Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single: From the Discography of Christina Aguilera

Shoulda-Been a Single
The Queen Rihanna Edition.

We’ve gone back through every Lady Gaga album, pored over Britney Spears’ extensive discography, argued about the merits of Beyoncé‘s deepest cuts, and allowed Rihanna’s relentless prolificness to wash over us. Now it’s time we turn our attention to the one, the only, the legendary Christina Aguilera. Woohoo!

Christina — Legend X, if you will — exploded onto the teen pop scene of the late, late ’90s and instantly became a contender for the new Queen of Pop crown. The only other pop star operating on her level was Britney, and Christina had one major edge: her voice. Though her sales and influence have waned (fairly or unfairly) in later years, it is easy to see why she was — and in some ways still is — a major force in the pop world, the voice behind more than a few eternal hits (and more than a few memorable failures). Her work has resonated in some cases and has failed to resonate in others. Don’t hold this against her; it is what makes her more interesting than your average pop princess.

In one major respect, she differs from her competition: the frequency of her output. She averages three years between albums, as opposed to every one-and-a-half or two (or just one in the case of Rihanna). She makes up for the long wait by delivering humungous albums, each with a lot to consider (and a fair amount to disregard).

Up until Bionic, Christina and her team were pretty smart when it came time to select singles — but even in those early days, a few incredible songs missed the cut. So let’s start there, in those early days, shall we? To 1999 we go!

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Shoulda-Been Singles From Christina Aguilera (1999)

“So Emotional”

Christina’s self-titled debut spawned three No. 1 singles (“Genie in a Bottle,” “What a Girl Wants,” and “Come on Over (All I Want Is You)”) and a fourth (“I Turn to You”) peaked at No. 3. It sold 17 million copies worldwide, with more than eight million sold in the U.S. alone. (For comparison, Britney only earned one No. 1 single from her first album, ...Baby One More Time. Baby did move more copies, however.) With success like that, it’s no wonder Christina quickly ascended to the A-List of pop. This fact also makes it difficult to argue that much more could have been done to promote the album. Still, of the remaining non-singles, “So Emotional” is a cut above the rest. This funky mid-tempo is a perfect time capsule from that specific era of teen bubblegum, but it is also something more in Christina’s hands; for one thing it’s refreshingly direct — she actually says “making love” instead of dancing around the issue like her contemporaries would have — and then, of course, that voice.

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Shoulda-Been Singles From Stripped (2002)

“Get Mine, Get Yours”

Christina jump-started the Stripped campaign with “Dirrty,” which despite not even reaching the Top 40, remains one of her most memorable songs. Perhaps that has something to do with the assless chaps she donned in the legendary video. Never has a pop starlet, especially one with Disney beginnings, so literally kissed her squeaky-clean image goodbye. (Though Miley Cyrus has certainly given it her best shot.) Despite the cultural spanking that was the song and video for “Dirrty,” Christina actually had much more tangible success with the with two more subdued, mature cuts from the album: “Beautiful” and “Fighter.” That is all well and good, and I support the release of more Xtina ballads as singles, but “Get Mine, Get Yours,” a song that does exactly what it says on the tin, would have been the best of both worlds. It maintains the adultness of Christina’s new image in two ways: it’s mature and it’s still, as she herself would say, dirrty. It says, “I’ve grown up, and I am a sexual being.” It just doesn’t punch you in the face with its message. Moreover, it is simply as catchy as f***.

“Cruz”

With every fiber of my being, I would like to include “Walk Away,” Christina’s finest song (from her finest album) in this list at this point, but it is with unparalleled personal restraint that I decline to do so. Is “Walk Away” flawless? Yes. Does it feature (arguably? unarguably?) the best Christina vocal performance on record? Yes. But is it a single? Unfortunately, I do not think it is. (It’s too slow and too long for radio.) Instead, I opt for “Cruz,” one of a handful of soaring Stripped ballads that subtly said to Christina’s then-competition, “You could actually never.” But “Cruz,” in addition to being a great vehicle for Christina’s voice, also has a classic rock feel that would have performed well at radio and potentially opened her up to a wider audience. Most importantly, it undoubtably would have become a nationwide karaoke staple, the highest honor a single can achieve.

