Friday, March 13, 2015


Madonna's an album-artist. She does not release an album with one or two good singles and the rest are throw-aways (cough cough -- Rihanna -- cough cough), she has always put thought and effort into making an entire album to communicate a statement of her art. This is my personal ranking of all of her albums released prior to Rebel Heart (come on!! Rebel Heart was JUST released this week. I can't rank it yet!!), including I'm Breathless, which some consider a soundtrack even though IT'S FUCKING NOT!! It's okay. I'm calm. This ranking is based on successful singles, album tracks and longevity/level of enjoyment received by each album as a whole, so some of the later albums don't quite get a fair shake because they haven't been around as long. This is for now, March 12, 2015: My ranking of Madonna's albums from Madonna to MDNA. Enjoy.

13. Hard Candy (2008) Don't get me wrong, Hard Candy has some great songs. One of these albums had to be last on the list, and Hard Candy is taking that place because it doesn't seem like a Madonna album. While her name is all over the writing credits, the production is pretty heavy-handed by Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. The best tracks on the album are definitely by Pharrell, like the breezy The Beat Goes On, the joyful Heartbeat and the inexplicably-relegated-to-bonus-track Ring My Bell.  While Candy Shop and Dance Tonight are successful collabs with Timbaland and Timberlake, some of the other material, like Voices or Devil Wouldn't Recognize You, seem to lose Madonna in the mix. That the LAST thing one wants from a Madonna album. Also Spanish Lesson is pretty unforgivable. I mean..... But, ending on a very positive note, Miles Away is a heartbreaking precursor to her soon-divorce from Guy Richie and takes on a much more emotional tone when listening to it now. The list goes on...
12. MDNA (2012) Madonna's hype machine was gearing us up for another Ray of Light by her re-pairing with William Orbit and promising some introspective songs. While MDNA is a good album, Ray of Light it is not. Sure, there are signs of the electronic loveliness the pair made, like on the beautiful Falling Free or the Beautiful Stranger-esque I'm A Sinner, but the real meat of the album is some of Madonna's most exciting music since Confessions. I'm Addicted is right up there with some of the Queen's best dance songs of all time and Girl Gone Wild shows that Madonna is not slowing down, especially with its athletic, boy-candy video, her sexiest since Vogue. Turn Up the Radio, which should have been the first single instead of Give Me All Your Luvin, is a return to the girlish sound of Causing A Commotion and Into the Groove. One of the best tracks is I Don't Give A... with a killer verse by Nicki Minaj and some bad-ass lyrics about the hardest working woman in music. MDNA also made it clear, after the confusion on Hard Candy, that Madonna was back in the driver's seat and calling the shots when it came to her sound.
11. American Life (2003) Not since Erotica has a Madonna album received so much backlash, and for what? People perceived the album to be overtly political and, being released just post-9/11, much of American Life was taken out of context. Of course, it didn't make it easy when the video for the title track featured a fashion show of partially amputated war veterans and supermodels strutting a runway and a GWB look-alike lighting a cigarette with a grenade, but the song itself is actually just about fame and power. Aside from the hype, the album is really one of Madge's most laid back, almost folksy efforts. Had the album been lead by the awe-inspiring ballad Nothing Fails, this conversation about her being "un-American" might not have ever happened. That song alone is the finest example of the power of Madonna's songwriting. "I'm not religious, but I feel so moved it makes me want to pray". The album was received MUCH better oversees, with most singles going top 10 and in some cases #1, like Love Profusion and Nothing Fails. Lack of promotion and the fact that second single, Hollywood, failed to crack the Hot 100 (a first for Madonna) didn't help its chances in America. Still, I think hindsight shows that American Life is a well-written, passionate, personal album that stands the test of time musically.
