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After spending the 1980s enjoying enormous success as one half of the synthpop duo the Eurythmics, Annie Lennox began a new phase of her career in 1992 with the release of her solo debut, Diva, and proved that she could do just fine on her own.

During her Eurythmics days, Lennox had become known for her powerful voice and her edgy, androgynous image. But with Diva, we get to hear — and see — the softer, more vulnerable, more feminine side of the singer. That doesn’t mean the edginess is gone, it’s just packaged a little differently. She’s still exploring themes like love, heartbreak, and sexual politics as she did with the Eurythmics, but in a way I don’t think she fully could working with Dave Stewart; Diva‘s sound is warmer and its lyrics are more personal.  As much as I loved Eurythmics Lennox, I was totally captivated by Diva Lennox.

Produced by Stephen Lipson, who is probably best known for his work with Trevor Horn, Diva was a commercial and critical success, topping the charts in the U.K. and reaching number 23 on the Billboard album chart in the United States. Since its release, it has been certified double-platinum in the U.S. and quadruple-platinum in the U.K. It also scored Lennox multiple award nominations, including three Grammys and four Brits.

I recently sat down with Madonna over tea to chat about her new album, MDNA. I was a little scared to talk to her at first, considering she’s one of my idols, but she was extremely pleasant and fun to talk to, for a while, at least.  We had a very lively — dare I say, sassy — conversation.

OK, not really. But ever since I first listened to this record, I’ve had an ongoing imaginary conversation with Madge about it. And I figured that rather than writing a traditional review, it would be more fun to just share that conversation with you. I thought about letting Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. jump in at some point, but decided that this album really isn’t their fault and it’s Madonna I need to have words with.

So, here we go. Remember: this conversation is completely made up.

Kelly: Hey, girl! You look fab! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with me.

Madonna: Did you just call me “girl”? Don’t do that again. I am Madonna.

K: I’m sorry. I’m a little nervous.

M: It’s OK. I would be nervous around me, too. I am Madonna, after all.

K: Congratulations on the release of your new album, MDNA.

M: Thank you. I know you were very excited about it.

K: I was, especially after I heard you were working with William Orbit again, since he produced one of my favorite records of yours, Ray of Light. But I have to admit, I was also a little bit scared.

M: Why? You love me.

K: This is true. And that’s why I was scared. I mean, I hated your last album, Hard Candy, with the heat of 1,000 suns.

M: It’s a shame you feel that way. I am going to pretend you don’t.

K: OK, well, that’s your choice. But it might come up again. Let’s move on, though. I want to talk about the new album.

M: Good, because that’s all I want to talk about. Tell me how much you love it.

K: I don’t think I can do that.

M: Why? You are unable find the words to adequately express just how much you love it?

K: Not exactly. I don’t love it, Madonna. I’m sorry. I wanted to, I promise.

M: I don’t think you tried hard enough. Please explain yourself.

“The truth be told, a villian’s the best way to go. Playing a bad guy…it’s better lines, it’s more colorful, audiences vicariously love you because a lot of times everything they want to do in real life but they can’t do, which you can do in the movies. Contrarily, women…it’s taken them so much longer to be comfortable in playing the villains. When I look back to when I was producing [One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest, and all the actresses that turned down the part of Nurse Ratched because they didn’t want to play a villain…Louise Fletcher gets an Oscar for playing it well.”— Michael Douglas, discussing villainous roles on Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s the Thing.

As I was putting together this list, I thought a lot about Hollywood’s definition of “villain,” particularly in the context of female villains. For example, Hollywood tends to like its female villains in the form of witches, evil queens and wicked stepmothers whose dastardly deeds are often motivated by vanity and jealousy. Other female villains are evil because of men — men who wrong them, who try to leave them, who cheat on them, who won’t date them. And if you are a woman who is with the man desired by a female villain, you better watch out. Sometimes, female villains — often those in horror films — are just plain batshit crazy (although a man often has something to do with this as well). Then there are the female villains who are hungry for power, money, and fame, motivations typically attributed to male villains (personally, I prefer this type of female villain).

