Ask any music critic what Madonna’s best album is, and you’ll more than likely receive one of two answers. Option A: Like a Prayer (1989), noted for its unprecedented religious commentary, impact and genre-defining hits like “Express Yourself” and, well, “Like a Prayer.” Option B: Ray of Light (1998), viewed as the pop icon’s greatest technical feat—six Grammy nominations, four wins. (RoL is often credited for bridging the gap between electronic music and top 40 radio, a point Madonna fans—this writer included—love pointing out to people who don’t know the Scripture.)
Both of these albums are fantastic, culturally potent works that age like fine wine (and George Clooney, to be honest). But there is a case for another more contemporary Madge album as her best work to date. (“Hard Candy?!” you ask, to which I reply, “Good joke.”)
Of course, I’m talking about Confessions on a Dance Floor, which came out 10 years ago today. From a superficial point of view, this LP—sitting briskly at 56 minutes—is a triumph. Its cover—shaded in pink and purple hues—shows our queen in her natural habitat: the dance floor. Her back is turned to us—an act of defiance, almost like she’s commanding the music to speak for itself. Commercially, it reached No.1 and platinum status in more than 20 countries. The album’s lead single “Hung Up”—more on its brilliance later—topped the charts in more than 20 countries, too, making it one of Madonna’s most successful songs in her 30+-year career.
And these are just facts and figures. It’s the album’s (M)DNA that truly makes it one for the books. Structured like a DJ set, Confessions throbs from one track to the next with no gaps, pauses and absolutely zero slow jams. (The only tune that remotely resembles a breather is “Push,” and even that pounds on a sweaty synth groove.) Produced by electro maestro Stuart Price, Confessions harkens back—and, honestly, builds upon—Madge’s club glory days. Forget, “Bitch, I’m Madonna” and “My sugar is raw”—Confessions, with its unyielding dedication to the club kids, proves Madonna (at 47, 56, 75, who cares!) can still move with the best of ’em.
We open with “Hung Up,” a single so universally addictive and well-liked, it can easily call “Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl” and “Vogue” equitable peers. The song famously samples ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” but its coolest nuance is the relentless ticking of the clock as Madonna coos, “Time goes by so slowly.” It’s the kind of build-up that seeps into your veins, practically compelling you to dance (or at least, ya know, hump something). And as far as chorus goes, pop doesn’t get more pitch perfect than this.
Sonically, Confessions gets deeper (and deeper) the further you go. “Get Together” (my favorite track on the album) is a pulsating, true-blue dance hybrid where our girl beckons for closer contact with a nighttime lover. “Sorry” is a discofied ode to putting your money where your mouth is. “Don’t explain yourself, ’cause talk is cheap,” Madge torts as a technicolor beat swirls in the background. Containing elements of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” “Future Lovers” is a dark, grimy electro-pop exploration where Madge whispers totally Madge things like, “In the demonstration of this evidence, some have called it religion.” I’m not quite sure what this means, but damn it, it sure sounds sexy.
And Confessions also gets lyrically harder from one song to another. We go from yearning after a boytoy in “Hung Up” to fear of complacency in “Jump” and later religious nods in “Isaac.” We close with the stomping “Like It Or Not,” a deep cut in every sense of the word. “This is who I am. You can like it or not,” Ms. Ciccone pants against a sultry techno whistle. “You can love me or leave me, ’cause I’m never ’gonna stop.” A declarative self-love jam before it became trendy—a quintessential Madonna move.
Quintessential. Yes, I’ve explained why Confessions on a Dance Floor is a near-perfect pop record, but why is it superior to the rest of Madge’s discography? It’s catchy, but no song compares to 2000’s “Music.” It’s deep, but nothing as soul-bearing as “Oh Father.” It’s inventive, but does it match up to Mirwais Ahmadzaï’s trippy work on the ridiculously underrated American Life (2003)?
That’s all up for debate, but for what Confessions lacks in its parts, it makes up for in its sum. Disco goddess is Madonna’s most natural reinvention, and vibey dancehall her most natural aesthetic. The LP stands as the Material Girl’s most instinctual offering, and for that reason it’s effortless. Her most effortless. For a woman who spent the greater part of her career trying on different guises and hats, Madonna’s most shocking transformation was showing us a little bit more of herself. And for this, Confessions is supreme.
Madonna’s quite literally letting her hair down this go-around. With each DJ spin, she comes a little closer to us, teasing secrets, desires and fantasies. It’s intimate but dizzying and seismic at the same time.
What can I say? I’m hung up on it.
by Christopher Rosa