From 19 to No. 1: The best of Madonna

I don’t want to make you feel old, but Madonna will turn 60 in 2018. Did that do the trick? Good. Sure made me feel old!

I’m old enough to remember when Madonna first hit the charts in 1982-83 at the ripe old age of 24, ancient compared to some of today’s tween stars. Madonna had been “Burning Up” the dance club charts before breaking through with “Holiday” in 1983. However, I gotta tell you: Nobody thought she was necessarily a huge star after her first two or three chart singles. Her chart resume was good but not great after a year in the spotlight.

And then she set every TV in America on fire on one unforgettable September night.

Billboard magazine tells the story of a few pre-show drinks at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 14, 1984. Madonna stepped down from a giant wedding cake, in a hot white wedding dress, lost a white stiletto and started rolling around on the stage to the delight of every teenage boy in America as she sang her first No. 1 hit, “Like A Virgin.”

Truth be told, watching it back, I’m mostly amazed at how stark the production was compared to today. I’m also remembering her iconic appearance to have been much more risque than it actually was. Compared to some stuff we’ll see on awards shows these days, this was kind of tame.

But believe me when I tell you that Madonna became a star that very night. It changed everything.

Madonna was the decade’s biggest female pop star, and she was its most important. I would argue that Whitney Houston was the decade’s most talented, but I would also argue strongly that Madonna has never gotten enough praise for her musicality. No, the Michigan native was never the best vocalist, but all 19 of her Top 40 hits in the 1980s were musically interesting. They were largely all more sophisticated than the typical three-chord stuff we hear today. Madonna’s songs were equally catchy, interesting and often lyrically provocative, in an era when we shocked rather easily. They are all still listenable.

You can say a lot of things about Madonna Louise Ciccone, but she was never formulaic.

She charted her own path, forged her own style and had an influence on pop culture that I don’t think anybody comes close to matching today. Style and fashion aren’t my areas of expertise, but I can take you on a guided tour of Madonna’s 19 Top 40 hits during the 1980s, ranking them from the least awesome to the most totally tubular.

One note: “Into the Groove” is not on this list because it was never a Top 40 hit. Mind you, this massive radio hit from the movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” was named by Billboard magazine to be the ‘Dance Single of the Decade.’ However, because it was the B side of the Top 40 hit, “Angel,” it was ineligible to chart. For what it’s worth, I would have ranked it No. 4 out of 20. The video was among her best, too.

Let’s count it down.

19. “True Blue” This was the title track to Madonna’s 1986 album, and it got as high as No. 3 on the Top 40. The arrangement was structured like a 1950s tune, and it came during Madonna’s ‘Sean Penn’ short-white-hair era. Good but not great.

18. “Causing a Commotion” This is how good Madonna really was in the 1980s. This was one of a couple hits from her 1987 movie, “Who’s That Girl,” and even children of the 80s barely remember it. However, it hit No. 2 on the singles charts, and it sounds just fine today.

17. “La Isla Bonita” Think about today’s artists and their penchant for playing it safe, and then consider how different most of Madonna’s singles sounded. This was the third single from the album “True Blue,” and it peaked at No. 4 on the American singles charts. It topped the charts in Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain.

16. “Express Yourself” The second single from the album “Like A Prayer” topped out at No. 2 on the singles charts and was probably a bigger radio hit than how I have it ranked here. However, there are a handful of Madonna’s tunes that I think were underrated, even for her catalogue. This one, I think, was perhaps a bit overrated.

15. “Lucky Star” Madonna’s third Top 40 hit was her first Top 5 single, and I think it was her best video — an all-time great in that category just for being iconic. Not that it was the inspiration for Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” but watch that and then watch Madonna’s video and soak in the understated cool that was early-era Madonna.

14. “Holiday” This was Madonna’s first chart hit after three tries, one of three chart hits from the 1983 album “Madonna.” Musically, it reminds me of ABC’s “The Look of Love,” one of the many great early-1980s songs I’ll expound upon on this blog. However, it got Madge into the chart game, if you will, peaking at No. 16.

13. “Papa Don’t Preach” Between Madonna’s crucifix fashions and references to virgins, there was little doubt that Madonna was Catholic. However, her 1985 No. 1 hit took it to a new level with this moral conundrum of a pop song.

Early in the song, Madonna proclaims to know right from wrong before singing this in the chorus:

 

Papa don’t preach, I’m in trouble deep

Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep

But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby, oh

I’m gonna keep my baby, mmm…

Madonna is neither musically formulaic nor socially predictable. This wasn’t my favorite song but I’ll be damned if it won’t get stuck in your head without much effort.

