Time to wrap this up, and there can be only one victor. No doubt plenty of people would disagree with my choices, but I’m picking her biggest songs, or most influential, just the ones I’ve had the most fun with. So SUCK IT. But no, she’s got such a huge back catalogue there’s so much there for people to explore, whatever they are into. I just hope she makes yet another massive comeback in the near future.
5. Ray of Light
from “Ray of Light”
Madonna may have had a 30-year career in music (in fact I’m pretty sure she has), but I think it was only really about 1998 when I first went crazy for her (no pun intended). That was when “Ray of Light” was released, and Madonna returned in a big way. Now a mother and experimenting with various new age pursuits, “Ray of Light” was her big spiritual album, tempered with incredible dance beats courtesy of relative-unknown producer William Orbit. Nobody as big as Madonna had made a record that sounded quite like it, and it returned her to full strength as a commercial force.
As my first Madonna album, I went in with no expectations – at the time I was only dimly aware of any of her songs, but mainly I just knew the cone bra. My family had never been into her, and during the 90s when I first started discovering music she was having a rather subdued time of it. I had enjoyed “Something to remember” and the singles from “Evita” but this was totally new.
I’ve dealt with “Frozen” already but the thing that really drove me wild was the frantic title track. It’s possibly her most energetic and vibrant song, with an inspired video to match it. She’s totally free, hitting vocal heights we might never have dreamed of even 3 years prior. It wasn’t just a comeback, it was a rebirth, and she was clearly doing exactly what she loved.
I think this is abundantly clear in her joyously uplifting delivery, and it still thrills me as much as it did when I first heard it half a lifetime ago.
4. Nothing Really Matters
from “Ray of Light”
It’s with “Ray of Light” that we stay for the next entry. At odds with the previous track, “Nothing Really Matters” wouldn’t be the most remembered single for a lot of people – it was a surprise that she even put out 5 singles from the album. But I’m so glad they did.
That video really defined it for me. I bought the 93:99 video collection on DVD a year after “Ray of Light” and that was really the one that opened my eyes to her importance as an artist, even though it only contained the shakier period in her career. But “Nothing Really Matters” was another perfectly styled video that kept in step with the often downbeat and artistic feel of the album.
It’s quite an unassuming song, the tone of her voice not making it obvious that it’s a love song – I suppose it’s more of a song about the strength of love. She muses about her experiences against a clubby dance beat. I just love the production on it, Orbit throws a lot of little layers and swirls into the mix but it just flows perfectly. That shimmering middle-eight and subsequent hardening of the beats just makes my day.
I think it only outdid “Ray of Light” for me because it’s just a bit more complex. “Ray of Light” is openly grinning and jumping around, but “Nothing Really Matters” just develops the more I listen to it. Not everyone will agree, but it’s really a great piece of work, just like the rest of the album.
3. Get Together
from “Confessions on a dance floor”
After nearly a decade as a Madonna fan, “Confessions” was the perfect album for me at the time – I think it might still be. Gorgeous synth soundbeds provided by superproducer Stuart Price, the album is a beautifully coherent dance-pop record full of irresistible beats. It almost set too high a benchmark, this is an incredible album in my favourite genre, how could she top it in my eyes?
“Get Together” could well be another forgotten later single just like “Nothing Really Matters” but it was an early favourite. It’s a simple premise with some pretty banal lyrics delivered magnificently. “I searched… I searched… I searched my whole life to find… to find…. to find the secret”.
That rhythm is infectious, the production is rich and atmospheric. Even that cheap-ass video was amazing, turning even the concept of a lazy live video on its head. Then there’s that middle-eight too, the synths fade out, leaving just the beat and Madonna’s ghostly vocals. Then the beat fades back in, stumbles over itself and explodes into a huge synth soundscape. Turn it up loud.
2. Love Profusion
from “American Life”
Oh don’t start. When I did a countdown back in 2009 it was “Die Another Day” in 2nd place! With the semi-exception of “Music”, I’d rate Madonna from 1998-2006 as pure gold, and that includes her troubled “American Life” album.
Perhaps too much of it is skewed by my experiences at the time, I was finally doing well. I’d had some bad experiences at university in my first year, spent the next year recovering and rebuilding, until third year I had made some lifelong friends, was enjoying my independence and had a great house to live it. As a result, pretty much everything from 2002-2003 has a bit of nostalgic magic about it.
But maybe “American Life” was just to my tastes. I wasn’t listening to her politics, I just wanted the music. Mirwais on production duty caused some teething problems for me, but “American Life” turned into a brilliant hybrid of experimental dance-pop music and her new love of acoustic guitar influences.
“Love Profusion” is definitely one of her forgotten singles, but that’s an unforgettable video. Directed by visionary Luc Besson, she looks beautiful, strutting down a paradise beach in a floral dress, flipping between that and a chaotic storm-hit highway. It’s really magical and it’s a real shame it never saw a wider audience.
The song itself is a simple bit of poetry about love again, with more of a lean towards the acoustic guitar. The occasional synth stabs mesh perfectly with the guitar and her voice soars over it all. Bliss.
1. Hung Up
from “Confessions on a dance floor”
I struggled for a while about what to name as my favourite Madonna song of all time. It was tempting to put something lesser-known than go for one of her biggest hits, but being honest with myself this had to be the one. It was the comeback that had clear appeal but surpassed all expectations of success and elevated her back to the turn-of-the-century fame that I felt might never return.
Sampling ABBA’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, it pays tribute to the legendary pop riff that ABBA were so good at. But the sample isn’t the song, it’s just one cog in the elegant machine that makes such a world-beating dance-pop song seem so effortless and simple.
The lyrics aren’t deep, in fact they are partly recycled from early songs. But they are catchy and fit the mood of the song like a dream. Stuart Price has the golden touch sometimes, and the thundering dance beat never gets old for me. The simple tick-tock rhythm is a great motif for the album and the incredible tour it spawned. She was back with a bang, and every live performance she gave around this time felt like a real event.
The whole campaign just worked. The Confessions tour really is magnificent and even if you only have a casual interest in Madonna’s music, I strongly recommend seeing it to understand why people so readily throw hundreds of pounds to see her perform. For that tour, she had a strong team of dancers that we were introduced to – some from the Live DVD for her previous Reinvention tour – and their use in the videos for the singles really tied everything together.
This brought the house down at the tour, and it’s not hard to see why. I’m never one for listening to the same song over and over, but the night “Hung Up” leaked I had it on repeat for hours. That middle-eight is perfection too, the beat quietens to almost the point of disappearing, but that slow building of tension (and bass) is amazing. If you would dismiss this song out of hand, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to see eye-to-eye with you on pop music or Madonna, for me this song encapsulates everything that is strong, fun, powerful, innovative and captivating about Madonna.
Well that’s it! I hope you enjoyed the album reviews, the other track reviews and this countdown. Leave a comment if you did, I’ve got plenty more of it on the index pages at the top of the screen! What are your favourite Madonna songs?