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Madonna: Music

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If her admirers and detractors can agree on one thing, it's that Madonna is one of the savviest pop stars of all time. Constantly reinventing herself while periodically making what look like suicidal career moves (posing nude with Vanilla Ice, badly acting in an assortment of horrible movies), she understands that poor career decisions can magnify the good ones, making 1998's Ray Of Light look more like a brilliant rebirth than an engagingly solid dance-pop record. It must be time for another lull, because Music is a dreadfully dull misstep. From the arbitrarily cowboy-themed packaging to the generic title to the perfunctory lead single—perhaps the emptiest chart-topper from a major star since Prince's "Batdance"—Madonna's 14th album sounds like a mediocre afterthought, like an assortment of heavily treated Ray Of Light outtakes without that album's warmth or pretensions to importance. Fans who pick it up will be relieved to know that it at least front-loads its worst offenders, following "Music" with "Impressive Instant," an astonishingly insipid number in which Madonna actually sings the digitally hyper-manipulated line, "I like to singy singy singy / like a bird on a wingy wingy wingy." From there, for all the skilled production assistance of collaborator Mirwais Ahmadzaï and others, the disc is filled out with forgettable place-holders, with a succession of buzzy, uneventful ballads ("I Deserve It," "Nobody's Perfect") gliding by without making much of an impression. In the end, Madonna pulls off a considerable feat with Music, assembling a superstar album with plenty of studio tricks but virtually no personality.