FEATURE: The Immaculate Collection: Madonna at Sixty: Her Six Best Studio Albums




The Immaculate Collection


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna/PHOTO CREDIT: @Madonna/@EllenVUnwerth

Madonna at Sixty: Her Six Best Studio Albums


OTHER articles might stretch the premise…


IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in a photo from the Ray of Light sessions (1998)/PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest/Getty Images

to her entire catalogue but I felt, as most people will want the very finest from Madonna, I’d whittle things down to the best six studio albums! There is talk of another record, her fourteenth studio album, coming either this year or next – reason to prick the ears and keep the eyes open! Her work post-Ray of Light (1998) has split critics. There has been a lot of love for some albums but others, like MDNA and Rebel Heart, have been less celebrated. As the Queen of Pop prepares hits sixty, I select the six albums you should add to your vinyl collection (if not done so already). I am not including The Immaculate Collection (as it is a best-of album) but am pretty sure, in these six albums, you will find the icon at her most engaging, impressive and alive. Have a look/listen, get down to your local record shop and be sure to snap up…


A sextet of Madonna’s vinyl-gold.



Number-Six: Erotica


Release Date: 20th October, 1992

Labels: Maverick, Sire, Warner Bros.

Critical Review:

“Erotica’s irrefutable unsexiness probably says more about the sex=death mentality of the early ’90s than any other musical document of its time. This is not Madonna at her creative zenith. This is Madonna at her most important, at her most relevant. Pettibone’s beats might be time-stamped with the sound of a genre that ruled a decade of one-hitters before being replaced by commercialized hip-hop, and Madonna’s voice might sound nasal and remote, but no one else in the mainstream at that time dared to talk about sex, love, and death with such frankness and fearlessness, and, intentional or not (probably not), the fact that she sounds like she has a cold only adds to the claustrophobic stuffiness of the record

SLANT (2007)

Reasons to Explore:

Erotica is (at that point) the most varied, exciting and adventurous collection of songs from Madonna. Released simultaneously with her coffee table book, Sex, it is the once-restrained star explore sex and romance in daring and bold ways. Songs range from confessional to celebratory; a feast of sounds and tones that took her music to another level. It is ground-breaking in the sense (to that point) a female artist had not been as revealing and honest regarding her fantasies and sexual experiences.

Key Tracks: Erotica; Deeper and Deeper; Words; Rain

Number-Five: Like a Virgin


Release Date: 12th November, 1984

Labels: Sire, Warner Bros.

Critical Review:

Though not as innovative as her debut, the album stands as one of the most definitive pop artifacts from the indulgent Reagan Era. The mid-tempo ballad “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and a soulful cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” proved Madonna could churn out more than just novelty hits, while the sugary “Angel” and the irresistible “Dress You Up” contributed to the singer’s record-breaking list of consecutive Top 5 hits (16 in all). The retro-infused “Stay” and the percussive “Over and Over” are the album’s hidden gems; a frenetic remix of the latter resurfaced on 1987’s You Can Dance”.

SLANT (2001)

Reasons to Explore:

Material Girl and Like a Virgin are two of the defining hits of the 1980s. They are incredible Pop songs but, perhaps, do not best represent an artist who was looking to take greater control of her material. Madonna wanted to be the record's producer but the label, feeling she was not ready, gave her the freedom to choose a producer - she chose Nile Rodgers. Madonna's increasing artistic control (she wrote six songs on the album; five have Steve Bray as a co-writer) led to songs that are smart, sexy and hypnotic. Sharper and more engaging than any of her peers at that time; Like a Virgin is a stunning, if flawed, record. We all know the anthems and incredible singles from the record: parts of our childhood that, thirty-four years after their release, sound fresh, nuanced and essential. It goes to show that, at that time, Madonna could truly do no wrong!

Key Tracks: Material Girl; Angel; Like a Virgin; Pretender

Number-Four: Confessions on a Dance Floor


Release Date: 9th November, 2005

Label: Warner Bros.

Critical Review:

It may be a return to core values, but there's still a bravery about Confessions on a Dancefloor. It revels in the delights of wilfully plastic dance pop in an era when lesser dance-pop artists - from Rachel Stevens to Price's protege Juliet - are having a desperately thin time of it. It homages the DJ mix album, a format long devalued by computer-generated cash-in compilations. It flies in fashion's face with a swaggering hint of only-I-can-do-this: "If you don't like my attitude," she suggests on I Love New York, "then you can eff-off." Dancing queens of every variety should be delighted

The Guardian (2005)

Reasons to Explore:

2003’s American Life was a concept album about the American Dream and materialism. A fascinating album that saw the artist push in new directions but not one that united critics. After a gold run that included Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000); there was pressure to regain footing following a minor slump. Confessions on a Dance Floor is a total reinvention and move from the rebellious and revolutionary figure that adorns American Life’s cover to the Disco-dwelling, colourful heroine of its follow-up. Tracks like Hung Up (sampling ABBA’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) show the Queen of Pop renewed and refreshed; completely free and intoxicated by the material. Madonna co-writes every track but, whilst there are other cooks in the kitchen, the true star and single voice is that of Madonna.

Key Tracks: Hung Up; Sorry; I Love New York; Push

Number-Three: True Blue


Release Date: 30th June, 1986

Labels: Sire, Warner Bros.

