Even when Britney Spears was in the midst of her Charlie Sheen-esque breakdown, she was putting out grooves to wear out the dance floor; 2007's Blackout is the best album she ever made, though the drama of that time overshadowed it.
Since then, she's continued to pump out taut jams that have kept her musically relevant, even if she's turned into sort of a Howard Hughes in private. The larger-than-life persona that morphed from jailbait to sex kitten to wild child has been rendered bland, perhaps the most dangerous thing that can happen to a pop star. The mother of two, whose personal and financial affairs are controlled by her father, is rarely heard from, and when she is, every move seems to be calculated by an army of handlers instead of determined by her own will: Any edge or personality she demonstrated seems to have been permanently dulled.
Thankfully, there is one place where she still shows her spark -- in her music. On Femme Fatale, the follow-up to 2008's Circus, Spears -- with plenty of help from megaproducers like Dr. Luke, will.i.am, and longtime collaborator Max Martin -- shows that she can still give the Lady Gagas and Rihannas of the pop world a serious challenge on the dance floor.
Femme Fatale is a nonstop party, starting off with a fun flourish with the poppy Till the World Ends and winding down with the dark, downbeat Criminal. There's nothing especially original on the tracks in between, but Spears' vocals give already catchy tracks even more appeal. While she's never been on the vocal level of Beyoncé or even Gaga, her voice, though thin and occasionally nasally, does have a pouty charm. On the throbbing Inside Out, she sounds like a sexy cougar; Trip to Your Heart, with its electronic synths, has a dreamy disco feel.
The driving Hold It Against Me is one of the album's better tracks, though it suffered from the nonsensical, product-placement video that accompanies it. In it, Spears looks listless and off her game, and it's a reminder that she's not the Brit who wowed us just a few years ago.
But when you block out the visuals and focus on the songs, Spears once again sizzles, and her flame burns as bright as ever.