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Masterful reinvention birthed an icon at the tail end of the twentieth century. Sexually explicit, button-pushing, controversial, and fearless, Madonna has earned her undisputed title as the Queen of Pop. It’s hard to summarize her career at all, let alone in a few short paragraphs, but for the sake of the introduction she deserves, let me give it a try.
In the 80s and 90s, she grew from a sensation to a star and, finally, into the icon we know and love today. She burst onto the scene with fun, intoxicating dance-pop tunes like Holiday and followed them up with the saucy classic Like a Virgin and the karaoke favorite Like a Prayer. She raised eyebrows with Erotica and took her career to mature heights with Ray of Light. She owned her middle-aged stardom in Confessions on the Dance Floor and proves that she has so much more to give in Madame X.
The style and culture icon has charted her own raucous path, inventing and reinventing herself throughout a career spanning nearly 40 years. This is my best attempt to take a look back on that career through the music and moments that defined it. Here are Madonna’s 14 studio albums, ranked.
Madonna Albums Ranked
14. MDNA (2012)
Though it’s definitely not Madonna’s best work, MDNA is still Madonna and deserves some level of praise.
MDNA, a play-on-letters referring to recreational drug MDMA, is Madonna’s twelfth studio album. Its first single, Give Me All Your Luvin’ featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., registers as a girl-power anthem in which the featured artists revere Madge’s stardom. Their chorus, which sounds like a sort of cheerleading cheer, follows the icon’s statements of self-empowerment as if saying, “all bow down to the Queen of Pop.”
Minaj features again about midway through the record in I Don’t Give A, producing a rap that celebrates Madonna as the only “queen.” It’s a declarative track in which Madonna proclaims her individuality while Nicki spurs her on as an inspired sidekick.
Don’t play the stupid gameGimme All Your Luvin’
Cause I’m a different kind of girl
Every record sounds the same
You’ve got to step into my world
Give me all your love and give me your love
Give me all your love today
Give me all your love and give me your love
Let’s forget about time
And dance our lives away
Though MDNA did not receive rave reviews, it’s still a solid dance album and Madonna’s symbolic doubling down on stardom into the twenty-first century. She lets us know she’s here to stay.
- Girl Gone Wild
- Beautiful Killer
- I’m a Sinner
- Love Spent
- Gimme All Your Luvin’
13. American Life (2003)
American Life is Madonna’s American Idiot, a confessional meditation on the good and the bad of being American in the George W. Bush era.
Though its critical reception was mixed at best, American Life has its own share of not-so-hidden gems including its second single Hollywood. It’s a musically seductive invitation into the temptations of LA’s most famous neighborhood that should by no means have been snubbed.
Sadly, Hollywood was the first of Madonna’s singles to ever miss the Hot 100 chart.
After the major success of Ray of Light and Music, American Life may have registered as a flop. Luckily, 15 years later, Billboard’s Chuck Arnold revisited the record, suggesting that it deserves far more praise than it originally attracted.
American Life acknowledges the uncertainty and confusion of the moment in tracks like Love Profusion, which renders its existential musings more digestible with its several pithy dance breaks. She asks self-reflective questions in the album’s title track that demonstrate an attempt to put a critical pin in the collective and individual moment.
I tried to be a boyAmerican Life
I tried to be a girl
I tried to be a mess
I tried to be the best
I guess I did it wrong
That’s why I wrote this song
This type of modern life
Is it for me
This type of modern life
Is it for free
Finally, Die Another Day is neatly nestled into the record’s last few tracks. Though it’s audibly different from the rest of the album, it’s a soundtrack hit that reminds you of Madonna’s indisputable pop culture stardom.
- Die Another Day
- Mother and Father
- American Life
12. Hard Candy (2008)
Hard Candy is collaborative Madonna, unafraid to work with others as she reinvents.
After taking the reins and being the lead writer and producer in all of her previous albums, Madonna made room for more outside influence and direction with Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams in her eleventh studio album, Hard Candy.
The album’s first and most successful single, 4-minutes is more Justin Timberlake featuring Madonna than Madonna featuring Justin Timberlake, but that doesn’t make it any less addictive as a heroic pop anthem. “Tick tok, tick tok, tick tok,” Madonna reminds you, as Timberlake croons and the immediacy of the moment–sex, saving the world or both–closes in on you.
