Madonna's many career sidelights often obscure the fact that she remains one of the greatest pop acts of all time. Yes, she's made some awful movies, but so did Elvis and the Beatles. Simply put, Madonna makes exemplary pop records. They've embraced the trends of the day while showcasing a feisty personality that lesser pop idols and their keepers can't fake. Like David Bowie during his glory days, Madonna has moved from stylistic strength to strength: She's succeeded so fantastically partly thanks to her skill at picking crafty collaborators, but also because behind all the videos, costumes, quotes, and celebrity trappings, she is an exemplary songwriter with a gift for hooks and indelible lyrics, and a better studio singer than her live spectacles attest. Her many albums aren't always perfect, and the early ones include regrettable filler. But when it comes to singles, Madonna has few peers, a deserving candidate for the title of greatest singles artist since the 1960s heyday of the single.
That gift was there on her 1983 debut, which combined proven postdisco club tracks like "Everybody" and "Burning Up" with breakthrough pop hits "Borderline" and "Lucky Star." The knockout remains "Holiday," the first production by DJ, remixer, and then boyfriend John "Jellybean" Benitez. Her debut has aged better than its smash successor of the next year, Like a Virgin, which combines two career-making monsters, "Material Girl" and the equally tongue-in-cheek title track, with catchy but less substantial follow-ups, producer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist extraordinaire Nile Rodgers' clattering arrangements, and her weakest album tracks ever.
True Blue magnified her button-pushing ability with a controversial 1986 smash about pregnancy, "Papa Don't Preach," and proved her range, from the dark ballad "Live to Tell" to the Latin kitsch of "La Isla Bonita." You Can Dance lengthens previously released singles and album cuts while adding the clubby exclusive "Spotlight," but none of the remixes match the originals' simple urgency. The Who's That Girl soundtrack is a mixed bag of four Madonna cuts not found on other albums combined with five forgettable flops from Club Nouveau and other bygone '80s rhythm-pop acts.
After these 1987 trifles, 1989's Like a Prayer effectively upped Madonna's ante as a serious artist with the one-two punch of the righteous gospel-inflected title track and the quintessential Madonna manifesto "Express Yourself," as well as a supporting cast of substantial songs that covered topics like spousal abuse ("Till Death Do Us Part") and familial neglect ("Oh Father") with the breezy buzz of self-discovery. Created to coincide with Madonna's credible acting job in Dick Tracy, 1990's I'm Breathless fails to turn the pop singer into a convincing Broadway belter: She tries too hard and sounds literally out of breath on tracks cowritten with longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard or penned for her by theater songwriting legend Stephen Sondheim. Released later that year, The Immaculate Collection leaves off several hits, yet sums up the first stage of Madonna's career flawlessly while including stray essential singles like "Into the Groove" and "Crazy for You," and worthy sensual newies "Justify My Love" and "Rescue Me."
Created with remix kingpin Shep Pettibone to coincide with her button-pushing book, Sex, 1992's Erotica represents Madonna's fullest immersion in gay culture and sounds, and is also her darkest, least tune-driven album. Not coincidentally, a media backlash intensified. The ever-resilient star responded with 1994's bruised but far more mainstream Bedtime Stories, a low-key, R&B-derived confessional defined by its Dallas Austin– and Babyface-assisted smashes, "Secret" and "Take a Bow," respectively. The atypical title track (a flop when released as a single) pointed the way to her next musical incarnation, the sleek electronica of 1998's Ray of Light, although the star wasn't yet ready for another commercial risk. First she emphasized her crooning powers with 1995's ballad retrospective Something to Remember (key track: the haunted A League of Their Own soundtrack hit "This Used to Be My Playground"), then reaped the benefits of voice lessons with her '96 Evita soundtrack. Although she'd dramatically improved her vocal technique since attempting Sondheim, what she tries with Andrew Lloyd Webber's operatic score is far more ambitious, serious--and consequently just as strained.
The elocution lessons learned during Evita give her a My Fair Lady-esque English accent, but Ray of Light achieves another breakthrough akin to Like a Prayer in the way it documents the singer's journey to the center of her soul. Pop song doctor Rick Nowles balances producer William Orbit's sonic explorations as the set flips from club anthems like the title track's rock-trance synthesis to the chilled-out heartbreak of "Frozen." With 2000's Music, Madonna lightens up, harking back to the early-'80s street disco of her debut with the help of her most offbeat collaborator, obscure French synth-popper Mirwais Ahmadzai. The album lacks its predecessor's introspective intensity but offers wise feminist observation ("What It Feels Like for a Girl") and inspired froth (giddy Austin Powers soundtrack hit "Beautiful Stranger"). Unlike her previous hits collections, GHV2 doesn't include lost singles or new cuts, and the albums it culls from (Evita aside) offer stronger, more consistent pleasures. After Madonna's back-to-back successes, 2003's American Life disappoints, a rare instance of lesser more-of-the-same from this extraordinarily disciplined trend forerunner. Many missed the joke of the title track's goofy rap about lattés and feeling "super-dooper" in her Mini Cooper, but the scent of stale indulgence is hard to ignore, despite the popsmith's ever-present hooks and Ahmadzai's sportive studio noise. Remixed & Revisited improves upon American Life's standout single, "Love Profusion," but the rest botches an opportunity to revive interest in its parent album. Even the casually curious would be advised to investigate the hundreds of remixes found on her many maxi-singles, most of which remain in print and attest to her nearly unerring dance-floor smarts. (BARRY WALTERS)
From 2004's The New Rolling Stone Album Guide