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We recently noted the 30th anniversary of Madonna’s self-titled debut and, with over a year having passed since her most recent studio album “MDNA,” the time seems ripe to pause and take stock of her career so far. It seems odd given how many hits she’s had and how long she’s been around that she’s only had 12 regular studio albums, but that is indeed the case. Excluding compilations and soundtracks, here is an attempt to rank them from “worst” to first. Obviously this is an entirely subjective exercise, and you are welcome to share your own rankings in the comments section below.
Key Tracks: Girl Gone Wild, Turn up the Radio, Gang Bang, Masterpiece, I’m Addicted
Madonna’s 12th and most recent album was last year’s “MDNA,” and after a year to absorb the album it lands at the bottom. Not to say that it’s terrible – far from it. Madonna hasn’t released a truly bad album in her career. And there are some killer high points – “I’m Addicted” in particular, and should-have-been first single “Girl Gone Wild.” She unfortunately chose to lead off the project with one of the weaker tracks, the vapid sing-along “Give Me All Your Luvin’”. There is some decent material here, but you can’t help feeling that Madonna is following trends on this album rather than staking out an original path. The top songs, when you compare with the best work from her earlier albums, just aren’t up to par. A good album but not a particularly inspired effort, and when you are talking about one of the most important catalogs of pop music in the genre’s history, “good but not great” results in a slot at the bottom.
Key Tracks: Like a Virgin, Material Girl, Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, Angel
A mammoth commercial success, lead by two of the decade’s most iconic singles – “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” – Madonna’s 2nd album launched her into the stratosphere of superstardom. But as an album overall, it’s somewhat of a step down from her taut and funky debut. The singles are all great, but side two lags behind with substandard material like “Shoo-be-Doo,” “Stay” and “Pretender”, and her voice is still uncomfortably thin compared to later works. If only the superb soundtrack hits of the period – “Into the Groove,” “Crazy For You,” and “Gambler” – had been able to be included, this album would be several notches higher.
Key Tracks: 4 Minutes, Give It to Me, Incredible, Heartbeat, Miles Away
Gone are the days that Madonna is able to score multiple Top 40 pop hits from an album, and it’s a shame because “Hard Candy” is loaded with commercial tunes that should have been given more of a chance at radio. It was underrated a bit upon its release, and stands up surprisingly well now. The funky opening number “Candy Shop” should have been a big single, and tracks like “Heartbeat,” “Give It To Me” and “Incredible” sound remarkably fresh. An album that has been a bit overshadowed and forgotten in recent years, it deserves a fresh listen. Unfortunately lead single “4 Minutes” doesn’t really stand up to other lead-off singles throughout her career. The JT collaboration is good, but not classic Madonna.
Key Tracks: Everybody, Burning Up, Borderline, Holiday, Lucky Star
The classic debut album that launched her career, Madonna’s self-titled effort still sounds remarkably relevant 30 years later. “Holiday” was her first big hit, and it was quickly followed by Top 10 smashes “Borderline” and “Lucky Star.” It put her on the map and she never looked back. A tight, funky collection of dance/pop with a strong R&B/funk influence, “Madonna” is one of the best and most important debut albums of the 80s.
Key Tracks: Open Your Heart, Live To Tell, Papa Don’t Preach, True Blue, La Isla Bonita
“True Blue” was a huge leap forward creatively, and was also a commercial smash. Preceded by the beautiful soundtrack ballad “Live to Tell”, and packed with major hits like “Open Your Heart,” “La Isla Bonita” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” “True Blue” continued Madonna’s meteoric rise up the pop ladder. The high points are among the best of her career, but unfortunately she wasn’t able to maintain that level for an entire album, and there are a couple weak moments. Still, “True Blue” was a natural artistic and commercial progression that would lead to the strongest album of her career.
Key Tracks: Secret, Take a Bow, Human Nature, Bedtime Story
Madonna’s 1994 offering is an exquisitely polished collection of consistently strong pop/R&B songs. “Secret” and “Take a Bow” are two of the most perfect pop singles of the decade, and her adventurous tracks like “Human Nature” and “Bedtime Story” stretched the boundaries of popular music while still being accessible. The album is beautifully produced and glossy, and even non-singles like “Survival” and “Love Tried to Welcome Me” stand up very well today. Perhaps a bit on the mellow side, “Bedtime Stories” is nonetheless a very solid album that features some of her loveliest vocal performances.
Key Tracks: Music, Don’t Tell Me, What It Feels Like For A Girl, Impressive Instant
It’s been 13 long years since Madonna hit #1 on the Billboard Singles Charts, and she last did it with the classic title song from 2000’s “Music.” Largely produced by Mirwais Ahmadzai, “Music” has a distinct, stripped-down dance/pop vibe that sounded very fresh upon its release and it’s aged rather well. Oddly, only 3 singles were taken from the album, leaving potential hits like “Runaway Lover,” “Impressive Instant” and “Amazing” to languish as album tracks. It’s an exciting and daring record with a sense of experimentation while maintaining its overall pop appeal. There isn’t a lot of filler here – it’s a tight album from start to finish that is perhaps overshadowed a bit by “Ray of Light,” but stands on its own as Madonna’s contribution to the turn of the millennium.
