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Best Madonna Albums: The Studio Discography, Ranked And Reviewed
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List & Guides

Best Madonna Albums: The Studio Discography, Ranked And Reviewed

Balancing her hit-making instincts with a flair for controversy, the best Madonna albums have built a discography that straddles art and pop.

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The “Queen Of Pop” has battled critics and routinely conquered the chart competition for close to four decades, and there still seems little sign of any creative slowdown. Across 14 studio albums, countless soundtracks and one iconic compilation – the latter of which is among the planet’s biggest-ever sellers – Madonna’s lengthy discography has delivered it all: out-there experimentation, zeitgeist-defining pop and, yes, the occasional left turn that has raised eyebrows and served to provoke even further reaction. Job done, then! Here we rank the best Madonna albums in order to deliver the verdict on her greatest-ever work.

Listen to the best of Madonna here, and check out our run-down of the best Madonna albums, below.

16: ‘Rebel Heart’ (2015)

Madonna’s 13th studio album saw her work with a merry-go-round of contemporary songwriting talent, such as producer Diplo and the late Avicii, resulting in solid songs, among them the accomplished ballad Ghosttown and the riffy Devil Pray. An early leak of some of the album’s tracks threatened to scupper her usually carefully orchestrated release campaign, but Rebel Heart still peaked at No.2 on both sides of the Atlantic. Lead single Living For Love continued Madonna’s run at the top of the US Dance charts, while Bitch, I’m Madonna saw her reunite with Nicki Minaj for further stateside impact.

Must hear: Ghosttown

15: ‘Hard Candy’ (2008)

With 4 Minutes, her enormously successful duet with Justin Timberlake, topping the UK charts and making the US Top 3, Hard Candy emerged as a confident blend of contemporary R&B and pop sensibility among the best Madonna albums. Über-producer Timbaland had a hand in four of the tracks (including 4 Minutes) while Pharrell Williams led on the rest, including the album’s high point, second single Give It 2 Me. Kanye West guests on Beat Goes On, and the 12-song album is still as slick as you’d hope, supporting one of the biggest tours of Madonna’s career – the mammoth Sticky & Sweet Tour, which saw her perform 85 dates across an almost year-long run.

Must hear: Give It 2 Me

14: ‘I’m Breathless’ (1990)

Studio project or soundtrack? It wasn’t entirely clear then – or now! This 1990 release features three songs by the late Stephen Sondheim used in the film Dick Tracy, and a further seven “inspired” by the Warren Beatty hit, in which Madonna also starred. Whether Vogue, by far the album’s biggest success, was really inspired by the movie or whether it simply fit the project is up to the listener, but there’s no doubting the surprising range of the material on this uncategorisable entry among the best Madonna albums. The frankly ludicrous I’m Going Bananas sits alongside hit single Hanky Panky and the refined torch ballad Something To Remember, co-written with Madonna’s longtime writing partner Patrick Leonard. The Sondheim tracks are terrific, with Sooner Or Later picking up an Oscar for Best Song. Madonna has made something of a name for herself with soundtrack projects, including Evita (her version of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina is the most successful in the world); The Next Best Thing, with her cover of American Pie; and Who’s That Girl, which includes four Madonna originals, including the transatlantic chart-topping title track.

Must hear: Vogue

13: ‘MDNA’ (2012)

There’s a frenetic pace to MDNA which is indicative of Madonna’s enormous workload at this time – balancing directorial duties on her first feature film, W.E., a new label venture and the increasingly 360-degree demands of promotion and interactivity essential for 21st-century stars. Blending pop and EDM, MDNA (with its controversial title offering no respite for those misguided in judgement who still expect Madonna to play along conventional lines) offers a crash-course in early 2010s radio-hit construction. Benny Benassi was drafted in for tracks such as the second single, Girl Gone Wild, and I’m Addicted, while Martin Solveig offered the pop groove Turn Up The Radio and lead single Give Me All Your Luvin (featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.), which made the US Top 10 after Madonna’s majestic Super Bowl XLVI halftime show. The album contains some slower moments, such as the haunting Falling Free and the Golden Globe-winning Masterpiece, but it is a going-out record through and through.

