Features: 30 Ultimate Madonna Tracks

There is so much emphasis on Madonna the image-maker that much of the times you don’t really get to enjoy what really matters: the music that sustains the iconography. Sure, the image has always been a defining part of Madonna’s career, but just like David Bowie or Björk, there is always great music behind the theatrics. If anything, it has always been the starting point for every visual extravaganza. This article tries to encapsulate the essential 30 Madonna tracks that you should not miss out. It might not be easy considering the amount of hits achieved during her 28 years in the music business but , hey, let’s give it a try.

1. Everybody (1982) 
This is where it all starts. The first ever Madonna single, a song about the joy of letting the music take you in. Stylish funk and disco mixed all in one, under an industrial synth line that gives this track it’s own identity. The sexy spoken intro, the breathing, that joyful call of action, all could be described as what would become a standard in pop music for years to come (and for, sure, in this artist’s own future catalogue). It’s not her most well known song, surely not like others from her first record, but one could say that her essence is here, and even if in a simplistic way, this what Madonna makes best: great music that will make you dance. On a side note, legend has it that before she got her singles deal with Sire Records, she first submitted this track to Chris Blackwell (owner of Island Records) who hated it and turned her down.
2. Borderline (1983)
Proving that not everything has to be about the dancefloor, this mid-tempo track has all the emotion that previous hits such as Everybody or Lucky Star failed to show. There’s a fragile tone in her singing, mostly in the way she delivers the line “there’s something I just got to say” and there’s romantic rebellion all over her mournful vocals. Romantic yet not submissive. This has to be one of the best (club) ballads of the 80’s. While most people seem to think this is a Reggie Lucas track, the truth is that the original (unreleased) version was produced by Lucas but Madonna quickly had a fell out with him during the recordings (the reason being he didn’t consider her directions – ouch!). Lucas left the album project after 2 songs and Madonna turned to her then boyfriend dj/producer Jellybean Benitez to remix the track and complete the job.

3. Material Girl (1984)
Out is Jellybean and disco, in is pure pop bliss crafted by the hand of top producer Nile Rodgers. Material Girl is the song that would haunt Madonna for the rest of her career, to the point that she declared she would probably vomit if she had to perform it once again. Everything here screams silliness (in a fun way): the beats, the synths, the male robotic background chorus, her girlish screamings. The lyrics were totally satyrical but the truth is that the song seemed to perfectly capture the zeitgest of 80’s capitalism (Reagan/Tatcher). I don’t think this was intentional, it seems the aim was to create an ironic song about materialism over love, but it clicked on the general consciousness. And a nickname was found!

4. Into The Groove (1985)
One can say that Like a Virgin was her defining musical moment in the 80’s but in truth it’s all about this track. Recorded as a theme song for her cinematic debut Desperately Seeking Susan, this song was actually destined to another Sire Records act, a young black singer called Cheyne. Madonna, Stephen Bray and Jellybean were writing for a lot of different side projects but she ended up recording this by herself. Her high-energy vocals, that killer bass line, and the inclusion of this track in the movie (another key moment of the 80’s if you ask me) made sure that there were no limits to the Madonna mania that was unfolding all over the world. Now I know you’re mine.

5. Live To Tell (1986)
The turning point. This is the song that proves that this young singer named Madonna might be able to do a bit more than catchy dance-pop. A serious adult ballad about hiding a secret (some say it’s about a victim of child abuse but I don’t think she ever confirmed this), it’s also the beginning of a golden string of compositions created with Patrick Leonard, a classic trained musician responsible for the dramatic tension of a lot of Madonna’s tracks. What impresses me the most is how well her (limited) vocal range works here: it’s intimate and confessional. There’s a shyness to it that makes it very personal and the instrumental is almost religious-like, marking the first dive into a sort of “sacred-pop” genre she was just starting to explore.
6. Open You Heart (1986)
Originally a rock-composition offered to Cindy Lauper, this classic was later turned it into a dance-pop song by Madonna and Patrick Leonard. It’s one of the best songs from the True Blue album because it’s raw and energetic in the same amount that it is romantic and innocent. (for every “Don’t try to run I can keep up with you ” you’ll get other demure lines such as “One is such a lonely number“). I guess this is what Madonna does best: pop songs trapped in the paradox of self-empowerment and vulnerability. Also, why do the “Watchout!” spoken lines here sounds incredibly like Michael Jackson?

