Madonna is known for her singles. Throughout the duration of the 1980s and into the early ‘90s, it was these releases that defined her career. Her albums were weighed based solely on the success of the singles that came from them, and who could blame her for doing this? Madonna, in the 80s, was on FIRE! Have a look at Sound Affects’ “Top 15 Madonna Singles of All Time” list and you’ll see that eight of the entries are from the ‘80s. Ironically, album-cuts from this era in the pop star’s illustrious career were very clearly never released for a reason. Just have a listen to “Think of Me” from her debut album, “Jimmy Jimmy” from True Blue, or “Pray for Spanish Eyes” from Like a Prayer, and you’ll know what I mean. Madonna placed all her effort on hit songs, which by coincidence produced some bad LP-only material.
However, in the turn of the century, this pattern of throwaway tracks from a jam-packed singles album became less and less true. Madonna’s albums from 1994’s Bedtime Stories to 2008’s Hard Candy have been more consistent in quality. Subsequently, her singles have had less of an impact on popular music, with the odd exception. One could argue that 2005’s “Hung Up” from Confessions on a Dancefloor was Madonna’s last great single. You could blame the change of the musical landscape for Madonna’s fizzled impact, or her inability to truly distinguish which tracks on her LPs pack the biggest punch. Either way, some have gladly accepted that Madonna’s strength no longer lies in massive hit singles, but rather in consistently good full-lengths.
What follows is a list of the best Madonna songs that were never released as singles. They tend to be more introspective than those tracks she’s released as A-sides, which proves her misstep in believing that people would rather hear entertainingly vapid music then personal songs that also rock. However, these songs don’t all represent singles that should have been, as some would have very clearly bombed upon release. Instead, the list represents some of her best tunes that are most likely overlooked based on their lack of time in the limelight.
Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005)
Confessions was a powerhouse dance album with a predominantly consistent feel right up until the left turn, known to you as “Push”. With its alarm-like pulse, Madonna discussed being “pushed” by her lover to be a better, stronger her. Rumored to be a continuation of “Borderline”, but dedicated to her (now ex) husband Guy Ritchie, “Push” could have made for a more engaging and interesting single than “Get Together” had it not been for the its sometimes embarrassing lyrics. Still, placed as the second-to-last song on a stellar album, it manages to keep listeners engaged by knocking it up a notch, even though technically it’s slower than the tracks that precede it.
True Blue (1986)
As I had mentioned above, the album cuts from the early third of Madonna’s career are not the best in her catalog. There are however a few that stand out as could-have-been singles, or just plain good songs. “Where’s the Party?” from the album that successfully cemented her as a force to be reckoned with, True Blue, is a fun romp that doesn’t quite reach the same heights of such classics as “Into the Groove” or “Holiday”, but still a nice little number that is well worth fond nostalgia. Originally, Madonna meant the track as a personal statement regarding her own hard-working life, which had contained none of the enjoyment that fame promised. It is the uptick swing after the lovely melancholy “Live to Tell” on the album. You probably don’t remember it anymore, but when you hear it, you know you’ll be wondering, “Where is the party”?
American Life (2003)
No one really liked the disaster that was American Life. Many people were put off by Madonna’s (second) attempt at rapping in the lead single “American Life” (the first being in 1990’s mega-hit “Vogue”). Currently, the record is her worst-selling LP. Unfortunately, because of the sheer weakness of the singles released from American Life, many missed out on some of her best album cuts in years. The first of two on this list is the striking “X-Static Process”, which features a demure Madonna singing about forgetting who she is “when you’re around”. The track probably wouldn’t have made for a very good single, but it did take an unexpected turn in the pop star’s career—injecting a sincere, intimate, and stark tune when everything up until this point had been a big production.
Ray of Light (1998)
The electronica-infused Ray of Light was Madonna’s late-‘90s comeback album. However, it was lambasted by many electronica purists as being more pop than electronic. Although these critics arguments were not completely unfounded for the majority of tunes on Ray of Light, the track “Skin” is probably the best example of Madonna embracing the full electronica feel whilst maintaining her pop/dance sensibilities. The track is expertly produced by one of Madonna’s best co-collaborators, William Orbit, and features some impressively poetic lyrics—lyrics that many wish Madonna would return to. The track was never released as a single, being looked over for the much worse “The Power of Goodbye” and “Nothing Really Matters” (the latter of which became Madonna’s worst single ever in the US). “Skin” is the perfect example of where Madonna was at musically during the release of Ray of Light, and stands as one of the best tracks from that record.
Like a Prayer (1989)
Madonna let the world know early on that her mother passed away when she was a little girl. “Promise to Try” is the first (and best) of the songs that she has written regarding the difficult time she’s had in trying to cope with that loss. Simple and longing, “Promise to Try” captures a vulnerability in Madonna that we have only rarely glimpse, such as in “Live to Tell”. Although Madonna has gone on to sully the sincerity of this track with songs like “Inside of Me” (from Bedtime Stories) or the rancid “Mother and Father” (from American Life), “Promise To Try” can be seen as a prologue to the popular trend of women with pianos singing songs about loss.