10. Ray of Light (1998) History shows that Ray of Light changed Madonna personally, revitalized her career and took music in a new direction. The introduction of electronic music into pop can be traced directly to Madonna and William Orbit's collaboration on this album. Kicking off with Drowned World/Substitute for Love, it was obvious that Madonna was spiritually, musically and vocally a new woman. Singles Frozen and Ray of Light are two of her most loved hits of all time and the album is packed with passionate songs, full of bleeps and blurbs provided by Orbit. Nothing Really Matters and The Power of Goodbye both deserve a lot more attention and praise than they have been given, and try a better dance party punch than Swim and Skin. Also is Little Star the first electro-lullaby? I think so, and it's gorgeous. Ray of Light was a game changer.
09. Music (2000) Music continued on the path set by electronic-pop Ray of Light, but started off with one of the most playful, joyful songs Madonna had released since the 80s, the title track. Music, the single, became a phenomenon and topped the charts for four weeks in late 2000. Experimenting even further with EDM, the albums features one of Madonna's most ambitious and urgent tracks with Impressive Instant. Jittery, manic and brilliant, the tune was Madonna's pick for a single after the amazing Don't Tell Me and the sensual What It Feels Like For A Girl. When the record company refused, Madonna did not promote the album any further and refused to do a video if they released Amazing as a single. Still, Music is a wonderful collection of experimental songs that are unlike any other Madonna tunes. The electronic ballads like Nobody's Perfect, Paradise (Not For Me), Gone and I Deserve It are among her most powerful. The album hit #1 in 23 countries upon its release.
08. Bedtime Stories (1994) Following the uproar and (unreasonable) backlash of her masterpiece Erotica, Madonna took a much softer, more R&B turn on her follow up, '94's Bedtime Stories....with the exception of one standout track. Human Nature skewered her critics and answered their jibes with pronouncements of "I'm not sorry" and "Oops. I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex" to a hard, New Jack Swing beat that put most mid-90s R&B to shame. The rest of the album was soulful and, in some cases, very personal. Lead single Secret is smooth and sexy while songs like Inside of Me and Love Tried To Welcome Me showed a soft, vulnerable side of Madonna. The funk of I'd Rather Be Your Lover is offset with the fist inkling of what was to come with Ray of Light on the electronic Sanctuary and the Bj√∂rk-penned Bedtime Story. Of course, the biggest hit off the album and the biggest ballad of Madonna's career was the sweeping Take A Bow, which stayed at #1 on the Hot 100 for 7 weeks in the Winter/Spring of 1995.
07. Madonna (1983) Without a doubt one of the most exciting debut albums by an artist of her generation. Madonna had a strong handle on her career from the get-go and it shows on her first full length effort. Her self-penned Lucky Star is as funky and addictive as anything on the radio at the time and Borderline was a genre-jumping pop hit. Holiday pretty much single-handedly brought dance music to the masses after disco had supposedly died. The entire album plays as a long, continuous dance party from Burning Up to Physical Attraction to Everybody and we've never stopped moving to it. Sure it sounds a little light in places compared to her future work, but there is a strong sense of self, even on this first record by an aspiring pop star. All women in the business were put on notice: Madonna is here.
06. I'm Breathless (1990) Though considered by most to be a soundtrack, I'm Breathless only features three songs from the film Dick Tracy and there was an ACTUAL soundtrack produced for that film that Madonna's songs were not on. So fuck those people!! Madonna took the three songs penned for her by Stephen Sondheim and expertly crafted, with the help of frequent collaborator Patrick Leonard (among others) some of her most stylized and fun songs of her career. Taking inspiration from jazz and cabaret, Madonna made a sexy novelty hit out of Hanky Panky (taking it to #10 on the Hot 100) and, of course, wrote one of, if not THE, most enduring and timeless dance songs of all time with Shep Pettibone, Vogue, which, FYI, was originally intended as a B-side for her Like A Prayer song Keep It Together until her record company asked her to develop it more. The rest is dance history, girl. Her lovely handling of the Sondheim pieces, Sooner or Later, What Can You Lose and More, highlight an artist who could deliver serious material and with emotional depth, shown in her Oscar performance that year when Sooner or Later took home the statue. I'm Breathless is an impressive pet project that ended up being a big worldwide hit, selling over 7 million copies.
