever changing how pop audiences thought of her (him as well). For anyone who considered Rihanna just a pretty face singing bubbly producer-driven dance pop, Rated R was a bold, artistic statement with darker themes, edgier sounds and emotions ranging from anger to vulnerability. Not as big a hit of course, but it still generated some big singles, most notably "Rude Boy." Bottom line: A dark, exciting album that proved Rihanna had substance.
Pink - I'm Not Dead (2006). Pink's third album, Try This, was a punk-oriented departure, and like many such departures, took the singer out of the mainstream spotlight. I'm Not Dead was a nice return to pop territory. In the US, it took about a year for it to catch on, but eventually "U +Ur Hand" and "Who Knew" became major hits. Bottom line: Return to pop form after a less-than-successful punkish departure.
Kelly Clarkson - All I Ever Wanted (2009). Similarly, Kelly Clarkson's third album, My December, was a dramatic departure, meant to be a darker, more personal pop album. It resulted it a lot of animosity between Clarkson and her record company and, although not a complete failure, it was not a major hit. Predictably All I Ever Wanted was a damage control album meant to bring back the singer's pop audience. As such, it's not the most exciting album, but it did the trick of returning her to pop radio with some decent hits, such as "My Life Would Suck without You." Bottom line: It's no Breakaway, but it effectively made up for the weaker reception of My December.
Avril Lavigne - Goodbye Lullaby (2011). If Lavigne doesn't generate a true hit from this album, it may indeed live up to its name. "What the Hell" was a modest hit, but all of her previous albums have had at least one biggie. New single "Smile" doesn't appear to fit that bill. Bottom line: Unless it comes up with a hit fast, this could see Lavigne fade from the mainstream.
Christina Aguilera - Bionic (2010). While Goodbye Lullaby is stumbling, this one fell and hard. Bionic's first single "Not Myself Tonight," couldn't even reach the top 20 in the US and its follow-up, "Woohoo" couldn't even crack the top 40. The album received bad reviews and sold poorly. She followed it with the musical film Burlesque, which was also a flop. Aguilera should be thanking her lucky stars that The Voice came along and helped salvage her career. Bottom line: There is nothing good to say about this album--total disaster.