Britney Spears is a singles artist. At least, that’s how she’s typically perceived—her biggest hits are so era-defining that they overshadow everything else in her sprawling catalog. “Toxic” is more than a song. It’s an encapsulation of an entire early ‘00s tween aesthetic: lip gloss, Bar Mitzvah parties, low-rise flared jeans. So many of her singles have been linked inextricably to moments in her public narrative, like the way “Everytime” is perceived as a response to Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” Then there are the songs that came after her 2007 breakdown—songs like “Hold It Against Me” and “Work Bitch,” which are often read as cold-hearted electronic reactions to her micro-managed guardianship, and can be perceived as the bookend to her 2001 single “Overprotected.” Spears’ albums often seem to be interpreted more as a series of indicators of her mental health and romantic life than as discrete musical expressions. Yet beyond the ubiquitous singles, her records overflow with remarkable deep cuts.
Everyone knows the title track from her debut …Baby One More Time, but when’s the last time you listened to “E-mail My Heart”? Buried at the end of the album, it could have been a karaoke classic, with a skyscraping sing-a-long hook—if you can’t picture yourself belting out, “E-mail my heart /And say our love will never die (and I)/I know you’re out there/And I know that you still care,” you have no soul. Then there’s “Deep In My Heart,” a bouncy 90’s house workout with serious Janet Jackson vibes. And of course, you can’t forget “Don’t Let Me Be The Last to Know,” off her 2000 sophomore record Oops!… I Did It Again. It’s not exactly unknown—it was given a video, after all, and was co-written by none other than Shania Twain—but since it lands only two songs before “Lucky,” one of the greatest pop songs of the decade, it’s often overlooked. A pillowy slow jam with a chorus so desperate it feels like a prayer, it would be a top five song in most stars’ careers.
The world-conquering singles from her 2011 record Femme Fatale—“Hold It Against Me” and “Till The World Ends”—obscure the massive tunes hiding further down the tracklist. “Criminal” is transcendent, with Spears’s world-weary confessions accentuated with golden Max Martin guitars. Then there’s “How I Roll.” No major pop star has released a song that sounds anything like this, before or since—the production dips and weaves, riding a bubbly loop built of strange pops, manipulated breaths, and tinny hand claps. It sounds like Aphex Twin. In the years since this song came out, forward-thinking electronic artists like PC Music have built entire careers on exploring the kind of otherworldly pop textures Spears is working with here. Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” is more or less a direct descendent. She was ahead of them all.Perhaps the most heartwarming Spears song you’ve never heard is her 2013 single “Chillin With You,” a duet with her sister, Jamie Lynn Spears. There’s nothing complicated here—it’s just guitar strums, EDM synths, and a simple trap beat—but there’s real feeling that seeps through the paint-by-numbers production. The song is ostensibly directed towards a paramour, but it’s clear the sisters are singing to each other—“When I’m witchu, I’m chillin, I’m chill,” they declare. A perfect, simple feeling.
Too often songs like these are eclipsed by the splashy story of Spears’ life and her meteoric hits. But listen through her back catalog and you’ll encounter a wild melange of emotions—love, fear, aggression, sadness, and relief—in the space of a few minutes. Artists like Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen have sparked online cottage industries based on ranking their albums over and over. Celebrity drama aside, Spears is one of the definitive artists of our time; her vast reservoir of material deserves the same attention.