This punchy, scrappy and fantastically frothy record announced Madonna to the world – and the world was never the same. She had made a name for herself through sheer charisma, hustling her way around New York’s post-disco club scene, and she mixes this plucky resolve with simple but effective songwriting. To modern ears, the oingy-boingy synths sound dated and the simple songs feel porous, but it’s a swirling cocktail of enduring sounds and ideas, adjusting the trajectory of pop and laying the groundwork for Madonna’s next 40 years.
Reworded: The song “Borderline” combines new-romantic themes and dramatic vocals that range from high-pitched to breathy, accompanied by simple piano chords and a subtle cymbal tap. Despite the individual elements feeling thin, there is a certain magical quality when they all come together. The iconic synth arpeggios of “Lucky Star” have been referenced in pop music by artists like Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen, and only Madonna could turn a nursery rhyme into a pulsating dancefloor anthem that stands the test of time. From the punk-inspired vocals in “I Know It” to the infectious energy of “Holiday” and the seductive purr in “Everybody,” Madonna’s undeniable charisma ties it all together. This song showcases the essence of who Madonna would become as an artist.
Like a Virgin (1984)
Like a Virgin was the album that made Madonna the biggest female star in the world. It was sharp, it was provocative, it was fun, it was witty – the cynicism of Material Girl offering a pretty effective skewering of the era’s increasingly blatant aspiration/greed (the word “yuppie” had entered the lexicon between the release of her debut album and Like a Virgin). It was also packed with fantastic songs: four huge hit singles, five if you got the second version, hastily rereleased with the peerless Into the Groove tacked on.
Madonna’s last album captured the essence of her upbringing, blending post-disco dance music with a touch of hip-hop and a heavy dose of choppy new wave rock. The influence of New York’s Mudd Club and Paradise Garage, where artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Beastie Boys, and Sonic Youth also emerged, could be faintly detected in the music. However, her subsequent album, True Blue, marked a significant change. While she continued to produce great pop songs, Madonna’s persona, messaging, and musical choices seemed more contrived and less spontaneous.
True Blue (1986)
Some people believe that Madonna is not a great singer, but a successful pop star nonetheless. However, while she may not have the same vocal range as other singers like Mariah Carey, she is very emotive. Her album True Blue, which was her most commercially successful, showed a more complex and profound side of her expression. Instead of her previous girlish singing style, she matured and explored deeper parts of her vocal range and emotional state.
The pleading and forceful tone of “Papa Don’t Preach” and the slow pace of “Live to Tell,” her initial standout ballad, are the most striking illustrations. However, Madonna manages to infuse even the light and airy “La Isla Bonita” with a sense of desperation, her longing palpable and tragically unmet. The mournful vocal style that distinguished her on “Borderline” in 1983, proving she was more than just a nightclub performer, is now punctuated by vibrato, giving her a truly anguished sound.
Some parts of the song, like the choruses in Open Your Heart and Where’s the Party, have a positive tone with major keys. However, this change can feel abrupt after the more melancholic verses, almost as if Madonna is trying too hard to show she’s having fun. While I appreciate her later “sex” records, the husky vocals on True Blue feel more genuine and contemplative as Madonna reflects on the weight of love. Written by Ben Beaumont-Thomas.
How do you handle achieving global domination? On October 21, 1992, Madonna addressed this dilemma in her own unique way – by releasing a coffee table book titled Sex. The book featured explicit photos of Madonna engaging in various activities such as toe-sucking, rimming, naked hitchhiking, BDSM, and fingering herself while wearing a leather mask. It also included a threesome with two female skinheads, where one of them held a knife to her crotch.
Her fifth album, Erotica, was overshadowed by the ensuing uproar. It was a daring departure from her usual shiny dance-pop style, delving into the grittier genres of hip-hop, house, and R&B. While there are some fleeting moments of joy (such as the timeless hit “Deeper and Deeper” and the heartfelt ballad “Rain”), the album primarily showcases themes of anger and pain. These emotions are directed towards both disappointing relationships (as seen in songs like “Words,” “Waiting,” and “Bye Bye Baby”) and society as a whole (as seen in “Why’s It So Hard,” which despite its suggestive title, is not actually a risqué track).
A major contributing factor to this gloomy attitude is evident in the somber ballad “In This Life,” where Madonna mourns her dear friend Martin Burgoyne, who passed away from Aids at the age of 23. In 1992, Aids-related deaths were at their peak, with an estimated 33,590 Americans losing their lives to the disease, the majority of whom were between the ages of 25 and 44. The album Erotica portrays a world where sex and desire are overshadowed by death and fear, which was a harsh reality for her homosexual fans. However, amidst this darkness, there is a glimmer of hope in two songs where Madonna celebrates her femininity: “Where Life Begins” and the powerful closing track “Secret Garden,” where she demonstrates her willingness to try new things, even venturing into jazz. – Alex Needham
Ray of Light (1998)
Like a Prayer might nip at its heels, but Ray of Light is Madonna’s best album because it marries pop thrills and heavy drama even more deliciously. Released just before she turned 40, its spirit of epic curiosity twitches and jitters; William Orbit’s trip-hop and trance-inspired textures bring humility and humanity to Madonna’s big pop personality.
