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I think I’d always had Madonna in the periphery of my pop culture awareness, but it wasn’t until high school that I really got into her music. I’ve mentioned before that her 1998 album Ray of Light had some influence on me, but so did her 2000 follow up Music, and that’s the album I’ll be talking about today. (I should note that I somehow managed to pass up Ray of Light during that time, so Music came first for me – though I came back to the latter not too long after.)

I think it was the sound of the album that drew me to it. I wasn’t really into pop at the time – I was very anti-boy band and -pop princess at the time actually (although I liked the Spice Girls and even a little Hansen strangely enough). So it was kind of weird that I got into the Queen of Pop. But at the time, while she was still making pop, she was making a different kind of pop. She was setting herself apart from the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And I really dug it.

“Music” was the first single to be released ahead of the album, and so it was the first time a Madonna song had truly grabbed my attention (it’s also the first track on this album). While it distinguished itself from the rest of the pop scene at the time, it was also very accessible. Madonna wrote and produced the album with the help of  DJ and producer Mirwais Ahmadzaï, whose odd sounds caught her attention. You can hear his influence right away on the title track “Music.” There’s a lot of electronic noise on behind Madonna’s electronically manipulated voice, but it works so well here. The production on this track is amazing. Start to finish, there isn’t a dull moment.

There are some club influences on this album that are most apparent in the following 2 tracks “Impressive Instant” and “Runaway Lover” (though you can absolutely hear them in “Music” too). These first three tracks are among my favorites from this album. In “Impressive Instant” her voice is distorted throughout by a vocoder, Auto-Tune, and other electronic effects, which could have been a disaster, but thanks to Ahmadzaï’s production, it’s just pure magic. The lyrics are pure nonsense, but who cares? It’s just a fun, danceable track and it sounds great regardless.

After that we have “Runaway Lover,” a track which, to me, is kind of a bridge between Ray of Light and Music. It almost would have fit in on either, but makes its home just fine on the latter. (Madonna worked with producer William Orbit on Ray of Light and brought him back for this track and a couple of others, so there’s that.) It’s one of the more intense and fast-paced songs on this album.

We get some respite from the previous intense club sounds on the dreamy track “I Deserve It.” It’s really nice to hear a minimal song with just Madonna’s unaltered voice and some soft acoustic guitars. It’s an introspective track, so it deserves some quiet, though the accents of electronic noise help it to fit in with the rest of the album. They do a good job of meshing with the more organic sounds, rather than distracting from them.

“Amazing” is another Madonna-Orbit track – and another one of my favorites. It’s got a psychedelic, hypnotic intro and I really, really like Madonna’s vocals here. She sounds so desperate and plaintive and a little bit pained. I especially like the part at about 2:23 where almost all the noise drops out and we hear her voice with the subtle piano (that now becomes more pronounced) before diving right back in to the frantic beats. It’s a very noisy track overall but it’s pulled off just right. It seems like Orbit may have been taking some cues from Ahmadzaï here.

I have to say “Nobody’s Perfect” is my least favorite track on here. Blatant/Obviously intentional Auto-Tune is tricky for me. M.I.A. can pull it off really well, for example. As for Madonna, there are other instances on this album where it DOES work. But here, I just can’t stand it. It just sounds ridiculously corny and annoying, and it distracts from the otherwise well-done background melodies. About the only part I like is about 2:44 in, when the Auto-Tune goes away and we get to hear her voice with some distorted acoustic guitar (which is a fantastic sound). Still, it can’t save this song, and so I always skip it.