Critical Review:

“…Her real trick here, however, is transcending her status as a dance-pop diva by consciously recalling classic girl group pop ("True Blue," "Jimmy Jimmy") to snag the critics, while deepening the dance grooves ("Open Your Heart," "Where's the Party"), touching on Latin rhythms ("La Isla Bonita"), making a plea for world peace ("Love Makes the World Go Round"), and delivering a tremendous ballad that rewrites the rules of adult contemporary crossover ("Live to Tell"). It's even harder to have the entire album play as an organic, cohesive work. Certainly, there's some calculation behind the entire thing, but what matters is the end result, one of the great dance-pop albums, a record that demonstrates Madonna's true skills as a songwriter, record-maker, provocateur, and entertainer through its wide reach, accomplishment, and sheer sense of fun. [A deluxe reissue featured two additional remixes: "True Blue (The Color Mix)" and an extended mix of "La Isla Bonita."]”.

 – AllMusic (2009)

Reasons to Explore:

Following her previous album, Like a Virgin (1984), she could have repeated herself and rode that wave. Instead, True Blue is a vision of work, life; love and dreams that balance heartache and sorrows – many of the songs were inspired by her then-husband Sean Penn. By incorporating Classical music (to win older listeners) and addressing subjects such as teen pregnancy; Madonna was maturing as an artist and her voice was stronger than ever. There is an open and often heavy heart but, at all times, the heroine shows a sense of fun that won critics and saw Madonna go from the Popstar to the Icon – True Blue is an album that has influenced legions of musicians with its melodic Pop and incredible potency.

Key Tracks: Papa Don’t Preach; Open Your Heart; True Blue; La Isla Bonita

Number-Two: Ray of Light


Release Date: 22nd February, 1998

Labels: Maverick, Warner Bros.

Critical Review:

“…Instead, Ray of Light sums up the best we can expect from Madonna at this late date: overly arty, occasionally catchy, confused, secondhand, infuriating and great fun in spite of herself. She doesn't seem to have a clear idea of what she wants to say about motherhood, other than that it's the sort of intense experience that happens to a special person like Madonna. But that's all it takes to get her emotions going, and passionate peaks like "Drowned World" and "Little Star" remind you that for all the years Madonna has spent chasing art, class and fashion, the reason we still care about her eccentricities is the emotion in her music; all her desperately chic decor can't hide her rock & roll heart”.

Rolling Stone (2009)

Reasons to Explore:

Her first studio album in four years; Ray of Light is the most radical and (oddly) natural musical shift from Madonna. She began working on the album after giving birth to her first child and, with producers Babyface, Patrick Leonard and William Orbit, it was the longest recording process of her career – a combination of experimentation and hardware issues! Madonna’s first foray into Electronic and Dance territory; she naturally blends Trip-Hop, Ambient and Middle Eastern music – her vocal breadth and range was fuller than at any other time.

Madonna’s new-found following of Kabbalah, Hinduism and Buddhism – combined with her daily Ashtanga Yoga routines – made Ray of Light a dizzying and world-uniting collection. Victorious, adventurous and utterly transfixing; Ray of Light is seen as one of the greatest albums of all time; it is an award-winning, chart-ruling and monumental record that brought Electronic music into the mainstream and inspired the likes of Fatboy Slim (and many others since).

Key Tracks: Ray of Light; Candy Perfume Girl; Nothing Really Matters; Frozen

Number-One: Like a Prayer


Release Date: 21st March, 1989

Labels: Sire, Warner Bros.

Critical Review:

So maybe Madonna’s protests that Like a Prayer wasn’t autobiographical were a bit of a ruse—or just another way to keep the minds of America’s pop-watchers thinking about her music as she gave them an album where she was less afraid to show her flaws, more willing to try on new personas that had bits of her selves attached. After all, as she told The New York Times in 1989, “What I do is total commercialism, but it’s also art.” Like a Prayer straddles those two ideals with gusto, with even its less satisfying moments adding to the heat given off by the MTV era’s brightest star”.

Pitchfork (2017)

Reasons to Explore:

Although I confess this is not my favourite Madonna album (Ray of Light) album, it is the strongest and finest – in the same way that I prefer Rubber Soul but acknowledge Revolver is the best Beatles album. Critics see the record as confessional as Madonna talks about her father, mother and bonds with her family (Madonna dedicated the album to her mother who died when she (Madonna) was young). Dance, Funk and Gospel explode and crackle on a record that stays close to the heart but pushes boundaries.

The Pop sheen and upbeat tone of Express Yourself is a call for empowerment and liberation; Like a Prayer’s video drew from Madonna’s Catholic upbringing and caused tongues to wag in 1989 – a spectacular and decade-defining video that finally saw Madonna received near-universal acclaim. There are few better ways to end the eighties than Like a Prayer! The record sees Madonna transform from a Popstar to a bona fide artist - a perfect balance between chirpy Pop and the more serious tone that would define her later work. Daring lyrics and incredible maturity meant more people were talking about the material rather than the image. It was the moment Madonna proved she had no equals – quite a feat considering her debut album only arrived six years previous!

Key Tracks: Like a Prayer; Express Yourself; Cherish; Oh Father