Madonna is modern pop’s original icon, someone whose music and influence will be shared, enjoyed, and debated for decades to come. A capital-S “Star” back when such a thing meant ubiquity without the aid of the internet, her style and substance were inseparable, the forward-thinking approach to both being an integral aspect of her popularity and acclaim over the course of four decades. Superlatives are a given: She’s the bestselling female recording artist of all time, the record holder for most No. 1 tracks on the Billboard charts, and winner of seven Grammys, to name a few. Madonna is a hitmaker with an almost unparalleled knack for finding the cultural zeitgeist, each new release seeming to bring at least one or two songs destined for entry in the pop hall of fame. From “Holiday” to “Like A Prayer,” “Take A Bow” to “Hung Up,” her Billboard chart-toppers are earworms of the highest order.
But a gift for creating radio hits is only half the story. Madonna’s legacy endures not just because of a string of Billboard smashes; she has earned her place in music history by crafting albums that aren’t the usual pop-artist offering of several singles intermixed with a bunch of listless filler. Her albums are carefully curated assemblages of music, often arranged around several musical and conceptual themes that drive each new release. The deep cuts can be just as potent and moving as the internationally renowned hits, which is why we’ve decided to put together this Power Hour of Madonna’s lesser-known works. The rules were simple: No No. 1 Billboard hits, nothing that even entered the Top 40 in the Hot 100 chart. Hell, we even (mostly) avoided songs that appeared on other charts, like Dance Club Songs, where she was a constant presence, or anything released as a single at all. So consider this a chance to get to know the Madonna only her fans know: the artist with a bevy of musical delights lying in wait for those curious enough to unearth them. Here’s 60 minutes’ worth to get you started.
Right from the start, Madonna announced herself as a major new force in pop music. “Everybody” was the track that landed her a record deal, and became the first single off her eponymous debut. But despite the almost instant smash success of the initial hits—“Holiday,” “Borderline,” “Lucky Star”—the entire album is full of party-ready anthems. “Think Of Me” is a signature example, the thick bass synth bouncing along underneath a handclap rhythm tailor-made for early ’80s dance floors. It’s got a catchy, sing-along refrain, and is filled with lyrics that capture the essence of her initial appeal, a mentality and bravado that became the attitude of empowerment she brought to so many of her fans: Enjoy me while I’m around, because we both know I’m too good for this.
Following the massive success of her debut, Madonna wanted to produce her sophomore LP, Like A Virgin, herself. But when her label wouldn’t allow it, she called upon Nile Rodgers, collaborator of popular music’s other great chameleon, David Bowie. She did get to co-write more than half of the album’s songs, however, including “Over And Over.” Next to tracks like “Material Girl” and “Like A Virgin”—mega-hits that introduced the world to the provocateur Madonna would become—“Over And Over” feels like a footnote, sure, but the fact that a song this ecstatically catchy was never even released as a single is testament to Madge’s surplus of energy and ideas in this era.
On True Blue, Madonna became Madonna. Not only was she finally able to co-produce and co-write from album start to finish, but she matured significantly as an artist in every regard. And by incorporating classical and Latin influences into her synth-heavy dance pop, she reached her widest audience yet: True Blue went to No. 1 in an unprecedented 28 countries. Among the few songs here that weren’t huge hits, “Where’s The Party” stands out as yet another perfect ’80s pop confection: the buoyant synth lines, Madonna’s bright, raspy delivery of its anthemic chorus. Very much in the sexy, self-assured feminine mold Madonna herself first cast, “Where’s The Party” is about a woman reclaiming her right to play as hard as she works—a philosophy that’s defined the artist’s own career.
Her primary contributions to pop can be found on the dance floor, but the Material Girl was no slouch when it came to the ballad game, either. Despite a voice even she admitted couldn’t compete with some of the volcanic singers found among her contemporaries, she knew how to use it to maximum effect. Like A Prayer’s “Promise To Try” exemplifies the affecting nature of her best slow-burn work: The song finds her addressing her own 5-year-old self, bereft in the wake of the loss of her mother. It’s a moving and heartfelt elegy that showcases Madonna’s talent for making highly individual stories feel accessible and universal, a lyrical skill that would serve her well through the years, never more successfully than in later chart-topping ballads like “Take A Bow.”
Kicking off with one of the hip-hop-style drumbeats that defined her early ‘90s musical output, “Waiting” captures the languid, sensual vibe of 1992’s Erotica without sacrificing the easy pleasures of a good hook. The attention lavished on her concurrently released Sex book and the discussions about Madonna’s frank explorations of sexuality (and sexual imagery) in the press blitz for the album and art book overshadowed the accompanying music, which is a shame—in hindsight, Erotica is a captivating record, its fusion of house rhythms and trip-hop vibes with her pop sensibilities making for a different kind of Madonna record. As with Justify My Love, she was pushing the boundaries of her sound in new directions, ones that adapted and were influenced by then-current reinventions in club music.
