Music

Rating Madonna

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Tue 30 May, 2017

From Holiday to Rebel Heart, Shaun Ponsonby celebrates the Queen of Pop by rating Madonna’s entire discography.

After Sound City wrapped up last Sunday, I headed over to The Merchant for an all-night celebration of the Queen of Pop; the Madonnathon.

Well, I was led to believe it was a Madonnathon. In practice, it was more of an 80s sprint with an occasional hurdle shaped like a conical bra. Madonna has nearly 40 years worth of hits. But, like, consistently. Every album she has ever made has spawned at least one Top 40 hit. So why bother to force Whitney Houston down my throat? I hate Whitney Houston.

The talk now often seems to be centred around Madonna’s age – be that in flattering or not so flattering terms. For the latter, people say she should act her age, but her refusal to grow old gracefully is surely one of her strengths. It shows you still can’t tie her down.

The odds were always against Madonna lasting as long as she has. She was supposed to be flash in the pan, right? But actually, she proved herself to be inventive, always pushing forward, and never afraid to take risks. She ain’t that great a singer, she ain’t that great a dancer – but she’s the best Goddamn Madonna you will ever see. And if she was a dude, you wouldn’t be telling her to act her age (see: Iggy Pop).

In my eyes, Madonna is a performance artist who happens to work in music. The visual side of her work is so intertwined with the music itself that it can be hard to separate it. But separate it, we shall, as it is a much stronger body of work than some people might expect.

So, to prove that consistency, I have rated Madonna’s entire discography. See for yourself…

16. American Life (2003)

Riding high off the super comeback double punch of Ray of Light and Music, American Life is an awkward sidestep that I have never quite understood. It is her first post-9/11 album, and the event had clearly inspired her to some degree. But hearing Madonna talk about American life in 2003 doesn’t quite gel in the same way that hearing Michael Jackson or Prince talk about American life in 2003 would be equally galling – they’re so much in their own bubble that they can’t truly have any particular insight. Granted, Madonna seemed much more grounded in this period than either of those particular contemporaries, but it still seems a bit off. Even when not on the heavy subjects, the album feels bogged down, especially on tacked on Bond theme Die Another Day, which really shouldn’t be here. Joyless and not inventive enough to warrant it.

15. Evita (1997)

I don’t like Andrew Lloyd-Webber, so it’s no surprise that I rate Evita so low. Though Madonna puts in what is undoubtedly her greatest performance as an actress throughout the record (admittedly, there isn’t much competition there), I just can’t get over Lloyd-Webber’s dirge. Does it even count as a Madonna album?

14. Who’s That Girl (1987)

Madonna soundtracks tend to be about as good as the movies. Like Evita, you probably shouldn’t count this as a Madonna album as she doesn’t feature on every track. She is by far the main draw, though, and responsible for any song you might know, most notably the title track and Causing a Commotion, which stayed in the setlist for a few tours going forward. But it’s mostly pretty throwaway. Download the singles and be done with it.

13. I’m Breathless (1990)

Yet another soundtrack, this time to the awful Dick Tracy movie that Madonna starred in alongside Warren Beatty, and it’s mainly a wash. If I wanted to hear Madonna tackle standards from the 40s, I would seek help. That said, there is one masterpiece on the record that didn’t appear in the movie. Tacked onto the end, and perhaps Madonna’s single greatest moment; Vogue. We all know it, but let’s consider it. It is a genius combination of early 90s house, transcendent pop, gay culture and screen icons that stands alone as pop crafts(wo)manship at its finest. It may not fit with the rest of the record, and it may be the only thing to recommend – but its genius alone raises this turkey out of the bottom of the pile. If it wasn’t for Vogue, this record would probably be dead last.

12. Hard Candy (2008)

I refer to this one as “The inevitable Timberlake album”. It was that period in the noughties were Justin Timberlake was sticking his grill in everywhere, despite not really being that good and having an alarmingly smug, punchable face. It was inevitable that Madonna would work with him at some point. My dislike of Timberlake aside, he’s only responsible for a handful of the tracks, including the number one duet 4 Minutes (really? It was number one?). The rest are taken by The NeptunesChad Hugo and one Pharrell Williams. If memory serves me correctly, The Neptunes’ best days were already behind them at this point, and Pharrell’s comeback was still half a decade away, so perhaps that is why so much of the album is so forgettable, and it stands as a strange collaboration for Madonna to strike up at that point in time, given that she always worked with the hottest producers to keep her music in the here and now. All in all, a slightly strange misfire that maybe should have worked better than it did.

