I loved Avril Lavigne’s first two albums, 2002’s Let Go and 2004’s Under My Skin. Still love ’em. But, if I’m being brutally honest, I thought her next two albums, 2007’s The Best Damn Thing and 2011’s Goodbye Lullaby, were just plain terrible. Fucking awful, even. I gave them both a fair shot and listened to them each at least a half dozen times when they came out, but I just couldn’t get into them. Quite the contrary, the more I listened to them, the more I hated them. I just didn’t find any of the songs to be catchy. What’s worse, she insisted on trying to sound punk rock and it just didn’t ring true. It felt forced if not entirely bogus. At least that was my opinion. But, yes, I realize that some people did like them. In fact, both sold quite well, The Best Damn Thing especially.

Suffice to say that my expectations for Avril’s new, self-titled album could not have been lower. As if her previous two albums didn’t have me expecting something terrible, the fact that she co-wrote several of the songs with her husband, Chad Kroeger of Nickelback fame, had me expecting her absolute worst album ever. (Just for the record, I hated Nickelback long before it became fashionable to do so. Just like Creed.) So, imagine my surprise when I listened to the album and found myself liking song after song. And many, I not only liked but LOVED.

“Let ’em know that we’re still rock ‘n’ roll,” Avril sings at the very beginning of “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” the first track on the album, which was released as a single way back in August. It’s kind of ironic because, really, it’s much more of a pop song than a rock song. Oh, it has electric guitars and bass guitar and the chords are rock. There’s even a blazing guitar solo. But the beats? They sound totally *pop* to me. And I think I know pop when I hear it! I’m not even sure that the song features actual drums; to my ears, the beats sound entirely programmed. But, you know what? Rock ‘n’ roll can be an attitude and in that sense the song does indeed rock. Big time. Whereas Avril’s punk-ish attitude on her last two albums felt forced if not entirely phony, here she sounds totally inspired. And that’s where the song wins you over: it sounds like the music of someone who’s truly just saying fuck it all and making music to have a blast. “What if you and I just put up a middle finger to the sky?” she asks during the chorus and you’ll be ready to flip off the clouds above you. With both hands, even.

The album’s second track is “Here’s to Never Growing Up,” which was released as its first single way back on April 9th of this year. When the Martin Johnson-produced song first came out, I thought it was a rip-off of Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” Obviously, you can tell just from reading the titles of the songs that they’re about totally different things, but in terms of the beats and the melodies, I thought the two tracks were awfully similar and I still do. In fact, when I listen to Avril’s album, I keep expecting the song to be followed by a Taylor Swift song, my subconscious mind apparently thinking that I actually *am* listening to a Taylor Swift song when I hear it. All of that being said, the song has really grown on me and I’d go so far as to say that I actually love it now. The critic in me realizes it’s the sort of pop song that should lose its flavor after you’ve heard it a dozen plus times, but, nope, totally digging it these days.

As great as “Rock ‘N’ Roll” and “Here’s to Never Growing Up” are, I can’t help but feel that Epic Records missed a couple of golden opportunities when they released those tracks as singles this spring and summer because the album has not one but two fantastic summertime anthems, “Bitchin’ Summer” and “Sippin’ on Sunshine.” I suppose they aren’t as immediately catchy as the singles, but they only require a few listens to firmly sink their hooks into you. But I do have to say that it’s kind of funny to hear 29 year old Avril singing the lyrics to “Bitchin’ Summer,” which are about waiting for the bell to ring to get out of school for the summer and “living fast, kicking ass together / like high school love birds.” After all, she’s been out of high school for over a decade. But, hey, I’ve been out of high school a lot longer than that and I’m still listening to this stuff, so I’m not really complaining. I also have to give her kudos for the song’s rap part. Yes, you read that correctly, Avril actually RAPS during “Bitchin’ Summer.” And she does a decent job of it. I certainly don’t think she should come out with a full-on rap song, but she gets the job done swimmingly here.

Avril lets her dark side shine through on “Bad Girl” featuring Marilyn Manson. It’s a full-blown, kick ass rock song with live drums, scorching guitars and sinfully delicious lyrics. “You can fuck me and then play me,” Avril sings. “You can love me, you can hate me.” During the chorus she demands, “Choke me ’cause I said so / Stroke me and feed my ego.” But if you think she’s trying too hard to be provocative, well, I would disagree. She’s clearly just having fun here, as evidenced by her and Marilyn laughing at the end of the song, as if it was all a farce. Which, really, it kind of is.

If you think it can’t get stranger than “Bad Girl,” just wait until you hear “Hello Kitty.” If it makes you think of the world famous Hello Kitty from Japan, that’s because it’s supposed to. The song actually includes a handful of words in Japanese and sounds much more like today’s Japanese pop scene than what goes on here in the States. (Trust me, I review as much Japanese music as I review American music.) And it just goes to show you what a skillful producer Martin Johnson of Boys Like Girls fame is because he totally nails the J-Pop sound here and even infuses the track with dubstep breaks, which, yes, are all the rage in J-Pop of late. But is it actually about Hello Kitty? Sort of. The verses are clearly about girls having a sleep over — “Let’s all slumber party / Like a fat kid on a pack of Smarties” — but the chorus would seem to be about Hello Kitty itself as Avril sings, “Kawaii, Hello Kitty, Hello Kitty / Hello Kitty, you’re so pretty.”

In the ballad department, “Give You What You Like” is a slightly eerie, melancholic tune with a simple guitar loop and R&B-ish beats. “Please wrap your drunken arms around me / And I’ll let you call me yours tonight / ‘Cause slightly broken’s just what I need / And if you give me what I want / Then I’ll give you what you like,” Avril sings, sounding especially vulnerable. She also sounds rather depressed here, which suits the lyrics and melody perfectly. Fans of “I’m With You” should quite like this one.

The album ends with two more ballads, “Falling Fast” and “Hush Hush.”

“Falling Fast” finds Avril showing her super romantic side over acoustic guitar and a subtle beat. “I’m falling fast / I hope this lasts / I’m falling hard for you,” she sings and it’s sure to get your heart palpitating. And while there’s no denying that Avril has a limited vocal range, “Falling Fast” is in a higher register than we normally hear her sing and she pulls it off beautifully.

Closing track “Hush Hush” is the album’s most ambitious ballad. It starts off with Avril softly singing along to piano reminiscent of Britney Spears’ “Everytime.” “I didn’t mean to kiss you / You didn’t mean to fall in love,” she sings. “I never meant to hurt you / We never meant for it to mean this much.” But the mature song proves to be about saying goodbye: “So go on, live your life / So go on, say goodbye.” It also proves to be rather epic, adding potent beats, somber strings and delicate electro-flourishes. While the other ballads are certainly touching, this one is the most moving and I can see it becoming a hugely successful single. (Let’s just hope L.A. Reid is wise enough to release it as one.)

Katy Perry and Lady Gaga might have gotten all of the attention this year, but Avril’s album is honestly strong enough to rival both of their albums. In fact, I would dare to say it’s more accessible than either of them. And, more importantly, it’s a lot more fun. It’s an album you can just throw on and enjoy straightaway. (Even if the first two singles took a few listens to grow on me.) You just have to look at it as a pop record. If you’re looking for punk or rock, it’s probably not going to do much for you. But if you have an inner pop music junkie, it’s sure to hook you. It’s a truly wonderful pop album. Some of it might prove to be bubblegum, but you still chew the stuff even if you know it’s eventually going to lose its flavor, so who gives a fuck?




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