April 24th, 1982: I was 2 years old, ‘Ebony & Ivory’ was No.1 in the charts (and Status Quo in the album charts) and ‘Porky’s’ was conquering the box office. With no fanfare, the world got its first chance to hear the debut single by an unknown artist with the striking name of ‘Madonna’. ‘Everybody’, written solely by Madonna, so convincingly blended new wave with r&b and an increasingly unfashionable disco sound that (as the now infamous story goes) listeners thought Madonna was black and Sire capitalised on this by keeping images of her off the sleeve (when the record was widely released in October). Although the single didn’t make many waves, it wouldn’t be too long before Madonna’s image was imprinted on our culture as part of a rarified breed of pop music icons.
2012 is a big year for Madonna – her first album in 4 years (the previous, ‘Hard Candy’, was incidentally also released in April), her first world-tour since the record-breaking ‘Sticky & Sweet’ and, perhaps biggest of all, the 30th anniversary of the start of her pop career. In typical Madonna fashion she has yet to acknowledge the landmark – no ‘M30’ or ‘30YO’ for her. Indeed, on the October date of ‘Everybody’s widespread release she is due to be playing a gig in San Jose – as a symbol of her restless hunger to keep looking forward, it’s hard to beat.
Yet if Madonna rarely takes the time to celebrate what has come before (even the self-explanatory ‘Celebration’ hits collection was largely ignored by her), it doesn’t mean no-one else should. Here, in honour of 30 years of Madonna, are my thoughts on her albums (presented in reverse order of my personal preferences – today!):
‘I’m Breathless’ (1990)
‘I’m Breathless’ is largely ignored, probably because it’s not viewed as a studio album. Indeed, it was noticeably absent from this year’s ‘Complete Studio Albums’ collection. Yet if ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Parade’, ‘Graffitti Bridge’ and ‘Batman’ are widely viewed as Prince albums, this (with 12 original songs and 6 Madonna co-writes) surely qualifies as worthy of sitting alongside Madonna’s 12 other albums.
The album’s tagline is ‘Music from and inspired by the film “Dick Tracy”’ and, as a result, it’s a bit of an oddity. The predominantly jazz and swing tone of the album suggests it as a precursor to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Back to Basics’, yet it’s far more knowingly camp. It features 3 Sondheim songs which are, predictably, brilliant. They also inspire some of the best vocals of Madonna’s career (and if you haven’t seen her performance of ‘Sooner or Later’ at the Oscars, get over to Youtube immediately). The rest of the album is a mixed bag – fillers like ‘I’m Going Bananas’ and ‘Cry Baby’ sit uneasily alongside moody ballads like ‘He’s A Man’ and ‘Something to Remember’. Then, somewhat tacked on at the end, we have the legendary ‘Vogue’. Suffice to say its shadow looms large over the rest of the album as it demonstrates that Madonna is at her best when she’s doing Madonna, and not doing Breathless Mahoney. The album is a curious failure – one that, bizarrely, Madonna chose as her own favourite when promoting ‘Bedtime Stories’. Which leads us nicely to….
‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)
Madonna is so regularly and easily mocked these days that the notion of a ‘Madonna backlash’ seems rather quaint. Nevertheless, this album arose from the ashes of the biggest backlash she had faced in her career to that point. This context is key to the record, which must sound rather odd without it. Despite the combative ‘Human Nature’, this is a Madonna burned and cowed by relative failure. She worked with mainstays of the American charts like Babyface, Dallas Austin and Dave Hall, lending at least half the album a glossy, mainstream r&b sound which, at the time, seemed like a radical departure. Still, this is Madonna, so she contrasts the chart-ready material with some of the most unusual and ‘difficult’ songs of her career. Who else would blend r&b, Herbie Hancock and Walt Whitman (‘Sanctuary’) and, more than that, get away with it?! The more experimental efforts don’t always work – Bjork’s ‘Bedtime Story’ is ill-fitting – yet they lend the album a messy warmth that makes it far more interesting than the sales-chasing vehicle it could have been. Madonna doesn’t seem very fond of it herself – 7 of its 11 tracks have never been performed live.
