Two years ago, Kelly Clarkson recorded "Since U Been Gone," an absolutely perfect alternative-pop anthem that turned her into an even bigger star than Simon Cowell could have possibly dreamed of. But when follow-up time came around, there was no consensus on where the former American Idol should head. While her label suggested another album of radio-ready sing-alongs and string-touched ballads, Clarkson insisted on honing a slightly edgier sound, without the help of a pricey song doctor.

Unfortunately, they both got their way. While Clarkson revels in her newfound freedom by writing some pulsing new-wave tracks and excellent garage-rock rave-ups, she also falls back on the sort of drab modern pop songs that her label so publicly favored. Only problem is, without the aid of, say, Max Martin (one of the geniuses behind "Gone"), much of My December lacks the precisely engineered hooks that made Clarkson famous. It's the last thing anyone wants to say about an artist trying to escape her label's shackles, but it's true: For once, the suits were right.

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