Part Six: Pop Goes the Country Universe (Madonna)
The genesis for this feature came from a discussion between Jonathan and I about the baffling inclusion of Like a Virgin as one of the two Madonna albums on the list. Today, we discuss both NPR selections, and we each propose three Madonna albums that would better represent the remarkably consistent musical output of the Queen of Pop.
13. Like a Prayer (1989)
Through interweaving gospel, funk, soul and pop, the album’s songs raise questions about religion, sexuality, gender equality and interdependence. For one thing, the title song opens with a few seconds of a hard rock guitar that stop abruptly and make way for a gospel choir and an organ. The lyrics suggest a girl who might experience God as a lover — or is it a girl who loves a man as if he is God? While “Oh Father” was in many ways about Madonna’s own father, it goes beyond her relationship with him and instead alludes to someone who abuses power. And when all those activists weren’t agitating in the streets they were dancing to “Keep It Together,” Madonna’s tribute to her family. While most critics saw this as the album where Madonna went from bubblegum pop to true artistry, that wasn’t the only thing she did with Like a Prayer. With this album she also led the way for a new generation top female pop stars to express themselves. —Laura Sydell
Kevin: Like a Prayer delivers on all of the songwriting promise that True Blue proposed. “Express Yourself,” which would be the definitive pop moment of most careers, still manages to be overshadowed by the title track. No serious discussion of the greatest pop singles of all time can overlook “Like a Prayer.” But if you’ve never gotten beyond the album’s smash singles, do so. “‘Til Death Do Us Part” is a harrowing portrait of a marriage disintegrating into domestic violence, while “Oh Father” poignantly captures a grown child’s need to both escape and forgive the parent that abused her. “Promise to Try” is the album’s most riveting track, as Madonna sings over a lonely piano to both the mother she lost as a small child, and that shattered little girl she once was.
Jonathan: I really like the write-up Laura Sydell gave Like a Prayer here, and I think it’s a logical choice for NPR to have included as Madonna’s highest-ranked album on the list, even though, depending on the day, I might not always rate it as her strongest.
63. Like a Virgin (1985)
Co-produced with Nile Rodgers, its buoyant, confectionery dance-pop glossed with a modern, new wave sheen helped usher in the golden age of MTV, an era that still feels defined by her ecstatic writhing, wrapped in acres of bridal tulle, dangling crucifixes, and rubber bracelets, on the stage of the first VMAs two months before the full album’s release. She went on to show savvy, intuitive mastery of the new form (and marketing platform) to build a dazzling, ever-shapeshifting 360-degree persona — sound, image, art, text — which she manipulated with an iron fist clad in a fingerless lace glove. Like a Virgin, and all that came with it, made it clear that there would never be a pop music landscape without the impact and influence of Madonna again — and it made it hard to imagine how there had even been one without her in the first place. —Alison Fensterstock
Jonathan: I didn’t know what to do with my face when I saw Like a Virgin listed (1) more than halfway up the NPR list of 150 albums or (2) at all, and I still don’t. The title track is one of her most iconic singles, sure, but it makes absolutely no sense to include this album for Madonna when literally every other album she’s ever released is superior to it.
Kevin: Like a Virgin is a really great Nile Rodgers album, as it was intended to be. . Virgin is a great pop record, largely assembled on her behalf. Her pure talent still shines through – seriously, who else could’ve made “Material Girl” and “Like a Virgin” work on the multiple levels that they did? But even her self-titled debut was more of a self-directed exercise than this one, and her career as a credible artist started after Virgin with the stopgap singles “Crazy For You” and “Into the Groove,” followed by her first great album, True Blue.
Jonathan: If the phrase “slut-shaming” had been part of the lexicon back in 1992, it could have been the driving force around the reactions to Erotica, an album that many judged out-of-hand based on its associations with Madonna’s sex book. While the album is hardly explicit in its content, it’s pointedly and purposefully provocative in its imagery and tone, while its overall sound drew heavier R&B and club influences into her pop aesthetic. But Erotica remains a significant album for its message: 25 years later, there are still plenty of people who bristle at the very idea that a woman can and should champion her own sexual agency and pleasures.
Kevin: The imagery that surrounded this era is more shocking now than it even was 25 years ago, simply because a woman having that agency and using it in this way is so subversive: it’s about power as much as pleasure. Erotica is a cold record, a stark contrast to the earnest warmth of her earlier work. She’s singing in a lower register, and exploring darker emotions. An air of melancholy hangs over it all, even when she’s singing a pure love song (“Rain”) or an exuberant disco number (“Deeper and Deeper.”) Erotica does suffer from early nineties bloat, where a CD having seventy minutes of running time made artists feel they were required to fill it up. But as always, the songwriting is solid and the talent continues to grow. Without the power of both her pen and point of view, she’d never have survived the backlash of this time period.
