The surprising conclusion of Shakira, the latest release from the Colombian superstar: it should have been a country album. In fact, “Medicine,” a duet with Blake Shelton that appears the new Shakira album, is one of the strongest country songs of the year. You might doubt her ability to navigate in this genre, perhaps after watching her cover Mr. Shelton’s “Boys Round Here” on The Voice; you shouldn’t. Her work from the ‘00s—Oral Fixacion Volumes 1 and 2 or She Wolf—proved her to be vibrant and versatile, as she applied her unique, instantly identifiable voice to brash guitar rock, swoony bossa nova, disco, and a variety of danceable Latin-pop hybrid. There are few corners of the musical planet left for her to take over.
Nashville is one, and hopefully she will storm the gates soon. “Medicine” starts with languorous pedal steel before plugging in and exploding up. It’s a love song, of course, but it also offers commentary on the artist’s possible place in this new musical sphere. Shakira sings, “I don’t reach for the bottle of whiskey, no you won’t see me poppin’ the pills.” If she doesn’t mess with whiskey and pills, how country can she be? Mr. Shelton drives this home, responding to each of her clauses with firm interjections of support for country’s trusted tropes: “straight on the rocks,” “p-p-p-poppin’ the pills.” “You know you’re an expert at complicating things,” he adds. The point: Shakira is in uncharted waters.
Consider them charted. Shelton is a powerful singer on his home turf, but the two artists mesh easily, his gracefully weary lunk of a voice complimenting her knife-like trills and sudden spurts of high power. “Medicine” isn’t alone on Shakira in its country leanings. “Broken Record” and “23” are basically country as well, full of strumming and strings. There are moments on both tunes when Shakira sounds like Taylor Swift. “Broken Record” in particular evokes a less grandiose version of “The Last Time,” from Swift’s Red.
Weirdly, Shakira’s forays into country come at the expense of the rest of her work. A couple tracks split the difference between Weezer and Avril Lavigne, sounding out of date and restricting her remarkable voice to rock’s often more limited range. “Can’t Remember To Forget You,” the duet with Rihanna, smashes reggae together with power rock, contrasting Shakira’s vocal with her partner’s famously flat affect. It’s here and gone without leaving so much as a dent.
Kylie Minogue, another international star (she’s from Australia) with a new album, likes to stick close to a movement-compelling thump, which means Kiss Me Once, her latest release, fits in easily with the current disco bonanza on American radio. Compared to Shakira, Minogue has always been more single-minded, but that hasn’t held her back. She’s sold more than 70 million albums, a remarkable number. (Shakira has sold over 125 million.)
The album opener, “Into the Blue” takes about twenty seconds before that thump kicks in, wasting little time in escalating to earth-obliterating proportions on the hook. Most of the songs follow suit, in a steady process of expansion and contraction, build and release. “A Million Miles Away”—because one thousand wouldn’t be enough—fuses some indie-rock guitar with the insistent pound. Minogue establishes her main topic of conversation here: “feel like I’m a million miles away/ when you touch my body I go where it’s so hard for you to reach.” It’s an efficient opening, cleanly mapping out the listener’s future.
Like Shakira, Minogue has high-powered assistants. Pharrell, who has played a massive role in the recent conquest by 1978’s disco sounds—as Minogue told Rolling Stone, “he’s had a vintage year”—wrote “I Was Gonna Cancel.” With gurgling electric keyboard and lively bass, it could slot easily between “Happy” and “Get Lucky.” Enrique Iglesias shows up on the album’s only ballad, “Beautiful,” to trade amorous lines and cross-pollinate with his own recently-released project Sex and Love. The breathless “If Only” sports a co-write from Ariel Reichstad, the Grammy-nominated producer who has gotten a lot of press for working with pop stars—Justin Bieber, Usher—and well-received indie acts (Sky Ferriera, Haim).
“Fine,” the last track on Kiss Me Once, throws some cleverly processed vocals into the blender. “You know the rhythm but can’t feel the beat,” sings Minogue. She’ll never give you a country album. But you’ll never have to worry about losing that beat.