Lady Madonna: Albums to Get and Those to Avoid

Madonna's latest studio release Confessions on a Dance Floor made headlines because it returned the veteran pop diva back to the pop charts after a bit of a stumble from 2003's disappointing American Life. Madonna released her self-titled debut in 1983 and has been consistent in quality and quantity. The 1980's brought studio albums that had tremendous singles with decent filler. In the 1990's, Madonna became a more pensive ponderous artist and her albums started to have themes (not strict concepts, though) and her singles, while no less tremendous, relied on the context of their home albums. She has also produced a few soundtracks, some to her own starring feature films, none of which are incredibly memorable, but some are worth a listen. The following is an album-by-album review of each of her albums - including compilations, soundtracks and live albums, as well as, EP's if appropriate.

Madonna (Sire) * * * * *: Madonna's debut is one of her strongest in her catalogue. It seems a blueprint for post-disco dance-pop that would be aped by artists such as Janet Jackson, Jody Watley and Paula Abdul. The singles are excellent in their frivolity - there are no lyrics questioning fame, life or spirituality - this is simply a record for the dance floor. "Holiday" is an excellent ditty that messily incorporates kettle drums and R&B.; Her voice is still very unripe and a bit tinny, though she pulls the music off with her killer star-power. Her prowess as a songwriter is also featured in the hit singles "Lucky Star" and "Borderline" - both songs are extremely frothy and light, and would later seem inconsequential compared to more ambitious material, but it would be a mistake to cast them off as bubblegum dance-pop; the singles are wonderful standards of dance-pop, which incorporates many elements, including catchy beats, addictive hooks and a charismatic, though not spectacular singer. A classic in much the same way that Michael Jackson's Thriller is, though Madonna is more underrated, unfairly. (1983)

Like a Virgin (Sire) * * **: Madonna's debut had set the ground for the singer's career, though her second album truly made her a superstar and a pop icon. Coupled with her infamous performance at the MTV Music Awards, the album's singles were monster hits. The title track is genius, glossy plastic-pop with a chugging bass line. "Material Girl" is a cynical, arch tune about searching out a lover with financial acumen - Madonna would be saddled with the song's title as a nickname (which she reportedly abhors), but is nonetheless a perfect indicator of what kind of performer and character Madonna would evolve into: a driven, ambitous and extremely calculated individual. The song "Over and Over" is one of the singer's own compositions that is an early peak into her skills as a scribe. The song's narrative essentially explains Madonna - a woman who is unapologetically ambitious, even though she is criticized for her drive. "Into the Groove" is also another killer single, taken from her debut film Despertately Seeking Susan. The album is a bigger hit, and more memorable, though in retrospect, it's a bit of a letdown from the debut - the filler is more superfluous on this album. The production is a bit more canned and cluttered than the more spare Madonna. (1984)

True Blue (Sire) * * * * 1/2: Madonna's most ambitous album up to that point, includes her first real classic in the synth-laden, moody ballad, "Live to Tell." The lyrics would also be deeper, devling into topics of rebellion, love and even teenage pregnancy. "Papa Don't Preach," opens with sprightly strings, almost classical, before turning into a dance song about a young woman contemplating her pregnancy - the best part about the song is that there is no moralizing, but no easy answers or glib catchphrases are offered either. "True Blue" is a delightful throwback to the girl-group songs of the 1960's, reminiscent of Lesley Gore or the Shirelles. "La Isla Bonita," is a catchy confection that introduces a recurring theme of Latin music that would surface later in Madonna's music. The filler is of course, less important than the singles, though it is all well-produced and well-sung. In 1986, Madonna was still seen as a less-talented Cyndi Lauper, though, with True Blue, Madonna was finally broadening her musical scope - this isn't an art record, by any means - it's still ver y commercial, but it does show that singer is emering as an artist. (1986)

Who's That Girl Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Sire) * * 1/2: Madonna's first-starring role in a retread to screwball comedies of the 1930's was an awful critical and commercial failure. Madonna's performance in particular, suffered from a public tongue-lashing, and though her film career never really recovered (there were some false starts), she did manage to squeeze out a couple hit records from the film's soundtrack, as well as, a successful concert tour. There are four Madonna tracks, two of which: the title track and "Causing a Commotion" were huge pop hits. The title track is the strongest song on the album. Picking up a bit from "La Isla Bonita," there is a distinct Latin feel to the song, complete with Spanish lyrics and kettle drums - the ethereal chorus chanting "Who's that girl?" give the song a haunting feel. "Causing a Commotion" rides on a pulsing bass groove, reminiscent of Michael Jackson's "Bad," though the lyrics are rather trite, and the song isn't very different from her other calls for the dance floors. The ballad "The Look of Love" (not the Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis classic), is a clunkly, loud, overproduced affair, that sports a decent performance from the singer, though suffers from the crowded and dated production. (1987)

