By Leah Greenblatt
Updated March 04, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

How does American Idol royalty abdicate the pop throne? Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson did so pretty handily with My December, the bleak follow-up to her 2004 chart monster Breakaway. That much-maligned ?07 release was her rebel yell — a dark, jagged collection that limped toward its single-platinum (oh, hot, burning shame!) status, reportedly alienated her record label, and failed to yield a significant pop hit.

Cut to 2009, and the irresistibly anthemic (if discomfitingly titled) single ”My Life Would Suck Without You”: Does her No. 1 Hot 100 hit mean our queen is back? In a word, yes. But in a few more words, it’s not quite that simple. The introspection Clarkson favored so heavily on December is still there; now, though, she has perspective: On the piano-riddled rocker ”Impossible,” she admits, ”I will stumble and I’ll make my own mistakes, yeah/But I won’t worry ’bout it anymore.”

Instead, she just tries it all, co-writing six of All I Ever Wanted‘s 14 tracks — and stumbles only rarely. There are feisty independent-woman anthems (”I Do Not Hook Up,” co-written by Katy Perry and Kara DioGuardi, and the ”Since U Been Gone”-style kiss-off ”Don’t Let Me Stop You”) and soaring, impeccably constructed power ballads (”Already Gone,” ”Save You”). Would our life suck without the handful of throwaway tracks strewn throughout? Hardly. But whatever personal winter Clarkson had to go through these last two years, it’s good to have her back. B+

Download This: Listen to the song ”I Do Not Hook Up” on

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