‘Confessions on a Dancefloor’ (2005)
Speaking of albums which came from backlashes, this followed a doozy. ‘American Life’ is probably Madonna’s biggest commercial failure and (for the hundredth time) detractors were wondering if perhaps her time as a major force was at an end. Madonna responded with her most successful single ever. ‘Hung Up’ is undoubtedly a classic – not only a Madonna classic, but a CLASSIC classic. What’s remarkable about this album is that there is rarely a sense of the other songs playing catch-up - at least ¾ of them could be singles. What’s even more remarkable is that, despite the advance publicity playing up its floor-filling qualities, it lyrically covers much of the same ground as ‘American Life’. Fan favourite ‘How High’ is essentially a much more digestible rewrite of ‘American Life’ (the song) while ‘Isaac’ is as unusual a dance song as has ever graced a 10 million-selling album. Nonetheless, some of Madonna’s persuasive spikiness is lost in a set which aims to please and the absence of a ballad (one of her real strengths) is a sore disappointment.
‘Hard Candy’ (2008)
Whereas ‘Bedtime Stories’, Madonna’s previous courtship of Hot 100-pleasing r&b, came from failure, ‘Hard Candy’ arrived as she once again ruled the pop world. Many were confused, then, that she chose to work with ubiquitous producers Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. More than confused, even – there was a real sense of anger in some quarters, much of it founded in the mistaken belief that Madonna has always nurtured undiscovered talent (and, perhaps most importantly, talent rooted in European dance rather than American r&b). As a result this is a much maligned album. However, as the US counterpoint to the far more respected ‘Confessions….’, I find it a much better record. It’s far more personal, for a start – for all the complaints about her latter day lyrics, songs like ‘Miles Away’, ‘She’s Not Me’ and ‘Voices’ give a devastating insight into a relationship in meltdown. Even something like ‘Incredible’, which ostensibly seems to be a sweet celebration of love, carries the weary sense that an end is near (‘I remember when you were the one, you were my friend…I need a reminder so I can relate, I need to go back there before it’s too late’). The ballads are back too, with ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognise You’ being an instant Madonna classic, albeit one that suffers from Timbaland’s tendency towards generic production. I am definitely in a tiny minority in rating this above ‘Confessions…’ but for me, it’s far more rewarding and a perfect example of a relevant pop album made when the artist has reached middle-age.
‘True Blue’ (1986)
Madonna’s biggest-selling studio album and essentially her own ‘Thriller’ – 5 legendary singles dominate and the other 4 songs feel like filler beside them (and, to be fair, ‘Love Makes The World Go Round’ is one of the worst things she’s recorded). This is where many who had previously dismissed her as an ephemeral pop dolly sat up and took notice – ‘Live to Tell’ announced a new Madonna, with its sombre tone, allusions to child abuse and a singing voice far weightier than the previous coquettish come on. Decades of the singles being presented on hits collections has dulled their impact here and the album almost comes across as its own little greatest hits, yet its brilliance is undeniable. Many other artists would have fought tooth and nail for a pop song as carefree and exhilarating as ‘Where’s The Party?’, possibly the album track least deserving of the phrase ‘album track’ ever.
‘Ray of Light’ (1998)
‘Ray of Light’ is without doubt one of the most spectacular ‘comebacks’ in pop music history, easily up there with ‘Achtung Baby’ with which it shares much. Like U2 in the run-up to that album, Madonna had remained a consistent commercial force but there was a real sense of decline hanging over her. ‘Bedtime Stories’ and ‘Erotica’ had sold less combined than ‘Like a Prayer’ did and, with ballads compilation ‘Something to Remember’ and the film/soundtrack ‘Evita’, there were worrying omens that she was positioning herself as an MOR artist to compete with then-huge artists like Celine Dion. The gap between this and ‘Bedtime Stories’ was also the longest yet between her studio albums, causing many to wonder if her heart was still in the game. By now we should know that every time we ask this question, she knocks it out of the park. Again like U2 with ‘Achtung Baby’, Madonna had gone away and rediscovered herself – in the process reinventing her music for the 21st century. This album is outstanding – an emotionally honest, sonically radical collection that, crucially, sounds completely liberated from the pressures that led to it. One of the most transcendent moments of her career comes midway through opener ‘Drowned World/Substitute For Love’. The sumptuous electronica was already unfamiliar territory but when her voice takes off in the ‘No famous faces…’ section, it was a Madonna we had never heard before. Against all odds, she delivered the third-biggest seller of her career and this album laid the template for the latter half of her career.
