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Liam.k.
post Sep 5 2020, 06:58 PM
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Madonna’s 20 Greatest Deep Cuts
We’ve dug up some of the forgotten or unheralded gems scattered throughout the singer’s catalog.

Streaming has rendered the “single” as we know it officially dead. But in the pre-Spotify era, there was no other solo artist who dominated the singles charts like Madonna, with hits spanning a quarter of a century. She still holds the title for the female artist with the most Top 10 singles in the United States, but it’s the deep cuts that never charted that helped make her one of the most beloved pop artists of all time. We’ve dug up some of the forgotten or unheralded gems scattered liberally throughout her nearly four-decade-spanning catalog. With the exception of one B-side, one compilation cut, and one guest appearance, all of our picks can be found on a Madonna studio album—a testament to the singer’s strength as an album artist, particularly in the 1990s. These are songs that, in a more adventurous world, could have been hits, and in some cases where the releases were nixed last minute, almost were.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on July 26, 2013.

20. “Devil Pray”
Madonna’s 21st-century output has been largely hit or miss, but there are moments throughout 2015’s Rebel Heart that recall the singer at her creative zenith while simultaneously carving out new, exhilarating territory for her as an artist. One such moment, “Devil Pray,” reimagines the Animals as a folktronica band with witch-house tendencies, as Madonna’s ruminations on salvation and the existential pitfalls of huffing ride an unexpected low-end groove. Sal Cinquemani

19. “Physical Attraction”
“Maybe we were meant to be together/Even though we never met before.” If that doesn’t sum up the relationship between Madonna and her instant fanbase circa her self-titled debut, I don’t know what does. “Physical Attraction” finds Madonna, still believably coquettish and naïve at this early point, tellingly offering her permission to take things to the next level. The woman was in the driver’s seat from day one, and never slid aside for anyone. Eric Henderson

18. “Guilty by Association”
The story goes that folk singer Vic Chestnutt tricked Michael Stipe into singing backup on “Guilty by Association,” a song he wrote about living in the shadow of his famous friend and collaborator. A few years later, Joe Henry invited his sister-in-law, Madonna, to sing on a cover of the song for a charity album, the irony of which reportedly wasn’t lost on the pop star. The result is an intimate, poignant meta-commentary on celebrity that found the most famous woman in the world singing straight-faced about sniffing Sharpies. Cinquemani

17. “Easy Ride”
The literal and figurative denouement to both 2003’s divisive American Life and, more broadly, Madonna’s folktronica period, “Easy Ride” is the ultimate exemplar of Madge and Mirwais’s obsession with marrying acoustic guitars, squelchy synths, and deconstructed orchestral arrangements (this one an approximation of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten”). Her vocals start off raw, nearly unrecognizable, and eventually grow fuller and richer until she admits what nearly every move of her decades-long career attests to: “What I want is to live forever.” Cinquemani

16. “Beat Goes On”
Madonna may have seemed like a trend-chaser when she enlisted Timbaland and the Neptunes to produce her 2008 album Hard Candy, but “Beat Goes On”—a note-perfect hybrid of disco and tech-hop featuring a clever verse by Kanye West—practically predicted the mega-success of the Pharrell-assisted disco throwbacks “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” five years later. Despite not being officially released as a single, the track garnered airplay on the biggest dance station in the country, a testament to Madonna’s devotion to dance music even when she’s supposedly pandering to America’s fickle tastes. Cinquemani

15. “God Control”
The six-minute “God Control,” a track from 2019’s Madame X, begins with the queen of pop conjuring the spirit and disaffected monotone of Kurt Cobain—“I think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up,” she sings through clenched teeth—before the whole thing implodes into a euphoric, densely layered samba-disco-gospel mash-up. Madonna’s vocals alternate between Auto-Tuned belting, urgent whispers, and Tom Tom Club-style rapping as she takes on the gaslight industrial complex and so-called political reformers. On paper, it might sound like the ingredients for a musical Hindenburg, but—somewhere around the midpoint, when she declares, “It’s a con, it’s a hustle, it’s a weird kind of energy!”—it all coheres into the most exhilaratingly batshit thing she’s done in years. Cinquemani

