Today is Madonna‘s birthday, a huge occasion for all of us virgin geisha dominatrix cowgirls. She’s 55 and, more importantly, so harshly, unmistakably, scandalously Madonna after 30 years as a superstar. Better yet? Like I’m always telling Lourdes, you can always find ways to appreciate Madonna a little more. (Take this roundup of GIFs, for instance…)
That brings us to today’s investigation: we’re reinspecting Madonna’s album catalog and exhuming the greatest deep cuts from her heavenly body of work. After three full decades of her explosive output, it’s clear that hardcore Madonna fans are still the luckiest by far — and these lesser-known songs serve as 14 reasons why.
Madonna (1983), “I Know It”
Madonna’s first LP is remembered for being gleeful, chintzy and somewhat accomplished — something like a diploma from Madge’s kindergarten graduation. Yet her signature carnality and braggodocio are fully on display here, and in “I Know It” she turns heartbreak into an opportunity to do my favorite Madonna thing: proclaim her own smarts. Madonna knows, and that coy awareness has always been her best trait. Love that pained bleat on the last trill of “I know you think I’m the foolish one!”
Like a Virgin (1984), “Over and Over”
It’s nice to know that Madonna had a ready response for haters even in 1984: “You try to criticize my drive / If I lose I don’t feel paralyzed / It’s not the game, it’s how you play / And if I fall, I get up again now.” This mighty jam is an ode to Madonna’s own hamster-wheel endurance, and its title is a (perhaps knowing) nod to the tune’s instantly re-playable blitz.
True Blue (1986): “White Heat”
Madonna started channeling her wild gondola convulsions into a cool, commanding strut on True Blue, but she remained a dorky fan of old movie stars at heart. This tribute to James Cagney is both raw and cheeky. “Put your back up against the wall / ‘Cause my love is dangerous / This is a bust!” The cheesy sexuality of “White Heat” can only be described as Hanky Panky Doodle Dandy, and appropriately, Madonna is the ultimate example of what Cagney would describe as an angel with a dirty face.
Like A Prayer (1989): “Pray For Spanish Eyes”
Ray of Light is often touted as Madonna’s most personal album, but most pained sentiments of her career can be found in the deep cuts of Like a Prayer and Erotica. On “Pray For Spanish Eyes” she laments the loss of a friend with the same lonely whine that makes “Oh Father” so effective. On an album chockablock with religious imagery, this is the track that most plainly and effectively references Christ himself. Following the familial bliss of “Keep It Together,” “Spanish Eyes” is Like A Prayer‘s castanet-tinged elegy for an honorary brother.
I’m Breathless (1990), “More”
Breathless Mahoney is not as dynamic an alter-ego as either Dita Parlo or, hell, Esther, but she’s got a gift for saucy lyrics and piano ballads. Here, Madonna’s Dick Tracy debutante chirps Stephen Sondheim‘s jumpy tune about greed, possession and more, more, more. With its winking decadence (“Count your blessings / 1, 2, 3 / I just hate keeping score / Any number is fine with me / As long as it’s more!”), it’s fair to say “More” is like “Material Girl” as rewritten by Cole Porter.
Erotica (1992), “Thief Of Hearts”
Madonna never gets enough credit for being funny. The best moments of Truth Or Dare, A League of Their Own and even the Sex book hinged on Madonna’s comic verve, and here she slays with deadpan putdowns to the titular burglar. In a bitchy rap, Madonna drones, “You do it / You take it / You screw it / You fake it / Undo it / You break it / You’re over, you can’t take it,” and it sounds like a cynical Sandra Bernhard take on “Hollaback Girl.” Genuinely sassy and laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when she concludes on the robotically-declared final line: “Stop, bitch. Now sit your ass down.”