11. MDNA (2012)

Eeerrrrrm. I dunno. This is pretty middling. It’s marginally better than Hard Candy, but feels more like an album you would want and expect from Madonna in the early 21st century. William Orbit – the man who produced Ray of Light and Music – is back in the fold, and there are a fair few stand out tracks. Turn Up The Radio in particular really should have been some kind of hit, and a much better song than the lightweight lead single Give Me All Your Luvin’. But ultimately the best thing about this album is its title. Which, to be fair, is pretty clever.

10. Rebel Heart (2015)

After a few years of duds or “meh” records, Rebel Heart found Madonna more vital than she had been in a decade. There are times when she comes across as a little desperate, but I definitely enjoyed this more than the previous two. Bitch I’m Madonna is an excellent title that deserves a better song, and maybe it would have been if it was delivered with the kind of tongue in cheek fervour that was present in her earlier work instead of what we have here.  Maybe that is what stops the album from really taking off for me – it too closely follows the current trend of pop stars demanding to be seen as artists rather than just making great pop music. Madonna can be great at striking that balance – in fact, I would argue that she was one of the few to have perfected it. But despite being a pretty decent whole with some good songs and excellent production, I don’t quite feel sold on it.

9. Erotica (1992)

You could probably refer to this period as The Shitstorm Years. Not content with the over the top outrage for the infamous Justify My Love video in 1990, Madonna spent the early 90s pushing the envelope further and further. She released the book Sex – a coffee table pornographic chronicle of herself in numerous states of undress and engaging in various explicit acts with a number of celebrities, including Vanilla Ice (yes, the Vanilla Ice! What a scoop!). She starred in the explicit movie Body of Evidence, and if you’ve ever seen the average Madonna movie, it’s just as terrible as you think it is,  except this one has tits and vag. There was also a controversial appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman that had to be heavily edited for broadcast (and saw Madonna failing to out-wit Letterman).  In the middle of it all came Erotica. Given her fixations at the time – and the title – it will come as no surprise what the album’s central themes are. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned Shitstorm, it has been a little overlooked. It probably has some of her most accomplished work on it. The best of the lot is one of the albums moments of respire; the gorgeous ballad Rain.

8. Music (2000)

Madonna’s second collaboration with William Orbit didn’t quite match the first, but it doesn’t feel like it is trying to. Where Ray of Light was something of a small revelation, Music is more laid back. It feels all together more pop. In fact, the title track is probably the best out and out dance-pop song that she had released since Vogue. Elsewhere on the album, she takes on a bit of country girl vibe, with Don’t Tell Me and Gone predating the pop-country feel that would lay the groundwork for the likes of Taylor Swift. The initial ten tracks would have been fine, but it appears that the record label insisted that Madonna’s rubbish rendition of Don McLean’s American Pie from her crappy movie The Next Best Thing be tacked on the end after it was an undeserved hit. It’s strange how something so small can alter how you feel about something.

7. Bedtime Stories (1994)

After Justify My Love, Erotica, the Sex book, Body of Evidence and The Girlie Show tour, it seemed as if Joe Public had finally had enough of Madonna’s sexploits. In what was perhaps the sole moment of succumbing to peer pressure in her entire career (life?), she took a step back on Bedtime Stories. There is much more of Madonna the balladeer here, and it feels like the songs come from the soul rather than the loins. Human Nature suggests otherwise; “I’m not sorry, it’s human nature/I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me” she spits in retaliation to the backlash. But between the likes of Secret and the astonishing Take a Bow, its hard to view Bedtime Stories as anything other than personal and artistic growth. Of note, she also collaborates with Bjork on the title track. In retrospect, the album feels a little transitional between the heaviness of the previous few years and the spirituality that would be present on 1998’s Ray of Light, and it is all the more fascinating for it.

6. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again; Madonna is at her best when she is filling up dance floors. Perhaps spurred on by the underwhelmed reaction to American Life, on the follow-up she ditches the pretensions and just wants to dance. It’s a pretty obvious comment to suggest that Confessions… updates Madonna’s early records for a Millennial audience but, well, she does. And much more successful than one might expect, both critically and commercially.  Perhaps her last truly behemoth album, it spawned two number one singles (Sorry and Hung Up) and proved that she isn’t just the Queen of Pop, but the Queen of the Dance Floor.