You Can Dance (Sire) * * 1/2: Madonna's first compliation is a collection of remixes of some of her hits. The songs are extended and sprinkled with extra beats and synths - Madonna's vocals seem almost an afterthought. Not a indispensible entry in her career, but one for completists. (1987)

Like a Prayer (Sire) * * * * *: Madonna's most accomplished and ambitious album of her career, the collection of songs stands up well today, some 18 years later. The title track is a gorgeous song that alternates between a dirge and a joyous, ecstatic romp that climaxes with an exuberant gospel choir. "Express Yourself" is a grand and funky dance song, much in the style of Sly & the Family Stone, the lyrics insisting that women demand respect and attention from their lovers. The meeting of Prince and Madonna, result in the predictably steamy ballad, "Love Song." The two singer's over-sized personalities work well together on the stuttering, spare song. Her lyrics are very introspective and personal on the record, most notably in the sadder moments on the album: "Promise to Try" is a stark piano ballad, in which Madonna ponders her mother's death; "Oh Father" is another soul-searching ballad, that has Madonna excorsizes demons of a possibly abusive past; "Til Death Do Us Part" is a thinly veiled account of her crumbling marriage to Sean Penn - the song has a sprightly, gurgling synth and is deceptively sunny, though the lyrics are her most depressing ever, as she recounts the self-hate her husband is projecting onto her. The songs are not all serious affairs: "Dear Jessie" is a wonderful, maternal paen to children's dreams; "Keep It Together" is a funky, ham-fisted dance number extolling the virtues of family values. "Spanish Eyes" is a more mature and intelligent "La Isla Bonita," with a mature and poignant performance from Madonna. The album is her strongest in her catalogue, and every song works - there is no filler and she performs beautifully. (1989)

I'm Breahtless - Songs From and Inspired by the film Dick Tracy (Warner Bros) * * * 1/2: Madonna's performance in the comic book caper, Dick Tracy was well-received, but then again, she was essentially playing a variation on herself: a singing vamp. The songs on the album, some featured in the film and the others "inspired" by the movie are clever novelty numbers sharing space with stagey ballads, as well. "Sooner or Later," an Oscar-winning song is one of Madonna's most inspired ballad performances. "He's a Man," is a driving, urgent ballad, as well. "More," is a Broadway-bound number that recalls Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are Girl's Best Friend." The novelty numbers work well once, but they don't stand up very well - especially jokey songs such as the mildy offensive "I'm Going Bananas," which crams every Latino cliche into one song; "Hanky Panky" is an anthem for spanking, and again, after the initial listen the wit sort of sputters. Not a very consistent album of her career, a major virtue of the album is Madonna's growing confidence in her vocals. As an added bonus, Madonna's greatest single, "Vogue" is included - a wonderful song that recalls her days in the gay bars of New York, the song is a humane and loving call to arms for her followers who may feel inadequate. (1990)

The Immaculate Collection (Sire) * * * * *: An excellent primer for anyone interested in learning about Madonna's career. All of her greatest hits up to 1990 are included, and two new tracks are tacked on, as well. Because she has been so successful and prolific in the 1980's, not all of her hits are included, though the best hits were included. Some of the singles are remixed or edited for radio format, and that's fine - the songs represent some of the greatest examples of pop music. The new songs, to Madonna's credit, feel like real hits, rather than just filler, and eventually both would become top ten records. "Justify My Love" is a rumbling, midtempo dance number that has Madonna mumering sexy come-ons over a pulsing bass, while the breezy "Rescue Me" has the singer channeling her inner-Aretha as she tears throug the song in her most full-throated performance, yet. All the big iconic hits are included: "Like a Virgin," "Into the Groove," "Holiday," "Like a Prayer," among others and the album is a great way to listen to one of the greatest pop stars of rock history. (1991)

