As an alternative to the in-depth profiles of an artist, for long established artists I may do these posts which are just about the music (man), going through each album to give you reccomendations on what to buy and what to avoid like an unholy plague. I’ll probably end up doing in depth profiles of these artists as well, at a later date. I’m kicking off with Madonna, mainly because she has just announced she has named her new on MDNA, and it will be out in March, and I’m quite excited.
Madonna Aka Madonna The First Album (1983)
Apparently, after her début single, Everybody (the closing track on her first album), people didn’t even realise Madonna was white (she doesn’t appear on the single’s sleeve), which seems quaint and inconceivable after years of her being an impossibly big pop phenomena. Proof then, that everyone has to start somewhere, and for Madonna it was here, a pop-disco album which of artists that were around at the same time, most calls to mind Prince (who had just made a real break for the mainstream the year before with his 1999), so perhaps it is little wonder people thought that maybe she was black.
Madonna herself is apparently not entirely satisfied with the album, as its too reliant on disco, and she wasn’t in complete control. It used then top-of-the-range synths and drum machines, which all the contemporary reviews comment make it state of the art, but of course mean that it very much now sounds like an album made very much in 1983. But the music wins out, and although Madonna would craft better pop songs later, there are some exquisite tunes here.
Like A Virgin (1984)
The amount of growth between Madonna and Like a Virgin is incredible, and if bands who make great débuts have to worry about difficult second albums, Madonna perhaps showed the way to do it right here. Like a Virgin is an incredible record, with at least three (the title track, Material Girl and on a later reissue, Into the Groove) of the best pop songs of all time sitting casually with its walls.
Produced by Nile Rodgers (roped in after his work on Bowie’s Let’s Dance, though both Madonna and Rodgers claimed to like each others work from beforehand) to perfection, Like A Virgin is absolutely the moment that Madonna became a star, and changed her from good, but potentially forgettable footnote to the thing that she would become. If she had never released a note of good music after Like A Virgin, it would hardly have mattered.
True Blue (1986)
Madonna’s first album where she had significant control (co-writing credits for every track, c0-production credit) and the first since getting married to Sean Penn (she dedicated the album to “my husband, the coolest guy in the universe”, which had no-one fooled) True Blue is Madonna’s first “grown up” album. It even opens with Papa Don’t Preach, an impossibly ambitious pop song dealing with a knocked up daughter looking to he father for some good advice. It was also the most loved-up of her albums so far, with the exception of the two big singles (Papa Don’t Preach, and La Isla Bonita which was originally written for Michael Jackson who inexplicably turned it down, giving Madonna a chance to rewrite it). True Blue is not quite as perfect as its predesccor, but it shows a growth, and suggests at the staying power that was going to inform her career.
Like a Prayer (1989)
Madonna hit a rough patch in the immediate aftermath of True Blue – the Who’s That Girl soundtrack and movie, which were quite a long way away from being her Purple Rain, and then a filler remix album (You Can Dance), meant that she was much less untouchable than usual. Good thing then, that she had perhaps her best album yet up her sleeve, Like a Prayer. Already a million miles away from the bubblegum she began with, Like A Prayer incorporated a wider range of influence than ever before – gospel, The Beatles and Stones (the cover art is a clear nod to Sticky Fingers) and Sly and the Family Stone. There is a maturity to Like a Prayer, that while not boring in a way that word usually suggests, was not forced in the way that perhaps it occasionally was on True Blue, perhaps it helps that the album is crammed with classic songs – the title track of course, Dear Jessie, Express Yourself, and Love Song where Prince and Madonna’s paths finally cross properly.
Like a Prayer was the first Madonna album to receive almost unanimous critical praise to go along with the commercial success, and would probably go down as her “classic” album, certainly the first one to turn to and easiest “in” when discovering Madonna for the first time, years later.
Despite the grace of Like A Prayer, it wans’t plain sailing from there on in. She followed it up with Dick Tracey Soundtrack, and The Immaculate Collection, her first stab at a Best Of. Then came Erotica, which took all the controversy of Like A Prayer (unsurprisingly the oral-sex themed title track and is accompanying Black Jesus video had upset the Pope) but didn’t have as many tunes. Time has been kind to Erotica though, and looking past the sexed up controversy that surrounded it at the time, there are a fair few gems to be found. Not only that, but it is a much more adult record (in the mature sense, rather than the surface porn sense) that it initially appears – most of the songs are about finding love, despite the faux-erotic tone they strike up.
Bedtime Stories (1994)
Appears to be the forgotten Madonna album, and more is the pity. A warmer, yet more coy album than Erotica, Madonna clearly was acknowledging that perhaps she had pushed things a bit too far with a Sex Book with Vanilla Ice. Bedtime stories plays as an interesting companion piece in fact to Erotica, and perhaps could either be seen as a second part, or improvement upon the same idea.
The album is certainly not bereft of tunes, Human Nature is the kind of pop song they don’t make anymore, Bedtime Story was co-written by Bjork, and Secret was a decent lead single (it only reached No 3 in America though). Perhaps the reason for Bedtime Stories place as a footnote in history though is merely a changing in fashion. Madonna made a step away from dance music, into contemporary R ‘n’ B, and on both sides of the atlantic, guitar music was coming, or had come, back into fashion, with Grunge having eaten the world in the previous few years in America, and Britpop just taking over in the UK. For the first time, Madonna was out of step with the mainstream.
In Part 2, we’ll find Madonna getting her mojo back spectacularly, before having to deal with being an elder stateswoman of pop, right up the present day.