Must hear: Girl Gone Wild

12: ‘Madame X’ (2019)

Her last album of the 2010s, Madame X is the sound of an artist creating what interests them, rather than pandering to what the market most likely expects – or possibly wants. There’s little here that anyone following Madonna’s career in the 80s would have anticipated, except perhaps that consistent flair for melody that underpins so much of her work. The Latin-pop duet with Maluma, Medellin, with its reggaeton vibe, riffs along comfortably enough, but it’s Crave, a hip-hop ballad with rapper Swae Lee, that is the album’s highlight. Inspired by Madonna’s move to Lisbon, Portugal, to support her son’s football ambitions, Madame X is as ambitious as the best Madonna albums get, with a noticeable fado influence threading through its 13 tracks. Mirwais was back to produce much of the material, and the project inspired a punishing theatre tour which was unfortunately hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Must hear: Crave (featuring Swae Lee)

11: ‘Bedtime Stories’ (1994)

Regrouping after the controversial Erotica era, Bedtime Stories offered listeners a mellower Madonna than they had met before. She was already an accomplished balladeer, of course, but the album introduced a decidedly groove-based pop sound and a dance direction more left-field than any fans had witnessed previously, as best illustrated by its Björk-penned house-trance hybrid title track. Elsewhere, the R&B giant Babyface offers the theatrical Take A Bow – topping the US charts for seven weeks – and then there’s the Dallas Austin classic Secret, which launched the record. If Madonna was proving she could be more reflective, there was no sense she felt she had anything to apologise for. Human Nature – the final single from Bedtime Stories – remains her most challenging personal statement: a call-out to those who judged her, and a defiant address from a star who remains determined to push boundaries.

Must hear: Secret

10: ‘American Life’ (2003)

Arguably the most underrated of Madonna’s albums, American Life saw Madonna reuniting with Mirwais for further experimental, folk-infused electronica, resulting in more daring songwriting that pushed her audience further from the market-friendly pop that had largely been her hallmark to date. The title-track lead single confused radio programmers with its anti-war message, and its lifestyle satire jarred in her homeland, which was still reeling from the 9/11 atrocity. The whirling Hollywood, picked as the second single, offered more skittish dance with a subversive tone, while lighter touches, such as Love Profusion and the gorgeous Nothing Fails, offered balance. A dynamic ride overall, American Life is best illustrated by its major hit, the controversial James Bond theme song Die Another Day, which is about as far removed from a Shirley Bassey or Adele 007 power-ballad as can be imagined.

Must hear: American Life

9: ‘Erotica’ (1992)

A provocative rallying call for the culture wars soon to consume us all, Erotica is undoubtedly the moment of glorious rebellion among the best Madonna albums. These 14 tracks (ten produced by Vogue collaborator Shep Pettibone) are a master class of 90s power-pop, with the album’s steamy title track nestling up against a house treatment of the Peggy Lee standard Fever. Andre Betts produces four groove jams that sometimes position the project closer to the hip-hop and R&B revolution exploding across the US at this point, but it’s the glitzy throwback-disco dynamism of Deeper And Deeper and the infectious Bye Bye Baby or Words that best characterise the album.

Must hear: Deeper And Deeper

8: ‘Like A Virgin’ (1984)

The album that created a superstar, Like A Virgin’s incredible impact at the close of 1984 and into 1985 is hard to contextualise almost four decades on. Madonna became a global phenomenon on the back of the music-video explosion and with the careful guiding hand of Nile Rodgers, who made the album’s nine songs burst with a full-bodied pop-dance gloss that was greater than the sum of its parts. Like A Virgin is sometimes labelled the last great Chic record: its iconic title track transfixed the US and became the nation’s festive chart-topper, while singles such as Material Girl, Angel and Dress You Up provided the soundtrack for a generation. Other female acts had enjoyed considerable success before this, but none had seized the cultural zeitgeist in the way Madonna was able to, with her blend of knowing charm and a unique artistic vision.

Must hear: Dress You Up

7: ‘Music’ (2000)

Most artists would follow a career renaissance of such magnitude as Ray Of Light with more of the same, but not Madonna. For the Music album she chose to sideline producer William Orbit (though he would contribute two tracks to the album’s final ten) in favour of Swiss-born producer Mirwais. Together they created riff-heavy dance-electronica that was experimental but still exceedingly catchy. The album’s title track became Madonna’s final stateside chart-topper to date, and its Joe Henry co-composition, Don’t Tell Me, has an easy charm that is among Madonna’s greatest singles. Music sold more than 15 million copies globally, serving notice that the best Madonna albums could define the 2000s as comfortably they had defined earlier decades.

Must hear: Don’t Tell Me

6: ‘Madonna’ (1983)

This is where it began: Madonna’s self-titled debut album snuck into US stores in July 1983, and it remains the definition of a slow build. The record’s two singles – Everybody and Burning Up – troubled the dance listings, but it was the pop breakthrough Holiday (a late addition to the record) that became her first classic single. From there, the sublime Borderline, routinely regarded as one of the best Madonna songs, and the hypnotic Lucky Star built momentum across the next 18 months, eventually doing so well they delayed the launch of her second album. A landmark in pop music, Madonna’s debut is an aerobics-oriented time-capsule steeped in the sounds of early-80s New York City, with more than just a hint of the glory to come.

