Next summer marks two noteworthy events in the divine Madonna Louise Ciccone’s personal and professional narrative. First, July 2018 will see her global legion of fans commemorating the 35th anniversary of her eponymous debut album’s arrival. The following month, the world will unite in celebration of her 60th birthday, while collectively—and incredulously—swearing that “there’s no way Madonna is 60!”
Here at Albumism, we celebrate Madonna’s musical and cultural legacy every day, and the specific milestone dates simply punctuate our unyielding passion for her indelible songcraft. Hence why we recently decided to submit our individual votes for the 10 greatest studio albums in her prolific canon, the consensus rankings of which appear below. We fully recognize that this is a blatantly subjective exercise, as most lists are. But we also hope that our selections inspire some healthy debate among our fellow Madonna enthusiasts, while rekindling our readers’ most vivid, cherished memories of her many wonderful albums.
#10 | I'm Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy
Sire/Warner Bros. (1990)
Revisited by Quentin Harrison
Starting on June 30, 1986 and concluding on October 20, 1992, across four studio albums, Madonna engaged in a valiant effort to create a “back-to-front” album. This project would be free of filler; instead, it would (ideally) feature deep cuts of quality co-existing alongside what were sure to be eventual singles. Each try was more aspirational than the last, but none of them were as recherché as I'm Breathless. Released on May 22, 1990, the record's title was inspired by the anti-hero lounge singer Breathless Mahoney, whom Madonna portrayed in the Warren Beatty led comic book motion picture event of that year, Dick Tracy.
The LP is remembered for its Shep Pettibone produced house hit single “Vogue.” The other sides of I'm Breathless are typically forgotten. That's unfortunate. While it is true that some of the record's well intended kitsch lands with little impact (“I'm Going Bananas,” “Back in Business,” “Now I'm Following You (Pts. 1 & 2)”), the remainder of I'm Breathless stages a worthy creative gambit with its mix of jazz (“Sooner or Later”), a bit of big band (“More”), and stirring AC balladry (“Something to Remember,” “He's a Man”).
Conceived almost wholesale by Madonna and favored collaborative peer Patrick Leonard, stage musical magus Stephen Sondheim pens and multi-instrumentalist Bill Bottrell produces “Sooner or Later,” “More,” and “What Can You Lose?” (featuring Mandy Patinkin). All three songs appear prominently within Dick Tracy.
Though the album's lesser material hobbled I'm Breathless' opportunity to be that vaunted “album's album”—that distinction goes to Bedtime Stories (1994)—its idiosyncratic inventiveness, as well as its vivid portrayal of Madonna's pre-“Evita” vocal control and color, has stood the test of time.
#9 | Music
Maverick/Warner Bros. (2000)
Revisited by Chris Lacy
As the calendar switched from 1999 to 2000, Madonna found herself competing against the resurgence of bubblegum pop (Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Ricky Martin, among others). Her reentry into this new music scene was difficult to predict, but if there’s one redeeming quality about the then-21-year veteran, it’s her ability to adapt and overcome. Music was a return to basics that “feels as effortless as the dance-pop of her Ciccone youth,” raved Spin Magazine.
“Music” and “Impressive Instant” are sonically explosive songs that represent a new millennium techno-funk, elevating Madonna head and shoulders above her pretenders, even at this advanced stage in her career. While there’s certainly an unabashedly retro nature exuding from the sharp, edgy rhythm tracks, the rich soulfulness of “Don’t Tell Me,” “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” and “Gone” balance the tempo out, granting more room for her to experiment with rock, country, and folk.
For an album that ranked No. 452 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Music is hardly recognized as an exceptional pop record among casual music listeners. However, Madonna’s eighth studio offering is a veritable treasure trove of underrated material and loaded with seductive eclecticism, hypnotic textures, and thick grooves.
#8 | Confessions on a Dance Floor
Warner Bros. (2005)
Revisited by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
Sometimes an album just feels good. Case in point: Confessions on a Dance Floor, without a doubt one of the great veteran pop albums of the modern rock era. Surfacing during the peculiar transitional period when the record buying public was adjusting to the dominance of iTunes culture and social media shenanigans, the album stood out because it made no apologies about its mission. All shuffling, future-retro grooves, feathered hair, pink leotards, and mirror balls, Confessions was at once disco throwback and preview of the days ahead, a comforting time capsule that was firmly rooted in the present. A dozen years later, its joy and brilliance remain dazzling. Like Donna Summer’s best concept albums, Confessions is stacked with tracks that stir anticipation rather than fatigue, which is no easy feat.
