Artist: Kelly Clarkson

Title: Stronger

Label: 19 Recordings/RCA Records

If there's any shred of justice left in Top 40 music, Kelly Clarkson's fifth album, Stronger, will put the first American Idol winner back in the limelight of her second record, Breakaway, which ruled the airwaves at length with diverse hits like the title track, "Since U Been Gone," "Behind These Hazel Eyes," and "Because of You."

Just as that set marked an escape from her debut's reality show baggage, Stronger finds Kelly getting past the hiccups of efforts three and four—artistic differences with the record company, fallouts with songwriters. Here she's back in full voice with full confidence, hitting every polished pop song out of the park in a season when folks adore great female singers; Adele's 21 just spent thirteen weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Perhaps due to those past frustrations, Clarkson comes at us with an air of renewed empowerment, an attitude we can handle knowing how down-to-earth she is offstage. "Mr. Know It All" could be about love or business, but either way it's clear, can't nobody tell me how it's gonna be / nobody's gonna make a fool out of me. "What Doesn't Kill You" is another girl power anthem with the type of danceable track Maroon 5 does well.

Stronger also masters previous attempts at deeper theatricality. "Dark Side," a dreamy pop-meets-club smash asks an important question in a catchy way: Everybody's got a dark side / do you love me; can you love mine? She does a similar get-real thing in the rock-laced ballad "Honestly," insisting, Make me listen to the truth even if it breaks me / if you're hating me do it honestly.

Kelly punctuates a couple of bad relationships in the Pink-like rockers "You Love Me" (You said that I'm not good enough, but what you really mean is you're not good enough) and humor-driven "Einstein" (I may not be Einstein but I know dumb + dumb = you). But the softer "Standing in Front of You" shows that she still believes in love, while the full-speed "I Forgive You" lets us know that nobody's perfect.

Late in the set, "You Can't Win" is Clarkson's be-yourself declaration, a take on the media's fascination with her weight and more (If you're straight, why aren't you married yet? / If you're gay, why aren't you waving a flag?). That she stops just short of cursing about it is testament that she's a class act. And Stronger is a class album to match. 

*This review first published 11/4/2011

**Listen to this album on Spotify