Madonna’s Studio Albums Ranked
Much has been said about Madonna’s relevance in today’s pop music landscape. While I understand the disappointment many felt with her last two studio albums, I also challenge you to think of another artist who, more than 30 years into their career has yet to make a bad album. There have been bad moments on individual projects, but never a bad album. There have been artistic highs, and albums where she simply follows whatever is popular at the moment, but, again, never a bad album. You can argue that, at her age, she shouldn’t be talking about sex, that she should give up the kind of music she’s been making the past few years and “act her age,” but then you’d basically be arguing that she should stop being Madonna. You might say that Hard Candy and MDNA show a Madonna struggling to stay relevant, struggling to still lead pop music, essentially struggling to maintain a career but it would be nothing that hasn’t been said about her before and she has always managed to come out on top every time. Rebel Heart is already shaping up to be her best album in years. If it isn’t quite another Ray of Light, it should at the very least rank up there with Music when all is said and done. Madonna could, of course, never release another (good) album in her career and her legacy would not suffer one bit. Because when, after a 30 year career, the most common and worst insult you can throw at someone is that they’re old, you’re in a pretty good place. So, to celebrate the release of her 13th studio album, I am ranking her previous 12 albums from worst to best.
12. Like a Virgin
It might have been the album that made her a superstar, and it is by no means a bad album, but as far as dance-pop music goes, there is nothing on here that she hadn’t already done before on her debut, and better.
11. Hard Candy This is a perfectly acceptable pop album, showcasing that Madonna can keep up with current trends. This is what pop music sounded like in 2008, and it’s perfectly effective, as good as anything else that was on the radio that year, often time better. The only problem is that she’s Madonna, and Madonna should be setting trends, not following them. She has done better.
10. American Life
I wouldn’t say that all the negativity directed at this album at the time of its release was unwarranted, but it is also unfair to dismiss it as a complete failure. Along with Like a Prayer, this is one of her most personal albums, it can be scathing critique of celebrity culture in the new millenium and there are plenty of amazing moments within the album. The best of these moments comes in the form of Nothing Fails, a song that in a perfect world would have achieved the chart success of her most popular ballads.
10. True Blue As an album, I feel about True Blue the same way that I feel about Like a Virgin. It is mostly a continuation of the dance pop sound that she used in her first two albums. What makes True Blue superior to Like a Virgin, though, is four fantastic cuts that served as singles, and all rank among Madonna’s very best: Open Your Heart, La Isla Bonita, Live to Tell and Papa Don´t Preach.
The problem with being Madonna. This album is actually quite good, with songs like Love Spent, Gang Bang, I’m a Sinner, and I’m Addicted among the best pop songs of the year the album was released. In fact, it is far better than much of the crap that gets played every 15 minutes on radio. It is also true, however, that when compared to the best Madonna has ever produced, it feels a bit underwhelming. When you set the bar so high, any fall in quality will feel like a disappointment. When you have proven that pop music can be so much more than just pretty melodies, the generic lyrics of Turn Up the Radio, however pleasant the production, just won’t cut it.
6. Confessions on a Dance Floor
While it might not have pushed the boundaries of pop music the way her best work has, Confessions still ranks among her most cohesive, exuberant and plain fun albums. I have a feeling that this is an album whose legacy will only continue to increase with time.
When it comes to straight up pop music, it seems difficult to predict what will stand the test of time, and what will be forgotten within a few years. Case in point, Madonna’s debut album. I doubt few people would have predicted this album would age as well as it has. Holiday, Borderline, Burning Up, Lucky Star, Physical Attraction. Does 80s dance-pop get any better than this?
4. Bedtime Stories
While the 80s inevitably come to mind when you think of Madonna, I think it is her work from the 90s that will one day prove why Madonna is the Queen of pop. Meditative, soulful, sexy, and intelligent, the songs on Bedtime Stories might not boast the most instant melodies in Madonna’s career, instead slowly working their way into your subconscious. Once they take hold, though…
3. Ray of Light
This is the album that is most commonly mentioned when making a case for Madonna’s artistry, and it is definitely great. Even today the production sounds just as fresh as it did when it was first released, her singing has never sounded better, and all in all it is one of the definitive pop albums of all time. But, it is not quite her best…
2. Like a Prayer
At this point Madonna had been an international superstar for a few years already, but this is the album that introduced Madonna the artist. The title track and Express Yourself, of course, are classics, but it’s more personal tracks like Oh Father, Promise to Try, and Till Death Do Us Part, where she sings about her troubled relationship with her father, the death of her mother when she was only 5 years old, and an abusive relationship, respectively, that bring heft to the album. This is Madonna moving beyond the superficial to create intelligent, sophisticated, all around great pop music.
1. Erotica Unfairly dismissed as her “sex album,” Erotica is, in my opinion, the best album in Madonna’s career. It’s not that it shies away from sex, but rather that it is about so much more than that, exploring how sex, power, love, death, and so many other themes intersect. It is ambitious, funny, sexy, and smart, giving insight into the taboos that society creates for itself. Whether singing about a woman who engages in one night stand after one night stand in order to forget the pain of a failed relationship, or the death of a close friend to AIDS, Erotica is proof that no other artist, except maybe Bjork, did more in the 90s to push the boundaries of what pop music could be.