Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Madonna Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

Madonna (1983, Sire)

A +

A landmark debut that not only put Madonna on the map but helped to re-define club music in the post-disco age, this is as unapologetically lightweight and effervescent of an album as Madonna has ever made, but it’s also arguably the most charming of her albums for the very same reason: Madonna’s not trying to shock anyone here, nor does she seem to have any great desire to be seen as a serious artist – she simply wants to make you dance and smile, and she succeeds wildly at it, the disc spawning quite a few notable club hits. “Burning Up,” “Everybody,” and “Physical Attraction” may not have been big crossover hits, but they all reached #3 on the Club charts, while the disc also spawned three massive Top 40 hits in the self-penned twinkling neo-disco of “Lucky Star,” the celebratory “Holiday” (penned by Curtis Hudson and Lisa Stevens, both of the disco band Pure Energy), and, best of all, “Borderline,” penned by the album’s primary producer, Reggie Lucas, then best known for having written and produced several Stephanie Mills disco hits such as the enduring “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” “Borderline” is all the more remarkable to listen to today when you consider that Madonna has seldom since made any up-tempo cuts quite as melodic or pretty as this song, and it’s illuminating to hear Madonna wrap her vocals around the song’s beautiful pre-chorus (“Just try to understand / I’ve given all I can …”) and vamp-out. Even the two non-singles here, “I Know It” and “Think of Me,” both penned by Madonna, are catchier than your average filler cuts, and the disc is a solid listen from start to finish.

Like a Virgin (1984, Sire)

A +

Safely avoiding the sophomore jinx, Madonna became a star of the highest magnitude with this album, which would ultimately sell over ten million copies in the U.S. alone. One of the biggest reasons the album remains arguably her greatest studio album to date is the sound decision to bring in one of the best producers of the ‘80s, former Chic guitarist/songwriter Nile Rodgers, to helm the project. Rodgers brings in his Chic bandmates, including the wildly-talented drummer Tony Thompson, to serve as the backing band on roughly half of the album, which helps to give the disc a slightly more organic sound than its predecessor. Though Madonna would start penning nearly all her own singles shortly after, she remains open here to recording outside material, a humble but savvy move which paid off big-time with three of the singles here. Former disco star Peter Brown (best known for the Top Ten hit “Dance with Me”) contributes the unforgettable Number Two hit “Material Girl,” a surprisingly rock-tinged song that boasts some great fill work from Thompson and could almost pass as an early-era Roxy Music song if not for the lyric. Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (who’ve jointly penned many of the biggest hits of the ‘80s, including Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and Heart’s “Alone”) offer up the album’s iconic chart-topping title cut, another track that reaps all kinds of rewards from the presence of Chic as the backing band. The fashionable synth-pop of “Dress You Up” would become a Top Five hit as well, as would Madonna’s self-penned “Angel.” Like the debut, even the non-hits here are fairly strong, and cuts like the charming “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and the excellent cover of Rose Royce’s haunting ballad “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s anyone’s guess why Madonna never worked with Rodgers again, but it’s hard not to wish in hindsight that they’d continued to collaborate, because they really create a lot of magic here together, and the album also has a sense of playfulness and charm to it that Madonna has never fully re-captured ever since.  [Note: some international editions of the album generously include “Into the Groove” as a bonus cut; the track has inexplicably never appeared on a proper studio album in the U.S., however, and was initially only available as a B-side on the 12-inch single of “Angel.”]

True Blue (1986, Sire)

A –

Swapping out Nile Rodgers for Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray (the latter of whom had replaced Madonna as drummer in the pop band The Breakfast Club, which would ultimately score a Top Ten hit of its own in 1987 with “Right on Track”), there is some awfully strong material here – five Top Ten hits in all, actually! The intensely dramatic ballad “Live to Tell” (from the Sean Penn film At Close Range) would top the charts, as would the controversial “Papa Don’t Preach” (originally written by Brian Elliot as more of a standard love song and re-worked by Madonna as a song about teenage pregnancy) and the more dancefloor-minded “Open Your Heart.” The catchiest song on the album is a toss-up between the tropical-flavored, flamenco-guitar-laced Top Five hit “La Isla Bonita” and the charmingly effervescent Top Five title cut, which boasts one of the best bridges in all of Madonna’s catalog. The non-singles here are only slightly inferior to those on True Blue, but what most prevents this album from being quite as fun as Like a Virgin is simply that it’s just not as organic and lacks the slight rock edge that Chic was able to bring to the table on cuts like “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin,” and Tony Thompson’s live drum work is missed. Still, as far as the songwriting goes, this is nearly every bit as strong a disc as its predecessor, if a tad more serious. 

