For inspiration: ranking Madonna in the 1980s

To my surprise, a re-listen last weekend defied convention. I thought the battle waged between two albums….

1. True Blue (1986)

So embedded is the conviction that Like a Prayer is Madonna’s best eighties album, if not her best, period, that the album proving her mettle as songwriter and producer gets passed over, at best as a clattering miscellany of singles and forget-me-nots. Baloney. For one thing, what singles: the titanic “Open Your Heart,” amuse-bouches like “La Isla Bonita (better in its Balearic remix), and the title track, yes, but also “Live to Tell,” whose three-note Patrick Leonard keyboard hook has tantalized two generations of listeners by blowing a cloud of smoke around Madonna’s best-ever lyric. I wrote at length about “Papa Don’t Preach” in 2017 for PBS. “Jimmy, Jimmy” I’ll take, you’ll leave, and “Love Makes the World Go Round” begged for a co-write with Green Gartside. So what’s the problem?

2. You Can Dance (1987)

What timing for this remix album’s release: freestyle, Chicago house, Miami bass, all at their peak, all genres in which Madonna would be as conversant as Bowie was in R&B more than a decade earlier. With the help of Jellybean Benitez, Shep Pettione, and other comers, You Can Dance was the most aggressive music to which Madonna lent her name. “Where’s the Party” has the frenzy of a dance macabre, “Over and Over,” marooned on Like a Virgin, gets a beefed-up chassis, and the dub versions of “Holiday” and “Into the Groove” tease out the Latin filigrees and mutant disco DNA, respectively. Often it’s the only Madonna album I need.

3. Like a Prayer (1989)

Don’t forget that your family is gold is the theme, weaving the L.A. studio cats and Prince and Patrick Leonard into a coat of many colors (For those who care about such things, Like a Prayer is a Madonna album with acoustic drums and live bass). On “Promise to Try” and “Spanish Eyes” she invokes Lennon to greet and bury old ghosts, using basic piano chords and flamenco guitar, respectively. She draws on no one for “Oh Father,” in the context of the 1989 Hot 100 a ballad as bleak and snow-blasted as a track on Joy Division’s Closer. A decade later she would sing it “better,” but I submit that her inadequacies add to the pathos. So do Leonard’s touches, like the slide guitar that complement Madonna’s strategical fibs (“You can’t hurt me now”). The title track needs no further defense. Suffice it to say that session bassist Guy Pratt, who’d worked with Bryan Ferry and Pink Floyd, was impressed with her direction of the band: “Jonathan, do less of the high-hat in the middle eight, and more of a fill towards the end. Guy, I want duck eggs [semibreves] on the end, and Chester, bring in your guitar on the second verse…”

4. Madonna (1983)

Gestalt, unity of purpose — the hallmarks of albums since Sinatra’s Eisenhower years. Jellybean, Mark Kamins, old Miles Davis hand Reggie Lucas — no one’s idea of pop dance crossover in the early Reagan era when programming directors reacted to “disco” as I would to mayo. But Madonna, with an ear for selection and writing a clutch of songs herself for the last time, provided the unity. Compared to Evelyn King, these weren’t romantic vagaries. Her performance matters: the catch in her voice, the thrill of never knowing when it might drop a couple keys, and the ferocity with which she lunged at vowels made clear that the holidays and do-your-things had one thing in mind S-E-X. She would please no one but herself. Even lesser track “Think of Me” offers a warning toughened by the thick, taut synth pop backing. She sounded like no one else. It took America a while to realize it, though, hence its leisured, inexorable chart rise.

5. Like a Virgin (1984)

“Over and Over” got new life on You Can Dance;┬áthe singles — Madonna plus Chic — sell her subversion of Morning in America values by reducing them to ad slogan pabulum, which offended Christian fellow travelers by siccing the Madison Avenue ethos on them. So what’s left? “Stay,” a Stephen Bray collaboration in which Madonna gets comfortable with her lower register. “Shoo-Be-Doo” awaits a defense. I won’t proffer one.

4 thoughts on “For inspiration: ranking Madonna in the 1980s

  1. True Blue, surely, it’s the most solid song-by-song. I’m more a Madonna (debut) fan. It may be lighter, sillier and danceable. But I think has aged better sonically, too. It’s incredible how the synths sound airer rather than in-the nose (like some of its contemporaries) and so too are the drum programming. BURNING UP is the missing link between punk and a dance place that’s not named Gang of Four or Pete Shelley. Madonna never replicated that song.
    Like a Virgin, I hated it. It’s the only one album I really dislike from her. The faux funk, clunking guitars, clumsy drumming. The worst Nile Rodgers production I can recall. Shoo Bi Doo, Sha be Daa, whatever. Love Don’t Leavy Here Anymore? And the title track is my most annoying Madonna number one. It’s so CYNICAL in it’s embracing of trending sounds and “shocking” politics (hey, she really wanted to be famous!!) that I see no difference between that album and what the Eagles were often critiziced for.

    1. She sounded relaxed in MADONNA and purposeful in TRUE BLUE. In between, she just sold his soul to Rogers so she could actually buy a nice apartment in NYC. And bravo for her. Artistically, she became the Material Girl indeed. A focus group album with an “edge”. Still sounds aweful to me. Dress You Up it’s the most relaxed thing in there.It coulda been a cut from her debut.

      1. Eh — I disagree. When has Madonna ever given the impression that she sells her soul? She wanted a pop hit, she got one. The singles are fine, especially “Angel.”

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