From 1984 through 1989, Madonna had a run of seventeen (17!!) consecutive Top Ten hits in the US. It was pretty much the same thing in other markets around the world - back to back top ten hits - in numbers large enough that she would often be recognised as the solo artist with the most top ten hits in history.
Until recently, M's run with singles has been so strong (over 80 singles released) that she's often cited as being more a singles artist rather than an albums artist.
I'm not here to refute that, but I am interested in looking beyond those hits to see where else she excelled over the years. Other people have done it before, but I'm not sure I agree with their choices. Instead, I'm offering up mine. So, here's the first of three posts: Madonna's eighties releases - and my picks for the best album tracks/b-siders of that period.
Some people scoffed when simple, catchy songs, some helium vocals and a lot of synth and chugging beats introduced the world to Madonna in 1983.
What some people didn't get was that Madonna wasn't a pop album. It was a club album, full of dance fare. And despite its simplicity, and the fact that it was a debut, it had a major hand in changing pop music tastes.
Sure, the banshee rock-pop of Burning Up and the melodies of Lucky Star-Borderline-Holiday are what enthralled pop lovers. But the heart of this album is not in its three hits. It's in the sly, slow burning grooves found throughout. And its on the closing tracks Physical Attraction and Everybody that they're at their most sophisticated and hypnotic.
To my mind, Physical Attraction is the best of the album tracks here- even if it was technically a Double A sider in some markets.
If Madonna shook things up, M's next album came in like the wrecking ball.
The marriage of an 80s urchin and the 70s funk masters (Rodgers and co) produced 1984/5's love child: the bastard you just couldn't ignore - the Like A Virgin album.
LAV was all about its hits - one defining moment after the other, aided and abetted by the movie hits - Into The Groove and Crazy For You - but despite its success, the furor and criticism it drew proved M was, as ever, the underdog, even if she was one of the year's biggest commercial successes.
Every underdog needs an anthem - and Stay was her's. It bounces along while its lyrics remind us that M was, despite her relative youth - anything but naive. If a Boy Toy needed a soundtrack to prove how much she knew about the world, even at that age, this was it.
Stay is like the darker, older sister of True Blue. The romantic big sis who still pushes forward but with one foot lodged firmly in her troubled past.
The singles from 1986's True Blue were so strong that they simply threw shade all over their neighbours. Live To Tell, Papa Don't Preach and La Isla Bonita have aged well with time. Their siblings though weren't anywhere near as strong in their own right. But at the time, they handled the pressure of the world''s attention well. Of the True Blue offerings, Where's The Party pretty much encapsulates what mid 80s Madonna was about.
Such was M's power in this - her commercial peak, - that the three albums that came to the market in 1986/1987 offered just 14 new Madonna songs between them.
The creamy, blonde pop goddess period brought with it her first real flirtations with Latin rhythms, drama and balladry. More than dance music, that combination would give her music a spine and backbone for the coming years. That love affair with those motifs started here as she began to show her trademark freestyle dance-pop the door.
But if you want to hear the most mid-80s Madonna sounding record of her career look beyond True Blue and Who's That Girl? to the You Can Dance remix album for Spotlight: it's a straightforward gem: a True Blue outtake that was better than some of the other final choices on the album. But Spotlight is also a fresh bookend to the gum popping part of her career.
There are a handful of producers who are widely recognised as having brought out the best in M - Stuart Price and William Orbit among them - but it was Patrick Leonard who set the bar for everybody.
No small part of the acclaim Like A Prayer earned was due to Leonard, even if Madonna's lyrics and voice on the album were - as Rolling Stone noted - compelling.
There's so much remorse throughout the Like A Prayer album - Oh Father, Til Death Do Us Part - that Cherish, for all its lightness and buoyancy makes for a welcome breath of fresh air. But Like A Prayer is the first fulfillment of the promise that M displayed in the eighties, and on the title track, Oh Father and Promise To Try the M/Leonard partnership is at its best. It's also on Promise To Try where Madonna's musical mourning for her mother begins and where pop music has never sounded more sorrowful or heartbreaking.
Dave Di Vito
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Dave Di Vito is a writer, teacher and former curator.He's also the author of the Vinyl Tiger series and Replace The Sky.
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