From the minute the flipped ABBA riffs of “Hung Up” reel you, it’s hard not to sit up and take notice. Fun and sexy, tracks like “Get Together,” “Jump,” “Push,” and “I Love New York” flash with glimmers of the rag-tag girl of the old days—but she was, by that time, older and a bit wiser. Similarly, the Confessions tour was a joyous affair filled with humor and personal touches—she even joked about a painful fall from a horse—that showcased a pro comfortable in her skin and the musical path she fought so hard to pave.
It’s not a surprise that the album and tour were critical and commercial successes given their unpretentious leanings. This was pop music of the highest order, and even the biggest Madonna cynic couldn’t deny that. If there were any questions about Madonna’s legend, this was the album that put them to rest.
#7 | Erotica
Maverick/Sire/Warner Bros. (1992)
Revisited by Justin Chadwick
Far less shocking—or stimulating—to the senses by today’s more desensitized standards, to say that Erotica was controversial upon its release 25 years ago is an understatement. But the flip side of the coin is that it was an undeniably revolutionary record. The unabashed and forthright way that Madonna redefines sexual identity and power dynamics, deconstructs sexual taboos, and evangelizes sexual freedom was indeed groundbreaking for its time, serving as a much-needed wake-up call for the sexually repressed and repressive, particularly here in the notoriously puritanical United States of America.
Across Erotica’s fourteen compositions (thirteen on the LP’s edited version), Madonna successfully subverts the antiquated, straight-male dominated dialogue about sex by taking full command of the conversation and delivering a clinic in sexual liberation. With confidence and charisma in droves, she flips traditional gender-driven roles and ethics on their head, blurs the socially-constructed lines between the multitude of sexual identities that exist, and gives mainstream voice and validation to those traditionally marginalized toward the fringes of social acceptance.
And while Erotica is a concept album of the most captivating caliber, whether you share or empathize with Madonna’s perspective or not, its thematic thrust all too often overshadows its importance within the context of its creator’s musical progression. Though her self-titled 1983 debut Madonna certainly incorporated club-driven inspirations, Erotica is the first of Madonna’s long players that found her wholeheartedly embracing the hedonism and influences derived from the dancefloor, an exciting evolution shepherded (pun intended) by co-producer Shep Pettibone that would be further cemented in increasingly glorious ways on subsequent efforts such as Bedtime Stories (1994), Ray of Light (1998) and Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005).
Just as refreshing and rewarding musically as it was for its brave social and cultural conscience as best evidenced by tracks like the euphoric “Deeper and Deeper” and poignant “In This Life,” Erotica was, is, and will forever be a fearlessly fierce album that only Madonna could make. No one has ever come close to replicating it and no one ever will. In Vanity Fair’s October 1992 issue, Madonna proclaimed, “I’m out to open [people’s] minds and get them to see sexuality in another way. Their own and others.’” More than any other album in her prolific oeuvre, Erotica fulfilled her objective and struck a mighty blow to the plague of cultural and moral myopia, in America and beyond.
#6 | True Blue
Sire/Warner Bros. (1986)
Revisited by Christopher A. Daniel
There was no doubt on June 30, 1986 that Madonna had keenly figured out what it takes to be a megastar. She’d just come out of starring in the (not-so-blockbuster) film Shanghai Surprise with her then-beau, actor Sean Penn, but turned heads (again) by releasing her primarily uptempo third studio LP True Blue, proving she could continue making commercial hits, catchy pop and pose for one hell of a glamour cover shot courtesy of the late Herb Ritts.
The bona fide Queen of MTV—the first female artist to earn the coveted MTV Video Music Award’s Video Vanguard Award—aligned herself with songwriters and producers Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard to crank out True Blue in its entirety, further providing her mononym with a large portion of co-writing and production credits in the liner notes. In a nutshell, Madonna’s pervasiveness on wax gave her the space to begin making bold(er) statements.
“Papa Don’t Preach,” the album’s opener and one of its three chart-toppers, gave the MTV generation its anthemic, pro-choice ditty. It’s hard to forget the memorable short clip with Madge performing her peep show routine that accompanied “Open Your Heart” or “Live to Tell,” a Number One ballad, which also featured on the soundtrack to Penn’s film At Close Range.