12. “Who’s That Girl?” The title track from the movie soundtrack of the same name, “Who’s That Girl?” was a chart-topper in 1987. This was one of Madonna’s most forgettable tracks in terms of pop culture impact, but it’s another of those songs that I would say proves her musical worth. And for the record, she’s dressing as if she had been watching Scritti Politti videos.

11. “Oh Father” I remember writing about George Michael on Facebook, noting that his best song in my opinion was one of his deepest if not his most popular, “Praying for Time.” I’m reminded of that as I place “Oh Father” at No. 11 on this list of Madonna’s best for the decade. What it didn’t achieve in typical Madonna pep it did in gravity, and it was sorely underrated musically. For what it’s worth, this was her worst-charting song of the decade, peaking at No. 20 on the American singles chart.

10. “Like A Prayer” We’re back to the religion on display, and as I recall, this one had the Catholic church all in a tizzy because of burning crosses, dancing in neglige and various Catholic imagery. However, the song was beautifully backed by Andrae Crouch’s gospel choir. The truth is, Madonna was much more thoughtful and respectful than not in most ways regarding her themes. And while there aren’t many Madonna songs that made you sit back and say, “Damn, she’s got some soul,” this track came as close as anything she did, and it was a worldwide No. 1: United States, Australia, Canada, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Great Britain.

9. “Open Your Heart” The songs from here on out, for me, are all great. Madonna had five singles released from the album, “True Blue,” the most by a lot of any album in the 80s for here. This was the fourth single, and it came with a very enjoyable video where a little kid waits outside while Madonna works the peep show inside. I’m positive I’m not doing it justice, so I’ll leave you to it. And, again, I’ll empathize if the song gets stuck in your brain for hours.

8. “Dress You Up” Madonna wrote many of her own songs, but this was not among them. It was included on the “Like A Virgin” album mostly because she liked the lyrics. It peaked at No. 5, her sixth-consecutive Top 5 hit, but I liked it because musically it carried a melody that could have been part of an older jazz standard. Quick side note: Watch the video and tell me she’s not dabbing at :37 into it.

7. “Angel” Here’s where I’ll get a bit passionate about Madonna. This is a delight to the ears even if it’s a track that doesn’t get mentioned much from her catalogue. The production is smooth, the bass is booming and it’s a great track to dance to in the car when nobody’s looking. It peaked at No. 5 in late 1984, early 1985. To me, this might be her most underrated song. The songs I have at No. 3-1, many 1980s aficionadoes adore. This one, I don’t know.

6. “Material Girl” It’s not so much that I love the song, it’s that this woman is called the “Material Girl,” and the video is as iconic as any that were made in the 1980s. Besides, as I noted earlier in this post, everything Madonna did musically in the 1980s was interesting at worst. Juxtaposed against her previous hit, “Like A Virgin,” this was quite the change of pace.

5. “Live To Tell” When one thinks of Madonna, one doesn’t think “balladeer.” However, two of my favorite Madonna songs, two of them in the Top 5 were ballads. This track was made for Sean Penn’s movie, “At Close Range,” during the time when they were together. It was also included on the album “True Blue,” the first of five singles from that CD. As a musician, I listen to the melody and the progressions and am fascinated by how not formulaic this song is. And if you’re curious: She wrote it. (Note: She co-wrote it. Very few huge pop songs are credited to just one writer.)

4. “Like A Virgin” This was not only Madonna’s first No. 1 hit, it was the song that launched her from fame to uber-fame. Written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, this smash stayed atop the Billboard singles charts for six weeks. The VMA appearance launched it into the annals of pop culture history, but the song itself held enough greatness to put it at or near the top of all sorts of all-time and end-of-decade charts. In addition to that, I have to give it props for having one of the better opening lines in all of pop music: “I made it through the wilderness. Somehow I made it through.”

3. “Cherish” These last three songs I would include on my personal decade-favorites lists. In fact, for my taste, I would say that Madonna had three truly great songs, this being the first of them. The song is joyous, playful, super positive and catchy as all-get-out without being formulaic, to repeat a theme I’ve focused on throughout the blog. The song was the third single from the “Like A Prayer” album in 1989 and peaked at No. 2. It’s tough to listen to this song and not come away with good energy.

2. “Crazy for You” The first thing I would tell you is that in a decade filled with good soundtracks, the CD from the movie “Vision Quest” was among the best. The second thing I would tell you is that “Crazy for You” might be the best ballad by any singer of the decade. Sure, there are some just as good, but I can’t think of any better. This was Madonna’s second No. 1 hit, and I’ve always loved that two-chord hook that takes you into the verse. It’s something I’ve used from time to time when I write songs.

