Virgins, Prayers And Lots Of Sex: All 14 Madonna Albums, Ranked From Worst To Best
We ranked every Madonna classic, and discovered, to nobody's surprise, that there's no such bad thing as a Madonna album.
There’s no such thing as a bad Madonna album.
The queen of pop has been consistent for decades now, releasing albums only when she’s ready to, and changing the landscape of mainstream music each time. Even the records that were reviled at the time — Hard Candy amongst them — look genuinely forward-thinking in retrospect. Madonna’s always been able to predict the way that the cultural winds have changed before anybody else, and that makes her most scattered oddities seem consistent.
As a result, any ranking of Madonna albums must acknowledge — more than most other rankings — that last place isn’t really last place. There are no stinkers here. Just a mounting pile of artistic exercises, some more successful than the rest, but all worthy of your time. Nobody does it like she does: even when that ‘it’ seems confusing and overwhelming at first glance.
Here then are all 14 Madonna albums, ranked.
#14. American Life
With its Che Guevara-referencing cover and its occasionally odd, acoustic stylings, American Life poses itself as the most outre record of Madonna’s career. But in actual fact, it might be the most by-the-numbers album she ever released.
Opener ‘American Life’ is an up-and-down oldschool banger, while ‘X-Static Process’ is the kind of ballad that pop had largely abandoned decades prior. Far from the muddled experiment that most critics heard when it first came out, American Life is a sturdy, slightly underwhelming thing — one overly varnished pop hit after another.
Best track: ‘American Life’
#13. Hard Candy
‘Candy Shop’ is a banger. Everybody knows that. The opening track on Hard Candy, it’s a kitsch, ridiculous, oversexed work of glistening art, with a chorus that settles into the very bedrock of your brain. But its success hurts the rest of the album, rather than helping it.
‘Give It To Me’, saturated in cowbell, seems rather tame in comparison with the opener, and the baroque ‘Voices’ is hurt by thin, watery production. Even the Kanye West feature feels slightly underwhelming, given how outrageous a meeting of pop’s two greatest minds should theoretically be. Not a bad record. Just not as great as it should be.
Best track: ‘Candy Shop’
#12. Rebel Heart
Are there any two guest features better suited to a Madonna record than Chance The Rapper and Mike Tyson? Those two icons — the voices heard, appropriately, on ‘Iconic’ — represent the two sides of the musician’s personality; her sincerity and her kitsch; her beauty and her darkness.
Indeed, Rebel Heart might be the most Madonna-esque record of the second half of the singer’s career. Full of dirty bass and snaking choruses, it’s this shimmering, obsidian-black come-on, sexy and disquieting in equal measure.
Best track: ‘Holy Water’
Madonna spent the first ten years of her career building up to a song called ‘Gang Bang’, and when it came (so to speak), it didn’t disappoint. The glittering jewel in the centre of a sometimes under-appreciated album, it’s a demonstration of all of the singer’s talents; a rising wave of something terrible, slick and sweet.
Oh, and that Nicki Minaj feature? Just perfect.
Best track: ‘Gang Bang’
#10. Madame X
It’s a testament to our oversaturated, rushed cultural moment that Madame X wasn’t given the proper amount of attention that it deserved. Mixing the antic half-melodies of contemporary trap with the throbbing pop of her early career, it’s the sound of a musician embracing the new, and doing strange and beautiful things with it.
Best track: ‘Crave’
#9. True Blue
Opening with one of Madonna’s most acclaimed hits, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, True Blue is as dependable as Madonna records come. With its era-defining production, and sweaty sheen of subversion, it’s the singer’s ur-text: the way of understanding everything that came afterwards.
Indeed, it’s only so low on this list because, given the places that Madonna ended up, it sounds a little foundational. That’s not a problem — most pop singers never release a record this good in their whole career — it just means that most ears will gravitate to something edgier, and stranger.
