Saturday, March 05, 2011

Essential Albums of the '80s: Madonna (1983)

By 1983 disco really was dead, but a new form of mainstream dance music, "dance pop," was taking off, thanks to artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna. It's hard to imagine a time when Madonna wasn't a worldwide star, but upon the release of her self-titled debut, the singer had under her belt only a couple of singles that were popular in dance clubs but were not mainstream hits. That all changed with the album's third single, "Holiday," which reached the top 20 in the US. She did even better with its follow-up, the mid-tempo love song "Borderline," which hit #10, and its upbeat follow-up, "Lucky Star," which hit #4--a chart progression that by the end of 1984 teed Madonna up for the significantly bigger impact she had with her second album, Like a Virgin.

Madonna effectively straddles both the dance floor and top 40 radio, perfectly embodying the emergent dance pop sound of the early '80s. "Lucky Star" sets the tone with its insistent beat, prominent bassline and irresistible hooks, although it is the trilling synthesizers that really make this song great. Most of the songs embody a similar feel except for "Borderline," which nudges ever so slightly toward love song territory and "Burning Up," which throws in some gnarly electric guitar for a rockier vibe. These songs, as well as most of the album were produced by Reggie Lucas, who was selected over previous Madonna collaborators to helm the album.

Despite Lucas's presence, much of the album's success is due to John "Jellybean" Benitez, the producer of "Holiday" whom Madonna had remix several of the Lucas-produced tracks she wasn't happy with--namely several of the aforementioned songs that became singles. Arguably, he deserves as much credit for this album as Lucas, although the liner notes relegate him to the role of remixer. "Holiday" in particular, although it wasn't a massive hit upon its release, has become the most enduring song from the album, showing up on the concert list of almost every subsequent Madonna tour. It's a breezy slice of synthesizer dance pop with a memorable keyboard solo. It's still routinely played on adult pop format radio. The album's third producer, Mark Kamins, was responsible only for "Everybody," the dance floor stomper that he produced as Madonna's first single, notable for its spoken-word sections. Stephen Bray, who had helped Madonna with her pre-Madonna demo was not selected to contribute to this album (he would get his chance later).

Among the tracks that were not hit singles, "Think of Me" really stands out for its unusual rhythm and saxophone solo. "I Know It" was a favorite when I was a kid, but it doesn't hold my interest as much know. "Physical Attraction" is nice enough dance pop, but not a standout either.

My first listen of the album was probably sometime in 1988. At that time, I was already a big Madonna fan, having started with Who's that Girl and then proceeded with You Can Dance, True Blue and Like a Virgin. I checked the vinyl LP out from the library and listened to this on my parent's record player. I think I got the cassette sometime in late 1988, perhaps for Christmas. Back then, I enjoyed it, but not as much as her other albums, and I still feel the same way today. It's gotten a lot of attention of late, and has probably aged the best of her '80s work, since it is most similar to the currently popular styles of electronic dance pop. But if I was told I couldn't keep all of Madonna's '80s albums, this would be the one I would let go first, as much as I love it.

Best: Lucky Star, Holiday, Borderline, Burning Up, Think of Me

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