Thursday, 6 June 2019


Supremely influential, there was possibly more to Madonna than met the eye....

Madonna (1983)

In 1983, when this, Madonna's debut album was released, disco had long burnt out, replaced by New Romanticism, electro pop and early hip hop-rap. Madonna launched herself as something of a dancefloor disco diva, following on from Michael Jackson's Thriller. She had a personality, image and confidence that seemed right for the vain, fashion-conscious, Culture Club-inspired "look at me" times. It wasn't an album that brought huge megastardom overnight, however but it was the first step, and, like the output of Prince in the late seventies, had considerable quality within it - immaculately played, vibrant, catchy and sung with a winsome hatful of charisma.                                                                                  
It was a perfect dance-pop album, full of hooks, solid rhythms (albeit programmed), infectious synth breaks and a vocal that although not strong in the soul diva style was nasally unique enough to make it stick in the mind. Her personality was selling these songs, a great voice was not really necessary. In 1983, it was all about the image on MTV. Madonna met these pre-requisites perfectly. Superficiality was something to celebrate. If you looked good, you were 80% there, so the fact that Madonna's voice was at times squeaky and at other times dull mattered not a jot - all those accessories and bangles outshone that by far. Put a headscarf on, multiple bracelets and wave your arms in the air and you were well on the way. Having said that, it would not be for a couple of years before Madonna-mania really took hold. This album still went a little under the radar at the time.

The first two tracks, Lucky Star and Borderline are classic examples of what was good about this album - they are nothing special instrumentally, but contain an attractive melody and hookiness to them that raises them far above regular disco fare. Indeed, Borderline remains one of my favourite Madonna tracks. Madonna would prove to be all about sex as her career progressed and the first signs can be found on the muscular chug of Burning Up, with its searing electric guitar and sexually oriented lyrics. Madonna was burning up with lust, starting to exploit the sex-obsessed mid-eighties vibe for the first time. Listen to this in the wine bar then back the the flat for some passionate coupling. I Know It is a synth-driven, vaguely ABBA-esque number with a pretty lifeless vocal but more of those irresistible hooks. Holiday is the album's best known track, and rightly so, it captures the freedom to travel far more than in the previous decade hedonism of the eighties. It is vibrant, fun and effervescent and perfect for summer. 

Think Of Me is unremarkable but solidly singalong and features a nice bit of saxophone. I like the slightly funky, bassy groove of Physical Attraction. Once again it is another song that sums up the 1983-84 period so well. It is an extended number, over six minutes, which paved the way for  the 12" mix craze of the time. The same applies to the closer, Everybody. This is a track which shows up Madonna's ordinary voice but, as I said earlier, that didn't really matter. Overall, this was a pleasurable album and it provides a nostalgic listen for anyone who was around at the time.

Like A Virgin (1984)
Madonna’s debut dance-pop album of relatively lengthy tracks yielded three medium hits, but it certainly did not catapult her to mega-stardom in the way that this sophomore offering did. In places, particularly on the two biggest hits, the feel was pure pop as opposed to disco or dance. It worked, because Madonna was stratospheric after the release of this album and its singles.  The image created on the cover had shifted from the accessorised tough but basically sweet street girl of the first album to the pretty but knowingly slutty girl on this album’s cover.

The first of those hits was the gleeful pop with cynical lyrics of Material Girl. It was as much about the accompanying MTV video in 1984 and this one did the business, meaning that Madonna’s reedy, nasal voice did not come into the equation. I cannot help but like the song. Songs like this seemed to be a calculated move to secure a poppy best seller as opposed to putting out a more credible dance number. Even a track like the easily catchy Angel ploughs the same frothy, breezy furrow. It was also a single but, funnily enough, I don’t remember it at all. Like a Virgin is even more girly in its bubbliness and was an even bigger hit. It is so evocative of 1984. Madonna’s voice on it is one of her youngest-sounding offerings, perhaps appropriately. The girl could never really sing though, could she? Certainly not on this one. Again, though, I liked it back then and still do, so it did its job.