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Shoulda-Been Singles From Back to Basics (2006)

“Here to Stay”

Christina’s voice has never sounded more at home than it does on Back to Basics, a collection of crackling, horn-heavy throwback cuts. And she deserves credit for arriving at this particular nostalgia trend years before it became a mainstay on the Hot 100 with songs like “Uptown Funk” and “Blurred Lines.” Hell, Back to Basics was released before Amy Winehouse’s iconic Back to Black, which shared similar sonic territory (and Mark Ronson’s production skills). Despite this, as a complete body, Back to Basics is somewhat bloated, it being a double-disc affair (remember those?) with a lot of what I would have to describe as “obvious album cuts.” She was smart with the singles she chose to release, and honestly, most of what’s left would not have stood a chance on the charts in 2006. Most, I said. Because there’s “Here to Stay,” which works as a great advertisement for the jazz-pop found elsewhere on the record and lyrically treads in Christina’s favorite subject matter: her own self-worth and empowerment.

“Still Dirrty”

“Still Dirrty” would not have been a smash, I don’t think. But honestly, there isn’t a true smash on Back to Basics. (Had it been released seven years later, maybe…) What I like about “Still Dirrty,” though, is that it combines the album’s sonic theme with Christina’s trademark in-your-face sexuality. The self-reference is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose for some, but I think she pulls it off marvelously here.

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Shoulda-Been Singles From Bionic (2010)

“Monday Morning”

It has now been more than five years since Christina released her fourth full-length, the infamous flop Bionic. Was the world just not ready then — at the height of Gaga Mania — for Legend X’s electro-pop opus? Is it really as bad as we all remember? Yes and no. There is a decent (if not necessarily great) 10 or 11 track album buried somewhere underneath paralyzing weight of the deluxe edition’s 23 songs. That leaves 12 or 13 tracks that are, at best, not good. (At worst, they’re so embarrassingly awful that the listener is forced to laugh in order to keep from cringing. I’m looking at you, “Vanity,” “Bobblehead,” and “I Hate Boys.”) The album’s best cut, “Monday Morning,” only appears as a bonus track on the deluxe edition, a fact as baffling as it is frustrating. Songs this good should not be tossed off as bonus tracks, especially when songs like “Vanity” make the standard cut. I would like to believe that tracks like “Monday Morning,” “Birds of Prey” (Ladytron!!!), and “Elastic Love” are the most indicative of the album Christina originally wanted to create and release. When we say #JusticeForBionic, we really mean #JusticeForSongsLikeMondayMorning.

“Prima Donna”

There are better Bionic songs than “Prima Donna” — the aforementioned “Birds of Prey,” “Elastic Love,” and the title track, for example — but “Prima Donna” is by far the best of the standard edition up-tempos. (Not that the competition is all that stiff…) If Bionic suffers from Christina’s inability to nail down a sound and persona, and if that problem results in a sort of alienating musical schizophrenia that pits Heartfelt Christina against Maneater Christina against Futuristic Christina against Empowerment Christina against a plethora of other Christinas, “Prima Donna” is the best of the Sassy Christina numbers. As both a representation of the album and of Christina herself , “Prima Donna” coulda, shoulda, woulda had a chance to make some waves.

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Shoulda-Been Singles From Lotus (2012)

“Empty Words”

Lotus is a weird album, and an anomaly in Christina’s discography. It is nowhere near as blatantly offensive as the worst parts of Bionic, and yet — and I think most Xtina fans will agree — it is, all things considered, her weakest offering.  As far as Christina albums go, it is simply middle of the road. She took a swing with Bionic; she didn’t here. Christina only released two singles, and neither one did much to make an impact on the charts. There is one obvious overlooked single here (more on that in a second), but first: “Empty Words.” In the post-21 world, the music-listening public was still clamoring for more toned-down pop sung from the soul. So rather than push one of the flashier tracks, she might have considered going the ballad route. Christina has a proven track record with power ballads, and this OneRepublic-sounding anthem almost certainly could have perked up a few ears.

“Army of Me”

Though unfortunately not a cover of the great Björk single of the same name, this “Army of Me” does continue the grand tradition of Xtina’s “screw the haters” self-empowerment anthems. It is essentially a sequel to Stripped’s “Fighter,” a reference she blatantly acknowledges in the chorus. It’s one of the most Christina songs Christina has ever recorded, making it bizarre it was not officially released. But is that not part of her enduring appeal? That she sometimes takes the road less-traveled, makes a surprising choice?

What other Xtina songs do you think would have made great singles? Tell us! And while you’re at it, let us know which artist you’d like to see featured in next week’s Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda Been a Single.