Kelly Clarkson will always be the world's greatest American Idol. Not only because she was the first, but also because she navigated an unproven career path, years before all the spotlight-hogging Jennifers and Davids crassly manipulated it. Plus, she totally rocks. Clarkson's follow-up to 2007's unfairly maligned My December makes things right with her record company (execs were pissed about the last album's dark and too-personal tone), preserving much of the spunk that made 2004's Breakaway — and its breakthrough single, "Since U Been Gone" — such a blast. All I Ever Wanted is sugar-coated pop with enough crunch to keep everyone (Top 40 fans, hipsters, Idol junkies) happy. And it kicks off with a double dose of classic Clarkson: "My Life Would Suck Without You" and "I Do Not Hook Up," which juggle the 26-year-old's dichotomy of being an independent woman with a needy streak. The ballads go over the top, but that's expected from any Idol alum. The difference is that Clarkson is truly a great singer — check out her worn-in rasp on "Don't Let Me Stop You" — with integrity to match. — Michael Gallucci
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