1. “Borderline” Greatness. This isn’t merely my favorite song from Madonna, it’s one of my 25 favorite songs of the entire decade, regardless of genre or performer. It’s melodically beautiful. The production is smooth. It’s soulful. And it was her second chart hit ever, her first Top 10 track, and it still gets radio play today.

Because it’s terrific.

Take that, 2017. 1983 totally kicks your musical tush.

By the way, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that “Borderline” was written by a fellow named Reggie Lucas, who was best known for his work with Mtume and for co-writing Stephanie Mills’ hit “Never Knew Love Like This Before.” Go listen to that song, and soak in the similarities between it and “Borderline.”

I’m such a big fan of this song that I sat down and did a cover version of it AFTER I had written this blog post. Love this song. Hope you enjoy the cover!

That’s my list in all its glory. If you enjoyed the post or taking this li’l trip down memory lane, I’d love it if you stopped by ilove80smusic.com periodically. I’ll be posting a few times every week on songs, videos and topics that mean quite a bit to those of us who grew up during the era.

PHOTO courtesy of Nasser Al Nasser. Check out his entire photostream on Flickr!

The 10 most definitive songs of the 1980s

When I think of music in the 1980s, I think of an early part of the decade when all styles of music could hit the American charts: easy listening, country, pop, show tunes, instrumentals, you name it. The middle part of the decade saw less country and more hard rock and metal, and the latter part of the decade featured the beginnings of a form of teeny-bopper music that prevails today and mainstream rap.

I didn’t spend weeks combing through my music collection or YouTube to come up with this list, but I’ve been thinking about the 10 songs that defined the 80s. These aren’t definitive tracks in terms of social messaging or long-term influence, necessarily per se, but they’re definitive in some form or fashion, and I think so more than others.

Throughout the life of this blog, I’ll regularly put together lists and offer some reasoning for my choices. This Top 10, by the way, isn’t in any particular order. Feel free to disagree with me and add your comments, or hit me up on Twitter @ryanwelton.

I’ll start with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” a song I chose because it introduced the world to “Thriller” in late 1982 and was a turning point for the gloved one in terms of fame. He had always been famous and talented, and I profess that “Off the Wall” was actually his best work. However, the moment Michael moonwalked to this song, he became legendary and his status rose throughout the 1980s to the point where he was referred to as the “King of Pop” by the early 1990s.

This song hit No. 1 and stayed there for seven weeks, the longest chart run Michael had at the top for his career.

My second choice for this list is Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” At some point I’ll come up with a list of his best popular work and the music you’ve never heard. This is not my favorite song, and it’s not even my favorite two or three tracks from the soundtrack to “Purple Rain.” Those would be “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Take Me With U” and “The Beautiful Ones.”

However, this was Prince’s biggest chart hit, and it cemented his status as a creative great.

Next on my list is a song that actually came out in the late 1970s but breathed most of its life in the early 1980s, and many music lovers call “The Clash” the best band to have ever lived. The influence and impact of The Clash on rock-and-roll and punk music is inarguable, and “London Calling” to me exemplifies the band’s importance in the 1980s.

Before bands like Ratt and The Scorpions and Warrant and Skid Row took over the American charts, the hardest rock and roll you’d find on the radio came from Australian band, AC/DC. However, despite the fact that the album “Back in Black” has sold 50 million copies and is the second-most popular album of all time, the song “Back in Black” only peaked at No. 37 on the American charts. The impact of this song goes beyond the success of the album. If you listen to Brian Johnson’s cadence in the song’s verse, you’ll quickly understand that he’s basically rapping. I’ve called “Back in Black” a song that is as influential and important in rap as it is in rock-and-roll.

Likewise, I challenge you to listen to NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” and not believe that they, too, could have done a kick-ass version of “Back in Black.” While Public Enemy was the cerebral rap group, NWA was both cerebral and filled with raw emotions. They channeled anger in a way that met the moment, and their influence today is to rap as The Clash’s is to punk. Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren never hit the American singles charts but they had and still have every bit the influence of their counterparts if not more.

Of course, the precursor to NWA and Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Run DMC and beyond was a tune from the Sugarhill Gang that really brought rap to the mainstream. The song is called “Rapper’s Delight,” and like “London Calling,” it birthed itself in the late 1970s but mustered its magic in the early 1980s.

The New Wave, second British invasion era of the early 1980s was the product of groups like Heaven’s 17, Human League, Bronski Beat, Madness, Squeeze and Culture Club. However, when Duran Duran hit the charts in 1983 with “Hungry Like The Wolf,” they became the closest thing our decade had to The Beatles. That’s why they earned the moniker, the Fab Five. In all, Duran Duran had 15 Top 40 hits in America, their biggest being “The Reflex” in 1984.

