If you think the hoo-ha over Madonna’s banned but purchasable ”Justify My Love” video is the woman’s only contribution to the gift-giving season, you’ve underestimated her. Continuing her tradition of having a media-fueled controversy coincide with something fans can actually buy, out comes the inevitable hits package, The Immaculate Collection. At 17 tracks totaling 73 minutes — 15 top 20s plus two newly recorded tunes — Immaculate is as relentless as the woman herself. It never lets you forget for one dance-remixed second that few artists have racked up such a string of hits over such a relatively short period of time.

But the collection, which shares a title with a simultaneously released anthology of her increasingly self-conscious videos, also serves a more important function. In light of her videos, her still-unresolved movie career, and her shameless knack for self-promotion, it’s easy to forget that Madonna is more than a living breathing manual for careerism. The Immaculate Collection is a welcome reminder of what drew many of us to the Material Girl in the first place: her music. The album refocuses our attention on how brilliant her records have been over the years — and gives us a peek into the obstacles she might face as her career enters the ’90s.

Madonna’s first major hit, ”Holiday,” was a spunky dance-beat trifle that seemed to come out of nowhere. At the time, few thought it more than a one-shot. But ”Holiday” turned out to be the first of a seemingly endless string of sly, expertly crafted singles. Though a common assumption is that her main talent is pushing the limits of our collective libido, Madonna has pushed musical boundaries as well. And The Immaculate Collection, sequenced chronologically for maximum impact, proves it. In theory, a 30-ish urban sophisticate singing in the voice of a pregnant teen (in ”Papa Don’t Preach”), making Carmen Miranda-does-MTV moves (in ”La Isla Bonita”), and sprouting implausible gospel roots (in ”Like a Prayer”) ought to sound ridiculous. With the help of collaborators like Stephen Bray and Patrick Leonard, though, each number turns into a perfectly conceived pop record. And when ”Into the Groove,” the best of her early, back-alley singles, is followed on Immaculate by ”Live to Tell,” one of her few successful shots at being a balladeer, the range of Madonna’s music-making becomes breathtakingly evident.

Its title notwithstanding, Immaculate is hardly pure. Many of the songs have been remixed by New York producer Shep Pettibone. Yet, unlike the extended, bass-heavy productions on her 1987 You Can Dance remix album, Pettibone’s work here enhances, rather than overpowers, the songs. ”Like a Prayer” has a lighter, frothier texture that adds poignancy to its vaguely spiritual lyrics, while the remixing brings out the power chords under ”Lucky Star.” Pettibone can’t do much with Madonna’s throaty vocal style, though as the album demonstrates, he doesn’t have to. Madonna may not be an angelic thrush like Mariah Carey, but Carey has only one-fifth her vocal personality. And great pop is nothing if not personality.

Immaculate also contains two new songs: ”Rescue Me,” a flimsy ”Vogue” rewrite, and the instantly notorious ”Justify My Love,” a collaboration with retro rocker Lenny Kravitz that is basically heavy breathing with a backbeat. Neither breaks new ground for her. But then her most recent album, I’m Breathless, didn’t either. That Dick Tracy-uninspired shot at ”adult” pop found Madonna adapting to roles rather than creating them. But even if The Immaculate Collection is the end of an era, it stands as the story of one woman’s journey from fledgling self-promoter to rich self-promoter, with the aid of a good beat and uncanny marketing instincts. It proves that in all of recent pop, there are few stories more fascinating. A-

The Immaculate Collection
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