Whew… writing is such hard work at the moment, why am I so lazy? I’m still claiming Eurovision comedown, is that still alright? Huff… but no, here we are, inching closer to that top 10. Can you contain yourself? I hope so. If not, put down a towel or something. IT’S ON!
20. American Life
from “American Life”
No this is not a drill, this is for real. Perhaps one of the most botched lead singles ever, but I love it. Not even ironically. It’s harsh, squelchy, obnoxious, vo-codered to fuck, and it’s got an even more infamous rap than “Vogue”. What’s not to love? The original video was so political it was probably a good idea to pull it at the last minute (people hate that) even though it looked good. But the video we got had a lot of flags in, I love that.
“FUCK IT!” That rap is amazing, I have loads more fun trying to recreate that in the car than “Vogue”. It’s a hot mess, sure, but listen to “Super Pop” after this and see what you think. (For the record, I love “Super Pop” too, it’s so good to be un-good).
from “Like a Prayer”
Something a little more twee now. “Like a Prayer” might have been a bit low on laughs, but it still had room for this adorable little number. A spiritual successor to the poppier moments on “True Blue”, it’s a giddy love song about ‘the one’. Those verses are so cute, but still manage to be well-crafted and keep to the gorgeously catchy melody.
She looked beautiful in the video, perhaps the best she had looked up to that point. Perhaps the song gets a bit sickly in big doses, but it’s a wonderful little counterpoint to the doom and gloom on its parent album.
18. Into the Groove
from “Like a Virgin” (sort of)
Down goes another of the big ones, and possibly the signature tune of her opening era. Rising to fame on the “Desperately Seeking Susan” soundtrack – one of her films that I can actually stand to watch these days – it’s buzzing with 80s synths and layered rhythms. I think few 80s American pop songs have aged quite as well as this one.
It was tacked onto a “Like a Virgin” re-issue but really outshone anything on that album, and represented a new high watermark in the quality and potential for her music. And you can DANCE!
17. Like a Prayer
from “Like a prayer”
Well, another biggie now, perhaps her most (in)famous track, or at least a massive landmark in her 80s career, a massive gear-shift from the essential but poppy “True Blue”. If she had flirted with scandal before, I think the burning crucifixes and making out with black Jesus probably exploded a few heads at the time.
Though for me it seems a little incongruous (yes, I have a dictionary) to have a fairly inoffensive song partnered with such a devastatingly controversial video. The song itself is one of the classics of course, and the use of the gospel choir really raises this one up. It’s got a simple but memorable refrain, and a joyous conclusion. I may have never rated “Like a Prayer” as one of her all-time best, but it’s surely a seminal moment for her.
Oh wow, I’m really picking them tonight aren’t I? If you thought “Like a Prayer” was controversial, what the hell do you make of “Erotica”? Perhaps this was a more disasterous album launch than “American Life”, in one stroke nearly de-railing Madonna’s career for good. Well, that “Sex” book probably didn’t help (it’s not even that good). But Madonna will say what she likes, and at this point in her career, she wanted to say “Uhhhhhhh”.
While “The Immaculate Collection” teased at this toe-curling new direction with new song “Justify My Love”, I don’t think the world was ready for “Erotica”. I hadn’t seen the video until relatively recently, thanks to its TV ban. But “Erotica” the song is catchy – that “Erotic” refrain is insane – and the layers and layers of production given a much more sophisticated song than had been heard from her before.
OK it lays it on a bit thick in places, and it made clear that there was a line to how far you could express your sexuality without taking the piss. But for a potentially career-ending single, it’s still pretty hot. Ahhhh!!! That bassline is amazing too.
15. Forbidden Love
from “Confessions on a dance floor”
Yes I think we’ll probably start disagreeing now, after eliminating three watershed moments in her career in quick succession. But as far as comebacks go, I think you’d struggle to top “Confessions” and its massive success so soon after “American Life” bombed. Stuart Price is one of my favourite producers, and “Confessions” really was his tour-de-force (it said so on the cover).
The visual identity was spot-on, the campaign tied together brilliantly, the tour was incredible, and the album was amazing. So much that even random album tracks felt like huge moments. “Forbidden Love” is a gloriously rich soundscape of pulsing synths. It’s one of the album’s more introspective moments but less is definitely more.
Those mini-climaxes with the breathy countdowns are just superb, it just does it for me. I love this album as much as I ever did.
14. Open your heart
from “True Blue”
This is definitely a late bloomer. I never paid this much attention, it was nice enough but nothing special. But repeated playings of “The Immaculate Collection” has really revealed this to be an understated but brilliant pop single. OK the lyrics are pretty generic but there’s just something about the production on this that I love. And yes, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio in the video.
There’s the simmering beat that chugs on throughout, leaving Madonna to carry the melody pretty much single-handedly. Some of those little details, the easily-missed synth riff is amazing. I can’t quite put my finger on why this has risen to the upper echelons of my Madonna favourites, but isn’t it a cutie?
13. La Isla Bonita
from “True Blue”
Let’s stick with “True Blue” and visit one of its biggest hits, a further extension of her world domination. I don’t often go for the Latin-tinged stuff generally, but this really pushed my buttons. I don’t know if it was one of her regular airings on tour that belatedly put this on my radar – frankly I could do without the gypsy remixes she’s so fond of these days – but that chorus is a killer.
The middle-eight is even better, “I want to be where the sun warms the sky”. It’s a bit of a bittersweet end-of-summer song, maybe that’s why I rate it more than those conga-party anthems, but it was one of the best examples of Madonna’s flirtations with Latin American music, something that would prove fruitful over the years.
from “The First Album”
Another one that I really got introduced to via “The Immaculate Collection”, as well as one of the DVD collections I have of hers. You’d think her first singles would be throwaway club tracks to get a name for herself, but “Borderline” is a surprisingly sophisticated bit of unrequited love.
There’s the cute little synth riffs, playing alongside Madonna’s youthful squeaky vocals, it just sums up what made her first album such a joy. Sure there were the more serious dancy moments, but it needed the bouyant, fun tracks like this and “Holiday” to make her noticed as a popstar.
11. Die Another Day
from “American Life”
Ha! Yes, predictably I love it. The first time I heard “American Life”, I wanted to smash up that damn vo-coder, but it hadn’t stopped me loving – or at least being fascinated by – Madonna’s unconventional take on the James Bond Theme. I think it’s been rescued by the fact “Die Another Day” seems to be thought of as the moment Bond jumped the shark, but I think this is marvellous.
The video certainly is one of her best, mixing Bond memorabilia with some amazing stunt-double fighting as good & bad Madonnas fight it out with all manner of weapons at their disposal. It might be a bit of a headfuck, but this song really just gets better. It’s one of the harshest-sounding singles she’d had up to that point, a small preparation before the jerky discordant sounds of “American Life”.
That shuddering orchestra sample really gives a weird depth to what would otherwise have been a pretty run-of-the-mill electro mess. There are lyric clunkers (“Sigmund FREUD! ANALYSE THIS!”), but this was the dawn of a new era of hot messes for Madonna, and there are few better figureheads for the period than this trashy ground-zero of a song.