Madonna Makes Beautiful Music With 'Popology'

They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That's why we bring you "Popology," the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed previous installments, catch up with Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and the Spice Girls here

This week, Madonna calls it a comeback.

In the midst of the turn-of-the-century pop explosion with which this feature is so obsessed, the landscape was made up mostly by young starlets and new-to-the-scene singers. There were a handful of exceptions: Cher scored a bizarre Auto-Tune-assisted comeback hit with the dance track "Believe," Santana collaborated his way to the top of the charts with his eclectic album Supernatural and Madonna emerged from her "Evita" period for a pair of comeback vehicles: 1998's Ray of Light and 2000's Music, the latter of which is today's focus.

Though Ray of Light was heralded as Madonna's big return to radio-friendly pop music after her Andrew Lloyd Webber dalliance, and though Ray of Light had some good singles and solid hits, it's actually a fairly complex and alienating album. Madonna threw herself back into the world of dance music with the help of producer William Orbit, who synthesized several different electronic genres and let Madge's voice float in and out of the beats.

But Music was a Technicolor wonderland. Fueled by the work of producer Mirwais (with some additional work by Orbit), Madonna crafted an alternate reality where big beats, huge hooks and kooky dances ruled the day. The singles "Music" and "Don't Tell Me" (as well as the "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" soundtrack hit "Beautiful Stranger," which has a similar vibe to the tracks on Music) were big, bright and easy to sing along to. It was the return of hands-in-the-air style tracks for Madonna, who seemed to re-embrace her club- and radio-friendly past (just like U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were doing at the time). Despite all futuristic quality of the tracks, Music represents the closest Madonna got to her Like a Prayer era.

The album opens with the title track, which has a spoken word intro: "Hey Mr. DJ, put a record on. I want to dance with my baby." That line is later echoed in the lyrics, but it's a fantastic introduction to this album (whose thesis could easily be "Dance music is fun!"). "Music" is, in fact, one of those songs that showed up on a lot of pop records that was about the power of music itself (and the relative amazement that music could unite people and/or make them go crazy). There are all manner of keyboard blips and synthesizer blasts, but what it boils down to is the pulsating beat (a deceptively simple one-two pump) and Madonna's voice, which sounds way more casual than it had on Ray of Light (perhaps she had to un-learn all those voice lessons she took so she could sing "Evita"). It's a fantastic anthem that works great in the car and in the club, which should be the only real criteria by which anybody judges a funky dance track.

The funk continues with "Impressive Instant," a distorted guitar-fueled throb of a track that filters Madonna's voice through a bevy of computers and leaves her sounding like the world's sexiest robot. Again, the track is fundamentally a club tune with a four-on-the-floor beat, but the digital flourishes and catchy chorus save it from simply being the sort of thing those "Jersey Shore" kids pump their fists to at Karma.

The dancing continues with "Runaway Lover," a hyper-fast track with a headbangingly bouncy beat and a truly great vocal from Madonna. It's produced by Orbit, and it really draws the line between his work and the Mirwais tracks on Music. While Mirwais dressed up the beats in synth noises and bits of distortion, Orbit tends to get out of the way of the pulsating rhythm and let Madonna's voice be the only thing that has any sort of interaction with the track. They have two very different approaches, both of which work surprisingly well.

"I Deserve It" represents an early experiment in Madonna's rock period that doesn't quite work (though when the guitars return on "Don't Tell Me," everything clicks on all cylinders). "Amazing" is a bubbly track that builds a fascinatingly hollow beat around one of the prettier melodies on the album (and then drops in some garage-y guitars and drum-and-bass fills for good measure). "Nobody's Perfect" is another mid-tempo groover that essentialy invented Goldfrapp, though the vocal is nearly entirely undone by the overdone pitch correction. (Could it be the first song ever ruined by Auto-Tune?)

Then "Don't Tell Me" turns up to bowl everybody over. Aided by a twitchy digi-coustic guitar and some syncopated bass bumps, "Don't Tell Me" locks into a great groove that Madonna clearly has fun toying with, as her voice sounds relaxed and playful (especially on the chorus "Tell me love isn't true/ It's just something that we do"). Even when Mirwais decides to muck around in the far corners of the beat in the second and third verses, Madge never looses that killer groove. It's the sort of thing that can only be pulled off by veteran, and works extremely well as a club tune and a radio hit — another big win.

She slips into the ether for "What It Feels Like for a Girl," a moody bit of electronica that has trouble finding a center (though it's totally saved by its lush and honest chorus). Madonna has never been much of a storyteller, but she always manages to express very clearly what experiences feel like to her (hence all the titles with "like" in them, i.e. "Like a Virgin" and "Like a Prayer"), and some of the moments in "What It Feels Like for a Girl" really hit home.

"What It Feels Like for a Girl" probably should have closed out the album, as it ends on a tremendously satisfying note (especially considering "Paradise (Not for Me)" hits a lot of the same thematic notes and doesn't sound half as interesting — unless you're a big fan of Mono). The album actually ends with "Gone," a sort of power ballad that strips away a lot of the electronic window dressing for the benefit of little more than an acoustic guitar and a slow, organic drum beat. It's a great lighters-up moment that is very pretty and suitably epic, but still doesn't match the majesty of "What It Feels Like for a Girl." (Some versions of "Music" also include Madonna's cover of Don McLean's "American Pie." If yours doesn't, you have benefited from addition by subtraction.)

It's unfair to compare Madonna's Music to Britney Spears' ...Baby One More Time or 98 Degrees' 98 Degrees and Rising, as no matter how good those albums get, they can't match Madonna's experience, perspective and thoughtfulness, both with her lyrics and her musical choices. But since they were sharing chart space, you have to consider everything all at once. So there's no question: Madonna's Music was the best pop album of 2000. It's both fun and thoughtful, and though it's paced a little bit strangely (three big dance songs up top, smoother stuff from then on, all the weirdness at the end), it ranks up there with Like a Prayer and Bedtime Stories as her most accomplished constructions to date.