Set aside, at least for a moment, the knowingly outrageous outfits, the frequent tongue unfurling and anything involving the word "twerk." On a purely artistic level, Miley Cyrus is currently living out the dream of any singer-songwriter who has felt pigeonholed by either an unshakeable past representation of self or perceived radio trends. Over the past six months, Cyrus has torched her "Hannah Montana" persona and reinvented herself as a rap-loving, profanity-embracing pop cypher, as she promised she would; she has dismissed her last Hollywood Records effort, 2010's "Can't Be Tamed," as an irrelevant relic from another life, and been able to present an uncompromising vision of her music and its surrounding madness without hesitation. And she has, by all metrics, succeeded more wildly than even she probably could have ever imagined, without buckling to anything aside from her own instincts. Most musical artists would kill to have that kind of freedom and be so universally noticed because of it. Pop purveyors have expressed extremely diverse reactions to Cyrus' recent music and antics, but in a season in which Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake are all releasing new albums, "Bangerz" is the album everyone is craning their necks toward, because Cyrus is the artist everyone is talking about.
"Bangerz," Cyrus' fourth studio album and RCA Records debut, is, for better and worse, the sound of a singer following a pair of enormous singles with a full-length completely from the perspective that birthed those two hits. In other words, the album finds Cyrus working with who she wants to work with, singing about what she wants to sing about, as if she's a kid in an arcade with a pocket of limitless quarters. Sometimes, the 20-year-old's vision needs to be adjusted, as on the manic French Montana collaboration "FU" and on "Someone Else," which feels like the album's hundredth dramatic breakup song and plays for nearly five minutes. But more often than not, Cyrus' daring attitude guides her to invention: "4x4," a country-tinged mash-up with Nelly, sounds awful in concept but is executed efficiently; "Do My Thang" could have been a sneering declaration of independence but invites the listener to share Cyrus' youthful glee. "We Can't Stop" still knocks, but "Wrecking Ball" actually hints at where Cyrus' career may take her next, since the vocalist expertly handles the mid-tempo ballad without a whiff of gimmickry. Could Cyrus fashion a long musical run based on these big-hearted roof-rattlers? Probably, yes.
"Every time I do something, I want to remember, 'This is what separates me from everyone else,'" Cyrus says in the upcoming MTV documentary "Miley Cyrus: The Movement." "Bangerz" is neither the best nor worst pop album released this year, but it's inarguably the most fiercely individual. Never mind the "z" at the end of the album title, because one thing Miley Cyrus' "Bangerz" won't do is put you to sleep.
Which tracks on "Bangerz" are absolute stand-outs? Check out our track-by-track breakdown of Miley Cyrus' new opus.
1. Adore You - "I just started living," Cyrus sings over canned drums and string whispers. "Bangerz" wisely begins with a song that is emotionally mature but not overly provocative -- instead of immediately wagging her tongue at listeners, the singer proves that her passion can reside in short, vulnerable proclamations of romance.
2. We Can't Stop
Oh, you've heard this one already? "We Can't Stop" remains one of the more undeniable pop songs of 2013, with meme-able lyrics, delightfully zonked-out production from Mike WiLL Made-It and without a doubt the best intro of any summer smash.
3. SMS (Bangerz) feat. Britney Spears - Miley has described Britney Spears as an idol, and here, she emulates the pop queen's penchant for cheeky, "It's Britney bitch" button-pushing (sample line: "They ask me how I keep a man?/I keep a battery pack!") while shoving Spears to the second verse. "SMS (Bangerz)" is admittedly sloppy and rife with gimmicks… but that won't prevent anyone from at least scoping out a Britney/Miley duet on the LP, if only for the sake of curiosity.
4. 4x4 feat. Nelly - Nelly has not been shy about collaborating with Nashville stars, and while Miley Cyrus is by no means a country artists, she might as well be on "4x4," a rhythmic hoedown about a "female rebel" trying to get her main squeeze some bail money. The deceptively simple arrangement grows on the listener after repeated listens; kudos to Cyrus, Nelly and co-writer Pharrell Williams for seeing this oddball concept through.