However, “Hungry Like The Wolf” set the wheels in motion.

Also during that early part of the decade came a song that makes this list primarily because of its longevity and influence in modern pop culture. Journey had much bigger hits, chart-wise, than 1981’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” but with its inclusion in hit TV shows such as “Glee,” the song has become a catch-all anthem and one of the most-successful tracks in digital history. This song might have peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard charts, but I highly doubt any single song made the band more money than this one.

As for these last two, I figure I’ll have some explaining to do. For those of us who grew up in the music video era, or at least the era when MTV played videos, several videos stand out. There was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” There were the creative works of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” and The Cars’ “You Might Think.” There was Peter Gabriel’s outstanding video for “Sledgehammer,” and of course the video that kicked off the MTV era, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” by The Buggles.

However, a-ha’s “Take On Me” was both endearing and hyper-cutting edge. Its style underscored music video as an art form and raised the bar for every producer in the business. The song is still beloved, and the first thing people typically talk about when they talk about a-ha is the video.

And last on this list is Debbie Gibson’s “Only In My Dreams ,” which debuted on the Top 40 in June 1987 and forever changed American pop music. Before her, there had been boy bands and girl bands and young female singers, but Gibson’s debut (and Tiffany’s) paved the way for what I call the “kiddo machine,” a music industry largely dominated, at least in pop music, by teenagers and those in the early 20s.

When you consider who might have been the prototype for a Taylor Swift, my thoughts turn to Debbie Gibson. Debbie had nine Top 40 hits on the American charts, and I wouldn’t consider any one of them to be especially memorable. Not bad, just not long-lasting. However, she established the market for the type of act that exists on charts today from Selena to Demi to Taylor. She is an influence who I don’t believe is given nearly enough credit, actually.

Think about Taylor, if you will.

She first hit the American charts when she was 16-17, too. However, Swift has had an unbelievable 35 chart hits in America. Anyway, I think this list deserves a quick hat-tip to either Debbie Gibson or Tiffany, and Gibson charted first.

What did I overlook? Comment below, or tweet at me @ryanwelton.

Oh, yes: the 1980s are back 

“The 1980s are back!” Or maybe that should be, “The 1980s are back?” Really?

In reality, there probably shouldn’t be that much excitement. A statement declaring “The 1980s are back” will suffice. In many ways, this isn’t an awful development. The decade, culturally, was pretty vapid but it was sweet. It was nice. The music was synthy and rich and fun, and even in the midst of the decade’s cheesiness, the magazine Rolling Stone deemed 1984 the greatest year in pop history.

As a lover of all-things 1980s and a self-proclaimed historian of the decade’s music, I can hardly disagree. That year produced magic from Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Van Halen, Madonna, George Michael and so many more.

Aside from The Weeknd’s recent ode to “Off The Wall”-era Michael Jackson or Taylor Swift’s genuinely terrific album, “1989,” most of today’s attempts to bring 80s synth back falls short because of terrible writing. Today’s melodies are weak. The chord progressions are completely unimaginative, and the lyrics are awful.

Not that the lyrics in the 1980s were THAT great. I digress.

Beyond the music, however, there’s quite a bit of evidence that 1980s fashion is back. Not that I’m bringing back my mullet or my pegged jeans legs, but this article declare it so, and — damnit — it’s the New York Times, so I’ll take their word for it.

We would all be lucky to have movies the like of which John Hughes made, but I suspect the closest we’ll get is “Stranger Things.” Truly, we’re living in the golden age of TV.

However, the most obvious comparison to be made between today and the 1980s is the high profile that Russia has taken since the election of President Donald Trump. If one would have uttered those words in 1987, “President Donald Trump,” the laughter would have been crazy loud just as it would have been at the words, “President Ronald Reagan,” 30-plus years before that.

The big difference politically between the 1980s and today is that, back then, the tension we felt was the understanding that we could be thrown into a nuclear apocalypse with the Soviet Union at any moment. And today it’s that we’re headed toward a second civil war.

This blog won’t focus on any of that stuff. There’s too much negativity in the world as it is. However, blog marketing experts say to “blog what you know,” and I know 80’s music. So, click subscribe, like, follow or whatever the kids on WordPress do these days and follow along. I’ll recount the one-hit wonders, the near misses, foreign hits, great videos and terrible hair.

This blog will be lots of fun.

PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Dooley shared this photo via Flickr’s Creative Commons