Must hear: Borderline

5: ‘Confessions On A Dance Floor’ (2005)

When Madonna wrote to Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, from ABBA, asking for permission to sample their 1979 hit Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) for her new single, Hung Up, few would have guessed how critical their agreement would be to Hung Up’s success, which, thanks to that famous sample, became the greatest Madonna single of the 21st century. Working with Stuart Price, Madonna engineered another career reinvention by fusing classic disco-pop with a decidedly contemporary European finish. From Jump, with its throbbing Pet Shop Boys-like construction, to the dreamy electro of Forbidden Love, Confessions On A Dance Floor is a record so expertly pitched it consolidated Madonna for the next decade as the eternal dance empress and, in one pink leotard – featured in both the Hung Up video and on one of the most memorable Madonna album covers – created one of her simplest but most iconic images.

Must hear: Hung Up

4: ‘The Immaculate Collection’ (1990)

No matter how great her individual studio projects, Madonna is the supreme champion of the hit single, and The Immaculate Collection – her first greatest-hits compilation – is a landmark of the genre which, as such, more or less demands inclusion among the best Madonna albums. Released at the peak of her chart fame, this 17-song colossus was so packed with hits, she was forced to leave off the chart-toppers True Blue and Who’s That Girl, as well as other huge successes such as Dress You Up and Causing A Commotion. Proving that there would be further Madonna No.1 singles to come in the new decade, it premiered the racy, bass-powered Justify My Love and the dance-pop Rescue Me, and saw the familiar cuts lightly remixed to keep things interesting. Madonna has released more compilations since, including the ballads package Something To Remember, GHV2 and the career-spanning Celebration, but nothing can quite beat this perfect confection, which ranks among the planet’s 30 biggest-selling albums of all time.

Must hear: Justify My Love

3: ‘True Blue’ (1986)

Across her many personae, few argue that Madonna’s turn as the platinum-pop icon at the mid-point of the decade that has largely defined her is the most compelling. The staggering, stripped-back reinvention for power ballad Live To Tell, the blistering melodic gravitas of Papa Don’t Preach, the throwback Motown of the title track, the urgent theatrics of Open Your Heart and the seductive Latin charm of La Isla Bonita – True Blue was a master class of cultural domination and constant surprise that seemed relentless at the time. After those majestic singles, the rest of the record might have seemed something of an afterthought, but White Heat and the single-that-should-have-been, Where’s The Party, in particular, still stand up. Cementing its place among the upper echelons of the best Madonna albums, True Blue is her most successful studio record in the UK, and it topped charts in 28 countries, earning her a place in The Guinness Book Of Records.

Must hear: Papa Don’t Preach

2: ‘Ray Of Light’ (1998)

With producer William Orbit, Madonna gave her musical career an overhaul in time for the new millennium. The theatrical influence of her then-recent lead role in the Alan Parker-directed Evita played its part in the construction of Ray Of Light’s ethereal electronica, which blended Orbit’s love of abstract experimentation with Madonna’s assured grasp of melody and visual presentation. Longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard also worked on many of the tracks, among them the haunting lead single, Frozen, and the dance gem Nothing Really Matters. Hitmaker Rick Nowels contributed to two songs, including the strong ballad The Power Of Goodbye, while the album’s title track remains perhaps Madonna’s most respected hit. The critics loved this one, too, awarding it four Grammys, including one for Best Pop Album.

Must hear: Frozen

1: ‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)

The moment when Madonna’s work began to be taken seriously, with the press, captivated by their exposure to her ability for self-reflection, eager to claim they had understood her genius all along. Topping our list of the best Madonna albums, Like A Prayer remains the high point of a career that has rarely lost its grip on the creative tightrope between pop and art. Former bandmate Stephen Bray, the songwriter behind hits such as Into The Groove, kept the pitch blistering on dance-oriented jams such as the anthemic Express Yourself and the funky US single Keep It Together, while Patrick Leonard offered soaring, soulful pop on the iconic title track and a sweet riff on the classic girl-group sound, Cherish. Elsewhere, the Simon And Garfunkel-influenced Oh Father and the whimsical UK Christmas hit Dear Jessie are part of a staggering spectrum of choice. Prince duets on Love Song (a broader collaboration between the pair never caught light), and another underrated gem is the Latin ballad Spanish Eyes. Like A Prayer diarised a difficult period for Madonna, who was then emerging from a tempestuous marriage to Sean Penn, but the challenge seemed to drive her on to create one of the best 80s albums. It was also the inspiration for the 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, which reimagined every major pop tour to follow, making it a record with an influence that stretches to this day. She might yet make a better album, but this 11-track masterpiece remains the moment when Madonna’s artistry first came of age.

Must hear: Like A Prayer

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