The Queen of Pop’s thirteenth studio album, “Rebel Heart,” debuted on iTunes today. Following months of leaks, early releases in bits and pieces, and the most aggressive media campaign Madonna has waged in more than a decade, the songs are finally available in full.
Here at /bent, we’ll celebrate this momentous occasion with 13 days of Madonna Louise Ciccone. To start, let’s look at “Rebel Heart” and rank the tracks. These days, the web is rife with “definitive rankings” of pop culture so let me be clear: This is a working list. My snap judgments about Madonna’s albums are rarely set in stone, and I would be horrified to compare my initial assessment of, say, MDNA’s lineup to my feelings about those songs today (and an FYI: a lot of the videos we’ve posted below have already been taken down — just buy the album!)
1. “Living for Love”
The one you’ve already heard, the one of “the fall,” the one with the Snapchat video release. I’ve already written something about this song here. Needless to say, this was an A+ selection for the album’s lead single and will go down as one of Madonna’s most viciously self-posessed meta moments in a career full of them: her very own “don’t call it a comeback.”
2. “Devil Pray”
The handful of Madonna devotees in my life weren’t as into this song as I was (and am) when it was released during the first batch of tracks. With lyrics about sniffing glue and doing ecstasy, “Devil Pray” is a bit of a trolling effort: “Just try to dismiss this immaculate song.” It checks all the boxes for me: powerful pop vocal (the clarity of Madonna singing “The ground beneath my feet’s getting warmer” is phenomenal), religious iconography, singer-songwriter sensibility. The melody veers farther into true folk than anything on American Life and the electro breakdowns hearken back to Confessions on a Dance Floor. This is everything great about Madonna since 2003 rolled into one tremendous song.
Madonna the balladeer sometimes gets lost in our memory of Madonna the pop provocatrix. Never fear: “Ghosttown” will remind you why “Take a Bow,” “Live to Tell,” and “Crazy for You” stand as some of the Queen’s best records. This album is christened with several excellent ballads, but this is the apocalyptic earworm. If Taylor Swift, Katy Perry or Rihanna recorded this song, it would debut at number one on the Billboard charts. But they did not.
4. “Rebel Heart”
This is the song that got me excited about this whole album. Let me talk about the demo for a moment, although I shouldn’t. It’s flawless, and exists on the Internet. Find it, listen to it, and see what Madonna and Avicii can really do together. The finished track is still great, but it takes on a more pared-down, acoustic sound that the dancier demo built on. Either way, the lyrics and melody are a triumphant assertion of where Madonna is today and what got her here. In an album full of romantic and professional reflections, this is her Andy Rooney last word.
5. “Joan of Arc”
Vulnerable Madonna, beseiged by the pressures and intrustions of her unfathomably strange life, is a Madonna we get to see semi-regularly. But rather than petulant (“Nobody Knows Me”) or monumental (the pensive “Drowned World / Substitute for Love”), “Joan of Arc” reveals a half-smile of optimism about the power of “one word of kindness.” Enter backing vocals reminiscent of “Nothing Fails” and this record marks one of the most unique tonal moments of Madonna’s late career. This is refreshing after MDNA’s most confessional divorce songs, which positioned Madonna as a kind of Real Housewife.
7. “Body Shop”
Listening to “Body Shop,” it’s easy to see why some critics have accused Rebel Heart of being all over the place. But when the results are this great, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Here, Madonna demonstrates how versatile her voice is as a pop instrument, serving a very specific sliver of global pop effortlessly. We haven’t seen her so interested in Eastern sounds since Ray of Light, and to be honest, “Body Shop” is better than some of that album’s worst songs. This is Madonna truly giving sticky and sweet.
To my astonished glee, some critics have compared Madonna’s mature vocals on Rebel Heart to the late, great Karen Carpenter. More than 15 years ago, the queen cited Carpenter as one of her key musical influences, and they have something in common insofar as neither gets the credit she deserves as an elegant pop vocalist. Nowhere is this comparison more apt than on “Messiah,” a hymnic ode to unrequited love.