Williams’s influence shines through with hip-hop beats on tracks like Incredible, giving the album more variety and a greater sense of depth. Timberlake’s influence in Candy Shop is so palpable that if I heard it without lyrics, I might have thought it was actually a JT song. Luckily, with Madonna’s signature vocals and energy, the song is transformed into a hybrid, nuanced track that brings out the best in its collaborators.
The staccato delivery of the not-always-accurate translations in Spanish Lesson is surprisingly catchy, helping Madonna gain credibility as a Spanish teacher, at least for the duration of the song. That it is one of the least impressive tracks on the album and is still contagious says something. Madonna can do no wrong.
Remembering the very first timeIncredible
You caught that someone special’s eye
And all of your care dropped
And all of the world just stopped
I want to go back to then
Got to figure out how, got to remember when
I felt it, it thrilled me
I want it, to fill me
- Give It 2 Me
- Spanish Lesson
11. Madame X (2019)
Madame X is Madonna at 60 proving beyond a doubt that she can stand the test of time.
Named after John Singer Sargent’s iconic turn-of-the-century society portrait, Madame X is the Queen’s latest reincarnation. Leading with a track named after Colombia’s city of eternal spring, Medellín, Madame X is definitely Madonna’s Latin album if she ever had one. But let’s not put it in a box. Madame X is also classic Madonna, electronic, modern and traditional Latin rhythms, fado, baruque, and dance-pop at its best. It was inspired by the diversity of the Iberian Peninsula during her time in Lisbon, where she has lived part-time since 2017. With Maluma, Quavo and Swae Lee featuring throughout, she also makes room for Latin, trap, and Hip-Hop influences.
She acknowledges the times and gets political with God Control and perhaps the record’s most memorable song, Batuka. Batuka has an intoxicating call-and-response structure, Madonna calling and women from Cape Verde’s batuque Orquesta Batukadeiras group responding, producing a rousing musical call to action. It’s also an homage to Batuque music, which was created by women in the former Portuguese island colony. Though detractors like Ben Beaumont-Thomas of The Guardian criticized Madonna for playing the role of the “white savior,” I would argue that her use of Batuque in Batuka was a way to harness the music’s historic power to address our urgent political moment.
Lord, have Mercy (Lord, have Mercy)Batuka
Things have got to change (things have got to change)
There’s a storm ahead (there’s a storm ahead)
I hear the wind blowing (I hear the wind blowing)
Let me catch my breath (let me catch my breath)
Will we win this race? (Will we win this race?)
Swear the road is long (swear the road is long)
And the highway listens (and the highway listens)
With its political overtones and geographically-diverse influences, the diva’s latest has even been compared to one of her greatest works, 1989’s Like a Prayer.
- Dark Ballet
- God Control
- I Rise
- Killers Who Are Partying
10. Bedtime Stories (1994)
Bedtime Stories is a doubling down on a refusal to apologize.
In Human Nature, call and response verses featuring two versions of Madonna, one singing, the other whispering, get at the heart of the album’s dialogue between Madonna and her critics:
I’m not apologizingHuman Nature
Would it sound better if I were a man?
You’re the one with the problem
Why don’t you just deal with it?
In a 2014 piece remembering Bedtime Stories in the 20 years since its release, Vice’s Mary von Aue makes a case for the albums continued relevance: “she offered a lyrical #sorrynotsorry and a response to the problem of female musicians being scrutinized for their sexuality rather than their music.” It was #sorrynotsorry long before hashtags were a thing, and it was masterful not just as a nonapology apology, but as an exploration into hybrid sounds, blending solid dance-pop with 90s R&B and experimental electronic.
I’d Rather be Your Lover even features a rap by a nameless featured artist whose sound took me more to Salt n’ Pepa than to Madonna. It’s a risk but a worthy one, proving Madge’s ability to take her music to new and unexpected heights. This successful musical reinvention is #sorrynotsorry gone meta.
Oops, I didn’t know I could talk about sex.I’d Rather Be Your Lover
What was I thinking?
I’m not sorry, it’s human nature.
I’m not sorry, I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me
- I’d Rather Be Your Lover
- Inside of Me
- Human Nature
- Take a Bow
9. Rebel Heart (2015)
Rebel Heart is Reflective Madonna, looking back on her life and throwing a dance party.
