When American Idol debuted, the prevailing wisdom was that razor-tongued judge Simon Cowell was the show’s only real star and that, with TV audiences having become so much savvier since Star Search went off the air, a singing competition couldn’t launch a viable pop act. A full decade and more than a dozen legitimate radio hits later, Kelly Clarkson’s Greatest Hits: Chapter One proves that prevailing wisdom was wrong. While there’s something almost quaint about the idea of a “greatest hits” package in the era of iTunes and Spotify, Clarkson’s anthology works as a coherent, thoughtfully constructed playlist.
Clarkson’s five studio albums have been a mixed bag, both in terms of quality and overall style, ranging from the R&B-lite of Thankful to the slick pop-rock of Breakaway and All I Ever Wanted. Clarkson has yet to settle on a distinct POV as an artist, but the smart sequencing of Chapter One downplays this limitation: Placing the Max Martin-produced “Since U Been Gone” and “My Life Would Suck Without You” back to back was an obvious choice, but the heavy heartland rock of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her duet with country star Jason Aldean, segues seamlessly into the harder-edged “Walk Away,” while “Never Again,” the set’s only inclusion from the unjustly maligned My December, works well as a lead-in to the melancholy “Already Gone.”
Since the album isn’t sequenced chronologically, there are a few transitions between older and more recent material that draw attention to how Clarkson’s vocal style has developed over her career. Her early singles—“A Moment Like This,” the first of American Idol’s many terribly written coronation ballads, and “Miss Independent,” a hand-me-down from Christina Aguilera’s Stripped sessions—are peppered seemingly at random with the same throaty growls she used during the live performances of “Respect” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” that won her the American Idol crown. Clarkson’s finest moments come on singles like “Since U Been Gone” and “Walk Away,” when she effectively channels Pat Benatar, using her powerhouse voice to belt out pop hooks that are robust enough to withstand her bluster.
Clarkson’s readings on the set’s three new cuts rely on fewer show-offy vocal tricks and showcase a sense of phrasing that’s more intuitive and natural. Thanks to producer Dan Huff’s light-handed approach and to Clarkson’s laidback, soulful performance, “Don’t Rush,” a duet with Vince Gill, recalls the early-’80s work of artists like Barbara Mandrell and Ronnie Milsap. Clarkson has dabbled in the country genre with increasing frequency and increasingly impressive results, and while the hits collected on Chapter One may showcase some of the best pop of the last decade, Clarkson has also offered some tempting reasons to speculate about a possible shift in direction as she moves into the second chapter of her career.