But it’s okay, because then we have the next track (and next single) “Don’t Tell Me” – one of her best tracks not just on this album but maybe one of the best of her career. Sure, it’s not as epic as “Like A Prayer,” nor is it as peppy as “Material Girl.” But right from the intro, the stop-and-start guitars make this one instantly unforgettable and recognizable. It’s hard to categorize this one because the guitars give it this country flavor, but the beats make it more like a hip hop track, while the strings give it a sweet softness. It’s made up of all these different sounds that shouldn’t fit together but they do. Apparently, Madonna’s brother-in-law wrote the song though it wasn’t originally meant for her. It was his wife (her sister) who suggested he send it to her. They both had their doubts; he didn’t think it was the right song to send to her, and she wasn’t sure it would fit with the sound of her album. But with his permission, she rearranged it without changing the lyrics and, with some production magic from Ahmadzaï, pulled off an amazing track that surprised everyone and would still sound great 15 years later.

Another great track follows with “What It Feels Like For A Girl.” The beats and background noises here are much simpler, which is important for this song. This is very much a track where the lyrics need to stand out the most. The intro features a spoken word sample of Charlotte Gainsbourg from the movie The Cement Garden. Even if you haven’t seen it (I haven’t) or maybe especially if you haven’t seen it, the line is instantly recognizable and resonates with the listener. Even long before I was calling myself a feminist, this song resonated with me. It lists just about every double-standard a woman faces. 15 years later, it could be said not much has changed, and the song still stands strong lyrically, aurally, and morally even today. However, what this song is perhaps most remembered for is the music video (featuring a dance remix by Above & Beyond), which was banned from MTV:

“Paradise (Not For Me)” is unfortunately my second least favorite track on this album, though depending on my mood, I may or may not skip it. The background melodies are great here, and Madonna’s voice is nice enough, but it’s kind of corny and heavy-handed. The drama is just overdone in places. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it sounded sincere, but it just doesn’t here.

“Gone” is the closing track, appropriately enough, Some of that country flavor returns here with the acoustic guitars, punctuated by simple but deep-hitting beats. I like this as the closing track. It rounds the album out nicely and, well, it makes sense. Actually, it even sums up the album pretty great. “Selling out is not my thing” she sings, letting you know that while she may still reign as the Queen of Pop, she’s not going to feel threatening by younger pop stars nor is she going to give into pressure to be more like them. (Although, for me, she would betray that promise with Hard Candy – but that’s a post for another day. If I’m up for it, ugh.)

Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of Madonna, at least not when you consider her entire body of work. But this is still among my favorite Madonna albums. It just felt so natural and true to her. I haven’t given Rebel Heart a chance yet, but it feels like she’s lost some of her spark as of late. There’s been the occasional glint of brilliance (Confessions On A Dance Floor) but other than that, it feels like she’s trying to play catch up to today’s pop scene rather than just go at her own pace. I feel like that might be due to pressure (probably from record company executives) to “stay relevant,” whatever the fuck that means. I guess while indie artists can go pop, there’s no such thing as going the other way. Ray of Light and Music are my favorite sounds from her career. I’m not asking that she just make more of those from now on but…damn, I wish I knew what I wanted to hear from her these days. I guess I wish she would just do her.

I didn’t mean for this post to end in a depressing ramble! So, uh, how about that Music? Certainly a pop tour de force by Madonna. I still place it behind Ray of Light, but just barely. These albums practically go hand in hand. If CDs were still as big a thing as they were 15 years ago, I’d loan this one to anyone who hadn’t actually heard the whole thing. It’s that kind of album.


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Music That Made Me

This week, I’m taking a leaf out of the book of one of my favorite podcasts, Wham Bam Pow. They have this occasional segment called “Movies That Made Me,” where they have a guest come on and talk about a movie that influenced them or otherwise had some affect on them at some point in their life. I don’t know that I could do that with any movies or even TV shows, but I can definitely do that with music.

The following is a list of the top 5 albums that influenced or otherwise had some effect on me at some point in my life. They aren’t necessarily my top 5 favorite albums (though some of them are). Rather than present them in the order of least to most influential (or the other way around), I’m presenting them in the order that I discovered them (not the order they were released). This is the music that made me.

1) Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill


This album came out when I was 9, though I don’t think I started listening to it until I was around 10 or 11. It was the first album I remember listening to over and over again that wasn’t a Disney soundtrack, or otherwise an album meant for kids. It’s funny looking back on it because this album is all about being an adult. Re-listening to it in my 20’s, I feel such a connection to a lot of its themes. I don’t know what drew me to it as a kid. It might have been her unique voice. I certainly hadn’t heard anything like it before. It was harsh but powerful. It was so the opposite of my Disney soundtracks. The production on this album is flawless–I think somehow I recognized that even as a kid. It was (and still is) such a pleasure to listen to from start to finish.

2) Nelly Furtado, Whoa, Nelly!


I was really beginning to discover my musical independence in high school and, like most kids in my generation, found a lot of my music at that time on MTV. It’s where I first heard Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird,” and it’s had a special place in my heart ever since. I related to a lot of that album when I was in high school. It was something about the persistent theme of a wandering soul, of someone who was still figuring out who they were and where they belonged. It helped that she, too, had a unique and intriguing voice. I loved the way it never seemed content to stay still or predictable, making it consistent with the themes of the album. It was very different from what was dominant in pop music at the time, which, according to this Slant magazine review, was “‘pop princesses’ and rap-metal bands.” (That is totally what pop music was at that time. They’re not even slightly exaggerating.)

3) Gorillaz, Gorillaz


The first time I saw and heard “Clint Eastwood,” it blew my mind. It was unlike ANYTHING I’d seen on MTV at that time. I didn’t even know something like that could exist. I’d never even contemplated it. It wasn’t even the pinnacle of what they would accomplish, but my brain and ears were hooked. When I got the album, I was delighted at how this music was (again) so different from anything else I’d heard. It really set the bar for what music could be for me at that time. I also loved the shroud of secrecy that the band kept around them. It was like believing in Santa Claus all over again. I wanted to know so much more about them, but the not knowing was a thrill too. I still remember that sense of wonder when I re-watch Clint Eastwood, even though I now know the physical faces behind the cartoon facades.

4) Deltron 3030, Deltron 3030


Well, what can I say about this album that I haven’t said before? Deltron 3030 changed everything I thought I knew about rap, and even what I thought I knew about music. It really raised the bar for me.There was no going back after hearing the track “3030.” It’s no wonder, considering there was a lot of creative exchanging of musical ideas going on between Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Damon Albarn at that time, and you can totally hear it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it had the biggest influence on me since I’d first heard/seen “Clint Eastwood.” It’s just a surprise how long it took me to discover it! (It was around the end of 2010, I think.)

5) iamamiwhoami, kin


So I think I’ve made it pretty clear how much I love iamamiwhoami. But I don’t think I’ve given a definite reason. kin is that reason. I’d already heard of them by the time they’d started the slow-release of this project/album. And I’d been intrigued before, but bounty didn’t have the same sense of continuity that kin did. kin was not as busy as bounty. It seemed to have a clearer sense of direction, even if it wasn’t clear to the viewer/listener what that was. It was better than following a TV drama from week-to-week (kin was released biweekly). I eagerly awaited every single release up to the very end, when I snatched up the CD/DVD release and watched it in its entirety. It was only after a few watches that it finally became clear to me what it was about. I won’t say because I think it means something different to everyone, and everyone is meant to discover what that is on their own. But it’s so deeply personal to me. I feel it in my bones every time.

Honorable mentions:

Björk, Vespertine – This album had a pretty good influence on me when I was in college (a lot of Björk’s work did) but it falls just shy of the top 5 most influential list. Sorry, B!

Madonna, Ray of Light – I never listened to a lot of Madonna growing up, but I remember getting interested in her around this time. This was when she was going through her Kabbalah thing. It made for a magical album.

Moby, Play – I played the hell out of this album in high school. Moby’s music was such a curiosity to me, mainly because it seemed to defy genre. It took my mind to totally new places.

Sheryl Crow, The Globe Sessions – Another album I played the hell out of in high school. It was so soulful, and I’d never really experienced anything like that. It reminded me of my experiences with Alanis Morissette, but softer.


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