Over And Over is a typical piece of throwaway eighties synth pop and again, Madonna’s dull and at times over-affectedly deep voice does her no favours. It is lively enough, though, and warmly bassy. Love Don’t Live Here Anymore is a cover of the sublime Rose Royce song and it doesn’t come close to even competing with the original. It is ok, I suppose, but Madonna ain’t no Gwen Dickey
Dress You Up was the third hit from the album and is more dance-pop-ish, featuring a nice guitar solo and a thumping beat. It is my favourite of the three hits. I have always been irritated by the way she sings "from my head down to my toe-oh-woh-es...", though! Shoo-Bee-Doo is a disposable track that sounds a bit like a Jackson 5 album track from 1972. Pretender is an underrated song with a nice warmth to it. Instrumentally, it reminds me a bit of Talking HeadsSpeaking In Tongues album. Stay is a low-key but appealing number. There is nothing that isn’t enjoyable on this album, really. It is no work of genius, for sure, but it was far more influential, culturally and musically, than such a work probably deserved to be. Whenever I listen to it, however, I enjoy it, so there you go.

** Madonna’s big breakthrough number one in the UK came in the summer of 1985 with the non-album track Into The Groove. It is a great dance-pop track and firmly cemented her position as a megastar of the eighties. Some versions of this album include it, but it did not appear on the original release.

True Blue (1986)
By 1986, Madonna was a mega-star and this was a megastar's album, packed full of hit singles (five), like a Michael Jackson offering. Like Prince albums at the time, the album, musically, was drenched in keyboard riffs and electronic programmed  rhythms, something that always irritated me somewhat. It was a time in music that didn't really appeal to me, not being a programmed sound fan. That said, though, the songs are all so overflowing with hooks that it sort of gets forgotten, even by me. The album doesn't stick to one style, and shows Madonna's increasing willingness to delve into various genres and influences in her songs. Within its basic pop framework it is actually quite a creative album.

Papa Don't Preach was an anti-abortionists' dream, as Madonna defiantly told grumpy old Papa that she had made up her mind and she was going to keep her baby. As with all her hit singles by now, it was supremely hooky and, of course, it was extremely popular with the young, female market. Madonna was showing that they could be strong and in charge of their own lives. That may sound fatuous and simplistic, but it was true, I'm sure. There was a lot of "girl power" about it. Open Your Heart was also a hit single and also very catchy, although it suffers a little due to a slightly muffled, dense production. White Heat is a slightly Prince-like dance-pop number that harks back to the groove of her debut album. Live To Tell was a single too, and was Madonna's first really convincing ballad. Huge chart positions were now guaranteed. Madonna was all over the airwaves in 1986. She was also gaining strength as a collaborative songwriter - mature numbers like this proved it. They were a long way from the poppy floss of Like A Virgin or Material Girl. Indeed, the whole album is a much more developed, adult one than its predecessor.

Where's The Party returns to the enjoyable, easily-digestible dance-pop fare that was par for the course by now. Album tracks like this, sandwiched between the hit singles, were more than just filler, they were actually quality numbers. 
True Blue is a blatant melodic steal from the great girl group Motown hits of the sixties. Replace the programmed backing with The Funk Brothers and you would have a Diana Ross & The Supremes number. La Isla Bonita has become an iconic hit from the period and saw Madonna's first foray into Latin rhythms. It was an unsurprisingly perfect summer song. The Blondie-esque, lively Jimmy Jimmy also explored a sixties girl group meets new wave thing. It is a bit of a forgotten one that deserves a bit of attention. Love Makes The World Go Round is the only track that is just a bit throwaway, but is is still joyous in its Latin pop feel, proof that Madonna was a girl who still just wanted to have fun, it was not all about serious relationship angst, religion or steamy sex, not yet, anyway.

Like A Prayer (1989)
This, even more than its predecessor, True Blue, was an album that saw Madonna most definitely trying to develop her “adult” credentials. Despite a pop-dance foundation to all her music, serious subjects such as religion and sexuality were rapidly becoming obsessions in her songs. She was still very much an artists who put out regular singles, but they were often a merger of controversial and serious issues contained in their lyrics played out over what was a still poppy-contemporary backing. The songs were invariably accompanied with a  controversial MTV video with all that religious iconography. She was trying to make an artistic statement and would continue to do so as her career progressed, turning herself into the female version of Bono and attracting many accusations of pretension. While in many respects it was from here on that Madonna staked claims for being a credible artist, it was also the point where she began to be mocked and found her credibility being questioned, so it was a genuine watershed release.