7. The Look of Love (1987)
A minor hit from the Who’s That Girl soundtrack but one of her best 80’s songs. This has has a gorgeous minimal instrumental track (simple, melodic, stylish) and the fragile delivery of the lines makes it a total must have. Very melancholic and beautiful. It sounds sincere, in the same way that Live To Tell does.

8. Like a Prayer (1989)
Let’s forget about the (glorious) video and all that vatican controversy for a moment. This is simply one of the best pop songs ever recorded. It’s a mixmash of different musical genres all rolled into one (rock, pop, funk, ghospel) and was described by Rolling Stone magazine “as close to art as pop music gets”. Everything works here: the beautiful lyrics (comparing religion to sexual ecstasy), the pureness of her angelic type of singing, that blasphemous bass line (by Randy Jackson) and the guitar intro by Prince. This is one of those moments of pure pop perfection that just doesn’t get tired. It’s also in a league of it’s own I think, I cannot seriously name a song that I can point out and say “oh that sounds just like Like a Prayer”. It’s unique.

9. Express Yourself (1989)
Written and produced with Stephen Bray, this would become an anthem for Madonna and her fans. Its clear message about self-empowerment is direct and evident, and this track is often mentioned as a tribute to Sly & The Family Stone. It’s also a return to soul music, a genre she had not explored since her early hits and surely a moment of maturation as an artist, delivering great lyrics and commanding vocals under a simply irresistible rhythm.

10. Oh Father (1989)
Another minor hit but for sure one of the highlights from the Like a Prayer album. A bittersweet love letter to her father or a reflexion on the pains of childhood, it could simply be understood as someone declaring independence from a domineering figure. The music-box intro, that dramatic piano setting, the suffering in the voice (again, profiting on her limited vocal range), it’s just that kind of song that will take you after the first 10 seconds.One the most dramatic and confessional recordings she ever did and, and even if I try not to bring up the visual aspect into these reviews, I cannot simply not mention the brilliant David Fincher video.

11. Vogue (1990)
1990 was the year for Madonna. Everything she did, she did it right. A new blockbuster movie, a groundbreaking tour, a soundtrack record, a multi- selling retrospective album and this monster of a dance song: Vogue. This is the track that pushed house music into the mainstream and underground gay culture into the houses of middle-America. It generated a dance craze around the world, where dancers used moves and poses copied from fashion catwalks into the dancefloor. It’s sophisticated, it’s arrogant and it’s a lot of fun. To have written the soundtrack to this pivotal moment in dance culture is a great achievement and Vogue remains one of Madonna’s signature songs.

12. Justify My Love (1990)
Light years away from her previous bouncy pop hits, Justify My Love was a real daring song in the pop charts at the time (it’s not what you mum wanted you to hear on radio, that’s for sure). The track is penned by Ingrid Chavez and Lenny Kravitz (who sings on the background) and her sexy delivery here makes it one of the hottest songs ever recorded. The instrumental track is not entirely original (owning hugely to an uncredited Public Enemy sample) but no one really cared. Madonna had left sexual innuendos and embraced explicit sexual lyrics.

13. Erotica (1992)
Call it a darker evolution to Justify My LoveErotica is the song that presents the 1992 Madonna to the world. It’s written in the character of Dita Parlo, her persona on the Sex book and it’s a dirty house gem aimed to raise the temperature to fire levels. Rough synths, spoken passages, a chorus like someone is half whispering / half singing in your ears, eastern vocal chants and oh, did I mention that Kool & The Gang Jungle Boogie sample? This is one of the best Madonna tracks ever and it still sounds fresh today. Nothing here screams “90’s production”, it’s actually above any time labeling. She says she’d like to put you in a trance, and… well, mission accomplished.

14. Secret Garden (1992)
An unknown track in Madonna’s catalog but for sure one of her best. Here she mixes her dark house sound from Erotica with jazzy elements and it works surprisingly well. It’s rumored to be a love letter turned into song for a french man she was seeing at the time and it truly has some of her best lyrics ever. Poetic, romantic, dark and sexy. Everything you love about Madonna is canned in this song. Perfect book-end to her Erotica album and sadly a genre she should have explored a bit more.

15. Secret (1994)
Sorry but the the highlight of the Bedtime Stories album was not Take a BowSecret is the real deal here and it remains her best achieved flirtation with R&B sounds to date. A mid-tempo ballad about understanding that happiness lies in your own hands, it also marks the first song she writes on the subject of spirituality (something she would do a lot for years to come). It’s confessional and has a religious vibe to it,  quite emotional. Please check out the original album version for an extended instrumental outro that is just plain brilliant.

