Tidal Catalog #4: Madonna

Introduction: For those of you that have stumbled across this website and are interested in reading about my trek through the universe of the Tidal streaming service, let me tell you a bit about what I did. Back in 2016 I thought it would be kind of cool to listen to artist’s catalog from start to finish and rank them from best to worst. After all, who doesn’t like a good list? I thought I might do a few of them and see what happened, hoping it would introduce me to records that were foreign to me in the arsenal of an artist I was familiar with. I also though that it would be pretty cool to get out of the “one off” mode of listening to a new record, years after the previous one, in order to get a true sense of how the artist matured over time. Flash forward to June of 2019 and 250 catalogs later, I have ended the trek. I posted these all on Facebook over the years as they were completed but I’m going to move them all over here, starting with #1, in order to expand them out a bit more.

As with all my catalogs, to be considered in the ranking, an album has to meet certain criteria:

  • The artist must actually perform on 80% of the tracks (soundtrack and rap provision)
  • No compilations of previous released material will be included.
  • The album must have been released officially and within the realm of the label that the artist would have been on at the time or official releases posthumously (normally applies to a slew of live records)
  • Any EPs must contain new new music and be relevant to the catalog, not be more like a single with a b-side or two.
  • Compilations of previously recorded material will be included if they are remixes, bonus tracks, outtakes… mostly music that hasn’t been part of a main release before)

Entrance point: I had heard everything through Erotica in full and certainly all the singles past that point. But once Bedtime Stories rolled around, I hit college and kind of lost interest in Madonna.

Not Included: Who’s that Girl? Soundtrack. (While listed as a Madonna album, she only performs on 4 of the 9 tracks, so it doesn’t fit my arbitrary criteria). Immaculate Collection. (I don’t include Greatest Hits ever but I call this out because it’s one of, if not the greatest hits collection ever put together. Painful not to include it but if I did it here, I’d do it for all and those would skew results)

All albums ranked on a 10 point scale.

This was one of my most controversial posts when I put it up on Facebook due to the low ranking of many of her classic records. Of the 250 of these I did, I still think this one is unlike public perception more than any others.

  • Hard Candy (9)

Yes, ma’am or sirs. My #1 Madonna record is Hard Candy, not one of her universally classic records of the 80s or early 90s.

I had a really hard time with this catalog, which I will expand upon as we go through this. But what I found was that Madonna could create great hits (there’s really no debate there) but there’s a lot of filler between those hits. It took me 11 albums to find the disc that contains the least amount of those filler tunes. I have a feeling it has a lot to do with the fact that the majority of the record was produced by and co-written with Pharrell, who I love despite the fact that he seems to sort of reuse the same general beats over and over again. The tracks that aren’t with Pharrell are with Timbaland, so Madonna really went for it on a hip-hop flavored album and it turned out great.

If you asked me in the 90s if I even thought I’d say Madonna and hip-hop in the same sentence, I would have told you that you were insane. But that’s pretty much what you have on Hard Candy. That said, you don’t have the stupid raps that she has tried throughout the years, so it still comes across as dance-pop with a hip-hop vibe throughout but that’s what works the best here.

When she released “4 Minutes” with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland as the first single, I wasn’t terribly impressed with it but for some reason, I like it a lot more in the context of the record. I also really like the third single, “Miles Away” which likely could have been a great ballad if Timbaland hadn’t tossed a head-boppin’ beat underneath.

The best track on the disc is one of those great Pharrell tunes that harkens back to the early 80s disco-funk era. I’m convinced that “She’s Not Me” would have been a massive hit if it was released. Either way, it’s one of my favorite tracks of the late-period Madonna.

Overall, this is the most consistent record in her catalog from start to finish but while it was of course her disc, I credit Pharrell for this one more than her.

Madonna, “She’s Not Me”
  • Like A Prayer (8.5)

Here’s the first of the traditionally classic Madonna records, so you might be wondering why with such critical acclaim for this record in particular, that I only have it ranked an 8.5 / 10. And it’s because of the non-singles. The thing to keep in mind here is that I’m ranking albums as a whole, not pieces of albums and not how iconic they are. I may break a tie based on the singles but I believe the reason you see perfect 10’s or close to them across every review on the web is because people are evaluating on the singles and if you are doing a retro review, it’s hard to get out of your head how fucking huge Madonna became after this record.