Erotica (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * * *: Madonna's most underrated effort, Erotica seemed to be an angry F-U to the critics and cultural pundits who were condemning Madonna as a scourge on society. The songs, however, are some of the most ambitous she's ever made. The title track, for example is a sexy and seductive number, that has Madonna playing the role of an S&M; dominatrix as she lists her fantasies. "Deeper and Deeper" is another excellent disco number, that even reminds listeners of her classic "Vogue." Madonna's "In This Life" is a pensive and slow-moving number about the AIDS crisis and is a good example of Madonna's strengths as a songwriter - her ability to convey a deep humanity and empathy with her listeners. The songs on the record are very well-produced, though unlike Like a Prayer, they often run short on emotion. Many of the songs are detached and chilly; the songs are impressive, but hard to enjoy. (1992)

Bedtime Stories (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * * *: Madonna's answer to the very public backlash is not the angry manifesto expected, but a warm and emotional collection of dance songs and pop ballads that hark back to her roots in R&B.; Enlisting the best soul producers of the early 1990's, she made an album that is warm and inviting. "Secret" is a guitar-strumming midtempo number that offers an interesting vocal performance by Madonna - she's singing in her lower register; the lyrics about a lover revealing a secret is very ambiguous and part of the fun of the song is guessing what exactly the "secret" is - some assume the lover is a trannsexual. "Survival" is a New-Jill Swing-lite number. The dance stomper, "Don't Stop" recalls many of Madonna's older dance hits of the 1980's. The ballads are all reflective and sad, "Love Tried to Welcome Me" and "Forbidden Love" are all approrpriately melancholic and sad. The title track is an interestic futuristic dance number that would predict Madonna's move toward techno-based pop music later in her career. (1994)

Something to Remember (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * * *: Madonna's third compilation is a collection of the singer's greatest ballad hits. Only a couple of 1980's tracks overlap with The Immaculate Collection. The rest of the album is comprised of 1990's hits, soundtrack contributions, album tracks and new singles. Her cover of Marvin Gaye's "I Want You" a collaboration with British dance outfit, Massive Attack is revalatory. The other new song, "One More Chance," is an acoustic number, suggesting Madonna as a Joni Mitchell-styled singer - it's a decent song, but more importantly, it shows off her voice which has matured considerably from the nasally squeak of her debut records. Another find for the album is the inclusion of "This Used to Be My Playground," which was the theme for a baseball period drama, A League of Their Own, which was one of Madonna's better-received films. (1995)

Evita Original Soundtrack (Warner Bros) * *: Madonna's dream role was that of Argentine First Lady, Eva Peron. The Andrew Lloyd Weber is a schlocky, dreary affair with trite lyrics and dull melodies. Madonna's performances on the songs is good, too good for the pedestrian score, actually. By 1996, Madonna had developed into a much more interesting songwriter than Andrew Lloyd Weber, so it's a little disconcerting to hear her slumming. That said, the new song made specially for the film, "You Must Love Me," while not in the league of "Live to Tell" or "Take a Bow" is a good ballad. (1997)

Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * * * 1/2: Madonna's highly touted artistic comeback came by an inspired collaboration with British producer William Orbit, who took Madonna's undeniably addictive pop hooks and dusted them with artsy techno flourishes. Not a techno or electronica album by any stretch, instead, the record is an intelligent, soulful pop record with electronic accents. The songs are some of her strongest ever written and recorded since 1989's Like a Prayer. The title track is a glorious dance number that is frantic and off-kilter with fuzzy beats and squealing synths. "Frozen" is an austere, though beautiful ballad, with mournful strings and a surprising snare drum thrown in. "Little Star" is a warm and delightful lullaby for her baby daughter. The lyrics of these songs are more spiritual and thoughtful as Madonna ponders fame, fortune and her place in the world. It's fascinating to see such an accomplished and successful woman become so introspective about the meaning of life - part of the charm of the album is that despite motherhood and over a decade in the music industry, she's still pushing and searching for answers and asking questions. (1998)

Music (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * * *: Madonna's followup to the smash hit Ray of Light took cues fromt hat record's huge success, and she combined elements of techno with her particularl brand of dance pop. She also reached back to the 1980's and crafted some silly dance songs to accompany her more thoughtful fare, resulting in a surprisingly diverse and enjoyable set. The title track is tongue-in-cheek mindlessness as Madonna croons the deceptively inane lyrcis over a repettitive beat - it's one of Madonna's most memorable and witty hits. "Don't Tell Me" is Madonna's Sherly Crow impression, as she hijacks folksy guitar strumming, though it's stuttered with the dance beats, as Madonna warns the listeners to avoid ordering her about. "Amazing" is a swirling dance number, somewhat recalling 1960's lounge dance music. "What It Feels Like for a Girl" is a gentle, barbed feminist anthem, in which Madonna ponders a woman's place in society. The ballads are some of Madonna's most poignant and thoughtful, while the dance number, particularly the darkly obscure "Impressive Instant", are more adventurous and stretch not only Madonna's talent, but those of her collaborators. (2000)

