Madonna started her second decade as a performer as a provocateur and ended it as an Earth Mother. The controversy over the “Like a Prayer” video kicked off the era of the gasp-worthy MTV clip, and over the next couple of years, Madonna’s publicity grabs got more and more shameless. Perhaps because she was spending too much time thinking of what over the top thing to do next, her music got worse. Although some would disagree, most of Madonna’s Nineties output can’t hold a candle to her terrific work in the Eighties. Let’s break it down.

“I’m Breathless” (1990)-Madonna’s role as Breathless Mahoney in the film version of “Dick Tracy” was supposed to be her breakout film gig. While the movie did OK, it didn’t turn out to help her movie career one way or another. It did give her the opportunity to perform “Sooner or Later” at the Academy Awards, and also provided her with one of her most iconic songs. It’s a little sad that the first thing most people think of when they hear the term “voguing” is Madonna, especially since the video ripped off earlier clips from Jody Watley (“Friends”) and Evelyn King (“Hold On to What You’ve Got). However, the song itself is one of Madonna’s best and endeared her even further to her gay audience. The rest of the album is OK as a period piece, but it’s not essential by any means-unless you have a desire to hear Warren Beatty sing.

Grade: C

“The Immaculate Collection” (1990)– How bad can a Madonna greatest hits album be? Let’s see. Most of her early hits are faded early, sped up or otherwise chopped. “Who’s That Girl” and “Causing a Commotion” (which hit #1 and #2, respectively) are nowhere to be found. “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” are both remixed. A compilation containing Madonna’s Eighties hits should be an A in principle (particularly one containing “Into the Groove”, which is ALSO heavily edited), but the execution here is pretty awful. The two new songs (“Justify My Love” and “Rescue Me”) pointed in the direction Madonna would explore on her next studio album.

Grade: B

“Erotica” (1992)– Madonna’s most experimental album was also her worst to that point. It’s also one of her most dated sounding. For “Erotica”, Madonna delved deep into club culture and came up with a handful of great grooves. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many great songs to go with it. It’s also her most explicitly sexual album (coming out at the same time as the infamous “Sex” book). If you can find it cheap (and believe me, you can) you might want to pick it up for the retro-disco “Deeper & Deeper”, the melodic “Rain”, the moody “Bad Girl” (the best ballad Madonna has ever released as a single…this should’ve been a huge hit), and this classic line from the bass-heavy “Waiting”-“next time you want pussy? Just look in the mirror, baby”. Of course, you can also get those songs a la carte online for a buck each and be spared the back cover image of Madonna sucking on some dude’s toe.

Grade: C

“Bedtime Stories” (1994)– Burned by the public reception her musical and non-musical exploits had been receiving, Madonna toned it down and released an album that was just as sexual, but this time delivered it with a wink and a nudge as opposed to a sledgehammer to the skull. Working with a series of ’90s era R&B producers (Dallas Austin, Dave Hall, Babyface), “Stories” is her best work of the decade, and the most underrated work of her career. Her songwriting skills fail her on a couple of tracks (“Don’t Stop” is putrid), but I could easily tick off 4 or 5 excellent songs that make up for that transgression. Dope album track alert: the luxurious ballad “Love Tried to Welcome Me” is so good that The Temptations stole the entire instrumental track half a decade later for “Just Like I Told You”, which appeared on their Platinum selling comeback album “Phoenix Rising”. A tip of the cap to Madonna for respecting her elders (and the musical background that provided her with the desire to become a singer) and not pursuing legal action.

Grade: B+

“Something to Remember” (1995)-This ballad compilation seems to exist only for a) the chance for Warner Brothers to put out an easy million-seller during Christmas ’95 and b) the opportunity to remind people that Madonna was-first and foremost-a singer. Lots of non-album stuff, including a remixed version of 1984’s Rose Royce remake “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and the pleasant soundtrack ballad “I’ll Remember”. However, there are too many treacly adult contemporary ballads here to wholeheartedly recommend the album, including the David Foster ballad “You’ll See”, which sounds like Madonna’s version of a Celine Dion song.

Grade: B-

“Evita” Soundtrack (1996)-Yeah, I don’t do show tunes. So I skipped this one.

“Ray of Light” (1998)-After finally getting critical acclaim for her acting with her role as Eva Peron in “Evita” and becoming a mother, Madonna mellowed out (or lost her edge, as I prefer to say). Working with British producer William Orbit, “Ray” took some getting used to-as it sounded nothing like any Madonna album before it. However, it’s a pretty solid effort all in all (although it’s nowhere NEAR Madonna’s best work, critical success and Grammy Awards notwithstanding). The album’s biggest revelation is the sensitivity of the songs-feelings had never really been Madonna’s strong point. All four singles are solid (even though the title track, the most highly regarded by most people, is the worst of the group in my opinion), and “Little Star” (dedicated to her daughter Lourdes) is sentimental enough to bring a lump to your throat. However, make sure you have your skip button handy for “Shanti/Ashtangi”, a song that will make you wonder why Madonna decided to bring you into an ashram.

Grade: B

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