Bedtime Stories ~ 1994: A comeback album of sorts, following the backlash and fall-out of Erotica and the Sex book, this one find her returning quietly, in more gentle form, starting off with the subtle swing and crafty simplicity of lead single ‘Secret’. The strumming guitar lends a grounding aspect to this, while follow-up ‘Take A Bow’ raced up the charts with its saccharine Babyface-produced melodies and lovelorn lyrics. Overall, the album reverts to R&B over dance pop, and it works better than it should thanks to Madonna’s ability to uncannily produce a cohesive sounding record. In the beginning of her career she was not unrightly pegged as a singles artist, but by this time she knew her way around creating a proper album, and Bedtime Stories is a solid effort. Lullaby-ish sleepers like ‘Inside of Me’ and ‘Forbidden Love’ lent a gauzy beauty to the brokenhearted, while ‘Human Nature’ and ‘I’d Rather Be Your Lover’ offered convincing shades of defiant hip-hop. With its quieter agenda and more timely musical influences, it was an ingenious way to re-enter the pop scene.
Ray of Light ~ 1998: Gorgeously conceived, fully realized, and sonically sound, this is Madonna’s best album to date. From beginning to end, there is not one missed note, not one bad song, not one moment of irrelevant filler. Everything here is vital and necessary, and it is a musical journey founded as much on William Orbit’s chilly musical landscape as by Madonna’s somewhat uncharacteristic warmth and tenderness. The two combined for a combustible yet perfect alchemy of musical magic. Lead single ‘Frozen’ was one of her most stirring ballads, setting the soundscape for a spiritual journey of unprecedented proportion. The racing title track zooms along at break-neck pace, but with more worldly concerns than a simple turn on the dancefloor (though there was time for that too). The remaining singles (‘Power of Goodbye’ and ‘Nothing Really Matters’) were trickier to choose, only because there were so many good songs on the album, and most were more like art than pop music. As such, there’s a richness to this album that she has yet to match. From the moving opening salvo of ‘Drowned World/Substitute for Love’ to the grandiose chorus of ‘Sky Fits Heaven’ and the mesmerizing rush of ‘Skin’, this cycle of songs is her true masterpiece, weaving in questions of fame, desire, and one woman’s soul-searching journey through the world. It posits intensely personal questions of doubt and wonderment amid universal concerns, and remains intoxicating for its entire duration. Its quieter moments (‘To Have and Not To Hold’ and ‘Little Star’) absolutely shimmer, but it pulses and throbs too (‘Candy Perfume Girl’ and ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’). Whenever anyone questions Madonna’s musical ability, or wonders why I love her, I point them to this album.
Music ~ 2000: Unwilling to completely let go of William Orbit’s magic, she held onto him for a few cuts on her 2000 album, but this one was mainly grand for its introduction of Mirwais to the Madonna canon, and they manage to make some beautiful Music together. That title track is epic and iconic at once, simple, direct, and to-the-point pleasing, finding Madonna at her most carefree and fun since the 80’s. This is when her vocoder phase began, and for the first time she allows her voice to be manipulated in the name of sound and effect. It works, for the most part, but it’s still when she sings plainly that she makes it matter, as in the brash ‘Don’t Tell Me’ and the moving ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’. A bit of repetitive musical redundancy bogs down the album in some stretches (‘Nobody’s Perfect’ and ‘I Deserve It’), and she ends things on a decidedly dull note, ‘Gone’. All in all, a bit more filler than usual, and a bit of gliding on the glory that was Ray of Light.
American Life ~ 2003: A controversial companion to Erotica, this one found Madonna at odds with the cultural war climate, and while she enjoyed acclaim and success by channeling such a perch in the past, this time it didn’t work in her favor. In some ways, radio turned against her here and never quite returned, even if it was for all the wrong reasons. In retrospect, this album got a bad rap, even if it contained a pretty bad one (I’m drinking a soy latte, I get a double shotte?) The title track was a little too jarring, and not entirely indicative of the electronic folk pastoral that was contained within, the majority of which is far better than most people want to admit. Mirwais helms most of this excursion, and his stuttering beats drive ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Nobody Knows Me’, as well as American Life’s only real hit single ‘Die Another Day’ (which came out well in advance of the album and avoided its war-tainted death-knell). Notably, the meat of this album was in its acoustic downtime. Songs like the choir-uplifted ‘Nothing Fails’, ‘Intervention’, and ‘X-Static Process’ give Madonna an almost folk-like platform to sing along with a guitar or two and make beautiful, if simple, melodies. In some ways, the whole thing may have been too serious and too earnest for its own good, but there are some stellar things going on regardless, and it’s worth a revisit.
Confessions on a Dancefloor ~ 2005: The dance diva returns to reclaim her throne, in top form, and carrying an Abba-sample to boot. ‘Hung Up’ heralds a disco throw-down for a new era, while ‘Sorry’ tears up the dance-floor more gleefully than anything since ‘Ray of Light’. The whole album is sequenced without pause, though the songs still manage to distinguish themselves from one another. The lightweight pop and soft-focus disco of ‘Get Together’, ‘Forbidden Love’ and ‘Jump’ are interspersed with a few serious moments (‘Isaac’, ‘Let It Will Be’) but the beat doesn’t slacken. Even with a clunker like ‘I Love New York’, the album chugs cohesively along, driven by the dance – the one thing (along with her music) that has been Madonna’s stock in trade all these years. The abandonment of American Life may have re-energized her – she sounds hungry again, and on the prowl – and no one finds her prey better than when Madonna is stalking with a dance beat on her back.
Hard Candy ~ 2008: Back into the R&B groove, if R&B even exists as a term or musical form anymore. Safely (and somewhat disappointingly) aligning herself with Timbaland, Pharrell, and Timberlake, she makes an album of music of the moment, with enough pop know-how to make some of the songs last. The jury’s still out on whether one of them will be lead single ‘4 Minutes’ that features Mr. Timberlake and a sassy horn blast. More likely to stand the test of time will be pop throwbacks such as ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Beat Goes On’. She slows the pace and deepens the mood with ‘Miles Away’ and the devastating ‘Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You’, but almost blows it with the opening of ‘Candy Store’ – unremarkable both for its lackluster melody and silly lyrics. Fillers like ‘Dance 2Night’, ‘Voices’, and ‘Spanish Lesson’, while enjoyable, don’t add up to a classic Madonna album, but she puts the rest of it across on the strength of something like ‘Give It 2 Me’. It buys her some time, but that’s about all.