The third Madonna album released in June 1986 cemented her as an 80s superstar, right up there with Prince and Michael Jackson. True Blue contained 5 hit singles and went to number one across the world. A staggering achievement for the still 27-year-old who was fresh into a marriage to actor Sean Penn. Even with all the tabloid headlines and endless distractions, the determined popstar co-wrote and produced every track on the album along with Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard.
True Blue opens with the unmistakable string arrangement of “Papa Don’t Preach”. The controversial song about a woman opening up to her dad and deciding what she wants to do with an unplanned pregnancy regardless of what others think. The tumbling drums of “Open Your Heart” open up the infectious dance pop track. Ballad “Live to Tell” from the Sean Penn movie At Close Range was the album’s opening single and went to #1 in several countries. A touching vocal performance is most effective in the bridge when the music fades and Madonna’s voice comes back in.
The title track is an upbeat 50sish pop track is a lighthearted romp that sees Madonna happily sing, “I searched the whole world for someone like you”. The #3 US single was sadly left off the Immaculate Collection hits collection released a few years later. Final single, “La Isla Bonita” started as an instrumental for Michael Jackson that was turned down before Madonna turned it into a Latin flavoured, slightly melancholic track that recalls time spent on the tropical paradise of San Pedro.
What makes True Blue a step up from Like a Virgin is the quality of its album tracks. Songs like “Where’s the Party” and “Jimmy Jimmy” are not such a drastic departure from the more famous singles. These songs are as good as pop music gets in the 1980s and continued Madonna’s successful run of singles.
A little over a year after her successful self titled debut album, Madonna followed it up with one of the best-selling albums of the 80s, Like a Virgin. Fresh off producing, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, Nile Rodgers was brought in as producer. The match up worked as Like a Virgin has sold over 22 million copies worldwide since its release.
The first two singles taken from the album also brought to life two of the most iconic videos of all time. Written by songwriting duo Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg (Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, etc), the title track sees Madonna cavorting on a gondola down a Venice canal. The cool synths and crisp drum beat of Chic’s Tony Thompson provided a track that was everywhere in late 1984. In early 1985, the Marilyn Monroe styled video of “Material Girl” is one of Madonna’s most memorable visuals and singles, hitting #2 in the US charts. The lyrics of loving the material world in relationships gave Madonna one of her famous nicknames as the Material Girl.
In between those two classic pop songs is third single “Angel”. A Madonna co-wrote with then boyfriend Stephen Bray, it is a simple but catchy synth track that went top 5. The second track on the album co-written by that duo is “Over and Over” where Madonna sings that “I get up again/over and over”. Reminiscent of the plucky songs off her debut, it is the best album track here. Madonna has never been known for her voice but on the cover of “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, she turns in a fine vocal performance in front of a live orchestra that gets stronger as the song goes on.
The final single from the album, “Dress You Up” brings sex and fashion together. A good but not great single, it was left off the Immaculate Collection a few years later. Madonna gets a sole songwriting credit for “Shoo-bee-doo”, a Motown homage that is a nice change of pace from the rest of the album. Much like the debut album, the excitement starts to fade towards the end of the album as “The Pretender” and “Stay” do not move the needle much.
Like a Virgin is where Madonna the icon started. The memorable videos played well across the world to wide eyed teenagers who started to replicate her style and dance moves. But more than that, the songs backed it up. While the album is greatly overshadowed by the first two singles, it is a more than decent pop album albeit with a bit of filler at the end.
With her new album, Rebel Heart, Madonna recently appeared on the cover of Mojo magazine and Stereogum.com published an article on her worst to best albums. This all coincides nicely with a Christmas present that I bought for myself of Madonna’s box set containing all of her CDs in slipcase form up to 2008’s Hard Candy.
While I’ve lost touch with her over the last couple of years, in general I’ve always been a Madonna fan. From seeing the video to “Lucky Star” as an impressionable eight year old right up to the ABBA sampling “Hung Up” from Confessions on a Dance Floor. Having said that, the only purchases I had ever made from her over the years were the two greatest hits collections – The Immaculate Collection and GV2. The Immaculate Collection is absolutely flawless and a constant in my top 30 albums of all-time list. While GV2 doesn’t quite live up to that, it’s only about half a step behind. But even with these collections there were several memorable tracks still missing; “Dress You Up”, “True Blue”, “Oh Father”, “Rain”, etc.
So with that in mind, I started to tackle her box set last month starting with the 1983 self-titled debut. Most will be familiar with sparkling singles “Lucky Star” “Borderline” and “Holiday”. The first half of the album really shines with those three tracks along with club single “Burning Up” and the simple yet catchy “I Know It”. The next three songs are a bit more problematic. “Think of Me” and “Physical Attraction” are instantly forgettable and the first single released on the album, “Everybody” only slightly improves things.
Like a Virgin shot Madonna into superstardom while True Blue, and Like a Prayer were inescapable through the 80s. Through that decade Madonna appeared in films, recorded soundtracks, and was a constant in tabloids but on Madonna it was just about the music… and that music was very, very good.