Britney Spears isn’t just the princess of pop. She’s a pioneer of the genre who redefines its expectations and stretches its boundaries whenever she releases a new album.
And while her list of greatest hits is familiar to nearly anyone who grew up as part of the TRL generation (and beyond), some of Britney’s finest and most inspiring work was never packaged into singles. Instead, these songs live on the tracklistings of her albums somewhere in between the monster smashes we all know and love.
Far more than just a machine who churns out songs to dance to, Britney is an artist with an extensive catalog of work that is as versatile as it is influential. Below, check out my list of top 10 essential Britney tracks that—unless you’re a more-than-average fanatical fan—you may have largely overlooked. And don’t forget to share your picks for best Britney songs in the comments section below!
10. Can’t Make You Love Me
from Oops! … I Did It Again
By the time Britney released her sophomore album, Oops! … I Did It Again, she was already a global phenomenon. Gone was the cheeky girl-next-door that was introduced on her debut record, and in her place was an established sex symbol whose face could be seen at every newsstand.
While many of Britney’s songs acknowledge her fame (i.e. “My Prerogative,” “Piece of Me,” “Mona Lisa”), Oops! … I Did It Again provides an interesting character study of the pop star. On this album, the then 18-year-old Britney was only first discovering what it meant to be at the center of the public’s eye. Songs such as the hit “Lucky” juxtaposed the glitz and glamour of being America’s sweetheart with the emptiness and artificiality that label can come with.
On “Can’t Make You Love Me,” Britney yearns for her crush to care about her. She compares her life to what it was before she catapulted to superstardom and tries to reassure the song’s muse that, despite the changes in her life, she is still the same person she’s always been at heart.
“I have been through changes, but I’m still the girl you used to know,” she tries to convince. “It’s made me no different, so tell me why you had to go? Oh baby, I will trade the fancy cars for a chance today, it’s incomparable. I might be sitting with the movie stars, everybody says that I just have it all … but I can’t make you love me.”
While the song’s upbeat tempo (dance break included) and sugary bubblegum instrumentation may mask the vulnerability of the lyrics, the dangers of celebrity life are fully on display here: people begin to define you by your public persona rather than by your inner being.
And for Britney, this was just the beginning.
9. Breathe On Me
from In The Zone
One of the fundamental components of building up the brand that is Britney Spears is her raw sexuality. Whether it be a Rolling Stone photo shoot, a sultry music video or an eye-popping performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, Britney has never been one to shy away from the provocative. It’s safe to say that there have been just as many–if not more–headlines about Britney’s sexiness as there have been about her music.
But on her 2004 album, In The Zone, Britney stripped down the spectacle of her sexuality in favor of sensuality.
The primary example of this re-focus comes in the form of “Breathe On Me.” It’s nearly impossible to close one’s eyes and listen to the track without feeling teased by Britney’s deliciously suggestive invitations. Almost tantric, the song is about how the real drive behind good sex is not lust but passion.
“This is way beyond the physical,” Britney seductively coos. “Tonight, my senses don’t make sense at all. My imagination taking us to places we have never been before. Take me in, let it out, don’t even need to touch me, baby, just breathe on me.”
Do your pants feel tighter yet?
8. And Then We Kiss (Junkie XL Remix)
from B In The Mix: The Remixes, Vol. 1
Although the standard version of this song has still to see an official release, “And Then We Kiss” was first introduced to Britney fans in the form of the Junkie XL remix on the singer’s 2005 debut remix compilation, B In The Mix.
Two months prior to this song’s release, Britney celebrated her one-year anniversary with former husband Kevin Federline. She had also just given birth to the pair’s first child, Sean Preston. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the new music emerging from the singer was a declaration of love to this man who had so profoundly changed her life.
“And Then We Kiss” is a midtempo slice of sophisticated electropop that finds Britney needing to be fueled by her lover’s touch. It’s a sensual love letter that showcases how grounded she feels by the man in her life. Without him beside her, she feels lost and uncertain. His presence provides a sense of clarity that makes all the puzzle pieces fit. He focuses, excites and tantalizes her in ways that were foreign to her prior to knowing him.
Although Britney and Kevin’s relationship didn’t last (they finalized a divorce in the summer of 2007), “And Then We Kiss” will always serve as a reminder for the singer of the better days the couple had. It’s a gorgeous song about feeling completed by the love of another individual. And no matter what happened after, it’s worth remembering what that feels like.