The problem with all that MTV stuff was that the videos often bore little relation to the song’s lyrics. A classic example was the huge hit Like A Prayer, with its white woman-black man video “plot” that were not relevant to the song’s lyrics. Despite that, it was, of course, irresistibly catchy, with a deep bass sound and convincing drums. It is all about the chorus, though, the verses are rather wishy-washy. Funnily enough, it is the video that I always remember the song for, and in my view, that should never be the case - the music should always be first and foremost. Another big hit was the assertive, punchy dance vibe of Express Yourself, as Madonna sang an antidote to Material Girl. It was all about love and self-expression now. Love Song is a staccato, jerky but enjoyable piece of slow, chunky funk. It is one the most interesting tracks on here, for me, and exemplifies Madonna’s ability to read contemporary musical trends. It is very Prince-esque, and it is no surprise that it was a collaboration with him, as both in writing and performing, Madonna sings exactly like him. 

Till Death Do Us Part is lively enough but otherwise unremarkable, featuring lyrics about an unsatisfying marriage. Promise To Try is a tender, sensitive ballad while Cherish, the third hit single from the album, is a typically singalong, poppy number. Then we go a bit innovative and introspective. Dear Jessie was also a single, but a decidedly uncommercial one, being a bit of a psychedelic style song, full of sweeping orchestration and hippy lyrics, like something off Prince’s Around The World In A Day. It was probably the oddest song Madonna had recorded thus far and it morphs into the sombre, serious, quasi-religious Oh Father, another song incomprehensibly released as a single. It did seem that in pursuit of a more serious aspect, Madonna had sacrificed some of her innate joie de vivre. Keep It Together brings back some of that vitality, however, on an upbeat, dance-ish, very mid-eighties offering. It is one of the album’s better tracks with a similar groove to Express Yourself and a bit of Sly Stone-style wah-wah guitar. Spanish Eyes is an evocative slow number with unsurprising Spanish guitar interjections while Act Of Contrition is an experimental soundscape of madcap electric guitar and crazed vocals that doesn’t really work. Like True Blue, there is a fair amount of variety on this album. I prefer the former, however, finding it more cohesive and possessing of a better sound quality. That is not to say that this album is without its good points- it is certainly a highly credible offering.

Erotica (1992)

By 1992, three years since her last studio album (although she had three huge number one hits since with Vogue, Justify My Love and This Used To Be My Playground), Madonna was a proper mega-star now, and with mega-stardom comes carte blanche to release albums of mega-star indulgence. This was one of those. From being an effervescent, fun-loving party girl  who liked a dance, Madonna had, to an extent, re-invented herself as the personification of the Kama Sutra - a sexually insatiable and experienced performer between the sheets. Her obsession with sex knew no bounds on this albums, almost to embarrassing levels, even for someone like me, who is certainly no prude. The album came out at the same time as her coffee table book, Sex, full of soft porn pics that heralded a backlash against her from offended religious types ad also, notably, from a cynical music industry and people like me who viewed it all as incredibly pretentious and unnecessary. Just get on with the music. What is in no doubt, though, is the book and the album's seismic cultural effect and influence. Sexuality and free, unbridled expressions of it were everywhere, much of it inspired by these products.

The album, released in the era of CD, was a long one - fourteen tracks lasting seventy-five minutes. Fine in regard to value for money, but I, a veteran of the late sixties and seventies, prefer my albums to be more concise. It plays like a double album of old. The album yielded six hit singles, however. Only Erotica ever seems to make it on to greatest hits compilations, though.

