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[Maverick / Warner Bros.; 2000]

By ; March 13, 2012 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Since her humblest lace-bra-and-dangling-rosaries beginnings, Madonna has been an artist of image: through her music videos, fashion choices, and concerts (cone bra, anyone?) she’s tied her music to various visual tropes that provide a stylistic context through which to hear her music. While she pretty much set the benchmark for pop music self-promotion since the advent of MTV, such an approach can make it difficult to appreciate her music on its own terms.

Well, that and the fact that she’s never released a front-to-back great album. As a big Madge fan, I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that even her most critically praised efforts — Like a Prayer and Ray of Light — are imperfect records, each with a small but not ignorable amount of filler. So when I think of my favorite Madonna album, I don’t think of what’s necessarily the best or most flawless. Instead, I think of what’s weirdest. When has Madonna most playfully toyed with her sound the same way she toys with her image?

The answer was released in 2000, and it’s called Music. Notably, it’s her first album to have been largely made outside the United States, with the majority of recording sessions taking place in London. While she once again collaborated with William Orbit (who was chiefly responsible for achieving the airy electronic sound of Ray of Light), she also worked with French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, whose chopped-and-screwed approach would come to define Madonna’s follow-up LP, American Life.

But Music hits the sweet spot between the futuristic atmospherics of Ray of Light and the more avant-garde effects of American Life, and it’s for this reason (along with the wonderful pop songwriting on display throughout) that I find myself turning to this album more than the others in Madonna’s discography. It hits the ground running—strutting, really, as it opens with the title track that became an international smash (as well as her first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper since the 1994 ballad “Take a Bow”). It begins with a voice — Madonna’s own, in fact, distorted to the point of sounding almost creepily masculine — instructing a DJ to “put a record on.” And then the peppy, midtempo beat drops, along with a spartan synth line and more vocal distortion (this time with the pitch turned way up instead of way down). It’s an altogether eerie introduction to the lead single from the album that would serve to launch her globe-spanning Drowned World tour.

“Eerie” isn’t a bad thing, however. In fact, I think the distinctly minimalist feel of the track — in terms of both instrumentation and melody — is what’s made it so versatile in her discography. Each time Madonna has performed the song on tour, she’s given it a complete aural makeover while retaining its hedonistic core with each performance. Check out this discofied version of the song from her Confessions tour, or this pumped-up rave reworking from the Sticky and Sweet tour. Whether or not you agree that she’s being a “rebel,” you can’t deny the strength of a single that can succeed in its original form as well as in a variety of adapted live permutations.

Then… well, then we get the album’s two weakest tracks. (Hey, like I said, there’s never been a flawless Madonna album.) I suppose “Impressive Instant” is fun in a more traditionally upbeat way, but it’s difficult to get past lyrics that vacillate between hackneyed and downright cringe-inducing (“I like to singy, singy, singy / Like a bird on a wingy, wingy, wingy”). “Runaway Lover” is less egregiously embarrassing but still ultimately forgettable.

Not to worry! The seven remaining tracks on Music are uniformly excellent. “I Deserve It” surprises the listener with warm, untouched vocals and refreshingly simplistic acoustic folk; later, prairie-home harmonies and electronic background noises lend the song a trippy, frontier-of-the-future air. Next up is “Amazing,” which seems to find Madge and Orbit building off the psychedelic-pop base they constructed for 1999’s “Beautiful Stranger” while fleshing it out with tender piano and space-age cosmic atmospherics.

Now, most Madonna albums are frontloaded with the best tracks, presumably so as to make for convenient listening during the morning commute or on the treadmill. Music, however, is unique in this regard, saving its greatest moments for its final half. Specifically, I’m talking about the unbeatable one-two glitch-pop punch of “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Don’t Tell Me.” The former cleverly employs autotune as an ironic device, meant to exemplify the perfection that the song’s protagonist is unable to achieve. With disarmingly straightforward lyrics (from the chorus: “Nobody’s perfect / Nobody’s perfect / What did you expect? / I’m doing my best”) and some of the most bittersweet chord changes I’ve ever heard in a Madonna song, it illustrates the value of studio collaboration: mix two parts Madonna pop expertise with one part Mirwais artful disjointedness, and the results are both heartbreaking and utterly listenable.

Upon first hearing “Don’t Tell Me,” some listeners actually worried that their copy of the album was defective; why else would the folksy guitar sample be so clipped, the beat so stuttering, and the silences so sudden and numerous? And what’s with the seemingly unhinged violin that shows up halfway through? The whole track is redolent of the drunken memories of some sexed-up hoedown, sputtering to life with patience and purpose. Madonna’s voice has rarely sounded better, her learned vibrato sung with effortless confidence. What’s more, the moment at which the rhythm finally coalesces is practically a revelation. I’ve found this single to be among her most enduringly beloved, and that’s probably the result of its unique spin on country-western pop tropes. America has long held a fascination with the mythological cowboy (or cowgirl, as it were), but rarely has a pop star tinkered with the sounds of the heartland with such aesthetic inventiveness or commercial success.

Music closes with three slow burners, each more mellow than the last. “What It Feels Like For A Girl” sounds slick, chic, and fashionable, like the aural equivalent of an edition of Vogue. Of course, the lyrics rail against this very superficiality: a woman wearing “tight blue jeans, skin that shows in patches” is “strong inside but you don’t know it / Good little girls, they never show it.” This is hardly Madonna’s first song with a feminist bent, but it might be her least heavy-handed. Its chorus is a question that confronts the male listener with his privilege: “Do you know what it feels like in this world, for a girl?”

“Paradise (Not For Me)” is the most avant-garde track here, combining bilingual spoken-word lyrics with space-age lounge pop that probably takes itself a little too seriously but is ultimately redeemed by its haunting vibraphone and (unintentionally) prophetic lyrics: “Your paradise is not for me,” Madonna sang, as she was preparing to marry Guy Ritchie (from whom she split a couple years ago). And album closer “Gone” is among the most lyrically expressive tracks she’s ever recorded, grappling with notions of regret and disillusionment as a lonely guitar rings out in sympathy. It’s sort of like a sequel to “I Deserve It,” only more thematically interesting and with a more memorable hook to boot.

Overall, Music represents a creative zenith for Madonna’s 21st century output. Despite talk that she’s “over the hill” or “trying too hard” these days, the album remains a surprisingly experimental joy to revisit. At equal turns touching, grooving, and exploratory, she has yet to best it.

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