Obviously the singles are spectacular. “Like A Prayer” is possibly the best single in her catalog. “Express Yourself” and “Cherish” are magnificent tunes to dance to and “Oh Father” is a heart-wrenching ballad. There’s no denying this. And because the disc starts with the title track and “Express Yourself” it’s easy to have gotten caught up in the excitement and missed the fact that the next few tracks were kind of blah. That’s even hard for me to say as the third track is “Love Song” with Prince, my favorite artist of all time. This wasn’t one of his best creations and honestly, it’s out of place on Like a Prayer at all. I love the concept of these two major stars working together but the fact that this collaboration wasn’t even released as a single should indicate that this wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. After that, “Till Death Do Us Part” is a pretty generic throwaway tune for someone at the top of her game like this.

“Dear Jessie” is one of the more interesting tunes on the disc as it’s written as sort of a children’s lullaby, which makes sense since Jessie was co-writer Patrick Leonard’s daughter. It’s a cute song but right it’s placed right after the super upbeat “Cherish” and like “Love Song” kind of kills momentum a little bit.

So yes, overall it’s a decent record but too many of the non-singles seem a little forced to me, so it’s hard to rank this any higher.

  • True Blue (8.5)

In my original post, I had True Blue as a 7.5 and although I was just in the mode of transferring these over and expanding them out. But then I listened to this album again and I made the executive call to move this up to an 8.5 instead. I had this lower originally because just like Like a Prayer, I thought the non-singles were pretty bad. I still don’t think the final two tracks are all that great but that doesn’t make this deserve a 7.5.

Five of the nine tracks were released as singles (“Papa Don’t Preach” “Open Your Heart” “Live To Tell” “La Isla Bonita” and “True Blue”) and although not officially, I feel like I’ve heard “Where’s the Party” just as much as the hits.

While Like a Prayer made Madonna an icon, this was the album that made her a superstar. Obviously Like a Virgin was a monster hit for her but she could have done what a lot of artists did and followed it up with a stinker but to put out a follow up that was even better as a whole, cemented her place in history.

Madonna, “Papa Don’t Preach”
  • American Life (8)
  • MDNA (8)
  • Madonna (7.5)
  • Rebel Heart (7.5)
  • Erotica (7)

Ok, so I stop here because Erotica was a very interesting album for me growing up. I was a teenager watching Madonna grow up on her previous records and was 16 when this album and her Sex book was released. These were the days when MTV premiered a video at the top of every hour when something major was coming out and the “Erotica” video premiered at 10 pm, if I remember correctly (or sometime after safe harbor). I already thought Madonna was hot and at 16, you bet your ass that I stayed up to watch the scandalous video. I remember nothing about the video as it only aired three times (and I haven’t bothered watching it since as I’m supposing it’s tame by today’s standards) but at the time….shivers.

I don’t believe I thought this was a good album at the time nor do I think it’s really that great now but it’s sensual as hell, especially on a track like “Fever.” And when you listen to it now, you can hear the influence of the record with other artists, especially Janet Jackson. Go back and listen to janet. or The Velvet Rope and you’ll hear those slow, breathy, almost spoken erotic moments on them as well. It was a heck of a chance she took, putting out a sexual dance record here but it worked to take her into the next chapter of her career.

To this day, I’ve still never seen Sex, though it wasn’t for a lack of trying back in the day. All I see in my mind is 60-year old Madonna with an eye patch now, so I don’t think I could go back either.

Madonna, “Rain”
  • Like a Virgin (7)
  • Madame X (7) (Review here)
  • Rebel Heart Tour (7)
  • Music (7)
  • You Can Dance (7)
  • I’m Breathless (6)
  • Bedtime Stories (6)
  • Confessions on a Dance Floor (6)
  • Sticky & Sweet Tour (5.5)
  • Ray of Light (5)

Stopping here to talk about Ray of Light a minute as this is yet another critically acclaimed record from Madonna and pretty much her last one that would be called that. It was labeled as “adventurous,” which is was but now a few decades later, “adventurous” is in Madonna’s (M)DNA.