Bedtime Stories (1994), “Love Tried To Welcome Me”
I can only vouch for myself on this one: for me, this may be the tenderest vocal performance of Madonna’s career. Allegedly inspired by a stripper she met in a club, “Love Tried To Welcome Me” is a sighed ballad about romantic hopelessness and a protagonist who is “usually drawn to sadness.” Ever the survivor of a cloistered Catholic upbringing, Madonna’s best moments in the song all begin with the gut-wrenching cry, “I must confess.”
Something To Remember (1995),”One More Chance”
The slow jam collection Something To Remember acquainted casual fans with a startling reality: Madonna is an underrated balladeer. From “Live To Tell” to “I Deserve It,” she’s trilled plainspoken torch songs that feel rawer than anything in the Celine oeuvre. On “One More Chance” she begs for forgiveness, and her only accompaniment is stark acoustic strumming. No other Madonna song sounds quite like it, and it holds up as a melancholic statement against grander compositions like “You’ll See” and “I’ll Remember.”
Ray Of Light (1998), “Swim”
Ray Of Light is the best and worst of Madonna: half electronic bliss and half self-serious moralizing. But “Swim” is an ideal melding of both those worlds, as it gives us a calm groove and urgent proclamations about worldly chaos, one of my favorite Madonna concerns. The hummable chorus — “We can’t carry these sins on our back / Don’t want to carry anymore” — has almost a folksy quality, and thus “Swim” feels like an earnest and cool missive from a reinvented singer-songwriter.
Music (2000), “Impressive Instant”
Oh, why isn’t “rodeo disco” its own iTunes genre? Madonna and French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai helped re-imagine the idea of an “urban cowboy” by distilling the madness of Debra Winger into a whirring lasso of beats and beeps on “Impressive Instant,” an astounding, throbbing hootenanny that hasn’t aged a day since 2000. The song even has the guts to split off into a weird vocoderized riff where Madonna croons in cyborg English that she likes to “singy singy singy / like a bird / on a wingy wingy wingy.” Turns out “dizzy and daffy” is what it feels like for a girl.
American Life (2003), “Intervention”
Plenty of American Life is an experiment that shouldn’t have left the Bunsen Burner, but Madonna’s nervously confessional vocal on “Intervention” — with all its confused lyrics about staying together, leaving, not feeling alone, lonely roads, and waking up from dreams — feels like a hastily-written, yet intensely personal prayer. She couldn’t sound more frightened when she chirps “I know there is nothing to fear,” and that’s what makes “Intervention” a standout track — it is strange, rambling, contradictory attempts at approaching peace.
Confessions On A Dance Floor (2005), “Forbidden Love”
While performing for banshee homosexuals at London’s G-A-Y in 2005, Madonna screamed, “This album was for you!” Still makes a lot of sense. Confessions On A Dance Floor whips by in a surge of clubland aeronautics, and “Forbidden Love” catches ravers in a sudden slow-motion romance. Madonna’s voice disappears in an echo when she swoons “Just one kiss / just one touch / Just one look / Just one love,” as if the perfection of a stolen glance is already disappearing with the night.
Hard Candy (2008), “Dance 2Night”
Justin Timberlake struck me as an uninspired choice in collaborator from the get-go, and to this day, Hard Candy remains Madonna’s coldest and least self-representative album to date. What does work: this bubbly, funky dance ballad with an undulating chorus that would’ve suited Chaka Khan or Teena Marie in their hit-making prime. I guess that means Madonna brought some form of sexy back…namely Rick James‘.
MDNA (2012), “I’m a Sinner”
I’m tempted to bring up the unchecked road rage of “Gang Bang,” but ugh, that song is named “Gang Bang” for no reason. Sorry! That brings us to “I’m A Sinner,” which sees Madonna shimmying in a retro beat that smacks of both “Beautiful Stranger” and the (somehow underrated) Duffy hit “Mercy.” I love the Sunday school rap where she names a bunch of saints — Christopher, Sebastian, Anthony, Thomas Aquinas — with the ebullience of a collective ex-lover. A fine reason to clutch your rosary and repent.