Bedtime Stories (1994)
Jonathan: What I’ve always loved about Bedtime Stories is how the album sneakily pushed the sexual politics of Erotica into a set of songs that were more palatable to a mainstream pop audience. “Secret” remains the sexiest Madonna has ever sounded on record, while “Human Nature” addresses the criticisms of Erotica with biting wit and a sinister hook. The album may have served as a course-correction in terms of scoring top 40 airplay, but Bedtime Stories was no apologia.
Kevin: Bedtime Stories is the one Madonna album that I respect from a distance without truly enjoying, aside from four incredible singles. I don’t think she ever had a better quartet of singles from one album in the nineties, and each music video was iconic in its own right. “Secret” and “Take a Bow” were the big hits stateside, even returning her to the R&B charts for the first time in years. But it was the underground dance outlier “Bedtime Story” that previewed where she would go from here.
Ray of Light (1998)
Kevin: Several pop and rock artists had attempted the whole “techno” thing, as we used to call it. Madonna was the first to nail it and to fully mainstream it, which shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, it was really just modernized dance music, as natural to her as breathing. And it’s a good album, to be sure, though I contend that it was as much Madonna’s embrace of traditional womanhood as it was the quality of the album that shot her to the top of all the critic’s lists and won her four Grammys. The quality of work was always there. It being accompanied this time by a Maternal Material Girl allowed the male-dominated rock press to see it for the first time.
Jonathan: I agree. The content of Ray of Light made it safe for the mainstream press to embrace Madonna for the first time without ever having to engage with the reasons that they had previously dismissed her work: It cast her in a role that male rock critics were comfortable with. Still, that isn’t to say that Ray of Light isn’t a strong album on its own merits: She took the forward-thinking EDM of “Bedtime Story” and ran with it into territory that mainstream pop hadn’t yet imagined.
Jonathan: Music stands as perhaps the most unabashedly escapist albums of Madonna’s career, and it’s one of her very best. Rather than attempting to expand upon the spiritual bent of Ray of Light, Madonna looked to push farther into EDM territory with a set of pop-for-the-sake-of-pop songs that still impress– the folktronica of “Don’t Tell Me” sounds as fresh now as it did 17 years ago– for their simplicity and their killer hooks.
Kevin: I love this album to pieces. The songwriting is sharp, and the contrast between the electronic sounds and her naked voice – no reverb! – works brilliantly. The combination of folk and electronic sounds was innovative at the time, and it’s still a concept that hasn’t been explored nearly enough, even as EDM as reached record heights of mainstream success.
Confessions On a Dance Floor (2005)
Kevin: Madonna’s albums are known more for their eclecticism than their cohesiveness in sound, but Confessions On a Dance Floor is an exception to that rule. The lovingly retro beats reminded the world why they fell for her in the first place, a great palate cleanser for its challenging, but poorly received predecessor, American Life. Opening track “Hung Up” became her biggest worldwide hit of all-time, and while Confessions never reaches those dizzying heights again, the album still keeps things interesting and entertaining throughout, particularly when the proceedings get spiritual (“Isaac”) and philosophical (“Jump,” “Like it or Not.”)
Jonathan: It’s still baffling to me that this album didn’t find a bigger audience in the US. The singles are among the catchiest of her career– that ABBA sample on “Hung Up” works better than anything so shameless has a right to– and it’s simply a phenomenal collection of dance-pop that’s more thoughtful than it appears on its slick surfaces.
Rebel Heart (2015)
Kevin: Madonna’s strongest effort of the past fifteen years. Rebel Heart broke new ground for her thematically by grappling with her own legacy (“Rebel Heart,” “Veni Vidi Vici (featuring Nas)” and her own mortality (“Wash All Over Me,”) while also revisiting her ongoing themes like self-empowerment (“Living For Love,” Iconic (with Chance the Rapper),” and the contrast between the sacred (“Devil Pray”) and the profane (“Holy Water.”) “Ghosttown” and “Messiah” rival the beauty of her epic nineties ballads, while “Unapologetic B****” and “B**** I’m Madonna (featuring Nicki Minaj)” proved she can still deliver a fresh beat to fill the dance floors – or get her older audience members up out of their seats at her live show.
Jonathan: The narrative around Madonna’s singles over the last fifteen years is that they’ve all sounded like desperate, even strident bids for mainstream acceptance. I’ve never particularly bought into that, and the singles from Rebel Heart all encapsulated why: Nothing on the album, aside from a few guest rap verses that come across as tacked-on, sounds like what was dominating pop radio in 2015.
We could’ve easily written about Madonna, True Blue, I’m Breathless, American Life, Hard Candy, or MDNA taking the Virgin slot as well. Which Madonna albums do you think belonged on the NPR list? Let us know in the comments!