At the weekend I kicked off the home stretch of Madonna write-ups, having covered all the studio albums over the last few months. But here’s another ten of the best – according to me anyway.
from “Confessions on a dance floor”
Now I think about it, this is our first visit to 2005 comeback hit “Confessions”. I love this album, and I think it was a great set of singles too. I’m just pleased we managed to get four! Anyway, maybe the video was a bit cobbled together and the wig was horrible, but it was all Japan-themed and for once it seemed like a legitimate use of the endless parkour dancers she used.
It’s a bit of a self-help dance track, but in a bit of a matter-of-fact sense that doesn’t sound too preachy. I certainly could relate to some of it when I wanted to leave the job I had at the time of this album. I wouldn’t say it was life-changing or anything, just a nice bit of advice. Also the production on this album was awesome so I love this song.
from “Ray of light”
Speaking of comeback albums, while Madonna had softened her image post-“Erotica” with ballad collections, nice dresses and dignified movie roles, it left her in danger of becoming less and less relevant to the music scene. Time to win back some rep with her most critically acclaimed album to date.
With hindsight it feels like a brave move to launch such a high-stakes comeback with a ballad, even if it’s a spooky electronic ballad. With William Orbit practically an unknown entity to the wider world, “Frozen” was a striking and unusual song with an – I don’t like to throw the word ‘iconic’ around, enough people do – iconic video, she pulled it off. I go through phases with this song, it can get lost among her bigger, brasher signature songs. But I always have time for a quiet moment to this. I wish “Ray of Light” had been the big comeback single, but this was a golden age for me and her so I’m not complaining.
28. Lucky Star
from “The First Album”
Taking it right back to the start, Madonna had made a name for herself on the early 80s dance scene, but with world domination in mind, pop was the way forward. The first album, “The First Album” did a masterful job of mixing the dance sounds that made her popular with the pop sounds that would make her global.
With a lovely layered production, bits of nursery rhymes and glimpses of something a little more racy, it’s an early peep into the formula that made Madonna one of the most talked-about women of the decade. It’s easy to think of early Madonna as being a bit too lightweight and insubstantial. To a degree I agree with that in the contest of “Like a Virgin”, but the first album really was a great one.
27. Crazy for you
from the “Vision Quest” soundtrack
Oh I had a few moments to this song back in the day … by “the day” I mean about 1999 when I first started delving into her back catalogue. Not appearing on a studio album, it made its presence known on “The Immaculate Collection” and ballad collection “Something to Remember”. Along with being a radio staple, it’s a pretty inescapable entry in her canon. What a lovely entry it is too, a perfect end to a school disco, with some really sweet lyrics.
I love the storytelling in it, it’s so well-written. Things like “I see you through the smoky air, can’t you feel the weight of my stare?” might sound corny and childish on paper but she totally sells it. The melody is unexpectedly all over the place but totally gorgeous.
26. Gang Bang
Now for something completely different, and bang up to date. For some people this might highlight the gulf between the world-beating radio hits of the 80s and the erratic spectacles of the 2010s, but for me there’s room for both. “MDNA” might have dashed any hopes that she was going to grow old gracefully (or indeed accept growing old at all), but with a much darker clubbier album than “Hard Candy” I was still open to enjoying it.
Crass and cringeworthy in places, but those beats are amazing. From “Crazy for you” and its school disco, in “Gang Bang”, Madonna is oddly not doing anything like a gang bang, but instead gunning down her former lover. It’s got this nonstop throbbing beat to it, cheesy sound effects, and after a shuddering bombastic middle-eight she just loses her mind. “DRIVE BITCH! And while you’re at it, DIE BITCH!”. Totally insane but I can’t help but enjoy it. The motel shootout segment in the MDNA tour was even more of a spectacle, I can’t wait to see that again on DVD.
from “The First Album”
OK let’s calm down and go back nearly 30 years for a second trip to her first album. While “Lucky Star” is well-loved, it might not be that well-known outside the fans. “Holiday” can make no such claim though, as perhaps her first BIG hit. I hadn’t really rated it amongst my highest, until I realised how much I love singing along to it when I put “The Immaculate Collection” on in the car.
No hidden agendas, it’s just a fun 80s pop song about going on holiday. It’s got a great synth hook, a simple singalong chorus, and an infectious and lighthearted party vibe to it. How can you disagree with that?
24. Dress you up
from “Like a Virgin”
Fast-forwarding a few years, second album “Like a Virgin” was never one of my favourites. I can’t quite put my finger on why, perhaps because I never really disliked it, it just had a few too many filler tracks, and I never particularly loved the headline singles, as massive as they were (i.e. “Like a Virgin”, “Material Girl”).
I’m not sure “Dress you up” was ever a ‘proper’ single everywhere, but indirectly it was one of my first recollections of Madonna when I was just getting into her, used on a GAP advert back around the year 2000. It’s built around a really catchy chorus, with the feeling that the verses were contrived just to fit the invented lyrics of that chorus. Still, it keeps the cool but poppy energy that “The First Album” had, and again is a great singalong song.
I haven’t done any “Erotica” yet, have I? “Bad Girl” just missed my top 40 sadly. Anyway, there is an (understandable) impression that “Erotica” was all tits, whips and leather, and started and ended with that “Sex” book. That’s left the album out in the cold a bit, even though it had some of her best work to date. I think “Rain” did alright as a single, and wasn’t overtly sexual (it’s going to be about jizz, isn’t it?), but nonetheless something nice for MTV to play if they hadn’t banned her.
It’s laid back but it’s got a lovely fresh 90s feel to it, she was ready to move on from the lightweight pop songs and try something just as accessible but perhaps a little more accomplished and mature. Of course I doubt it’ll make it onto many karaoke selections, but it feels like a turning point for her.
22. Oh Father
from “Like a Prayer”
Of course, calling “Erotica” a foray into more mature territory doesn’t do “Like a Prayer” justice. It was a bit of a mish-mash, and for me not a really coherent album, but there were plenty of ‘moments’. “Oh Father” deals with – as you can imagine – daddy issues after her mother’s premature death, and as such has a quiet power to it that you rarely got with Madonna.
I love those strings, and the way it segues in from “Dear Jessie” on the album. It’s a bit of a curiosity, she’s laying herself bare (emotionally, for once), with a strange disaffected tone to her voice in places, but other times she sounds like she’s about to start sobbing. Those little synthy interludes add to the delicate feel of the song. I’m not good at articulating my thoughts about songs like this, it’s just an intimate moment from her, and the emotion she felt is obvious.
21. You’ll See
from “Something to Remember”
The mid-90s ballad collection went to some lengths to show that Madonna wasn’t just about sex, and with it came some new songs. Definitely my favourite is “You’ll See”, a nice precursor to her work on “Evita”. As I said for “Oh Father”, there’s a quiet power to this one, as Madonna defiantly states how she won’t be broken down by some arsehole who has tried to ruin her.
The “All by myself” refrain maybe shows that she’s not entirely happy in this situation, but the rest of her carefully chosen words pack a punch. She lets the lyrics do the talking, with little more than a big “In the air tonight” beat and some Spanish guitar to accompany her. For me it’s one of the best songs of this middle-ground era, and she played it perfectly to stay relevant after the potentially career-ending fiasco of the “Erotica” backlash.