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Of course Madonna doesn't entirely comply with the new smash mentality. Years ago, when hits were quadrupling their place in the pop-cult scheme of things, she was the primary architect of the heat. Working with producer William Orbit, a genius himself whose arty past hardly blinded Madonna to his hit-making capabilities, she is on Totally Hits 2 with "Beautiful Stranger," her and Orbit's new old-'60s chill bump from the second Austin Powers movie soundtrack. This track includes a lot—deliberate woodwind bridges, wild guitar riffs, frilly keyboards, no-nonsense dance beats on top of chiming 12-strings—but Madonna, clever as she is, keeps all moves inside a retro-'60s sleeve. It's a great record that doubles as a hairdo.


Totally Hits 2
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Only people emotionally locked into certain historic moments—prom dates, backseat encounters, football victories, jean styles—seriously maintain that the hits of one pop era dwarf in actual quality those of another. In my own case, I prefer hearing a great new hit to a great old one. When Deborah Cox, whose brilliant "Nobody's Supposed to Be Here" is the artistic highlight of the first Totally Hits, reroutes gospel into the land of hard-rocking house, that's by definition freshness of a sort with which no old hit can precisely compete. The point is that, right now—as the pop charts retreat from eccentricity as a result of impatient corporate bosses, mushrooming of viable markets, and the literal-minded ears of radio programmers—hits again have to figure out how to seem free without pursuing several directions. As artists from Cher to Eminem still playfully prove, you can turn a straitjacket into a party.

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