Doing a series on Popdose dedicated to the music of Michael Jackson got me to thinking. How many other artists (or bands) are out there whose entire discography I’m familiar with? Of course, there are always means by which you can familiarize yourself with an artist’s entire oeuvre, but there’s a handful of acts that I can pretty much go in on without having to do a shit-ton of research (or listening to bad albums), which is why the Popdose guides to Sly & the Family Stone and Jamiroquai that I’ve promised my good buddy Robert Cass I’d help out with haven’t been completed yet (fear not…we’ll get to them eventually).
So I’ve been considering doing a similar column here on Popblerd! for a while now (’cause why should I farm out all my halfway decent writing?), but I’ve been stuck on who to start the series off with. Even as I type this, I have slight reservations. But I suppose it makes sense to follow the King of Pop up with the Queen of Pop, so I will start “All You Need to Know About…” with a look at the discography of Madonna. It was also her birthday last week, so that figures in as well. I suppose I could have also written about Elvis, but then again I have maybe 4 songs by Elvis on my iPod whereas with the purchase of “I’m Breathless” last week, I have now officially owned every Madonna studio album at one time or another. As you will see when we get into her 2000-era stuff, I’m not exactly proud of this fact.
Anyway, I find it amazing that Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone has been recording for 28 years and still doesn’t get props for her talent. Part of it might be because she makes dance-pop. Part of it might be because she’s a woman. Part of it might be the fact that she temporarily allowed her persona to detract from her musical capability. All I can say is, I don’t care how many dicks you suck, no one has that long of a career without being insanely talented. When she wants to be, she is capable of some excellent songwriting, and even at her worst (did I mention her 2000-era stuff?), she’s still at the very least interesting.
She came out of the early-Eighties New York club scene, so her roots are definitely in disco (anyone who says disco died in 1979 is completely forgetting Madonna’s entire career). However, the NYC scene at the time wasn’t just disco dollies. The hip-hop kids and the punk/new wave kids were making things even more interesting, and Madonna took a couple of things from each of those camps. Blending pure pop sense with an ear (and an eye) for the underground has made Madge commercially relevant for three decades now, and although her best work is behind her, there’s no reason to think she won’t be can’t stay on the public radar until she’s retirement age.
Anyway, here’s a look at the music she made on her way up the fame ladder and some of the stuff she made as she was perched at the very top of that ladder.
“Madonna” (1983)-Is it possible that one of the best disco albums ever made was released four years after the genre was declared “dead”? ENTIRELY possible. Still my favorite Madge album after nearly thirty years, almost every song on here (you can scratch “I Know It”) is a winner. The post-disco sound that influenced early Eighties R&B before Prince, quiet storm and hip-hop turned the genre on it’s ear is in full effect here thanks to songs like “Lucky Star” and “Physical Attraction”, while the trashy, rock-informed “Burning Up” remains one of her most delightfully sleazy musical moments. One of the first cohesive album-length statements made by a female pop star, people who were listening carefully shouldn’t have been surprised that she became an icon.
“Like a Virgin” (1984)– Her debut offered her the first blush of success, so Madonna set her sights wider and achieved world domination with “Like a Virgin”. She traded Mtume’s Reggie Lucas for Chic’s Nile Rodgers (continuing an infatuation with black music that still exists today) and even though outside songwriters provided the most memorable songs (the title track and “Material Girl”), this album is probably the Madonna-est Madonna album ever. Sultry (“Shoo-Be-Doo”), coy (“Angel”), sarcastic (“Material Girl”) and brassy (“Dress You Up”), it remains an exceptional work of pop art.
“True Blue” (1986)-“Like a Virgin” found Madonna as she morphed into a superstar. On “True Blue”, there’s no doubt that she IS a superstar. All you have to do is look at the glamor shot on the album’s front cover. There’s certainly a higher level of confidence than on either of her previous efforts. Unfortunately, it also contains a ton more filler than her previous efforts. Of course there are highlights-“Papa Don’t Preach” is iconic (although it’s also quite ambiguous…is the “baby” she’s keeping an unborn child or a boyfriend her dad doesn’t like), “Open Your Heart” is all swagger, “Where’s the Party” is one of the more effervescent dance jams of the decade, and “Live to Tell” remains one of her most dramatically rendered vocals. Beyond that, the rest of the album consists of disposable (however fun) pop throwaways, and the awful “La Isla Bonita”, the song that publicly ignited Madonna’s Spanish fixation and stands as Madonna’s least essential Eighties single.
“You Can Dance” (1987)– One of the very first commercially available remix albums, “You Can Dance” was a payback to Madonna’s early adopters-the club kids. It’s fun to dance to (and this was the first opportunity for Americans to get the immortal “Into the Groove” on a Madonna LP), but there’s not a lot more than that. Hell, no one even saw fit to add one of the two non-studio album hits she had that summer! (“Who’s That Girl” and “Causing a Commotion”, for those keeping score at home). With the benefit of hindsight, “You Can Dance” comes across as either a watered-down Madonna hits collection or an Expose album with better songs. The one new track, “Spotlight”, is a keeper, though.
“Like a Prayer” (1989)– Madonna’s supposed GRAND ARTISTIC STATEMENT was her most directly autobiographical work to date as well as her most serious work to date. It’s also not as good as most critics say it is. It’s not BAD, mind you. It’s just that her first two albums pack more punch and they’re less bloated. The best songs here find Madonna in a more wistful, more fragile state of mind-the tense “Till Death Do Us Part” (one listen to that and you get the general gist of how horrific her marriage to Sean Penn must’ve been, the outrageously funky “Keep it Together” (Madge’s most underrated hit single) and the heart-rending “Oh Father” rank among her most biographical material. “Cherish” is one of her most perfect pop songs, and the Prince duet “Love Song” is interesting, if not wafer-thin. There’s also dreck like “Dear Jessie” and “Pray for Spanish Eyes”, and truth be told, I never cared much for the album’s title track or “Express Yourself”, two songs that are among Madonna’s most recognized.
Next up? The Nineties, the decade that started with Madonna at her most outrageous and ended with Madonna at her most centered.