Erotica begins with some contemporarily-fashionable scratching sounds and continues with a deep, rhythmic bass line underpinning Madonna's breathy, semi-spoken, seductive vocals and a killer hook line in the "put your hands all over my body" bit. It is a sort of stream of consciousness of sexy pillow talk  and in that way is incredibly sensual and effective. Some vaguely Eastern chanting backing vocals add to the atmosphere. They were, apparently, sampled from a Lebanese singer called Fairuz, who subsequently sued and an agreement was reached. Madonna's appropriation of Peggy Lee's iconic fifties number Fever is excellent too, jam-packed with hedonistic, pleasurable vibes. These two tracks are two of her best - lusty, insistent, thrusting, throbbing soundscapes suitable for both the dancefloor and the bedroom. You can't argue with them. Romeo didn't just give Juliet fever as far as Madonna was concerned, he gave her his whatever - big time, as did Captain Smith to Pocahontas. If you don't feel sexy after listening to this then you need to consult a therapist. Bye Bye Baby has another sensuous, pulsating programmed bass line and Madonna singing-semi-singing in a girlish, higher pitch than the previous tracks. Again, it is a calculated low-key but insistent dance groove that set trends at the time. A bit more of a throwback to previous sounds was the more upbeat Deeper And Deeper that saw Madonna reverting to her less-than-convincing deadpan voice. It included some of her beloved Spanish sounds in there too - castanets and flamenco guitar. 

Where Life Begins is a ludicrous song about the pleasures of oral sex. Now, I like a bit of that as much as anyone else, but it just sounds trite in the way Madonna says "every girl should experience eating out, every time I return from a hard day's work, I swear it's all I'm thinking about...". It just sounds silly. As for the "finger-licking good" and "I'm glad you brought your raincoat" bits. Oh dear. Sorry. It has a nice rhythm to it, though!

Bad Girl was a single, a bit of a low-key choice and is slightly insipid in its feeble-sounding vocal. Oh look, its ok, but I prefer the earlier tracks. Waiting is more like it, more thumping and muscular, with another semi-spoken vocal. As Madonna's voice was never great, it is on tracks like this where she was at her most effective. It has some nice jazzy piano too. Another trait of Madonna's output at this time was the occasional bitchiness towards other women in her lyrics and she does it here on the otherwise poppy Thief Of Hearts. It is a bit odd hearing the promiscuous Madonna criticising another women for her promiscuity. She just wants the same as you do, Madonna, so let her be. 
Words continues in the same vein, musically and to a certain extent, lyrically, although this time Madonna's target is an ex-lover. Both tracks have a cold, synthetic, electro-dance beat. Rain is a smoother, warmer number, with a more romantic, soft feel. It was also a single, again a comparatively laid-back one. 

Why It's So Hard is an intuitively sensual groove that is not particularly remarkable but captivates all the same. By now, the album is definitely going on to long and the next track, the sad and sombre AIDS-related tribute to a friend of Madonna, In This Life also lasts a minute or or so too long. Of course, it is still a fine and moving song, though. 
Did You Do It? did not appear on all the releases of the album. It features rappers Mark Goodman and Dave Murphy on vocals an explored the contemporary hip-hop boom. It is a fine track, with a great, rumbling bass line. It found time for some good old hip-hop misogyny too in the "honey, get them legs parted" line. It is ridiculously coarse but somehow laughably so. The jazz-house vibe-ish and classy Secret Garden was famously dedicated by Madonna to her own vagina. Enough said. I guess that is appropriate place to finish off with.

Bedtime Stories (1994)
Two years after the deliberate shock of Erotica and the accompanying book, Sex, Madonna toned it all down and went all soft and romantic. Instead of performing all sorts of acts upon you, she just wanted to cuddle up now on what as a decidedly laid-back album. It was the album where Madonna "grew up". It is a making love album as opposed to a... well you know. Madonna displays an innate sensuality for probably the first time. It is her most introspective piece of work.

Survival is a low-key, dreamy, semi-funky number that sets the tone for the album. The backing is still synthesised, but I guess that was par for the course with Madonna. Secret is an acoustic-driven gentle ballad. The pulsating bass pounds away but the melody draws you in slowly. This was her most soft, unconfrontational material thus far. It is all very blissed-out and relaxing. There is some nice wah-wah guitar near the end too. I'd Rather Be Your Lover is performed in a soft funk, contemporary r 'n' b style including a mid-song rap by Meshell NdegeocelloDon't Stop has more of that throbbing bass beat so common in the sounds of the time. It is a slow but insistently hooky and catchy number. 

