The notion that, 40 years ago, Madonna was a shooting star predestined for the stratosphere is the stuff of pop music myth. The then-twentysomething singer’s demo tape, which included early versions of classics like “Everybody” and “Burning Up,” was rebuffed multiple times before she finally landed a deal with Sire Records, best known for punk and new wave acts like Talking Heads and the Ramones. Madonna became the label’s flagship act, thanks to the slow-burning success of her self-titled album, which finally hit the Top 10 more than a year after its debut and would go on to spend a staggering 165 consecutive weeks on the Billboard chart.
Madonna was so eager to move on from her debut and release her second album, Like a Virgin, that, during an on-air interview with MTV, she publicly hexed her latest single, “Borderline,” hoping it would “fizzle out.” No such luck. The song became her first Top 10 hit and was followed by an even bigger smash from the album, “Lucky Star.”
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Madonna the album—and Madonna the pop phenom—we’ve ranked all eight tracks from worst to best. Sal Cinquemani
8. “I Know It”
Madonna once dismissed the songs on her debut as “aerobics music.” Arguably the album’s weakest link, the hooky “I Know It” is the best representation of that autocritique—all bounce and vigor, with an elastic bassline that slaps like a wet sweatband. Madonna’s performance oozes confidence and petulance in equal measure—shades of ’60s girl-group melodrama—as she brushes off a lover who’s spurned her. Cinquemani
7. “Think of Me”
Two often overlooked facts about Madonna: First, it’s a bona fide R&B album, and second, Madonna penned the majority of the songs herself—a data point that flew in the face of her image as a manufactured disco dolly. She sings her heart out on “Think of Me,” a midtempo deep cut featuring chewy synth bass, quintessential ’80s sax solos (two of them!), and soulful backing vocals—from the likes of Gwen Guthrie and Chic’s Norma Jean Wright—that cleverly nod to Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” Cinquemani
6. “Physical Attraction”
“Maybe we were meant to be together/Even though we never met before.” If that doesn’t sum up the relationship between Madonna and her instant fanbase circa 1983, I don’t know what does. “Physical Attraction” finds Madonna, still believably coquettish and naïve at this early point, tellingly offering her permission to take things to the next level. The woman was in the driver’s seat from day one, and never slid aside for anyone. Eric Henderson
It’s almost impossible to think of Madonna as she was on her first single, “Everybody”: a faceless voice so understated it would be inaccurate to say it’s that of a diva—post-disco or not. The Mark Kamins production sparkles with shiny-and-new-for-1982 synths, while Madge offers a preview for the world-as-a-dance-floor motif she’d never stop revisiting throughout the next three decades. “Everybody” preceded Madonna’s media saturation, the vital balance she’d come to strike between the musical and the visual and her own gigantic persona. As tracky as Madonna has ever been, “Everybody” stood on its music alone. And, really, it was a good look for her. Rich Juzwiak
4. “Burning Up”
The most aggressive song on the album hints at her pre-fame days as a singer and drummer in rock bands like the Breakfast Club. The electric guitar crashes in over the tight, syncopated beat like an alternate take from Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.” Corny, sure, but Madonna’s shameless panting for a man’s affection and threat to get on her knees and “do anything,” punctuated by a high synth line, don’t betray a single wink. This is the height of Top 40 kink. Paul Schrodt
3. “Lucky Star”
The self-penned opening track of Madonna’s debut sets the tone right off the bat, with shimmering, programmed glissandos that soon give way to clanging rhythm guitars, synth atmospherics, and chugging bass. A sonic monster worthy of David Mancuso’s fine-tuned system at the Loft, and balanced with a chorus built around a childhood mantra and delivered via helium-tinged vocals, “Lucky Star” established Madonna as a one-woman girlie show in a genre more comfortable with full-throated divas. Henderson
Has there ever been an opening refrain more winsome and instantly nostalgic than that of Madonna’s first Top 10 single? Those tender chords flawlessly establish the tranquility of life before a torrid and, from the sound of it, toxic affair. And even after they’re interrupted by aerobic drum patterns and pitch-flexible synthesizer hooks, they linger in the memory, a haunting reminder of a youthful summer forever lost to an ill-advised love. Henderson
The genius of Madonna’s early, post-disco work is how it does so much with so little. With “Holiday,” the singer gives space to an immaculate arrangement featuring cowbell, guitar, synths, and Fred Zarr’s keyboard solo, which together comprise the track’s funkiness and simple melodic pleasures. But Madonna’s soulful vocal take, ushering in a celebration “in every nation” as if she were taking on the world’s problems as her own, is what’s made this hit outlive its seemingly superficial charms. Schrodt
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