This is the second time I have done a triple review piece. And just speaking on that alone, it is interesting to try and connect three disparate works. Another thought that struck me just now now with this his project and the last three piece, is that it has been all female artists. And with the exception of The Cranberries all female “solo acts”. I know historically I have been drawn to female voices more and certainly have championed them and their history for some time. But why is what he we have come to call pop music, dominated by women even to this day?
Any male acts making waves, almost always get some other genre label like rock or hip-hop or indie. But when a female dominates they are pop, not alternative, not indie, not r ‘n’ b, just pop. In fact the only straight ahead, middle of the road male pop star with a legacy to match that of the females mentioned here is George Michael. Or maybe Ed Sheeran…
Another coincidental link is I had just graduated high school so all these hit as I was supposed to be off at college but instead was emotionally unraveling inside and I didn’t know it. It is interesting for me to listen and try and link them to each other and to myself and really try and understand what makes a good song/album for me. I have learned for me personally, I lead music first. Then lyrics. It is why so many songs I love to dance to often have very simplistic lyrics but the music behind them makes me spin. Also as a poet song lyrics just left alone have a lot of competition for I have read some of the best writers of all time.
But when you add the drums and the bass to the words or a little saxophone or synth with it, it changes the molecules in me and makes my body move in ways poetry does not. And what I come away with first and foremost on this ride is that all three of these albums at their core are dance pop records, period. Everything else is bonus features. And the fact that those bonus features actually add some depth to the baseline production is what raises these albums above many others released at the same time.
One of those albums Gloria Estefan’s, Gloria!, released in 1998 is my favorite Estefan record and one of my favorite albums ever. A straight classic no filler disco album.
So why is that not being reviewed here? Because there is no need… Gloria Estefan wasn’t aspiring to some grand think piece. She originally set out to do a covers album of her favorite disco songs but ended up making her own disco album. And the results are an album that did exactly what disco is supposed to do, sound great and make you sweat. The closest it came to anything more than a dance floor instruction manual was the semi-political “Cuba Libre” about her home country. And even that song hit hard on the floor. Basically, the message of this album was, “Have a good time”.
And so I come out of this three album review having had a great time seeing three pop acts pushing for something beyond just being another collection of decent singles.
Of the three albums I think Kylie stretched herself the most in both lyrics and production. Janet was just expanding a template she had already started. And Madonna was, well… reinventing herself in most Madonna reinvention of all, a mother. A few songs on Impossible Princess really hit my nostalgia pleasure button. I can see why some panned it I can see why other’s say it is her best album. I might agree, if it were not for existence of the albums Fever and even possibly Light Years.
Out of the three albums I would say The Velvet Rope is the best and most cohesive back to front despite almost being a double disc affair. It is also the album I feel like you could just put on at any kind of party as a soundtrack or the main event and it would go over well. And in the Janet discography it is one of a very few that doesn’t have a time stamp, thus it is not trapped by it’s date of release.
But of these three Ray Of Light is my favorite. Maybe it’s nostalgia. Maybe it the current events around Madonna and knowing her time is possibly nigh… It is certainly not any allegiance to Madonna herself. But the soundscape created just stands out as unique even today… it was forward thinking then and in some ways still sounds ahead of it’s time. I also think it is VASTLY underrated in her catalog conversation. Critics may place it high but the conversation to this day is dominated by her 80s single material. That work is iconic and classic but I find it kind of overplayed and there is no one 80s album as cohesive as Ray Of Light where the album tracks are as strong as the singles.
The responses to all the albums at the time by critics were overall positive, with Madonna receiving the most critical acclaim. Janet was liked enough by critics and the populace in equal measure. Kylie had the biggest hurdle to overcome and it seems critics gave an “A” for effort though as I said many fans were not as kind.
And that fan reaction resulted in one the most cohesive and Kylie, Kylie records ever, Light Years, released in 2000.