There were some genre explorations: flamenco (“La Isla Bonita”), percussive, bass-driven pop (“Where’s the Party,” its sibling plead for peace “Love Makes the World Go Round” and the James Cagney tribute “White Heat”), ‘60s girl groups (title track) and new wave (“Jimmy Jimmy”).
True Blue was well-received by audiences, moving over 25 million units worldwide (7x platinum stateside) to become the top-selling LP that year. It was the stepping stone Madonna needed immediately following the Like a Virgin euphoria two years prior.
#5 | Bedtime Stories
Maverick/Sire/Warner Bros. (1994)
Revisited by Steven E. Flemming, Jr.
It might sound funny now, but back when we felt Madonna’s heartbeat for the very first time, she was hailed as the newest blue-eyed soul chick on the block. As many of her first hits rose to the upper reaches of Billboard’s R&B chart— “Holiday,” “Like a Virgin,” and “Into the Groove,” for instance—the dance-pop singer often drew comparisons to late singer-songwriter Teena Marie, the undisputed Ivory Queen of Soul. The parallels were premature at best and plain misguided at worst, mainly because there was very little about Madonna that was ever purely R&B. Production credits from Mtume’s Reggie Lucas and Chic’s Nile Rodgers aside, the best of Madonna’s early work was bright, R&B-flavored pop.
In the case of Bedtime Stories, however, the R&B tag made a bit more sense. While the sublime rhythms of Erotica channeled R&B energies in spots, Bedtime Stories is more overtly soulful than anything in her deep catalog. From the open spaces of "Secret" to the S&M meets hip-hop flavor—cornrows and all—of "Human Nature" (and the subsequent remixes that got significant black radio airplay), the Madonna found here feels a little less abrasive and a lot more honest, a needed contrast to the volatile years of the Sex era.
Anyone who experienced the original broadcast of her performance of "Take A Bow" alongside singer-producer Babyface at the American Music Awards in 1995 was awed by its beauty, and will likely never forget it. And when you factor in other moments like “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” (featuring Meshell Ndegeocello) “Forbidden Love,” “Survival,” and, for serious fans of the period, the outtake “Your Honesty” (featured on Remixed & Revisited years later), Bedtime Stories is an interesting look at a time in mainstream pop when cross-pollination didn’t feel like appropriation. This was, and is, artistic admiration done right.
#4 | Madonna
Sire/Warner Bros. (1983)
Revisited by Christopher A. Daniel
When Madonna proclaimed to late music veteran and American Bandstand host Dick Clark in January 1984 that her dream was “to rule the world,” she had enough foresight to know she was well on her way.
Of course, that climb to the top was preceded by the Michigan native’s self-titled debut release, which dropped six months earlier. Pop music was randomly introduced to this blonde chick who cut her teeth after a few stints in bands and frequenting the dance clubs on the Lower East Side of New York like Danceteria (hell, when I was a kid sifting through my mother’s vinyl collection and played this, I just knew the high-pitched, helium-fueled squeals came from a black female freestyle/electrofunk singer).
To my (and your surprise, I’m sure), pre-Like a Virgin Madonna gave up the goods (not just to then boyfriend, the late artist Basquiat) to move us on the dance floor via pulsating Linn Drums and cooing OB-X synthesizers with tracks like “Everybody” (a Top Five Dance single), “Burning Up” (her first time on MTV) and “Physical Attraction.”
Madge landed in the pop Top 20 with the Jellybean-assisted “Holiday,” a track Phyllis Hyman passed on. Before long, “Borderline,” the first of numerous Top Ten appearances, and “Lucky Star,” which peaked at No. 4, had girls everywhere wearing capri-length leotards, net skirts and Boy Toy belt buckles. Needless to say, Madonna knew what she was capable of.
Madonna’s debut LP landed at No. 8 and was certified 5x platinum in the U.S. What a hell of a way for one of the biggest pop stars in music history to assert that she was living up to her mission!
#3 | Like a Virgin
Sire/Warner Bros. (1984)
Revisited by Justin Chadwick
Just a young buck of seven years when Like a Virgin surfaced back in November 1984, my pop music palette was admittedly rather shallow at the time. Growing at full-speed, mind you, but certainly not as extensive as it would become in the years to follow. But despite my musical naiveté, upon hearing Madonna’s sophomore set for the first time, my ears instantly registered that this was pop of a totally different and thrilling breed.
