Music makes the people come together, so the song goes. Music also makes us who we are, and there are scores of artists that helped shaped me… their songs marking many memorable stages of my life and those of many others all over the world.
Earlier this year – March 8, 2018 to be precise – I penned a two-part feature in celebration of International Women’s Day, listing my ten favourite female singers living in the world today. You can check the list here, but the most common complaint from visitors to this blog was the omission of two names: Stevie Nicks and Madonna.
As I’d consciously opted for artists I’d been fortunate enough to catch live – including, slightly incredulously, Aretha Franklin and Kate Bush – that ruled out Nicks or her behemoth of a band, Fleetwood Mac. However, the woman the Brits affectionately call Madge is another story entirely: I’ve caught every tour she’s done since 1990’s now legendary Blonde Ambition (see footnote), and a couple of club gigs, but quite honestly, I have such a complex love/hate relationship with this person that she really warranted a feature all on her own. This is it.
It’s hard to imagine music without Madonna. It seems like she’s always been there, changing the game and refashioning and refilling herself. Try as we might, it’s just been impossible to avoid her. Ubiquitous and often ridiculous, Madonna was probably the most transgressive star of the 1980s and 1990s, giving a voice to the oppressed while offering a bold and brash example of what it means to be free. That undeniable sense of dancefloor determination to live her life on her terms is why her lesbian and gay followers have remained so steadfastly loyal to her over the decades.
She is the mistress of reinvention and, no, you can’t fault her power and influence, even if she hasn’t done a great deal of much worth of late (too busy adopting half of sub-Saharan Africa, probably). Born in Bay City, Michigan on 16 August 1958 – 13 days and 300 miles away from Michael Jackson’s entry into the statosphere – the pop journey of Madonna Louise Ciccone officially started almost 36 years ago when she dropped her first single, the dance jam Everybody, on October 6, 1982. Since then, she’s rarely ever looked back. To celebrate Her Madgesty’s 60th birthday I’ve ranked the 30 best singles of the Queen of Pop’s royal career. Prepare yourself for a shock.
30. Give It 2 Me (2008)
There were times on 2008’s underwhelming Hard Candy when superstar producers Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and the Neptunes commandeered Madonna’s sound that reduced her to a bit player on her own record (see the godawful JT collaboration 4 Minutes), but the emphatic Give It 2 Me showed that she was still in charge. Even a bit of silly goofiness during that “get stupid” bridge with Pharrell can’t deny the insistent bounce.
29. Ghosttown (2015)
It’s a shame that Madonna’s last album, the rather over-long Rebel Heart, didn’t spawn any real hits because it had two decent singles in Living for Love and Ghosttown. With its haunting atmospherics and doom-laden lyrics depicting the “darkest days” in a post-Armageddon world, the latter was eerily prescient of Trump-era despair.
28. Masterpiece (2012)
This is, hands down, the most under-appreciated single of Madonna’s career. A sweet, gentle love song with a Spanish guitar loop, slight beat and flowing melody, filled out by a gorgeous orchestration. Madge’s voice sounds particularly sharp on Masterpiece, without the distracting digital correction of most of her 21st century output. The theme song for her critically panned film W.E., she may have been thinking of the abdicated King Edward VIII — or indeed the current heir to the throne, her sometime countryside acquaintance Prince Charles — when she wrote “Honestly, it can’t be fun / To always be the chosen one”, but the message applies just as much to Madonna herself. For most of the MDNA album she seemed determined to demonstrate that a 50-year-old mother of four can still cut it with the kids at the club. Yet, perversely, she sounds most at ease when she calms down a bit and acts her age, which she does on this aptly-titled flop. A prime contender for reissue should M ever consider a second ballads collection to follow 1995’s Something To Remember.
27. Die Another Day (2002)
American Life — the folky psychobabbly one where she looked a lot like the bastard rebel child of Che Guevara and Patti Hearst on the cover, and probably the most divisive album of Madonna’s career — produced one of her most ridiculed singles in its title track. But its predecessor, the theme tune to the James Bond movie of the same name was a triumph of sorts, creatively if not critically. Fair play to Madge — who also had a squeaky cameo in the film — for not going gung-ho down the obvious Shirley Bassey/Tina Turner route, DAD is an exhilarating electroclash of stuttered strings and interpolating synth swirls and was the top selling dance song in the US for both 2002 and 2003.
26. The Look of Love (1987)
Inspired by James Stewart’s glances at Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, this moody and mysterious Who’s That Girl? soundtrack song sits on an occasionally interesting tide of tropical washes. The Look Of Love is also one of Madonna’s most overlooked songs, inexplicably excluded from Madonna’s 1995 ballad collection Something To Remember. One assumes its author isn’t too keen on it, having not performed the song live since its year of release.