After the controversy and press circus surrounding Erotica, Madonna refocused her sound and image to be warmer and more accessible. “I’m going to be a good girl, I swear,” she noted coyly in publicity for follow-up Bedtime Stories. Even with contributions from Babyface and Björk, the 1994 record remains fairly underrated in Madonna’s catalog, but “Sanctuary” is a known fan favorite. On the album, the song bleeds into “Bedtime Story,” but in many ways “Sanctuary” feels more organic than its more popular, Björk-penned successor. Having co-written the track, Madonna is much more at home in its melodies and sensual spoken word, and her performance turns what is otherwise a retread of earlier musical themes into a time-tested deep cut.
On Ray Of Light, however, Madonna took the avant-electronica of “Bedtime Story” deeper and, with the help of producer William Orbit, found her own expression of it. For all her costume changes over the years, Madonna made a lasting evolution on Ray Of Light, a meditation on new motherhood and newfound spirituality that unexpectedly became one of the best—and bestselling—records of her winding career. “Sky Fits Heaven,” in which Madonna famously adapts a poem by Max Blagg, got a remix by Sasha and Victor Calderone that landed on the dance charts, but the original production is a wonder itself, a transcendent union of Orbit’s experimental European club aesthetics and Madonna’s mainstream pop mastery.
Two years after the introspective Ray Of Light, Madonna naturally sought to switch things up, but no one could’ve predicted she’d go from ascetic Geisha to Auto-Tuned cowgirl. The chaotic, carefree Music, which incorporated country and rock influences into the artist’s dance pop, was heavily driven by the choppy production techniques of Mirwais Ahmadzaï. And “Impressive Instant,” which did eventually travel to the top of the dance charts, is a frankly bonkers cut of thumping club euphoria. Not many people can pull off a line like “I like to singy singy singy / Like a bird on a wingy wingy wingy,” but Madonna does it here. In fact, her playfulness is contagious, inspiring the exact kind of surrender Ahmadzaï and she adopted when making it: “Oh, fuck it, let’s just have fun.”
The fourth and final single from 2003's little-loved American Life, “Love Profusion” technically hit the dance charts, but given it failed to even crack the Hot 100, we’re granting it a pass. And with good reason: While the whole record was initially a bit of a misfire critically and commercially (“misfire” being relative, as the album still eventually went platinum in the U.S.), its luster has been burnished in recent years by a reevaluation of a bold left turn in her pop sound. With a focus on guitars and embrace of the folktronica style, it may have initially confused fans expecting Madonna to continue her dance-floor, arena-ready beats from Music, instead going introspective again (and even political) for a concept album picking apart the scrum of American pop culture—and her place in it. “Love Profusion,” with its strumming chords and thrumming electro beats, is the best of the bunch.
Like “Love Profusion,” “Get Together” performed well on dance charts but didn’t crack the Billboard Hot 100, even though it was released as the third single from the epic, beat-driven Confessions On A Dance Floor. Though Madonna had remained a constant on the turntables over the last two decades, regardless of her music’s many different directions, the Stuart Price-produced Confessions was the first explicit, front-to-back dance record from her in ages. “Get Together,” from the album’s lighter first half, is another fan favorite, with an easy, cathartic build and almost meta lyrics, which call back to “Holiday,” “Secret,” and more recently, “Impressive Instant”’s musing on love at first sight.
With an old-school disco spirit, there’s an immediacy to “She’s Not Me” that announces Madge’s intention to continue to rule the dance floors of the world. Hard Candy as a whole had an R&B focus—unsurprising, given it’s largely a series of collaborations with Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and Justin Timberlake—but as opposed to singles like “4 Minutes,” this track doesn’t stray far from its disco/house roots, and showcases Madonna as the still-reigning queen of fizzy, strobe-light club concoctions. At six minutes in length, it exceeds the pop-music mandate for brevity, but that’s house music’s influence. And besides, as Madonna announces halfway through the song, “I know I can do it better.”
By 2012 Madonna had done it all, and in many cases more than once. No artist, however, had ever done a $120 million promotion deal with Live Nation, and probably no one ever should’ve. Madonna’s first album under the agreement, MDNA, was written in the aftermath of her divorce from Guy Ritchie and should’ve been charged with emotion; instead, it was largely soulless and overproduced, its marketing much more inspired than its music. One big exception is the Orbit track “Gang Bang,” which finds Madge in full method mode as she delivers a Tarantino-inspired tale of lover’s revenge widely interpreted as a dig at her filmmaker ex-husband’s own gangster obsession. Ignoring the dubstep drop, “Gang Bang” shows Madonna at her experimental best.
The Southern influence rears its head once more on “Devil Pray,” a track from 2015’s Rebel Heart that combines elements of rootsy country-rock with contemporary pop in a manner that recalls nothing so much as Miley Cyrus, albeit with a touch of early Shakira (seen in the mix of Latin pop and Middle Eastern flourishes). Indeed, there are moments in the song when it feels as though Cyrus could’ve sung it—the line “Yeah, we could do drugs and we could smoke weed and we could drink whiskey” certainly feels more casual than Madonna’s usual M.O.—but overall, the track benefits from the grainy texture of the singer’s voice in her later years, which adds a layer of rueful experience to the lyric. Once it erupts into pure synth-aided bliss, however, it belongs to Madonna alone, a reminder of her songwriting savvy even more than 30 years after she first captured our hearts and ears.