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Lady Gaga’s best albums, ranked
Lady Gaga, “Telephone”Via YouTube

Lady Gaga’s albums, ranked – from worst to wig-snatching best

As the singer finally drops ‘Stupid Love’, we reflect on the legend’s ever-evolving oeuvre

Lady Gaga’s “Stupid Love” has just dropped, with images of Gaga in the desert wearing extra-terrestrial chrome facial adornments and xenomorph-like metallic shoulder pads (think Alien 1979, but pink). It’s just the beginning of another chapter in Gaga’s twisting, decade-long journey from pop disruptor to Oscar-winning songwriter. Here are the evolving legend’s album eras, ranked!

07. CHEEK TO CHEEK, 2014

Gaga’s lesser known album with jazz legend Tony Bennett scarcely pierced mainstream discourse. For a late-2000s Gaga, whose main pursuit was “the art of fame”, this would have been apocalyptic news. But this era saw Gaga deliberately recede out of the limelight to rebuild herself. We can understand it in hindsight as the nurturing chrysalis that birthed Gaga’s most recent reinvention as a cultural polymath and Oscar-nominated actor. Despite its tender meaning for Gaga herself, its impact crater is minute compared to her other, behemothic work. 

06. A STAR IS BORN, 2018

Madonna’s touching Evita and Cher’s captivating tale of romance in Moonstruck were rare success stories of pop crossovers in cinema. When news broke that Gaga was to take up the mantle of the endlessly remade classic from Garland and Streisand, the potential for humiliation hung thick in the air. Was she going to be awful? The global triumph and Oscar success of the film was a full circle moment for Gaga’s career, and the music seemed to stand in for so many peaks and troughs in her own life. “Hair Body Face” and the other intentionally cringey pop songs in the soundtrack were seized upon by gays, comically mirroring the real life drama of Gaga’s struggles with commercialism, e.g. ARTPOP’s chart failure and niche success. “Shallow” swept the world, proving Gaga could be not just current, but classic. Timeless.

05. JOANNE, 2016

Joanne is difficult to place in Gaga’s pantheon, with its out-of-left-field grab for a cowboy hat. Gaga has masterfully channelled countless genres across her work, incorporating diverse stylistic elements into fresh iterations of her signature electropop. She succeeded with country, too, but didn’t offer us much in the way of a new proposition, when innovators like Kacey Musgraves were hot on her heels. “Perfect Illusion” was a key-jumping highlight. “Million Reasons” and “Joanne” showed Gaga at home in touching, exposed songwriting that foreshadowed the blistering revelation of “Shallow”. Gaga’s detours into jazz and country were glinting facets in her overall story of continuous reassessment and reinvention, and remind us of the raw, overpowering talent at her core, which can wow just with a guitar and a stool – but they don’t feel like the main event.

04. THE FAME, 2008

For all the tired criticism that Gaga’s The Fame was pretension at greatness, a mere pastiche of “real” artists like Bowie and Madonna, the irony is that the artist triggered the very paradigm shift that would allow the album to be retrospectively appreciated. It was her referential, visually minded, ambitious projects (along with those of disruptive 00s contemporaries like Robyn) that heralded the new era of poptimism. Gaga was an accomplished pop scholar from the outset, unpretentious enough to know that all art is pastiche.

On The Fame, she enthusiastically launched into imitation of the past as well as her own future, lamenting how tabloids would tear her apart on “Paparazzi”, casting herself as a Diana figure before she was even known. At the 2009 VMAs, she exploded a squib under her diamond-encrusted bra, blood pouring down her white bikini to gasps from an audience of P Diddy and Pink, foreshadowing her sacrifice to celebrity. On the synthy “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich”, she twanged about having no money while sprawling in a hooded red bodysuit on a table full of the cash she knew she would earn. Her prophecies spoke themselves into reality, and the world fell into step behind her.  

“The Fame” was not only a mash-up of her 80s glam rock influences, but also her blueprint for pop dominance: “Gimme something I wanna see, television and hot blondes in odd positions,” she winks at her captive audience on the title track. Just as exciting as the album material were the unreleased tracks that circulated on YouTube: “Rock Show” and “Retro Physical” evoked the sticky life of New York piano bars she had sprouted from. Her academic command of musical history and eye-popping understanding of visuals in The Fame era spawned a new generation of pop acolytes. At her touch, whole worlds fell open. 

03. BORN THIS WAY, 2011

By the time the Born This Way era had arrived, Gaga was locked in a constant battle to live up to herself. On every level, she upped the ante. Facial prosthetics met bionic, embryonic imagery, and Gaga brought egg chariots to the red carpet. The album was a feat of genre plate-spinning, folding heavy metal, trance, and industrial together, seeing Gaga at her most sonically experimental. 