25. Deeper and Deeper (1992)
Madonna took a deep-house dive with the second single from Erotica, produced by club-remix legend Shep Pettibone. Its retro-disco video was riddled with cameos, including her now manager Guy Oseary, Sire Records chief Seymour Stein, longtime friend and actress Debi Mazar and adult film director/DJ/drag diva Chi Chi LaRue. The song itself plays like a sequel to Vogue — even quoting from that earlier hit toward the end — it pours on the dance-floor drama and even sports a fabulous flamenco breakdown. Oh, olé.
24. Human Nature (1995)
Long before Demi Lovato gave us Sorry Not Sorry, the unapologetic bitch that is Madonna responded to her critics with this defiant declaration that makes a lyrical nod to Express Yourself. Produced with hip-hop soul flavour by early Mary J. Blige collaborator Dave Hall, it goes straight-up gangsta on you. The video’s funny and fab too.
23. Frozen (1998)
Ushering in the ambitious, ambient Ray of Light era, that album’s first single was a real revelation, sounding unlike anything Madonna had ever done before. Creating a mystical forest of sonic enchantment — sweeping strings and all — Frozen possesses an almost operatic grandeur, and never fails to give you chills.
22. Live to Tell (1986)
In addition to serving as the first single from True Blue, this song was featured in the film At Close Range, starring Madonna’s then-husband, the wannabe gangster Sean Penn. Setting the moody tone for other movie ballads that she would go on to do — including 1992’s This Used to Be My Playground and 1994’s I’ll Remember — this aching confession found her displaying greater depth and maturity than ever before.
21. Sorry (2006)
As I mentioned earlier, arch Pet Shop Boys aficionado Stuart Price wasted no time in interpolating his love for the seminal synth duo on Confessions on a Dance Floor, which was largely recorded in his West Kilburn flat about five blocks from mine at the time. And Neil Tennant was quick to capitalise. With its percolating air-lifting groove, “Jump sounds like it’s got a bit of West End Girls in it to me,” the PSB frontman told this author at the time. “But the song we thought sounded most like us was Sorry (1987’s Catholic-castigating It’s a Sin to be precise, which M’s Who’s That Girl dethroned from pole position), so we asked to remix it and within 12 hours we were doing it,” prompting Neil to “add a load of vocals,” with him playing the “pathetic guy” in the lyrics, because “I’ve always wanted to sing a duet with Madonna.” Madge told him, ‘That was really cheeky of you but it worked,’ and went on record as preferring it to the original disco ditty (she later disowned the song as “retarded.”), even sampling his dulcet tones on the Confessions shows and subsequent live album. “I felt quite proud that I was in her show,” he beamed. “She called it a ‘killer remix’.”
20. Take a Bow (1994)
After the salaciousness of the whole Sex book and Erotica era, Madonna classed up her act in a big way with a beautiful Babyface-produced ballad. She even works a bit of Shakespeare into this contemplative and downbeat soother from the under-appreciated Bedtime Stories album. It worked. Take A Bow spent seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, making it her longest-running No. 1 single ever. At first it sounds like a comparison between a broken relationship and a curtain call, but the sumptuous video pivots the story to paint the bad guy as a deadly matador. It’s maybe the most elegant thing Madge has ever done.
19. La Isla Bonita (1987)
Bonita is Spanish for pretty, and this island-breezy ditty is certainly one of the loveliest tunes that Madonna’s ever done. Exploring Latin pop long before it became trendy, the song — an indelible fixture on her tours — inspired everything from her own Who’s That Girl to Lady Gaga’s Alejandro. Oh, olé.
18. Borderline (1984)
This is one of six tracks on 1983’s Madonna debut that were produced by Reggie Lucas, who had previously worked with R&B artists like Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman, and was remixed by Madge’s then-boyfriend John “Jellybean” Benitez. Madonna — whose early cleverly anonymous-sleeved singles were getting played on black radio back then — has never sounded more genuinely impassioned than on the divine Borderline.
17. Drowned World/Substitute For Love (1998)
Between 1994’s Bedtime Stories and 1998’s Ray of Light, Madonna became a mother for the first time, giving birth to her daughter Lourdes. Marking the moment Material Girl evolved into the Maternal Girl, she addressed that life-changing experience on Ray of Light‘s opening track and third single, a moody ballad exploring epiphanies about fame and family. “I got pregnant, and the whole idea of giving birth and being responsible for another life put me in a different place,” she said that year. “People have been obsessed with the idea that I am always reinventing myself, [but] I’d rather think that I’m slowly revealing myself. The song updated ’80s Madonna with an ambient soundscape by maverick maestro William Orbit.