I also found that, particularly in modern films, Hollywood seems to feel the need to make female villains more complex than male villains. If she isn’t an evil queen or a wicked stepmother, much importance is placed on the backstory of a female villain. For example, you might have a film in which a young woman seduces and kills older men, and when she’s finally caught, it is revealed that she was raped by her father as a teen and that traumatic event caused her to go crazy and murder men who reminded her of her father. I find it fascinating that there is more of a need to explain away the actions of a female villain that that of a male villain, to make the audience feel sorry for her rather than loathe her. Why do we have such a hard time accepting that a woman can be horrible for no reason other than she just is  horrible?

After researching this piece, I don’t know if I necessarily agree with Mr. Douglas’s take on women playing villains — there are a lot of great female villains in film and, even though they may have been reluctant to play villains at first, all of these actresses seem pretty comfortable in their roles. I had a difficult time narrowing my list of favorites down to a manageable number because there are so many wonderful female villains. I’m sure I’ve left off some loathsome ladies you love, so let me know who they are in the comments!

Warning: some of the clips below are spoiler-y, so watch at your own risk.

Well, here we are again — another Sundance Film Festival that I was unable to attend has come and gone. After last year’s festival, I had high hopes that I might be able to attend in 2012, but life got in the way (doesn’t it always?), so I was left to sit on my couch, voraciously following coverage of the festival I so desperately want to some day attend. Last year, to fight that terrible annual disease I call Sundance Envy, I put together a list of films screening at the festival that I was looking forward to seeing. I managed to see about half of them, with a few still in my Netflix queue, waiting to be viewed. And of those that I saw, some managed to be among my favorite films of last year (Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Another Earth, Win Win).

Sundance Envy has returned in full force this year, so I figured I’d do something useful with my obsessive following of Sundance coverage and put together a list of films that screened at this year’s festival that I am looking forward to seeing. I wonder how many of these films will wind up being my favorites at the end of the year? Sadly, no films screened at this year’s festival starring my two favorite humans, Michael Shannon and Tilda Swinton.

Films I’m Anticipating the Most:

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present — Marina Abramović is one of my favorite artists and I was terribly disappointed that I had just missed seeing her restrospective at MOMA in 2010 (it closed on May 31st and I arrived in the city for vacation in mid-June). So I was thrilled when I first learned about this HBO documentary, directed by Matthew Akers, which takes a journey deep inside Abramović’s world. The film provides insight into her background and process, as well as extensively covering the MOMA retrospective, including giving the viewer the opportunity to experience what it would’ve been like to sit across from Abramović during one of the most remarkable performance pieces of her career. Since this film is an HBO documentary, it will air on the cable giant some time this year and I cannot wait to see it. (Note: the trailer below is a little NSFW.)

The Surrogate
 — Word on the street is that this could be the role that finally gets John Hawkes a Best Actor nomination. He definitely deserves more attention, as his performances in both Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene were incredible though, unfortunately, overshadowed by the performances of the newcomer actresses he co-starred with. But, from what I’ve been reading, his turn as a writer debilitated by polio who turns to a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity is brilliant (he got a standing ovation at the film’s Sundance premiere) and should thrust him directly into the limelight, where he belongs. The Surrogate, which was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $6 million, will be one to keep an eye on — in addition to the audience and critical acclaim it has received thus far, it won the Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic and U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Acting at the festival’s awards ceremony.

I wasn’t going to resurrect another holiday Soundtrack Saturday post, but I couldn’t help it. A) This is such a great movie, B) It has a great soundtrack and C) I wanted an excuse to reintroduce you all to that bananas Unicef “Put a Little Love In Your Heart” clip. This was originally posted in December 2009, and was the last installment of A Soundtrack Saturday Christmas. Enjoy and have a great holiday!

Since the moment I first saw Scrooged (1988),  it instantly became one of my favorite holiday films. I mean, you have to love any adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that includes the Solid Gold Dancers and casts once-and-future New York Dolls frontman David Johansen as the Ghost of Christmas Past.

The problem I faced was that the soundtrack album for Scrooged is woefully out of print. I was having a hell of a time finding most of the tracks, and I really thought I might have to scrap this post altogether and find another film. But I was determined to write about the movie, so I soldiered on and managed to find the entire soundtrack, thus saving my dream of A Perfect Soundtrack Saturday Christmas.

