Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Madonna Album (Part 2)

by Jeff Fiedler

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

Evita (1996, Warner Bros.)

B  

Sure, this soundtrack to the film adaptation of the wildly successful Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical is more of a curiosity piece than it is a standard Madonna album. But after two straight albums of cuts that emphasized groove above all else, it’s actually quite refreshing to hear Madonna get back to singing such highly melodic material as she does here. This may not be a disc you’re likely to go back and listen to in full all that often (for one, some of these songs make little sense outside the context of the musical and its storyline, and secondly, Madonna is technically just one of several vocalists featured here, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce, Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker and future Irish-pop star Andrea Corr all getting turns in the spotlight as well), but there are some individual moments that are strong enough to warrant repeated listens, particularly the acoustic ballad “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” (one of Madonna’s most underrated moments on record as a vocalist), the Latin-tinged “Buenos Aires,” “Partido Feminista,” the lovely “You Must Love Me,” and the musical’s most famous number of all, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” [It’d have been nice if the label had seen fit to tack the delightful dance remix of “Argentina” that became an unlikely radio hit and Top Ten smash onto the album as a bonus, but, alas, you can only find the hit version of the song on the single and the hits compilation GHV2.] Hardcore theater aficionados are likely to still swear by the original cast recording of the stage musical, but for Madonna’s first – and, to date, still only – venture into the world of stage or film musicals, she does a surprisingly wonderful job and the disc is perhaps her most charming work of the decade.

Ray of Light (1998, Maverick/Warner Bros.)

B   

Sure, this might be her most artistically ambitious album to date, but the pretentiousness and overt seriousness of this very electronica-oriented disc (the first of many collaborations with William Orbit) also makes it almost the complete antithesis of her first two or three albums, and it’s hard to listen to this disc in full without wishing at one point that Madonna would just lighten the heck up and not take herself so bloody seriously. (Really, it’s hard to imagine you’re listening to the work of the same woman who once made “Into the Groove” and “Borderline” and “Dress You Up.”) As an artistic statement, it’s pretty impressive and quite immaculately crafted, but it’s also not a terribly fun album to listen to, so whether or not you think this is one of her best albums or one of her dullest will depend largely on whether you prefer Madonna, the neo-disco pop star of the ‘80s, or Madonna, the more serious-minded and boundary-pushing artist of the ‘90s. The heavily dramatic art-pop ballad “Frozen” was the biggest hit here (it would peak at #2), but the lesser hit “The Power of Goodbye” (which stopped just shy of the Top Ten) is arguably even prettier and is one of Madonna’s better ‘90s singles. “Nothing Really Matters” would only reach #93 on the Hot 100 but would be a sizable club hit. The best up-tempo cut of all here, however, is easily the techno stylings of the album’s title cut, a Top Five smash that would prove to be Madonna’s most danceable non-soundtrack single since “Rescue Me” seven years earlier. The best moments here are strong enough to make this easily the best non-soundtrack release of Madonna’s ‘90s output and worth coming back to for individual songs, but as an album piece, lovely though the disc is, it’s also considerably more demanding to get through from start to finish than any of her ‘80s outings.   

Music (2000, Maverick/Warner Bros.)

C +  

In yet another very mixed trade-off, Madonna isn’t in nearly quite as serious a mood here as she was on Ray of Light, which makes this a slightly more fun album to listen to than that disc, but she’s still every bit as obsessed with electronica and tapping all the hottest Euro-disco sounds, so this album, like Bedtime Stories, seems more interested in grooves than actual songs. (Strip away the production – mostly handled here by Mirwais Ahmadzai and William Orbit – and look at most of these songs purely from a compositional standpoint, and they don’t actually look all that substantial or melodic. The title cut may have been a Number One hit, but it also serves as a perfect example of a cut that’s nearly all production and a melody that seems like it was only penned after the rest of the track was fully assembled.) “Impressive Instant” and “What It Feels like for a Girl” are a bit more interesting, but the best and most memorable cut here is the stuttered acoustic-guitar beats of the Joe Henry co-write “Don’t Tell Me.”