16. Crazy for You (1985)
“Ah, it sings!” ran the review in Smash Hits magazine. Indeed, Madonna had yet to prove that she could sing you a love song until Crazy for You. The only slush puppy she’d even attempted was a cover of Rose Royce’s Love Don’t Live Here Anymore on 1984’s Like a Virgin, but that wasn’t a single until over a decade after the event. But this huge hit from the soundtrack to the frankly dodgy Vision Quest movie was a career highlight. Although she would become a more accomplished singer on future ballads, none of them were as commercially successful as this, and that raw, soulful yearning is something that they certainly can’t teach you in voice class. Crazy For You never actually appeared on any of her studio albums either.
15. Express Yourself (1989)
“Come on girls, do you believe in love?” Well, in ‘89 Madonna had something to say about it, when Express Yourself was released as the second single from the Like a Prayer album. “Don’t go for second best baby, put your love to the test,” she preaches, making her definitive feminist statement. The original album version — which she co-wrote with early collaborator Stephen Bray — is a horn-heavy blast, but it’s Shep Pettibone’s housed-up remix you hear in the epic David Fincher-directed video that lifted the single to its higher ground.
14. Ray of Light (1998)
Madge may have already reigned over the pop world, but on the Grammy-winning title track of her Ray of Light opus she was transformed into a goddess of the universe. Based on Sepheryn by the ancient English folk duo Curtiss Maldoon, the song was revamped into the ultimate trance dance with production by William Orbit. It brilliantly captures the spiritual glow of Kabbalah Madonna, who gives us a little piece of heaven.
13. Lucky Star (1984)
With this single off her self-titled debut, Madonna hit the Top 5 of the American Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. One of five songs on her first album written solely by the singer, this radiant, pulsating twirler feels as if it comes equipped with its own disco ball. Stuart Price’s Confessions Tour (2006) reimagining is a thing of thunderous shimmering beauty.
12. Like a Virgin (1984)
A confirmed and committed David Bowie fan, Madonna nabbed Chic’s Nile Rodgers for production duties on her second album, Like A Virgin, chiefly because he’d just provided The Dame with the biggest selling record of his career, 1983’s Let’s Dance. Written by the hitmaking team of Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, Like a Virgin’s title track became so much more iconic than the album from which it was culled — from the vintage video in Venice to those unforgettable performances at the MTV Video Music Awards or at the BBC‘s Top of the Pops (above). And while those saucy nudge-nudge wink-wink lyrics may feel relatively innocent compared to Justify My Love and Erotica, Madonna’s first Billboard No.1 paved the way for female pop artists — from Janet Jackson and Britney Spears to Rihanna — to be sexually provocative. Right or wrong, no one had to act like a virgin anymore.
11. Papa Don’t Preach (1986)
Dealing with teen pregnancy, this No. 1 single from True Blue found Madonna tackling a social issue for the first time — and she did it in strutting style. The string arrangement adds a classical gravitas just in case you didn’t think that she was serious about keeping her baby. If you don’t know this sing you must have been living under a cock.
10. Beautiful Stranger (1999)
This is a divine slice of William Orbit-produced kitsch perfection, from the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Possibly the greatest Number 1 that never was for Madge, Beautiful Stranger is her tenth biggest seller in Britain and the fact that it continues to excite me almost two decades after first hearing it is, in my view, testament to its capacity to transcend the boundaries of definition.
9. Material Girl (1985)
Like many of Madonna’s signature hits, Material Girl — which spawned her most famous nickname, whether she liked it or not — is probably known as much for its video as the song. I mean, who can ever forget M doing her best Marilyn Monroe in that Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend homage? The single itself is kitchy synth-pop perfection of the likes only helium-nuanced Madge can pull off.
8. Hung Up (2005)
This infectious lead single off Confessions on a Dance Floor marked a comeback for Madonna after the relative flop of American Life. The all-conquering Hung Up became her record-tying 36th top 10 hit, and she would go on to break the record previously held by Elvis Presley — who just happened to go and die on Madge’s 19th birthday — with 2008’s 4 Minutes. Built around a hypnotic sample from ABBA’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), it gets you caught up in a galloping disco rapture that still sounds contemporary 13 years on. It’s also her biggest selling single in the world… ever.
