We look at the ''Material Girl'''s musical output

By Nicholas Fonseca
Updated April 25, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

Reviewing Madonna’s albums


Madonna (Sire/Warner, 1983) Her eponymous first album — which turns 20 in September — glistens with the sound of New York nightlife in its post-54 hangover. (Give ”Burning Up” a spin if you doubt us.) Madonna may now sound shockingly simplistic, but it holds up quite well and remains, in its own giddy way, her most ebullient record. Highlight: ”Holiday” made her a star, but the plaintive ”Borderline” still packs a stronger emotional punch. A


True Blue (Sire/Warner, 1986) The execrable ”Jimmy Jimmy” aside, her third album reveals an artist maturing into her voice, her much-discussed sexual prowess, and her marriage to Sean Penn, to whom it’s dedicated. It holds five equally strong top 5 hits (like teen-pregnancy saga ”Papa Don’t Preach” and the underrated title track), plus it boasts that iconic Herb Ritts cover photo! Highlight: the pensive drama of ”Live to Tell.” B+


Like a Prayer (Sire/Warner, 1989) Finally, the important stuff: family (”Keep It Together”), domestic strife (”Till Death Do Us Part”), death (”Promise to Try”), and religion (the awesome, choral-backed title track). Like a Prayer marked an official turning point, and it also earned Madge a long-awaited, substantive dose of critical acclaim. Highlight: ”Express Yourself” is her brassiest in a career chockablock with odes to female liberation. A


Erotica (Maverick/Warner, 1992) Sonically inconsistent and uncharacteristically cranky, Erotica — much like her naughty picture book, Sex — rang hollow to fans who’d just watched Madonna peak with her Blonde Ambition tour. Disco homage ”Deeper and Deeper” and the jittery ”Secret Garden” pop, but they hardly salvage this aloof disappointment. Lowlight: The soggy, overlong ”Rain” seems better suited for a ballad outfit like Wilson Phillips. C


Ray of Light (Maverick/Warner, 1998) Shrouded as it is in slightly ridiculous yogic trappings, this risky Grammy winner — her initial collaboration with William Orbit — succeeds as a moody traipse through a postpartum playground. Dank thought provokers like ”Swim” and ”Sky Fits Heaven” showcase Mama Madonna at the top of her ever-changing game. Highlight: ”Ray of Light,” a propulsive, redemptive club whirl that never grows tiresome. A-

MUST Music (Maverick/ Warner, 2000) Despite the upbeat energy of larks like ”Impressive Instant” and ”Don’t Tell Me,” this thumping, guitar-heavy collection of inventive tracks — many of them arranged by French house wiz Mirwais — may be her saddest album (”Nobody’s Perfect” and ”I Deserve It” certainly bolster the argument). Highlight: ”Gone,” which perfectly captures the essence of Madonna’s appeal: her continued refusal to compromise. A-