This is the first article in a series in which I listen to the entire back catalogue of an artist and give brief reviews of each album. If you want to see me review a particular artist, feel free to let me know with a comment below!
Somehow, I have managed to go my entire life without listening to an entire Lady Gaga album. Obviously she’s been a huge name for a while and, while I’ve never been a fan, I’ve always appreciated what she does and have enjoyed some of her songs. However, when she released Chromatica in May this year, I felt I needed to go back and listen to her earlier work to help contextualise it. So how does it shape up compared to her earlier work? Is ARTPOP really that bad? Was her country phase any good? Here’s what I think.
The Fame (2008)
Gaga has always been an artist with unique artistic vision, which was evident from her live performances and image. We’ll never forget her 2009 VMAs performance where she started bleeding, or her unexpected jazz rendition of Poker Face. This vision doesn’t always totally come across throughout The Fame, but it definitely shines through at points. The production is pretty typical of music of the time, but lyrically Gaga rarely conforms to the norm. LoveGame and Paparazzi establish early on that she is not a regular pop artist. The album definitely slows down after all four singles are pushed to the beginning of the album, but it certainly isn’t a bad album, just slightly boring.
Best Tracks: Paparazzi, The Fame, Beautiful Dirty Rich
Worst Track: Eh, Eh (Nothing Else I Can Say)
Would I Listen Again?: Probably not the album, but the singles are good.
The Fame Monster (2009)
This is the classic Gaga I remember! Of course all of the singles here are golden, but the non-singles really keep up too. Its shorter length helps each track stand out and the tracklist does a much better job of demonstrating Gaga’s songwriting and vocal talent. Bad Romance, despite being almost five minutes long, is choc-a-bloc with hooks and feels so much shorter. It’s also easy to forget how boundary-pushing a lot of her lyrical content was back in 2009 – Teeth doesn’t feel nearly as raunchy now as it did at the time. A massive improvement upon The Fame and lots of evidence to suggest that she’s not your average pop star.
Best Tracks: Bad Romance, Speechless, Telephone
Worst Track: if I had to pick one… Dance In The Dark
Would I Listen Again?: Absolutely! I’m listening again already.
Born This Way (2011)
I really understand the Madonna comparisons now: religious and sexual themes are everywhere here, as well as important messages of acceptance (even if they are a little on-the-nose by today’s standards). Gaga leans further into the fist-pumping electro-pop from before, although the whole tone of the album is darker than previous releases. Often as the songs become more conceptual, they lose their lyrical clarity and occasionally become confused messes (see Government Hooker). But when the songs are good, they are excellent. Most of my all-time favourite Gaga songs are from this album and it definitely holds up to scrutiny. The tracklist could do with a couple of extra cuts, but it’s a thrilling listen that was boundary-pushing both sonically and culturally.
Best Tracks: Judas, Bloody Mary, You and I, The Edge of Glory
Worst Track: Government Hooker
Would I Listen Again: Yes, but I’d skip Government Hooker. I really dislike this one. Sorry.
Gaga once said “I don’t remember ARTPOP” and I see why. This era is like if you took the concepts of Born This Way and extrapolated them into total insanity. The album is a heavy EDM showcase and rarely strays away from that style. Often a song would finish and I had barely processed what happened in the song because the music was so intense and often structured strangely. This is also the first album where I thought the singles were the least successful songs on the album. ARTPOP certainly suffers from the exclusion of Do What U Want due to the R Kelly feature, but it struggles to convey its message clearly regardless.
Best Tracks: ARTPOP, Swine, Gypsy
Worst Track: G.U.Y.
Would I Listen Again?: Maybe? I didn’t totally hate it, but it was certainly a step down from previous records.
Cheek To Cheek (2014)
Yeah, I actually listened to this. It’s a decent jazz album, but it isn’t much more than that. It lacks any sort of real perspective, and Tony and Gaga’s voices don’t always meld that well together. What this album succeeds in doing is demonstrating that Gaga is capable of more than just the commercial pop music she had been making up to this point.
Best Tracks: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Lush Life
Worst Track: Cheek To Cheek
Would I Listen Again?: No
This was not as “country” as I expected it to be. Gaga delivers her vocals in a more raw, country style but I would describe this album as more stripped-back than country – and I mean stripped-back by Gaga’s standards. It also happens to be a more commercial album: songs are more conventionally structured, shorter and generally more accessible. But it still manages to feel artificial, as if Gaga is only really doing this stripped-back thing to prove a point. If ARTPOP was confused and incoherent lyrically, Joanne is perhaps too simple and unassuming. There are a few really excellent songs, but a lot of the tracks (especially towards the end) blend together, none of them really standing out as exciting. Not bad, but there are definitely areas to improve upon.
Best Tracks: Joanne, John Wayne
Worst Track: Come To Mama
Would I Listen Again?: Maybe. Definitely the first half of the album, but I would probably give up halfway.
A Star Is Born Soundtrack (2018)
It’s hard to comment on a soundtrack without reference to the film itself, but the soundtrack does do a decent job of telling the story of the film. It’s very ballad-heavy, but it is an excellent showcase of Gaga’s songwriting (she cowrote most of the songs on the soundtrack) and her pure vocal talent. One of the themes of the movie concerns Ally (Gaga’s character) “selling out” to the music industry and recording generic pop songs in order to rise to fame. It makes sense thus that these songs are deliberately designed to sound cheap, artificial and commercial – yet I find that these songs are some of the most compelling songs on the soundtrack! Bradley Cooper’s voice is alright, but Gaga’s inclusion in the film is so perfect that his performances look mediocre in comparison. Overall, it’s a good collection of songs, even if they are more enjoyable within the film.
Best Tracks: Why Did You Do That?, I’ll Never Love Again
Worst Track: Alibi
Would I Listen Again?: I’d prefer to watch the film again, but yes.
This was the first full Lady Gaga album I listened to (on release day in May 2020) and, having listened to her discography now, I can tell it’s a bit of an outlier. Chromatica is pop purism, almost exclusively using 90s dance music as its sound (besides the three orchestral interludes). It calls back her early days of dance-pop, but the focus is much clearer and the instrumentals less cluttered than before. A drawback of its sonic coherence is that it can often become repetitive, as the songs often don’t vary significantly. Despite this, I’ve had a lot of fun with this album, even if in classic Gaga style there are slightly too many songs on the album than necessary,
Best Tracks: Rain On Me (featuring Ariana Grande), Free Woman, Enigma, Babylon
Worst Track: Fun Tonight
Would I Listen Again?: Definitely.