7. Music (2000)
Madonna’s music had been making all kinds of people come together throughout her career. But this squiggly electro boogie — her last American chart-topper — was a full-circle moment that took her back to her beginnings as a DJ-loving New York club kid in the early ‘80s and showed that, although now a mother of two in her 40s, she could still rule the dance floor. The weird, vaguely eerie electro-pop produced by Mirwais makes this one of her most eccentric hits ever. But whether you are the bourgeoisie or the rebel, the message is universal..
6. Justify My Love (1990)
Probably the most radical single of her career, Justify My Love went so far against the pop establishment that it is a testament to Madonna’s dominance that it still went No. 1 in her homeland. A spoken-word ode to releasing your inner freak that grinds to the sleaziest of beats is not supposed to justify such mainstream love. But this Public Enemy-sampling song — co-written by Lenny Kravitz, who also moans orgasmically in the background — was so hot that not even MTV’s video ban could stop it from climaxing.
5. Open Your Heart (1986)
As much as Madonna may be known for her more titillating songs, she has also been capable of pure pop bliss. That can be heard on hits like True Blue, Cherish and, best of all, Open Your Heart, which updated a 1960s girl-group giddiness with an ’80s sheen. No doubt, she has rarely sounded more open-hearted than she does here
4. Into The Groove (1985)
“And you can dance!” Madonna may have never truly conquered the acting world — the dialogue-free easy ride of Evita notwithstanding — but she definitely made some killer movie music. Case in point: Into the Groove, which was featured in her most watchable film Desperately Seeking Susan. Although the track — which grooves along a bumping synth-bass line — was technically the B-side to Like a Virgin’s Angel in the US, it’s always been clear which of those cuts made the A-list. Amazing to think the finished record is basically a demo that Madonna didn’t know what to do with, ITG is also her biggest selling single ever in the UK and its opening lyrics gave its name to M’s 1987 remix album, You Can Dance.
3. Erotica (1992)
There was a lot going against the title track from M’s fifth studio album: It was released just before her scandalous Sex book, and its video was banned from MTV. But this dark and sexy single, which picked up where Justify My Love left off, was just about the boldest move she could have made at the height of her career. Playing like your dirtiest fantasy set to music, it also introduced the pop-diva alter ego: Before Mariah gave us Mimi and Beyoncé gave us Sasha Fierce, Madonna gave us the dominatrix Dita. The live version that opened 1993’s Girlie Show was pretty squelchy too.
2. Like a Prayer (1989)
Influenced by Bowie’s less good 1986 single Underground (that one from Labyrinth that isn’t Magic Dance), Like a Prayer is Madonna at the peak of her powers. From the moment she sings “Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone” atop that solemn organ and the hushed tones of an all-black choir, LAP goes on to achieve a spiritual transcendence that makes this her supreme single. Having grown up Roman Catholic, Madonna balances the sacred and the secular here to ecstatic effect, with gospel great Andraé Crouch’s choir really taking it to church midway through. The whole thing takes you there again and again. Classic Madonna. By the way, although Madonna and then Warners label mate Prince duetted on Love Song, one of the lesser Like a Prayer album tracks, it wasn’t until a 2014 interview with LAP’s producer, Patrick Leonard, that it was revealed it’s actually the Minneapolis marvel on distorted guitar at the very beginning of the title song before the door slams. There are remixed versions with a bit more of the Purple One’s uncredited axe work, as well as the flip side, Act Of Contrition, which contains a Prince guitar solo constructed mostly over a backwards sample of Like a Prayer. Prince is also said to play on the US and Australian single Keep It Together, of which this next song was originally recorded as its B-side…
1. Vogue (1990)
Initially — incongruously — planned as a mere B-side to the US single Keep It Together, this No.1 smash may not be everyone’s favourite Madonna single, but it could be the most iconic. A lot of that has to do with the classy monochromatic video, which brought the underground club culture of gay voguing balls to the masses. But this pumping house track — from the Dick Tracy soundtrack I’m Breathless — inspires everybody to be something better than they are today. All you have to do is strike a pose — there’s nothing to it. And there’s nothing like Madonna.
Alive — 1990, 1993, 2000, 2001, 2002 (theatre play), 2003 (BBC TV appearance), 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2012 (all London); 2004 (Arnhem, The Netherlands); 2016 (Sydney, Australia)
NB No, I didn’t forget Holiday. While it’s undoubtedly one of her key dance anthems and a prototype for everything from Into The Groove to Living For Love, like Bowie’s Heroes I’m more than happy never to hear it again. Overkill is a killer.
Featured image credit: max-et-vincent
Part two of this feature — 30 Stupid Things Madonna’s Done — is here