This week sees the long-awaited new album by Madonna, and that’s all that really matters. In anticipation and honor of that, I’ve compiled a quick collection of mini-reviews on all her full-length studio albums. (Meaning I’m bypassing soundtracks and greatest hits collections – which admittedly excludes some notable work, but this is not the final say. One exception – I’m Breathless, which is both a bit of a soundtrack, and a proper full-length studio album that she co-wrote.) To begin, we’ll focus on the first decade of music (and I’ll even give them some Entertainment Weekly-like grades, based solely on my personal preference.)
Madonna ~ 1983: For her self-titled debut, she introduces herself as a dance-friendly R&B artist, a role she would return to again and again. Oddly enough, this may be my least favorite album. It came out just before I was cognizant of music, so I missed this first flush of fame and glory, and the only songs I still enjoy are the classic ‘Holiday’ and a little bit of ‘Borderline’. Some will argue that ‘Lucky Star’ is one of her greatest, but I disagree. Never liked it and never will.
Like A Virgin ~ 1984: For many, this is the one and only Madonna album, and I believe it remains her best-selling album in the US. This was what made me, and countless others, fall in love with her – only it wasn’t the sexy come-ons or titillating titles, it was the pure gold of a few genius pop songs. From the jaunty opening sass and irony of ‘Material Girl’ to the racy title track, from the creamy-smooth coos and luscious laughter of ‘Angel’ to the cheeky, sartorially-sexy vibe of ‘Dress You Up’, there are myriad highlights here of an artist who defined the 80’s and made them her own. A few uneven moments (‘Pretender’ and ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ perhaps) slightly mar the genius at work, exposing an occasional reliance on rhyming clichés, but as a whole Like A Virgin remains a vital, and potent, collection of songs.
True Blue ~ 1986: Worldwide, I think this was her best-selling album, though in the US it slightly paled in comparison to the white-hot Virgin. Personally, I liked this even more than her sophomore effort, and though steeped in the limits of 80’s synthesized instrumentation, it is a more cohesive album. The unlikely lead single was a ballad, ‘Live to Tell’, and to this day, it stands up as one of her finest. Followed by ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, the songs on True Blue were our first hint that Madonna could get serious and thoughtful, and make pop music that mattered. Solidifying the album’s status were two more stellar singles, ‘La Isla Bonita’ and ‘Open Your Heart’ – both examples of how to craft the perfect pop song. Even the filler (‘Where’s the Party’) astonished.
Like A Prayer ~ 1989: Musical majesty at its finest. This is easily her best album of the 80’s – and probably her second-best of all time. The title song alone stands in history as one of the greatest, and most enduring, examples of musical pop art, and the entire album is a keystone of Madonna’s legacy. Lyrically confessional, musically adventurous (LAP largely eschewed the synthesized sounds of the 80’s for live, organic instrumentation, and even a Gospel choir), and emotionally charged, it found Madonna getting real while getting down. Like in ‘Express Yourself’ – a clarion call for girl power and an instant Madonna mantra, the song brought the bass and the funk, staking its independence in the wake of her divorce. Soul-revealing cuts like ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ and ‘Oh Father’ were buoyed by the sunnier sides of ‘Cherish’ and ‘Dear Jessie’, and the album brilliantly manages to balance light and dark, happiness and sorrow, and love and loss. Even the dud of its last song, ‘Act of Contrition’, can’t take away from its luster and glory.
I’m Breathless ~ 1990: Not technically the soundtrack to the movie Dick Tracy, it was “From and Inspired By” the film, which explains the 180 degree turn to a jazzy, musical pastiche of 20’s and 30’s slanted music. Lead single ‘Vogue’ stood on its own, and grandly so (largely apart from the rest of the theme), while Madonna sings some songs by Broadway master Stephen Sondheim and makes them her own. Vocal lessons apparent, her voice extends deeper and far beyond the chirps of her first album, and her breathing and lines are more assured. Highlights include the Oscar-winning ”Sooner or Later’ and the saucy (though-by-now-quaint) ‘Hanky Panky’. This would be the closest Madonna would get to Broadway until Evita, and it marked a promising beginning, even if the fans weren’t so quick to embrace it. Personally, I loved it all – even ‘I’m Going Bananas’.
Erotica ~ 1992: Dark, chilly, sexy, and adventurous, Erotica was under-rated from the start, and remains so to this day. It actually offered a more varied take on sex and love than it’s given credit for, with thrilling titles that delved into deeper and more complex themes than a roll in the hay would ever support on its own. From the vamping title track to the giddy racing dance-romp of follow-up ‘Deeper and Deeper’, Erotica found Madonna doing dance-pop as only she could, even as her themes scared off the less-experienced. There should have been more singles than ‘Bad Girl’ and ‘Rain’, two of the softer (but no less beautiful) ballads, but I think she may have wanted to rein things in at that point. It’s too bad, as ‘Thief of Hearts’ and ‘Words’ were hook-filled and bridge-tastic, and even an overdone cover of ‘Fever’ or a silly throw-away like ‘Bye Bye Baby’ sounded better than most of what was on the radio. Erotica closed her first decade of music with a dark, challenging flourish ~ alienating some, winning over others, and setting the stage, in ways both good and bad, for what was to come. The album, though, was a winner.