Sure, at its core, this was pop music unabashedly designed to make bodies move and conquer radio playlists. Nothing overly cerebral was on offer here. This was Provocative Pop with a capital “P.” An arousing collection of songs that challenged the listener to contemplate not just Madonna’s overt sexuality on full and glorious display, but also his or her own feelings about sexual freedom, repression, and the thin line that often separates the two.
So yeah, it’s safe to say that Madonna was my first bona fide pop star crush, and this album—coupled with the ubiquitous images of the then 26-year-old Ms. Ciccone that pervaded MTV and virtually all other media in the year following its release—sealed the deal for me. Granted, at seven years old, I didn’t really understand the point of it all, as the more subtle innuendos and subtext in the lyrics were largely lost on me. What I did appreciate was that Madonna commanded a stage and screen unlike any performer that came before her, and most importantly, her songs were catchy as all hell.
It’s this latter point that still resonates for me, 33 years on from Like a Virgin’s inception. For such a blockbuster mainstream record—one that has sold tens of millions of copies worldwide—Like a Virgin has aged so well, as it still sounds as fresh and exciting now as it did then. Hold this up against any contemporary pop artist’s albums (think Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Adele, et al.), and Like a Virgin still makes for a more deeply addictive and rewarding listen.
And while Madonna’s dynamic persona was unquestionably the driving force behind the album’s appeal, the overlooked secret weapon behind the songs’ allure was prolific mega-producer Nile Rodgers of Chic co-founding fame. Rodgers’ uncanny knack for crafting danceable pop songs with irresistible hooks and unforgettable melodies—see “Angel,” “Dress You Up,” “Material Girl” and the title track—ensured that the album commanded and sustained the rapt attention of its listeners.
Madonna has made a handful of fantastic long players since her sophomore LP, and Like a Virgin’s monumental success played a huge role in allowing Madonna the confidence, freedom and resources to evolve into one of pop music history’s most dynamic and influential voices.
#2 | Ray of Light
Maverick/Warner Bros. (1998)
Revisited by Quentin Harrison
Transcendence. An apt summarization of the significance of Ray of Light (1998) —originally presented to the public on February 22, 1998—upon Madonna's life and career. It's narrative purpose? To further humanize La Ciccone, revealing her to be a spiritualist (“Drowned World/Substitute For Love,” “Nothing Really Matters”), a new mother (“Little Star”) and a citizen of the world (“Swim,” “Sky Fits Heaven”). Musically, this was communicated through a fluid blend of electronica, alternative pop and world music that brought Madonna into contact with new (William Orbit, Maurius de Vries, Rick Nowels) and old (Patrick Leonard) artistic partners.
At the center of it all was Madonna herself, more confident as a vocalist and songwriter than ever before. The record was a victory in every quarter—creatively, commercially, critically. The album and its title song awarded Madonna four Grammy Award wins, three of them as her first in musical categories (“Best Pop Album,” “Best Recording Package,” “Best Dance Recording,” “Best Short Form Music Video”). The LP also marked her return to the stage as one of her generation's defining live acts with the celebrated “Drowned World Tour.” Ray of Light maintains itself as the momentous symbol of her most adventurous second chapter in her musical métier.
#1 | Like a Prayer
Sire/Warner Bros. (1989)
Revisited by Chris Lacy
“My first couple of albums I would say came from the little girl in me, who is interested only in having people like me, in being entertaining and charming and frivolous and sweet,” Madonna informed Interview in May 1989. “And this new one is the adult side of me, which is concerned with being brutally honest.” Like a Prayer, the singer’s fourth studio album, marks the peak of her artistic majesty with songs bursting at the seams with electricity and passion.
The opening three-song lineup of “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” and “Love Song” (featuring musical titan Prince) is as good a trio as you will find on any Madonna record. “‘Til Death Do Us Part” and “Promise to Try” peer directly into the artist’s most personal thoughts and emotions, veering from the pain of a failed marriage with actor Sean Penn to her mother’s fight against breast cancer. However, radiant beams of sunshine pop arrive in the forms of “Cherish,” “Dear Jessie,” and “Keep It Together,” adding beautiful color to the second half of the album. Rounding out the project is “Oh Father,” “Spanish Eyes,” and “Act of Contrition,” each of them offering something unique, powerful, and timeless to a remarkably versatile record.
It is, of course, impossible to say definitively which album is Madonna’s finest. However, the much-vaunted fusion of dance, pop, and rock combined with her complex emotional themes makes Like a Prayer one of her loveliest, most daring, and accomplished efforts to date.