By Christopher Rosa
Madonna, the beloved single-monikered shape-shifting pop queen, turns 56 today! She’s been giving us hit after hit for more than 30 years, and her catalog is rich with everything from sugary-sweet dance smashers (“Vogue,” anyone?) to moody ballads (“Frozen” lives up to its title). In addition to music, her fashion is iconic and certainly set the stage for future pop star get-ups (Cone bra, anyone?). But when you’ve got as many radio regulars as Madonna, there are bound to be a few gems that slip through the cracks.
The Material Girl’s discography — including 12 studio albums, four live albums and three soundtracks — is chock-full of ear candies that unfortunately haven’t seen the light of mainstream day. Madonna’s known to take risks in the studio, and some of those chances resulted in breathtaking songs with killer hooks, haunting lyrics and super-sonic effects. Like a prayer, you know she’ll take you there.
In honor of Madge’s birthday, we’ve picked 25 non-single tracks that pack just as much oomph as “Hung Up,“ “Music,” and “Open Your Heart.” These tunes cross decades, genres and Madonna images, but all give the sort of spiritual experience Madonna’s been bringing to pop music since 1982. Give them a listen, and let us know what songs justify your love for Madonna in the comments below.
25. “Easy Ride” from American Life (2003)
Madonna’s then-obsession with marrying electronica and orchestra hits a fever pitch on “Easy Ride.” The sonic climax around the 4-minute mark is particularly interesting.
24. “Candy Perfume Girl” from Ray of Light (1998)
Rock and techno weave effortlessly on “Candy Perfume Girl,” a highlight from the already-spectacular Ray of Light.
23. “Secret Garden” from Erotica (1992)
“Justify My Love,” part two? Maybe. The singing-talking style is back, and the results are just as sexy. Maybe sexier.
22. “Beat Goes On” from Hard Candy (2008)
Perhaps the strongest track on Hard Candy — yes, more than “4 Minutes” — “Beat Goes On” soars because of The Neptunes’ dizzying production and a killer featured rap from Kanye West.
21. “Swim” from Ray of Light (1998)
“Swim” goes down like a perfectly mixed martini: Smooth and electrifying. It just feels good.
20. “Forbidden Love” from Bedtime Stories (1994)
Not to be mistaken with the track of the same name from 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor (also great), this “Forbidden Love” is an R&B mid-tempo delight.
19. “Nobody Knows Me” from American Life (2003)
Madonna uses heavy techno trickery to stretch her voice into outer space while set to a frantic and experimental electro-pop beat. A standout from the ridiculously underrated American Life.
18. “Skin” from Ray of Light (1998)
The stuttered effects on her voice mixed with the busy-beep production that just screams William Orbit (techno producer extraordinaire) make “Skin” one of Madonna’s most adventurous songs to date.
17. “Something to Remember” from I’m Breathless (1990)
Madonna’s performance in Dick Tracy may have garnered mixed reviews, but this song from the film’s soundtrack is one of her best ballads.
16. “Isaac” from Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
Even though the title was met with controversy back in 2005 (classic Madonna!), “Isaac” is a Confessions standout: Madge’s “hmms” set to the mystical pulsating rhythm make the track a true journey.
15. “Thief of Hearts” from Erotica (1992)
Madonna sings about a woman stealing her man in this booming ’90s Eurodance stomper.
14. “Paradise (Not for Me)” from Music (2000)
One of her weirdest efforts to date, Madonna is in full fem-bot mode on this slow-tempo and exhilarating experimental track.
13. “Think of Me” from Madonna (1983)
Take a seat, Gaga: Madonna was the first pop diva to include saxophones on a dance track. “Think of Me” is an anthem for the ‘80s club kids everywhere.
12. “Stay” from Like a Virgin (1984)
The sing-songy vibe of “Stay” keeps the tune stuck in your head for days.
11. “Nobody’s Perfect” from Music (2000)
Madonna’s thin voice is completely buried in Auto-Tune on this moody electro-folk song. Nobody’s perfect, but this song is pretty close.
10. “Til Death Do Us Part” from Like a Prayer (1989)
The disturbing lyrics about domestic abuse are set to a cheery “wedding day”-like beat. The combination is eerie, addictive and totally Madonna.
9. “Gang Bang” from MDNA (2012)
Speaking of eerie: “GANG BANG.” Those who knock Madonna’s latest album need to listen to this violent and pounding dubstep masterpiece where our girl seethes, “Bang, bang—shot ya dead. Shot my lover in the head.”
8. “Pretender” from Like a Virgin (1984)
This funky synth-heavy song is a standout from Like a Virgin, right on par with “Into the Groove” and “Material Girl.”
7. “Let It Will Be” from Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005)
Whether you’re listening to the studio version or the live arrangement done on 2006’s Confessions Tour, “Let It Will Be” is a powerful spiritual experience. The thumping Stuart Price-infused beat straight out of a German nightclub explodes as Lady M wails, “Just watch me burn!”
6. “Sky Fits Heaven” from Ray of Light (1998)
Besides “Frozen,” “Sky Fits Heaven” is the best track from Ray of Light; whooshing electro beeps—à la maestro Orbit, of course—help send this song into another universe.
5. “Promise to Try” from Like a Prayer (1989)
One of her best ballads, “Promise to Try” is a subtle tearjerker made popular in Madonna’s 1991 documentary Truth or Dare, when it played in the background as she visited her mother’s grave. Yup, all the feels.
4. “Love Makes the World Go Round” from True Blue (1986)
This swinging and effervescent dance-pop tune is pure joy. More than anything, it seems like Madonna is just having fun on this one.
3. “Love Spent” from MDNA (2012)
Not many pop songs experience transcendence, but “Love Spent” is something from another world. This Orbit concoction is disco paradise with not one, but two ecstasy-filled choruses. Tears for days.
2. “Where’s the Party?” from True Blue (1986)
“Where’s the party? I want to free my soul. Where’s the party? I want to lose control,” Madonna coos in this booming and bellowing dance track. Why this frothy slice of ‘80s kitsch wasn’t made a B-side to “Open Your Heart” will remain one of pop music’s biggest travesties.
1. “Physical Attraction” from Madonna (1983)
The infectious beat—Techno drums! Deep synths! Beep-beeps!—paired with Madge’s breathy, cat-like come-ons make for her most memorable non-single track of all time.
[Photo: Getty Images]