Though well into her fifties, Rebel Heart is Madonna letting you know that she’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Often Autobiographical, each track gives you a glimmer of the icon’s story. Veni Vidi Vici, tells of her rise to fame, from her early days trying to make it on the Lower East Side, to her status as a boundary pusher and icon.
It’s all about looking back on her past to see how much she’s overcome and how she’s been able to succeed despite it all. And she doesn’t do it alone. In the saucy Bitch I’m Madonna, Nicki Minaj makes another appearance after her work on MDNA, paying her respects, in rap form, to the Queen of Pop. Nas joins in on Veni Vidi Vici and an unexpected duo, Mike Tyson and Chance the Rapper, feature in the dance floor shredding, electronic/dubstep track, Iconic.
Talk of Rebel Heart should be all about the music. However, a hacker, an album leak, and a gaffe in Madonna’s response to the controversy has given it an unfocused legacy. So let’s remember Rebel Heart for what it was: Madonna’s best work since Confessions on the Dance Floor (before 2019’s Madame X took that title!).
I took the road less traveled by,Rebel Heart
And I barely made it out alive.
- Living for Love
- Bitch, I’m Madonna
- Veni Vidi Vici
- Rebel Heart
- Joan of Arc
8. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
A dance party record if ever she had one, Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor is exactly what it promises to be.
After the lukewarm reception of 2003’s American Life, Madge pivoted, as only she can, and launched into a very different kind of album. Where American Life is nuanced and includes some acoustic sections, Confessions is unapologetically in your face with non-stop electronic dance tracks. Confessions is not to be taken literally, though- the Queen of Pop is doing anything but actually apologizing or admitting defeat. She is reaffirming her selfhood by waving off her need for confessions from others. The third track, Sorry, which begins with the word in a handful of languages, showcases her ambivalence toward repentance:
I don’t wanna hearSorry
I don’t wanna know
Please don’t say you’re sorry
I’ve heard it all before
Let It Will Be and Forbidden Love both build up to their own epic beat drops and ecstatic dance choruses, producing collective dance floor come-to-Jesus moments.
Now I can see thingsLet It Will Be
For what they are really are
I guess I’m not that far
I’m at the point of no return
Just watch me burn
Eastern influences that first shone through in Ray of Light also make a cameo in Isaac, a world music/techno trance combo that intoxicates. The chorus is a mantra and Madonna is our spiritual guide. It’s almost as if she’s telling us an ancient secret, which we need only repeat and recite to achieve nirvana.
- Hung Up
- Let It Will Be
7. Erotica (1992)
Though controversial in its time, Erotica is an epic celebration of liberation–sexual and political–bringing attention to marginalized sexualities in a nod to the AIDS epidemic.
Easily one of Madonna’s most controversial releases, Erotica has gotten more praise in recent years than it did when it first dropped in 1992. It’s the Queen of Pop’s first concept album with alter-ego lead character, Mistress Dita, a dominatrix with a propensity for sexual deviance.The album was released with an accompanying, similarly controversial publication,Sex, a coffee table book and visual representation of the album’s sexual themes. Needless to say, the book was sexually explicit and caused some detractors to say that Madonna had gone too far. But that didn’t stop fans and devotees from buying the book and carrying it to the top of The New York Times Bestseller list.
Despite the inventiveness of the multimedia release, it proved too controversial for mainstream critics. In fact, Erotica was the songstress’s first studio album to not make it to Billboard’s #1 slot. And yet, Rolling Stone’s Barry Walters deemed it worthy of discussion in a 2017 article 25 years after its release. Walters argues that Erotica is a misunderstood masterpiece in that it “tackled homophobia, AIDS hysteria, and female, queer desire, and set the blueprint for modern pop.”
As someone who didn’t become aware of the AIDS epidemic until treatment for HIV had been introduced, it’s really hard for me to fathom how the epidemic could have raged as it did with so much apathy from the mainstream. As an icon for the LGBTQ community, it makes sense that Madonna would have responded to the crisis that decimated so much of her base. Erotica responds to this loss with a celebration of sex, in all its forms, and an ode to the socially “deviant.”
Madonna introduces the concept album and her alter ego in Erotica. Then, she take you on a 13-track sexual journey. Deeper and Deeper, with its dance synths and Flamenco hand clappers is the album’s dance banger. Its lyrics express a sensation of falling deeper and deeper- whether into an emotional spiral or into the throes of lust. The album takes us into Mistress Dita’s universe gradually, eventually exposing its tragic backdrop in “In this Life,” where Madonna addresses the AIDS epidemic head-on. The song opens with “He was only 23, gone before he had his time,” and pulls at heartstrings with “shouldn’t matter who you choose to love,” a radical lyric for 1992 when the LGBTQ community was nowhere near gaining mainstream support.