7. Toy Soldier
It’s such an incredible shame that the dark days of Britney’s personal life overshadowed the musical genius of her critically acclaimed fifth album, Blackout. Originally released in October 2007, it was the only one of Britney’s seven studio albums that didn’t debut at #1 (although entering the charts at #2 isn’t too shabby either). Not surprisingly, however, it’s the album that keeps on giving.
Earlier this year, it was announced that the record had certified platinum status and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Music Library and Archives – the only Britney record to ever do so. These archives were created to serve as the “most comprehensive repository of materials relating to the history of rock and roll” and to highlight music that would “broaden awareness and understanding of rock and roll, its roots, and its impact on our society.” In other words, even industry experts and scholars admit that Blackout impacted the genre in unprecedented ways.
“Toy Soldier” is a prime example of Blackout’s brilliance. A stomping club banger with a heavy injection of attitude, the saucy track finds Britney raising the bar for her new potential lover. Tired of the weak and subpar men in her life, Britney’s next love interest needs to be a soldier: a strong, assertive guy with a fearless attitude and innate drive to protect and take care of her.
Vocally, Britney is extra peppy as the sprightly, fast-paced verses are accompanied by little yelps and carefully selected drawn out syllables. Set against a military drumroll, the song packs an extra punch as it displays Britney’s confidence and reveals a seldom seen playful side of her.
6. Before The Goodbye
from The Singles Collection (Deluxe Edition)
Originally intended as the lead single from Britney’s eponymous third album, “Before The Goodbye” was replaced prior to the LP’s release with “I’m A Slave 4 U” – and removed from the record’s tracklisting altogether (except as a bonus track in certain countries).
Musically, “Before The Goodbye” was way ahead of its time. Listening to it now, it’s interesting to note that the song shaped Britney’s sound today more than most of her chart-topping hits did. It has an intensely dark electronic feel that would later be fully explored on Blackout and would bleed into all her subsequent releases. Additionally, the quick whipped verses serve as a teaser to her exploration with hip-hop on future songs like her duet with Madonna, “Me Against The Music.”
While it’s a fantastic track, it’s no surprise that “Before The Goodbye” was scrapped in favor of “I’m A Slave 4 U.” At the time it would have been released, the song would have been far too dance-heavy to make an impact on mainstream radio. Going straight from sugary hits like “Oops! … I Did It Again” and “Lucky” to a thumping club anthem like “Before The Goodbye” would have been too abrupt a departure for Britney. While her third album was intended to herald in a new era for the singer, many of her fans, especially the youngest contingent, might have been alienated by such a departure from her original sound.
“I’m A Slave 4 U” was a much safer choice to go with. While it was certainly controversial, too, the song triumphed as a declaration of sexual liberation. It paved the path for an adult Britney while building off the foundation of her bubblegum roots. And although it did present a new and evolved sound for the pop star, it didn’t radically come from left field as “Before The Goodbye” would have.
Included as one of many b-sides and remixes on the deluxe edition of the 2009 compilation, The Singles Collection, “Before The Goodbye” is finally available for mass consumption. And it’s a career-shaping song that no true Britney fan should be without.
5. Inside Out
from Femme Fatale
With last year’s Femme Fatale, Britney introduced dubstep into mainstream pop. Following the success of smash single “Hold It Against Me,” it became standard practice for a pop song to include a dubstep breakdown as musicians like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Cheryl Cole all followed her lead.
But on the sultry ballad “Inside Out,” Britney proved that dubstep is not just an ingredient to bake dance floor anthems out of. Here, she utilized it as a tool to illustrate her insatiable need for one more memory to cling to before letting a relationship die.
In “Inside Out,” Britney knows she’s about to break up with her lover. But instead of trying to win him back, she makes herself look as desirable as possible to get one last thing out of him: sex.
“So come on, won’t you give me something to remember? Baby shut your mouth and turn me inside out,” she alluringly demands. Whatever else happened between them is irrelevant, as all she’s looking for at the moment is one last hoorah in the bedroom before they part ways entirely.
Britney thus seeks closure by detaching herself emotionally and immersing herself into one final physical act. It’s a rollercoaster for her that’s enhanced by the dramatic dubstep that continues to thrust its way to the song’s surface. Sexy, mature and self-aware, “Inside Out” is as unique as it is bold.
