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Madonna

Madonna: 60 and sizzling

This year Madonna turned 60. We rank 15 of her albums

By Helen Brown/The Daily Telegraph
  • Published 17.10.18, 9:12 PM
  • Updated 17.10.18, 9:26 PM
  • 5 mins read
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1. The Immaculate Collection (1990)

Yes, it’s a greatest hits album, but pop is defined by the instant gratification of singles and this phenomenal collection is Madonna’s best-selling album. It showcases all her hits from the froth of 1983’s Holiday to 1990’s Vogue and features two songs you can’t find anywhere else: Justify my Love (the insistent, sexy trance she wrote with Lenny Kravitz) and then the confessional Rescue Me, a song which saw the diva reach out directly to fans, pleading for the love and attention she needs.

You see that I’m ferocious, you see that I am weak/ You see that I am silly, and pretentious and a freak, she acknowledged, before reminding us of her inspirational grit. All she needs the rest of the world to do is stop me from drowning. She’ll do the rest.

2. Like a Prayer (1989)

Released as she turned 30 and her marriage to Sean Penn collapsed, this is the record on which Madonna set out her powerful and passionate, personal stall, calling for female empowerment on Express Yourself and sending pop soaring to the heavens with the choir-backed title song that was banned by the Vatican. “I kept imagining this story about a girl who was madly in love with a black man, set in the south, with this forbidden interracial love affair,” she said.

“The guy she’s in love with sings in a choir. So she’s obsessed with him and goes to church all the time. And then it turned into a bigger story, which was about racism and bigotry.”

3. Like a Virgin (1984)

In her beautiful 2014 book Madonna, Caroline Sullivan writes that Chic’s Nile Rodgers “reinvented disco” for this dazzling, artist and era-defining second album featuring knockout singles Into the Groove, Dress You Up and Material Girl alongside the title song. Madonna would never see the wilderness again.

4. True Blue (1986)

Kicking off with the uncompromising strings of Papa Don’t Preach, Madonna’s third album saw her hitting a confident stride as a working class girl out to challenge the system while making incredibly catchy pop. Teenagers around the world swooned at the melodramatic, synth-swept ballad Live to Tell. Originally written by Patrick Leonard for a film about a teenage girl’s escape from a Catholic boarding school, Madonna — the eternal teen — really inhabits the heart of the story.

5. Ray of Light (1998)

Producer William Orbit gave her the keys to the electronica kingdom and she sounded relaxed and powerful as she brought ambient and techno sounds into the American mainstream with hits like the dramatic Frozen and The Power of Goodbye. She says the third best-selling album of her career is “about wonderment”.

6. Madonna (1983)

Madonna’s debut shimmered with swimming pool synths and girlish vocals. Biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli says that effervescent singles like Holiday, Borderline, Lucky Star and Burning Up came as close to delivering classic Motown production standards as anything the Eighties had to offer. But Madonna is dismissive of her “aerobics album”.

7. Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005)

After the failed profundity of American Life, Madonna wanted to dance again and the whole first half of the album is a disco-savvy delight that makes you want to dig out your leg warmers. Although she can sometimes be humourless, Confessions saw Madonna winking at quotes from her back catalogue, reflecting: “I spent my whole life wanting to be talked about,” and concluding “I guess I deserve it.” Her digital reworking of retro guilty pleasures was bang on trend. Spun out of an ABBA sample, Hung Up topped the charts in 41 countries.

8. Erotica (1992)

Give it up, do what I say/ Give it up and let me have my way... orders Madonna’s dominatrix alter-ego Mistress Dita on the album released alongside her Sex book. Producer Shep Pettibone said she wanted the album to sound “as if it were recorded in an alley at 123rd street in Harlem.” Her bold exploration of darker, grittier, more experimental sounds and difficult emotions is balanced by tender ballad, Rain.

9. Bedtime Stories (1994)

Slipping into an R&B groove like a pair of fluffy, kitten-heeled slippers, Madonna hums, purrs and sighs through this seductive set of urban soul songs — including a title song written by Bjork and swirling single Secret. Human Nature boldly addressed the (often misogynist) criticism of her overt and self-possessed sexuality with a cheeky: Did I say something wrong?/Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex.

10. Rebel Heart (2015)

A return to form as after the trend-chasing sounds of Hard Candy and MDNA, Madonna sounds like she cares again — and not about what anybody else is doing either. I poured a beer into my shoe and got my freak on she sang, returning to her club roots. Elsewhere the heartfelt pop gospel of Living for Love cast her — truthfully and movingly — as a survivor. Performing the song at the Brits, Madonna took a dramatic tumble, but rose up stronger. 

11. I’m Breathless (1990)

Playing Breathless Mahoney opposite Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracey, Madonna took up smoking to achieve a suitably breathless voice for this jazzy film soundtrack. Although the pair were dating at the time, there’s no trace of chemistry on their duet. But the standout single wasn’t in the movie, although inspired by it.

“Warren Beatty asked me if I could write a song that would fit my character’s point of view,” she said. “She was obsessed with speakeasies and movie stars and things like that.” Celebrating a dance craze in gay clubs, Vogue was sexy, smart, socially game-changing and irresistibly danceable. Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it.

12. Music (2000)

Falling for an Englishman and all things British, Her Madge held out a hand to her own culture in a cowboy hat. “Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on, I want to dance with my baby,” she commanded, feeling playful again after the trance-y electro seriousness of Ray of Light.

Warped on other songs, her vocals were clear and true against the guitar loop of Don’t Tell Me written by her brother-in-law. Don McLean thought her version of his 1971 hit American Pie was “sensual and mystical” but most of us thought this colourless cover was the point at which “music died”. 

13. Hard Candy (2008)

The signature booming bass and brass of producers Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland dominates so much of this album that, at times, Madonna sounds like a guest at her own party. Timbaland has to keep repeating her name: “Mah-dahhh-nah!” to remind younger listeners who she is. She sang that sex with Guy Ritchie was “metaphysical” though he would soon be “miles away”.

14. American Life (2003)

The Material Girl yanked on a black beret and hoisted her guitar aloft to break the shocking news that fame and money don’t make people happy. Though she admits to “feeling super-dooper” while driving her Mini Cooper, she suspects world peace might, on balance, prove more satisfying in the long run. The flimsy philosophising was matched by an equally thin sound that isn’t aided by limp rapping and tedious vocoder gargles.

15. MDNA (2012)

Euro house artistes like the Benassi Bros gave Madonna a boost onto the sweaty EDM bandwagon but — despite peppy contributions from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. and a reunion with William Orbit — she fails to make an emotional connection. More album filler than dancefloor filler. Producer William Orbit later told fans that the album had suffered because Madonna’s focus on other business commitments and that the most “breathtaking” songs intended for the album had ended up on Chris Brown’s album, Fortune.

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