In addition to entertaining and thrilling us for going on 40 years, Madonna has been outspoken about LGBTQ rights in her work and life since long, long before it was trendy, or even acceptable.
To celebrate the Queen of Pop, Instinct has ranked all 14 of her albums, from least memorable to most unforgettable.
Note: we are only pulling from studio LPs— no soundtracks, compilations or greatest hits packages.
Here they are. All of Madonna’s albums, ranked.
14. MDNA (2012)
William Orbit, who also produced Ray of Light, has said that MDNA suffered in part because of Madonna’s preoccupation with other business ventures. That checks out: there is very little to connect to here, so unusual when Madonna albums are generally such spirited affairs. MDNA feels like a product, like we’re going through the motions. The LP definitely has its moments: Madonna sounds furious and heartbroken on “Gang Bang” and “Love Spent,” far and away the two best tracks. “Girl Gone Wild” is a lot of fun (it should have been the lead single over the confusing “Give Me All Your Luvin’”), and she sings beautifully on album closer “Falling Free.” There is no such thing as a bad Madonna album; MDNA is the closest thing there is to a lifeless one.
13. Hard Candy (2008)
Guest artists on a Madonna record are usually not a good idea; it rarely works. Plain and simple, no one can match Madonna’s spirit and personality, and bringing younger, perhaps trendier stars into the mix comes off as forced. Hard Candy is the first album since Like a Virgin where Madonna doesn’t have a writing and/or producing credit on every song, and it’s kind of an orgy of guest stars. Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Kanye West and Timbaland bring what you’d expect from them to the table, but as a result this barely feels like a Madonna record. The best tracks (“Give It 2 Me,” “Miles Away,” “Voices”) are the ones where she is front and center, telling us what’s up.
12. American Life (2003)
The response to American Life echoed the response Erotica received a decade earlier; it was largely dismissed and didn’t sell many copies. Erotica was misunderstood, overshadowed by the backlash surrounding Madonna’s coffee table book Sex, and has since been reappraised.
It’s still hard to warm up to American Life. The rapping in the lead single is still nails-on-a-chalkboard, and the album never really takes off, only partially committing to a stripped-down singer/songwriter aesthetic. There are moments of brilliance: “Nobody Knows Me” has great spirit, “Mother and Father” has a rousing chorus, and “Die Another Day” is a terrific dance track, just a weird fit for Bond…but ultimately American Life is a downer, and not in a good way.
11. Like a Virgin (1984)
Make no mistake: This is the moment Madonna proved she wasn’t a flash in the pan, and became a pop culture giant.
“Like a Virgin” and “Material Girl” are two of the catchiest, not to mention most iconic tracks in pop music— and they overshadow the rest of the album, which is otherwise mostly filler, save for “Dress You Up” and, to a lesser extent, “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Angel.”
10. Rebel Heart (2015)
First thing’s first: Lead single Living For Love is one of Madonna’s best tracks ever, and Rebel Heart might have been something like a home run if it were a few tracks shorter. The lyrics on “Heartbreak City” are uninspired and goofy, and the song stops the album dead for a moment. Though it’s not as intrusive as on MDNA and Hard Candy, Rebel Heart suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen, too many trendy references, etc. Madonna, you’re the trendsetter. There’s a lot to appreciate here, though: “Ghosttown” is gorgeous, and folky “Body Shop” sounds so experimental and appealing it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s one big sex/car repair innuendo.
9. Madame X (2019)
For all intents and purposes, this is Madonna’s Latin-American Life. Madonna’s latest is about neck-and-neck with Rebel Heart. Nothing here quite reaches the highs of “Living For Love” or “Ghosttown,” but the album is more cohesive, and Madonna takes more of the credit. Though there are still too many, the relatively fewer collaborators and guest appearances is a plus. That said, Madonna’s work with Maluma is inspired, sexy and sonically lovely. “Medellín” and “Crazy” are the album’s best tracks. The whole thing is really spirited (see: “Batuka,” “God Control,” “Faz Gostoso”). Most of Madame X works well, and like on Erotica, it’s a pleasure to see the most successful female recording artist ever create something experimental, relentlessly anti-establishment and knowingly uncommercial.
8. Madonna (1983)
The album that got this whole thing going is, not unlike Like a Virgin, uneven overall but with sky-high highs. “Borderline,” “Everybody,” “Holiday,” “Burning Up,” and “Lucky Star” are essential Madonna, bona fide pop classics. How about the rest of the tracks, though? Do you remember “Think of Me” and “I Know It?”