American Life (2003, Maverick/Warner Bros.)

D

Easily her worst album, American Life was also a considerable sales disappointment. Of course, it didn’t help that the lead-off single, the title cut, was easily the worst single Madonna had made to date, and not merely because it prominently features Madonna rapping, of all things, but because it’s also a radically disjointed song that sounds more like a bunch of fragments pasted together and because the lyric is too unbelievably self-absorbed to be either relatable or likeable. Madonna’s equally abysmal James Bond theme, “Die Another Day,” which sounds as if Madonna had never actually listened to a James Bond theme before, would be included on the disc to try to help sell it, so there is a major hit included here, albeit not one of her better ones, while the second proper single, “Hollywood,” would become Madonna’s first single since “Burning Up” to fail to reach the Hot 100 at all, and wouldn’t have garnered any mainstream attention at all if not for the infamous (and, quite frankly, desperate) Madonna-Britney kiss that accompanied the song’s performance at the VMA Awards. The overlooked single “Nothing Fails” is a minor gem, but the album itself is just too overly serious, somber, self-consciously arty, and tuneless to be worth recommending listening to in full. 

Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005, Warner Bros.)

B

Perhaps it was the flood of negative reviews of American Life that did it, but Madonna apparently seems to have got the message that she needed to lighten the heck up, and this is without a doubt the most up-beat album she’s made in a very long time and the best album she’s made since at least Ray of Light, if not perhaps even Like a Prayer. Ahmadzai pops up again here, but the bulk of the album is helmed by Stuart Price (The Killers, New Order), who helps Madonna to slightly rein in her recent obsession with the most cutting-edge sounds coming out of European clubs and simply get back to making an album with more of a general disco vibe to it, which helps the disc to feel much less pretentious than any of the previous three outings. Not all of it succeeds – “I Love New York” is awfully embarrassing (particularly when it rhymes “New York” with “Other places make me feel like a dork”) – but there are some fine cuts here indeed. “How High” and the Joe Henry co-write “Jump” both warrant repeated listens, but the best songs of all here are the insistent beats of “Sorry” and the Top Ten hit “Hung Up,” which cleverly incorporates the intro from Abba’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).”

Hard Candy (2008, Warner Bros.)

C –

Refusing to age gracefully, Madonna takes a giant step backwards on her last disc of the decade. Simply put, she just seems far too desperate here to land another hit. Jettisoning Stuart Price in favor of a hodgepodge of producers that includes The Neptunes, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland, the disc did land Madonna another Top Five hit in the Justin Timberlake duet “4 Minutes” (which feels more like Timberlake in spirit than it does Madonna), but artistically speaking, it’s a spotty affair. The Neptunes collaboration “Give It to Me” is fairly good, as are the second duet with Timberlake, “Dance 2Night,” and “Miles Away,” but the album boasts an equal amount of cringe-worthy cuts like “Spanish Lesson,” the Kanye West collaboration “Beat Goes On,” and the innuendo-heavy “Candy Shop.”

MDNA (2012, Live Nation/Interscope)

C +

First, the bad news: Madonna is once again obsessed with the latest Euro-disco sounds here, collaborating once more with William Orbit, as well as Alle & Benny Benassi, Martin Solveig, and quite a few other producers. [At this point, it’s safe to say that Madonna is sadly dead set against ever going back to writing the kind of adult-contemporary pop she used to excel at crafting with collaborators like Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray.]  The good news is that she brings a better set of material to the table this time. There are still weak songs – namely “Girl Gone Wild,” “Superstar,” and “Some Girls” – but “Give Me All Your Luvin’” (with M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj) has its merits and “Turn up the Radio” is even stronger. Best and most encouraging of all, though, is the end of the disc, where Madonna slows down the tempo and delivers two lovely ballads, “Masterpiece” and the Joe Henry co-write “Falling Free.”