Someone said that romance was deadIn This Life
And I believed it instead of remembering
What my mama told me
Let my father mold me
Then you tried to hold me
You remind me what they said
This feeling inside
I can’t explain
But my love is alive
And I’m never gonna hide it again
- Deeper and Deeper
- In This Life
- Secret Garden
6. Music (2000)
Music is exploratory, greeting the twenty-first century with a star power combination of fun dance tracks and reflective, self-empowering anthems.
Slant’s Sal Cinquemani argued that the album was more like a series of songs than a cohesive record. At the time of its release, the critical consensus was that the album was an inconsistent patchwork of sounds and ideas. That assessment takes for granted the beauty and joy that can be found in a patchwork: twists, turns, bursts of color, and narrative arcs that take you on an unexpected journey.
Music does this by taking us from the smash hit dance floor title track, to raw and folksy tunes like Nobody’s Perfect and What it feels like for a girl. It pivots from I Deserve it, a track in which she unapologetically claims ownership for her success, to Amazing, a dance track reminiscent of 1999’s Beautiful Stranger.
Sorry, butNobody’s Perfect
What did you expect
I’m doing my best
- Don’t Tell Me
- I Deserve It
- What It Feels Like for a Girl
- Nobody’s Perfect
5. Madonna (1983)
Madonna, the first of many triumphs, sets the scene for what’s to come.
It was 1983 and this little-known classically trained dancer from Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone burst onto the pop music scene. Audiences may have realized she was good, maybe even that she was special, but they could have never predicted the decades-long career of hit after hit and reinvention after reinvention to come.
As I launched into Madonna’s eponymous freshman album, I was surprised to find old favorites nestled between songs that barely felt familiar. The record begins with Lucky Star, an eighties classic with dated guitar riffs and a rhythm section that make me feel a strange sort of nostalgia for an era I never got to experience firsthand.
I knew that the dreamy Holiday, one of my all-time favorites, was one of Madonna’s very first top singles, but I had no idea how many other classics came out of her first album until I found Borderline playing right after Lucky Star. The significance of this–the fact that the first two songs on Madonna’s first album are recognizable hits 37 years after their release–is not lost on me.
Something in your eyes is makin’ such a fool of meBorderline
When you hold me in your arms, you love me ’til I just can’t see
But then you let me down, when I look around
Baby, you just can’t be found
Stop driving me away, I just want to stay
There’s something I just got to say
As Pitchfork pointed out in 2017, when they took a look back on four of Madonna’s most influential works, Madonna was appealing because it sounded like the future with the “slinky digital grooves” of the novel Lin Drum and the like. It’s a sound that was still brand new in 1983, as pop culture moved away from disco and toward a new decade-defining sound.
- Lucky Star
- Burning Up
- Think of Me
4. Like a Virgin (1984)
With Like a Virgin, a star was born.
Without this record, Madonna simply wouldn’t be Madonna. It was the public’s first peek of what she is truly capable of: epic reinvention and innovation. She experienced no sort of sophomore slump but rather a sophomore triumph that would catapult her into decades-long stardom. Like a Virgin kicked off a streak of hit records that all make it into the top 5 of this list.
When I think of Material Girl, I think of scenes from TV shows and movies of teenage girls in shopping malls, montages of running around display windows and trying on expensive new clothes. It became an anthem of eighties consumerism, even if it was at least partially satirical. It positions materialism and consumerism as a form of empowerment. The song’s music video, which features a reference to Marilyn Monroe and “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” made Madonna what Monroe already was: a generation-defining icon.
They can beg and they can pleadMaterial Girl
But they can’t see the light (that’s right)
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right
Madonna as an iconic sex symbol was born with Like a Virgin, the album’s title track. It starts off with mock innocence, a damsel-in-distress playfulness leading up to the iconic chorus in which the word “like” changes everything. Madonna lets it be known that she, in fact, is going to give “all of her lovin’” and hold nothing back. It was a glimmer of the uncensored and uninhibited self-expression and sexuality that would follow. 1980s Madonna is Madonna at her most raw, defying convention and categorization while laying claim to her throne.
