Madonna came into the Nineties like a lion, and exited the decade like a lamb. Her final effort of the decade, “Ray of Light”, found Madge in a contemplative, serene mood completely unlike her public persona for the previous decade and a half. By the turn of the decade, she was a mother once, about to become a mother for the second time, and had even finally gotten some love from the establishment, winning a handful of Grammy Awards to add to the ONE she’d received prior to “Ray of Light”.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of her 21st century output, while reasonably successful from a commercial point of view, has kinda sucked. Most of her albums from the era found her working a Euro-dance sound that’s definitely not my cup of tea. Then she decided to pick up a guitar and lecture people like a schoolmarm. She returned to her American dance-pop roots at the end of the decade, but it seemed that even her mojo for creating great disposable disco had left her. Here’s a look at Mrs. Ciccone Penn Ritchie’s work from the last ten years.

“Music” (2000)– Madonna kicked off the 2000s with one of the most exciting singles she’d released in quite some time. “Music” (the song) was a fun nod to her early days. “Music” (the album) didn’t deliver on the promise of the single. Producer Mirwais helmed the album with a bag full of vocal manipulations and digital bleeps that turned out to grate a lot more than it innovated, and Madonna, never a lyrical monster, churned out some doozies on this one (listen to “Impressive Instant” if you’d like an idea of what was coming out of Madonna lyrically around that time). “What it Feels Like for a Girl” and “Gone”, the two ballads that close the album, keep “Music” from being a complete disaster, but it was certainly Madonna’s least essential album until that point. Ah, and how could we forget the dancing gay cowboys?

Grade: C-

“GHV2” (2001)– With 11 years past since Madonna’s previous hits package, a Vol. 2 was inevitable. It’s the more stylistically diverse of her two single-disc hits packages, but it also contains some of her least memorable material. At the time, it was worth having for the shagadelic Austin Powers theme song “Beautiful Stranger”, but a little program called iTunes had yet to be invented. More than anything, “GHV2” makes me wonder what Madge has against her soundtrack material? “I’ll Remember” (#2) and “This Used to Be My Playground” (#1) are missing the same way “Who’s That Girl” (#1) and “Causing a Commotion” (#2) were missing from “The Immaculate Collection”. Weird.

Grade: B-

“American Life” (2003)– You’ve got to give Madonna props for making a vaguely political album, as it seemed like politics all but disappeared from music during the Bush II era. That said, I can’t really think of anything else nice to say about “American Life”.  So, I’ll leave you with two words: Folkie Madonna. Actually, I’ll leave you with two more words: Madonna rapping.

Grade: D

“Confessions on a Dance Floor” (2005)– After “American Life” met with a resounding thud, Madonna decided to go back to her roots…sort of. “Confessions” is a fairly frothy disco album. However, it’s also a largely inoffensive disco album, minus the edge that marked Madonna’s classic early efforts. While the first third of the album offers mindless dance (and contains “Get Together”, Madonna’s best single of the decade), the second third finds her reverting back to her “American Life” persona (complete with cringe-inducing lyrics i.e. “I Love New York”), and the final third puts Madonna back in early-Nineties defensive mode with songs like “Like it or Not” (which always reminded me of DM’s “Personal Jesus”. I dunno-I don’t think the issue with “Confessions” is that it’s bad so much as it’s BLAND.

Grade: C+

“Hard Candy” (2008)– After a decade spent exploring her inner Brit, Madonna (or at least her sound) made it back onto American shores and she teamed up with of-the-moment pop producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes. The result, “Hard Candy”, was her best album of the decade. That’s only faint praise, however. Timbaland (with Justin Timberlake) delivers the album’s strongest material: “4 Minutes” is propulsive and tense, while “Dance 2night” is a retro gem could have come from Madge’s debut. “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” is a strong downtempo effort, despite it’s musical similarity to Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”, and “Miles Away” is a brutally honest effort that lyrically details the dissolution of her relationship with Guy Ritchie. The Madonna/Neptunes collaborations are almost all throwaways, with the exception being the fun “Beat Goes On”, a song that teams Madge with Kanye West. One could look at “Hard Candy” as an attempt to fit into the current pop landscape, or one could look at it as the master returning to show her students how it’s done. Either way, it was her most pleasing effort in nearly fifteen years.

Grade: B-

“Celebration” (2009): “Who’s That Girl?” Check. The real single version of “Into the Groove”? Check. Madonna’s first double-disc hits package hits a lot of the right marks, especially in regards to her earlier stuff (including “Dress You Up”, “Everybody” and “Burning Up”? Yes, please). If you are only going to have one Madonna album in your collection, this would be it. For featuring a solid decade of pop gems (followed by a decade of intermittent pop gems), she can be forgiven for the two crappy “new” songs (including an effort featuring Lil Wayne that doesn’t even deserve one listen).

Grade: B

If you were forced to keep only 20 Madonna songs on your iPod, these are the songs I would recommend:

-“Everybody” (from “Madonna”)

-“Holiday” (from “Madonna”)

-“Burning Up” (from “Madonna”)

-“Physical Attraction” (from “Madonna”)

-“Like a Virgin” (from “Like a Virgin”)

-“Angel” (from “Like a Virgin”)

-“Crazy for You” (from the “Vision Quest” soundtrack)

-“Into the Groove” (from the “Desperately Seeking Susan” soundtrack)

-“Papa Don’t Preach” (from “True Blue”)

-“Cherish” (from “Like a Prayer”)

-“Keep it Together” (from “Like a Prayer”)

-“Vogue” (from “I’m Breathless”)

-“Bad Girl” (from “Erotica”)

-“Love Tried to Welcome Me” (from “Bedtime Stories”)

-“Take a Bow” (from “Bedtime Stories”)

-“Little Star” (from “Ray of Light”)

-“The Power of Good-bye” (from “Ray of Light”)

-“Nothing Really Matters” (from “Ray of Light”)

-“Get Together” (from “Confessions on a Dance Floor”)

-“Miles Away” (from “Hard Candy”)

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