If you’ve never seen Scrooged, I’m sure you have your reasons, e.g. you don’t like Christmas movies, you hate Bill Murray, you’re angry at Johansen for the Buster Poindexter years. If that’s the case, then maybe I can change your mind, because this is a funny film whether Christmas is your thing or not.

So, here we are, the last weekend before Christmas. And it would seem that a lot of you are hankering for the soundtrack to one of my favorite holiday films, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I aim to please. This piece first ran in December of 2009 and since then, has seemed to be one of the most searched for Soundtrack Saturday posts. Hopefully, it brings you as much joy now as it seemed to back then.

I know you’re all completely engrossed in the joy of Mellowmas, but I figured you might be up for some holiday music that doesn’t aurally assault you (well, for the most part, anyway).

Written by John Hughes and directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik (Benny & Joon), the third installment of the Vacation films brings us a “fun, old-fashioned family Christmas” with the Griswolds: Clark (Chevy Chase), Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), Rusty (Johnny Galecki), and Audrey (Juliette Lewis). As we count down the days till Christmas, we witness the family get into one ridiculous situation after another as they try to celebrate the holiday.

Clark desperately wants to host the perfect Christmas at his house, and he goes to great lengths to do so. First, he drags his wife and kids out to the middle of the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree, almost getting them all killed in the process. Then he spends hours covering the outside of the house with Christmas lights, only to have them not work. Needless to say, Christmas isn’t turning out as Clark had planned.

Soon, the extended family arrives — Clark’s parents, Clark Sr. (John Randolph) and Nora (Diane Ladd), and Ellen’s mom and dad, Art (E.G. Marshall) and Frances (Doris Roberts) — and the holiday tension starts to mount in the Griswolds’ home. Even though a bright spot eventually emerges, literally, when Clark finally gets the Christmas lights to work — or, rather, Ellen does — things quickly go south once her redneck cousin-in-law, Eddie (Randy Quaid), arrives unexpectedly in a dilapidated RV with his wife, Catherine (Miriam Floyd); their two youngest children, Rocky (Cody Burger) and Ruby Sue (Ellen Hamilton Latzen); and their disgusting dog, Snot. Since they can’t say no to family, Clark and Ellen agree to host Eddie, Catherine, and their brood for the holidays.

As the countdown to Christmas continues, things around the Griswold house go from bad to worse. Everyone is complaining about how crowded the house has become; Clark is stressed out about whether he can afford the secret Christmas present he’s purchased for his family — a swimming pool he intends to pay for with his Christmas bonus, which hasn’t arrived yet; and Ellen and he discover that Eddie and Catherine can’t afford to buy their children gifts, forcing Clark to offer help he really can’t afford.

On Christmas Eve, Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel) arrive for dinner with a special gift for the Griswolds: Bethany’s cat, which she’s thoughtfully gift-wrapped. As the evening wears on, the holiday disasters mount: First, Catherine overcooks the turkey, which basically ruins the entire dinner. Next, Aunt Bethany’s cat gets electrocuted when it chews through a strand of Christmas lights. And Uncle Lewis burns down Clark’s beloved Christmas tree, which Clark replaces by cutting down a tree from his own yard. Unfortunately, the tree turns out to be home to a squirrel that ends up terrorizing the Griswolds.

The Top 20

1. St. Vincent,  Strange Mercy

I made a bold declaration when I first heard this album upon its release a few months ago that it would be my favorite album of 2011 and that has proven to be true. I think this is Annie Clark’s strongest, most personal work to date and her incredible songwriting and guitar playing talents are at their highest level. By far the album I’ve listened to the most this year and I don’t see retiring it any time soon.

Favorite track: “Cruel”

2. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake

I have to admit, when I first heard that Polly Jean Harvey was heavily using the autoharp on Let England Shake, I couldn’t help but picture her as Catherine O’Hara’s character in A Mighty Wind. But there’s nothing funny or tongue-in-cheek about this brilliant, Mercury Prize-winning record. By reinventing her sound with every album, Harvey has ensured that she not only remains extremely relevant, but also totally unpredictable in the best way possible.