- Material Girl
- Like a Virgin
- Dress You Up
- Over and Over
3. True Blue (1986)
Chock-full of hits that would become classics, True Blue gave Madonna lasting pop star status.
Lauded as one of the greatest pop-dance albums ever, True Blue proved that Madonna had matured since her two earlier records, capable of making social commentary while dancing her heart out.
Papa Don’t Preach was her biggest controversy up until that point, its lyrics effectively suggesting that pregnant teenagers could consider options beyond abortion. The director of New York’s Planned Parenthood chapter at the time publicly criticized the icon for the song’s message: “…what Madonna is suggesting to teenagers is a path to permanent poverty.”
He says that he’s going to marry mePapa Don’t Preach
We can raise a little family
Maybe we’ll be all right
It’s a sacrifice
Luckily, the controversy didn’t stop the album in its tracks. It couldn’t, there were just too many standout hits. The titular True Blue evokes an earlier 1960’s Motown girl group sound while Open your Heart is full of the eighties synths and keyboards that defined the era. La Isla Bonita, a timeless classic from the album, is a playfully theatrical escape, staging Madonna as a tourist who falls in love on a tropical island. Listen to it today and it will still make you long for a Caribbean island vacation.
- Papa Don’t Preach
- True Blue
- Open Your Heart
- La Isla Bonita
- Love Makes the World Go Round
- Live to Tell
2. Ray of Light (1996)
Ray of Light is Madonna as musical savant leading us to a greater purpose.
Ray of Light will take you back to an exact point in time: the era of peak Spice Girls popularity, boy bands, Austin Powers, and Madonna’s experimentation with world religions. Kabbalah, a controversial Los Angeles-based religious branch stemming from Judaism, led Madonna to yet another radical reinvention. This time, she succeeded in featuring the popular rave and techno beats of the time and interweaving them with musical influences from her newfound religious interests.
Frozen encapsulates Madonna’s religious awakening in a song. Her vocals undulate in chanting, as if unveiling a progressively deeper truth with each verse:
You only see what your eyes want to seeFrozen
How can life be what you want it to be
When your heart’s not open
You’re so consumed with how much you get
You waste your time with hate and regret
When your heart’s not open
The album’s titular track is itself a ray of light, though maybe more of a strobe light reflecting from a disco ball on the dance floor. Starting out like an easy-listening acoustic ballad, it quickly breaks out into a wild, circular techno sample that anchors the track, clocking in at just under 5-minutes. The best thing is that it doesn’t feel too long–ideally you’re having such a great time dancing, eyes-shut with your hands up and your hair whipping back and forth–you wish it would never end.
- Ray of Light
- The Power of Goodbye
- Candy Perfume Girl
1. Like a Prayer (1989)
Like a Prayer is a vision, a rapturous awakening infused with gospel, funk, and soul that reveals artistic depth and versatility.
Its titular track is such a classic that I can recognize it just by hearing that very first organ key. Like a Prayer is a masterful blend of eighties keyboards and spiritual song, a gospel choir echoing the Queen’s crooning in the track’s epic climax. It’s no question that the ballad is one of her career bests (it even made it to #1 in Rolling Stone’s 2016 list of Madonna’s top 50 songs.)
That’s not to say that it didn’t come with its own controversy in its time. The song was the soundtrack to a Pepsi ad campaign, which later went awry when its video displayed extreme images that were sacreligious at best. But what would an epic Madonna release be without some glimmer of controversy?
And what of all of the album’s other earth-shattering hits? Prince collaboration Love Song, Express Yourself, which Madonna described as a nod to influences Sly & the Family Stone, the storied Pray for Spanish Eyes, and the folksy Oh Father propelled Like a Prayer to the top of this list. The 11-track masterwork shows Madonna growing into her stardom by giving audiences a peak of her greater artistic depth.
After three successful pop albums, Like a Prayer proved that Madonna’s music was more than pop fluff. She’s delving into difficult topics, including abusive relationships and her troubled family past, all while interrogating religion and spirituality.
You can’t hurt me nowOh Father
I got away from you, I never thought I would
You can’t make me cry, you once had the power
I never felt so good about myself
Seems like yesterday
I lay down next to your boots and I prayed
For your anger to end
Oh Father I have sinned
- Like a Prayer
- Express Yourself
- Love Song
- Oh Father
- Keep It Together
- Pray for Spanish Eyes