One of the most original and innovative artists of the modern era, Madonna has sold 150 million albums worldwide, topped the charts across two decades, created an enormously influential body of work in the music video medium (11 of her original clips are included in Slant Magazine’s 100 Greatest Music Videos, more than any other artist) and has stood at the forefront of popular culture for 20 years. This fall, Warner Bros. Records will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Madonna’s debut album with a comprehensive box set. But that’s not before the superstar releases her 10th studio album, American Life, due April 22nd. To celebrate its release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.
Sometime in between disco, punk and new wave, a new genre was born: “dance music.” Heralding the synth-heavy movement was a debut album that sounds just as fresh today as it did two decades ago. Simply titled Madonna, the disc introduced a new pop icon to the world with the soulful “Borderline” and the airy “Holiday.” When Madonna sang “Celebration! Come together in every nation,” global harmony never sounded so simple. The album also spawned Madonna’s first Top 5 hit, “Lucky Star,” which unknowingly prefaced her recent foray into the glittery halls of electronic-pop. “Everybody” is as durable a dance track as it was when it was released as Madonna’s very first single in 1982. Tracks like the edgy, punk-infused “Burning Up” incorporated electric guitars along with the most state-of-the-art synthesizers. And as an added bonus, Madonna even handily rings a cowbell, previewing a seemingly bottomless arsenal of talents that would emerge over the next 20 years.
Like a Virgin (1984)
Like a Virgin, the record that launched Madonna into unearthly super-stardom and went on to sell over 10 million copies domestically, defined a generation with hits like “Material Girl” and the now-classic title track. Though not as innovative as her debut, the album stands as one of the most definitive pop artifacts from the indulgent Reagan Era. The mid-tempo ballad “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and a soulful cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” proved Madonna could churn out more than just novelty hits, while the sugary “Angel” and the irresistible “Dress You Up” contributed to the singer’s record-breaking list of consecutive Top 5 hits (16 in all). The retro-infused “Stay” and the percussive “Over and Over” are the album’s hidden gems; a frenetic remix of the latter resurfaced on the 1987 compilation You Can Dance.
True Blue (1986)
With four extremely varied #1 singles, Madonna’s third album, True Blue, was the supreme archetype for late 80s and early 90s pop music. With songs like “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist, joining the ranks of 80s icons like Michael Jackson and Prince. The songs were undeniably more mature than “Material Girl,” dashing some critics’ assertions that she was just another flash in the pop pan. The striking “Live to Tell” was not only a brave first single, but a statement in and of itself. The ballad rewrote the rules of what a pop song was supposed to sound like and spoke volumes about Madonna’s unwavering drive for fame and mass-acceptance: “If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far.” True Blue includes some of Madonna’s greatest, most influential hits (the robust “Open Your Heart” and the timeless “La Isla Bonita”), but it’s also home to some of her biggest clunkers. Like much of Like a Virgin, the title track is an authentic throw-back to the girl-group-era pop that was an admitted influence on the singer, but the effect seems significantly more contrived on “Jimmy Jimmy” and the obligatory save-the-world anthem “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Time stamped with ’80s-era keyboard and drum synths, True Blue, though chock-full of hits, is the most dated of Madonna’s albums.
Like a Prayer (1989)
In 1989, Madonna released what has been called her greatest and most personal record to date. Like a Prayer found the pop singer coming-of-age with a collection of pop confections layered with live instrumentation, sophisticated arrangements, deeply felt lyrics, and a stronger, more assured vocal. The album begins with a clamoring guitar riff that erupts and ebbs to the first chords of the title track, a church organ quietly setting the stage for the song’s dramatic crescendo. “Like a Prayer” climbs to heights like no other pop song before it—or after. Like most of the songs on the album, the track’s glossy production gives way to a power beyond studio sonics. Madonna pays homage to the Beatles (on the magical, Sgt. Pepper-esque “Dear Jessie”), Simon & Garfunkel (the haunting “Oh Father”) and Sly and the Family Stone (“Keep It Together,” which evokes “Family Affair” without the use of samples or artless imitation). Another Sly & The Family Stone-inspired tune, “Express Yourself,” turned Madonna’s “Material Girl” image on its head, denouncing material things for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. The track is easily the most soulful performance of Madonna’s career. Like a Prayer also found the pop star at her most emotionally bare: the autobiographical “Till Death Do Us Part” addressed Madonna’s tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn, delivering punch (“You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself”) after punch (“He starts the fight, she starts the lie/But what is truth when something dies?”); the heart-wrenching piano-ballad “Promise To Try” touched on the death of her mother; and the powerful “Spanish Eyes” bravely (and elegantly) confronted the issue of AIDS. While her vocal isn’t perfect on these songs, her interpretations are flawless because of her brutal honesty. Never before had Madonna been so emotionally candid. By this time, Madonna had become a savvy songwriter, constructing lyrics in layers so that each song could be accessible on multiple levels. In the grand pop scheme, songs like “Cherish,” which invokes the sunshine pop of the ’60s, and “Love Song,” a daring and unconventional duet with Prince, pale only in comparison to their glorious counterparts, making Like a Prayer one of the quintessential pop albums of all time.