This album did everything Impossible Princess was trying to get away from. It was a straight ahead party disco record that basically shouted to the world, “You think I’m a poser? Fine. Here is some more disco-pop for you!” It is perfectly camp from top to bottom, from back to front. AND it has even more tracks than Impossible Princess yet doesn’t feel bloated. The lead single, the blissed out, “Spinning Around” went #1 in the UK and the Australia. And from then on Kylie would make some form of disco record and never again, “stray from her lane”. It is a shame because Impossible Princess had some interesting ideas… But hey, the records show staying in one lane certainly did not hurt.
Janet followed up The Velvet Rope with All For You, released in 2001. She too left behind any desire for messaging or statement making with the title track becoming the third biggest single of the year going to #1. And becoming one of the biggest singles of her career. “All For You” is a totally ecstatic pop track. Maybe only bested by Kylie’s single, “Spinning Around” from the same time period. And the rest of the album more or less followed suit hearkening back to her nothing but fun, Control. An album just loaded with great upbeat pop singles that didn’t try to do much more than make you dance.
And with the critical success of the pairing of Madonna and William Orbit, she could’ve repeated herself with another dive into the psyche… but instead in 2000 with the help of Orbit again released, Music. And just like Kylie and Janet made a straight ahead dance pop record. Another album whose ecstatic title track was also one of the biggest hits of that year, going to #1 in 18 countries. That song contains some of her most direct hedonistic call to dance lyrics…
Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on
I wanna dance with my baby…
Music, makes the people come together
Music, mix the bourgeoisie and the rebel
It is arguably one of her top 5 singles of all time.
So here we have three major 80s stars all surviving long enough to push themselves creatively in the later 90s and then by decades end releasing some of the most straight ahead pop music of their careers as if resetting the course on their careers and on the pop music landscape. And all three would continue to have major hits and in the case of Kylie and Madonna the biggest hits of their entire careers were yet to come. And it must be said no other pop stars came out of the 90s with anything sounding like what Kylie, Janet, and Madonna were putting out then. But especially in the case of Madonna and Kylie who were so forward thinking in their pop positioning that albums like Ray of Light, Muisc, Light Years, and Fever still sound a ahead of the times. Proving that your musical career doesn’t have to end at 30 or even 40 or 50. It also shows that record labels were once willing to take more chances in letting artists take chances and come out the other side bigger than ever.
Sidenote: When doing this write up, I fell in a rabbit whole of Madonna live performances from the Ray Of Light era. And maaannn… even I forgot just what a powerhouse she was live. Young people born after 1990 have no frame of reference for why Madonna is The Queen Of Pop. Her live shows had multiple acts with different themes, and styles, LONG before Swift… The only other popstar to come close was Janet and she didn’t come that close in terms of theatrics.
Madonna was just playing on another level entirely. And so as I said elsewhere, whatever is happening with her now… the records stand. And the Ray Of Light era a was definitely her peak in terms of musical and tour creativity. She may have gotten bigger in Europe post 90s and had even bigger tours. But in this era she was still leading the way showing everyone else how it was done.
Now, there is one woman not in this conversation who needs a mention. That is the unstoppable force that was Mariah Carey in the 90s. In September 1997 she released Butterfly, what many people consider her statement record. Coming after her break up with Tommy Mottola, it was a kiss off album of epic proportions that, like The Velvet Rope, was received well by both critics and the public. Such a force was Mariah in the 90s that to get any word in edgewise was kind of a feat for any popstar at the time and so Madonna, Kylie, and Janet being surviving cast members of the 1980s combined with the fickle nature of pop music fan’s tastes, makes their successes and all the chances taken all the more impressive to me. And the fact they they rolled out hits well into this current century… I don’t think any stars today will have that kind of track record. The game has changed too much but thankfully they game doesn’t matter when it comes to listening to whatever you want. And if you want a taste of what alternative pop sounded like in the mainstream in the later 90s these three albums are a good place to start.