14. “Over and Over”
This hi-NRG track from Like a Virgin is an early snapshot of a larger-than-life personality, introducing themes—racing against time, perseverance, and overall (blond) ambition—that would grow ever more pervasive in Madonna’s lyrics as she got older and more famous. The frenetic extended version, from 1987’s You Can Dance remix album, amps up Nile Rodgers’s original production with supersonic synth washes, time-stamped keyboard percussion fills, and—because why the hell not?—ringing alarm clocks. Cinquemani

13. “Isaac”
Titled in honor of guest vocalist Yitzhak Sinwani, this track from 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor finds Madonna, in characteristic form, blending the mystical with the corporal, the traditional with the contemporary, and the sacred with the profane. Futuristic dance beats swirl as Sinwani recites a Yemenite poem and Madonna wrestles with the influence of light and dark. Ever the visual dramatist, she brought the song’s themes of spiritual captivity to exhilarating life during her 2006 Confessions Tour (above). Cinquemani

12. “Has to Be”
The Grammy-winning Ray of Light may have marked the queen’s return to her throne, but it was her reunion with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard, as well as producer William Orbit’s more subdued ambient soundscapes, that elevated the project above a mere electronica cash-in. Putting the law of attraction to the test, “Has to Be,” the meditative B-side to “Ray of Light,” is an anguished appeal to the gods above from the loneliest, most famous woman on Earth. Cinquemani

11. “Waiting”
As I wrote in my review of Erotica upon its 15th anniversary, “Waiting” is the ultimate masochism, one that’s entered into with full knowledge of what the emotional consequences will be. The very first lyric, “Well, I know from experience that if you have to ask for something more than once or twice, it wasn’t yours in the first place,” which Madonna utters with the same amount of interest a star of her stature might apply to buying a new pair of shoes, also happens to be one of the best opening lines to a pop song since “I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn’t last.” Cinquemani

10. “Sky Fits Heaven”
This Ray of Light track is famous for being lyrically inspired by British poet Max Blagg’s 1992 poem “What Fits?” (later used in a Gap jeans commercial), but the song is a marvel not for Madonna’s new-age pontifications, but for its heavenly hook and William Orbit’s impeccable use of both analog and digital technologies, marked by expressive electric guitars and explosive drum fills constructed from tiny fragments of sound. Cinquemani

9. “Paradise (Not for Me)”
When, in the wild west of the nascent digital era, “Paradise (Not for Me)” leaked online, it was the first hint that the new millennium would continue to find Madonna pushing the boundaries of mainstream pop. The song’s lush strings and introspective lyrics felt of a piece with 1998’s Ray of Light, but it was also weirder and more mysterious than almost anything she’d released up to that point. The radio singles from 2000’s Music struck a balance between pop accessibility and arty eccentricity, but “Paradise (Not for Me)” was a fearless, unapologetic deep dive into the latter. Cinquemani

8. “I Want You”
Madonna’s haunting rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” is, if not more soulful, infinitely more desperate than the 1976 original. The confidence and determination in Gaye’s voice is replaced here with the kind of naked vulnerability Madonna perfected on Bedtime Stories a year earlier. Her feat is no doubt aided by the song’s transformation from a conga-accented disco number into a more languid trip-hop dirge, courtesy of Massive Attack and producer Nellee Hooper. Cinquemani

7. “Inside of Me”
With full, round production by Nellee Hooper, “Inside of Me” on the surface sounds like a warm, intimate sauna of slack slow jack built on a foundation of Aaliyah and the Gutter Snypes samples, but radiating a sensuality that’s all Madge. But like every track on her prior album, Erotica, this song’s breathy hedonism masks an inner devastation: Underneath those tear-stained suggestions of sex mournfully deferred is actually a heartfelt tribute to her mother. Staring down a crossroads in her career, Madonna couldn’t help but make grief sound like fornication. Henderson

6. “Sanctuary”
From Marcel Proust to the more contemporary poet Carol Ann Duffy, Madonna has always drawn on literary influences in her lyrics, but it was of particular note on 1994’s Bedtime Stories, in which she artfully co-opted the work of George Herbert on “Love Tried to Welcome Me” and Walt Whitman on “Sanctuary.” On the latter, which musically draws inspiration from Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” she boldly and cleverly pairs a passage from the Book of Genesis with Whitman’s “Vocalism,” effectively likening her existence prior to meeting her object of obsession to that of the Earth before God. Cinquemani

