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Hard Candy (2008)
The only “true Madonna” song on the turkey that was Hard Candy is this should-have-been-a-single track. Rumored to have been written in and around the time of American Life, this track is a biting proclamation of self-awareness and enlightenment over the true face of those who manipulate you most. The lyrics are incredible and the production is (for once on that album) subdued and suggestive. We haven’t seen this kind of Madonna in a while, the fierce Madonna assuredly and calmly stating, “I’ve seen behind your eyes / Now I’m sober, no more intoxicating my mind / Even the devil wouldn’t recognize you, but I do.” Brilliant! Another example that Madonna hasn’t been picking her strongest tracks to represent her LPs.
American Life (2003)
The nexus of “Easy Ride” pretty much sums up what Madonna was going for with American Life, and it was precisely this message that people found hard to reconcile. They didn’t want to hear about the trials and tribulations of a mega-superstar with billions of dollars and every opportunity at her disposal complaining about how money doesn’t make you happy. (If that’s the case, Madonna, why not give up all your billions?) Alas, we can not fault her for wanting to sing about her specific (and publicly unrelatable) life circumstance. Unlike the crass and offensive lead single/title track, “Easy Ride” should have been the song to focus in on from that train-wreck of a release. It’s beautifully produced and evocatively performed. It doesn’t pounce with crass dance beats, instead preferring to wash over you in hushed reverence. It was a perfect emotional ending to an album that felt cold and distant, balanced with a moving, effected orchestral arrangement.
Ray of Light (1998)
We already know that many of Madonna’s album-cuts early on in her career were of lesser quality. So, it should come as no surprise that the contemporaneous b-sides are even worse than those. No one is singing the praises of “Supernatural”, “Ain’t No Big Deal”, or “Let Your Guard Down”. That’s why “Has to Be”—a B-side from the “Ray of Light” single—is such a surprise. Not only is it a beautiful and strikingly personal tune, but it could easily stand up against some of her other more popular ballads. It’s baffling to think what could have possessed her to leave this stunner off such a personal and effective album. Although Madonna is predominantly a pop star, there’s no denying her capacity to be introspective when she sings such heartbreaking lyrics as “I know there’s someone out there / Waiting for me / There must be someone out there / There just has to be.”
Erotica was the turning point for many of her fans. Madonna was becoming increasingly more and more sexually explicit in both her songs and music videos, and many were hoping she would move past this phase after “Justify My Love”. They were wrong. Erotica (dubiously complemented by a book of homophobic and racist sexual fantasies) ushered in a more gritty and seductive side to the singer’s musical repertoire. Although conceptually the album failed to live up to the hype of explicitness, it did produce one of the best tracks to encapsulate Madonna’s career and persona. Exemplifying some of her best poetic tendencies and a jazzier side we’ve never seen from her before or since, the track traverses all the aspects of her career from hardened hearts to the color of her hair. Even after almost 20 years, “Secret Garden” still holds up as a Madonna highlight, single or not.
Madonna knows how to end an album. Or rather, she learned how to end them. The majority of Madonna’s strongest non-single LP cuts are almost always album closers, and this, her number one best album-cut, is no exception. If “Secret Garden” encapsulated where Madonna has been, “Gone” is concerned with where Madonna is heading. Although some would argue that Madonna lied to us when she proclaimed in this song: “Turn to stone / Lose my faith / I’ll be… / Gone / Before it happens,” it’s still a beautiful and tenuous statement. “Gone” is a powerful song without being too overbearing, it’s moving without being too sappy, and it’s delicate without being fragile. It proves that with focus and determination, Madonna is as much a great songwriter as she is a great performer.