I have already written about this here and, happily, the weeks since have not dulled my appreciation. As much of a crossroads album as ‘Ray of Light’, this could so easily have been a disaster. Instead it manages the tricky task of being an album largely packed with lyrics about being a wealthy, middle-aged pop icon who has recently experienced divorce – yet being immensely enjoyable and fun rather than alienating. Fun, in fact, in an endearing way which harks back to her 80s peak – songs like ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, ‘B-Day Song’ and ‘I’m A Sinner’ sound borne out of relaxed creativity rather than an eye on chart placements (though the presence of Nicki Minaj and MIA show that this is clearly not an absent consideration). She still manages to surprise – the camp noir of ‘Gang Bang’ sounds unlike anything she’s done before while ‘I Fucked Up’ is one of her most affecting ballads.
In light of what came after, it’s impossible to review this record as a debut; impossible to really see if the clues were there or guess how the record would now be perceived (if it was perceived at all) if it hadn’t led to a phenomenon. Reviews written years after the fact almost uniformly declare it a masterpiece yet, at the time, it’s safe to say that it had a mixed reception. It’s easy to see why – it’s largely unassuming, making no huge statements about Madonna as an artist and giving few glimpses into her inner life. However it’s worth noting that this is Madonna before she discovered co-writing – 5 of the 8 songs are written by her alone, including the iconic ‘Lucky Star’. What it does demonstrate, then, is the savvy talent for pop melodies and hooks that has largely stayed with her in the subsequent 30 years. Also present, in songs like ‘Burning Up’ and ‘Think of Me’, is a aggressively independent streak demanding that we pay attention. Perhaps most important is the fact that, despite her thin voice, Madonna owns these songs. No one else could do this.
‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)
In retrospect, this is where she began her rapid ascent to iconic status – at the time, it was probably just a massive pop album. It builds on her debut but goes ridiculously beyond it, adding Motown riffs, sugar-sweet ballads and that now-infamous knack for controversy. The more versatile sound no doubt has a lot to do with this being her first co-written album – the gorgeously clumsy ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ is the last solely-attributed writing credit on her studio albums. The ambition here – to rule the pop world – is clear but it doesn’t detract from the sheer joy that permeates the record. Songs like ‘Stay’, ‘Pretender’ and ‘Over & Over’ still rank amongst her best album tracks – ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ is, however, one of her worst. It’s the sole misstep on what must be approaching a perfect pop album – indeed, if you remove it and replace with ‘Into The Groove’ (which was later added to the tracklist), the case is pretty overwhelming.
‘The Immaculate Collection’ and accompanying Blond Ambition tour in 1990 found Madonna in an imperial phase, with massive commercial success, huge critical acclaim and a general air of being impervious. It’s understandable, then, that she felt that she could afford to take increasingly radical risks – leading to this album and the ‘Sex’ book. Even in 2012, the thought of the world’s biggest pop star releasing a concept album and coffee-table book about sex, featuring many images of her and her famous friends in various states of undress, is staggering. Yet in the enormous backlash that ensued one crucial thing is lost – the fact that ‘Erotica’ is an utterly brilliant album. It was easily the most intelligent, complex and demanding work she had yet released. The deliberately cold production almost deliberately pushed the listener away while Madonna’s delivery on many songs is so detached that it brings to mind a drug-addled drag queen singing someone else’s pop hits. The questions raised about sexuality, commerce and personal identity were almost completely missed (and indeed remain so). It doesn’t all demand effort – ‘Deeper and Deeper’ marries a peerless narrative about coming out with an effortless disco ferocity, while the plaintive ‘Bad Girl’ is just gorgeous (and led the 12 year old me to write a letter to Michael Stipe asking him to sing with Madonna…!) It’s intriguing to wonder what would have come next if this had been a massive success. Instead, we’re left with a record that was her first commercial failure but is undoubtedly one of her biggest creative successes.
