Rank The Albums is a regular series in which we line up a band’s output in descending order of quality. You do the same. Healthy debate ensues.
This one should have been a doozy. Madonna’s trajectory from pop ingenue to ‘mature artist’ has been well documented, so really it should be obvious which albums are better than the others. But actually listening back to them, one can’t but feel some surprising pangs of awe at the much imitated electro pop of her debut or how well the sculptured r’n’b homage of ‘Bedtime Stories’ has dated (and how the most recent ‘Hard Candy’ has not).
This is how I’d rank her output, see if you agree.
1) ‘Like A Prayer'(1989)
Big themes (religion, family, bereavement, divorce) wrapped up in the bow of some of the most sonically adventurous mainstream pop music of the 1980s, ‘Like A Prayer’ was a portrait of the artist at her peak. Madge had just hit the big 3-0 and come out of a much publicized divorce from Sean Penn, the confessional floodgates opened and her lyrics had the ring of childhood hero Joni Mitchell about them. Meanwhile her co-writers were also pushed to deliver their best. Patrick Leonard brought in the Beatles influence, Prince brought in the unhinged Hendrix-isms and Stephen Bray some great club-influenced rhythms.
2) ‘Madonna’ (1983)
Perhaps without knowing it, Madonna’s debut set the template for a dance-pop sound that would aped by hundreds of hip-pop upstarts from Annie to Gwen Stefani. The songs were catchy, the mix of synths, drum machines sounds fresh nearly 30 years later and Madonna sounds distinctly wide-eyed. You can almost smell New York’s Lower East Side whilst listening to it. An irresistible pop artifact.
3) ‘Ray Of Light’
Hooking up with William Orbit was a great move. His deep techo sound was the perfect foil to Madonna’s newly mature vocal and New Age-like lyrics. There was also the small matter of her re-teaming up with Patrick Leonard again. The results were both musically and lyrically boundary-pushing, aided by her most consistent collection of songs for years.
4) ‘American Life’ (2003)
Dodgy raps aside, this was a brilliantly odd collection of tunes which did the much maligned ‘folktronica’ genre in a wholly exciting way. Producer Mirwais seemed to get Madonna to strip back to just her and acoustic guitar whilst tipping over a bucket full of techno-boffinary over the top and watching what would happen. Somber, moving and just plain weird, this was insanely powerful stuff.
5) ‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)
A couple of iconic, legend-making musical moments (‘Material Girl’, ‘Like A Virgin’) floated near the beginning but the rest of the album was just as strong. A pure pop joy was evident in the effervescent ‘Over & Over’ and the breathy ‘Angel’, whilst ‘Dress You Up’ still stands up as one of her best singles ever (a mean feat for someone who’s had about a million). Meanwhile ‘Stay’ and ‘Shoo-Bee-Doo’ proved she could do ballady MOR too.
6) ‘Music’ (2000)
The joy in ‘Music’ was how it gleefully hopped about from pillar to post and genre to genre. High octane sugar shocks like ‘Impressive Instant’ bustled against epic glitch-pop like ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ and the arch, majestic trip-hop of ‘Paradise (Not For Me)’.
7) ‘True Blue’ (1986)
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She followed the ‘boy-toy’ pose of ‘Like A Virgin’ with a cover image for her next album that was sleek, sexy but also quite robotic (how very 80s of her). The contents upped the ante on the ‘serious face’ stakes, from the stagey, existential angst ballad ‘Live To Tell’ to the shadowy studio gloss of ‘White Heat’ to the contentious ‘Papa Don’t Preach’.
8) ‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)
Madge turned her head to ‘R’n’B’, soaking up the sleek sass of New Jill swing, hooking up with TLC’s Dallas Austin and Boys II Men’s Babyface alongside Bjork and Nelly Hooper. It was a potent mix because she made the sound her own so damn effectively (who else could have sung ‘Human Nature’?).
9) ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’ (2005)
Whilst enlisting Stewart Price produced sonic dividends, the idea of ‘Madonna returning to the dancefloor’ didn’t quite pay off in the way that was expected. Whilst one couldn’t argue with the likes of the ABBA-sampling ‘Hung Up’ and ‘Get Together’, some of the others songs seem a bit mired in grooves that were looking for the right hook and a less philosophical lyrical bent.
10) ‘Erotica’ (1993)’
Ditching Patrick Leonard for dance producer Shep Pettiborn was a bold move that didn’t wholly pay off. The hard house beats of ‘Erotica’ may have reflected the sexually explicit lyrically content brilliantly on tracks like ‘Deeper And Deeper’ and ‘Thief Of Hearts’, but over a whole album it seemed a bit much. Especially when there was a distinct lack of sonic finesse on slower songs like ‘Bad Girl’.
11) ‘Hard Candy’ (2008)
By far Madonna’s worst album. In some ways attempting to retread the same ground she did on ‘Erotica’, but this time she came across disconnected and odd, like she’d been overtaken by some sort of musical botox. In theory musical hook ups with Timbaland, Kanye and Pharrell Williams should have produced musical dividends. But the reality was actually that it sounded like her heart wasn’t in it.
How would you rank Madonna’s output?