I’m Breathless (1990)
With I’m Breathless, Madonna went whole-hog, creating a concept album of Big-Band numbers inspired by Breathless Mahoney, her character from the 1990 film Dick Tracy. Three songs were pulled directly from the film, including the torchy “Sooner Or Later,” which won composer Stephen Sondheim an Oscar, and the ironic “More,” which seemed tailor-made for the former Material Girl: “Once you have it all…There’s one thing you miss/And that’s more!” Madonna steps up to bat—Sondheim’s clever wordplay and melodies are often sophisticated by pop music standards—and knocks them right out of the park. From playful and sultry (“He’s a Man”) to kittenish (the Latin-flavored “I’m Going Bananas”), she displays a remarkable vocal range throughout the album. Songs like the cheeky “Hanky Panky” and the ardent “Something to Remember,” a seemingly personal meditation on self-love, touched on themes she would go on to explore more explicitly later in the 90s. Madonna could never be satisfied with just a 40s Big-Band concept album, of course; “Now I’m Following You,” a duet with co-star Warren Beatty, segues into a dance remix that includes a Socrates quote (“An unexamined life is not worth living”) that, in typical Madonna fashion, she twists to fit her own post-modern interpretation. The album’s final track, the hugely influential “Vogue,” at first seems grossly out of place, but with its homage to old Hollywood, the track is ultimately a more than fitting finale to a daring album. Preceding Evita and, hell, even Chicago, I’m Breathless proves that Madonna is a true renaissance woman who has literally done it all.
Self-absorbed, deeply flawed and hugely under-appreciated, Madonna’s Erotica, the album MTV’s Kurt Loder likened to an “iceberg,” is considered by many to be the singer’s rock-bottom. Madonna, under the guise of 1930s actress Dita Parlo, presides over the mess with whip in hand, tongue planted firmly in cheek and a knowing wink in her eye. Erotica’s title track is pure sadomasochism in the form of song (“Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better”), while “Where Life Begins” waxes erotic on the perks and pleasures of oral sex (“You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat”). But that’s not to say there aren’t any pop-friendly moments. With its of-the-moment house beats, swirling keyboard synths and flamenco guitar, “Deeper and Deeper” is both a product of its time and a timeless Madonna classic. Her sonorous vocal harmonies glide atop the frosty beats and skyward drone of the gorgeous “Rain,” while the dance track “Words” is both inventive and sleek. Though she enlisted “Vogue” producer Shep Pettibone for most of the album, Madonna could have more successfully achieved her gritty, raw sound had she handed the reigns over to Andre Betts, who produced just three tracks here. While Pettibone’s often-suffocating productions now sound dated, Betts’ jazzy piano parts and hip-hop beats were way ahead of their time. Long before her rap on “American Life,” Erotica’s “Waiting,” a veritable sequel to the steely, in-your-face spoken-word of “Justify My Love,” found the singer sharpening her questionable rhyming skills. The album’s most personal, revealing moment comes in the unexpected acid jazz/drum n’ bass closer “Secret Garden,” in which Madonna pines for an unborn child: “I just wish I knew the color of my hair/I know the answer’s hiding somewhere.” While two socially conscious tracks, the reggae-infused “Why’s It So Hard” and the icy AIDS ballad “In This Life,” seem to break the flow, Erotica’s irrefutable unsexiness probably says more about the sex=death mentality of the early ’90s than any other musical statement of its time. And whatever words one chooses to label the album with—cold, artificial, self-absorbed—Madonna embraces those qualities and makes it part of the message. It was also around this time that Madonna’s famous beauty mark fell off her face.