16. Human Nature (1994)
Witty and ironic, this is the response to the backlash she got in 1993. While the media vilanized Madonna because of her Sex book (and remember, around 1993 most were saying she was trash and her career was over) she delivered this little number stating that she was not sorry for anything, especially for openly talking about sex. Great eat that lyrics over a powerful hip-hop beat make this track a must-have. Little bit of trivia: while Warner Brother’s wanted her to release the radio friendly Don’t Stop as her 4th single from the Bedtime Stories album, Madonna insisted on releasing Human Nature instead. She ended up having her way.
17. I Want You (1995)
I bet you weren’t expecting to see this one here, were you? Well, after some experiments with trip hop sounds via Nellee Hopper and Björk (the Bedtime Story track), Madonna recorded a song with Massive Attack for an album of Marvin Gaye covers. Not only this marks a step forward in her sound but I believe this is also the first time she showcases her new rich and expressive voice, thank you to some singing lessons taken to record the Evita soundtrack. Not only do I simply ADORE Massive Attack’s construction of the song here (with the dramatic strings over an intense overlay of beats and noises) I also love the richness in the way she interprets the lines. You cannot miss the emotion when she asks “Ain’t it lonely out there?”. This, my friends, is a true gem in Madonna’s discography.

18. Frozen (1998)
The recordings with Nellee Hooper lead to a desire of flirtation with the new trends in dance-music. Out is Hooper (she wanted to do an entire record with him but he demanded co-writer credits on everything, and there’s not space for two big egos in a Madonna record) and in is William Orbit, who had remixed some of her tracks before. This, and the fact that Madonna loved his Strange Cargo recordings, lead into the creation of the Ray of Light album, for most (but not for this writer) her best album to date. Frozen was the lead single of the package, a radical departure from anything on Bedtime Stories or even anything on the pop charts those days. It’s haunting and atmospheric, minimalistic in it’s construction but full of emotion and dark electronic juxtapositions. It’s a classic Madonna song and it sounds as fresh today as it did back in 1998.

19. Candy Perfume Girl (1998)
Another track recorded with Orbit, this one is a bit of an experience in adrenaline, just like drinking black coffee. It’s a strong sonic trip that goes from rock guitars to trance beats, from hip hop sounds to bubblegum pop. It’s very distinctive and I believe it’s also one of her best recordings yet. The lyrics are over the top good, very sexual but not in an in your face way, more like great erotic poetry. The production is amazing, very rich and diverse, the perfect musical landscape to the lyrics about sexual desire and yearning for the lover that speaks delicious fires. A must have.

20. Beautiful Stranger (1999)
What a better way to finish the 90’s than creating a sixties flavored dance-pop song? The song screams references to golden oldies, most notably some very clear and yet, uncredited samples from a song called She Comes in Colors by Arthur Lee & Love (from which the track takes a great deal of inspiration). There’s a sense of fun in the Orbit production that didn’t exist on any of their Ray Of Light recordings and that was a great surprise. Tons of reverbed guitars float on top of the electronic beats, there’s strings, there’s flutes, there’s a mad chorus and an unexplainable appeal. This one is a winner and you quickly forget it belongs to an Austin Powers movie soundtrack.

21. Music (2000)
Starting the new decade with a bang, Madonna releases an album inspired (weirdly) by french house and american folk. As far as these two worlds may sound, the mixture was really great and it worked. Music, the lead single and title cut from the album is an instant classic: the catchiest hook ever, the return of a youthful and energetic pitch she didn’t use since the days of Vogue and Deeper and Deeper, those mad fire synths looping at the end of the song. It’s a real anthem and what was so enjoyable at the time was the fact that this was a serious departure from the (extremely successful) ethereal mood of her Ray of Light sound. Surely she could have just recorded a new album in that genre but risks were taken and it paid off brilliantly.

22. Impressive Instant (2000)
It was quite a surprise to hear Madonna recording a song like this, it sounded more like Chemical Brothers remixing Madonna than an actual album song. Well, it works! It’s one of those Madonna on acid moments that are just too good to be missed. Somehow it translates really well that hum, instant, where your eye catches someone across the room and your world just spins around you. It’s basically THAT moment put into music and rather brilliantly done if you ask me. I am very fond of the tape skips Mirwais applied on the production.

23. I Deserve It (2000)
A sincere and down to earth moment in the middle of the high-energy of her Music album, one where the warmness of the acoustic guitar shares space with the chilling and slightly spacial synths to create an unique effect. It remembers me a lot of David Bowie’s Space Oddity song, tho I can’t really say if it was or it wasn’t a reference for Madonna and producer Mirwais. On a side-note, this is perhaps one of those tracks where you can hear Madonna’s voice completely in the nude: legend has it Mirwais loved her voice when they started recording and asked her to record a song without having him touch the reverb filter (that by the way, is used to death on her previous album). She panicked but accepted. The result was beautiful.

