Nice Hits! is a Reverb column that unironically dissects, reviews, and appreciates the best songs of the current Top 40. It is unsnobbishly premised on

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Nice Hits!: Britney Spears' Down-Tempo "Criminal" Is Her Own "Papa Don't Preach"

Nice Hits! is a Reverb column that unironically dissects, reviews, and appreciates the best songs of the current Top 40. It is unsnobbishly premised on the logic that just because a lot of the music on the radio is crap doesn't mean all the music on the radio is crap.

The hit: "Criminal," Britney Spears (off Femme Fatale).

Current chart position: #68 on iTunes, as yet uncharted on Billboard (although the above Chris Marrs Piliero-directed, Bonnie and Clyde-themed video just hit the web two days ago, so that should change fast).

The team: Those familiar with Spears' biggest hits, starting with "...Baby One More Time," won't be surprised at the mastermind behind "Criminal"--Britney's main man, Swedish pop scion Max Martin. By my count, Martin's penned 24 songs for Spears, including "Baby," "Overprotected," "3," "Oops! I Did It Again," "Stronger," and all three of Femme Fatale's previous singles, "Hold It Against Me," "Till the World Ends," and "I Wanna Go." Martin shares co-writing credits on "Criminal" with fellow Swede Shellback, the man behind the current Maroon 5 smash "Moves Like Jagger," and Tiffany Amber, who previously worked with Martin on "3."

Breakdown: After a string of breathlessly upbeat singles, it's nice to hear Britney change gears and release something more down-tempo. "Criminal" is different from her past slow jams, too--it's not sappy like "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman," and it's not teary-sad like "Everytime;" it has a spark and a mischievous sass to it--and these days anytime Britney shows even just a bit of her old liveliness and independence, we like it. "Criminal"'s "Mama, please don't cry/I will be all right" is the maternal counterpart to Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach." It's also the one song on the beat-heavy Femme Fatale that takes a breather from aggressive, wall-to-wall synths, driven instead by a steady guitar rhythm and an oddly Asian folky-sounding flute melody. The final component that makes "Criminal" so refreshing? It's the song on Femme Fatale where Britney's voice sounds the least processed. Some of Britney's past songs have suffered from being written out of her natural vocal range, failing to take advantage of her solid alto--which hasn't mattered, with all the vocal effects to cover it up. As fantastic as the club-ready dance songs on the album sound, "Criminal" takes a simpler tack--a smooth melody, with most of the weight on a memorable voice to carry the tune along. It's Britney's best vocal performance on the album.

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