Inside Of Me continues the chilled-out vibe, man with Madonna's vocals breathily seductive. The bass continues pulsing away. All very late-night. Human Nature is also slow and sensual, but a bit deeper in its thump. "Express yourself, don't repress yourself..." sings Madonna, harking back to Erotica's blatant sexuality. "I'm not your bitch, don't hang your shit on me..." has her revisiting previous themes more pointedly than on other songs. The "warm bath" feel is back on the sleepy Forbidden LoveLove Tried To Welcome Me has a delicious, warm bass line and another soft, tender vocal from the immeasurably changed singer. Sanctuary is in the same vein. The ethereal Bedtime Story was written by Björk but matches the rest of the album. The final track, Take A Bow, doesn't break the mould either and delivers another fetching melody. Sonically, nothing changes much on this album. It is a subtle, classy, understated album, ideal for evening play.

Ray Of Light (1998)
After four years away from making studio albums, Madonna returned in 1998, this time employing contemporary producer William Orbit to help her tap into to the electronica vibe of the time. As she had always been dance-orientated, this did not prove a problem for her and, together with Orbit, they toned-down the more speaker-thumping power of electronica while still retaining the heavy beats and managed to merge Madonna's innate ear for a hooky pop melody with current "techno/electronic" sounds, resulting in probably the first mainstream pop/chart-aimed album to do so. It also deals with spiritual and mystical themes and finds Madonna singing in a fuller, better-sounding voice. Yes, it could attract accusations of pretension, but often a bit of spiritualism results in a great album. It is an innovative, adventurous and mature album that stakes a claim for Madonna being a serious, credible artist. For sure, it is a worthy piece of work. It is reflective, subtle and accessible. It is a few tracks too long for my liking, though as many "straight to CD" albums were. Despite that, it is probably my favourite Madonna album, to an extent. I recognise it as the most mature, but it is not the most commercial or singalong.

Drowned World/Substitute For Love is a deliciously chilled-out slow and beguiling number sung quietly over a pulsating bass sound. Because it is 1998, however, and the age of deafeningly-loud CDs was coming upon us you have to turn it down a bit because the bass is distorted, even on the best speakers. Why did they do that? Otherwise, it is a fine track, full of infectious percussion too. Swim is sumptuous as well, delightfully understated and warm. Ray Of Light was a single and has a pounding, upbeat dance rhythm and a catchy hook on the chorus. It is electronic dance pop with rock influences on the guitar. I'm not a dance music fan in any way at all, really, but I have always enjoyed this, so it has probably done its job. Candy Perfume Girl is full of seductive beats, a mysterious ambience and various electronic sound effects. Skin is similarly electronically beguiling, this time utilising a dance "clubby" beat. 

Nothing Really Matters is similarly uptempo and dance-y. Sky Fits Heaven is a spiritual song that again features some heavy beats. Shanti/Ashtangi merges dance, world music, electro and rock with chanted Sanskrit vocals. It is most captivating, one of her most adventurous numbers to date. Frozen was a single, but another low-key, mysterious, plaintive-sounding one, featuring some Eastern influences on the backing. The Power Of Goodbye is an attractive, subtle number as too is the beautiful To Have And Not To Hold.  Little Star reminds me in places of David Bowie's "Heroes" album in its dense backing, just in places. Mer Girl is the album's quirkiest number, all very surreal, dealing with mortality. As I said, the album was fifteen-twenty minutes too long, particularly as a lot of it is very similar. Forty minutes or so would have been enough for me. that doesn't mean that all of it is not quality, however.

Music (2000)
Madonna, true to her constantly innovative instincts, diversified once again on 2000s Music. She produced a lively, very dance music-influenced album, but it was one that was, as she always seemed to be able to do, merged beautifully with her innate feel for catchy pop. She was pretty unique in her way of keeping her finger on the contemporary pulse of an era/genre yet making it eminently listenable and credible at the same time. She weaves current dance pop and electronica with rock, country and folk in places, successfully. Not many artists could actually achieve this in the way she and her producers William Orbit and Mirwais Ahmadzaï do.