Rebel Heart (2015, Live Nation/Interscope)

C –

Still taking herself way, way too seriously, and still seemingly far more concerned with staying current and being heralded as a true cutting-edge “artiste” than with writing songs that will stand the test of time the way her ‘80s classics have, Madonna’s most recent album to date is unfortunately a step backwards from MDNA. Hardly any of these songs sink in all that quickly, and Madonna – a full twenty-three years after Erotica and Sex – is still resorting to shock value, which she does too frequently here on cuts like the near-blasphemous “Holy Water,” two separate cuts with the word “bitch” in the title (“Bitch, I’m Madonna” and “Unapologetic Bitch”), and the Mike Tyson-sampling “Iconic.” [“Devil Pray” isn’t much better.] But it’s not entirely discouraging, and there are a few minor gems here to salvage the disc, particularly “Ghosttown,” the disco-tinged “Living for Love” and, best of all, the gorgeous acoustic ballad “Joan of Arc,” which is easily the finest song she’s penned in over fifteen years. [If she’d only cut more songs as sophisticated and melodic and graceful as “Joan of Arc,” she might actually get around to making another album that could legitimately stand up to Like a Prayer or Like a Virgin.] 

Compilations:

The most famous Madonna hits package is 1991’s The Immaculate Collection, which includes two new cuts, one of them good (“Rescue Me”) and the other absolutely terrible (“Justify My Love”); the disc could really use a remastering (some of the tracks were remixed, sped up, or edited to poor effect), but the track selection itself is quite good, even if it’s missing some hits (“Angel,” “Dress You Up,” “True Blue,” and “Keep It Together,” just to name a few.) It’s also one of the few places you can find “Into the Groove,” as well as Madonna’s Vision Quest contribution (and Number One hit) “Crazy for You,” penned in part by former Carpenters lyricist John Bettis and still – all these decades later – arguably the prettiest ballad she’s ever recorded. 2001’s GHV2 is a sequel that attempts to round up her ‘90s hits, but it’s flawed in its own right, strangely excluding both the Number One hit “This Used to Be My Playground” and the Number Two hit “I’ll Remember.” The 2008 career-spanning package Celebration simply includes too many more recent singles at the expense of bigger and older hits (the Number One hits “Take a Bow,” “Live to Tell,” “Who’s That Girl,” “This Used to Be My Playground” and “Crazy for You” are just a few of the most blatant omissions, and “Borderline” and “Cherish” are sadly both missing as well), so if you want a hits disc that also covers her ‘90s and ‘00s material, invest in the double-disc deluxe version of Celebration, which restores many, though sadly not all, of the missing hits. (“This Used to Be My Playground,” “Causing a Commotion,” “Angel,” “True Blue,” and “I’ll Remember” are just five of many Top Ten hits still mysteriously absent on the double-disc version.)  

Miscellaneous:

Unfortunately, Madonna’s discography can be a bit maddening to collect, since she’s recorded quite a few movie themes over the years that have not been released on studio albums in the U.S., including Desperately Seeking Susan’s “Into the Groove,” A League of Their Own’s “This Used to Be My Playground,” With Honors’ “I’ll Remember” (written by Madonna with, interestingly enough, former Mr. Mister frontman Richard Page), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me’s psychedelic “Beautiful Stranger,” and The Next Best Thing’s cover of Don McLean’s “American Pie.” “Into the Groove” and “Beautiful Stranger” can both be found on hits packages, but “This Used to Be My Playground” didn’t even appear on the soundtrack of the film it heralds from and is most easily obtained by picking up Madonna’s ballads-themed compilation Something to Remember, while the wildly underrated “I’ll Remember” can also be found there as well. Avid Madonna fans may also want to hunt down the EP Wotupski? by John “Jellybean” Benitez, which features the fun Top Twenty hit “Sidewalk Talk,” which was penned by Madonna (one of the rare times she’s penned a song completely on her own for another artist) and also features her on guest vocals on its catchy chorus; it’s never appeared on an official Madonna album, but it’s a lost gem that deserves more attention.