Words: Alim Kheraj
This article was first published in April 2014
Christina Aguilera is a bit of a conundrum. Despite being a household name - and one of the great living vocalists – she hasn’t released a proper, bona fide hit album since 2006’s Back To Basics.
She's certainly proved herself a chameleon, though: she started out as a bubblegum popstar, then morphed into "Xtina" – the slutty girl getting down and "dirrty" in the parking lot – before transforming into a retro-style diva.
All three incarnations were successful, so it’s no surprise that for her fourth album (discounting the Spanish-language LP and Christmas collection), Chrissie would want to take this experimentation further.
And so we have Bionic. Released in the summer of 2010, Bionic went straight to number one on the UK's Official Albums Chart. Amazing, right? Well, not quite. It happened to be the lowest-selling number one album in eight years, and then made chart history for the largest ever drop for a number one album, falling 28 places to number 29 the following week.
Why were audiences so lukewarm? There are a number of theories, including persistent accusations that Christina was "copying" the then-white hot Lady Gaga.
However, revisiting Bionic now, what shines through is its playfulness. The opener/title track sounds like nothing Christina had ever done before, playing with her vocals and trying out a futuristic fidget-house sound reminiscent of Santogold.
Similarly, the album's stand-out track, Elastic Love, co-written by MIA, sees her powerhouse vocals toned down and tampered with - and showcases a versatility she often seems to have forgotten. The humorous ode to cunnilingus, Woohoo, finds Christina teaming up with rapper Nicki Minaj.
With lyrics like “all the boys think of cake when they taste my... you don’t even need a plate just your face, ha!”, it's not subtle, but it is fun.
Meanwhile, lead single Not Myself Tonight is an ironic, tongue-in-cheek two fingers to both the haters and, retrospectively at least, record label interference.
I’ll be very honest with you; the middle section of this album is a mess: Through 'Prima Donna', 'Desnudate' and 'Sex for Breakfast', Christina loses her way. So for the sake of my argument, let’s ignore this extended rough patch.
Instead, let us wonder at the introspective, beautiful and emotionally-charged ballads 'I Am' and 'You Lost Me'. Co-written by current queen of songwriters Sia Furler, these songs were the first of their kind.
Before Sia began collaborating with everyone from Kylie to Britney, she and Christina were coming up with some properly brilliant emotional pop music - packed with subtleties Christina had never shown before.
Like so many big-budget pop albums, the best songs are buried on the deluxe edition – for what reason, I’m always unsure. Had hipster music sites like Pitchfork been as popular as they are now, deluxe track 'Monday Morning' could perhaps have converted indie snobs to Christina’s experimental phase.
Its tight production, driving bassline and scattering of electronics combine to create something exciting and different. Likewise, the Ladytron-produced Birds of Prey is a lost gem: modern, intelligent pop music at its best.
Perhaps Bionic’s main problem is its lack of direction - it's essentially three different albums all rolled into one: generic (but often very good) chart fare, emotional ballads and forward-thinking pop. Had the album simply focused on the latter, it could have been a career-defining moment for Christina.
At the time, no other major popstar was experimenting with sounds in this way or pushing the limits of what was considered commercial. What's especially upsetting is that since Bionic’s release four years ago, Christina has failed to find her footing.
Even though she's recently featured on two massive hits, 'Moves Like Jagger' and 'Say Something', her latest album Lotus sold even fewer copies than Bionic.
Successful stints on The Voice USA have kept her in the public eye, but there’s no denying that now, Christina really needs a hit in her own right.
Don’t discount Bionic, though. It runs to a ridiculous 23 tracks, but hidden inside is some experimental, thrilling and thought-provoking pop music. At times, it's downright brilliant.