Since her debut album in 1983, the “Queen of Pop” has surpassed records, received numerous awards and accolades. She has become one of the most notable, controversial, public and famous artists of any genre to grace the music scene. Madonna’s also ventured into Hollywood, where she did some acting and directing on a variety of blockbuster and lacklustre films.
She’s written soundtracks for films like Evita, which earned her the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, and her charities have helped millions of children in South-eastern Africa. She’s a true factotum in the arts, and it all started with that eponymous album in 1983.
So, we here at No Majesty are going to dive once and for all into Madonna’s discography, and rank her 14 studio albums from best to worst. Madonna Louise Ciccone’s ever-changing style, laced with her tenacity for publicity always kept her music at the top of charts, so here we are with our best picks.
Like A Virgin
Madonna’s second studio album easily makes number one on this list with just two of the tracks which have been able to stand the test of time. “Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” were two instant successes and solidified her position as one of pop’s greats. The pop-synth tunes, paired with her young, melodic and high-pitched voice were able to make two generational anthems.
Madonna was always the face of controversy because of her lyrics, style and persona, and “Like a Virgin” was the first that received criticisms on her ease to portray sexual innuendos. Nevertheless, it became the first solo female album to reach 5 million copies, hitting number one in Spain, the UK, the US, Netherlands, Germany and a plethora of other countries.
This album’s cultural influence alone makes it top of the list, and her performance at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards on top of a wedding cake was dubbed as one of pop’s greatest live concerts.
Like A Prayer
Second on our list has to be the iconic Like a Prayer album. The 11-song masterpiece received critical acclaim, both positive and negative. Songs such as “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” reached US and UK top ten hits and helped the album sell 15 million copies worldwide. On the other hand, the Vatican banned the entire album.
It featured strong Catholic undertones and was heavily introspective about her youth and past. With a heavyweight like Prince helping produce the album, she merged gospel and soul to pop and from here we can start seeing Madonna’s maturity from disco pop star to a much broader artist.
It also marked the first change in her music, something that would happen across time as she continued to reinvent herself. Released in 1989, it was truly a grand finale to Madonna’s dominance over the 80’s.
Wrapping up her 1980’s albums, True Blue was and still is one of my personal favourites. Sincere, heartfelt and with the melodies and sounds to back it up, True Blue is still to this day her best-selling album of all time, reaching 25 million copies worldwide and hitting number one across the globe.
“Isla Bonita” is a beautifully crafted tune and was the first in Madonna’s long line of Spanish and Latin inspired songs that used instruments like Cuban drums and maracas. The album is a testament to how versatile Madonna was as a singer, performer and songwriter. Using more classical music in her compositions, this album targeted not just her core fans, but a wider audience, and needless to say, it worked.
Other songs like “True Blue” or the classically influenced “Papa Don’t Preach” about social issues such as pregnancy, complete the album’s holistic message and helped to solidify it as third on our list.
Rocking an eye-patch and a superhero alter ego, Madonna released Madame X. It is the latest album to drop from her long-lasting career. Released earlier this summer, this album is filled with gems and her genius to tap into the current generation and audience is an incredible feat for someone who’s about to turn 61 later in August.
Experimental, different, unique and with a plethora of different sounds and influences, I rate Madame X very highly. It might not have the same future commercial success as her earliest albums, but it’ll definitely be remembered as a masterpiece. The mere fact that she’s completely reinvented herself yet again and has already planned a theatrical tour in September of this year goes to show how unpredictable Madonna has been throughout her career.
She sings in fluent Portuguese for the bumping “Faz Gostoso”, she features with Colombian star Maluma for “Medellin,” and then has Migos’ Quavo join her for a beautifully reggae induced track titled “Future.” Every song has a different genre and feel to it, and because of the audacity of such an album, it ranks high on our list. Watch out for that tour, because knowing Madonna, she never ceases to amaze.
Confessions on a Dance Floor
Her tenth studio album was very different from her previous ones, and it went back to the disco and dance roots she came up through in the 70’s and 80’s. Meshed with the club sound of the 2000’s, Madonna’s ability to remain relevant two decades on is remarkable, especially with songs like “Hung Up,” “Jump” and “Sorry.”
“Hung Up” is considered one of the 2000’s most notable dance and club songs worldwide, as it hit over 40 countries at number one. The song was upbeat, melodious and filled clubs in every corner.
Interestingly, the album was made to be a single continuous song, and song after song carry through like a DJ set at a club. “Hung Up” is also one of two songs in history that have been able to play an ABBA sample, so that’s definitely a plus right?
Madonna’s first studio album is what introduced the world to her sound and voice. The upbeat disco pop tunes were a standard to follow for years after. It was highly successful as a debut album and paved the way for Madonna to continue ruling the music industry for decades to come, so it ranks quite high for us.
In keeping with times, this album uses the new technology like the synthesizer and bass drum machine which characterize that disco sound so clearly. In songs like “Everybody” and “Lucky Star,” the feel-good vibe placed Madonna on more than just a radar.
Madonna’s quite young at this time, and the innocence in her high-pitched voice, compared to her career progression in retrospect makes this album one of a kind.
