Album of the Week, November 15: Madonna

Madonna(debut)The woman who would become the phenomenon was born in Bay City, Michigan and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone was a successful student and skilled dancer, winning a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. In short order, however, she decided her path to success was in the big city, so she dropped out of college and headed to New York. She found work as a dancer and also began singing, first with the Breakfast Club and then with Stephen Bray — who would become a regular collaborator — in Emmy. Her energy and sense of fun came to the attention of producer Mark Kamins, who helped her land a solo deal with Sire records. She teamed up with writer and producer Reggie Lucas, releasing two singles and recording her debut album. Not fully satisfied with the results — demonstrating a life-long dedication to her musical vision and a solid work ethic — she enlisted boyfriend Jellybean Benitez to re-mix several tracks. The final result was a delightful collection of dance tracks that slowly took hold of the pop world as well.

Title Madonna
Act Madonna
Label Sire Release Date July 27, 1983
Producer Reggie Lucas with Jellybean Benitez and Mark Kamins
U.S. Chart  #8 U.K. Chart  #37
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Lucky Star [#4]
  2. Borderline [#10]
  3. Burning Up
  4. I Know It
  5. Holiday [#16]
  6. Think of Me
  7. Physical Attraction
  8. Everybody

Let’s start with the hits. After two successful dance singles, Madonna released the album’s only track written by outside talent. Holiday is a joyous confection, a fun, infectious number that makes the most of her early talents. It entered the charts as the 1983 holiday season got started, and the combination of a seasonal feel and a smart song eased the track into the Top 20 in an impressive five-month run. As it faded, she released the Lucas-penned Borderline. A wistful bit of romantic frustration with a solid pop groove, it made a perfect second single, showing off a bit more depth and arguably her best vocal of the album. With an enviable 30 weeks on the Hot 100, it became her first Top 10 and kept up the momentum. Then came Lucky Star, one of the tracks she wrote herself. A splendid, happy celebration and a smart dance number, it combined her musical passions in one fabulous package. It went quickly to #4, making it clear that the future Queen of the Dance Floor was here to stay.

Lucky Star is also the perfect kick-off to the album. Madonna is brilliantly sequenced, a steady flow of varied grooves that could run uninterrupted in the clubs. Borderline is a smart second track, changing up the energy. Burning Up is a club sensation, a rush of hormones that you can — indeed you MUST — dance to. The singer wrote both that track and the side one closer, I Know It, a great love-is-doomed song that flirts with the classic girl group sound.

Side two opens with the shimmering Holiday. Up next is a declaration of independence, Think of Me, a great tell-off song delivered with just the right edge. Showing off more of her sense of musical history, it references the Queen of Soul while remaining distinctly Madonna’s own. Physical Attraction parallels Burning Up as a song of passion. Where the latter was urgent, however, this track is simmering. A mature I-want-you song — hinting at future directions in Madonna’s catalog — it’s the slowest dance number on the album, featuring some classic disco sounds in a shiny new wrapper. The album ends with a powerful exhortation. Everybody is a dance anthem, one of the finest in the Madonna catalog. It was her first single (#3 Dance and a near-miss on the Pop charts) and a perfect introduction to the star’s energy. It could have opened the album, but saving it for last is a great move, encouraging the listener to keep the glorious party going.

When Madonna started recording, dance music had been shoved off the charts and back into the clubs. Disco was dead, and while the occasional dance number sneaked onto the airwaves, the New Wave sounds of the second British Invasion dominated. Rather than force her talent into the popular mold, Madonna stayed true to her own vision. Slowly introducing her sound to the airwaves, she spent over a year easing out tracks from her debut. It worked. She made dance cool again and built a steady momentum that would catupult her into superstardom in 1985. It all started with a short, smart collection of fun tracks that may not be her finest effort, but is certainly the perfect introduction and holds up as one of the best launching pads in pop history.

FURTHER LISTENING: Madonna is one of the most successful and influential entertainers of the past 40 years. Her musical catalog is full of great songs: dance tracks, pop gems, rockers, and ballads. Her first four albums — excluding the lightweight, multi-artist soundtrack Who’s That Girl — are amazing. Like A Virgin is the perfect second album, a pop tour de force. True Blue shows more diversity and sophistication while clearly a part of a strong trajectory; it’s also one of the best-selling albums of all time (and my personal favorite). Like A Prayer is arguably her best long player, a stunning set of songs with energy, passion, and great vocals. Since then her many projects and media omnipresence have often overshadowed the music, but she has released a fairly consistent, if not always magical, series of albums. Ray of Light and Music are standouts.

Sadly, even though she has been a hit machine — the most successful artist on the Billboard dance chart and the most successful female artist on the Hot 100 — she lacks a single, solid compilation. The Immaculate Collection is a good overview of the first phase of her career, but has odd remixes, truncated songs, and some glaring omissions. 2009’s Celebration is a decent package, but suffers from the inclusion of some Immaculate versions. Both are good representations, but we’re still waiting for the definitive overview of  this amazing career.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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