4. Born To Make You Happy (Bonus Remix)
from The Singles Collection (Deluxe Edition)
“Born To Make You Happy” was without a doubt one of the standout tracks on Britney’s debut album, …Baby One More Time. While it was in no way groundbreaking, its simple and cute puppy-love lyrics make it the best Taylor Swift song Taylor Swift never recorded.
On the bonus remix of the track, Britney re-recorded her original vocals to give the song a more acoustic feel. Reducing the original down to her bare vocals and organic instruments, this remix provides for a far more raw take on the song. It’s one of the few recordings where Britney’s vocals take center stage without any sort of enhancement (you even hear her clearing her throat). Listening to this version, it’s easy to picture Britney perched on a stool, holding a microphone and really committing herself to singing her heart out.
Recently re-released on the deluxe edition of The Singles Collection, the bonus remix of “Born To Make You Happy” is both a distinctive treat for Britney fans and a middle finger to those who have criticized her singing abilities over the years.
3. Unusual You
One of the saddest tracks in Britney’s repertoire, “Unusual You” reveals just how jaded the pop princess is when it comes to men. In the song, Britney sings about her confusion that a relationship is actually going well for her instead of falling apart at the seams.
“Baby, you’re so unusual, didn’t anyone tell you you’re supposed to break my heart? I expect you to, so why haven’t you?” she tenderly asks her lover. Talk about trust issues, geez.
Accompanied by a haunting electronic backdrop, this Bloodshy & Avant produced track (the team behind B’s massive hit, “Toxic”) is sprinkled with flurries of piano and a throbbing bassline. It’s a midtempo song with music as ethereal as its lyrical content is melancholy. And what makes it that much more depressing is that to Britney, it’s a happy song about realizing what the true meaning of love is. But to listeners, it’s a song about how psychologically damaged the singer is from the relationships of her past.
One listen in and the song will make you want to buy a plane ticket to Kentwood, Louisiana. After you land, you’ll want to pick up ice cream, drive to Britney’s house for a girls’ night and reassure her that it really does get better.
2. Heaven On Earth
There are surely many reasons that Rolling Stone called Blackout “the most influential pop album of the past five years” (the magazine’s “Decade-End Readers’ Poll” also voted the record to be #7 on the list of best albums between 2000-2010). But one of these reasons has to be the album’s unapologetic determination to explore and conquer territory usually written off as too niche for wide, mainstream audiences.
The Euro-disco fortified “Heaven On Earth” is one such example. The glitzy electronic track is masterfully layered with three individual vocal lines in a way reminiscent of Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love.” Throughout the song, Britney interjects the melody with stolen whispers and husky alto decoration, giving “Heaven On Earth” a distinctively multi-textured and celestial aura.
A deeply romantic song, “Heaven On Earth” is about how every detail about her lover provides Britney with a sense of shelter. She’s in love with everything about him. His imperfections become perfections and as long as he’s around, nothing else matters. With him, Britney ascends to otherworldly levels of bliss. It’s a sentimental track that finds our beloved pop star high off of the connection she has with another human being – a feeling she so earnestly yearns for in many other tracks within her back catalog.
1. What It’s Like To Be Me
Everyone remembers when Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake dated. How could you not? They were the golden couple of their time. But what fewer people remember is the incredible collaboration the two had on Britney’s third record.
Closing out the album, “What It’s Like To Be Me” is a punchy self-empowerment anthem. Full of sass and a “don’t fuck with me” attitude, the track is without a doubt one of the edgiest in Britney’s discography.
The song is also much rockier than a typical Britney track. Its dramatic use of strings and thrashing drums give the song sharper corners than most of her material. In turn, this sound also gives the track the courage to risk being a little more experimental.
During the song’s bridge, the music drops out and Britney sings acapella over Justin’s signature beatboxing. Layers of Justin’s background vocals are then looped in as Britney’s voice builds to welcome the explosive return of percussion. And as the song ends, it goes back into Britney and Justin’s acapella back-and-forth all the way through its chill-inducing finale.
Individually, these two artists were pivotal in defining the pop culture of their generation. But together, their work was catapulted to new heights. “What It’s Like To Be Me” not only showcased what Britney and Justin each do best, but it solidified that these two talents were unafraid to change the game and were destined to stay on top for a very long time.