Best track: ‘Live To Tell’
Who could have ever predicted that Madonna would one day decide to reinvent herself as a cowgirl? Music might have the least flashy title of the singer’s career, but what’s inside is pure madness — whispered choruses of titillation, disco hits to get you tapping your Stetsons, and a straw-blasted feel that belongs wholly to John Wayne movies. Not a second of it should work. But it all does.
Best track: ‘Impressive Instant’
Who was Madonna before she was Madonna? Her self-titled album holds the answer. At once endearingly cautious — she would never again sound as trepidatious as she does on opener ‘Lucky Star’ — and shockingly self-assured, it’s an artist deciding to throw literally everything that they have at the wall, just to see what sticks.
The result is naturally uneven, but in an exciting rather than disappointing way — like reflecting on an entire friendship, picking over memories both good and bad.
Best track: ‘Borderline’
#6. Bedtime Stories
An attempt to turn the pop music machine’s gaze back on itself, Bedtime Stories is a song of the self. Not since Prince’s ‘Controversy’ had a singer so slyly addressed their critics while also clearly and carefully reasserting their strengths.
The result: a work of strange autofiction, assembled out of koans and a bounty of delicious ’90s tropes. Like a manifesto written in lipstick on a barroom mirror.
Best track: ‘Human Nature’
#5. Confessions on a Dance Floor
It still doesn’t make sense that Confessions on a Dance Floor was released decades into a popstar’s career. With its sleek, Giorgio Moroder-inspired choruses and mind-warping lyrics — who but Madonna would rhyme ‘administration’ and ‘demonstration’ in the middle of a disco banger? — it has the energy of a debut album.
Vice ranked Confessions as third on the greatest dance albums of all time, and they were right to: this is as good as music of this kind ever gets. It’s just so alive, every single second of it, from the opener all the way through to the electric climax.
Best track: ‘Future Lovers’
All great Madonna songs are about sex, so it was only matter of time till she was going to release an entire album dedicated to the things that you can do with a body or two. Erotica is a pop culture collage of sweat, slapped skin and dripping parts — giddy and antic, obsessed with the stink of itself.
Released alongside a coffee table book of softcore snaps, Sex, it’s a singer at her most naked, physically and otherwise: a list of pleasures, rattled off one by one.
Best track: ‘Erotica’
#3. Like A Prayer
Any claim you could feasibly make about Madonna you could also make about Prince, which made a collaboration between the two cultural forces inevitable. He literally appears on ‘Love Song’, but his purple shadow is all over Like A Prayer, from the layered production to the climax of sweet release attached to the tail end of literally every song.
That’s not to take the album away from Madonna, mind you. At the end of the day, this is the kind of album that only she could release — full of sweet, gasping life, from start to finish. Who else releases a record this smart? And moreover, who else releases a record this smart that somehow isn’t their best?
Best track: ‘Keep it Together’
#2. Like A Virgin
‘Material Girl’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Like a Virgin’. Most songwriters never write three bangers that good, let alone have them sit one after the other on the opening of their second best album.
Like A Virgin doesn’t peak there, either — beyond the hits that most people know, the record winds into stranger, more shocking territory with bops like ‘Pretender’ and the elongated, pulsing ‘Dress You Up’. Each time you return to this masterpiece, it gives you something new.
Best track: ‘Like a Virgin’
#1. Ray Of Light
There’s no equivalent to Ray of Light. At once an immediate, state-of-the-art dance record, and a spiritual journey through a human being’s entire metaphysical worldview, it’s the precise midpoint between the dancefloor and a Walden-style retreat.
Isolated, strange, and beautiful, little wonder that it took Madonna more time to write than any other record released under her name. True genius takes a while to manifest itself, after all, and Ray of Light is exactly that: a work of pop genius, the high point of an entire artform. We don’t deserve it.
Best track: ‘Nothing Really Matters’
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee and longtime Madonna obsessive. He Tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.
Header image credit: Olavtenbroek / Wikimedia Commons