This ignites from the album’s opening track, Drowned World/Substitute for Love, full of unsettling ambient winds and a godly vocal sample (from the San Sebastian Strings’ 1969 track Why I Follow the Tigers). Fresh from vocal training for Evita, Madonna sings “I never felt so happy”, but then the beat cuts out. You hear the depth of her lie in her delivery, and this bold vulnerability bristles in the rest of the tracks. It suits her.
Various feelings have a strong impact. The main song overflows with happiness; Sky Fits Heaven convinces us to listen to our hearts at 140 beats per minute; The Power of Good-bye’s electronic, sequenced synths add weight to the story of a relationship ending. Mer Girl is also a beautifully bizarre conclusion with elements of folk and horror, exploring themes of death, escape, and deterioration. This album has a unique blend of grandeur and closeness, showcasing Madonna’s enchanting abilities. Jude Rogers
Madonna entered the new millennium with her trademark ability to transform herself: “Hey Mr DJ, put a record on.” She initially worked with Ray of Light producer William Orbit, but his upbeat trance-pop sound had become mainstream, used by artists like Mel C. In search of something fresh, Madonna discovered a demo by French newcomer Mirwais Ahmadzaï. He was brought in to collaborate on six songs, bringing his unique micro-chopped grooves (Impressive Instant) and melancholic robotic funk (Nobody’s Perfect) to the table, clearly influenced by fellow French electronic acts Daft Punk and Air. Mirwais also had the daring idea to reduce the amount of reverb on Madonna’s vocals, which had been a defining aspect of the ethereal sound on Ray of Light. The resulting dryness adds an unexpected intimacy to Music.
The combination of finger-picked guitar and compressed vocals, along with post-Björk strings and a hydraulic hip-hop bassline, creates a perfect blend on Don’t Tell Me. It’s a fusion of cyber-country and the impending new millennium. Despite Madonna’s inconsistent political views, her album Music features one of her most timeless examinations of gender in the dreamy track What It Feels Like for a Girl. Surprisingly, she was able to top her previous Madonna album with what could be considered her best work yet.
American Life (2003)
Madonna’s ninth album faced an uphill battle from the start. The concept of “fame sucks” was promoted as the theme of the album, and the lead single included a cringe-worthy rap about soy lattes and Mini Coopers. The overall aesthetic of the album also seemed to criticize the Iraq war, making it a controversial release. Critics were not impressed, with the BBC even calling it “bland and weak.” Madonna, however, did not seem interested in pleasing either critics or fans. The album opens with a trio of songs that deconstruct the false promise of the American Dream: the titular track, the ironic second single Hollywood, and the abrasive I’m So Stupid. While her conclusions may seem banal – for example, that money does not solve everything – there is a sense of excitement in hearing her confusion and thoughts unfold, leading up to the realization that she has been “stupider than stupid.”
However, there is also a sincere emotional core in the subsequent tracks, all encompassed in Mirwais’ unique blend of percussive synthesizer beats, distorted vocals, and fragmented acoustic elements. The angelic Love Profusion serves as a soothing remedy to the album’s initial self-punishment, while the heartfelt ballad Nothing Fails is interrupted by a sudden choral outburst. Shining deeper tracks Intervention and X-Static Process further pay tribute to Madonna’s then-husband Guy Ritchie, with the former boasting one of her strongest choruses and the latter stripping down to a vulnerable folk lament.
Madonna delves into introspective themes throughout her album, examining how her mother’s death influenced her on tracks like “Mother and Father” and challenging the typical Bond song structure with “Die Another Day.” She also contemplates the process of aging on the poignant ending track, “Easy Ride.” While American Life may not be an easy listen, it offers a glimpse into the complexities of Madonna’s true self. – Michael Cragg
Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
The album Confessions on a Dance Floor follows a common theme seen throughout Madonna’s career: never count her out. It came after the misunderstood American Life and carried the weight of either solidifying her as a star for generations or labeling her as a has-been. Ultimately, it solidified her as a star and is considered her last great record. It serves as a vibrant, neon-colored swan song before her decline in the 2000s. It is also Madonna’s best dance record, blending the hypnotic intensity of Ray of Light, the unique European club sound of Music, and the triumphant euphoria of her iconic 80s era.
In terms of Madonna’s career, Confessions was not as big of a success in the US, but it did win a Grammy and its lead single, Hung Up, which sampled Abba, became the most successful dance single of the decade. However, for many fans in Europe and Australia, it is considered Madonna’s ultimate album, with a massive following and a compilation of various dance genres into one electrifying record. The album’s lively club beats and unapologetically provocative promotion were a strong response to the notion that a 47-year-old diva should retire from her performance outfits and transition into slower ballads. Its unconventional approach has undeniably set the standard for popular dance albums in the 2020s, such as Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Lady Gaga’s Chromatica. However, these albums pale in comparison to Confessions. It was like Madonna had planted Excalibur back into the stone, and even after 20 years, we have yet to see a successor claim it. Shaad D’Souza