‘American Life’ (2003)
A similar context preceded ‘American Life’ – two commercially and critically successful albums of sometimes radical electronic music and a world tour which managed to sell-out despite largely ignoring all her hits, Madonna probably felt she was taking millions of people on a journey. It’s easy to comprehend how pushing further must have looked like a logical step. Nevertheless, this odd album – with its blend of electro and folk, its sometimes self-important and sometimes disarming personal examinations and its over-arching theme of a naval-gazing culture – was a step too far and lost 2/3 of the listeners who had embraced ‘Music’. It was also the first Madonna album not to produce a worldwide hit single – the kiss of death for any global popstar. It’s a shame because this was a Madonna leaping into the void, showing a fearless creativity which her detractors don’t believe exists. It takes either massive chutzpah or titanic delusion to believe that the awkward, absurd title track could be a lead single, though the hilarious rap shows a sense of humour usually missed by listeners (though some missed it even here!) It’s interesting that the fearlessness did not extend to the original, provocatively anti-war video for the song, a stance that was at the time liable to kill careers yet is now the consensus view. Nothing could save the album’s sales after that, though God knows Madonna tried with an air of desperation that was entirely missing from the record itself. For all the headline-grabbing politics, it’s a largely intimate and very adult affair, with little for pop fans of the period (the biggest pop albums of the period were Beyonce’s debut and Britney’s ‘In the Zone’) to grab hold of – and it’s all the more admirable for it.
The singles from this certainly didn’t sound quite like anything on the charts at the time – yet they succeeded in re-shaping tastes in a way which ‘American Life’ could only dream of. With characteristic restlessness Madonna largely ditched William Orbit and instead collaborated with the (still) relatively unknown Mirwais. So successful were the results that a slew of imitators followed. Madonna is at her very best here, bringing innovation to the mainstream with a gold-plated commercial nous and combining the sounds with peerless pop lyrics. ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ is a perfect representation of why she’s so valuable, accessibly communicating complex ideas regarding gender identity and roles in a moving, warm pop song that sounds quite unlike any other pop ballad of the period. The title track, her last American number one, is as much a manifesto as ‘Everybody’ was 18 years later while ‘Don’t Tell Me’ is surely one of the most interesting massive pop hits ever? ‘Impressive Instant’ is a great lost single, rightly chosen for release by Madonna but thwarted by her label who wanted the fun-but-derivative ‘Amazing’ instead. Here also marks the beginning of the ‘Guy Ritchie songs’ which have recently climaxed with ‘MDNA’.
‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)
Every pop fan by now surely knows the famous Rolling Stone quote claiming that this album was ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. I couldn’t put it any better myself. ‘True Blue’ may have made critics start to take notice but with ‘Like A Prayer’, Madonna surpassed even the kindest of expectations and ensured that she would never again be seen as ‘Minnie Mouse on helium’. It’s here that she first exposed the brutal honesty that has largely dominated her best work since and saw her lyrically more comparable to rock singers of the period than to Michael Jackson or Prince. It is, in fact, her most ‘rock’ album in that it is largely based on a traditional band sound and not disco or dance music. The legendary title track’s blend of gospel and rock, the sacred and profane is obvious. She called the wonderful ‘Oh Father’ her ‘homage to Simon & Garfunkel’ while the influential ‘Express Yourself’ was conceived as a tribute to Sly and the Family Stone. Prince himself pops up on ‘Love Song’, as unassuming a duet between icons as you could ever hear. ‘Cherish’, meanwhile, is a gorgeously sincere frolic of the kind she has (sadly) rarely returned to since. Aforementioned ‘Oh Father’ together with ‘Promise to Try’ (about her mother) and ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ (about an abusive marriage – never explicitly commented on but rumours abound that Sean Penn assaulted her) form the emotional core – popstars of Madonna’s level simply weren’t expected to turn their inner lives into pop songs. It’s an album she will never surpass – but in her defence, almost no-one will.