Controversy courted the higher stakes. Accusations of copycatting escalated to plagiarism, as critics pointed to similarities between the title track’s melody and Madonna’s “Express Yourself”. The rosary-bead swallowing of The Fame Monster’s “Alejandro” graduated to full on blasphemy, as Lady Gaga washed the feet of both Jesus and his betrayer. “Judas” bought cinematic epicness of the same order as “Bad Romance” and “Telephone”, shocking and delighting viewers as Gaga embarked on a mini road trip movie with a Catholic motorcycle gang, alternately dressed like a bejewelled acid-house witch and a biker’s moll. “Marry the Night” strained the limits of the mainstream’s attention but thrilled fans. The self-directed, 13-minute long video told the story of a prior rejection by a record label, and her determined rise out of New York. “It’s just that I loathe reality,” she said on her opening monologue, from a rolling hospital trolley. “You and I” later saw her adopt a male drag, and she pushed a pro-equality message through the campaign and accompanying tour. This was Gaga’s post-domination era, when there was nobody to beat but herself, alone at the top.

02. ARTPOP, 2013

The most controversial of Gaga’s works, ARTPOP was much maligned by those who thought Gaga was becoming grating. Explanations of her Warholian, inverted ‘pop art’ concept went down like a lead balloon among mainstream audiences, perceived as try-hard and over-thought. In a way, they were proving Gaga right – she had said that all audiences wanted was to see “the decay of the superstar”. Amid rumours of betrayal by her management team, it seemed multiple parties were now conspiring to make sure she fell hard. But like most art conceived under pressure, ARTPOP shone like a diamond. Critics complained that it could only appeal to stans, not a general audience, given its futuristic, grungey EDM-inspired sound, weird themes (ranging from drugs to Donatella Versace to sex dreams), and its inward-looking obsession with its protagonist’s own neuroses.

These complaints seem laughably outdated when we look at today’s post-PC Music pop landscape. It’s a cliche to say that people just didn’t get it, but hey, they didn’t. This was the beginning of Gaga’s greatest reinvention, her mastery over her own inner battles, and her refusal to pander to the boring mainstream. The “G.U.Y.” extended video was dismissed as a dumping ground of visual material, but it was a deliciously maximalist pop smorgasbord. Andy Cohen and the Real Housewives ironically dithered along to Gaga’s journey through Greek mythology, as she regained control over the demands of commercialism with a metaphor for bottoming for capitalism. “I don’t need to be on top to know I’m worth it,” she insisted. Rectal innuendos aren’t to everyone’s taste. “Squealaaa, squeala, squeala, you’re so disgusting!” Lady Gaga spat at a piggish man on “Swine”, accenting the nauseating lyrical content with a professional vomit artist who regurgitated neon onto her body on stage. “Ewww,” some people said. “Wowww,” murmured others. Great art is divisive. 

01. THE FAME MONSTER, 2009

Undersold as a mere reissue of cataclysmic debut The Fame, Gaga’s second venture initially seemed like a veer off course for the nascent pop dominator. Rather than reaching for a bright new album concept, she rushed to birth an extended addendum to the manifesto of The Fame, a visually darker and melancholic footnote. When her brooding Hedi Slimane-shot cover was rejected by label bosses, she persuaded them. If The Fame was about manufacturing celebrity, this was about zooming in on the aftermath. “Monster”, “Dance in the Dark”, and “So Happy I Could Die” were gothic Auto-Tuned Europop deep cuts which mined her nightmares and cemented her place in the hearts of audiences. 

Gaga knew, with her pop foresight, what her label bosses did not – in order to secure longevity, you show the dark as well as the light. They wanted a pop machine, she knew that people were interested in the rusty bolts. She also knew what opening up the hood would cost her, namechecking Diana, Plath and Marilyn Monroe. “Bad Romance”, “Alejandro”, and “Telephone” arguably represent Gaga’s visual zenith. “Bad Romance” was for a time YouTube’s most viewed video ever, and channelled more subconscious terrors with its insect-like Alexander McQueen fashion and chilling trafficking scene in a Russian bathhouse. “Telephone” was a Beyoncé co-piloted club banger (the label bosses probably breathed a sigh of relief here) which brought Gaga’s twisted imagination to life in Coke-can hair curlers, Tarantino’s Pussy Wagon and poisonous diner waffles. The album mashed Eastern European industrialism with austere aesthetics and new wave electropop, using Hitchcockian imagery to evoke Gaga’s anxieties about sex, addiction, and being seen. 

The Fame Monster scorned the obvious demands of commercialism, and in doing so, dominated them. You can see its legacy today in the speed with which Ariana Grande released the exposing “thank u, next” after her life was turned upside down and before her next album was due. It was Gaga thrusting off the cloak, revealing herself as the flawed, human, heir apparent to the throne.