Who’s That Girl soundtrack (1987, Sire)

C +

Technically, Madonna only has four cuts here, the rest of the disc being rounded out by cuts from obscure acts like Duncan Faure, Michael Davidson, and Coati Mundi, and minor ’80s hit-makers Club Nouveau (“Lean on Me,” “Why You Treat Me So Bad”) and Scritti Politti (“Perfect Way.”) Of the non-Madonna cuts, Scritti Politti fares the best with “Best Thing Ever,” but the primary reason to own this disc is naturally the Madonna material. “Who’s That Girl” would top the charts, but the Top Ten hit “Causing a Commotion” is even better. “The Look of Love” and “Can’t Stop” aren’t bad, either, particularly the former song. But if you’ve got “Who’s That Girl” and “Causing a Commotion” on 45 or on a hits compilation, there’s little need to pick up the full soundtrack.

Like a Prayer (1989, Sire)

A

Often heralded by critics as her greatest album, this is undeniably an improvement on True Blue, but it’s just a bit too self-consciously arty to be quite as fun or charming as Like a Virgin, though it’s still got a very generous helping of solid songs and is at the very least one of the three best albums she ever made. The chart-topping and gospel-laced title cut remains one of Madonna’s most critically-lauded singles of all, while the club hit “Express Yourself” would stop just one spot shy of reaching the top of the charts (though Lady Gaga would make it to Number One decades later with the blatant sound-alike “Born This Way”), but it remains nearly as much of a party standard as “Like a Prayer.” The album’s other singles don’t get anywhere near as much attention, but they’re arguably even more appealing. The sadly-now-forgotten Top Ten hit “Keep It Together” is a bit of a hybrid of “Holiday” and “Dress You Up,” while the piano ballad “Oh Father” is an especially serious and dramatic number that might have stuck out in a bad way if not for the sheer beauty of its melody and Madonna’s powerful vocal performance. [The piano-and-strings ballad “Promise to Try” is nearly every bit as pretty.] Perhaps the most charming of all the singles, though, is the easygoing and effervescent adult-contemporary pop of the Top Three hit “Cherish,” the most playful cut Madonna’s made since at least “True Blue,” if not “Material Girl,” and one that boasts the most beautiful melody to be found on any up-tempo Madonna single since “Borderline.” [Critics don’t usually pay the song much attention, but it’s arguably one of the ten best singles Madonna’s ever made.] The non-singles here are quite good in their own right, too – the Prince collaboration “Love Song” is as intriguing as you might expect it to be, while “Till Death Do Us Part” is surprisingly hooky for a filler cut, as is the kaleidoscopic “Dear Jessie,” arguably the most charming non-single to be found on a Madonna album since Like a Virgin’s “Shoo Be Doo.” Unfortunately, the album ends on a weak and misguided note with “Act of Contrition,” but in a way, maybe it’s fitting that the disc ends that way since it foreshadows the overly serious and self-consciously arty path Madonna would follow from Erotica onwards.