Favorite track: “The Words That Maketh Murder”

3. Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi

Of all the new artists I discovered this year, Anna Calvi is the one who impressed me the most. When I first listened to her self-titled debut, all I could think was, “If Nick Cave and Polly Jean Harvey had stayed together and had a daughter who played music, this would be her.” So it was no surprise to me when I learned that the album was co-produced by long-time PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis, and that Cave was a fan of Calvi’s and had invited her to be the supporting act for his group Grinderman’s European tour last year. Also, if Brian Eno agrees to sing back-up on your first album, you must be something special — and Calvi definitely is.

Favorite track: “Desire”

4. The Roots, Undun

Even though this album wasn’t  unleashed upon the world until early December, I had been holding a spot for it in my top 20 list since I first heard about it. I was that confident in ?uestlove and the rest of the Crew that their new concept album would be brilliant and, as I’ve learned over the past several years, confidence in these guys is never misplaced (I was even more excited about Undun‘s release after hearing ?uesto talk about it on Aisha Tyler’s podcast a couple of months ago). I wasn’t even phased at hearing the words “concept album” because I knew their version of a concept album wouldn’t be trite and ridiculous — it is so very far from that. Every time I listen to it, I find something new to love and that, above all else, is the most important element of any great record. Would it be too much to ask that the Roots release one of my favorite albums of the year every year?

Favorite track: “Kool On”

5. Ane Brun,  It All Starts with One

Ane Brun’s latest solo album is one I was anticipating the most this year and it did not disappoint. I have been a fan of Brun’s since I first heard the gorgeous “My Lover Will Go” from her brilliant 2005 release, A Temporary Dive. Delayed from an original 2010 release date, due to Brun’s touring with Peter Gabriel on his New Blood tour, It All Starts With One is probably her most ambitious and most diverse release. Produced by Tobias Fröberg and featuring contributions from Per Eklund (Lykke Li),  Ola Hultgren (Loney Dear), José González, Peter Moren (Peter, Björn and John), and First Aid Kit, the sound on this album is full and orchestral while still focusing on Brun’s gorgeous voice. If you haven’t been paying attention to Ane Brun, now is the time to start.

Favorite track: “Do You Remember”

In January of 2010, I decided to do something special and different with Soundtrack Saturday: I wrote about a televison series. I had every intention of making this a yearly thing, but, well, that hasn’t happened. That’s not to say it won’t — Soundtrack Saturday is on hiatus, but it hasn’t been permanently canceled. 

For the first TV edition of Soundtrack Saturday, I decided to write about one of my favorite TV series of all time, one that I knew a lot of other people my age, particularly women, loved, too: My So-Called Life. I’ve gotten quite a few emails in the past two years, from die-hards like me, asking me to repost this, so I just had to give in. If you missed out the first time around, I hope you enjoy.

I’ve been kicking around the idea of writing about the soundtrack to My So-Called Life for quite some time, but I kept putting it off because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take this column into the TV realm. But I think I’m ready to expand Soundtrack Saturday’s scope to give myself — and you, dear readers — a little more variety. I likely won’t be writing about TV shows very often, but I figured I’d give it a shot and see how it goes.

When what turned out to be the last episode of My So-Called Life aired almost 17 years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long), I remember how bummed I was when I heard that it might not be returning for a second season. (The last episode aired January 26, 1995, but the show wasn’t officially canceled by ABC until four months later.) And when I finally heard that it wasn’t coming back, I was devastated.

What’s up, guys? Bet you were surprised to see a Soundtrack Saturday post pop up today, weren’t you? Several months ago, I decided to put this column on an indefinite hiatus, but you, my faithful and lovely readers, won’t let go. So, as a gift to you this holiday season, I’m reposting some of the most popular, most requested Soundtrack Saturday posts during the month of December. You’re welcome.

For the first resurrected post, I decided to revisit my piece on Pretty in Pink, first published on June 20, 2009. I have gotten so many requests from people to re-up or send them the tracks — probably moreso than any other Soundtrack Saturday post. So, here you go. Enjoy!

I’m going to guess most of you have seen Pretty in Pink (1986), but if you haven’t, I’m sure you have a good reason — like being totally lame.