5. Ray of Light (1998)

Madonna hadn’t released a full length record in four years when Ray of Light dropped in 1998. The previous Bedtime Stories had been successful, but the backlash to the Sex book and Erotica era were still fresh in the public’s mind. It took the aforementioned Golden Globe-winning performance in Evita to get back on track, and this album was the masterstroke it needed to be. Undoubtedly one of her most experimental and creative efforts, she teamed up with William Orbit and laced the album with shades of trip hop, house, techno-pop and – perhaps most potently – ambience. The likes of opener Drowned World/Substitute For Love and the cinematic Frozen may have even been surprising for their maturity when they were released. The vocal lessons she took for Evita clearly did not go to waste, either. It would be wrong to call it a comeback, but it was the shot in the arm she needed; creatively, critically, commercially and listening to the lyrics, spiritually.

4. Like a Virgin (1984)

This is where Madonna became a phenomenon. It made her a blockbuster star alongside Michael Jackson and Prince, and gave us a series of iconic images. Truth be told, it isn’t quite the masterpiece the sales and status would have you believe. The big hits are all among her greatest singles, from Material Girl to the title track and the infectious Dress You Up, but we really don’t need to hear Madge taking on Rose Royce’s Love Don’t Live Here Anymore, for example. Still, Nile Rodgers’ production is as perfect as ever, and anybody who doesn’t find themselves dancing around the living room at least intermittently should probably re-asses their priorities. She isn’t responsible for writing the album’s most memorable songs, but it would be the last time that would be the case.

3. Madonna (1983)

Madonna’s debut wasn’t quite the success its track listing would have you believe. Despite uber classics such as Holiday, Lucky Star and Borderline it wasn’t that big a seller. In retrospect, she was a strange signing for the Sire label. At the time they were known primarily for punk and new wave acts. After all, this was the home of Talking Heads, Ramones, The Replacements and the US label for The Cure and The Smiths. In the middle of all this, Madonna’s post-disco dance album sticks out as a bit of an anomaly. But what an anomaly! Generally, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts on this one, and listening to it from beginning to end proves a much more enjoyable experience than Like a Virgin – even the lesser known tracks like Physical Attraction play like a dream with the full context. While promoting the record on American Bandstand, she famously told host Dick Clark that she wouldn’t to “rule the world”, to sniggers. I think it’s safe to say she had the last laugh on that one.

2. True Blue (1986)

You could probably argue that this is where Madonna started morphing into icon territory. Not allowing herself to become stale, this was the first time we saw a drastic update of the Madonna look. Gone were the beads, lace tops, bleached hair, rosaries, crucifixes, skirts, bracelets that were prevalent with her early thrift shop style. For this album she adopted a much more traditional look, and the music had matured as much as the image. The most obvious example of this is opener Papa Don’t Preach, the tale of a pregnant teenage girl who has vowed not to have an abortion. But there is also the Latin flavoured La Isla Bonita (originally considered for Michael Jackson’s Bad) and lead single Live To Tell. If the likes of Where’s The Party sound a little throwaway by comparison, it’s at least the kind of fun, effervescent throwaway that makes it not even forgivable, but essential. Taken as a whole, it proved that Like a Virgin was no fluke and that Madonna could more than live up to the hype surrounding her.

1. Like a Prayer (1989)

Leaving the teenybopping teenage audience behind, Madonna grew with her audience. At the time, this was by far the most daring and mature album of her career. It strikes the balance between all the faces of Madonna and plays like a Greatest Hits. Like a Prayer is pure brilliance. Like Prince, who appears on the album both on the duet Love Song and even playing some uncredited guitar, she plays with a lot of religious imagery on Like a Prayer, mixing it with the sexual. Drawing from her Catholic upbringing, the title track features playful double entendres; “I’m down on my knees, I want to take you there”. That might sound like the same ol’ shocking Madonna, but what makes a difference here is the music itself – sprawling, epic. It’s a rock song, but it’s a pop song, but it’s a gospel song, but it’s a dance song. There’s also Oh Father, Til Death To Us Part and Act of Contrition – all of which could be interpreted as having some form of basis in Catholicism. The album also sees her playing with her formative soul influences, most notably in Express Yourself (very different in its album form to its better known single version), but also in the Sly & The Family Stone-esque Keep It Together and Cherish, which returns to the girl group fascination we last saw in the form of True Blue. Cherish also features one of the most delicious, overly romantic lyrics that they missed in the Brill Building; “Romeo and Juliet/They never felt this way, I bet”. At various times daring, sweet, danceable, heartbreaking, experimental and full of ear worms. If you don’t love Like a Prayer, you never liked pop music to begin with.

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