5. My Darlin' feat. Future - Those wondering why Ben E. King is listed as a co-writer on "My Darlin'" will have their answer as soon as Future and Cyrus croak a few bars of "Stand By Me" over a lilting Mike WiLL beat. Whereas Future's gonzo approach to R&B abetted Rihanna's "Loveeeeeee Song" last fall, he actually distracts from a pretty solid Cyrus performance here, and "My Darlin'" ends up getting swallowed by a sea of blinking synths and unthawed crooning.
6. Wrecking Ball
The power and purpose of "Wrecking Ball," Cyrus' first No. 1 single on the Hot 100 chart, is amplified after a handful of good-but-not-great love songs on "Bangerz." Although "Adore You" and "My Darlin'" showcased a young singer trying to mesh her revamped style with time-honored romantic tropes, "Wrecking Ball" is a blunt, bruising breakup song she immediately understands how to handle.
7. Love Money Party feat. Big Sean - Cyrus pounds on the ground and begs Mike WiLL Made It to concoct a grimy, haunted-house beat to match up her fired-up manifesto. Unlike Mike WiLL's own single "23," in which Cyrus awkwardly spat bars to keep up with the bullet-time rhymes of Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J, the singer sounds more at ease next to Big Sean's start-stop punchlines on this bleary-eyed banger.
8. Get It Right - In 2012, way before his "Blurred Lines"/"Get Lucky" resurgence, Pharrell Williams added two mid-track list standouts to a pair of high-profile pop albums, Usher's "Looking 4 Myself" ("Twisted") and Adam Lambert's "Trespassing" ("Kickin' In"). The producer does the exact same thing on "Bangerz" with "Get It Right," a stylish breeze defined by whistling -- yes, whistling -- and a chopped guitar lick. Cyrus sounds absolutely in love with the vibe here, as she should.
9. Drive - Mike WiLL's murky energy slams head-on into Cyrus' shock over a betrayal, with mixed results. The production zig-zags impressively, and while Cyrus delivers another compelling performance, one wishes that the metaphor-laden hook contained the same impact as the dazzling "Wrecking Ball."
10. FU feat. French Montana - Whoa, when did Miley Cyrus transform into Lady Gaga? This campy piano flare-up is the lone howler on "Bangerz," with lyrics ("Then I accidentally saw a few things in your cell/I even LOL'd, man I should've known") that will cause plenty of SMH-ing. French Montana's brief appearance on the track is just as inexplicable as the song itself.
11. Do My Thang - Cleanse your palate of the flat-footed "FU" with the official anthem of "Bangerz," musically and lyrically. "Do My Thang" finds Cyrus doing just that, tossing out lines that grow more absurd by the second as the gooey synthesizers and snapping percussion combine for a lovably ratchet cocoon. It's takes guts to present words like "Bang bitch, you think I'm strange, bitch?/It's bananas like a fucking 'rangutan, bitch" with a straight face, but Cyrus' fearlessness was never in doubt on the album.
12. Maybe You're Right - Walloping drums and guided by a far-off chorus of "whoa-oh-oh's" as Cyrus relates her predictably deteriorating romance to the chapters of a book she knows all too well. With hints of gospel influence, "Maybe You're Right" can be interpreted as an autobiographical glimpse inside Cyrus' dynamic with her ex-fiancee; after admitting, "You might think I'm crazy… Maybe you're right," the singer strides forward and unapologetically belts, "This chapter's done."
13. Someone Else - It's fitting that Cyrus' last declaration (on the standard edition of the album, at least) of her new self and dismissal of past baggage comes alongside a Mike WiLL Made It beat that finds the hip-hop maestro spilling over into shimmering synth-pop. "Someone Else" does not completely resonate, especially at its running time, but it makes for a fascinating listen nonetheless -- much like "Bangerz" in its entirety.