The wait is nearly over for Madonna’s new album, MDNA.
Two singles have been released so far — “Give Me All Your Luvin’” and “Girl Gone Wild” — and those who’ve heard all of MDNA universally agree that there are stronger songs on the set. Counting the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, Madonna’s delivering another 14 new songs for fans to love, dance to, ponder, and dissect for decades to come. Though it’s too soon to say how many more singles will be released, it’s a certainty that much of MDNA won’t be called up to the big leagues.
As the MDNA era dawns, I decided to revisit all of Madonna’s previous albums (with the exception of the Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless, exiled after much personal consternation and some Twitter consultation). The Queen of Pop’s singles are (largely) worthy of continued worship, but her discography also includes some stellar album tracks equally deserving of adoration. Thus, I set out to determine the very best of these tunes that never got the chance to chart, while also steering clear of those released as singles outside of the U.S. (apologies, “Dear Jessie” and “Bye Bye Baby”) and tracks remixed and serviced to club DJs (sorry, “Sky Fits Heaven,” “Impressive Instant,” and “Mother And Father”).
So with those constraints in place (which Madonna may or may not still enjoy), here are Madonna’s 10 Best Album Tracks:
10. “Like It Or Not” (from Confessions On A Dance Floor, 2005)
Confidence is super-sexy, and Madonna exudes it in spades on this ‘Love me, warts and all’ track that closes out Confessions On A Dance Floor. Also sexy? The imaginary runway walk I do in my head whenever “Like It Or Not” comes on. The song’s “Fever” vibe is hot too.
9. “Heartbeat” (from Hard Candy, 2008)
“When I dance I feel free, which makes me feel like the only one.”
“Once I am moving, I’m all right.”
“When I dance, I feel free.”
See what listening with fresh ears reveals? Sure, I still cringe at the “See my booty get down” bit, but one misstep doesn’t really dim the track’s call to get under the mirrorball.
8. “Thief Of Hearts” (from Erotica, 1992)
Interviewed by Larry Flick of Sirius XM’s OutQ Radio just the other day, Madonna said Erotica was a “deeply misunderstood album,” and I agree. It’s really a phenomenal piece of work, packed with several strong non-singles, like “Thief Of Hearts,” a rare Madonna moment in which she serves up invective toward another woman. “Which leg do you want me to break?”
If ‘Bitch House’ was ever a genre, it begins and ends with “Thief Of Hearts.”
7. “Intervention” (from American Life, 2003)
Captain and Tennille thrilled me as a kid with “Love Will Keep Us Together,” a lyrical sentiment that also must have resonated with a slightly older Madonna, who picks it up for this American Life standout.
Madonna’s backing vocals on “Intervention” are sublime, effectively layered on like a lullaby (kudos to producer Mirwais). Also, I wouldn’t mind so much if the song’s last minute was looped ad infinitum.
6. “Till Death Do Us Part” (from Like A Prayer, 1989)
When folks herald Madonna’s Like A Prayer as a ‘confessional album,’ this track is largely the reason. Describing her crumbling marriage to Sean Penn in heartbreaking detail, “Till Death Do Us Part” is a pop portrait of a real-life relationship in irretrievable decline: Heavy drinking! Physical abuse! Verbal abuse! Throwing of vases!
Shockingly forthcoming, Madonna reveals a pull to remain together even while recognizing the toxicity. “Till Death Do Us Part” could have been a total downer if not for its total sing-along quality (thank you, Patrick Leonard). “You’re not in love with someone else, you don’t even love yourself” remains a brilliant lyric.
5. “Sanctuary” (from Bedtime Stories, 1994)
If this list was longer, several tracks from Bedtime Stories (“Survival,” “Can’t Stop,” “I’d Rather Be Your Lover”) might also have made the cut, but “Sanctuary” is the one that stands out. The one that pops up in my head, apropos of nothing, from time to time.
Not only does “Sanctuary” sample Herbie Hancock, Madonna references both the sacred and the secular, including the second verse of Genesis (“And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the earth”) and the poetry of Walt Whitman (“Surely, whomever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow,” from Leaves of Grass).
Atmospheric and unconventional in its production (Dallas Austin, with Nellee Hooper remixing), “Sanctuary” is a love song borne from a place of complete, near slavish devotion. On those counts — sonically and thematically — “Sanctuary” is something of pre-cursor to “Frozen.” Spellbinding.
4. “Waiting” (from Erotica, 1992)
Like she reportedly did prior to recording “Erotica,” the title track from the same album on which “Waiting” appears, Madonna must’ve smoked a few cigarettes before recording the spoken-word verses for this jazz club-tinged number.
Sultry-sounding and yes, slightly desperate in her pleading, Madonna ultimately moves on from her unworthy lover, wrapping the track up with a memorably profane parting shot. “Just look in the mirror, baby.”
3. “White Heat” (from True Blue, 1986)
Earlier this month, when a photo of Madonna with a gun was posted to her Facebook page with the caption, “My love’s a revolver,” my incredulous reaction (shared by others) was, “That song is part of her tour?!” Fine, but only if it’s part of a gun-centric set piece with “Gang Bang” (from MDNA) and “White Heat.”
Nearly every song on True Blue had the potential to be a single, with five fulfilling that very promise (all top 5 hits too). As it was, “White Heat” was twice relegated to B-side status (“Open Your Heart” and “Who’s That Girl”). Am I right in thinking that the song was unusual for 1986, in that “White Heat” sampled dialogue from the Jimmy Cagney film of the same name?
Twenty-five years later, it’s still fun to interpret Madonna singing, “This is a bust!” an entirely different way. Get your back up against the wall, her gold-tasseled girls are coming for you.
2. “Skin” (Ray Of Light, 1998)
An unofficial bookend to Madonna’s “Bedtime Story,” as “Skin” is similarly trippy and dream-like, though the Icelandic hand of Björk isn’t in this one. The track is, however, co-produced by her longtime collaborator, programmer Marius de Vries, who also wrote “Bedtime Story” with Nellee Hooper and Björk. Obviously some of the quirky touches in “Skin” weren’t only the work of William Orbit.
“I’m not like this all the tiiiiiiiiime!” Oh, but sometimes, I wish you were, Madonna.
1. “Gone” (Music, 2000)
“Gone” might be my second favorite Madonna album ender, right behind “Act Of Contrition” from Like A Prayer. Produced by William Orbit and Mark “Spike” Stent, the closing track from Music is absolutely stunning, a strummed-guitar contrast to the club beats that dominate the album. It’s also absolutely devastating to hear Madonna deliver the line, “Why should I feel sad for what I never had? Nothing equal nothing.”
The background vocals that come in at 2:58 — “Lose my fai-ai-ai-ai-th” — are beyond. And a good reason why “Gone” takes the top spot on this list.
Kylie Minogue kicked off her K25 Anti Tour in Melbourne last Sunday, celebrating 25 years in music with a set list that eschews her hits in favor of album tracks, B-sides, demos, and other rarities. Here’s hoping one day Madonna might consider doing the same.
Take issue with my Top 10? Share which Madonna album tracks you feel are her best in the comments below, and don’t forget to rank your faves.