Happy Birthday to Madonna, who turns 55 today! Hard to believe – it seems like only yesterday she was writhing around on the stage at the MTV video music awards in a wedding dress performing “Like a Virgin”. I recently posted my ranking of her albums from worst to first. In celebration of her birthday, here’s a follow-up to that list – a selection of some of her finest lesser-known tracks.
Let’s face it, everybody knows “Like a Prayer” and “Vogue” and “Holiday” and “Express Yourself” and her countless mega hits – but she also has some gems that were not on her hits collections that are most definitely worth seeking out (although, given the size and devotion of her fan base, even her ‘lesser known’ tracks are more widely known than most artists’ hit singles.)
Here are 5 of Madonna’s greatest “lesser-known” tracks, but obviously there could be many more listed. In the comments section below, feel free to name some of your own personal favorites that the more casual fan might not have heard.
Nothing Fails (from “American Life”, 2003)
This track is arguably the high point from her underrated “American Life” album, and probably should have been the project’s lead-off single. It has the strongest melodic hook on the album, and the production and arrangement – with the sparse beat, simple acoustic guitar pattern, and then the sudden introduction of the gospel choir – is spot-on. It features one of Madonna’s most effective vocal performances – she sings with real feeling and emotion. “Nothing Fails” is a song that deserved to be much more prominent than it was.
Impressive Instant (from “Music”, 2000)
The edgiest and most exciting moment from Madge’s 2000 album “Music” is “Impressive Instant,” an electrifying electronic dance track that should have been a major single. Madonna evidently wanted to release it – and some promo remixes were prepared, leading to the track being a hit in the dance clubs – but the record label apparently wanted the more commercial-sounding track “Amazing”, so neither ended up getting a major single release. A shame because while both would have been good, “Impressive Instant” is the more adventurous and memorable of the two. This would sound great on her hits collection neatly alongside tracks like “Music” and “Hung Up” and some of her other high-energy dance floor classics.
He’s a Man (from “I’m Breathless”, 1990)
One of the strongest tracks from Madonna’s excellent 1990 release “I’m Breathless” is “He’s a Man,” a swinging number that opens the album with a bang. “I’m Breathless” is a collection of period-style songs recorded in conjunction with her appearance in the film “Dick Tracy” and released as a sorta second soundtrack to the movie. “He’s a Man” is a sexy romp with a great vocal by Madonna and a terrific production job by one of her greatest collaborators, Patrick Leonard – slinky piano, horns & strings, a nice old-school organ solo while bits of movie dialogue are sampled, and a superb arrangement on the background vocals. Madonna proved her versatility with this project and pulled off a style that was miles away from what she’d done up to that point (and her performance in the movie was widely praised, as well… which would not always be the case in her films, alas.)
Til Death Do Us Part (from “Like a Prayer”, 1989)
Madonna’s failed marriage with actor Sean Penn was one of the personal subjects she touched upon in her 1989 “Like A Prayer” album, and she did so with unflinching honesty. It’s a powerful track about a couple trapped in a violent marriage with some truly jarring imagery and production effects. The music and melody – its chirpy chorus, the jittery keyboard riff, the hyper rhythm – are seemingly incongruous with the subject matter, until it turns darker as Madonna recites the lyrics in a deadpan tone of despair as the track builds in intensity towards its end. “Til Death Do Us Part” is a harrowing track and it is easy to see why it was never a single – too emotionally raw for radio – but it’s a powerful moment from what is arguably her finest album.
Has to Be (b-side to “Ray of Light” single, 1998)
Madonna has relatively few non-album b-sides compared with other artists of her stature, but the best is probably the ethereal ballad “Has to Be”. Recording during the “Ray of Light” sessions with William Orbit producing, the song was ultimately left off the album and appeared as a b-side on the title-track’s single release. It’s a lovely, hypnotic song with pulsing keyboards and the melody slowly unfolding with Madonna’s layered vocals intertwining beautifully with the music. Perhaps the melody wasn’t considered memorable enough for it to make the album, but this song is more about overall vibe and feeling than a radio-friendly sing-a-long chorus. One of the more ambient and mellow tracks in her discography, “Has to Be” is a fascinating piece which shows a different side of Madonna. “Has to Be” is availble on the “Ray of Light” CD single, which is easily found on eBay. Definitely worth seeking out.
These are just 5 of the many gems that Madonna has released in her long career that stand in the shadows of her many epic monster hits. If you only have the hits collections, you only have a piece of the story. As she turns 55 today, it’s a good time to look back and revisit some of these tracks and appreciate what an amazing contribution to pop music Madonna has made over her incredible 30+ year career. Happy Birthday to Madonna, and many more!