I’m Breathless (1990, Sire)

B

In spite of the packaging, this is not officially the soundtrack to Dick Tracy that it looks like – a proper soundtrack for that movie does exist, featuring cuts from the likes of Al Jarreau, Erasure, k.d. Lang, Brenda Lee, and Jerry Lee Lewis (yet none from Madonna), as does a second soundtrack featuring just the film score. This album is technically more of a hodge-podge of songs from the movie, new swing-styled songs designed to evoke the same time period, and a single slapped onto the disc simply to help sell it. The most interesting thing about the album is that it provides greater insight into Madonna’s vocal abilities. Three of the cuts here are actually penned by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, and Madonna acquits herself quite well on these, particularly “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man)” and “More.” The double-entendre-laden novelty of “Hanky Panky” (a Top Ten hit that has been forgotten to time and is hard to find elsewhere) seems a bit too calculated in its attempt to shock, but “Cry Baby” and “Something to Remember” are minor gems. The dance classic and Number One hit “Vogue” ends the disc and doesn’t fit in here at all, but it’s also the only song here most casual Madonna fans are likely to be familiar with, so its presence does make the album a bit more enticing of a purchase. Maybe it doesn’t all hold together as an album piece nearly as well as some of her other discs, but there are still enough good songs and performances here that this tends to be a fairly underrated disc and one of her most charming outings of the ‘90s.

Erotica (1992, Maverick)

C +

At this point, Madonna’s career had become less about the music than a seemingly unending desire to shock; hence, the infamous coffee-table book Sex, which was published near-simultaneously and which remains the most dubious move of her career. (In the intervening years since I’m Breathless, she’d also seen a video – “Justify My Love,” easily her least melodic single yet – get banned outright by MTV for overtly risqué content.) While all her albums up to this point had been more or less relatively innocuous, here Madonna very much makes a deliberate effort to be as shocking as Prince was on the equally unsettling Dirty Mind, and it’s a jarring makeover that ends up feeling ice-cold instead of sexy, cuts like “Erotica,” “Did You Do It?” (which would be omitted entirely on the edited version) and “Where Life Begins” much too far removed from the tasteful, sophisticated adult-pop of songs like “Cherish,” “True Blue,” and “Borderline” to not feel just a little as if Madonna’s spitting on her fans. [It’s not quite as jarring a transition as, say, Christina Aguilera going overnight from making innocuous singles like “What a Girl Wants” and “I Turn to You” to the unsettling raunch of “Dirrty,” but it’s still pretty unsettling.]  It’s actually a shame, though, that Madonna felt so obligated to be a taboo-breaker around this time, because there is some good material here that largely got overlooked in the wake of all the controversy that surrounded this album and the “Erotica” video (and, of course, the aforementioned book.) The soulful “Deeper and Deeper” and the ballads “Rain” and “Bad Girl” are all quite good, though the former ballad would stop a few spots shy of the Top Ten and the latter would just barely dent the Top 40, a shocking change of fortune for a woman who had only had one post-“Holiday” single (Like a Prayer’s “Oh Father”) miss the Top Ten in the U.S. up until the release of this album. Still, even the few hidden gems aren’t enough to prevent this from being her first truly disappointing album, and it remains one of her hardest albums to warm up to.

Bedtime Stories (1994, Maverick/Warner Bros.)

C

The good news is that Madonna’s noticeably dialed back on the in-your-face raunch of Erotica here. Unfortunately, this disc, even more so than Erotica, is where Madonna truly begins to start taking herself way, way too seriously. For a woman who first got famous with neo-disco cuts like “Lucky Star,” sophisticated adult-contemporary cuts like “Borderline,” and bubbly gently-rocking cuts like “Material Girl” or “Like a Virgin,” it’s somewhat shocking just how much Madonna strays here from her roots, largely abandoning all of the stylings of her ‘80s sides in favor of cold, slow-burning club grooves and sultry, R&B-tinged ballads. Madonna has shifted producers yet again here, this time replacing Shep Pettibone with Nellee Hooper (Bjork), Dallas Austin (TLC), and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds (Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men). Unfortunately, the songs themselves are just painfully dull; “Secret” is more groove than melody, while the “Babyface” co-write “Take a Bow” (which sat at Number One for seven weeks, more than any other Madonna chart-topper) sounds perfectly pleasant but sounds fairly unimpressive when you place it against some of her more melodic ballads of old, especially “Crazy for You” or “Live to Tell.” The album is not bad per se, but it doesn’t play to her strengths – there are no disco-worthy cuts here, nor are there any particularly effervescent pop melodies – and even the best cut here, “Take a Bow,” could just as easily have been recorded by Babyface himself, so this never really feels completely like a Madonna record.