Key Tracks: American Life, Hollywood, Love Profusion, Nothing Fails, Nobody Knows Me
There is zero question that Madonna’s 2003 album “American Life” is the most unjustly vilified and underrated of her career. Generally considered a flop, “American Life” is a smart and edgy collection of pop songs with an underground vibe that mainstream radio wasn’t ready for – but there are few truly weak moments, and it’s an album that hopefully will be re-evaluated over time. Bond theme “Die Another Day” preceded the album and fit into the sound of it very nicely. First single “American Life” was controversial and may have doomed the album’s commercial success – second single “Hollywood” barely made a dent on the charts. It’s a shame that she didn’t release the epic and beautiful “Nothing Fails” as the lead-off single – it may have served the project better. “Nobody Knows Me” is a killer tune, and “Love Profusion” should have been a massive hit. If there is one Madonna album that deserves a fresh re-listen with an open mind and open ears, it’s “American Life.”
Key Tracks: Hung Up, Sorry, Jump, Get Together, Forbidden Love
In the wake of the lackluster critical and commercial response to “American Life,” Madonna returned to a straightforward dance approach on her next album, and it proved to be a shrewd move. “Confessions” was her biggest album in years, and was well-received by critics as well as fans. “Hung Up,” with its clever use of an old keyboard riff from ABBA as its main hook, was a major comeback hit, and the album loaded up the dance charts with multiple mixes of singles “Sorry,” “Jump” and “Get Together”. Largely produced by Stuart Price, “Confessions” was a world–wide smash and put any doubts that may have existed about Madonna’s continued commercial viability to rest. A slick dance album with irresistibly catchy melodies, “Confessions” is overflowing with energy, and is an invitation to dance that proved impossible to ignore.
Key Tracks: Frozen, Ray of Light, The Power of Goodbye, Nothing Really Matters, Skin
Working with William Orbit among several other producers, Madonna’s 1998 album “Ray of Light” is a triumph. First single “Frozen” is a sumptuous, gorgeous electronic ballad with one of the most striking videos of her career, and the title track and second single is a kinetic dance-floor classic. There is a strong sense of experimentation on “Ray of Light” and the results are sometimes startling. There isn’t a lot of obviously commercial material here, so the hits weren’t as plentiful as on some of her other albums, but the record stands together as a remarkably coherent piece that captures Madonna at her most daring and creative.
Key Tracks: Erotica, Fever, Deeper and Deeper, Rain, Bad Girl
Underground, edgy, overflowing with sexual energy – “Erotica” was a bold move for a major pop star. There was little left to the imagination in the overt sexuality of the title track and in songs like “Where Life Begins”. Stylistically it’s a cunning mix of early 90s dance/hip-hop with retro disco flavor on tracks like “Deeper and Deeper” and her cover of “Fever.” It’s a party album for late nights, dark rooms, and the uninhibited. But it’s not all dance – there are also some beautiful ballads, such as “Rain” and “In This Life”. “Erotica” is a stellar achievement and an all-time classic album. A shame sonic soul-mates “Justify My Love” and “Rescue Me” were used in her hits album “The Immaculate Collection” and not saved for this record – they would have fit perfectly and added to its overall appeal.
Key Tracks: Like a Prayer, Express Yourself, Cherish, Oh Father, Keep It Together
The one-two punch of “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” as the first two singles from Madonna’s 1989 masterpiece “Like a Prayer” are unmatched by all but a few artists of the 80s – perhaps MJ’s back to back classics “Billie Jean” and “Beat It”, or Prince & The Revolution when they unleashed “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” as the first 2 singles from “Purple Rain” – but not many others can come close. The title song was a huge, sweeping pop epic – euphoric and emotional, but also supremely catchy and danceable. One of the great singles of the pop era. And if that wasn’t enough, to follow it with “Express Yourself”, a dance/pop anthem of independence and individuality that remains one of Madonna’s signature songs… incredible. The rest of the album is extraordinary throughout. From the breezy pop of “Dear Jessie” and “Cherish”, the poignant and personal ballads (“Promise to Try” and “Oh Father”), the harrowing tale of domestic abuse (“Til Death Do Us Part”), straightforward dance pop (“Keep it Together”) – – – there just isn’t a weak track on the album. From start to finish a classic, “Like a Prayer” remains Madonna’s crowning achievement, an essential album from an artist who’s made a career out of delivering one classic tune after another.
Critics say that Madonna doesn’t have the strongest voice, or that she isn’t original, or that she goes from producer to producer chasing the sound of the moment… but even her critics are forced to acknowledge that nobody else (with the possible exception of Prince), over a span of 30 years, has come close to negotiating the ins and out and twists and turns of the fickle music industry with as much panache and daring as Madonna. Always willing to change, never content to rest on her laurels and her past success, Madonna always looks forward, and always seems to know just what stylistic direction to take. Some experiments work better than others, but that’s always the case if you’re an artist with a body of work as extensive as Madonna’s. All 12 of these albums are worthy, and all are worth picking up – and they don’t even tell the whole story. Missing are classic soundtrack singles like “Vogue”, “I’ll Remember,” “Beautiful Stranger” and “This Used to Be My Playground.” And how about “Justify My Love” and “Rescue Me”, tracks exclusive to her first hits collection? Her 12 proper studio albums don’t give the entire picture, but they do provide what is essentially a history of dance/pop music over the last 30 years. Even now, 3 decades after first emerging on the Billboard Charts, even with a few albums under her belt that have failed to set the world on fire, there is a reason why each new Madonna album is an event. As the Robbie Williams songsays: “She’s Madonna”. The one and only. And we’ll all be waiting to see what she does next, and where the next project might stack up against her past triumphs.