9. “Veni Vidi Vici”
To be frank, my love for this song might be a flash in the pan. But Nas delivers the best guest spot on the album with his ferocious rap memoir, while Madonna uses the titles of her old lyrics to make sense of how she came, saw, and conquered. It’s not the most unique idea on the album, but the execution is contagious.
10. “Bitch I’m Madonna”
Madonna don’t give a fuck in this song, which is apt, given that her last collaboration with Nicki Minaj was “I Don’t Give A” from MDNA. While this track lacks the emotional energy of “Iconic,” to drive the chaotic soundscape, it’s unrepentant fun with several unforgettable sonic hooks. By now, Madonna needs to have written a song called “Bitch I’m Madonna” lest anyone forget.
11. “Inside Out”
This song came with the final batch of Rebel Heart tracks, and works with others to provide the glue for the whole album. Critics who based their opinions on the first six or nine releases might have lost the plot, which can be found in songs like this edgy, loungey torch that builds into symphonic catharsis. Both “Rebel” and “Heart” are present in “Inside Out,” which reminds us that for Madonna, there are never filler tracks.
Some of the rawest confessional moments in Madonna’s ouevre came in American Life, an album I can’t stop referencing in respect to Rebel Heart. The annoyingly punctuated “HeartBreakCity” is as raw as Rebel Heart gets, forgoing embellishment to deliver matter-of-fact real talk about ex-lovers. It lacks the sheen and prettiness of other songs on the album, but anyone with an ex can identify with the stirring verses.
13. “Wash All Over Me”
Where “HeartBreakCity” is all guts and no polish, part of me thinks “Wash All Over Me,” though beautiful and elegant, lacks substance. It’s airy, fluid, and rousing in its symphonic elements. But it isn’t “Rain” and it isn’t “Frozen.” My suspicion is that this song will grow on me. Here I am, complaining that a song is too pretty and that Madonna lyrics lack “substance,” as if these are actual problems in the world.
14. “Best Night”
This combines the slinky subcontinental sounds of “Body Shop” with the after-hours baseline of “Inside Out.” He’s groovy and handsome but I wouldn’t go home with him.
15. “Holy Water”
This song wins the award for “biggest risk” on the album. This is not to say that talking about sex is a risk for Madonna in 2015, but “Holy Water” is a freaky track and it knows it. Bonus points for “Funny Madonna” spitting “Bitch get off my pole” and “Yeezus loves my pussy best.” Points deducted for sampling “Vogue,” because the Queen can save that for her tour. The real question: Who is the bitch on Madonna’s pole? And was that shade at Kim Kardashian? This song is fun, deplorable, and utterly tasteless, so I’m happy to own it. For more like this, hunt for the unreleased “Trust No Bitch” demo featuring Natalia Kills.
16. “Hold Tight”
My neutrality on this song is somewhat unusual, kind of an inverse to my excessive admiration for “Devil Pray.” I thought this felt like “Ghosttown: The Sequel” but the studio couldn’t book Jennifer Lawrence so they hired Taylor Swift (to act) instead. It’s a sturdy and emotional song that any artist could have recorded, but therein lies my indifference to it.
Madonna rapping can be perfection, as in the song “American Life.” (If Madonna were here, she’d ask me to take a shot of tequila each time I mentioned American Life. I have already lost this drinking game with two songs to go.) But here, it just doesn’t work. The bridge and chorus are some of the cleanest sonic moments of the entire album, but it’s not enough to save the song. This has been on my iPhone since December and it’s usually a skip.
18. “Unapologetic Bitch”
Being an unapologetic bitch is a critical tenet of Madonna’s personal and professional brand, so I admire that a song to that effect was written and recorded. I don’t even mind the Caribbean influences or the lyrics. “I’m poppin’ bottles that you can’t even afford / I’m throwing parties and you can’t get in the door” is the height of post-breakup peacocking. This song has fallen in my estimation because after repeat listens over a period of three months, it’s just become grating. So listen, enjoy, but beware: It doesn’t hold up as well as you think it will.
I can’t with this song. Sorry, byeee. I wish I could, but I can’t. As I try harder to can, I will keep you posted about whether I can even even.