5. “Thief of Hearts”
Let there be no mistake: Madonna, at the peak of her imperial stage, was no benevolent dictator, and the full-out house assault of “Thief of Hearts” could serve as the national anthem for her jaded kingdom. Ain’t no coup d’état in this house. Just hard beats (if ever there was a litmus test for one’s tolerance of Shep Pettibone’s particularly monolithic production values, this is it), harder beatdowns (“Which leg do you want me to break?”), and the hardest lesson Madonna has ever had to bear: that the “Little Miss Thinks-She-Can-Have-What-She-Wants” she so mockingly sings about is herself, her own worst enemy. Henderson

4. “Till Death Do Us Part”
How well this song has aged sonically may be at the mercy of Patrick Leonard’s then-state-of-the-art 1988 Yamaha keyboards, but the producer’s pointillistic use of synthesizers is, like on “Open Your Heart” before it and “I’ll Remember” after it, a thing to behold. No more so, however, than Madonna’s autobiographical account of her turbulent marriage to Sean Penn. In a song filled with lyrics that sting, this is but one: “You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself/Still I wish you’d ask me not to go.” That barely perceptible whirring engine at the very end of the song is the sound of her going. Cinquemani

3. “Sooner or Later”
For a performer as impenetrable as Madonna likes to make herself out to be, there was no hiding the way her expensive baubles vibrated tremulously from her ears when she performed Stephen Sondheim’s Oscar-winning song from Dick Tracy during the 1991 Academy Awards. It was a “Breathless” performance for what is otherwise one of the most unabashedly confident songs in Madonna’s back catalog, a rip-roaring jazz pastiche that added another layer of brash shading to Madonna’s Marilyn caricature. Henderson

2. “Impressive Instant”
Perhaps the closest French quirk-house producer Mirwais got to no-glitch disco in his first stint with Madonna, “Impressive Instant” was that close to being released as Music’s fourth single, and did end up topping the dance charts via DJ promo. With a distorted bassline that sounds like fire dancing from the depths of Hades, and Madonna tossing aside her Ray of Light Mother Earth-isms in favor of “I like to singy, singy, singy like a bird on a wingy, wingy, wingy,” the song is one of her most blatant U-turns back into the welcoming arms of dance music. Henderson

1. “Secret Garden”
The day she ever stops “wanting, needing, waiting” will never happen, a point Madonna drives home at the climax of Erotica when she muses, “I wonder when I’ll start to show/I wonder if I’ll ever know/Where my place is/Where my face is.” Andre Betts’s shuffling breakbeat and the jazzy piano and sax flourishes serve as a musical palate cleanser following Shep Pettibone’s highly icy house beats. But make no mistake, she’s no closer to wrapping up this story, and the way her discontent radiates even through lines about how “the sun has kissed me” is a lens through which her entire rocky career can be viewed. Henderson
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HausofGhibli
post Sep 5 2020, 07:14 PM
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That's actually a great list! I love the inclusion of: God Control, Sky Fits Heaven, Impressive Instant, Thief of Hearts, Sanctuary, Waiting, Isaac and Devil Pray! wub.gif
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HausofGhibli
post Sep 5 2020, 07:14 PM
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BUT WAIT WHERE IS FORBIDDEN LOVE mad.gif
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Tawdry Hepburn
post Sep 5 2020, 07:17 PM
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QUOTE(HausofGhibli @ Sep 5 2020, 08:14 PM) *
BUT WAIT WHERE IS FORBIDDEN LOVE mad.gif


Which one?
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HausofGhibli
post Sep 5 2020, 07:35 PM
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QUOTE(Tawdry Hepburn @ Sep 5 2020, 08:17 PM) *
Which one?

Both are fabulous, but the Confessions version is my favourite M album track!
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Liam.k.
post Sep 5 2020, 10:39 PM
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I’ll check out the list properly tomorrow but I thought it was a bit odd to see Secret Garden at number one...
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vibe
post Sep 6 2020, 01:01 PM
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It’s an amazing list and I agree with nearly all of it apart from Secret Garden !! And it’s number 1
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