I kid, I kid. You’re not lame. (Or are you?)

Of all the movies John Hughes wrote, produced, and/or directed, this one just might be my favorite. I had wanted to see it in the theater when it was first released, but I was only eight, so that never happened. I did, however, get to watch it many times on video and cable and could probably recite every line of dialogue by the time I was 12.

Written by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch — who also directed Hughes’s Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) and The Great Outdoors (1988) — Pretty in Pink is the story of Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald), a high school senior “from the wrong side of the tracks” with a new-wave fashion sense, an unemployed father, and a best friend, Duckie Dale (Jon Cryer), who’s madly in love with her.

Rich preppy Blane (Andrew McCarthy) makes a visit one day to Trax, the record store where Andie works, and the two do some serious flirting. After a few more flirtatious encounters there and at school, he finally asks her out.  The two attempt to start a romance but encounter judgment and resistance from their friends, including Blane’s best friend, Steff (James Spader), who secretly likes Andie; Steff’s girlfriend, Benny (Kate Vernon); and Duckie.

A few months ago when the Popdose staff was voting on their favorite covers of all time, I placed Richard Thompson’s cover of  “Season of the Witch,” originally performed by Donovan and released 1966, at number two. I have been in love with that particular cover since I first heard it being used in an episode of the now-defunct NBC series Crossing Jordan and it really stuck with me.  When the series’ official soundtrack album was released in 2003, I bought it solely based on the fact that Thompson’s haunting, frenetic and epically wonderful “Season of the Witch” was listed in the tracklisting. Once I got the album home, I proceeded to play it on a loop for hours, despite the fact that it was more than nine minutes long. I was obsessed.

But I have a confession to make: I didn’t know Thompson’s version was a cover. At the time, I’d never heard Donovan’s original — in fact, I really didn’t know much about Donovan’s oeuvre, outside of “Mellow Yellow.” So I thought that “Season of the Witch” was Thompson’s song and I started seeking out more of his work, wondering if there were more songs like that one to be discovered. You’re laughing at me right now, I can hear you. It’s OK — I’d laugh at me, too.

Eventually, after I learned the truth about the song’s origins, I figured I should probably hear the original. And while I do enjoy Donovan’s version, I actually don’t love it as much Thompson’s cover. Sacrilege? Maybe. But that’s how I feel. Deal with it.

“Being told that girls can’t play rock ‘n’ roll — I mean, even as a kid, it was so illogical to me. It’s like, what do you mean? That girls can’t master the instruments? I’m in school with girls playing cello and violin and Beethoven and Bach. You don’t mean they can’t master the instrument. What you mean is they’re not allowed, socially — it’s a societal thing.” Joan Jett, Interview magazine, 2010.

Chicks can rock. And they do. Even if they’re not playing rock ‘n’ roll, a female musician has just as much power to melt your face off with their talent and attitude as any male musician. Is it because they have something to prove? Maybe. Is it because they have generations worth of anger at stereotypes and oppression to strike back against? Perhaps. But most likely, chicks who rock do so because it’s in their blood; making music is what drives them, gives them a reason to wake up in the morning. Despite all the bullshit that surrounds being a female musician, they stick with it, thus inspiring legions of other girls to do the same — and inspiring filmmakers to tell their stories.

There are many films about musicians, but not a great deal about female musicians, particularly female rock musicians. Even so, coming up with my list of favorites was tough. I originally wanted to only write about films featuring women rock musicians, but I decided to broaden my scope a little bit when I realized there were a lot of movies about or featuring badass chicks whose music wasn’t rock, but they rocked anyway (does that make sense?).

My list includes both fictional chicks who rock and biopics about kick-ass lady musicians. There is a bit of a blur between those lines with some of these films, as they are not outright biopics, but are clearly inspired by certain female musicians. I’m sure my list is missing some of your favorite chicks who rock, so let me know who makes your list in the comments.

For the final installment of the Popdose Guide to Madonna, Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel discuss a potpourri of “other” works in Madonna’s catalogue, including soundtrack work, remix albums and greatest hits collections. Robin Monica and Kelly also recap their seven favorite Madonna videos for your enjoyment.