For Ray of Light, she worked with William Orbit, who was known for electronica and trip-hop at the time, so this album turned out just like that. A pop record at heart but electronic by nature with a lot of Moroccan sounds included.

For me, this side of her doesn’t thrill me. I admit it was a new and intriguing direction for her but I feel the album plods along at a mesmerizingly slow pace at times, missing the energy of almost every other album in her catalog. “Candy Perfume Girl” is a great example of a track that I simply don’t get – in a prime spot (track #4) on the record, it starts off slow and repetitive and then kicks in later with some rock guitar that sounds a bit out of place for Madonna. Sometimes I just don’t get a record and this is one of those times.

Madonna, “Candy Perfume Girl”
  • The Confessions Tour (4)
  • I’m Going to Tell You A Secret (3)
  • Evita (2)
  • MDNA World Tour (2)

Summary: 22 albums. Average: 6.6

New Music 6/14/19

It’s week 23 of ’19 and as we hit the summer months, we’re hitting prime time for new releases. I’m downloading records on Tidal based on name recognition or album covers that intrigue me, only. Some artists I have a history with and some I’ve never heard of. This is how I discover as I trek through the new music landscape.

Song of the Week: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, “Save a Little Heartache”
  • Album: Madonna – Madame X (Deluxe)
  • Previous knowledge: Bitch, she’s Madonna (Tidal catalog #4)
  • Review: Oh, my lord. Let’s just start off with the only statement you might need. You will not find another record quite like this in 2019, or maybe on Earth. Nothing I can say or do will make you listen or not listen to a Madonna record at this point in her career but I’m still going to spoil your fun and tell you to be prepared for some of the weirdest shit you’ve heard in a long time.

Madame X is influenced by her recent years living in Portugal and thus there’s a Latin vibe throughout the record. If you’ve heard the lead single, “Medellin” with Colombian singer Maluma, you’ll get that same feeling on multiple tracks spread across the disc. You’ll also get one of the most scattershot, bold, odd and daring albums of the year. There’s tracks on this album that are just absolutely terrible. The awkwardly titled “Killers Who Are Partying” is one of those tunes. With equally awkward lyrics like “I will be gay if the gay are burned / I’ll be Africa if Africa is shut down / I will be poor if the poor are humiliated / I’ll be a child if the children are exploited” I think she’s trying to take a human rights stance here but it comes across as odd statements by an entitled old white lady. And then there’s “Extreme Occident” which is really just her walking us through some multi-million dollar trip she likely took (without us.)

Along the way, you get the “1-2 cha-cha-cha” of Madonna singing in Portuguese and the mind blowingly different, “Dark Ballet” which begins with a slow hip-hop beat over a piano and then manages to combine auto-tuned vocals and the line “can’t you hear over your Supreme hoodie” over a passage from the Nutcracker.” So there’s actual ballet in “Dark Ballet.” You have never heard a song quite like this one, guaranteed.

That’s followed up by “God Control” (a song that appears to be about gun control) which begins with Madonna singing with her mouth shut, another rap with terrible fucking lyrics like: “People think that I’m insane / the only gun is in my brain / each new birth, it gives me hope / that’s why I don’t smoke that dope,” and a disco beat like you heard on Confessions on a Dance Floor. By the way, we’re only on track 3 right and already my mind has been blown.

Madonna also continues with what I’ll call, “The Bitch Series” as “Bitch, I’m Loca” shows up after both “Unapologetic Bitch” and “Bitch, I’m Madonna” on her last record. I’m hoping that she closes it out on her next record with “Bitch, I’m a Bitch.” I’ll give that record a 10/10 no matter what it sounds like.

