In the glorious dawning days of Napster, one of the first songs I ever illegally downloaded was “I Should Be So Lucky” by Kylie Minogue. Mind you, this was before “Can’t Get You out of My Head” summoned both the teenyboppers and the hipsters to the dance floor, this was the period when Kylie Minogue was a one-hit wonder, a disposable soap opera actress turned dance-pop monger. “I Should Be So Lucky”, an almost frightfully perky tale of Romantic frustration, contains practically every ’80s dance music cliché: from the numerous orchestra hits to the uncomfortably thin sounding drum machine. Despite these egregious sins, courtesy of in-retrospect-regrettable-hits making machine Stock, Aitken, & Waterman, something about Kylie’s innocent yet forceful vocals and the sheer catchiness of the song itself rose above its long dated components, and I was hooked. So the song became a beloved secret, and I never bothered to try to tune my friends in on “I Could Be So Lucky”, or, crazier yet, proclaim that this “has-been” would be a critical and commercial darling in a few years time.
The Ultimate Kylie is a two-disc summary evenly split between two distinct periods in Kylie’s career. The first part features Kylie Minogue acting as Stock, Aitken, & Waterman’s puppet, and features her struggling in finding great pop songs buried in dated production techniques, and shining despite being paired up with unsuitable cover material (“Tears on My Pillow”) or justifiably forgotten performers (such as her former Neighbours co-star Jason Donovan on “Especially for You”). The second disc encapsulates her true solo career, showing her flirt with practically every style of dance music of the last two decades without ever sounding out of place. Kylie, who has reached one-name only status in Europe, is not a great singer, she wouldn’t even give Madonna a run for the money, but she has a trait that allows her to adapt to any possible musical shift that is remarkable for any performer, let alone one for a soap opera actress who never expected to be in the music industry.
The first disc, although clearly the lesser half of the album artistically, is, never-the-less, a fascinating collection that shows Kylie rising above the ghetto of ’80s dance-pop idols. Whereas artists such as David Bowie and Madonna are known for shifting their musical personality to reflect their changing personalities or changing musical landscapes, Kylie never even evolved a musical personality. She is something of a cipher, a Zelig figure who services her musical surroundings rather than having the music support her persona. This is what makes the first disc of The Ultimate Kylie surprisingly great. They are something of a punchline now, heck they were even at the time, but Stock, Aitken, & Waterman could write a decent song every now again to go along with their massive hooks, and, from the sound of it, they gave Kylie some of their best material knowing that she would devote all of her energy towards the songs themselves. There are pure pop moments, such as “I Should Be So Lucky” and the gorgeous “Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi”, almost soulful rave-ups such as “Better the Devil You Know”, and even a little funk on tracks like “Shocked”. I suppose many would scoff at the decidedly dated material, but the first disc is a collection of just about everything that was good about ’80s dance-pop with only hints about what makes that genre unbearable today. Even “The Loco-Motion” is not as bad as people imagine.
Plus, the first disc hints at the “Kylie unleashed” that dominates the second disc. Opening with a new track, the retro-futuristic “I Believe in You”, co-written with Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters (she is a gay icon, don’t you know), the second disc explores the nuances of modern dance music. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “Love at First Sight” are two of the best songs of the last five years, they both provide a perfect synthesis of Kylie’s pop princess appeal and her admirable exploration of experimental electronic music. The bare-bones rhythms of “Can’t Get You out of My Head” may be dulled through overexposure, but it still manages to hypnotize as Kylie’s vocals evolve from fembot coldness to ethereal beauty. “Love at First Sight” might even be better, a poppier, and even stranger song. Kylie had the audacity to basically rewrite Daft Punk’s immortal “Digital Love” and somehow may have even made it even more perfect than it already was. These songs are super-dense sound collages full of tiny strange little details that reward headphone listening (check out the subliminal bongos on the chorus to “Love at First Sight”) while encouraging, perhaps demanding, dancing.
Although nothing else on the album reaches the heights of these two songs, maybe nothing could, the music remains complex and fascinating throughout. Perhaps fed-up with the relatively formulaic Stock, Aitken, & Waterman sound, her later material finds her exploring any genre or style that she found interesting, mixing styles with reckless abandon. The second disc pays no heed to chronological order, but this would not help the material which would be scattershot and baffling regardless. Kylie does not evolve, really, she just seems to skip from style to style following her own whims. One of the more recent songs, “Slow”, is a tempo-changing, brain-warping example of what happens when Intelligent Dance Music meets actual Dance Music. It of course is followed by “On a Night Like This”, a track that is meant to go right to number one on the Billboard Club Tracks list and while being completely ignored by the general public.
This is both Kylie’s blessing and curse: She can be anything, which sort of makes her nothing. Luckily, whenever the songs are right, Kylie hits the right notes to make standard dance-floor jams into entrancing pop songs. It doesn’t matter if she dueting with vapid pop mannequins (the collection-nadir “Kids” with Robbie Williams) or with one of the more morbid singer-songwriters alive (the out-of-place, but still chilling, “Where the Wild Roses Grow” with Nick Cave), Kylie will stand out. In doesn’t matter if Kylie is trying to be Bjork (“Confide in Me”), or a singer-songwriter with trip-hop beats (“Put Yourself in My Place”), Kylie will come off as believable. Nearly all of the tracks work, which results in a surprisingly varied collection of great dance music.
It hardly matters that Kylie Minogue is not a great performer or that her music is close to faceless. What matters is that she has had enough great dance songs over her long career to make all but Madonna envious. Ultimate Kylie, which seems condensed even at its double-disc length, is one of the best collections of dance music available, even while including her ’80s pop hits. It is enough to get her MP3s permanently out of my “guilty pleasures” bin.