7. True Blue (1986)
True Blue is the highest-selling album by a female artist of the 1980s, and one of the best-selling records of all time. This is when Madonna took the reins and reinvented herself head-to-toe for the first time.
“Live to Tell” is Madonna’s greatest ballad, and maybe even her best song, period. She wrote all of the words herself. Who else could rock a pop song about child neglect?
6. Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
Madonna got on the horse after the disappointment of American Life but quick, with an all-dance record that has unlimited replay value. The lyrics are often breathtakingly beautiful (“Connect to the sky/ Future lovers ride/ Their ambitions high/ Would you like to try”) and occasionally goofy (“I don’t like cities but I like New York/ Other places make me feel like a dork”).
Truth be told, there’s very little confessing on Confessions. But boy(s) is it a blast.
5. Bedtime Stories (1994)
Madonna’s foray into R&B has gotten better with age. This is in many ways Madonna’s softest record, but it displays some of her most effortless, appealing songwriting craft. “Secret” never fails to fill a listener with intrigue. “Human Nature” barely even charted when it was released, but has since become a signature track. It is just fantastic every time she performs it live. The album closes with tremendous strength: “Sanctuary” and “Bedtime Story” haunt and thrill. “Take a Bow” is one of her most successful ventures into balladry.
4. Erotica (1992)
Unfairly dismissed 26 years ago, Erotica now at long last seems to finally be getting some of the respect it deserves. Rolling Stone can pride themselves on getting it right; awarding Erotica one of its only glowing reviews at the time. In fact, RS nailed it, calling this dark, jazz-heavy LP “a post-AIDS album about romance.”
This is Madonna The Artist at her most uncompromising and vital. God knows this thing was ahead of its time. So much of the output of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Britney Spears, X-Tina et al. WOULD NOT EXIST WERE IT NOT FOR THIS RECORD.
It’s not like every track is a masterpiece—that’s not the case—but album closer “Secret Garden” sure as hell is. And “Deeper and Deeper” has arguably held up as well or better than “Vogue.”
This writer is 28. I was two years old when this was released. Even I say this thing is damn required listening for all the young gays. Know your history.
3. Music (2000)
It’s tempting to tie this with Ray of Light because they’re so connected. That album was the biggest success of Madonna’s career. Two years later, Music is Madonna the musician at her most confident and instinctive. It’s like she went into the studio, said “f*ck it,” and just made noise, just let it rip. I heard the title track for the first time when I was ten years old, and I honestly think that’s when I knew I was gay, even if I wasn’t even sure what gay even meant at the time. That track still feels as funky and fresh as it did 18 years ago. “What It Feels Like For A Girl” has gained all new resonance in light of the #MeToo movement.
Album closer “Gone” is the song you play for anyone who says Madonna can’t go deep. There’s no artifice; it’s Madonna with a guitar singing about fame, survival and life–straight from her heart and her brain. It’s Madonna at her most haunting.
2. Ray of Light (1998)
Ray of Light is widely considered a pop masterwork these days. After extensive vocal training for the lead role in Evita, Madonna’s pipes were stronger than ever. A sampling of many genres of world music and a bold foray into electronica that’s lyrically fixated on mortality and motherhood, Ray of Light is spiritually deep and musically adventurous.
After ruling the airwaves and the Billboard Hot 100 for 15 years, Madonna finally won her first Grammys, a total of four, for Ray of Light.
Here’s a cruel injustice: “Ray of Light” lost Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the Grammys to that goofy, hilarious French-Canadian song from Titanic. Yeesh.
1. Like a Prayer (1989)
One listen nearly three decades after the fact, and it’s undeniable that this is still Madonna’s finest album. This was the moment she silenced critics who questioned her musical talents.
A concise yet eclectic mix, Like a Prayer shows off Madonna’s astonishing versatility: there’s rock (“Like a Prayer”), soul (“Express Yourself”), romantic doo-wop (“Cherish”) and even a children’s lullaby (“Dear Jessie”). And the entire package is a focused, moving and autobiographical take on religion, spirituality, sexuality and growing up.
On “Spanish Eyes,” Madonna mourns the loss of friends who died of AIDS, extremely taboo at the time.
The LP’s most poignant moment is “Oh Father.” A lot of gay men have adopted this tearjerker as an anthem for the fathers we love even though they perhaps didn’t really understand us or weren’t really there.
Do you agree with our list? Let us know in the comments. Long Live The Queen of Pop!