Words: Mathew Barton; Image: Wiki
As the Queen of Pop turns 63, we take a look at ten of her finest songs that you may not know so well.
None of them were singles, but all of them highlight that, bottom line, Madonna’s career has lasted for almost 40 years because, frankly, her songs are bloody great.
White Heat (1986)
By the mid-1980s, Madonna’s acting ambitions were in full view with films including the cult classic Desperately Seeking Susan and the much-maligned Shanghai Surprise.
She translated that character-driven spirit into much of 1986’s True Blue, and 'White Heat' interpolates dialogue from the James Cagney film of the same name into a rambunctious funk-rock groove topped with one of her best early vocal performances.
Till Death Do Us Part (1989)
If True Blue was the sound of Madonna falling in love with Sean Penn, then 1989’s Like a Prayer was, in part, the sound of their divorce.
'Till Death Do Us Part' is the clearest evocation of their marital woes and is a beautiful song, its fast pace and peppy beat belying its tragic lyric, yearning melody, and resigned vocal. The way the chorus melts into the downcast, sad verse is heart-melting.
Pray for Spanish Eyes (1989)
It’s a crime that the magnificent 'Spanish Eyes' is not better known. Another splendid Madonna/Patrick Leonard collaboration, a slow, romantic verse gives way to a dramatic, soaring chorus with one of Madonna’s career-best vocal performances.
It’s one of her finest epic ballads, and once again showed that Madonna was fundamentally a truly talented singer and songwriter.
Where Life Begins (1992)
1992’s Erotica (and its accompanying “coffee table” book Sex) threatened to derail Madonna’s career with its perceived aggressive sexuality, but the album today stands as one of her most important artistic statements and probably key to her status as one of pop’s maverick iconoclasts.
'Where Life Begins' is a lot more than an ode to cunnilingus – the production job by Andre Betts is exquisite and is redolent of the whole downtempo trip-hop-jazz-inspired vibe of much of the record.
1994’s Bedtime Stories took the trip-hop influence of Erotica even further into soft-focus soul and R&B, and 'Sanctuary' is one of Madonna’s most unusual, creepy songs.
It’s a keening, off-kilter trip-hop experiment, with an atmospheric Herbie Hancock sample and a burbling segue into the frankly terrifying 'Bedtime Story', written by Björk.
Has to Be (1998)
This wonderful, mellifluous b-side is Madonna at her most zen. Dreamy and ethereal, it holds a unique space in her catalogue and is justifiably an enduring fan favourite, with her silken vocal and William Orbit’s oceanic production. File under: should have been on Ray of Light.
'Amazing', from 2000’s Music, is one of the quintessential Madonna/Orbit collaborations, and would have made a fantastic single (despite Madonna’s protestations).
Imagine 'Ray of Light' having a baby with 'Beautiful Stranger' and you’re getting close.
Easy Ride (2003)
2003’s American Life is one of the most underrated of all Madonna records, and is perhaps unfairly overshadowed by the infamous 'American Life' rap where, at 44, Madonna "realised that nothing is what it seems.”
The superb closer 'Easy Ride' is more the ticket, combining the acoustic guitar base of much of the Madonna/Mirwais-produced album with raw, impassioned vocals, and an opulent string arrangement. Glorious.
Love Spent (2012)
2012’s MDNA is a bit too much of a hodgepodge of sounds, producers, and styles to be a great, cohesive record, and generic singles like 'Girl Gone Wild' did nothing to bolster its reputation.
But hidden inside are bizarre gems like 'Love Spent', featuring production work by William Orbit and surely one of the weirdest Madonna songs.
It somehow incorporates country guitar, synth stabs, drum programming, treated vocals, and strange melodic twists and turns – and works. This is the kind of experimental latter-day Madonna that fans crave.
Joan of Arc (2015)
Madonna’s most recent album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, is once again pretty underrated as Madonna records go, and 'Joan of Arc' is one of its best.
A personal and sensitive assertion of vulnerability, it boasts one of Madonna’s loveliest, gentlest vocal performances over a simple, classic acoustic melody.
There’s no posturing here, it’s just a no-frills great song as Madonna does best.
What are your favourite Madonna album tracks?