Christina Aguilera hasn't released a new album in six years. So basically, an eternity in pop music.
The pop icon started work on "Liberation" (★★★ out of four, out Friday) four years ago, coming off the underwhelming reception to 2012's "Lotus" and right in the thick of her coaching stint on NBC's "The Voice." Since then, she left the hit singing competition and gave birth to her second child, Summer Rain, with fiance Matthew Rutler, occasionally materializing on TV (ABC's "Nashville") and film ("The Emoji Movie").
The album's stop-and-go creation might explain why it feels somewhat disjointed, coming in at a bloated 15 songs and 50 minutes of heavy-handed, but often stirring female empowerment. It gets off to a relatively sleepy start, as Aguilera sings a snippet from "The Sound of Music" before launching into the bombastic "Maria," which is saddled with an uncharacteristically banal beat by Kanye West, who also produced lead single "Accelerate."
It's not until sixth track "Fall in Line" that "Liberation" truly begins to soar. Aguilera shrewdly teams with fellow powerhouse and Disney alum Demi Lovato for a soulful riff-off, belting to the rafters as they preach to young girls the importance of speaking their minds and being themselves. The winning streak continues with the dancehall-infused "Right Moves," a sultry callback to Aguilera's "Dirrty" era, and flirty "Like I Do," whose hypnotic high flutes and dexterous guest verse from rapper GoldLink will be lodged in your brain all summer.
Although Aguilera shares writing credits on most songs, she does not on "Deserve," a dramatic breakup ballad penned by "Issues" hit-maker Julia Michaels. "Twice" is a scorching showcase for Aguilera's indomitable pipes, as is album closer "Unless It's With You," which contains some of her most memorable vocal runs since 2010's "You Lost Me."
Aguilera's longtime fans should mostly be satisfied with "Liberation," which has struggled to gain traction on the charts in the lead-up to its release. (So far, no songs have cracked the Billboard Hot 100.) But even if this latest outing fails to match her past successes, it reaffirms Aguilera's status as a pop trailblazer who's never been afraid to reinvent herself.
Download: "Fall in Line," "Right Moves, "Like I Do"