There are some easy listens too – stuff that you’d possibly expect from Madonna, like the poppy “Come Alive” and the dance number, “I Don’t Search, I Find” but you really need to focus hard to get to them with your thoughts in one piece. Maybe what I should be expecting is some crazy ass shit every time out and then it will hit me right from the start. You need to give this multiple listens. This is not an album you sit with once and get it. You may never get it or you may find it so unique that it’s great right off the bat. Honestly, I’m not sure at this point. She’s either way ahead of everyone else with this album or just gone completely off the deep end. I’ve listened to it three times and once it didn’t catch me off guard, I was able to formulate an actual rank but it’s going to have to sink in a bit longer for me to be able to answer my statement above.

  • Ranking: First listen 6.5/10, Second listen 7.5/10, Third and final listen 7/10.
Madonna, “Dark Ballet”
  • Album: ZZ Top – Goin’ 50 (Digital Deluxe)
  • Previous knowledge: Everything
  • Review: For their 50th(!) year in existence, we’ve got a 50-track ZZ Top retrospective here. There’s actually a single disc version which is simply a greatest hits record and then there’s a 3-disc version. According to the track list, disc one are hits from the 60’s and 70’s, disc two features the 80s-present day and disc three covers the entire range and picks select non-hits to round out the 50. That said, the digital version on Tidal is unlike any version I’ve seen on the web. The first portion plays out a bit like a standard mixed greatest hits album, not the 1-disc version or the first disc of the deluxe set. And then the rest of the tracks are a mixture of early to present day material – so I guess it depends on where you listen as to what you get.

For me, the order here doesn’t matter all that much as this has to be one of the best road trip releases in history. It’s 80 degrees out right now here in sunny Pennsylvania and I was driving with all the windows and sun roof open and ZZ Top blaring. If I had to drive 500 miles on the highway, I’m sure I would be pulled over for speeding, as it was impossible not to get caught up in the adrenaline here.

The material here is remastered for 2019 and while the 70’s analog recordings can’t really be brought up to 2019 standards, they are surely better sounding than the originals and once they started digital recordings in the 80’s, the remasters sound absolutely stellar. My favorite remaster of all time is The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails, which brought out so many nuances in the music when it was remastered two decades after the initial release. Listening to “Legs” again on this release, I got that same excited feeling as I did when I listened to the NIN record. It was produced well to begin with but the remastered version sounds absolutely stunning. And to give you a better reason to listen, this remastering makes “Velcro Fly” actually worth listening to. That’s how you do it, my friends. It can’t make the material from the last few albums sound any better though, because the songs themselves really aren’t that great to begin with but by the time they roll around forty tracks in, who the fuck cares. There’s no Goin’ 50 here. Put the top down and do 90 on the highway.