Who’s That Girl? (1987)

After making her mark on the pop music world, Madonna set her sights on becoming a movie star. Her performance in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) had garnered her some positive critical response and helped to spark a further interest in acting. However, her next film, Shanghai Surprise (1986), in which she co-starred with then-husband Sean Penn, was a critical and commercial failure. But that didn’t stop Madge from trying again and in 1987, she starred in the romantic comedy Who’s That Girl? with Griffin Dunne.

Originally titled Slammer, Who’s That Girl? is about a woman named Nikki Finn (Madonna) who, after being released from prison for murdering her boyfriend, a crime she insists she did not commit, decides she must clear her name before returning to her hometown of Philadelphia. Lawyer Loudon Trott (Dunne) is assigned the task of ensuring that Nikki gets to the bus station on time as part of a community outreach project his wealthy, soon-to-be father-in-law runs. However, Nikki’s determination to prove that she did not commit murder takes over and the two soon find themselves traipsing all over New York City encountering a host of undesirable characters and getting into a variety of sticky situations.

After the failure of Shanghai Surprise, it took some convincing for Warner Bros. to take another chance on Madonna as an actress. They eventually green lighted the project, but Who’s That Girl? wound up being another flop, though many reviews applauded Dunne’s performance and Madonna’s comic timing. The film’s soundtrack, however — as well as the tour sharing its name that Madonna embarked upon to promote it — were huge successes.

Of the nine songs on the Who’s That Girl? soundtrack, only four are by Madonna; despite this, the album is considered to be one of her releases. Of those four songs, three were released as singles: “Who’s That Girl,” “Causing a Commotion” and “The Look of Love,” the latter of which was Europe-only release. “Who’s That Girl,” a mid-tempo track that draws upon Spanish influences, much like “La Isla Bonita,” went on to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her sixth single to do so during that decade. “Causing a Commotion,” a classic Madonna dance track inspired by her rocky relationship with Penn, peaked at number two, though it is arguably the better song. “The Look of Love,” a haunting ballad very reminiscent of “Live to Tell,” did well on the European charts, reaching the top ten in the UK. The fourth Madonna song, “Can’t Stop,” is an upbeat, ‘60s girl group-inspired number.

The non-Madonna tracks are contributed by artists who, at the time, were on the same label as Madonna, including Club Nouveau, Scritti Politti, Coati Mundi (who also co-stars in the film as a gangster) and Duncan Faure. Michael Davidson’s “Turn It Up” was released as a promotional single and made it to number 15 on the dance charts. Most of the songs are fun dance-pop tracks, but nothing to write home about.

You Can Dance (1987)

Madonna’s first compilation album, You Can Dance is curious in that it eschews her biggest hits (up to that point) and puts the focus on songs that missed the Top 10 and, in some cases, weren’t even released as singles. It strings together one original track, “Spotlight,” and six remixes for what is essentially a non-stop party album. At the time, remixes were not yet de rigueur in the music industry, but Madonna’s material was a natural fit for this novel trend, and provided golden opportunities for that new cultural hybrid, the DJ-cum-producer, represented on You Can Dance by John “Jellybean” Benitez, retooling his own work on “Holiday,” and Shep Pettibone, who transforms “Into the Groove” from a fun dance tune into a minor pop masterpiece. Once again, Madonna was not looking for the next big thing in the music world; she was creating it.

I’m Breathless (1990)

This bizarre album is comprised of songs “from and inspired by the film Dick Tracy,” in which Madonna co-starred as gangster’s moll Breathless Mahoney. Half a soundtrack and half a concept record, its sound is “1930’s big band” meets “way too many keyboards.” However, we’ll always be thankful for its existence, as it includes (almost as an afterthought) the game-changing single “Vogue.” For more on our analysis of the record, check out what we wrote about it in last year’s “Popdose Flashback” series.

The Queen of Reinvention, Madonna’s output in the late-90s and first decade of the 21st century proved to be the most diverse of her career. In the span of five albums, she explores electronica, country, rock, disco and hip-hop. She even learned how to play the guitar. Join Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel as they take a look at Her Madgesty’s most eclectic works in part two of the Popdose Guide to Madonna.