GHV2 (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * * *: Madonna's follow-up to The Immaculate Collection, is different in that there are no new tracks. Also her work from the 1990's were often tied to the albums they came from; hearing them out of the context of the studio albums does diminish their impact a little. The songs are still excellent, and work very well as singles, but putting together songs from her Erotica era next to songs from Ray of Light is a little jarring. Also the inclusion of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" from Evita is a ridiculous addition, as the song is not particularly memorably written or performed, and seems out of place on the album. The mistake is made up for, though with the addition of "Beautiful Stranger" which is a non-album track from the Austin Powers film - a wonderful 1960's pastiche, complete with penny whistle and jittery beat, the song is one of her most addictive. A good collection of Madonna's most adventurous and creative period, still there is a feeling of disappointment at the album. (2001)

American Life (Maverick/Warner Bros) * * *: After the two-fold success of Ray of Light and Music Madonna stumbled artistically and commercially with American Life, her response to a post 9-11 United State in 2003. Her opposition to the Iraqi War and the Bush Administration in general, bought her a new wave of public backlash, which resulted in her first video being voluntarily pulled after she deemed it too controversial. The album is an acrid and unpleasant collection of spare ballads and dance songs. The title track, which includes a Debbie Harry-like rap is a rumination on American values. She doesn't embarrass herself on the rapping, but the song is a major disappointment. She raps again (!) on "Mother and Father." The giggly, sparce synth background belies the melancholic lyrics about Madonna's reaction to her mother's death. "Die Another Day" is the titletrack of the then latest James Bond film, and it is an interesting if not particularly memorable song. The songs are all decent, though all in all, the dry, antiseptic production and the over reliance on acoustic guitars keep this album remarkably dull and unenjoyable. (2003)

Remixed and Revisited EP (Maverick/Warner Bros) * *: After the abject failure of American Life, Madonna tried to wring any kind of cash from the album with this hodgepodge of remixes from the album, as well as, an infamous MTV Music Awards performance with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and an unreleased track from her Bedtime Stories album. The remixes aren't all tha memorable, and without the visual, neither is the MTV performance. Ironically, the best track is "Your Honesty," the Bedtime Stories cast-off which shows just how unremarkable American Life really was. (2003)

Confessions on a Dance Floor (Warner Bros) * * * *: Madonna's comeback after the critical drubbing of American Life, is an excellent return to form for Madonna. The album's seamless production, sparkles. There are no ballads, only dance tracks that seques from one song into another. The album's first single, "Hung Up" is a glorious number that samples ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" Also good is "Jump" the most "pop" song on the album. "Sorry" is another excellent single on the album. The songs on this album all show Madonna hungry again, possibly from the public humiliation of the American Life fiasco. Returning back to her dance roots, she has all but abandonded her pop/mainstream audience, for the primal, vtial dance audience. (2005)

I'm Going to Tell You a Secret (Warner Bros) * * 1/2: Madonna's first live album came with a DVD from her "Re-invention Tour." Madonna's in very strong voice, though the problem with the set list of this album is too heavily leaned toward her American Life album, and that material just isn't up to her standards. A few older hits are included, too, though none are arranged or performed very differently, and though this isn't a particularly bad CD to own, it isn't particularly memorable, either. (2006)

The Confessions Tour (Warner Bros) * * * 1/2: Madonna's follow-up to I'm Going to Tell You a Secret is more enjoyable live set because the songs are stronger - they are pulled from Confessions on a Dance Floor, and the tunes are much stronger and more memorable than the songs from American Life. Even though the Confessions are well-done, they don't differ much from the studio versions. The disco-reinventions of the older hits are stronger, and are a joy to listen to - most notably Madonna's transformation of "Like a Virgin" into a HI-NRG disco thumper. As with her first live album, Madonna's vocals are incredibly intact and on key throughout. (2007)

Published by Peter Piatkowski

Was born in Poland, lived in France and the United States. Graduated with a BA in English Literature from UIC. Working on an MA in English/Gender Women's Studies. Published work on Arts, Theater, Film, Travel  View profile

  • Madonna
Madonna has won 6 Grammy Awards.
She has produced records for other artists such as Gary Barlow, Donna DeLory and Nick Scotti.
Maverick, her label was the most successful vanity label.