Harry, I know EXACTLY what you mean. American Life and Music are almost like her "Plastic Ono Band" album, where she really has found her feet with true songwriting and production craft, with the help of her current collaborator Mirwais Ahmadzai. Here's a review I did of American Life from my website:
My top album for 2003 is definitely Madonna - "American Life". Excellent songwriting ("Love Profusion") and arrangements, juxtaposing synths with acoustic guitars and slices of alternative rock ("I'm So Stupid"). I would rank it right up there with great Beatles albums and Beach Boys Pet Sounds. Like a fine wine, her brilliance compounds with age, and the album is marvellous from beginning to end. It has its own niche and direction (following on from the direction of 2000's "Music"), its own distinctive sound and willing to push the envelope within the song and to go for slightly different tonal colours and sounds and willing to experiment with production and cutting up the arrangements - something most admirable in the year 2003. Whereas most artists are happy just to get their material down as nature intended, Madonna is prepared to mould and shape her compositions like a digital canvas - I salute her and hereby bequeath her with my "Album of the Year" nomination.
When John did Plastic Ono Band, it was John stripped bare, it was as real as you could get...that you could almost touch him. American Life shows Madonna stripped bare as an artist. The album seems to have no commercial considerations...something like I'm So Stupid with that Laurie Anderson i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i.."
warped sound with the Lou Reed-ish guitar joining the vocal.... this is no "Into the Groove".
Even better are the "Remixed And Revisited" remixes - check out the Head Cleanr' Rock remix of Love Profusion, which makes it sound like Garbage or Curve rather than the beautiful Badfingery original. She's always been a legendary superhuman figure in American pop music...ever since the Ray of Light album...she's stepping up to fulfil her true potential as an artist. I think she's the coolest 45-year-old alive.