[21 March 2012]
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 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.
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”?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.