Music is an infectiously jumpy, staccato dance number, full of pounding beats, jerky effects, electronic noises and a seductive vocal. Impressive Instant is more upbeat, and again is "clubby" in its programmed beats. It thumps away but the vibe is catchy and the vocals appealing once again. Although I am certainly no dance music aficionado, I like this. It exemplifies Madonna's ability to make this sort of contemporary music poppy and accessible, even to old punks like me. It has some inventive electronic instrumental breaks in it. An excellent track. Runaway Lover continues in the same attractively beaty fashion. Apparently it is trance-house in style. I wouldn't know. Again, I like it though. The pace slows down on the romantic, intoxicating, acoustic-driven slow ballad I Deserve It. Madonna goes all reflective, lyrically. Amazing is a fine track, overflowing with grungy rock guitars and melodic electronic beats. It retains a really poppy feel too. Very impressive. Nobody's Perfect is a sensual groove of a track, enhanced by some superb, weird electronic riffs. Half way through it goes sort of psychedelically acoustic for a while. It is a track full of innovation.

Don't Tell Me is a dance-acoustic number featuring those strange stops in sound that had people thinking their CD player was going wrong. 
What It Feels Like For A Girl is a gently rhythmic, sensitive and enjoyable song. Madonna's voice is much better in these later years, for me, anyway. Paradise (Not For Me) is by far the album's longest track at six and a half minutes and it harks back to the mysterious, slow electronic vibes of Ray Of Light. Madonna sings in French for some of the song. The bass line is sumptuous too, as is the percussion. The original album ended with the reflective ballad Gone but the later CD releases include the cover of Don MacLean's iconic American Pie. It is not a patch on the original, but Madonna gives it a sad soulfulness. As a long-time lover of the original, I have to admit for a soft spot for Madonna's version. Although I have previously stated that both Bedtime Stories and Ray Of Light were among my favourite Madonna albums I have to say that this one probably knocks them both off their perch. Its sheer vitality and effervescence together with superb sound quality makes it irresistible. It is also more cohesive due to its shorter running time.

American Life (2003)
2003 found Madonna again employing contemporary dance sounds and rhythms and blending them with pop hookiness and lots of acoustic guitar plucking to produce another very enjoyable album, just as 2000's Music had been. It was getting fashionable to slag her off as an old has-been by now, but it was difficult in the face of stuff like this. It was a good album. End of. As they said back then.

American Life is addictively jerky with its stop/start walking pace beats. They can be a bit off putting, the same with the flamenco guitar parts but it is still a strong, captivating and adventurous song. Madonna raps on the track too, quite convincingly. I love Hollywood. It is a delicious blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. Again, Madonna's vocal is strong, far better than it ever used to be. More rap features and the lively dance beat ensured its popularity in that field. I'm So Stupid again finds a slow strummed guitar integrating with a solid, bassy dance beat over lots of electronic sounds. Once again, this is good stuff. Great sound quality too. Check out that crystal clear percussion. Love Profusion is a very similar track in sound and ambience. More acoustic guitars utilised with those heavy beats. Nobody Knows Me is a very staccato groover packed with bleeping electro sound effects.

The acoustic fusion is back again on the slow, appealing Nothing Fails which is embellished by the use of a choir half way through. The guitar changes to electric for a similarly-strummed slow melodic backing on Intervention. A lot of these songs follow the same path - strummed, slow guitar then chunky dance beats behind a seductive Madonna vocal. No matter, though, they are all good songs. Finely created, constructed and delivered. X-Static Process has some intricate guitar picking and no dance beats as Madonna goes quasi-religious as she often liked to do. 
Mother And Father is also self-analytical, Madonna looking back thoughtfully over this time a more muscular, bassy, electronic backing. The bass line on this is truly excellent. I love it. If David Bowie had released this in the late seventies (or in any era) it would have been proclaimed a work of genius. Sometimes Madonna deserved more credit for her songwriting/arranging. This was one of those occasions. Die Another Day was her James Bond theme tune contribution, and it suits the album's ambience perfectly with its oddball beats and "Sigmund Freud - analyse this..." lyrics. It broke the mould for Bond themes too. The orchestrated Easy Ride has more acoustic guitar, making it sound a bit like David Bowie's Rock And Roll Suicide. It is a sombre, moving closer to what was a really good album. I've changed my mind about Madonna albums - put this one at the top, just under Music, then Ray Of Light and Bedtime Stories.


With regard to "best of" Madonna compilations, these two are probably the best:-

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