Ray of Light (1998)

In the two years after the release of Bedtime Stories, Madonna entered a new phase of her life. She started dating her personal trainer, Carlos Leon, and began work on the feature film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, in which she portrayed Argentinian First Lady Eva Perón. In the midst of filming, she found out she was pregnant and in October 1996, she gave birth to her and Leon’s first child, daughter Lourdes.

Madonna took some time off after Lourdes’s birth and during that time became interested in Eastern mysticism, yoga and Kabbalah. Her newfound spirituality and centeredness, along with first-time motherhood, greatly affected the direction she took on her seventh studio album, Ray of Light. Regarded by many critics and fans as one of the best — if not the best — album she’d ever released, Ray of Light revealed a mature, thoughtful Madonna. Leaving behind the image of the Material Girl, she was now a Mystical Mama, even down to the hippy-chic new look she’d adopted.

After writing songs with Babyface and Patrick Leonard, both of whom she’d worked with previously, and Rick Nowels, who had written songs with Celine Dion and Stevie Nicks, Madonna decided that the direction her collaborations were taking with each of them wasn’t what she wanted for her new album. So, she asked electronic musician William Orbit, whose work she greatly admired, to produce the new album. Orbit’s production gave the songs an ambient, electronic sound that Madonna had only dabbled in previously — most notably on “Bedtime Story,” the track from her last album that had been co-written by Björk. Because Orbit preferred to work largely with samples and synths and other technology-based instrumentation, the album was recorded largely without live instruments, which was also new for Madonna.

In addition to experimenting musically, lyrically she also ventured into new territory, writing some of the most personal, self-reflective songs of her career, exploring the topics of motherhood, spirituality and fame, which she’d never really addressed in a serious way previously. She even crafted a song around text adapted from the Yoga Taravali. And vocally, she was stronger than ever, owing to the extensive voice lessons she took in preparation for Evita.

A huge critical and commercial success, Ray of Light debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 albums chart and produced two top-five singles in the U.S. (“Frozen,” and “Ray of Light”). Three additional singles were also released: “The Power of Goodbye,” “Nothing Really Matters” and “Drowned World/Substitute for Love,” the latter of which was only released in the UK, where it was a top-10 hit. Ray of Light received six Grammy nominations, winning four. “The Drowned World Tour” to support the album was planned, and was scheduled to kick off in 1999, but was postponed until 2001.

Music (2000)

Not that the fans were disappointed by Ray of Light, but it was, relatively speaking, a pretty heavy experience. Sure, we got it — Madonna had borne a child, broken up with the baby daddy, and turned 40. But what a pleasure it was to hear her sounding so cool and relaxed on Music. (Robin Monica remembers exactly where she was when she heard the title track for the first time: in a gay bar. The rump shaking started immediately.)

No longer satisfied with being just a performer, songwriter, and producer, Madonna added “guitarist” to her list of credits on Music, which took some of the material in an unexpected direction: country. The departure in style worked like gangbusters, taking “Don’t Tell Me,” the album’s second single, to #4 both in the US and in the UK, where Madonna had recently taken up residence. Of course, this was country as re-imagined by the new gods of European electronica, a.k.a. William Orbit (still hanging around after Ray of Light) and Mirwais, Madonna’s principal collaborator on Music; it fit right in with the album’s primary sound, which was slick, futuristic, and ever so danceable. Unlike some of Madonna’s earlier albums, where it’s quite clear which songs are the singles and which are the catchy but undistinguished filler, Music has enough single-worthy tracks that it’s sort of astonishing how few were officially released. (Reportedly, Madonna felt “Amazing” was too similar to her Austin Powers 2 love theme, “Beautiful Stranger,” and thus kept it off the radio. Madonna, you were wrong on that one.)

One of the songs that did achieve single status was “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” a remarkably simple and straightforward ballad about the everyday struggles and humiliations faced by half the world’s population. It failed to live up to the chart performance standard set by “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” but sometimes, even for Madonna, hit-making isn’t the point. An international megastar/mogul/cowgirl can still have a vulnerable side. Obviously, that openness means a lot to some of the fans: last year, the Madonna tribute episode of Glee included an all-male cover of “What It Feels Like.”