“4 Minutes” with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, and “Give It To Me” with Pharrell are two jams on this album that boost her eleventh album a couple notches on this list. After another reinvention in 2008, this album changes Madonna’s tone to tackle the genres of R&B and hip-hop.
And she did it well. “4 minutes” was not only a successful song but was great in terms of R&B; and proved yet again, that Madonna can do any genre masterfully and still be commercially successful.
This was the last album that was produced with Warner Bros. Records, which unfortunately ended an almost three-decade partnership between the pop star and the recording giants. Her partnership thereafter with Live Nation produced at the time the highest-grossing live tour promoting this album.
Next up on our list, released in 2015 at the age of 56, Madonna returns to form with Rebel Heart after a pair of less than convincing albums that didn’t quite resonate with her core fan base. Rebel Heart is an eclectic mix of reggae, rap and early 2000’s house music, while still playing some electronic, acoustic and folk sounds.
The greatly named, “Bitch I’m Madonna” with Nicki Minaj and Diplo has an extreme bass and electro sound and was considered one of the better songs featured. By this time Madonna had cemented herself as a legendary artist. She’s named in 2016 as Woman of the Year by Billboard and is also imbedded in a variety of charity projects and programs in Malawi, building schools.
The sixth studio album, Bedtime Stories was a response to Erotica and her book Sex. She answered the criticism of being too sexual by opting for a much more relaxed album about love, romance and, you guessed it, sex. Nevertheless, the album’s approach worked, and ultimately became another success for the “Queen of Pop.”
She collaborated with the great Björk and Massive Attack to try and tap into the UK’s growing dub scene in her song “Bedtime Story.” Her softer music and lyrics and the romantic approach to sex and love showcased how reflective she could really be in a studio album.
Other good songs in this album are “Human Nature” – which is about her previous album – and “Secret.”
Ray of Light
In unison with new producer William Orbit, who she then worked with countless times, Ray of Light was completely different from any of Madonna’s other albums, and for that reason deserves a good spot on this list. She became interested in eastern philosophy, and the spiritual and honest nature of the album shows that.
A large step away from her disco past, the album ventured into ambience music with Middle Eastern influences, while still remaining close to electronic music, just slightly trippier. This was evident in songs like “Shanti/Ashtangi”, where she sings the famous spiritual mantras with a trip-hop backdrop to it.
Commercially, it did remarkably well, and Madonna saw herself again at the top of the charts with songs like “Frozen.” This one is definitely not for all revellers, but the Madonna fans loved the drastic change.
Madonna’s venture into electronic music is most epitomized by MDNA, her twelfth one released in 2012. One of her longest albums, she featured the likes of Nicki Minaj and M.I.A and worked closely with some of electro’s biggest names like Italian cousins, Benny Benassi and French DJ Martin Solveig.
MDNA was definitely another experiment and walks the full mile in reaching a purely electronic/dance album. It doesn’t fail but doesn’t succeed as magnanimously as her other ventures into other genres. “Girls Gone Wild” and “Give Me All Your Luvin’” are undeniably the best tracks on this EDM album.
By this time though, Madonna’s projects extended into multiple industries, having just directed her second feature film only a year before this album is released.
Music is even more proof of Madonna’s artistic and musical ability in changing her direction to grow a wider audience. In her eighth studio album, the pop star decided to turn to country, rock and folk to give her a new edge and personality.
Portraying herself as a cowgirl, songs like “I Deserve It” and “Gone” stood out as the country tracks, while others like “Runaway Girl” and “Paradise (Not For Me)” went down very different electronic directions.
This album showcases Madonna’s range as an artist, and while commercially successful, it has to fall down a couple of pegs compared to her previous work.
Her tenth studio album, American Life, depicted her thoughts on the United States of America, with references to capitalism, war, Hollywood and American culture in general. It encompasses a mix of acoustic and folk music, always with some of Madonna’s standard sounds.
This album is best known for the same year’s MTV Music Awards, where she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, a now infamous moment in pop music history. “Die Another Day” goes back to her typical electronic sound, whereas songs like “Hollywood” leaned more on acoustic instruments.
While the infamous kiss is one that most remember, the album didn’t live up to expectations and is therefore second last on our ranking.
Erotica, Madonna’s fifth studio album, rocked the world. Released at the same time as her book titled Sex, the public rallied against her for what they perceived was too overtly sexualized. In terms of music, it was a different story.
The album was extremely experimental and a far cry from her previous albums. It was adventurous and different, and in true Madonna style, talked about issues like AIDS, social taboos, sex, romance and the pursuit of pleasure and love. With such differences even in the album between songs like “Erotica,” and “In this Life”- where the former indulges in pleasure and the latter speaks about two of her friends who die of AIDS – it all attest to how experimental it truly was.
Unfortunately, one album has to fall to the bottom of the list, and we decided because of its lack of commercial success, this one takes the fall.
Jaime Calle Moreno is an aspiring journalist, history graduate and writer from Spain with a strong interest in politics, acting, photography, art, music, travel and culture.