24. Paradise Not For Me (2000)
Oh where to start? I mean, isn’t this just one of the best things she ever recorded? For this track alone I could consider Mirwais her best producer ever (which I do), I just love the minimal electronica versus the larger than life string arrangements presented here. Again, like on I Deserve It, they went for the paradox and it really worked. It’s kind of dark and mysterious and her candid way of singing/whispering the words is great. The recording works as a bit of an homage to the recordings of Serge Gainsbourg with Brigitte Bardot and she even tries a little bit of french (or as Mirwais puts it, Madonna French). If you don’t have this you should download it ASAP.

25. Die Another Day (2002)
“James Bond needs to go electro!” That’s what she stated in an interview around the time this song was released and it let a lot of people with their jaws on the floor. Maybe she missed the chance to record a grand Bond classic (rumor is she did, it was called Can’t You See My Mind and it’s still on the her own private vault) but this proto-robotnic song is just too good to be true. I love the lyrics, I love the vocoder effect, the strings, the skips, the whisperings, everything. And, may I say, this track was recorded in a time where hip-hop dominated the american airwaves, which makes it an even more ballsy move to me. Clearly this is the sound that american radios play these days (think Britney Spears’ Piece Of Me) but this wasn’t the case back then. They were far ahead on their game with this one.

26. Hollywood (2003)
One the best songs from the American Life album. It was pointed for a while as being the album’s title cut (and wouldn’t that be just amazing after the shit she got for Swept Away?) but that changed on very last minute. The track is dark both in musical ambience and lyrics, and it’s really well constructed. It’s a song about losing yourself and the illusion of making it in Hollywood is just the right metaphor for that. I particularly like the little acid glitches Mirwais inserted through out the song, it ads a bittersweet feeling that fits the mood of the song so brilliantly.

27. X-Static Process (2003)
An album song that is probably not that well known but remains one of the best things she has ever recorded (well at least for this writer). I suspect the recording process here was somehow similar to the one on I Deserve It with the voice untouched in the final cut. It sounds very intimate, confessional, and I like that they superimposed two layers for her singing (during the final segment) and two layers for the acoustic guitar (that by the way, seems to be played rather awkwardly, I assume on intention). It sounds like a demo and I like that unfinished feeling. The message? She explained on a live show during the promo for American Life that the song was about her relationship with men and her relationship with Jesus Christ: “if you give Jesus/men too much power, you will get fucked!“.

28. Hung Up (2005)
A monster of a dance song. It screams campy fun and it’s one of those tracks you want to hear when you go out. Stuart Price did a stellar job with the production here and the inclusion of that ABBA on ecstasy sample is just genius. It fits right in and doesn’t sound like a heavy sample at all. It blends really well and becomes part of the whole electronic construction (partially due to a little distortion Stuart applied on the original segment). There’s even a little eurovision-like part thrown in the middle (“Don’t cry for me / cause I’ll find my way”) just to make the camp level go out of the roof. Most importantly, the general audience got the message: Madonna was going nowhere and the dancefloor was still her main stage.

29. Get Together (2005)
This might just be the more sophisticated dance song on her catalog. Not only the electronic production sounds very clever (oh my god look at those synths), but the song is amazingly written as well. It does sound like a bit of an homage to Daft Punk and let’s face it, if Madonna ever sat in a studio with them to record a pop song, the result would have been close to Get Together. Like most of the songs on the Confessions of a Dancefloor record, the lyrics are very in your face but there’s a subtext to them. It’s music for the dancefloor, but some food for thought as well. “It’s all an illusion…”

30. Give It To Me (2007)
The thing with Madonna mixing herself with hip-hop producers is that somehow she ends up drowning in their musical aesthetics. If some of the Hard Candy tracks are simply ok (and it’s not a bad album by any standard), Give It To Me is that one song where I think the production really updated her sound to fit a more urban genre without loosing the core essence of a Madonna song. The beats here are simply mad (kudos to Pharrell) and there’s still an electronic edge to the track that reminds you that this is Madonna’s field. It’s bouncy, fun, silly and empowering all at once and the lyrics are great (You’re only here to win!” – love that!) It will remain as the last great dance song she did in the noughties. And, for me, it is indeed the high point of the whole album. “Get stupid, get stupid, don’t stop it…”

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