Pros: The songs from the under-rated "Erotica" and "Bedtime Stories" albums are great.
Cons: The material from "Ray of Light" and "Music" is mostly sub-standard.
The 90s were certainly an interesting decade for Madonna. After four mega-hit albums that catapulted her to the top of the worlds charts, it was inevitable that she could only commercially decline. Grouping her hits from 1992's Erotica through to 2000's Music, Greatest Hits: Volume Two displays Madonnas artistic growth (or lack thereof) as she went from sex queen to cowgirl.
As one of the approximately five people who liked Erotica, Im happy to see its two biggest hits at the start of this collection. That album saw Madonna giving a tongue-in-cheek appraisal of contemporary sexuality, backed up with icy, emotionless and bass-heavy club jams. The title track is the perfect summation of this, its crackling intro and ominous baseline giving way to a chilly spoken delivery. Madonna is perfect in her role as an S&M queen, and the breathy hook of Erotic, erotic, put your hands all over my body is rather memorable. I find it quite amusing that a woman who produced her own porn book couldnt bring herself to utter the f word (instead heavily implying it with the songs rhyme scheme), but the track is still a compelling number exploring the darker recesses of lust.
The discs opener Deeper and Deeper is much more commercial and listener-friendly, with its house beat, catchy melody and perfectly camp flamenco guitar solo. The dizzy flamboyance of the groove is perfect for the songs discussion of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality, and the track ranks up as another Madonna dance floor classic.
After the weak commercial reaction to Erotica, Madonna retreated into a more conformist RnB format for her 1994 release, Bedtime Stories. Despite losing her guts and spark at this point in her career, the songs are still quite good. Human Nature has a droning synth line as Madonna retorts her hypocritical Erotica critics, and I agree completely with her. The song is unfortunately edited to remove its great Im not your b*tch, dont hang your sh*t on me line, but the bite is still there and Madonnas anger is tangible. Secret is another highlight, its delicious hook-stuffed Mmm-hmm, my babys got a secret chorus riding atop a heavy beat and tasty acoustic guitar sample. Madonnas biggest US No. 1 Take A Bow is also present and correct, a lovely Canto-pop-style ballad with a gorgeous melody and nice metaphorical lyrics regarding the demise of a relationship. Bedtime Story rounds off the chilled contributions with an undulating electronic groove, with Bjork-penned lyrics that advise the listener to discard language for unconsciousness.
With 1998's Ray of Light, Madonna sadly became a shell of her former self. Trading in her personality, sexuality (and musical hooks) for generic spiritual droning, she bagged her biggest success in almost a decade. Theres something to be said about critics who derided quasi-masculine albums like Madonna and Erotica yet leapt to praise Madonna when she revealed that all she wanted was to be a wife and mother, but Ill file that away for later discussion. In all fairness, the hits from the album werent too bad, but Madonna sings for technicality rather than intuitive feeling, and William Orbits production relies on cheap techno gimmicks far too often. The driving turbulence of the song Ray of Light makes it a truly refreshing listen, but neither of the ballads (Frozen; The Power of Good-Bye) have anything new to say, and the whiny Drowned World/Substitute For Love hints at the Im rich and famous and it sucks complaining that would mark Madonnas ultimate nadir, 2003's American Life.
After the over-processed, false emotions of the Ray of Light album, its rather startling to hear Beautiful Stranger. Although its from the same time period, its got a completely different tone, buzzing sixties-influenced beats dancing around with twanging guitars and an infectious tune. It works simply because its fun, with no stupid pretensions or po-faced attempts at seriousness. The same cannot be said of the horrendous Dont Cry For Me Argentina, which almost kills the disc five songs in. Its depressing as anything to see one of the ballsy pop maestros of the eighties returning as a flaccid Celine Dion clone, and despite a memorable chorus, Id rather forget this one.
Madonna began the 21st Century with her Music album, the title of which does not evade my irony sensors. The album was mostly a grating mish-mash of vacuous beats with bad vocal melodies, and the title track is an accurate summation of it. Despite attempting to be a dance floor manifesto, Madonnas vocals are not up to scratch, and she just sounds bored. Similarly, the music sounds like the cheap product of a synthesiser fished out from a dumpster, and producer Mirwais rapidly proves a one-trick pony. He employs a stuttering guitar gimmick on Dont Tell Me that makes it sound like the CD is skipping, and not even the gorgeous orchestration can save the bad lyrics, which aim for poeticism but just sound silly. What It Feels Like For A Girl is better, rounding things off with polished pop production and more of a return to melody, with the theme of gender differences being handled nicely.
As a hits collection, experience of Greatest Hits: Volume Two depends on your feelings about the albums that spawned the songs. In the 90s, Madonnas output became less commercially friendly, and a lot of the tracks here sound better in the context of their parent discs rather than in more isolated circumstances. Theres a bit of chronology to the track order, but its not as solid as on previous retrospective The Immaculate Collection, and hearing the classy Take A Bow trapped with dreary songs from Ray of Light is annoying. Likewise, Im not entirely convinced why Erotica songs Bad Girl and Rain arent present; as two of Madonnas best ballads, they were far more deserving of places here than Drowned World or Dont Cry For Me Argentina, and are far more indicative of Madonnas strengths as a pop artist. Finally, its disappointing to note that there arent any new songs included, meaning that anyone who already has the original singles/albums wont have any real reason to pick this up.
Mysteries aside, this disc is a decent enough collection of tracks for anyone who wants to sample Madonnas post-eighties work and get acquainted with her bigger hits of the period. Its far from being as flawless, convincing or compelling as The Immaculate Collection, but is worth exploring if youre a casual fan who doesnt want to wade through the hit-and-miss albums. Just about recommended.