05. Like A Virgin (1984) Madonna's first #1 album and the start of Madonna-mania. MTV pretty much had taken over America and the "M" might as well have stood for Madonna. With the perfect fourgy of singles in Like A Virgin, Material Girl, Angel and Dress You Up, LAV changed the sound and look of music, especially for women in pop, forever. Madonna enlisted Nile Rodgers to produce her second album, which resulted in a more full, slick, soulful and mature sound than her girlish debut. She even rocked her first cover with Love Don't Live Here Anymore.  Like A Virgin and it's singles established the star that Madonna was soon to become, the icon of our generation.
04. Confessions On A Dance Floor (2005) After the disappointing sales of American Life Madonna regrouped and changed direction to a full-on, dance floor burner......sort of. Yes, the music on Confessions On A Dance Floor was undeniably set in the disco, but the lyrics were just as personal and, sometimes, dark as they were on American Life. Songs like Jump, How High, Isaac and Forbidden Love were all deep, lyrically personal songs. Of course Madonna gave us some fun-loving gems like Hung Up and the immaculate Get Together as well so we could dance with abandon. Confessions hit #1 in 40 countries upon it's releasing, securing a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, and it's supporting tour (my fave) placed Madonna back in the good graces of the huddled masses. Confessions On A Dance Floor is a standout of her '00s output.
03. Like A Prayer (1989) As pure and perfect as True Blue was, Like A Prayer drawfed it in terms of scope. The album delved into what was underneath the star to divulge some of her most personal work to date. Opening with possibly the greatest one-two punch in pop history with Like A Prayer and Express Yourself, LAP came out swinging and didn't let up. Does it get better than that? She dealt with divorce (Til Death Do Us Part), abuse (Oh Father), family (Keep It Together), the death of her mother (Promise to Try), love (Cherish) and loss (Spanish Eyes) all in the context of 10 songs and established herself as a true artist. As Rolling Stone so aptly put it, Like A Prayer is "as close to art as pop music gets."
02. True Blue (1986) Coming off of the huge success and first #1 album of her career (Like A Virgin) Madonna had a lot to prove. Instead of repeating herself, for the first of many times, Madonna reinvented. She cut off the crazy hair, tightened her body and put together an absolute arsenal of hits. True Blue stands as one of her most commercially successful albums of all time, selling over 25 million worldwide, boasting three #1 songs with Live To Tell, Papa Don't Preach and Open Your Heart, and placing the remaining singles -- True Blue, La Isla Bonita -- in the top 5. It was a step in a more serious, mature direction for Madonna and this is the album that truly made her a superstar. There was no doubt after True Blue that Madonna was an icon.
01. Erotica (1992) A masterpiece of cold sexuality. Madonna released Erotica in response to the press being obsessed with her sex life, so she released the album, the SEX book and Body of Evidence to lay all of this to rest. Here is all of her, presented as the fantasy YOU have created. Erotica, on top of it's aggressive sexual nature, was also a stunning mix of dance floor gems, longingly beautiful ballads and introspective musical essays. Bad Girl and Rain are the best ballads of her career and Deeper and Deeper, Thief of Hearts and Bye, Bye Baby, among others, are a tour de force of pop perfection. Her cover of Fever is electric and coldy-sexual,  while Why's It So Hard and In This Life show depth and despair pouring out of Madonna. Even the lesser know tracks like the funky Waiting, the speed-of-light Words and the ode to oral sex Where All Life Begins are truly stunning, sometimes shocking, works of art. There is not a single song on this album that doesn't deliver. This album only seems to get better with time and, with the current resurgence of 90s house (including Madonna's own Rebel Heart) Erotica stands as the perfect example of an artist at the top of her game.

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