  • Rating: 9.5/10
ZZ Top, “La Grange” (remastered)
  • Album: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars
  • Previous knowledge: The Boss! (Tidal catalog #23)
  • Review: It’s been five years since the Boss’ last record and seven since the last one with all new material. I was expecting a bit of a political record here as it seems like Bruce would be the guy to address the issues with the country right now, but this isn’t that. This is a subdued, yet sweeping orchestral solo record with character driven songs, like Bruce does best. The galloping steed on the front cover makes me happy and actually tells a bit of the story of the record. Homeland, journeys, deserts, loneliness, searching for something higher etc… all themes that you likely recognize from Bruce. He claims he was trying to channel Burt Bacharach and Glen Campbell and he’s done that almost perfectly. This is a beautifully smooth album of classic country with orchestral pop touches that really raise some of these tunes to classic Springsteen level.
  • Ranking: 9/10
Bruce Springsteen, “Chasin’ Wild Horses”
  • Album: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real – Turn Off the News (Build a Garden)
  • Previous knowledge: Backing band for Neil Young
  • Review: While I have never heard any actual original music by Promise of the Real, they have made two studio records, a soundtrack and a live album as the backing band for Neil Young and made him sound as good as he has in years. So I was curious as hell if I would hear Neil’s influence in here. Alternately, since Lukas Nelson is the son of Willie, I figured Daddy’s influence would be here as well. But while this is a country record, Lukas and Promise of the Real have really carved out their own sound. Yes, it’s a country record but more of a laid back roots rock album, full of chill grooves and extremely well written tunes. I don’t know a lot of Willie’s material (he’s releasing a new album next week too!) but I don’t picture him sounding like this and they’ve done a really nice job separating themselves from Neil’s sound as well. Don’t be shocked at all, if this wins a Grammy for best country record next year.
  • Ranking: 10/10
Promise of the Real, ” Out in LA”
  • Album: Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Servants of the Sun
  • Previous knowledge: Only his work in the Black Crowes
  • Review: Chris Robinson Brotherhood was formed in 2011 while the Black Crowes were on hiatus and they’ve cranked out six studio records and four live recordings in eight years since that point! I have no idea what anything else from these guys sounds like but I’m going to find out now. I suppose they are likely all a little similar to this one but I did read that Robinson created these songs so they could play them live as opposed to his previous album, so maybe these are simplified tunes. That said, this is blues rock at the core, which shouldn’t be surprising based on knowing the Black Crowes. Take their sound, smooth it out, add lots of keyboards and then tack on 3-4 minutes at the end of every song to make it jammy and you have this. Servants of the Sun is supremely catchy, filled with hook after hook and ultimately an absolute joy.
  • Ranking: 10/10
Chris Robinson Brotherhood, “The Chauffeur’s Daughter”
  • Album: Justina Valentine – Favorite Vibe
  • Previous knowledge: None
  • Review: I’m not going to lie. I chose this album to review because she’s on the cover in her bra. But that’s not really that unusual for Valentine. She’s been scantily clad for quite a while as part of the case of Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘N Out. So that makes her a white, female, scantily clad rapper. It’s hard to get the picture of Fergie or Iggy Azalea out of my mind when encountering any rapper that fits this profile. It’s not like the white female rapper has been represented well over the years with most material sounding remarkably inauthentic. Lyrics like these in “Eyes” – “I fucked him on the first date, he’s from outta state / I love that accent and we don’t have no time to waste / in that motel room you told me it was written / the bedbugs left but my love for you didn’t.” Yes, it sounds as awkward as it reads. This is a mixture of hip-hop, trap and pop and based on “Lifestyles of the Sick & Brainless” and the name of her last mixtape (FEMINEM) – it seems like she’s got this idea that she can be the female version of Eminem. Well, she’s got a long way to go then.
  • Ranking: 5/10
Justina Valentine, “Lifestyles of the Sick and Brainless”
  • Album: This Gift is A Curse – A Throne of Ash
  • Previous knowledge: Their two previous full lengths
  • Review: This is easily the loudest and most insane record I’ve reviewed this year. This Gift is a Curse is a blackened hardcore band, with elements of sludge sliding in-and-out of their albums. A Throne of Ash immediately recalls a group like Anaal Nathrakh, who play a chaotic brand of industrial blackened grindcore. These guys have been sludgier in the past but after their last record, they added a second guitarist. The second guitar has taken the ferociousness up 10 notches from where they were previously. This ends up being a vicious, insanely chaotic record. Not quite the wall of noise that Anaal Nathrakh usually is but very close. This surely won’t appeal to non-metal fans and even those that like metal kind of need to be in the right mood to be able to cope with this severe level of noise but if you’re in that mindset, it’s a very solid record.
  • Ranking: 8/10
This Gift is a Curse, “Blood Is My Harvest”

Albums ranked 10/10 so far in 2019 (ranking in release date order)

  1. Terror Jr. – Unfortunately, Terror Jr
  2. Emily King – Scenery
  3. Good Fuck – Good Fuck
  4. The Claypool Lennon Delirium – South of Reality
  5. UB40 – For the Many
  6. Griz – Ride Waves
  7. Pup – Morbid Stuff
  8. Lizzo – Cuz I Love You
  9. Howard Jones – Transform
  10. Mavis Staples – We Get By
  11. Prince – Originals
  12. Yeasayer – Erotic Returns
  13. Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real – Turn off the News (Build a Garden)
  14. Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Servants of the Sun